Will Rogers and the American Adventureby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
“Three of the most eloquent spokesmen in American history, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, will lead a cast of performers ‘brought to life’ through the Disney Audio-Animatronics process of three-dimensional animation. Their message is one of optimism for the future – that in their times too, Americans dreamed of a better tomorrow – and that a nation, founded in liberty and freedom, gives its citizens the opportunity and incentive to build on the great foundations of the past.”—Description of the American Adventure show from the 1977 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report
As many Disney fans know, originally the American Adventure show at Epcot's World Showcase was to feature three hosts. Ben Franklin would represent the 18th century (1700s), Mark Twain would be the commentator for the 19th century (1800s), and, finally, Will Rogers would be the spokesman for the 20th century (1900s).
Why Will Rogers was originally considered as a host and then dropped before the show premiered is an interesting story. Rogers was a well-known and well-loved performer, humorist and perceptive social commentator at the beginning of the 20th century.
Rogers was a huge proponent of the sport of polo, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, and it was on the polo fields of Hollywood where he met and became friends with Walt Disney. Before making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt had considered other feature-length film projects, including a production of Rip Van Winkle that would have had a live-action Will Rogers interacting with animated characters.
Walt had sent some of his top Disney animators, including Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, and Bill Tytla, to Rogers' Santa Monica ranch to sketch him in action. Walt was also planning on using Rogers in caricature form in a short cartoon titled Mickey’s Polo Team (1936). Unfortunately, Rogers died tragically in an plane accident in August 1935, resulting in his caricature being removed from the short cartoon and any plans for the feature film project shelved.
A big fan of Will Rogers was Imagineer Randy Bright. I am a big fan of Randy Bright and have written about him before.
Disney Legend Bright was what I consider the second generation of Imagineering, talented creative talent that may not have worked directly in this capacity with Walt when he was alive, but who worked closely with the first generation like Bob Gurr, Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, Ken Anderson, and others who were personally supervised by Walt. This second generation, including folks like Imagineer Tony Baxter, were passed the torch to keep Walt’s dreams burning brightly into the future, using the standards and procedures that he established.
Bright was the show producer and writer for the American Adventure, even co-writing the Golden Dreams song, when he was in his early 40s. Bright died in 1990 after being struck by an automobile while he was bicycling near his home, which is one of the reasons that his name and accomplishments are not as well-known to the general public as they deserve to be.
Fortunately, in 1983, he was part of a half-hour special shown on the then-brand-new Disney Channel titled Backstage Disney: The American Adventure, where he was able to give some insight into the American Adventure show.
“The American Adventure was a show that was conceived from the earliest phases of E.P.C.O.T. Center as a mainstay in the project,” Bright said. “The only problem was we didn’t realize how difficult it would be to achieve. It’s easy to pontificate and say in a quick line or two that it’s going to be an inspiring show about America. That’s the easy part. Now, how you achieve that and get down in the trenches and make it occur not only wasn’t easy, it was a nightmare."
“One of the toughest things we had to do was take 350 years and compress it down to 20 minutes," he added. "In fact, we failed. It is a 28-minute show. We went through six abject failures before we got to an American Adventure we all felt comfortable with, which ultimately became what we have today.”
Over the years of development, two different high-powered Hollywood producers pitched concepts, including one that would have had the entire pavilion looking like the top-third of the Statue of Liberty, one of the reasons that idea was recycled into the final scene of the existing show.
“One designer decided that the American Adventure should be a happy, fun ride through with Audio-Animatronics vignettes of characters singing patriotic American songs as you go through,” Bright continued. “Our design philosophy at that point in time was to tell something very salient, very germane to the process of what is America, and we didn’t think something that was exclusively couched in music would give the entire picture from that standpoint. So that went away.”
It was also considered to tell the story using the characters of American folklore, like Paul Bunyan.
“We cheerfully weeded out where we went down the wrong path," he said. "We said [that it] should not be a ride-through because you really can’t tell important information in a linear fashion that makes sense with a ride-through.
“Basically, we began to develop a show that for the most part began not with a concept but with an idea," Bright said. "And we said even before we got down to the content, how do we keep this theater alive and moving and full of theatrical surprises for the public? Each thing that occurred tops the last thing that occurs in terms of a method of presentation. So, once we got that Magic Theater down in terms of how we move figures and have film and make dimensional sets and rear projection scenes all working in unison, now we’ll deal with what the story is."
“So we decided to create this Magic Theater to begin with and then we sat back," he said. "Now, out of this Magic Theater, we will begin to fashion the story of the four-century experience. That was the beginning.”
It was determined that having spokesmen from each of the three centuries of American history would help provide the perspective from their time periods. Disney Legend Herb Ryman sketched and painted a plethora of concept design artwork featuring Franklin, Twain and Rogers. Disney Legend Blaine Gibson sculptured all three spokesmen. (For a special exhibit at the Will Rogers Memorial, an eight gallery museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, the Disney Company lent Gibson’s study sculpture of Rogers. Both Ryman’s and Gibson’s work of the American Adventure trio was utilized in publicity.)
For Rogers, the Imagineers cleverly designed an Audio-Animatronics figure that could actually spin a rope after intensive study of real people doing so. The figure used an actual rope with a lasso loop. The rope is weighted at the knot of the lasso to help it swing out when the rotation of the arm begins. The real trick was to achieve the right speed and movement of the wrist to create the realistic effect.
Just as with the other characters, great attention to detail was made as to what Rogers wore. The leather chaps that the Will Rogers figure wears were hand crafted by a saddlemaker.
Talented voice actor Dallas McKennon was brought in to record the voice of Ben Franklin. Over the decades, he provided many voices for Disney animated films, including some of the dogs in both Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians; and for several attractions, including the Old Prospector safety spiel for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Zeke in Country Bear Jamboree. He also appeared as a live-action performer in such Disney movies as Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Hot Lead and Cold Feet and The Cat from Outer Space.
John Anderson supplied the voice of Mark Twain. Anderson had a long career as a working actor in both film and television, including four different roles in the original Twilight Zone, as well as performing as President Lincoln three times for various projects.
Will Rogers Jr., the son of the late Will Rogers, did the voice of his famous father. He looked a good deal like his father and, besides other things, often impersonated his father on stage and in film like The Story of Will Rogers (1952).
“One of the most difficult tasks was selecting the characters,” Bright remembered. “We chose Ben Franklin because we didn’t think anybody could be a more lucid spokesperson for the Revolutionary War period of time than the great father of everything from wit to invention to articulation of the American experience. We thought we could bring humor into this. Ben Franklin had it all wrapped up.
“The best spokesman for the 19th Century …we looked at a number of people but ultimately said, the one who seemed to be enduring was certainly Mark Twain," he said.
“I can’t tell you what we went through with the 20th century when we said 'who is going to be the spokesman for the 20th century?' In the earlier phases somebody said, ‘Will Rogers, of course.’ We took that idea to a college class back east of about 150 students of Political Science, about five of whom knew who Will Rogers was sadly enough," Bright said. "So we learned something there: That we better bring somebody more contemporary into that [role].”
A huge amount of research and expense had gone into the character of Will Rogers. Pages of his quotes were gathered, reviewed, narrowed down and finally several quotes were chosen. The Imagineers incorporated the figure into the Great Depression segment of the show, but only approximately 40 seconds of Rogers’ speaking is used in the final show.
“The closer we got to today, the more controversial things became,” Bright recalled. “Everybody had their idea of who that person should be and we probably went through about 300 names, not one of which could you get five people at our table to agree on as the spokesperson for the 20th century. We’re just too close to that period of time. If you flashed forward to 100 years from now, I think historians would be able to give us a figure to put [in that role].”
Newsman Walter Cronkite was one of the top contenders for the role. Briefly, it was considered using Walt Disney as the spokesman for the 20th century, since he had lived through most of it. However, it was thought to be ghoulish, especially with Walt only gone for about a decade, to have a robotic version of the founder of the company. Imagineer Blaine Gibson has always been adamant that Audio-Animatronics technology remains too crude to truly capture the spirit of Walt.
What would the American Adventure show have looked like with three hosts? Actually, early scripts seem to suggest that it would have looked fairly similar to the final version. Some have even suggested that it is a stronger show with just two hosts. The cheerful optimism of Franklin seems to be well balanced by the wry and cautious commentary of Twain. Including Rogers and his homespun wit as well seemed superfluous to some Imagineers.
In September 1978, this is what the preliminary script looked like for the first scene. Ben Franklin is sitting behind a table on stage right. Mark Twain is sitting to the side of the table on stage left. Between them and standing up and playing with his lariat was Will Rogers.
Ben Franklin: “America has been settled by the people of all nations. We are not a narrow tribe of men, no. Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of 1,000 noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation so much as a world.” Excuse me, Mr. Twain, Mr. Rogers. I am sure you recognize those inspiring words from Herman Melville. It seems they are going to preamble a new show called the American Adventure. It also seems that we three have been asked to be the central figures in the show.
Mark Twain: The three of us star in a show together? I can see it now. Hmm! I just bet Mr. Rogers would love to step on my lines.
Will Rogers: Now, now, Mr. Twain, you know that’s not true.
Twain: Why, Mr. Rogers, you know truth is the most valuable thing I have.
Rogers: Well, I guess that’s why you use it so sparingly.
Franklin: Gentlemen, gentlemen, we are not addressing the issue at hand: The American Adventure.
Twain: Frankly, I’m sick and tired about all the grousing about what’s wrong with America. We should make it fashionable again to talk about all the things that are right about this country.
Franklin: I agree. The time has come to make an optimistic statement about America and her people.
Rogers: Well, sir, not just about the days gone by, but about today’s world and tomorrow’s, too. Don’t forget, we passed from the scene a long time ago.
Franklin: Mr. Rogers, I’m sure that if anyone can offer a new perspective on America’s challenges for tomorrow, we can. I may have invented these bifocals I’m wearing but I can assure you they’re not rose colored. Don’t forget, that between the three of us there is a lot of first-hand experience during the first two centuries. We were there.
Twain: Two-hundred years, that’s an awful lot of ground to cover. (Korkis note: Remember this script was originally written shortly after the Bicentennial celebration in 1976 which is why the reference to 200 years. As Bright pointed out, the show actually encompasses over 300 years because it began with the landing of the Pilgrims.)
Franklin: We can each take the period we’re the most familiar with. I should host the show right through the birth of a new nation.
Twain: I can cover the growing expansion of the American frontier.
Rogers: I sorta guess things have been kinda crazy in the 20th century. Changes faster than any of us could keep up.
Twain: Just look around us. Decaying cities, pollution, crime. I’d rather put my crystal ball in reverse.
Franklin: Now, stop that nonsense. Those good old days that everybody speaks of, they were no utopia either. Mr. Twain, those Mississippi shores you walked as a boy were also walked by slaves. And Mr. Rogers, how about the lawlessness and violence of your glorious West?…And in my time, few children lived to be adults. If I may quote you from my own Poor Richard’s Almanac: ‘The golden age never was the present age.’ Mr. Twain, if you want to go back, go right ahead, but from what I’ve seen, the 20th Century has an incredible amount of positive things that are simply taken for granted.
Rogers: Well said, Mr. Franklin. If we can make those points in our show, we can provide a new perspective on our nation today. Maybe even a new sense of American spirit. (Korkis note: This theme of the American spirit throughout the show would reference the twelve “Spirit of” statues in the auditorium at various points.)
Today’s column is dedicated to my good friend, Lonnie Hicks, who has worked (and received many recognitions) for many years as a cast member at the American Adventure. He knows more about the attraction than anyone else I know and hopefully, there are a few items in today’s column that even he didn’t know. I continue to plead with him to write down all the stories he has learned from the Imagineers about the pavilion into an article or a book.