Tuesday, May 5, 2009

You can never go back

(A little tourist history)

Truthfully, the Daniel Dunglas Home began to bore me. I couldn’t even finish his biography, as it was just the sort of thing one would expect. I’m not sure exactly what I hoped to get out of it beyond the usual babblings of a typical fake psychic. Ho-hum.

The whole thing got me pack to thinking about showmanship and nostalgia, not just for the people we have lost but the things we have lost. The relatively recent convention of a spoiled, happy childhood has created a few generations now of people who want to go back into a sort of warped, blindingly bright childlike state of wonder (I posit, in a completely unsubstantiated bit of sociological analyses). Whether playing parlor games with the dead or drugging yourself down the rabbit hole, the best you can get is the macabre version of child hood the adult mind creates from the memories of a world where everything seemed to impossibly large and so much more colorful than it is now. The best you can get is an approximation of the exhilaration one feels when experiencing something unfamiliar.

Imagine what it must have felt like to be able to register, say, the color blue for the first time as an infant. It’s impossible to remember or to recognize, but I like to imagine it didn’t feel all that different from the first time you tasted soft serve vanilla ice cream. Or the first time you held someone’s hand and knew it meant more than it did when you crossed the street with someone. As you get older those moments get fewer and farther between, and the thrills you get from learning or finding new things diminish as your mind builds a wider bank of comparable experiences. The Pacific ocean is impressively vast and blue but not so different from the Atlantic of your memories. The feeling of kissing someone new is exciting, but not that different from the first time you kissed at all.

That New England resort town will always be more beautiful in your mind. You feel a tiny bit of the old thrill when you go back, only everything is smaller and let perfect then you imagined.

And how could you possibly regain that feeling from things once wonderous but now familiar? How do you extract thrills from a story that’s old as soon as it’s told? And, most importantly, how do we make sure our children feel the same exhilaration? And how, Mr. Capitalist, do you build this feeling and sell it? One solution is to build and market the perfect childhood of our imaginations. Ice cream mountains, talking animals, giant flowers, magical powers, a place where that New England town really is as perfect as you remember…that place that for any child or child at heart would be the happiest place on earth! Amplified enough to make an adult feel like a child, and a child feel like a god.

As a child, going to Disney world was like ecstacy. It was as if someone had reached into my head and extracted all the best parts of my imagination. It didn’t matter that it was artificial. I could see it and touch it, and it was all that I dreamed it would be.

Some of it is still the same. Things, sadly, are more blunt now…there are most plots to fill in the gaps once filled by child park goers, more stories to explain the hows and whys so the little dullards don’t have to think too much. Lots of stimulation, exposition, constant motion, to meet the visual and mental expectations set by bad television. And of course, more marketing than ever.

So to ease my wounded corporately co-opted soul, I’m going to talk about some the history of some Disney rides, some historical references found there in, and any number of things that have nothing to do with that long introduction up there. It’s my blog, you ain’t grading it, I can ramble if I want to.

I’m going to focus on some pieces of my own childhood experience that I can never return to: once popular but now defunct or drastically altered Disney rides.

I’m going to start, of course, with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind in the Willows” was published on October 8, 1908, and by the 1940s was considered a classic piece of children’s literature in Britain, and was a limited success in the United States. Disney first adapted a piece of Graham’s work, in a way, in the “Reluctant Dragon” feature. “The Reluctant Dragon” was actually a sort of tour of the Disney animation studio with a story attached. Robert Benchley, as himself, arrives at the studio with the goal of pitching an animated adaptation of “The Reluctant Dragon” to Walt. Along the way, he chit chats with animators and watches story boarding sessions and ani-mat previews. Finally, he catches up with Walt, previewing his new feature—wait for it—“The Reluctant Dragon.” Benchley and Disney watch a short segment of the imagined film.

A television version of “The Wind in the Willows” was produced in 1946 by the BBC for television, dramatized by A.A. Milne of “Winnie the Pooh” fame. A “Winnie the Pooh” themed ride now occupies the space once housing “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

Disney first adapted “The Wind in the Willows” as part of a double feature released in 1949, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” The other half was of course an adaptation of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Most roles in the “Mr. Toad” feature were voiced by experienced British actors. Basil Rathbone, most famous for his portrayal on film and radio of Sherlock Holmes, voiced the narrator. J. Pat O’Malley, a television character actor with hundreds of credits, voiced Cyril Proudbottom. O’Malley also voiced Colonel Hathi (the Elephant) in “The Jungle Book” almost 20 years later, and did uncredited voice work as the horseman in “Mary Poppins.” Eric Lore, a successful British comedic film actor, voiced J. Thaddeus Toad. John McLeish, a stock voice actor at Disney who was most often cast as a narrator (in “Goofy Gymnastics,” for instance), voiced the prosecutor. Claud Allister, another British character actor, voiced rat (and also Sir Giles in “The Reluctant Dragon”).

Mole, on the other hand, was voiced by Collin Campbell, a layout and background artist at Disney studios with no other voice credits. Angus MacBadger was voiced by Campbell Grant, a Disney animator and story developer who also did no other voice work. Grant was involved in production on Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. Mr. Winky was voiced by Oliver Wallace, a Disney composer and music director/composer for the film.

The feature was directed by career Disney men James Algar and Jack Kinney (brother of long time television and cartoon writer Dick Kinney).

The story as told by Disney, for those unfamiliar, is as follows:

J. Thaddeus Toad, a financially strapped and manic aristocrat, becomes, through a series of events involving gypsies and escape from enforced incarceration by friends, obsessed with motor cars. Mr. Toad procures a motor car, but is subsequently arrested for auto theft, and, though innocent, is wrongly convicted based on the testimony of Winky the Bartender and a group of Weasels (weasels always = evil. These same weasels were resurrected for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”). Toad traded the deed to Toad Hall for the car, and now Winky and the Weasels have happily taken over the premises while Toad sits in jail. Toad is busted out by his friends (Rat, Mole, Badger) and the group sneak back into Toad hall. After the ensuance of some hilarity, the deed is recovered, Toad’s name cleared, and all is again right with the world. Only now Mr. Toad is obsessed with air planes. Incorrigible!

In 1955, six years after the moderately profitable release of the film, Disneyland opened in Anaheim. One of the original rides at the park was a ride based on the Wind in the Willows feature, called, of course, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” was a “dark ride.” A “dark ride” is simply an amusement ride that takes place in an enclosed, artificially lit space. A “fun house” is a simple version of a “dark ride,” typically. Disney took the concept of the amusement park fun house and turned up the special effects. Disney produced many of the best dark rides, including “The Haunted Mansion” (recently rehabbed with new attic scene), “Pirates of the Caribbean” (recently rehabbed with Jack Sparrow) and “It’s a Small World” (rehabbed at Disneyland this year with wider boats for fat people and Disney characters like Nemo, Jasmine and Aladdin, Stitch, and Ariel inserted into some scenes, so you remember which products to buy afterward. Also, minus rainforest, plus patriotic tribute to America! Taste the patriotism, fat Americans!).

“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” was a simple dark ride, featuring mostly flat character representations and limited animatronics. But what the ride lacked in flash is made up for in pace and humor. The Disneyland version still exists and is still a popular draw in it’s original location (the front was renovated to look like a castle in the early 1980s when Fantasy Land was overhauled). The Disney World version was also operational for that park’s opening in 1971. The Disney World version was not only longer and more elaborate, but also had two separate, adjacent queues and loading areas which lead to two different versions of the ride.

Toad Hall -> Trophy Room -> Kitchen -> Gypsy Camp -> One Way Street -> Town Square -> Winky's Pub -> Keg Room -> Blackout -> Rain Room -> Train Tunnel -> Hell

Toad Hall-> Library -> Blackout -> Barnyard -> Barn -> One Way Street -> Town Square -> Jail -> Prison -> Shireland -> Train Tunnel -> Hell

“Mr. Toad,” like the untamed version of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” had a little something for the adults and the kids. Barmaids with cleavage! Shoot outs between the weasels and the cops! Gypsies! And, of course, Satan!

The “Hell” scene was, of course, not in the movie and was added to the ride because…well…um…

I have been searching and searching for the imagineers responsible for the Walt Disney World ride design, to no avail as yet. Responsible for the aesthetics would be those responsible for the character and background design in the movie. Walt Disney himself, James Algar and Jack Kinney, story designers Winston Hibler (story for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, among other classics, lyrics for “Following the Leader” from Peter Pan), Homer Brightman (story for Cinderella, and over 100 shorts and tv features), Ted Sears (story for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping beauty…co-wrote “following the leader, animator on several shorts in the early 30s), Harry Reeves (story for Cinderella, quite a few shorts and tv spots until 1955), and Paul Girard Smith (a long time screenplay and punch up guy).

“The Merrily Song” that played ad nauseum during the ride was composed for the movie by Frank Churchill, Charles Wolcott, Larry Morey, and Ray Gilbert.

Imagineers at Disney at the time of the original ride’s construction in 1955 included John Hench, Dick Irvine, Herb Ryman, Claude Coats, Marc Davis, Blaine Gibson, Fred Joerger, Harriet Burns, Bill Martin, Rollie Crump, Roger Broggie, Bill Evans, Harper Goff, Bill Cottrell, Bob Jolley, Wathel Rogers, Yale Gracey, I believe.

I’ve had about all I can take of Mr. Toad. I’ll leave you with a ride through video. Enjoy!

Track 1:

Coming up....20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, some other defunct rides, and some triumphs of imagineering like, say the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.

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