Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Always let your conscience be your guide.

Today I will focus not on a ride cast off by Disney, but a person; a man who was a major influence on Walt and the Disney parks until his was banished from the Magic Kingdom and erased from the Disney record like some forgotten Stalinist the children must black out in their text books.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, Jr. (called C.V. or occasionally Woody), was an oil magnate and developer who became associated with Walt Disney in the late 1940s. It was Wood, most believe, who scouted the location for Disneyland and sold Walt on not only obtaining the land (an orange grove in Anaheim), but also many aspects of the park’s design. Wood was only 32 at the time of Disneyland's opening. When it came to amusement parks, his later efforts would show, C.V. shared Walt’s eye for innovation in rides and attractions, but not, sadly, Walt’s luck.

Disneyland opened in 1955, and in 1956 Wood was excised from the Disney family. He is not mentioned in Disney’s own publications on the history of the park or Imagineering, he is not honored within the park by subtle tributes the way other major players in the park’s success have been. As far as Disney is concerned, Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood is a footnote at best, remembered by a handful of original park engineers and Disney cronies but forgotten in the Disney story.

Wood’s death in 1992 warranted a brief obituary in the New York Times, at least, and his name is whispered in the ever growing internet communities of Disney addicts.

There are several reasons given for the break between Walt and C.V.. Some believe C.V. was a crooked business man, and may have made some shady moves on Disney’s behalf, or, worse, been embezzling from Disney. Others site Disney’s megalomania, and his anger over C.V. taking too much public credit for the early success of Disneyland in the press. Wood billed himself as “the master planner of Disneyland” until Disney sued and stopped him from using the title. Still others claim that C.V. wanted to strike out on his own, and that Walt simply wasn’t thrilled with C.V.’s desire to open non-Disney parks. Whatever the reason, Disney never wanted anything to do with Wood again.

Perhaps Wood as a personality was simply too much of a contradiction to the myth of Walt. Wood was a slick, ambitious, unapologetic business man. People like to imagine that for Walt the profits brought by the Disney empire were simply secondary to the joy he would bring to the faces of millions of children and adults. Disney is obviously a huge, powerful corporation, but Walt was it’s soul, even if he was in actuality as much a businessman as an artist.

But don’t be too sad for C.V., he was still an extremely rich man who led a very fulfilling life, and may have continued to have an influence on Disney in spite of his divorce from the corporation.

When I picture C.V. Wood, I imagine the “Rich Texan” character from “The Simpsons,” a loud, cowboy hat wearing blowhard who seems to have access to a bottomless well of cash and credit, in spite of his constant involvement in rather shaky investments. Wood’s actual appearance was less grandiose, and he lacked a trademark cowboy hat, unfortunately. Wood was not entirely a stereotypical millionaire (he married a woman his own age, actress Joanne Dru, when they were both in their early 50s. She had been married thrice before, twice divorced and once widowed. Her third husband died in January of the same year she married Wood). But C.V. was a large personality and persistant. Here's a younger Joanne Dru, by the way.

After his departure from Disney, Wood formed Marco Engineering (according to his New York Times obit), a “consulting firm for the leisure industry.” Through Marco, Wood had a hand in the development of a number of successful resorts and theme parks. The most successful is probably Six Flags Adventure Park (or Six Flags Over Texas), which is the mother and the backbone of the Six Flags amusement park family. Six Flags, as amusement parks go, is probably Disney’s biggest competitor.

In 1961, according again to the New York Times obituary, Marco Engineering merged with the McCulloch corporation. Robert Paxton McCulloch was from an industrialist family, building his own success on a fortune inherited from his grandfather, electrical engineering pioneer John I. Beggs. McCulloch built companies in engine manufacture and aviation before making his name in chain saw production. He also owned an oil corporation and produced outboard motors. (I Wikipedia’d the dude, but it’s all backed up in several histories of Lake Havasu).

McCulloch purchased Lake Havasu and surrounding lands in Arizona as a testing ground for his outboard motors in 1963, and also opened a chainsaw factory there in 1964. But he also wanted to attract tourists, so he got into business with C.V. Wood.

Wood and McCulloch purchased London Bridge (not to be confused with Tower Bridge). London Bridge was, well, falling down, as it had been sinking into the muddy Thames for some time. The City of London was happy to unload it, and under Wood’s supervision, the bridge was transported stone by stone and reassembled in Lake Havasu, where it served as an adequate tourist attraction. C.V. also served as Lake Havasu’s city planner, providing it with English garden walks and themed shopping districts, largely overtaken now by less well planned developments.

This article has some nice bits from Mr. Wood himself, and he's cursing, which is something I like in my subjects.

C.V.’s own Amusement parks, however, were less of a success. The longest lasting (excepting Six Flags) was Pleasure Island in Boston, Mass. Now where have we heard that name? Oh yes, Disney used the same title for the adult entertainment/shopping section of its Disney World Resort. “Pleasure Island” was the name of an Island in Pinocchio where frolicking was encouraged but had horrific consequences. Disney did not connect the Pinocchio story to the imagineered lore of their own Pleasure Island. There have been a number of “Pleasure Island” themed amusement parks since the 1950s…Wood’s seems to be the earliest I’ve found. A comedy movie of the same name was released in 1953. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Girls_of_Pleasure_Island

Pleasure Island operated in Wakefield, MA for 10 years, from 1959 to 1969, during which time is was never a big financial success. It changed owners regularly. But it was a popular and well attended tourist attraction, and has inspired a number of internet communities. http://friendsofpleasureisland.org/tidbits/index.htm
Nevertheless, it lacked the staying power and the financial stability of the Disney parks.
Here’s a fantastic flyer given to visitors in 1962:

My favorite, though, of Mr. Wood’s amusement parks was probably his most expensive, most devistating failure. Freedomland, U.S.A. In “Freedomland,” you can really see the influence C.V. may have had on the layout and appearance of Disneyland (and Disney World, consequently). Located in the Bronx, NY, in what is now Co-Op City, Freedomland opened in 1960 and closed in 1964.

Freedomland was a large park mapped out in the shape of the united states, with each area of the country themed. The northeast was called “Old New York,” and featured faux antique car rides through a miniature New England, Tug Boats in the New York portion of the Great Lakes, horse drawn streetcars and surreys to the Chicago section, a “Political Pep Rally” show (which featured an oompa band, an “1880s Tammany Speech,” suffragettes and a bank robbery), and even a brewery.

West of “Old New York" was Chicago, themed around the way it appeared at the time of the 1871 fire. The fire would be reenacted in a live show every 20 minutes. There was also a “steamboat” cruise around the Great Lakes (the two boats even featured calliopes). One of the two boats, The Canada, has been refurbished by "Connecticution"* Billy Frenz, who is renting it out for private events.

The Chicago section also included an “Indian Village," complete with "natives" sitting in tee-pees and selling their wares.

Southwest of "Chicago," you could visit the site of the mass genocide of the natives you just bought a leather wallet from. The "Great Plains" featured 19th century military outposts, horsedrawn wagons, a merry-go-round pulled by mules, a shooting gallery, and the ill-fated stage coach ride that concluded with a staged robbery, and a farm exhibit sponsored by the Borden dairy company and featuring Elsie the cow. (The Borden company, founded by Gail Borden, actually opened the first condensed milk factory in Burrville, a part of my home town. The Borden company also owned Elmer's glue. Elsie and Elmer were their cow and bull mascots. The original Elsie was bought from a Connecticut farm near Burrville).

The western border of Freedomland was "San Fransico" in 1906. There was a Northwest Fur Trapper ride, on which guests were guided in a boat down a river by a trapper guide. There was shopping and entertainment in the Chinatown and Barbary Coast districts, as well as a mock Fisherman's Warf, and a "Hollywood Arena" with animal and circus style acts. Pacific harbor seals were on display in the Seal Pool. There was also a dark ride simulating the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Southward you would find the "Old Southwest," a wild west, gay '90s themed area with staged shoot outs, a mine train, a "burro trail" with donkey rides, "Casa Loca" (a crooked house, an example of which can now be seen in the Enchanted Forest at Lake George), a heard of Texas Longhorns, and an Opera House and Saloon.

Circle back through the south east and you would find yourself in "New Orleans" during a permanent Mardi Gras. There were civil war reenactments, pirate themed boat rides and attractions, spinning top and carousel rides, yet another shooting gallery, a see through house of mirrors (the mirrors were two way, so the people walking by outside could see the people lost within. "Danny the Dragon" was a major attraction, and was later acquired by Storytown in Lake George (by Charley Wood, who I wrote about earlier).

Eastward was the "Tomorrowland"-esque Satellite City, where Florida is the future! "Space Rover" was a 250 seat theater in which guests could experience a simulated journey into space. There was a detailed reproduction of the Cape Canaveral control room where guests could watch a simulated rocket launch. Special exhibits were in rotation, and entertainers and dancers came to play the "Moon Bowl." One fan site lists "Paul Anka, Count Basie, Dick Clark, Brenda Lee, Patti Page, the Everly Brothers, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the Harry James Orchestra, Xavier Cougat and Abbe Lane, Ricky Nelson, the Lennon Sisters, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darin, and the stars of 'Car 54, Wear are You?', Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross" as having appeared at the Moon Bowl.

A park this large and with this number of attractions was unlike anything else on the east coast, and was heavily publicized as the east coast answer to Disneyland. The northeast, however, has a number of drawbacks sunny southern california lacks. For one, it would be impossible to keep the park fully open year round, leading to stretches without income. Snow and ice could damage rides, which would need maintainance and repair to get them open in the spring.

Not long after the park's opening, the first in a string of disasters took place. One of the stage coaches in "Chicago" overturned, injuring several park goers and even breaking the spine of one. Law suits were, of course, filed. Traffic jams caused by the influx of park goers made the park less than popular with the city. Then, not long after the stage coach disaster, the front office was robbed by four men of $28,836. Park attendence began to drop after the first year, and expensive changes were made to attract youngsters. Eventually, the land became more valuable than the park, and it was sold off to the group who would construct Co-Op city. The Bay Plaza Shopping Center is also on this land. The rides were sold off to other amusement parks, like Cedar Point and Story Town, and the survivors are for the most part now in storage.

Wood moved on to the Lake Havasu project, which he would tell Uri Geller, of all people, was perhaps his proudest accomplishment. Geller describes C.V. in his blog (I know, Uri Geller has a blog. And he looks FANTASTIC for his age, by the way) as being a sweetheart. "Every minute with C.V. was a pleasure. It was like spending time with a favourite uncle."

Still, C.V. Wood died in 1992 relatively unremembered by the public, as least compared to Disney and even Robert McCullough. But when you're a millionaire who can make some damn fine chili, who cares?

Scroll down a bit in this blog for some wonderful pics of Freedomland. The Freedomland flyer comes from this site.


Also some great pics of the concept drawing for Disney from Look Magazine. The finished park had a lot of differences. Could some have been attributed to Wood?


A site on another Wood influenced park, Magic Mountain.

Wood's winning Chili recipe.

Dressed as a king for the cook off.

(black and white photos from the LIFE magazine on line archives)
*People from Connecticut (like myself) are officially called, I believe, Nutmeggers. I'm not particularly fond of this term, and prefer to use "Connecticution," or "Connecticuteer."

1 comment:

  1. I have some interesting stuff on Mr. Wood relating to the Disneyland Hotel as well. He was a pretty important person in the development of that as well.