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Monday, March 18, 2013

Walt Disney and Riverfront Square - Part 1


Mark Twain Steamship - Disneyland - 1955
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square

Part 1 - Preface
by Todd James Pierce

Much has been made of Walt Disney’s boyhood romance with trains—particularly his experience as a “news butch” on the Missouri Pacific, where he sold soda, candy and tobacco to passengers as the train stuttered between cities.  Without doubt, Walt’s love affair with trains cast a long shadow into his adult life—from the scale model railroad he built in his backyard, to films such as The Great Locomotive Chase and the trains that chuffed around the raised perimeter of his amusement park in California.  But trains were not the only youthful interest that cast a long shadow into Walt’s productive years.  Walt grew up, largely, in Missouri, around America’s waterways.  His favorite author was Mark Twain, poet laureate of the steamboat.  Along with trains, there was another, albeit lesser, romance: the river. 
     In 1919, while Walt was in Paris working as a Red Cross ambulance driver, by chance he was reunited with one of his childhood friends, a young man named Russell Maas.  With Maas, years earlier, Walt had created his first home movies, Maas cranking film through the camera and Walt acting out various comic scenes before the lens.  But now they both found themselves in Paris, the war long finished, both of them homesick for the States.  Together they bought German shepherd puppies from the same litter—one for Walt, one for Maas.  Walt took his pup everywhere, carrying him in his green, canvass backpack.  The pup not only cured Walt’s homesickness; he also drew the attention of women.  “I had all the women coming up to admire the puppy,” Walt later explained.  At night, once registered in a hotel, Walt would smuggle the pup up to his room, with the dog sleeping each night on the bed.  But when Maas learned that he would be going back to America at least two months before Walt’s departure, Walt thought it best that Maas take his dog as well, as the growing dog could be better cared for in Missouri than in a backpack.  Then Walt had another idea: to have a type of celebratory vacation once they were both back home in the States—specifically to hire a boat and journey on the Mississippi River, Maas and Walt, along with the two dogs.
     “We had saved a little money,” Walt later revealed in an interview.  “I had over $500 in the bank…. We were going to get this boat and float down the Mississippi—down the whole Mississippi river…all the way to New Orleans, you see.”
     Walt gave Maas seventy-five dollars to cover the transatlantic fare for his dog, believing of course that he would soon meet up with Maas in the states.  But weeks later, when Walt was formally discharged, he traveled down to the port city of Marseille, only to find the dock closed due to a labor strike.  “The whole darn place was upset.  The boat was sitting way up out of the water, not loading.”  For the next three weeks, Walt lived in a hotel room in Nice, finally receiving a spot on the SS Canada.  By now Walt had let the idea of the Mississippi unfold inside his mind with private wonders—the American experience washing away the final loneliness of Europe.
     But shortly after arriving home, Walt was greeted with twin disappointments.  Walt learned that his dog, weeks earlier, had died on the ship as it traveled to the States.  “Worms or something,” Walt would later speculate.  “Or distemper.”  Walt also learned that Maas had already taken a job—also a new girlfriend—and could no longer go down the Mississippi.  Everything, in Walt’s own words, “was blown sky high.”  Disappointed, he considered his options.  Instead of traveling by himself downriver, he decided to go to Chicago and look for work. 
     Over the next twelve years, Walt started an animation studio, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse; he battled with a crooked film distributer and struggled to grow his fledgling business.  Then, in 1931, crushed by the pressure of work, Walt again felt the romance of the river.  To recover from a nervous breakdown, Walt and his wife, Lillian booked a vacation to Key West then Cuba, but on the train ride to the Sunshine State, Walt wanted, once again, to glide down the Mississippi—to reclaim the trip he once wanted to experience with Russell Maas.  Walt arrived in St. Louis to find the city significantly different from the elegant streets he had pictured in his youth.  As a manufacturing city, St. Louis had been devastated by the Depression.  Downtown regions were turning into slums; the beautiful cast-iron commercial fronts had been removed from many famous buildings; and the muddy waters of the Mississippi no longer held the wedding-cake rise of steamboats.  Walt walked down to the levy—an area lined with crumbling walkways and dilapidated buildings—still believing he might find passage on a paddle wheeler.  “I went all around to the shipping companies,” Walt recalled.  “There wasn’t a boat…There wasn’t anything but old barges, pushing things full of rocks.”
      But still the dream stayed with him—for over twenty years—bubbling up once again as he designed his own amusement park. 
     In ways Disneyland was a private vision of nostalgia and longings, with Walt populating the park with tangible visions of his own life.  There was, of course, a railroad and a main street that reminded Walt of his childhood in Missouri.  Toward the back of the park, Walt built his own river—a muddy one, just like the Mississippi.  On it, he placed a full-sized stern-wheel paddleboat, which proved to be one of the park’s most popular attractions.  The following year, Walt solidified the Missouri theme by adding the world of Tom Sawyer to the river island, a world complete with the character of Huck Finn lazing around the fishing docks.
     In ways, the story here reaches a conclusion—with Walt’s desires fulfilled in a world of his own making.  The Mark Twain Steamship, no doubt, took the place of the boat he wanted to find when he was young.  Yet, in a fuller sense, the story was only beginning, as the Mark Twain was not the only paddle wheeler Walt wanted to build.  In the early 1960s, he drew up plans to create an elaborate indoor amusement park in St. Louis, plans that initially included another steamboat—one that would churn its way down the real Mississippi. 
     But to get to that story, I first need to layout a few other things that happened in the years after Disneyland first opened.

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Click here for Part 2 - which includes...Walt's plan to create a series of Circlevision theaters, the New York Disneyland that never was, and how a traveling exhibition on animation and classical art helped convinced Walt to built a second Disneyland far from California.  Post up your comments below. -TJP



2 comments:

  1. As far as I know, Walt never made any movies based on Mark Twain stories... or did he? It's hard to read "Huckleberry Finn" or "Life on the Mississippi" and NOT want to experience a trip in a real stream boat. Probably not quite the same in the 1940's/50's - most of the danger had been taken out of it by the Army Corp of Engineers!

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  2. Hey Major,

    Thanks for the note. The presence of Mark Twain and his fictional world is surely stronger at the parks than on film. But Twain still surfaces in the Disney films--most notably in that 1962 presentation of The Prince and the Pauper (based on a Twain book). More to the point, though, the riverboat culture that Twain commemorates shows up fairly often in the world of Disney--including in Steamboat Willie. Walt Disney--at various times--said that Mark Twain was (a) his favorite author, (b) his favorite American author, and (c) one of his two favorite authors (with Charles Dickens being the other one). Regardless, Walt loved reading Twain as a boy. I suspect that Twain's influence is heavier on the parks because Disneyland occupied a part of Walt's life when he was particularly drawn to his childhood experiences. But I see the riverboat culture, as popularized by Twain, as pool of memory and imagination that Walt dipped down into more than once during his life.

    TJP

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