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Be a Reader like Walt Disney

The birthday (publication date) of my wife, Jackie Azúa Kramer’s, second children’s picture book, reminded me of how important the activity of reading is, not only for children, but for adults.

As a result, I was also reminded that all of you who are reading this post and the hundreds who’ve read my past posts are taking time out of your undoubtedly busy day to read. In fact, many of you have followed my Blog. That means that there are people out there who have chosen reading my post as an important part of your day. I’ll get back to this later, but I want to focus on reading.

I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. But I am a regular reader. My literary tastes run the gamut from Sci-Fi/Fantasy to Biography, Mystery, Humor and yes, Disney related books. I recently finished Three Years in Wonderland: The Disney Brothers, C.V. Wood and the Making of the Great American Theme Park. It’s heavily researched and presents

CV Wood & Disney

Disney, C.V. Wood & Bud Price

a view of the many difficulties encountered as Walt willed Disneyland into existence. The figure of Wood figures prominently in the Disneyland creation story in a way that the Disney company has never promoted. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Wood was more instrumental than people like Admiral Joe Fowler or Roy Disney in getting the park open on that memorable and hot day in July 1959. Either way Wood’s story, and how his particular talents for promotion and salesmanship may have made Disneyland possible, is a fascinating read. There are some unique insights into how much the park meant to Walt,by people who were there, and what he was willing to do to make it a reality.

ink-and-paint-departmentI’ve talked before  in a post Inspired by Walt to Get Creative about the amazing book Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. For fans of Disney history, especially, the animated films, this book is a must read. And read you will. This coffee table sized book is meticulously researched and filled with personal accounts of the talented, dedicated and creative women who worked in anonymity, advancing the art of inking and painting cels. The book pulls back the curtain on the lengths that Disney was willing to go to make his animated films the best there ever was. None of us takes for granted the skill and attention to detail it takes to color thousands of individual cels.

Ink and Paint PinocchioThis book adds levels of detail around, paint color creation, special effects (real blush used on Snow White’s cheeks), or how the women managed to keep those bubbles in the Cinderella floor cleaning scene all looking the same. Yes, animators created the illusion of life, but the women of the Ink and Paint Department helped bring those drawings to life in glorious color and detail with pens, paintbrushes and other tools in ways that were just as creative as the men who got most of the credit. Find a comfortable chair and a flat surface to put this book on and become immersed in the Disney era that defined animation to this day. If you get tired of reading, there are hundreds of great photos.

Have I successfully whetted your appetite to read? Sneaky, huh? Are you someone who says you don’t have time to read? With smartphones and tablets, you can read just about anywhere. Stuck in line at the Market? Open up a Disney biography like Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas or The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier and read a few pages. If you like reading about Disney history, like me, Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War by John Baxter (see my post Working Through a War for a taste). Love the Parks, take a look at another large format book by “The Imagineers”, Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real. Really, whatever particular Disney joy you might have, I guarantee you will find something fun, interesting or revealing to read.

mickey tablet

First Mickey Mouse Merchandise

Walt and the Disney Company have a long history of book publishing and many books have been created using Disney characters or other intellectual property. Many talk about how Disney revolutionized film and character merchandise. Putting Mickey Mouse’s image on stuff started in a rather inauspicious way when he appeared on a simple writing tablet in 1929. The book with a Disney copyright book featuring Mouse titled, “Hello Everybody” was published the very next year. Since that first book Disney and the many Disney imprints have continued to publish children’s books for decades. Not only was Disney a strong proponent of books and reading, but many of the films, animated and live action, produced in his lifetime were based on works of literature.

First Mickey Book

First Mickey Mouse Book

David McKay Publications became the first to publish a whole line of books under Walt’s authorization in the 1930s. I have two of these in my Disneyana collection.

All of us Baby Boomers grew up reading or having Golden Books read to us. Golden didn’t publish only Disney character books but the Golden Books library included, wonderfully illustrated stories about Mickey, Chip n’ Dale, Snow White, Dumbo, Donald Duck, Pinocchio and our favorites from cartoon shorts and feature-length animated movies.

Today, Disney continues the tradition of book publishing through many imprints including Disney Publishing Worldwide and Disney Hyperion.

Walt has been quoted as saying,

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.”

Treasure IslandWalt oversaw the production of 35 films whose stories started as books. Certainly stories stuck with him, were inspiration, like Snow White and Treasure Island. A consummate story teller himself, biographies refer to him reading constantly in his years as head of his Studio. He did research, he read scripts, story treatments and was likely inspired by books, newspaper and magazine articles on a variety of subjects.

Here Walt can be seen in his research library at the Burbank studio with a collection of National Geographic magazines. Much of the research went into Disney’s True Life Adventure series. But, I’m sure all that information found its way into other films as well.

Disney Nat Geo collection

Storybook_land_poster_largeWalt’s Disneyland was filled with literary influences. Tom Sawyer Island can be traced back to Walt’s love of Mark Twain, The Mad Tea party comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jungle Cruise probably came from writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is drawn from the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, while based on Disney’s film, the story that Walt read was from the Grimm’s Brothers. It’s not surprising that Walt included an attraction called The Storybook Land Canal Boats in his opening day roster.

Study after study has shown that reading to children and encouraging them to read as they get older, not only improves their reading comprehension, but stimulates their imagination, encourages them to ask questions, increases their curiosity, improves language development and stimulates brain activity rich with visualization. Children who are read to early are more likely to be readers themselves. Aside from these benefits, reading to your child is an opportunity for quiet times together that can help parents form lasting bonds.

Walt and other celebrities lent their name and photos in 1959 for the second year of a National Library Week, to give more attention to libraries and stem the tide of reductions in book readers who had turned to movies and TV for entertainment. The campaign and programs continue today in the month of April. Those who prophesied the end of Libraries in the digital age couldn’t have been wronged. If your library is like mine, it has re-imagined itself as a community center where adults and children can find all kinds of activities from book clubs to yoga film showings, music and oh, yes, book – physical and eBooks. If you haven’t stepped in your local library recently, you’d be surprised what you might find. How about free museum or local attraction passes, banks of computers for use, and printing. You might even find a cafe or at least you can bring in the beverage and snack of your choice.

World Read Aloud DayAnyone looking for ways to influence their kids or any kids to read can pick from a wide range of activities. My wife and other authors participates in World Read Aloud Day.  If you have no local library, or even if you do, you can support or build your own Little Free Library, which is a standalone lending library, usually in an easily accessible location supported by the community, a group or an individual. Check out their website for examples, building plans and success stories. Books in school libraries and classrooms are always in short supply. If the school you attended is still in business, consider a donation through the PTA and support not for profits like Behind the Book, whose mission is to inspire NYC Public School students to love reading by bringing accomplished authors into the classrooms.

Examples of community Little Free Libraries

Getting back to my earlier topic of reading my blog. Over the last couple of months I’ve had an uptick in new followers. In my own way, I’d like to think that I’m encouraging people to read. Thank you all for your support and the encouragement I get from the thought that I’m not just talking to myself. (Although I have been known to amuse myself for hours with my rapier wit) I write because I have something I want to share and it’s a great feeling to know that you find my creative outlet worthy of your time. Thanks!

Now, go read a book!

Walt and reading

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Opening Days Excitement at Disney Parks

As a baseball fan, there’s something special about the opening weeks of the season. Every team, even my, often disappointing, NY Mets has a chance to be in the World Series teams. Every team is a contender, even the ones that the “experts” have written off before the first pitch of the first game.

Disney MGM plaqueBetween the recent opening of Shanghai Disneyland, the soon to be opened Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxies Edge, the construction going on at EPCOT and other announcements for more to come at that park, we are seeing an investment in Disney Theme Parks that rivals the Michael Eisner era of Disney-MGM and Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and new attractions in the U.S. We could call it Disney’s Opening Days.

Starting with Toy Story Land, then all the cool new stuff that we are about to feast our Disney lovin’ eyes on in the next couple of years, this is just like the start of the baseball season. All of it carries the possibility of a winning season for Disney theme parks. But, before I finish this line of thought, I want to return to my baseball reference.

There have been a number of quality sports movies, some of them feature baseball like (this Blogger’s opinion), The Natural, Pride of the Yankees, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. There have been just as many bad sports movies (many people’s opinion), like The Babe, Mr. Baseball, and The Fan. Disney has recently made its fair share of decent baseball movies including The Rookie and Million Dollar Arm. And two outstanding animated shorts.

 

In 1942, (42 was also Jackie Robinson’s uniform number) in conjunction with The Pride of the Yankees ( Lou Gehrig died the same year), Disney released the first of the “How to” series featuring Goofy called, not surprisingly How to Play Baseball. Samuel Goldwyn of MGM sent Disney the Pride script and asked him to create a short, to run with the film.

Watch “How to Play Baseball”

How-To-Play-BaseballGoofy was a perfect foil for the quiet, calm demeanor of Gehrig, the lunch pail, everyman, considered one of the greats of the game. Aside from contributions from many of the “Nine Old Men” and Bill Tytla, Disney relied on George Stallings, one of his story artists, whose father managed the old Boston Braves, to insure that the film was accurate as well as funny.

nine-old-men

The Nine Old Men: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl.

Goofy PitchingDisney’s patriotism is in full view as the piece opens with a billowing American flag and a description of the game as the American Pastime. The game may have started in a field in Hoboken New Jersey, but the depiction of baseball stadiums located in urban centers was appropriate for the time period. I love the mention of gum as an Goofy Hittingimportant part of the game. Even today, dugouts in every league are supplied with huge boxes of the stuff. The short is full of gags explaining and depicting how the game is played. It includes knocking the cover off the ball, which was later “copied” by the hero in The Natural. It ends with a donnybrook (bench clearing brawl) and a last shot of the American flag.

Johnny_EversThe other baseball short feature the iconic figure of Mighty Casey as part of the feature, Make Mine Music, released in 1946. The short is based on a 1888 poem Casey at the Bat published in the San Francisco Examiner. The war years were tough for the Disney studio. I offered a view in my post Working Through the War. It wouldn’t surprise me if Walt was looking back at the happier days of his youth. Like, many of that era, before television, most people were not able to attend a professional game. Most were played during the day. (Imagine that?) So, the baseball of Walt’s childhood would have been local teams or pick-up games. He may have followed newspaper accounts of the St. Louis Cardinals the Chicago or Kansas City teams, the Cubs or White Sox.

wrigley field 1920s

Chicago’s Comisky Park 1920s

Casey posterThe lyrical nature of the original poem probably appealed to Walt’s artistic sensibilities. And the colorful description of the action, peppered with baseball terms, many still used today, no doubt, presented his gag men with plenty with which to work. “Cooper died at first”, “tore the cover off the ball” “Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.” I encourage you to read the short poem. It’s long on great imagery like this stanza:

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip

caseys cornerjpgIt’s practically a ready-made storyboard. Disney and staff took great liberties with the text and added a couple of songs. But, overall, they kept the Main St USA feeling while sticking to the drama of the story as it builds to its climax. Walt would return to this slice of Americana theme many times in films and Disneyland. The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World still has a Casey’s on Main St. They serve hot dogs, of course.

Baseball was even part of Disney company life at Hyperion Studios. According to the Disney archives, not only were there regular ball games, but Walt would swing the lumber himself.

 

When Walt built his new studio in Glendale, it included a ball field.

To return to my earlier Opening Day analogy, there is a lot of speculation by experts and wanna-be experts about what the major investments in the Parks will deliver. Disney theme park lovers gobble up every press release, official or unofficial photos and artist’s renderings, looking for insight into how the Disney team will perform when we reach each addition’s opening day.  Then we all go at it like the talking heads on ESPN, dissecting whatever details we’ve been able to lay our hands on.

There’s a great section in the book “Shoeless Joe”, which inspired Field of Dreams spoken by the writer character baseball. Joe Jackson, was a member of the infamous Black Sox team that was punished for throwing the World Series in 1919. (Graham is a character in the story):

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. American has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erase again. But baseball has marked time while American has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history like calico dresses, stone crockery and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian head penny in a handful of new coins.”

Terrance Mann in “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella

Can’t resist including James Earl Jones doing this section in the movie, Field of Dreams.

Walt seemed to embody that same sense of America. He wanted to push the limits and remake areas of the entertainment industry, to push into the future with his bulldozers. But like a base runner, he wanted to keep one toe on the base of what he saw as the greatness of America’s past.

So, rather than worry about whether the Toy Story Land will take Disney Studios out of the half day visit category, or whether Galaxies Edge will meet our pent up expectations for a truly immersive experience, lets enjoy the Disney Opening Days, when all the new additions are ready to be beloved for many years to come.

Baseball is a great teacher of an important secret of living: the giving and taking in the group, the development of qualities and behavior that will stand us in good stead through life in pursuits both personal and professional.

Walt Disney

Disney and Colonna

Disney with Jerry Colonna

Imagineering The Hits

walt disneyland opening dayIn Disneyland’s first year, 1955, guests experienced more original themed attractions than those based on Disney properties. Out of 15 attractions the Disney themed ones were: Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Mad Tea Cups, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, Dumbo and Casey Jr. Circus Train. At that time, the most recent premieres were Peter Pan in 1953 and Alice in Wonderland in 1951. I’ll come back to the non-Disney attractions later.

Disneyland opening day map

I bring this up, because of the recent openings or announcement of attractions based on Disney movie properties, including Frozen which opened in November 2013 and had its attraction announcement in June 2015 and Guardians of the Galaxy which opened July 2014 and its attraction announcement was July 2016.

Anyone who knows how Imagineers work, appreciates that the process for creating park attractions is more involved than opening a new roller coaster colored to look like a comic book super hero. I discussed this creative process in . For those who are not familiar, even attractions based on existing intellectual property, like a movie, must have a well thought out story. For instance, Mission Breakout’s plot involves The Collector (Taneleer Tivan) showing off his latest acquisitions, the Guardians of the Galaxy, in customized display cases. However, Rocket has secretly escaped his case and asks the guests for help. Guests then board a gantry lift, where they help Rocket try to free the other Guardians. Or, if you ride Splash Mountain, the individual scenes that you float past walk us through the basic story line of Br’er Rabbit’s journey, capture and escape from Br’er Fox and Bear.

I offer this simplistic explanation of what goes into attraction creation to point out, that, in order to announce a new creation like Epcot’s Frozen Ever After attraction, it is likely that work started very shortly after the movie premiered, or perhaps, even in parallel, since it was less than 3 years from movie premiere to attraction opening. Yes, Walt built all of Disneyland in one year and one day. But, things are considerably more complicated now, especially when they build inside a park that’s filled with guests every day.

jungle cruise entranceIt always struck me that many of the most popular attractions at the U.S. theme parks are still not based on Disney IP. Jungle cruise is even a holdover from day one. Even as Walt was preparing to open Disneyland, he did have attractions based on animated characters. But some of his earliest ideas, Jungle Cruise, Autopia, Main St. USA, the Mark Twain Steamboat, the ones he told his people he had to have when the park opened had nothing to do with Disney films, animated or not. Back then the time element was exacerbated by the need to actually create these kinds of attractions for the first time. But, I believe it was also because Walt’s head overflowed with ideas like no time since Snow White and he was driven to see them realized. Possible failure was not going to be measured by a single attraction. In 1956 it was the Park that might fail.

So, why then, since there have been many successful movies and television in the decades since then have the Imagineers not been able or allowed to capitalize on hits like Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty (I don’t count the castle because it actually predated the movie premiere) 101 Dalmations or TV shows like Darkwing Duck?  From 1955 to 1983Pinocchio Journey when Pinocchio’s Daring Journey opened, no attractions were based on strictly Disney ideas. But we did get The Tikki Room, Carousel of Progress, Space and Big Thunder Mountains, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. All immensely popular, but not based on Disney IP. In 1994 and 95 we got Indiana Jones and Roger Rabbit. But, even they were not Disney films and they did not appear at the same time as the movie premiered (Roger Rabbit was close). For goodness sake, in 1964 Mary Poppins was the only film to be nominated for top level Oscars, including best picture and win Best Actress (Didn’t happen again until Beauty & the Beast 27 years later). Other than park characters, it had no presence in either U.S. Park (And still doesn’t, even though it is still popular enough to merit a sequel).

Songwriters Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman pose with actress Julie Andrews at the 37th Academy Awards

Julie Andrews with the Sherman Brothers

Even California Adventure, the expansion of Disneyland did not have a Disney themed attraction when it opened, until Toy Story Midway Mania.  CarsLand may have been the beginning of a change in thinking. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it was a gamble, building a huge new Land in Disneyland with only one major attraction as the primary draw. But, the risk could be minimized by the possibility of maintaining or increasing the Cars related merchandise juggernaut since the movie opened. The characters appealed to boys, not just girls, like the Princesses, and it fit nicely with the rest of California theming in the Park.

Cars-Land-Radiator-Springs

I have no inside track into how budgets are allocated or projects prioritized so my opinions remain only my opinions. Until recently, I believed that it was all about risk mitigation. (Sorry, my technology hat fell over my eyes) Disney was afraid to put all the time, effort and money into planning something that they had no guarantees anyone would care about if the movie flopped. Disney certainly didn’t want to open an attraction with a huge fanfare, only to see it sit with no line and no interest and then quietly close, except for “seasonal” periods. Something like Space Mountain was a huge financial risk, but there was no guest expectation to try and meet. (Plus, Walt himself, had originally proposed the indoor coaster idea, maybe making it seem more likely to succeed).

Mr_Toads_Wild_Ride,_DisneylandIn the early years of Disneyland or Disney World, you could replace a failed attraction without much fanfare. Walt got rid of the Flying Saucers at Disneyland after only five years. Today, a failed attraction gets such build up that a failure to deliver gets enormous attention. (reference Stitch’s Great Escape). And trying to pry a long time, beloved attraction out of our clasping hands can be a public relations issue (See Mr. Toad).

Recent announcements and construction on Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, Tron Coaster, and re-theming of Disneyland’s Tower of Terror to Mission Breakout, demonstrate an appetite and willingness to use existing Disney IP and take chances to capitalize on Mega hits like Frozen as quickly as possible. As a Disney fan, I’m happy to have a chance to “ride the movie” or be immersed in a fantasy space like Radiator Springs or a planet in the Star Wars galaxy. It seems like Galaxy’s Edge may be the most ambitious plan with its immersive nature and options for interactivity. I also think that they are feeling the heat for the popularity of The World of Harry Potter. Competition can be very motivating. If it motivates Disney to think as creatively today as Walt did in the late 1950s, that’s great.

sw model 2

I’m also happy to see more non-Disney themed attractions like Space Mountain. So long as they are well thought out and entertaining. I have found myself drooling over Lands and cutting edge attractions in Tokyo and Shanghai. I don’t think Disney was using foreign countries as testing grounds. Many businesses with international presence make a considerable chunk of their bottom line outside the U.S. It’s good to see some of that happening in Disneyland and Disney World.

Getting back to those early non-Disney attractions I mentioned, and ones that followed brings me back to a topic I’ve written about before in Imagineers Still Tell Stories and A Restless Creator —  Creativity. I don’t want to see Imagineering just churn out Disney movie or character based attractions. One of the reasons that Disneyland reset the theme park standards forever was Walt’s insistence that the Park be a place guests can be assured of getting the highest quality of entertainment. So, I hope Disney management gives Imagineers some breathing room to dream, just the way Walt did when he helped create ground breaking attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Small World and Pirates.

Pirates Change with the Times

Last week we celebrated the anniversary of the opening of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. In my post, The Pirates Paradox, I offered my opinion on the enduring popularity of an attraction that, technically, pales in comparison to some of the more recent Imagineering efforts like Mission Space or Soarin’. And certainly, doesn’t offer the thrills of attractions like Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, Space Mountain or Expedition Everest.

There have been many changes to the U.S. Disney theme parks over the years. Many of my posts have discussed change.  I’ll have more to say about that later.

Spoiler alert. For those who want to be surprised by the changes to the Pirates attraction, please Page down at least two times.

pirates_skulls

For those who have not heard or seen, the change to the Pirates attraction involves the scene where the pirates are bidding on captured women. They shout, “We wants the redhead.” For reasons which, as usual, Disney will not comment, they’ve have modified the auction scene so instead of women being auctioned, our old friend, the redhead who’s encouraging her fellow pirates to buy chickens, rum, paintings, etc. It’s not the first time that the Imagineers have tinkered with Pirates. Earlier they turned the chase vignette around by having a woman with a broom chasing a pirate around, instead of him chasing her.  Then we had the more recent “plussing” with the additions of the Pirates movie characters. I don’t recall to many reactions to the first change and there was definitely some to the second.

 

If you skipped down, thanks for sticking around. Now where was I? Oh, yes, change.

There’s seems to be a very mixed reaction to changes to the Auction scene of Pirates of the Caribbean at the two U.S. theme parks.

Potc Auction Scene GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

As a technologist, I have worked on projects or helped others plan for and realize change-717488_1280changes in their critical business systems and applications. Most of us have gone through changes in our lives, jobs, neighborhoods, even the stores where we shop. I think it would be fair to say that no change is easy. It often involves planning, hard choices, compromise, sometimes, and significant extra work. In some cases, it’s my experience, that last one that often sinks the effort.

For the most part, I think the Disney Company and the Imagineers have been capable and talented stewards of Walt’s theme park legacy. They have tried, and I think, succeeded, in maintaining the primary reason Walt had for building Disneyland – Create a clean environment where children and their parents could enjoy themselves, together. We’ve seen the addition of thrill rides like Tower of Terror for older “kids” at the same time Disney has expanded and enhanced Fantasylands for the younger set. Imagineers have also continued to offer seated or theatrical options like the Legend of the Lion King, Fantasmic and Finding Nemo the Musical for guests who need a rest or change of pace. At each of the Parks, there’s something for everyone. Even if all you want to do is sit on bench and enjoy people watching. The change to Pirates highlights three different points of view when Disney changes a popular theme park attraction.

pongo boredThe first group probably includes visitors who have tired of an attraction and are ready for a change. Perhaps they never liked the attraction in the first place or they feel they’ve outgrown it or their just ready for something new. It may be that they have so many favorites that they don’t miss one missing or having been changed. As someone who doesn’t like change, but eventually embraces it, I think this group gets a bad rap. They are often portrayed as being disloyal or not really loving Disney, because they are looking for something new.

The second group doesn’t want see a hair changed on the head of a single doll in SmallTui World. They want to come and enjoy the same attractions and shows time and time again. They like things just the way they are. These are the people who might be perfectly happy with the Matterhorn as the only thrill ride in Disneyland or Mr. Toad instead of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Or maybe they would like to sit through Mission to Mars or have parents and kids wait in the blazing Florida sun for a few spots on Dumbo.

Kronk-listening-to-his-shoulder-devilThe third group, probably overlaps the first two groups. This includes people who want their friends, children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews to experience the same things they enjoyed. I would have been disappointed not to see my kids eyes and smiles if they never had a chance to ride Small World or Alice in Wonderland. This group doesn’t mind change. So long as it doesn’t involve their favorite attractions. Do away with A Bug’s Land, just don’t touch Stitch’s Great Escape. Of course, it means that any change Disney makes is going to distress of anger a significant portion of their customers.

I think I fall into all three groups. I definitely don’t want to see the parks become irrelevant museums. Look, but don’t touch.

don't touchHowever,. . .

There’s nothing wrong with keeping some of the past. I would be very unhappy if they had just done away with Pirates or changed Small World into a 3D experience. But, can you blame Disney’s Imagineers? It would be like telling a Boeing engineer he couldn’t use the latest lightweight metals in the new design. In the face of the significant competition in theme park industry, I think the Imagineers have shown great restraint. But, audience tastes in entertainment change. And technology offers options that were not available ten years ago or in some cases yesterday.

I’m sure many of you, myself included, would love to have taken a ride on The Stagecoach that took guests along the shores of Disneyland’s River of America fromStagecoach opening day until 1959. But, how many of you would be willing to wait for hours in the sun to get on a ride that could only accommodate a small number of guests, took a long time to load and broke down (yes, believe it or not, the horses did not always cooperate). I hear people complaining about waiting in air conditioned comfort twenty minutes get on an attraction.

I am not an advocate of change for the sake of change. It’s usually expensive and the danger of not pleasing everyone can make the risks high, particularly for Disney who wants to maintain their preeminence in the theme park industry. My earlier comment about work often being the roadblock, has not seemed to have deterred Disney from doing big things like redoing Fantasyland or building Galaxy’s Edge or Toy Story Land. Nor have they shied away from changes that are consequential among their fan base. (See Journey into Imagination, again).I’m sure there’s some in Group two who would still trade to have Mr. Toad back in exchange for some of the new goodies that Disney has given us.

I would admit that not all the changes have been to my liking (See redo of Journey into Imagination, The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter and Stitch’s Great Escape). And, I CoP scenewould be very unhappy if I couldn’t enjoy The Carousel of Progress or watch people laughing on the Tea Cups (not one of my favorites). Along with my long time and sentimental favorites, it’s wonderful to have something new to be excited about trying for the first time. If Disney doesn’t come up with new things for people to come to the theme parks for the first time or come back for again, then they will surely go to other parks.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, Walt was constantly tinkering with Disneyland. When he passed away, he still had a lot more plans in Anaheim and an unlimited amount for PoTC pigsFlorida. If he hadn’t been driven to change things for the better, then there wouldn’t have been the Lincoln Audioanimatronic and Pirates would have been a walk through wax museum. I haven’t seen the new Pirates scene, so I hesitate to offer my opinion. On the one hand, some would say that Disney has continued to sanitize the attraction of anything that might offend anybody. On the other hand, with the events of the last year, the #MeeToo movement and the on-going struggle for women to be seen as equals in all aspects of life, it might be that the Imagineers recognized the need to let ’em run things.

I understand the deep regard that fans of Pirates have for the way the attraction was. Most change is messy and hard. Instead of being able to sit back and watch the scenery, when Imagineers change Disney park attractions, they make us look closer, explore our emotions and, in many cases, rediscover and enjoy attractions all over again. I think Walt would be pleased. Although, I’m sure he would have had some ideas of his own.

walt with pirate heads

February 3, 1966: Walt Disney with some of the plastic heads for the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride opening at Disneyland. In 1966, four new additions were added to Disneyland costing $20 million dollars – three million more than the cost of the original park. The four new sections are: Its a Small World, The Primeval World, New Orleans Square and The Pirates of the Caribbean. Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library. Copyright Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library. Photographer unknown. FOR FROM THE ARCHIVES BLOG.

 

Disney Banks on Broadway

disney pixie dustI wonder whether Walt Disney, who made his fortune  first in film, might have foreseen a time when his company would be one of the world’s most prolific and successful producers of theater musicals?

Walt certainly had theater in his thoughts when he went to work on Disneyland. But, more on that later. In the meantime, Disney is about to open its new production of Frozen on Broadway.

I’m a big fan of live theater. Unlike movies or television, a theater experience is unique in that each performance has the potential to be a different experience, for the audience and the performers. Stage actors have to give a polished performance eight or more times a week. In order not to get bored and loose the energy that each audience expects, good actors try to “be in the moment”. Yes, they know their lines and where they are supposed to be at different points of any scene. But, each time through, actors will try not to simply duplicate their performance. They listen to the other actors and react in real time, not changing the words, but often changing how the words are spoken. One night, perhaps a line is said in great anger. Another time, that same line might sound merely annoyed. I can tell you as a former actor that there is nothing more exciting and satisfying as finding yourself “in the moment” on stage when something organic happens in a scene that hasn’t happened before or doesn’t happen all the time. Theater not only makes the actors think, but often challenges its audiences to do the same.

DTP_logoAny discussion of Disney Theatrical Productions (Disney on Broadway) has to include the impact that it’s had on New York City. Following the success of of Beauty and the Beast in 1993, Disney jumped in with significant energy and money. They not only produced their most successful Broadway musical, The Lion King. But they agreed to 99 year lease on a theater that no one wanted and to give a share of the profits back to the City. They they completely restored it to its early 20th century glory. Many would argue that Disney’s investment, not only paid off for them, but led to a commercial and tourist renaissance for the Great White Way, which runs from 42nd street where Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater sits, up to 53rd St. and includes Times Square.

I wrote about a D23 event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Disney’s New Amsterdam restoration in Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event. Here’s before and after  some photos of this beautiful theater

amsterdam restoration

Let’s remember, that as much as we’d like to see Disney as the benevolent doer of good, it’s still a hard driving, money making operation, beholden to stock holders and under constant scrutiny by everyone from Wall St. to blogs like mine and millions of fans around the world. The fact that Disney has accelerated and increased its investment in live musical theater, must mean that it does two things – Makes money and promotes the brand. To date, Disney has produced nine musicals on Broadway.

BatbBroadwayLogo

 

 

1993

Lion King Bway logo

 

 

 

1997

Aida_Broadway_logo

 

 

2000

mary poppins Bway logo

 

 

2006

Tarzan_musical_Broadway

 

 

 

2007

The_Little_Mermaid_Musical

 

 

2007

Aladdin the Musical Broadway

 

 

2011

newsies-broadway

 

 

2012

Frozen poster

 

 

2018

 

According to the New York Post, only 1 out of 5 Broadway musicals turns a profit for investors. For those of you who are math challenged, like me, that‘s a paltry 20% success rate. Of the nine Disney musicals that have premiered , five have turned out to be critical and/or box office successes (success being measured by profit or length of run): Beauty & the Beast, The  Lion King, Aladdin, Newsies and Mary Poppins. Frozen is scheduled to open this March. Using the properties current success on film, theme parks and merchandise, I think it is safe to say, barring unusual circumstances or a complete failure of marketing, that Frozen will be added to the list of successes. That would make six out of Nine or a 66% success rate. Not even in Walt’s day did the studio make money on that many animated features.

To Disney’s credit, if you go back and look at the timeline, Aida was a failure and there were two failures in a row, Tarzan and Little Mermaid. Since the Lion King has become the most successful production and continued to run, they could have quit there and walked away with lots of money. But, they didn’t. Not only did they continue to develop Aladdin and Newsies. They also pushed ahead with development and production of versions of The Hunchback and Pinocchio.

I’m sure money has been a driving force behind increased attention and activity in Disney Theatricals and could easily dissuade naysayers. Because, Disney’s best selling property is not in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. It’s not even a film. Most Broadway musicals last a year or less. The Lion King, in its 21st year has generated just under $8.1 Billion in revenue. It is the highest grossing entertainment property in history. To put it in perspective the next biggest is Phantom of The Opera, with $6 billion. The biggest film is Avatar, at just (just!) $2.8 billion. Lion King on Broadway has made more money than ALL the Star Wars movies combined.

So, with money pouring in from not only Lion King, but successful runs of Aladdin and Mary Poppins what about brand promotion? Not everyone gets to see a show in NYC.  Lion King, Mary Poppins and Aladdin all have touring companies across the US and elsewhere in the world. An evening in any city brings in adults and children who will leave re-watching or buying the original movies and more merchandise. And, of course, based on the success of the current Beauty and the Beast live action film, Disney will continue to promote and make money from all the live action versions currently in the works of many of these same properties.

I look down my nose at those who look down their noses at Disney theatricals. I think anything that gets people and kids into theaters to experience the exciting immediacy of live theater is a good thing. And, while Disney, other than Aida, has stuck primarily to recognizable Disney stories, they have not shied away from taking chances in ways that live theater excels. Beauty and the Beast allowed the actors portraying transformed objects to be seen, yet used inventive costuming to add the element of urgency. The costumes became more objectified as the show went on and they edged closer to being objects forever.

B&B costumes.jpg

And, for those of you who did not see it, the Beast’s final transformation was nothing short of magical.

Disney took an enormous chance tapping director Julie Taymor for The Lion King. She had an off-Broadway reputation for using puppets and not playing it safe. But, the inspired use of puppetry, masks and staging has been an inspiration to those who believe a musical can be a success without big name stars.

In some ways, I found the stage version improved on the original. The actor’s physicality and their interactions with the other performers brought new insight and characters layers to the story.

the-lion-king-intl-tourEven, Tarzan which was a critical and box office failure, did not just try to move the story from screen to stage. It used innovative sets, staging and movement to recreate the jungle and the familiar family of gorillas.

I also appreciate that they don’t just lift the films and recreate them on stage. They redevelop the stories and characters, add new ideas and news songs. “Songs like Human” Again for Beauty and the Beast,

“Proud of Your Boy” in Aladdin

and “He Lives in You” for Lion King are all worthwhile additions to the stories.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I am altogether pleased with the all the direction that Disney Theatrical is taking. For one thing, Disney has not produced a single new property designed specifically for the stage. Sure, it’s a risk, but who do we know that took risks and built an entertainment empire. Let me see. . .Why Walt, of course. Disney certainly has the deep pockets to take a few risks. I think it would be great if Disney were seen as a leader again in an art form, instead of a recycler. It’s not only an opportunity to be creative, but it could inspire new generations of young people who might find the stage more inviting than film.

I’d also like to see Disney do something other than a musical. Sure, musicals sell. But, comedy or drama is what has historically been an opportunity for playwrights and directors to challenge our way of thinking or confront us with a different way of looking at our world. No, it would not bring in the megabucks. But, it could change people’s perceptions of Disney. And, it could reverse the direction for remakes, going from stage to film as was often the case decades ago. The Disney name could bring recognizable names to the stage, if necessary, and in combination with the Disney stamp of approval, I’m sure audiences would follow. I’d still like to see some new talent, but, I think some trade-offs are going to be necessary. Walt always stressed not talking down to kids. They will rise to meet the challenge. Many might find an evening of entertainment without the image of a toy or music, would be just as much fun, for them, and the adults.

Theater is an art form that brings people together to celebrate, challenge and yes, sometimes, provoke through the telling of stories. Theater is unique, since you see transformation right in front of you, in the moment. At the theater, what you see in any moment is unique and only you and the audience of which you’re a part. In film, the director uses the camera to focus our attention where he or she thinks is important. Watching a live theatrical performance is like walking into a room where a party is going on. You might focus on one conversation or a piece of art on the wall. Theater lets the audience choose what’s important and why. Then the writer and director asks us to make decisions, in real time about the language and action mean. It’s not a passive art form and deserves to be paid attention to.

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Walt & Roy Disney

Walt understood audiences. He understood the importance of story . By all accounts, he was one of the entertainment industry’s best story tellers. Growing up, film was in its infancy. But, no doubt he would have attended live entertainment. Travelling theater companies were quite common and circuses and parades are forms of theater. According to those who knew, he liked to play act. It’s not hard to imagine that theatricality was something he understood.

 

Walt used film approaches in the design of Disneyland. And, cast members could refer to either film or stage. But, it’s no accident that he asked cast member to refer to “on stage” when they were in the presence of guests and “backstage” when they were out of sight. Those are theater terms. Walt always seemed to know what his audiences wanted. So it’s no surprise that there was live entertainment. Several shows a day were presented at the Golden Horseshoe Revue. And we mustn’t forget the many performances given every day since then by the Skippers on the Jungle Cruise.

Between the theme parks cruise ships and existing theatrical properties, Disney designs and produces a great deal of theatrical experiences every day, all over the world. The Disney company could use it’s success, influence and experience to pump new life into theater all over the world. The ages old tradition of having audiences attend live performances has proven to be invaluable in entertaining, educating and informing societies for ages. Disney would be continuing a long and valuable service and still make money.

The Key to Disney’s Artistic Masterpiece

pinocchio posterThere is something special about the second full length Disney animated film, Pinocchio, released 78 years ago, that is easy to forget as you get caught up in the story and characters.

There’s a critical element that makes characters like Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Honest John, Stromboli and the detailed backgrounds so beautiful to watch. Walt recognized a key advancement in movie making before most of the film industry and it would revolutionize, not only his animated films, but all movies. . .

 

color

Seems Obvious, right? As I wrote about in Ahead of His Time . . .Again and other posts, Walt had an uncanny ability to see into the future and make decisions that others were too afraid or lacked the foresight to consider. I’ll get back to that thought.

It’s easy to understand why we take color for granted. Most of us have grown up in a world of color. Television, movies, newspaper comics, our smartphones and computers are, and have, used color for decades.

hyperionBut, let’s travel back in time to 1930. The recently created Technicolor three strip process was unproven, expensive, required specialized equipment and extremely bright light that needed to be balanced for every shot. The major studios were not  prepared to take on the cost to retool their equipment and experiment with the new technology. Imagine what a risk it was to Walt and Roy’s fledgling studio, huddled into overcrowded buildings on Hyperion Avenue. Even with the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Roy was understandably nervous, since their current contracts would not pay them additional money to offset the costs of producing in color.

Of course, Walt was undeterred, both by the technical obstacles and that other nasty annoyance – Money – or so it might seem. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned Walt’s foresight. In most books I’ve read about Walt, he was more interested in quality and innovation than what it would cost to achieve his goals. But, don’t for a minute think that he wasn’t business savvy.

Flowers and TreesThe Technicolor people were so desperate to prove their process that they would have financed all of the changes necessary for Disney to retool for color animation. Walt was so convinced that color would make his animation more realistic and more entertaining that he decided to stop production on the Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees and start over in color. He had the back sides of the black and white cells washed to remove the gray shades and had the Ink and Paint department redo them in color. And instead of taking that silly money from Technicolor, Walt made a deal for two years exclusive use of the Technicolor process.

Flowers and Trees, now in color, was a huge success and even rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity. For his people’s efforts, Disney was awarded the first Academy award for an animated short in 1932. Proving color could work with Forest and Trees was more than just a stunt. Walt was now confident that he could began the process to develop Snow What. The films success enabled Roy to get new, desperately needed bank financing. Plus, Walt now had a two year head start using and learning about color over any other studio. And learn they would, throughout the rest of the Silly Symphonies releases.

In a previous post Inspired by Walt to get Creative, I mentioned the book Ink and Paint, the Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, as inspiration for a novel I am writing. I highly recommend the book to anyone whose interested in learning the back story of what it took to get Animated films through production. Flowers and Trees utilized about 400 different color shades.

Getting back to Pinocchio, the shades ballooned to about 1,500 shades to complete, what might be the finest hand drawn animated film ever made. That number doesn’t include special effects like water above and below, bubbles, the Blue Fairy glow and other important film elements.

Live action films have the advantage of actual colors to shoot. For hand drawn animation, the Disney Paint department had to deal with issues like colors shifting after drying or being under the not camera lights, as well as a need for wide ranges of shades depending on the action in the context of the film. The Disney Paint people ended up designing their own colors and paints to meet the increasing demands of the films. Disney hired chemists and built an entire department to create, manage and distribute paint as needed.

I chose Pinocchio as the focus of this post because I think it might be the apex of what Disney artists, including animation, background, and painting created in those early years of feature films. Keep in mind, this one only feature film #2 for the Studio and it’s an artistic masterpiece. The backgrounds are of quality found in museums around the world. The use of color not only fills the screen, but adds to the film’s mood through the use of shadows and details that might not register fully when screening the film.  But upon closer inspection the completed work reveals subtle and complex intricacies.

I believe that there are some films that are better because they are in black and white. If, for example, you watch a noir film that has been colorized, the loss of shadows and the heightened color seems to mute the overall tension common in films like The Third Man, The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There’s no doubt that color afforded so many possibilities to the world of Disney animation. After the richness of Pinocchio, Disney artists explored many different styles. Fantasia was a mix of realistic

rite of spring

Rite of Spring

Modern

toccato and fugue in D minor

Tocata and Fugue in D Minor

traditional animation humor

Dance of the Hours

Dance of the Hours

and Classical

The-Pastoral-Symphony

Pastoral Symphony

Bambii takes us into the realistic world of landscapes and animals.

bambii art

And, Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most visually experimental and stunning films, can be seen as an end, not only of the golden age of hand drawn animation, but of the use of artistic drawing and painting styles in Disney Animated films.

sleeping-beauty

Jiminy_Cricket_standing_up_to_LampwickOverall, it’s hard to imagine any of the films, starting with Snow White, any other way, but in glorious color. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, even if Walt had gone ahead with Snow White in black and white, it might have been considered a good, maybe ground breaking film. But it would not have had the impact that the color added. It almost certainly would not have encouraged Walt to continue to explore and expand on the use of color in Pinocchio, both in character design (27 different colors were used to bring Jiminy Cricket to life) and detailed backgrounds.

Walt Disney never described himself as an artist. He didn’t draw as well as others, he couldn’t paint and he had no training in the use of color. He did, however, recognize how much color would bring to the films he was making. As with other great leaders, he surrounded himself with people who could do those things. The list of great animators, artists on all of the films during Walt’s lifetime, both conceptual and actual production is lengthy. Walt not only took advantage of their skills by constantly challenging them to do more, but he encouraged their continued growth by providing training. We’ll never understand how, but somehow, Walt could see the finished product in his mind’s eye. By any means at his disposal, like taking a leap of faith on Technicolor, he found a way to realize those dreams and ideas.

walt oscar forest and trees

 

My Connection to Walt Disney Through his Signature

1939 child's easel

1939 Falcon Toy from my collection

As I wrote about in my post Hooked on Collecting, collecting has been part of my life for a long time.  After years of collecting antique magic books and ephemera, I changed gears and began my collection of Disneyana.

Because my blog is about my connection to Walt Disney, I’ve often written about him as a mentor as well as a motivator for my creative work in this blog, my playwriting, and the current novel I’m working on.

I was born in 1960 and by the time I was old enough to understand who Walt Disney, the man, was, he was already gone. Over the years I have come to understand that while Walt quickly gave up drawing, and never directed a single live action film, his creative contributions were no less important to his Company’s success. But more about that later.

The closest I can come now to “meeting” Walt is to have something that he had in his hands. Objects, unless they are one of a kind, like his Oscars and other awards, are nearly impossible to find on the open markets, and, thankfully, are available for everyone to see in the Disney Family Museum and glimpses into the Disney Archives.

 

So, the what’s left are items that he signed.

Anyone who’s done research on Disney signed items has found, sometimes the hard way, that the history of Walt’s signature is very complicated, making authentication difficult — even for experts. Aside from his actual signature, there are at least four different Disney Company sanctioned signatures.

There are ones done by his secretaries. I found this on Big Cartoon News:

walt_secretarial

There are pieces signed by Disney artists Hank Porter and Bob Moore (from the same web site):

 

There are fan cards done by many different Disney artists like this 1930s version from my collection:

Donald Duck Fan card

Finally, there’s the Disney corporate logo of Walt’s signature:

disney corporte logo

I was fortunate to have purchased most of my Disney signatures back in the 70’s and 80’s, when you might find them priced in the hundreds of dollars. If you’re in the market today, you’ll probably find many autographed pieces over $1,000. And, if you come across an autograph that relates to a significant event or time period in Walt’s life, the prices will go up dramatically. I have one of those pieces in my collection from early in Walt’s career. I promise to share it in another post.

I found these two items on Nate D. Sanders auction website and are offered for price representation purposes only. This signed, first edition book sold in 2015 for about $15,000.

disney signed first edition

This signed letter sold for about $1,300

disney signed letter about machine

To insure that the signatures in my collection were authentic, I turned to an expert, Phil Sears. For 25 years Sears has been the world’s only autograph dealer specializing in Walt Disney autographed items.  He has consulted for virtually all of the world’s major auction and authenticating firms including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and many more. I have taken advantage of Mr. Sears’ free, preliminary authentication opinion to at least be somewhat assured of the signature’s authenticity.

This classic posed photo is from the 1940s. Walt may be holding a storyboard from Snow White, which premiered only a few years earlier.

Disney signed portrait

Photo signed circa 1940

This one from the 1940s was probably signed on a page taken from a book.

Disney signed Bambi card

This autograph has been professionally framed with a period picture of Walt. It’s an example of his signature in the 1930s.

Disney picture with signature

This letter, unfortunately in poor condition and, as yet, not authenticated, was signed from Walt and Mickey Mouse.

Disney signed letter

I find this one interesting. First, it is signed Walter E. Disney. Second, since the date is February 2nd 1935 and it’s made out to Bell and Howell, it’s possible that this was related to the filming of Snow White.

Disney check

My love of books makes this one a favorite of mine. It’s a 1953 first edition published by Simon and Schuster.

Lady & the Tramp book

Why have Walt’s signatures and autographs gone up in value? First, because many of his signatures were done by artists or secretaries, there are many inauthentic ones out there. Many have even been sold in error by reputable companies. Second, Walt’s signature changed over time. So, what looks like a scribbled forgery on the book above, is actually real and verifiable based on the date it was signed. But it might have been discarded by someone uninformed.

disney and mickey on disneyland tv

Walt & Mickey on Disneyland TV Show

Finally, I don’t think he become the publicly identifiable figure of “Uncle” Walt, until he was at least a year into the Disneyland TV series which premiered in 1954. Only then did he become really known to the millions who tuned in every week until his death in 1966. So, there was only about a decade where someone as famous as Walt would have been hounded for autographs, other than ones he might have done on a thank you note or a letter, contract, etc. Finally, his life was cut short, so he didn’t enjoy a slowdown typical of the end of famous people’s lives where he might have had down time to meet and sign things for fans.

Because Walt actually handled these items, at least to sign them, they hold special places for me in the collection. As I said earlier, Walt never did all that much drawing for the animated films he produced. In the future, I’d love to add at least one piece that includes a Disney character drawn by Walt.

I alluded to a piece in my collection from early in Walt’s career that I will happily share at a later date. It has a drawing, but not of a character from the well known Disney canon. As they used to say in the newspaper biz, “Watch this space for future developments”.

disney signing at disneyland

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