|Confucius animatronic head beside early Abe Lincoln figure|
Before Lincoln – The First Disney Human Animatronic
by Todd James Pierce
So what was the first Disney Audio-Animatronic in human form—a figure whose speech and movement were synchronized with sound? According to the standard history, it was the Abe Lincoln model that premiered at the 1964 World’s Fair. And yes, it’s true, Lincoln was the first finished human full-range animatronic presented to the public. But there was an earlier animatronic—a secret pet project that existed inside the studio Machine Shop, dating back to, probably, 1959.
According to Bob Gurr, John Gladdich (or Gladdish?) in the Machine Shop started to fiddle around with a talking head. For several years, he worked on this in his spare time, using springs to control the mouth and acquiring prosthetic eyes that he fit under brass eyelids. Once he developed rudimentary eye and mouth movement, he asked members of the model shop to create a latex skin to cover the mechanics, but the skin never fit around the eyes, with the material pinched at the corners. After multiple masks were created, the team in the machine shop decided it was better to embrace the design flaw, explaining that the mechanical head was modeled on a man of Chinese descent, as that would explain why the skin narrowed sharply to points around the eye sockets.
When corporate sponsors came through the studio, members of the machine shop demonstrated the mechanical head explaining that someday Disney would have realistic robotic human figures in the park, figures that synchronized full movement with recorded sound. The implementation of this design, of course, was years off, but visitors to the studio saw early experimentation on this human animatronic that likely would lead to later working models.
During these same years, Walt was also interested in integrating world cultures into Disneyland, particularly those non-European cultures that resided in California. This impulse resulted in the Mexico Street Festival on Main Street, a cultural presentation of dance, history and crafts presented during the summer of 1963. Also, the international Christmas parade that moved through the park in the late 1950s and early 1960s, showcasing Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino and other world cultures. Another attempt to include non-Western California culture was the Chinese Restaurant—which at times was expanded to a Chinatown alongside Main Street. “Originally we were going to have a Chinatown, so we had all this Chinatown planned and a restaurant… always a restaurant,” Harriet Burns once explained. Originally the restaurant wasn’t going to include any audio-animatronic figures, but after Walt saw the mechanical head with the pinched mask that suggested the facial features of an Asian man, he thought he could use the figure, when finished, in the restaurant. “That’s when we started on the human AA figures,” Burns recalls. “We had a Chinese head and I had a bucket of latex under my desk and I would dip him in latex for a new skin whenever he peeled. It took about a month where he’d deteriorate so badly and so I redid him.”
To fix the problem of the poor latex mask, the studio again hired Bart Thompson, a chemist who worked for MGM—a man who would prove invaluable as Disney worked toward Lincoln and other figures for the World’s Fair. He invented a new synthetic compound to cast movable, durable skins for robotic figures.
The Chinese Restaurant project slowly expanded to include not only an animatronic Chinese philosopher, Confucius but also a golden dragon who would come to life from a statue fixed into the restaurant wall. “Both of them were Audio-Animatronics, and Confucius was there to answer wisely to questions,” John Hench once explained. The Confucius figure, in one design for the restaurant show, would take questions from the diners and answer them with Eastern proverbs. The dragon would contribute to the show. “It was supposed to be in the second street project for Main Street,” Hench continued, meaning that Chinatown would be placed in a separate area that branched off from Main Street. “But who knows? Maybe it will be built one of these days. We never throw away any idea.”
The Chinese restaurant with an audio animatronic show slowly merged with other ideas to become a restaurant with a dinner show featuring animatronic birds. The birds, of course, would be easier to design and manipulate than a full human animatronic. Once the dinner component fell away from this concept, the bird show developed into the Enchanted Tiki Room.
For years, I’ve wanted to see this early animatronic figure, Confucius, the grandfather of all the figures that would define WED innovation for much of the 1960s. Earlier this week, I finally saw a photo. On the blog today is a photo of Lincoln (perhaps and early hair and skin test model) next to the Confucius animatronic which existed only as a mechanical head. From the stories I’ve heard—that even a purchased mask was once used to cover the mechanics—I expected the Confucius figure to appear far less finished, less detailed. But the figure (likely posed here in 1963) looks pretty sharp.
That’s it for this time. But as I’ve been absent from the blog for a couple months, I should probably explain what I’ve been up to. I’m laying down the final edits into Three Years in Wonderland (University of Mississippi Press), a book that tells the story of C.V. Wood and Walt Disney in the mid-1950s. I’ve also edited and introduced a memoir written by Pinto Colvig in the early 1940s, It’s a Crazy Business (Theme Park Press), which is probably the earliest memoir penned by a Disney artist. Both of these books will be published later this year (2015). Beyond this, I’ve been working with Tom Nabbe on his memoirs. Lastly I have one very large project slotted for the blog and the podcast later this year. More on this later. But for now, see you over on the Facebook Group Page, where there’s always something happening. TJP