As many of you know, part of my Disney history career has included being a Professor so as to teach a class on Walt Disney and American Culture through the American Studies program at Brigham Young University. It is interesting to see Walt’s legacy through the eyes of the younger generation–primarily twenty and twenty-one year olds (American Studies is not really a degree in and of itself, most of these kids are on their way to some form of advanced degree–MBA, MA, PhD, Law School, et al.). Still, as educated as they are (and these kids were brilliant) they have the sensibilities of today’s generation–the ADHD generation (or MTV, take your pick, either way they are bombarded with images in movies, on TV, well, everywhere).
The semester-long class (I will post the syllabus one of these days for those that are interested), was composed of once-a-week, four-hour long sessions (with breaks, don’t worry). Typically the first ninety minutes was the showing of Disney films. It wasn’t a run to Blockbuster, but rather a majority of the material I presented in class was media that was not available anywhere, and none of them had ever seen (stuff I had collected through the years from various sources and “friends”). However, I felt it was always important for the students to see the seminal works by Walt, either Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio (and after my first year of teaching, both films!). Moreover I felt it was important for them to see these films in a communal setting and on the big screen (my class requirements always consisted of a large screen and all multimedia capabilities). I wanted them to see–nay, to experience–that one does not need to be zapped by continuous nano-second images for a film to be entertaining–the lengthy and brilliant opening animated passage (making full use of the Multi-Plane Camera) in Pinocchio absolutely dazzled them (so much better on a big screen than on a television screen). Thus began the debate in my classes, on what my opinion was on the best animated feature ever (they knew I waffled between Snow White and Pinocchio). It was even more interesting when these twenty-somethings entered the debate.
This has been a long-running debate that has “raged” (yeah right) amongst the tight-knit group of Disney historians I belonged to (“Well, everyone knows that Snow White is of course, Walt’s masterpiece!” “Ah, yes, but you forget about technical achievement, where clearly Pinocchio prevails!”) Needless to say, there isn’t anything more fun than a party of Disney historians debating well into the evening the merits of Snow White vs. Pinocchio. I have to say over the last twenty years, I have switched allegiances numerous times (“A band wagon rider…a fence sitter” I was called–it simply was too difficult of a decision for me to make).
During the years I was teaching, I generally tended to side with the fairest of them all (watching both on the big screen within a seven-day period influenced my decision heavily). However, the more I have studied and researched, the more I have become a proponent of the little wooden boy again. Recently, my very good friend J.B. Kaufman (and Disney historian supreme) has put forth an authoritative argument for Ms. White, and is generally “bringing me back into the fold.” (By this time, if you are still reading, you are a true Disney history enthusiast – if you are, however, saying “Get on with your point” then this blog is probably not for you, but there are many blogs out there which will suggest Little Mermaid as the greatest animated film of all time, and also include Hannah Montana updates.) Some of you are no doubt asking what my students thought, and I have to say that there were many spirited debates within class on this topic (more than likely because they wished to avoid the lecture segment, which immediately followed the film), but generally speaking, it was pretty much divided right down the middle.
Well, finally, we arrive at my point – the title of this post, “the funniest of them all.” While we can carry forth this fascinating controversy in future blog posts, at this point I wish to propose that Pinocchio truly has the funniest story of either film (at least that I have heard, I am always interest in what others have discovered). Not the story of the film, but rather, humorous events that surrounded the film (either in production or after release). During my years as a Disney historian, I have avidly collected humorous anecdotes and stories, from the primary resource material, to the numerous interviews I conducted (a favorite question of mine was “Do you recall any humorous or funny things that happened to you while working at Disney” – talk about opening the floodgates…and yes, much of this will be shared in the future here at the Institute). This particular story has always been one of my favorite “humorous moments” from Disney history, consisting of a “Non-Disney moment” and as such, I propose the Pinocchio take the lead over Snow White at least as far as humorous events are concerned. It came from a reliable source (the actor David Niven), and I was confident enough in the story, that I did publish it briefly in Persistence of Vision. However, as much as I looked, I never was able to corroborate any part of the story … that is, until now!
Pinocchio premiered in New York City on February 7, 1940 at the Center Theatre. After Snow White the expectations were high, and RKO and Disney wanted a sensational reception and opening for the film (as had Snow White at the Carthay Circle). Perhaps inspired by the lovable seven dwarfs (that were not so lovable in their rather frightening costumes at the Carthay Circle premiere), the publicity department hired eleven midgets, clothed them in Pinocchio costumes, and placed them atop the theater marquee on opening day–there to cavort about and lend a bit of atmosphere in preparation for the experience awaiting the audience inside.
At lunchtime, food and a couple of quarts of spirituous liquid refreshment were hoisted up to the tiny troopers. Inspired by the brew, the diminutive denizens began to remove their garments. By three o’clock that afternoon, patrons were startled to see and hear eleven naked midgets loudly belching and busily engaged in a lively crap game atop the marquee. The au naturel legion of Pinocchios steadfastly refused the commands to cover up and climb down. Police were called in and they climbed ladders to reach the merry crew, restored their modesty by clothing them in pillow cases, and hauled them down to street level before a wondering crowd.
For many years, I looked for any piece of research that would help support this story. Just recently, I found it. I present, “the picture” (now, if I can just find this same shot, only three or four hours later in the day … then I’ll have something!). As with all pictures here at the Institute, just click on the image for a much larger presentation. Enjoy.
Endnotes and Citations can be seen at: endnotes.