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The Original Plans for the “Sailing Ship Columbia”

The Original Plans for the “Sailing Ship Columbia”

The Original Plans for the “Sailing Ship Columbia” by Todd James Pierce >> To design Disneyland, Walt hired art directors from other studios to create themed lands that would, in part, function has permanent movie sets.  The majority of these men–such as Dick Irvine, Sam McKim and Bill Martin–came from 20th Century Fox, as the financially-troubled Fox was then laying off some of its employees.  With these men came a knowledge of other Hollywood backlots which helped them create Disneyland.  The Golden Horseshoe Saloon was based in large part on the western-themed Golden Garter set at Warner Brothers.  The Mark Twain Steamboat was inspired in part by the Cotton Blossom riverboat on the MGM lot, a boat which had been featured in the 1951 MGM remake of the musical Showboat.  This connection to the movie image was so deep that when Disneyland opened in 1955 they hired Irene Dunne, the star of the 1936 version of Showboat, to christen the Mark Twain on TV.   But the backlot influence of other studios didn’t stop when the park was open: it continued for years.      In 1956, Walt considered adding a new River Town area next to the river (roughly where the Haunted Mansion now stands), a town that was likely inspired by the river town set on the  20th Century Fox backlot.  That same year–in fact during those same months that he was contemplating River Town–he was also considering adding a second large vessel to Rivers of America.  Many people don’t know that the Sailing Ship Columbia was not Walt’s first choice for a second historic ship to cruise the... read more
The Frontierland That Never Was

The Frontierland That Never Was

    The Frontierland That Never Was by Todd James Pierce As I scooted around the Internet this week, I found many sites bemoaning the loss of Walt Disney’s original Frontierland. To make way for the two large show buildings in Star Wars Land, the park is permanently closing some rarely used areas of the western outpost. These include Big Thunder Ranch, its barbecue restaurant, the petting zoo, and the jamboree area. But some well-used parts of Frontierland will also be lost. There are four iconic areas that will be changed or removed: (1) Rivers of America will likely be shortened, with some mechanical wildlife retired or relocated; (2) the train tracks will no longer extend to the north perimeter of the park, (3) the back portion of Tom Sawyer Island (beyond the old fort) will be removed to accommodate a shorter river footprint; and (4) the Native American village with its animatronic figures will either be partially removed or relocated to another spot on the bank. The northern bend will instead feature a tall barrier cliff made of rocks with cascade waterfalls spilling down into the river. The train will also be repositioned on elevated tracks running above the stony shoreline, shortening its previous route to make way for Skywalker and friends.But we here at DHI aren’t just bemoaning the loss of the current Frontierland, we’re bemoaning the loss of the Frontierland that never was. By that, I mean River Town, an area that Walt announced in 1956 but then decided not to build. When Disneyland opened in 1955, most of Frontierland was consolidated in three areas: the Frontier... read more
DHI Podcast 014 – Harriet Burns, First Female Imagineer

DHI Podcast 014 – Harriet Burns, First Female Imagineer

DHI Podcast 014 – Harriet Burns, First Female Imagineer by Todd James Pierce Up on the podcast is the story of Harriet Burns, the first woman to join Walt Disney’s team of artists and engineers who were developing Disneyland in the 1950s.  This podcast includes interviews with Disney legends Bob Gurr, Rolly Crump, Blaine Gibson, and Harriet herself.  Subscribe to the podcast here or download individual episodes. As always, it’s... read more
The Rose Queen and Walt Disney

The Rose Queen and Walt Disney

The Rose Queen and Walt Disney by Todd James Pierce In assembling the article on Walt’s Final New Year’s, I had the opportunity to correspond with Carole Cota-Gelfuso, the 1966 Rose Parade Queen.  Carole was kind enough to share her memories of that day, some of which made their way in to my article and some of which did not.  But before we move too far away from New Year’s, I want to post her recollections in full for everyone to enjoy.   1966 Rose Parade The morning of January 1st, 1966 was frigid, coupled with the threat of rain.  Rain on the Rose Parade, I think not!  Inside the toasty warm, Tournament of Roses-Wrigley Mansion, my Royal Court of Rose Princesses and I were positioned in the living room, in front of the welcoming fireplace with our Grand Marshall, Walt Disney, set to begin more official photos.  We had all arrived at 3:00am and I was joking with him after we were served just 1 oz. of orange juice to hold us over for the 5-mile, 2-hour Rose Parade.  It was a magical experience for me to step out of the massive door of the mansion, on the arm of the most recognizable person around the world at that time, Walt Disney.  As we descended down the winding driveway to our respectful positions in the parade line-up and being met by throngs of reporters and photographers, Mr. Disney shared with me that he only agreed to be Grand Marshall on one condition, that all of his Disney characters could accompany him on the parade route while circling his official,... read more
Walt’s Final New Year’s – 1966

Walt’s Final New Year’s – 1966

Walt’s Final New Year’s – 1966 by Todd James Pierce Here’s the part of the story that most people know:      On January 1, 1966, as Grand Marshall for the Tournament of Roses Parade, Walt Disney began his day early–very early–with a trip to the Wrigley Mansion to meet with the press and take photos.  For the previous few years the Wrigley Mansion, donated to the city, had served as the headquarters for the Tournament of Roses and was also the focal point for pre-parade activities.      As Rose Parade Queen, Carole Cota recalls: “Inside the toasty warm, Tournament of Roses-Wrigley Mansion, my Royal Court of Rose Princesses and I were positioned in the living room, in front of the welcoming fireplace with our Grand Marshal, Walt Disney, set to begin more official photos.  We had all arrived at 3:00am and I was joking with him after we were served just 1 oz. of orange juice to hold us over for the 5-mile, 2-hour Rose Parade.”      The events at the Wrigley Mansion lasted for a few hours, until sunrise burned across the horizon and revealed a few doughy clouds pressed into the sky.  Cota remembers: “As we descended down the winding driveway to our respectful positions in the parade line-up and being met by throngs of reporters and photographers, Mr. Disney shared with me that he only agreed to be Grand Marshal on one condition, that all of his Disney characters could accompany him on the parade route while circling his official, rose-covered Grand Marshal’s car.”      The parade began shortly after eight, a little earlier than initially... read more
Disney and the Rose Parade – 1955

Disney and the Rose Parade – 1955

          Disney and the Rose Parade – 1955 by Todd James Pierce Growing up in Santa Barbara, my family made multiple trips to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. I’m old enough to have seen the Firehouse Five reunion float in 1980 also Disneyland’s 25th anniversary unit that same year. Even then, as a kid, I understood the Disney strategy, that the company was using the parade as preview marketing to promote the park’s 25th anniversary, an advertising platform that Disneyland would use for the rest of the year. The company’s tradition of preview marketing goes back to 1938, when the first Disney float was featured in the Rose Parade. Though Snow White had premiered ten days earlier, in the middle of December, the film wouldn’t go into a general release until February 8. As such, Disney arranged an elaborate (and costly) float to be featured in the parade as a type of promotion. Though one might think the parade in a pre-television era enjoyed an audience only of California locals, that wasn’t true. The parade was often featured in magazines, newspapers and various newsreels throughout the country and even overseas. Marge Champion, the live-action movement model for Snow White was featured on the float, along with the seven dwarfs. “I was in the Rose Parade which was a big thrill for me because my father had taken me and my brother to the Rose Parade since we were tiny kids,” Marge recalled in a 2010 interview. “He was the typical Englishman who loved flowers and parades. So we always went on New Year’s Day. So this time... read more
Disneyland: The First Christmas

Disneyland: The First Christmas

      Disneyland: The First Christmas by Todd James Pierce Christmas at Disneyland is now big business, with special parades, shows and rich theming throughout the park.  A massive live Christmas tree occupies Town Square, and the castle has a flashy overlay of electronic icicles and cottony snow.  But back in 1955, the Christmas decorations were far less elaborate.  Though the park enjoyed a few prosperous weeks during its opening summer–that is, when the heat was below 85 degrees–attendance during the fall was a bust.  On some days park attendance was only a few hundred people.  One first-year employee, Ron Dominguez used to joke that, on most days “you could shoot a cannon through most areas and not hit anybody.”  In 1955, Disneyland Inc. was a company separate from Walt Disney Productions and couldn’t easily draw on studio assets to shore up its operational budgets.  So with limited revenue, the park simply could not afford a large Christmas celebration. Decorations throughout the park were sparse.  In 1955, the Hub–not Town Square–received the first tree.  A few wreaths were hung on and around the castle, with a strand or two of garland completing the scene.  On the entrance drawbridge, the summer two-tone banners were swapped out for darker ones that better paired with the winter season.  The entrance to Frontierland was also festooned with a little Christmas greenery. The largest holiday area that Disneyland Inc. itself arranged was the Christmas Bowl, which was a simple re-theming of its outdoor stage.  Surrounded by a few artificial trees, the Bowl featured choirs singing Christmas carols, an event that was the precursor to... read more
A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney – Part Two

A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney – Part Two

A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney – Part Two by Todd James Pierce   Like many of you, I’ve just finished watching the second half of American Experience: Walt Disney. [My review of the first part can be found here.] Having now seen both halves, I’m guessing that the PBS team probably struggled until the last moments of production with how to present Walt. Over the summer (in the two months leading to the film’s premiere) PBS posted many Interview clips from the production. The Interview clips initially appeared to be (or at least to be like) finished sections of the film, complete with an integrated soundtrack, even sound effects in places. Many of these Interview clips weren’t included in the finished film in any way, such as Ron Suskind’s plot summary of Dumbo and Carmenita Higginbotham’s discussion of Snow White. But the most interesting exclusion or alternate edit concerns the (highly problematic) Susan Douglas diatribe about Walt’s desire to inculcate racist ideals and whitewash American history through the use of themed space at Disneyland. On the day that PBS posted that promotional clip (entitled: “Interview: Walt Disney’s America”) the Disney suburbs of the Internet exploded with protest, particularly at Douglas’s pejorative description of Walt’s “very white view of the world.”  That “Interview,” in addition to being pointedly offensive, presented some deep misunderstandings about Disney studio projects in the late 1950s. [You can see the original clip and read my commentary here.] In the finished film, the near two-minute diatribe is largely reduced to a few sentences. In its original Interview presentation, the Douglas commentary... read more
A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney

A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney

A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney by Todd James Pierce Having just watched the first episode of the PBS American Experience on Walt Disney, I strongly agree with Disney animator Floyd Norman: “I’d like to think that this American Experience documentary would be like an icebreaker to having more people say let’s get to know this man better.” I had high hopes for the PBS film—a film that would’ve allowed Walt to stand alongside other American greats given the rare American Experience two-part treatment. Among them, JFK and John Adams. Maybe my expectations were unrealistically high. But even with the expanded four-hour format, the film still is unable to effectively capture the life of Walt, the life of the studio, and the development of American animation, though sections of the film are lovely. By far the strongest section in Part 1 is that devoted to Snow White. In those 25 minutes, the PBS film confines itself to a single narrative arc: the artists’ quest to create feature-length animation that will appeal primarily to pathos, not comedy. This section does a fine job, with the time it has, on identifying the financial, technical and artistic hurtles the studio must overcome to create the film. There are many reasons why this section works so much better than other portions of the film—in large part, this section is voiced with animators and other artists who either worked on Snow White or later worked for Disney. This section is interested in the techniques and technology of animation. This sequence is also able to arrange itself around a sustained conflict—the... read more
American Experience: Early Problems?

American Experience: Early Problems?

American Experience: Early Problems Race and Culture at Disneyland in the 1950s by Todd James Pierce Yesterday I woke to find a handful of messages about an American Experience clip that had been posted on YouTube. The clip was posted by PBS to promote its upcoming show on Walt Disney. While lying in bed, using my phone, I checked the DHI Facebook Page to find the clip—also a few dozen DHI Facebook Group members sounding off about its content. Sample respondents included individuals claiming that they had just canceled their pre-order of the DVD and others saying that they would terminate their PBS support pledges. Many people said that Susan Douglas—the expert featured in the clip—simply “doesn’t get it.” I watched the clip, which featured Susan Douglas discussing how Disneyland, in the 1950s, inculcated guests with ideologies of racism and classism. My initial response was: Seriously, this is how PBS wants to market the show, by alienating and offending its core audience? Even PBS should know that the fan base for the parks far exceeds that of for the early animated features.   As I started in on my day, I mostly let the clip go, as, for months, I figured the PBS documentary would have both positive and negative takes on Walt and his work. Personally, I believe that Walt and his studio transformed animation, elevating it, at its best, to an artistic form of moving illustration. I also believe that Walt understood America’s attachment to entertainment in his development of cinematic themed space (such as Disneyland). But even within that, there’s lots of room for informed disagreement.... read more
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