Beyond Lincoln: Walt’s Vision for Animatronics in 1965
by Todd James Pierce
In 1964, Walt Disney premiered the first human Audio-Animatronic figure, Abe Lincoln, at the New York World’s Fair. The following year, Disney built an updated figure—the Lincoln Mark II, he called it—to appear in the Opera House at Disneyland. For three months, the Lincoln show played simultaneously on both coasts, the original Lincoln performing in New York and the improved Lincoln servo-ing out five performances each hour at Disneyland.
On the weekend of Disneyland’s tenth anniversary—the “Tencennial,” as it was billed—Walt, himself, hosted five special previews of the Lincoln show for members of the press—and also for special groups, such as the sponsors of the Lincoln show in New York. Predictably, Walt discussed his dream of creating a realistic human figure, one with movement and sound. “I don’t want to replace the human being,” he admitted to one audience. “I just want to bring back history.” To another audience, he explained that the Lincoln figure was “equivalent to getting that first satellite into orbit,” a forerunner to other, more fantastic projects.
In July 1965, less than a year-and-a-half before his death, Walt discussed in detail his immediate plans for the new technology of Audio-Animatronics. He mentioned a few things already in the works, such as Pirates of the Caribbean where “pirates really come to life” and also the “Haunted House.” Walt believed that, within a few years, his team of engineers and designers would be able to produce an animatronic figure that walked—specifically ghostly figures that “walk out of the walls” with a full range of leg motion. But Walt’s vision for audio-animatronics wasn’t, primarily, focused on amusements. It was focused on patriotic displays.
By the time Lincoln opened at Disneyland, Walt had already recorded multiple speeches with Royal Dano, the actor who voiced Lincoln.** Walt believed that the Lincoln at Disneyland could offer seasonal performances. “He can give you a different speech every performance if we wanted him too.” Specifically, Walt believed that Lincoln could “give a special Memorial Day speech and something on special occasions.” The Memorial Day show would be offered for one week each year, with Lincoln’s comments keyed toward the remembrance of America’s wars as well as its servicemen and women. A second special show would “fit the Fourth of July.” The amazing part was how quickly Walt believed he could install these seasonal shows into the Lincoln Theater. “And that will come,” he said, “we hope, in the next year.”
Beyond the Lincoln show, Walt saw a larger application of this new technology to create patriotic pageants—with some of this attention no doubt directed at a small indoor park he considered building in St. Louis. “We have many projects in mind, similar to what we are doing with Mr. Lincoln,” Walt explained, “where we can recreate great moments in history. Maybe bring back a few of the fundamentals here that went to make this country great and remind people today of the efforts and the struggles to give them this great country, this great society.”
Even at this point, with the fledgling Lincoln figure offering speech and hand gestures, Walt’s vision was specific and at times grand. “I have plans to recreate a lot of moments in history,” he explained, “Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge.” Also, he added, “the great moment just before the signing of the Constitution” and “the story of how we secured the Louisiana territory.”
Though Walt had experimented with patriotic drama on film—such as the 1957 offering, Johnny Tremain—he saw the three-dimensional realm of animatronics as a superior venue for historic subjects. “I’d like to recreate all of those, with many figures on the stage,” he said. “I don’t know any other way you can do it, except through this—because then we could get close. We could have what is close to Jefferson’s voice, what is close to Jefferson in his facial features. There’s a great opportunity for it.”
Walt saw animatronic figures as a direct extension of his work in animation: “We’ve been in the business of animating the inanimate for a heck of a long time,” he told one audience. He also confided that, as with animation, he was able to see beyond the artistry of presentation and relate to the figures as individuals—or at least as representing individuals: “I’ll end up with tears in my eyes,” he explained. “Of course I’m a kind of sucker that way. I cry at my own movies…My wife thinks it’s silly, but I don’t know.”
Throughout his life, Walt was a Lincoln buff. He read multiple biographies on the man. So Lincoln, naturally, was the first human figure Walt chose to create. Already he imagined animatronic figures dramatizing essential moments in American history. But beyond these historical presentations, he hinted that there were other, wonderful areas he hoped to explore with this technology. “A new door has been opened,” he explained. “Where we will go with it—who knows?”
The problem was that Walt had less than a year-and-a-half to live. After his death, his company would partially complete his vision. Scenes of Valley Forge and other key moments in American history would appear in The American Adventure, a multi-figure animatronic show at EPCOT Center. But that larger vision—shows beyond those he specifically listed—would never come into being. They would pass from this world with his death. To one press audience, in a prophetic statement, after explaining the technological wonders of Lincoln, he said, “If I live long enough I think we’ll have some good shows.”
** The debate: I should point out that Paul and I disagree as to whether these additional speeches were actually recorded. Years ago, Paul did extensive research on the 1964 NY World’s Fair, with a great deal of attention to Lincoln. He conducted substantial interviews with the men and women who developed Lincoln, which only produced stories of the original Royal Dano recordings, those used in NY then at Disneyland. Also, he found no paper record of additional recording sessions. In contrast, I think it’s more likely that these additional speeches were recorded, in large part because at one press presentation Walt said, “Oh [those other shows] will come. Yes. We’re just happy to get this first speech going. But we intend to do that because we’ve already recorded a good many speeches that we hope to program for Mr. Lincoln, where he gives a special Memorial Day speech…” If this additional recording session (or sessions) took place, it would’ve taken place in the months leading up to Lincoln’s premiere at Disneyland. There was never any plan to vary Lincoln’s presentation in New York. In support of this possibility, Royal Dano actually appeared at one of the five preview events, where he performed as Lincoln, reading from the president’s speeches, including some material not included in the original NY/Disneyland show. This suggests that, possibly, Dano had done some recent work for Walt, otherwise his most recent Disney session would’ve been two years earlier. In 1965, Dano generally was off filming the TV show Rawhide and other westerns. But then to explore Paul’s position again: Walt’s comments at the press previews were unscripted and followed a Q&A format, with the big man speaking off the cuff. In one other press preview session, Walt was less emphatic when discussing the additional recording sessions, saying instead: “I think we’ve already recorded several speeches.” (Italics, mine.) Anyway, at DHI, we do our best to deliver historically accurate information. I’m including this note as I first post the essay so you’d know that there was one narrative element for which Paul and I could not find conclusive supporting documentation. Trust me, we looked. I also wanted to present our evidence so you could understand our differing positions. Regardless, it is clear that Walt was pursuing these special Lincoln shows: Paul and I only disagree as to how much work was completed on them before Lincoln opened at Disneyland on July 18, 1965.
That’s it for this time. Make sure to join our Facebook group page. On Facebook, for the past month, Paul and I have been posting up never-before-published Disneyland construction photos and early photos of the park.
On July 24th, this article will be available as audio on the DHI podcast (Episode DHI 002). Subscribe via this iTunes link. It’s free.
See you in a week or two,