Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888

Written for the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 is a distinctly American comic ballad about that most distinctly American sport. Though having a very definite author and a publication date, like many of America’s faux-tales invented for newspapers and dime novels, Mudville’s ill-starred player has the quality of myth about him. Disney would go on to make him the subject of an animated short in 1946, and homage is paid to him at the Casey’s Corner counter service restaurant in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris Park. 
Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888
by Ernest Thayer 
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game. 
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
They'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat. 
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a fake
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat. 
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third. 
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat. 
There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat. 
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. 
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said. 
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand. 
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two." 
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again. 
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow. 
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Walt's Era - Part 17: Walt's Last Years (1965-1966)

The end of an era is upon us, in more ways than one. With bizarre prescience, Walt Disney sold WED Enterprises to Walt Disney Productions, finally bringing the future "Imagineering" department into the Disney fold proper. To handle the royalties from his name and the Disneyland Railroad, Walt created the company RETLAW. Yet just as Walt Disney Productions acquired WED, there was talk of General Electric or Westinghouse purchasing the company. And oddly enough, as an ironic footnote, the original Hyperion Rd. studio used by Disney way back in the early days, the studio in which Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was created, was bulldozed to clear space for a supermarket. 

Yet it was also a time of beginnings. The New York World's Fair closed in 1965, and over the course of that year and the next, attractions would slowly begin their migration to Disneyland. It's a Small World opened in Fantasyland with a brand new, more dramatic exterior. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln took up the Main Street opera house. The dinosaur scenes in Ford's Magic Skyway were excised and placed alongside the DLRR as the Primeval World diorama. In 1967, the Carousel of Progress would become one of the keynote attractions of the 1967 "New Tomorrowland." New Orleans Square would also open in 1966, though absent either of its headline attractions. 

Outside of the original Magic Kingdom, newspapers rooted out that Disney was buying up property in Orlando and Uncle Walt was forced to publicly announce the Florida Project on October 25, 1965. Disney also made its ill-fated bid for the Mineral King Resort and began conceptual work. One of the concepts was an animatronic stage show of musical bears designed by Marc Davis. The last time Davis saw Walt, he had come by to look at these sketches. One particular image - a rotund bear wrapped in a tuba - sent Walt into fits of laughter, and as he finally stepped out of the door, he uncharacteristically bid "goodbye" to Davis. It was more customary for him to say that he'd see you next week or come by tomorrow or something along those lines. Parting with Walt was never final.

On November 7, 1966, Walt was diagnosed with cancerous tumours in his left lung. Even though surgery could remove the consequences of a lifetime of smoking, he was given only six months to a year to live. He didn't even make it that long. On November 30 he collapsed at home and was taken to the hospital adjacent to the studio. On December 15, at 9:30am, at the age of 65, Walt Disney passed away. 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Walt Disney, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Nowadays not only is one hard-pressed to discern the difference between Country and Western music, the latter having been subsumed into the former, but one would likely be challenged to find any Country music that sounded like Country and not just weak pop music with a Southern accent. One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of said accent and the obligatory slide-guitar. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them. 

Among the most popular Western acts of all time were the Sons of the Pioneers. They still are, as a matter of fact. Though none of the original members remain, the Sons of the Pioneers are a designated national treasure and the longest reigning commercial musical troupe. Their origins go back to 1933 when a handsome gent named Leonard Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan to form "The Pioneer Trio." The announcer felt that these fresh-faced youngsters weren't old enough to pass off as pioneers, so he bestowed upon them a new nom-de-guerre. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. During the war, Ken Carson replaced Lloyd Perryman, who had been drafted and continued with the group thereafter. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in motion pictures. You might be more familiar with Slye's stage name: Roy Rogers.

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Saturday, 2 September 2017

What Makes a "Classic" Attraction?

Recently, Rob Plays posted a video in which he questioned the criteria for what makes a Disney attraction a "classic." Usually, when listing classics, there is a short list that most fans would agree upon - the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, Peter Pan's Flight, Space Mountain, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, etc. - but when that short list is dissected, a universal criteria of what makes a "classic" is not forthcoming. It almost seems to be a case where the concept of a "classic" can be analyzed out of existence. Cynically, in the comments to his video, I suggested that this was a follow-up to a previous video by Rob Plays in which he explained his view that no Disney attraction should be immune from vandalism or destruction. If there is no such thing as a "classic," after all, then that can't be used as an argument against whatever ill-conceived busywork Imagineering has gotten up to.

But what is a classic, REALLY?

I would agree that a "classic" is a nebulous concept... Not because there is no such thing, but because what makes a particular attraction a classic is different from what makes another attraction a classic. The way in which the Enchanted Tiki Room is a classic is different from the way in which Space Mountain is a classic. There is no universal rule that applies to all classics. Instead, I would argue, there is an interplay of different criteria in varying strengths and combinations that result in an attraction achieving classic status. Some of these criteria may sound familiar to readers of my previous articles on Imagineering... What makes an attraction a classic is not too far removed from what makes an attraction "Disney" and, more so, what makes an attraction great

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Story of Koro

Dubbed the "Midnight Dancer", poor Koro laments that his status as a statue in the Enchanted Tiki Room lanai prevents his feet from moving. Nevertheless, with his drum he entertains the other gods and helps them have a "big time." Known in Tahiti as 'Oro, he was considered the supreme deity and patron of the Arioi, a religious sect who prepared dances, dramas, and songs for the large festivals. In peacetime, 'Oro could be gracious, but his fundamental character was a god of war demanding human sacrifice.

An idol of 'Oro, wrapped in woven coconut fibre.
This type of effigy is called a To'o.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Walt's Era - Part 16: Disney's Peak? (1964)

Did Disney reach its peak in 1964?

On the WED Enterprises side of things, this year was the start of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, with its four WED-designed exhibits: Carousel of Progress, It's a Small World, the attraction that would become Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and Ford's Magic Skyway which would add Primeval World to Disneyland and pioneer advancements leading to the Peoplemover and omnimover system. This was also the year that Marc Davis applied his hand to improving the Jungle Cruise, land was secretly being bought up in Florida, and the original plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow were being drafted. On September 14 of this year, Walt also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not bad.

A tram shuttles passengers past It's a Small World and Rolly Crump's
Tower of the Four Windsat the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. 
Progressland, home of the Carousel of Progress, sits in the background.
Photo: Disney.

In film, 1964 was the year of the big one... Disney's best film of the period and, indeed, one of the best Disney films of all time. After years of production, Mary Poppins finally graced movie screens to universal acclaim (except by the book's author, of course). After it's 1960-61 reorientation, which had already produced a goodly sum of classic films, Disney released one that is widely regarded as Walt's own magnum opus.

Yet unlike what I considered the best year of "Walt's Era", 1954-55, the New York World's Fair and Mary Poppins were about all that happened. The remainder of the films released in 1964 are okay, generally... Decent, but not exceptional, which has been a bit of a running theme for this period. And if Mary Poppins was Walt's peak cinematic accomplishment, then what's left? It has been argued that Walt at least appeared to have lost interest in film by this point. With this film in the can, was there anything more he could do with the medium, especially in a period where the studios slipped into a reliance on relatively inexpensive live-action films? If we take Mary Poppins out of the equation, are we taking a cold, hard look at an unexceptional future for the Disney Studios?    

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan

The character of Peter Pan was first developed by J.M. Barrie in his 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird. In this semi-autobiographical tale, the narrator tells his young ward David about a week-old infant named Peter who overhears his parents discussing their future hopes for his adult life. This all sounds rather dreadful to him, so Peter absconds to Kensington Gardens where he encounters the various fairy folk who make this London park their home. These few chapters in The Little White Bird inspired Barrie to write a full theatrical play entitled Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904. The chapters in Little White Bird were slightly rewritten and published as the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906. 

Though published to capitalize on the success of the play, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is not a prequel to Peter Pan. Rather, it is a first draft of sorts. Barrie would revisit many of the themes and situations in that short story, not the least of which being the flying boy who refuses to grow up. Kensington Gardens would become Neverland, though Peter does allude to having spent some time in the Gardens when he first decided not to age. Maimie, the girl who develops an affection for Peter, becomes Wendy. Finally, in 1911, Barrie rewrote his play as a novel. Peter and Wendy became the definitive literary version of the story that has inspired countless adaptations on stage and screen since.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Post-Mortem on Pirates and the New Rivers of America

While Ashley and I were off on our own vacation the last few weeks, traversing the vast Canadian prairies to visit her family in Manitoba and seeking out every museum and heritage site along the way, a tonne of Disney Parks news broke. Most significantly, the altered Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland Paris re-opened and Fantasmic, the Rivers of America, and the Disneyland Railroad returned to Disneyland U.S.A. Having written articles on little more than the Disney Parks Blog posts about Pirates of the Caribbean and the Rivers of America, it seems worthwhile to revisit the subjects now that the finished products have debuted.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Original Films of the Main Street Cinema

I've long believed that Main Street USA at Disneyland USA should be treated like a genuine land unto itself rather than merely a pretty mall to speed through on one's way in and out of the park. The charming Victorian atmosphere, exquisite detail, and variety of things to do make it well worth the time to investigate, from the Disney Gallery to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln to the Penny Arcade to the Disneyland Railroad to the Dapper Dans to the Emporium dioramas to the Main St. vehicles. Merchandising demands consistently wear away at the integrity of Main Street - Oh to see the Penny Arcade as it once was! Even to see it as I first saw it! - but one of the park's true gems has remained more or less inviolate. That gem is Main Street Cinema.

Where other Disney parks have closed down their cinemas or turned them into shops (or never had them to begin with), Disneyland's remains a quiet respite from crowds and weather where one can watch classic Mickey Mouse cartoons of a bygone age. Yet when the park opened, and for a good many years thereafter, it was not Mickey who emblazoned the cinema's six screens, but the greatest films of the silent era. Of course, none of these films would have been shown in a theatre at the turn of the century when Walt was growing up... Some of them were even made after Walt had already grown and moved to Hollywood! Nevertheless, they still achieve Main Street's desired effect, which was not a documentary verisimilitude, but rather, a nostalgic reminiscence of everything "old timey."

Main Street Cinema had a rotating series of films it showed. Every so often, the marquee changed and a different set of sign boards were put out on the sidewalk to tempt passersby to spend an A-ticket. Yes, at one time the ticket booth was actually in use (not merely deluding poor guests who didn't notice that the person inside was a mannequin, as I have seen happen several times). For that A-ticket, guests could experience limitless thrills, chills, pathos, and excitement as they watched clips from classic comedies, cartoons, and dramas.

Presented below are a few of those films, as could be identified from old photos of the cinema and are readily available online.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A is for Atom

In my research on Disney's Our Friend the Atom, I came across this interesting little film from 1952. Titled A is for Atom and produced by General Electric, it covers essentially the same ground, in almost the same way, as Disney's later episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland. It doesn't have the same production values behind it, but it does have a lot of nice, mid-century modern style and the same unenviable task of making atomic power seem less frightening than it (rightly) did.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Walt's Era - Part 15: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 2 (1963)

This year brought a generally good slate of films... Mostly nice, solid, and some classic pictures like Sword in the Stone and The Incredible Journey... but once again the biggest advancement for Disney was in the theme parks. 1963 was the year that Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room debuted, revolutionizing the art of mechanical animation. The attraction still astonishes and enchants me every time I see it today, even with all the improvements in audio-animatronics in the past 50-some years. I can only imagine what a bolt from the blue it must have seemed like in 1963.

Walt visits the Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo: Disney.
On the business side of things, Walt began scoping out locations for the future Walt Disney World, settling on Florida. An assortment of false-front companies started buying up the necessary land, hoping to keep it under wraps to suppress avaricious real estate inflation. Walt also extended his 1953 contract with Walt Disney Productions, which included his ownership of the DLRR, Monorail, royalties from his name and WED creations, and this newest enchanted attraction. Even today, the attraction is formally known as Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, as a nod to the day when it was personally owned by Walt Disney and charged a separate admission fee of 75 cents. 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Requiem for Pirates of the Caribbean

"We wants the grandfather clock!" Image: Disney.

I had already stopped reading the largely depressing spectacle that is the Disney Parks Blog some months ago, so I had to hear about this through the grapevine. I would imagine that it says a lot right there that the major source for official news is depressing enough for me to stop reading it. When I hear people attempt to defend Disney when they do things like this by saying "You just have to trust Disney, they know what they're doing," I see no evidence to support that claim.

If somehow you have not heard about this, the current refurbishment of the Disneyland Paris version of Pirates of the Caribbean will include not only Jack Sparrow, Davy Jones, Blackbeard, and Barbossa (inserted unceremoniously into the scene with the skeleton at the helm, because at this point why not?), but an altered auction scene in which it is not wenches up for sale, but the villagers' loot. Because, after all, why would pirates be looting loot themselves when they could just buy it? Furthermore, these changes are not limited to Disneyland Paris: they are set to be introduced to rides in Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 2018. The offending post can be read here. The comments are golden.

Concept art of Barbossa in the skeleton at the helm scene,
like a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Image: Disney.

Presumably the changes were undertaken with the idea of making the ride more politically correct in respects to the status of women. Really, this is a logical trajectory after the alteration of the scene where pirates were chasing women. After the vandalism perpetrated to the ride through the addition of Jack Sparrow as the entire ride's focal point, inappropriate projection effects of Davy Jones and Blackbeard, and ill-fitting clips from the film soundtrack, the ride no longer has artistic or narrative integrity anyways. I can't really muster outrage for the Disneyland and WDW versions of the ride, because they have already been irredeemably wrecked. 

What I'm most upset about is the vandalism to the Disneyland Paris version. Though the layout of the attraction is different, it was the last remaining version that retained the spirit and intent of the original. The movie-based vandalisms had not yet been applied, and all the original show scenes were intact, including the pirates chasing the women. When we rode it on our trip to Paris in 2013, I actually began tearing up because I had forgotten what an amazing ride Pirates of the Caribbean used to be. When all the elements work together in a coherent whole, it is one of the best themed attractions ever designed. Or was.

The usual tonedeaf, clueless interviews with Imagineering (including dusting off Marty Sklar) came with the news. One particular nugget, from Kathy Magnum, Sr. VP of Imagineering, sums up the entire problem:  "Our team thought long and hard about how to best update this scene." Any thinking Disney fan knows the appropriate response to this: "WHY?!" The scene didn't need updating. Keen to vandalize the work of their predecessors, they decided to needlessly destroy one of the ride's most iconic scenes and replace it with... nothing. A wry and witty scene that everyone understood was based ultimately in the fact that pirates were bad people is being replaced by a nonsensical scene in which nothing really happens. The new redhead pirate just stands there, the former auctioneer just stands there, and I guess the guys across the shore will be just be sitting there. There is no joke implicit to this scene, and nothing memorable about it. Though I guess in a ride where the highlight is now catching a glimpse of a Jack Sparrow animatronic just standing there, we're expected to take the redhead pirate just standing there as a memorable moment. I'm not even confident that, with this accumulation of changes, what Magnum herself described as "the standard for the theme park industry for half a century" even qualifies as a good attraction anymore.

Some might retort that Disney has to keep changing in order to keep drawing guests, just like how the curators at the Louvre make little changes to the Mona Lisa every year to keep it fresh. I've already wasted my time and breath addressing that particular argument though. Great works of art are timeless because they are great. They don't need to be made "fresh," they don't need to be "updated" to remain relevant. No, I don't hate change: I hate the wanton destruction of great, beautiful, important things.

"Our team thought long and hard about how to best update the
Mona Lisa. The painting has always represented great
Da Vinci storytelling, but it's a story you can
continue to add fun to," said curators at the Louvre.

Some time ago, I watched a video on the question of what would be the "last straw" to finally make you stop going to Disneyland. It occurred to me that if it was anything, it would probably be something that, on it's own, appeared kind of petty and silly. That's because my growing dissatisfaction with Disney is really a death by a thousand small cuts. It's not the addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean on its own, or the loss of the Court of Angels on its own, or the truncating of the Rivers of America on its own, or the loss of Big Thunder Ranch on its own, or even the loss of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror on its own (though that was certainly enough to swear me off California Adventure)... It's the cumulative effect of turning Disneyland into a place that is increasingly alien, inartistic, and unpleasant.

Could this be the last straw? I don't know. But I do wish that when we took our last trip to Disneyland in 2015 that I knew about all the changes that would come in the past year and a half. I would have spent more time savouring what would be lost, understanding the very real possibility that our last trip could well be our last trip.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Brave Little Tailor

Employing Mickey Mouse in the title role of the Brave Little Tailor (1938) was a natural, as both characters share a good deal in common. Both are small but plucky, solving problems through wit and guile rather than brute strength or political power. In the original fairy tale transcribed by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 anthology, the valiant tailor suppresses seven flies in one strike and sets off to brag about it. Responding to his unwarranted pride, a giant takes him for more powerful than he actually is, and the tailor is not about to correct him. Eventually the tailor is taken before the king and is charged with several missions designed to get rid of him, but which the tailor succeeds at tremendously. Everybody seems to want to be rid of the little braggart who seems to have no sense of his own insignificance, and at every stage he outsmarts them.

In many ways, The Valiant Little Tailor reads like a farce… A comedy of errors in which the hero is not too shrewd to be conquered, but too daft to know that he ought to be. Unlike in Disney's cartoon short, where Mickey is frightened and reluctant but overcomes out of desperation, this tailor is totally unflappable because he just doesn't know any better. That said, we may derive a good lesson about self-confidence here. Cunning can take you far, and as the saying goes, it's not bragging if you can back it up.

Disney's Brave Little Tailor was voted the 26th greatest cartoon of all time by the animation industry and nominated for an Academy Award (which it lost to another Disney film, Ferdinand the Bull). Today, references to the short can be seen in the Sir Mickey's shoppes in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris Park. The following translation of the original German story was by Margaret Hunt, for the two-volume publication Grimm’s Household Tales in 1884.

The tailor confronts a giant. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Château de la Chatonnière

Not far from Azay-le-Rideau and its famous château in the Loire Valley is the Château de la Chatonnière. No castle, this is a charming country estate that brings to mind the humble home of Cinderella. The current owner Béatrice de Andia has employed the services of master gardener Ahmed Azéroual to surround the château with stunning thematic gardens on the ideas of science, romance, and fragrance. Unfortunately during our visit in May of 2013 we were too early to appreciate the gardens in full bloom. The trade-off was made with having virtually the entire estate to ourselves. Much like the Château d'Ussé that we visited on the same day, this charming villa is off the beaten path and decidedly worth the visit.


Saturday, 10 June 2017

Walt's Era - Part 14: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 1 (1962)

1962 is another landmark year in this series, in a certain way. This is the first year that not only lacks an animated classic, but lacks any kind of classic to speak of. There isn't even anything that might be called a minor, cult classic among Disney fans "in the know". The films are not bad, but not a one of them is on most people's top 10, or top 20, or maybe even a top 30 list. In Search of the Castaways, Moon Pilot, The Legend of Lobo, Big Red, etc. are pretty okay films and on the balance, 1962 was a pretty okay year. There are no truly awful films - even Bon Voyage has its merits -  at the expense of nothing truly outstanding. Luckily the company also re-released Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp to offset things.

Behind the scenes, WED moved from the Disney studios to Glendale as construction began on New Orleans Square in Disneyland. The Swiss Family Treehouse also opened this year, adding the second actual attraction to Adventureland and its first expansion since opening day. Walt Disney Productions renewed its contract with Walt and WED Enterprises. Walt received some $3500 per week plus another $1666 in deferred payments and a percentage of profits from the films, with an additional $1500 going to WED.  

Swiss Family Treehouse, circa 1962.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Songs from the Tiki Room - Barcarolle

You stay off'a my back and I'll stay off'a your back!

When the Enchanted Tiki Room went down in the early Nineties for a refurbishment, its sometimes tolerance-testing 17 minute duration was trimmed to a taut 12 minutes by the exclusion of the peaceful Barcarolle number. Borrowed from Jacques Offenbach's opera Tales of Hoffman, the Barcarolle offered a calming interlude after the explosive introductory song The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room. It was, however, an unspectacular use of the attraction's signature audio-animatronics. Any use of audio-animatronics in 1963 was astonishing, and the Barcarolle served a proper function in the pace of the show, but 30 years later it simply tried the patience of audiences eager to get out and ride the Haunted Mansion or the Indiana Jones Adventure.

A barcarolle is a type of folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers or music in that same style. In Tales of Hoffman, which is regularly described as one of the most popular melodies in opera, the barcarolle is a piece entitled "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" and is sung between the Venetian courtesan Giulietta and Hoffman's muse Nicklausse, disguised as a male companion. In the opera, the pleasant melody underlines something sinister: Hoffman believes that Giulietta is in love with him, but in fact she is seducing him under orders from Hoffman's enemies.

Most uses of the song outside of Tales of Hoffman have employed this contrast in melody and intent. For example, in the film Life is Beautiful (1997), it contrasts the height of European culture with the collapse into fascism. Disney evidently thought that it just sounded nice, and previously used it in the 1931 Silly Symphony cartoon Birds of a Feather.

Birds of a Feather (1931)

Saturday, 20 May 2017

What Makes Something "Disney"?

Not very long ago, FoxxFur at Passport to Dreams posed the question of what makes a themed attraction, themed space, or theme park distinctively "Disney" in contrast to other amusement parks, rides, and spaces. What does it mean when we criticize something made by Disney of not being "Disney" enough? What do we mean when we say the so-called competition doesn't measure up to Disney, or has "out-Disneyed" Disney? Since I take my cues from Passport to Dreams apparently, which frankly isn't a bad place to take them from, I've been given pause to think seriously about what that means. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Story of Ngendei

Poor Ngendei, the Earth-balancer... Tormented by Pele, barely hanging on, wobbling around on the globe he is supposed to be supporting... If we descend into the original Fijian mythology from which Ngendi comes, however, it's really Pele who should be on the lookout!

Degei, also called Ndengei, is the supreme god of ancient Fiji. The first of the Fijian gods, he created the islands and peopled them, determines the fate of his people in the afterlife, and provides for them as they live, blessing them with fruits and rains... Or tormenting them with floods, famine, and devastating earthquakes. Like nature itself, Degei's moods change from kindly to wrathful, from provider to judge, jury, and executioner.

Fiji's coastline. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Walt's Era - Part 13: Disney in Transition, Part 2 (1961)

The process of finding new footing continued for Disney into 1961. The company paid off its existing loans, debuted Wonderful World of Color on NBC on September 24th (and introduced America to Professor Ludwig von Drake), and released its first truly new animated film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theatres. Disney also ended their popular series of Donald Duck cartoons this year, against the backdrop of general changes in America's filmgoing habits. Nevertheless, they also acquired the rights to the Winnie the Pooh character. The first draft of Mary Poppins was finished, and it is in this year that the film Saving Mr. Banks is set, fictionalizing the challenges of working with Pamela Travers. Disney was setting itself up nicely for its new-new era.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Mark Twain and the Rivers of America

The Mississippi River is one of the great rivers of the world. Counting in its entire drainage basin, the Mississippi and its tributaries drain 31 states and the southernmost part of two Canadian provinces. It straddles the Rocky Mountains to the West and Appalachian Mountains to the East. It is the fourth longest and ninth largest river in the world. The Mississippi is the central artery of American industry, controlling it meant victory for the Union and defeat for the Confederates, it demarcates Country music from Western music, and the settlements along its ever advancing delta gave birth to Jazz. Sooner rather than later, the living river might bypass New Orleans and Baton Rouge altogether, rerouting its primary outflow to the Atchafalaya River. It already would be, if not for the engineering marvels placed by the US government attempting to bend nature to its will. Great industrial barges ply the urbanized riverscape today, but in Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and wherever Imagineers have transplanted the American frontier, the romance of the river's old steamboat days are perpetually rekindled.    

In Disneyland, the riverboat is named for the Mississippi's favourite son: Mark Twain. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain grew up to the whistle of the paddlewheeler. He served as a pilot aboard one before he stopped working and became a writer. Never quite prepared to leave that life behind, he penned a nostalgic tome entitled Life on the Mississippi, capturing the spirit of those halcyon days.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Story of Ferdinand

Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand and Disney's adaptation Ferdinand the Bull are a delightful story that shows just how closely the animators could hew to a source text if they chose to. As a visual example, consider how well they replicated the cover of the original book for the title card of the film.

The similarities don't end there. Visual echoes are clear throughout the short. For another example, here is Ferdinand en route to Madrid for the bullfights...

And both were inspired by the real Puente Nuevo ("New Bridge") completed in 1793 in the Andalusian city of Ronda, Spain.

And then these guys in funny hats...

That similarity in the art is to be expected, since the original story was really a venue for the illustration of Robert Lawson, who faithfully reproduced the sights of southern Spain. The story goes that Munro Leaf spent one afternoon in 1935 drafting the story on a single sheet of looseleaf, so that his illustrator friend could have a project to showcase his talents. That story is exceedingly short and simple, as we shall see.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Theme vs. Decoration

One of the most pernicious arguments put forward to justify the change from The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout is that it's still the same ride, "only" the theme is changing. Serious comparisons are often made to Mickey's Fun Wheel or Silly Symphony Swings as examples of rides that are the same, but simply had a change in theme. And it is an argument riddled with fundamental errors and misconceptions about what a themed attraction even is, as opposed to merely a ride with some decoration. Sadly it is a misconception that has grown ever more pernicious as the fan community fractures ever more deeply into those who understand the concept of theme and those who obsess with a thrill ride's letter-grade.

Basically the same as Guardians of the Galaxy.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Walt's Era - Part 12: Disney in Transition, Part 1 (1960)

1960 was the second-half of a losing fiscal year for Disney. The company's feature films were not its best line-up by any stretch of the imagination, and its television business went up in smoke. Walt Disney Productions bought out ABC's share of Disneyland and canceled The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro at the height of their popularity. Walt Disney Presents also ran out its ABC contract with a few Zorro one-off episodes, Moochie of Pop Warner Football (further cementing Kevin Corcoran's status in the company), and trying to recapture the spirit of Davy Crockett with Daniel Boone.

On the plus side, the studios negotiated with NBC to begin Wonderful World of Color once the contract with ABC ran out. The company also bought out Western Printing's and Walt Disney's personal shares in Disneyland, making the themepark a wholly owned subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions. Disney also staged the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies in Squaw Valley that year, and this was the year that preparation began on Mary Poppins. The Sherman Brothers were hired on to the company and negotiations began in earnest with P.L. Travers. Walt had been trying to get the rights to the book since 1938, and only now was Travers even remotely sensitive to the dollars Walt waved in front of her face.

These conditions lead to another transitional period for Disney, only a decade after they found their post-war footing. Of course, a company like Disney is always facing new challenges and opportunities, but 1959/60 really seemed to mark the end of a period begun in 1950, reaching its apotheosis in 1954/55. True-Life Adventures and People and Places came to an end, Disneyland reached its most complete form until the additions and renovations of 1965-67, their relationship with ABC came to an end, a new suite of mostly child stars entered the company, new (and cheaper) production methods for animation were enacted, and an unending stream of uneven live-action films really start to become the company's bread and butter. Watching the films from this year, knowing in the back of my mind what's coming up, and learning what was going on behind the scenes, I can see how Disney's "best years" are behind it and most of its more negative reputation is going to be earned. Nevertheless, even "bad" Disney of the Sixties is better than most things! It's not like Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, or Zorro are anything to sneeze at.

Walt on set with Haley Mills and Kevin Corcoran.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

When Disney set about the make a "true-life adventure" film about the making of their classic musical Mary Poppins, they received criticism from certain quarters for that film's propaganda-like qualities. Margaret Lyons of Vulture takes up the cross for artistes wanting to uphold their creative vision: "...what was presented as a joyless, loveless pedant finally giving herself over to the delight and imagination of the Wonderful World of Disney could just as easily been presented as a creative, passionate person, with dignity and real emotions, getting steamrolled by one of the most powerful companies in the world." But that is unfair to Saving Mr. Banks, which had the herculean task of making P.L. Travers out to be merely a "joyless, loveless pedant" and not the disgusting, horrible human being she actually was. Disney softened her considerably, actually succeeding in making her somewhat sympathetic and therein being the ones to invite a more sympathetic view of her being steamrolled by Walt into turning her British children's book into an American family musical. An acquaintance with the historical P.L. Travers is enough to allow one exception in the rule of artistic integrity, making a person a little glad that her own creation was wrested from her as a kind of karmic retribution.

Born in Australia and suffering the loss of her father at a young age, Helen Lyndon Goff moved to England on the bankroll of her wealthy aunts, took up the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers, and insinuated herself into the salons and bedrooms of the artistic set. Entranced with the Irish culture that her father claimed to share, she particularly fixated on becoming acquaintances with, and often mistress of, various Irish authors, editors, and publishers. Unfortunately for her, she never could hold down a stable relationship, even a ten-year long cohabitation with friend (and likely more) Madge Burnand, daughter of playwright and Punch editor Sir Francis Burnand. At first she sought relief in various and sundry mystical diversions, including sojourns with the Navajo and Hopi in America as well as a trip to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. None of these seemed to have produced the most necessary spiritual effect, which is to help make you a better, kinder, and more loving human being. Some people turn to spirituality to feel better, some turn to spirituality to become better. Travers was the former.

To fill the gaping cavity where her heart should be, Travers arranged to adopt a pair of twins, grandchildren of the beleaguered Joseph Hone. Biographer of W.B. Yeats, Hone found himself and his wife having to raise their son's six children. Looking to lighten their load, they were keen to adopt off the two youngest at six months. However, after consultation with her astrologer, Travers reneged on her agreement and only took the one. This, whom she named Camillus, she raised as her own with no knowledge of his ancestry or twin brother. At the age of 17, his brother Anthony came looking for him. The revelation created a lasting rift between Camillus and Travers, the emotional damage driving Camillus to drink. It was at this point in her life that Walt Disney came a-calling, offering the money required for her to maintain the lavish lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. Camillus went to his grave some 50 years later, claiming that Travers had robbed him of his family. His children went on to say that when their adopted grandmother P.L. Travers died, she died unloved and loving no one.

Sometimes it's better to know nothing of the author of a beloved story. In the case of Mary Poppins, Disney becomes the spoonful of sugar to ease the bitterness of a creator who can be interpreted as lost and tragic or mean and selfish, but either way a generally awful person. What is most astonishing, when taking all of this into consideration, is how someone like P.L. Travers could have written a book so charming and whimsical as Mary Poppins.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Disney Announces Small World Stroller Parking Structure

GLENDALE - In a quiet press release this morning, Walt Disney Imagineering announced an ambitious project to create the Small World Stroller Parking Structure at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

Long plagued by feet-tripping rows of strollers abandoned in a quasi-orderly fashion, the Small World Stroller Parking Structure will be a welcome addition. The attraction is renowned for its popularity with the discerning 1-36 month old demographic, sometimes causing headaches for guests and castmembers alike. Disneyland's ad hoc stroller parking area has frequently been the scene of "stroller rage" incidents, culminating in a horrific 18 stroller pile-up late last year that caused the death and dismemberment of 24 infants, toddlers, and an inexplicable handful of eight-year olds whose parents still allow them to ride in strollers. The open nature of the existing lot also became the target of thieves and joyriding stroller-jackers. 

"These sorts of incidents are unacceptable," stated Disneyland president Michael Colglazier, "as well as damaging to our reputation as a safe, enriching, and magical place to bring children whose eyes are not yet developed enough to focus on distant objects."

Soon this area will become the world's largest
stroller parking facility. Photo: cyclotourist.

The Small World Stroller Parking Structure will be the largest of its kind in the world until Tokyo builds a bigger one. At five stories, the parkade will have space for 10,000 strollers in a range of models from umbrella to full size to travel system, tandem, hybrid, and sports utility. "The story of the Small World Stroller Parking Structure will blend seamlessly with the existing story of It's a Small World," baselessly claims someone from Imagineering from a video posted on the Disney Parks Blog. Plans are to have the parking structure look kind of  like something designed by Mary Blair or Rolly Crump, but not exactly like it, making it seem inauthentic and cheap in a way you can't quite put your finger on.

This is one of several projects initiated by Imagineering this year to make Disney Parks a more inviting place for the neonatal. Disney has already rolled out a redesign of the costumed characters to make them less alien and terrifying to infants who see nothing but Mickey's monstrous gloved hands, crazed eyes, and huge gaping maw bearing down upon them. Another project will have the pirates ships removed from Peter Pan's Flight so that strollers can simply be attached to hooks without having to remove the child. Taking ques from Disney Cruise Lines "youth clubs" and theme parks' Package Check Service, a planned expansion to Disneyland's Baby Care Center will allow parents to drop-off their children for pick-up at the front gate at the end of the day. Guests staying at Disney Resort Hotels in Disneyland and Walt Disney World may also opt to have their children delivered back to their rooms within 24 hours.

"We are committed," said Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek, "to Walt Disney's dream of creating an entertainment enterprise where parents could ill-advisedly refuse to let their own children stop them from visiting."

"I vividly remember," reminisced Colglazier, "when my parents told me about how I screamed all the way through Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion when I was a newborn, and then how I couldn't walk anymore and had a breakdown in the middle of Tomorrowland when I was four, and the swimming pool of the motel behind Disneyland when I was seven, and how I just totally didn't want to be there with my lame parents when I was a teenager."

"I want to make it easier for parents today to create those same kinds of magical memories with their kids. After all, Disneyland is for kids."

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

National Parks in the Time of Grizzly Peak

Disney California Adventure park's Grizzly Peak Recreation Area and Airfield have been reset from the Nineties extreme sports era to the vintage time period of the early Sixties. This makes it contemporaneous with Disney's True-Life Adventures films, Humphrey the Bear shorts, and the Golden Age of the Great American Road Trip that brought so many visitors to the National Parks along the newly christened Interstate Highway system.

One could do worse to capture a feel for the period than to watch the True-Life films and Humphrey shorts, as well as Disney's later animal features like Yellowstone Cubs (some of which are specifically referenced in Grizzly Peak as films being shown in the late-night ranger program). Nevertheless, there is a wealth of available material out there, above and beyond one's old family photos. For example, the following Vacation Land U.S.A. program presented by the Ford Motor Company features Yellowstone circa the late Fifties.

Castle Films presents this 1965 short on Grand Teton Country, featuring Pioneer Days at Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

The next travelogue is of Glacier National Park around the early Sixties, this time presented by Great Northern Railway. Clearly they are keen to have guests at their chain of rustic lodges sprinkled throughout the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, reached by a ride on a streamlined Great Northern train. But at this time, railway travel was steadily dying out to highway travel.

Here is another take on Glacier National Park in another mid-century travelogue from Great Northern Railway.

The next film takes us on a black-and-white tour of the crown jewel, the Grand Canyon, circa 1958.

This silent film produced by Castle makes a nice virtual tour of the "Grand Loop" through Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via Utah Parks Company tour bus. Passengers would disembark the Union Pacific Railway at Cedar City, Utah, stay a night in one of the Hotel El Escalante's 23 rooms, and then hop on the subsidiary company's bus for a round trip through each of the region's great chasms.

The following film from 1957 is a promotional film for the Pacific Northwest in general, but pays more than ample attention to Olympic, Mount Rainier and Crater Lake National Parks, and Mount Hood National Forest. The volcanic mountains that shape the geography of this region also shape human life there, from industry to recreation.

More specific than just the National Parks, Grizzly Peak is meant to invoke the Sierra mountains and its parks: Yosemite, Sequoia, and King's Canyon. The following vintage film from the Fifties features Yosemite and is light on footage of the tourists themselves, which isn't so bad.

Of course it's always fun to see how the National Parks Service promoted themselves. There are no scenes of happy tourists in the following video produced by the NPS, but there is lots of vintage footage, some hilariously overzealous narration, and an insight into how Americans perceived their national story in the Fifties.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Jules Verne's In Search of the Castaways

Disney's release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 began a flurry of cinematic adaptations of Jules Verne's writings, as well as H.G. Wells and a handful of generically Victorian-style Science Fiction stories. Around the World in 80 Days was released in 1956, From the Earth to the Moon in 1958, Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in 1960, The Mysterious Island and Master of the World in 1961, and Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1962. By 1962 it was natural for Disney to want to follow up their smash hit with another Vernian tale, as well as add to their growing list of high-spirited adventure movies like Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Their choice ended up being a strange one, though. Instead of another big budget Science Fiction epic coping with the anxieties and hopes the Atomic Age, in the vein of 20,000 Leagues, they opted to make In Search of the Castaways into a family musical starring Haley Mills and Maurice Chevalier!

Illustration from In Search of the Castaways by Édouard Riou.

Published originally in serialized form through 1867-1869 as Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, the story known variously as The Children of Captain Grant, A Voyage Around the World, or In Search of the Castaways follows Verne's modus operandi of using a rousing tale of adventure (and sometimes futuristic technologies) to take readers on a journey through some far-flung corner of the world. Only a relatively small fraction of the stories written by Verne would qualify as "Science Fiction." Rather, the celebrated French author created an entirely new genre called "Scientific Romance" which purported to educate readers about geography, ecology, zoology, anthropology, history, the arts, and technology through the medium of the adventure story. The Nautilus was a fantastic invention, which ably served its purpose as a plot device to take the protagonists (and by proxy the readers) on a tour of the world's oceans.

For In Search of the Castaways, the order of the day is a trip along the 37th parallel south... A latitudinal line that crosses South America through the Andes and Patagonia, Australia through the province of Victoria, and the high country of New Zealand's northern island. The purpose of the journey, besides offering a chance to meet Patagonians and Maori, is to rescue Captain Harry Grant. This daring explorer at the helm of the S.S. Britannia had gone missing several years before, leaving behind a pair of orphans in Mary and Robert. No clue was left to his whereabouts until a tattered message in a bottle (in a shark) is recovered by Lord and Lady Glenarvan. Inspired by the plight of Captain Grant and the his children, they resolve to travel the 37th parallel around the world until they find him.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Mark of Zorro, the 1920 Film

Filmmakers and media mavens were quick to recognize the appeal of the masked bandito for justice, Zorro. No sooner had Johnston McCulley's character first appeared in print in 1919 than the film rights were scooped up by none other than Hollywood's top action star, Douglas Fairbanks. He found the perfect vehicle for his patented brand of swashbuckling acrobatics and thrilling swordplay, creating the very first picture released by United Artists, the production company founded by him, his wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. It became the first of 40 films to feature Zorro, the most recent being those starring Antonio Banderas and the most famous being Disney's television series (the first 13 episodes were condensed into a feature film, The Sign of Zorro). It would also inspire wider aspects of pop-culture: the debt owed to Zorro by comic book creator Bob Kane was acknowledged when it came time to reveal the origin of The Batman. It was a showing of The Mark of Zorro that the Waynes were returning from when a mugger killed Thomas and Martha, the parents of young Bruce Wayne. Five years later, Fairbanks would return in Don Q, Son of Zorro.

Now here, for you enjoyment, is Douglas Fairbanks' silent film adventure from the Golden Age of Hollywood, The Mark of Zorro...

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Walt's Era - Part 11: A Gala Year for Disney (1959)

1959 was a good year for Disney in front of the cameras. In Disneyland, it was a "Gala Day" when the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, and Disneyland-Alweg Monorail were opened on June 15th. The openings were commemorated on television with the program Disneyland '59 (to be re-released theatrically the following year), and inaugurated the new "E-Ticket." On television, Walt Disney Presents, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro were still going strong. On the silver screen, 1959 was Disney's best year since 1954/55... Sleeping Beauty, The Shaggy Dog, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, Jungle Cat, Grand Canyon, Donald in Mathmagic Land... After some of the low points of the last couple entries, such a consistently good slate of films is a welcome relief. New stars were also being built up, like Annette Funicello, who was rising to stardom with her first top ten single, Tall Paul.

Walt and the Nixons attempting to cut the ribbon for the Monorail.
Photo: Disney.
Behind the cameras though, the situation was tense. Annette was getting an improved sense of her own economic value with her rising stardom, and filed a suit to break her contract with Disney in order to make higher pay. Disney launched into their own dispute with ABC to break their contract. As a result, the last episode of Zorro aired on September 24th and the last episode of The Mickey Mouse Club aired on September 25th. It was competition from Pacific Ocean Park, which had started to outdraw Disneyland, that prompted the investment in new attractions. However, the low-capacity wagons and stagecoaches of Nature's Wonderland closed down. And despite how good the films were, Disney's theatrical releases also underperformed through 1959 and 1960. In 1960, the company reported their first fiscal loss in ten years, leading to substantial layoffs in the animation department.

As an aside, for the many fans of a particular Disney Parks attraction (myself included), Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone also debuted in 1959 on CBS. It would run for five seasons, ending in 1964. The show was not initially profitable, having to fight against the bias that Science Fiction was merely childish escapism, but has since become one of the most revered and respected adult television dramas of all time. That The Twilight Zone should have eventually worked its way into a Disney theme park is an ironic twist worthy of the show itself. Whereas Walt offered reassurance, Rod Serling did anything but. The dominant theme of The Twilight Zone was the existential angst of modern society, and especially the role of the modern man in a culture that seemed to be leaving him behind.