Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that its readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY: Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009).

This site is not affiliated in any way with any Walt Disney company. It is an independent
fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
All images that are © Disney are posted under commonly understood guidelines of Fair Use.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

How the Haunted Mansion Changed the Game

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When Disney commissioned a 50-state survey in anticipation of Disneyland's 50th anniversary in 2005, the three favorite attractions of all time were:  (1) Space Mountain, (2) Pirates of the Caribbean, and (3) The Haunted Mansion.  But even though the HM ranks third in a survey of the general public, it is well known that it enjoys the most passionate and devoted fan base of any Disney park attraction.  (Can you imagine trying to do a blog like this for Space Mountain?)  Someone might argue that the steam train crowd is much larger and equally fanatic, but the Disney trains are only one set among the many other steam trains out there, and I'd say it is that collective that is the object of the train enthusiast's ardor, not just the Disney specimens (however lovely they may be).  From time to time there have been attempts to gin up an internet following for Pirates of the Caribbean, but despite the ride's broad popularity, the response to these attempts has always been tepid in comparison with the Mansion.  In terms of its cult following, the Mansion is in a class by itself.

One of my all-time favorite HM photos.  July 1964, fully five years before opening.  Thanks to the haze, the building itself looks like a ghost, doesn't it?
You can easily imagine it just...fading away, like a mirage, leaving only trees where once it stood.  (Photo from the indispensable Gorillas Don't Blog)

If today the HM is widely recognized as one of the crown jewels in the Disney parks, it will no doubt be surprising to some of its fans (especially the younger ones) to learn that the HM was once regarded as something of a disappointment.  True, it generated a lot of excitement when its doors finally creaked open.  Early reviews were positive, and it was responsible for setting a new park attendance record the weekend following its debut (August 16, 1969: 82,516 guests).  To judge by those early crowds, the HM was an unqualified hit.

Ugh, I shoulda brought a magazine.
(pic from Disney twenty-three [Fall 2009] 28)

Did I say magazine?  I shoulda brought a book.
(August 16, 1969. This photo has also been identified with the opening of POTC two years earlier)

Nevertheless, the early excitement didn't last very long.  The Imagineers themselves were less than enthusiastic about their latest production.  It's well-known that Marc Davis was dissatisfied with it.  He thought that too many cooks had spoiled this particular broth, too many good ideas had been compromised on the way to execution.  Rolly Crump has been known to articulate a similar view.  He believes that the overall show quality suffered a major blow when they finally decided once and for all against the walk-thru format and went with the omnimover system.  When Ken Anderson got around to seeing the attraction for the first time, he said that frankly he was "very disappointed."  There was from the beginning a segment of the public that was disappointed with the lack of real scares, but there is evidence that after a year or so the public in general had also begun to cool on the new attraction.  The HM was celebrated in a March 22, 1970 episode of The Wonderful World of Disney.  When that program was rerun later in the same year, you could find notices like this one in the TV listings:


That's unusually snarky, but it jives with my own recollection of those early years.  The consensus was that the Haunted Mansion was
good, but not great.  The early prophecy published in the Chicago Tribune, August 17th, 1969, turned out to be eerily accurate:


Some of you Forgottenistas may well wonder why this attraction, so admired today, was regarded as a bit of a letdown after the initial excitement had worn off.  I think it's because the Mansion did not meet the public's expectations.  It did not fit the trajectory established throughout the course of the sixties by a succession of increasingly spectacular new attractions.  This was the golden age of audio-animatronics.  When the Tiki Room debuted in 1963, it was a real jaw-dropper, a quantum leap beyond anything that had preceded it.  But Walt barely let people catch their breath.  He astonished them anew at the 1964 World's Fair with the audio-animatronic wizardry of Mr. Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, and Magic Skyway.  Lincoln was brought to Disneyland in 1965.  It's a Small World and Primeval World (from Magic Skyway) came in 1966.  By that point we were beginning to expect at least one miracle per year from Mr. Disney.  And sure enough, this dazzling parade continued into 1967 with the multiferous wonders of the New Tomorrowland (including the Carousel of Progress) and Pirates of the Caribbean.  In those days it seemed to us that Disney was committed to topping itself each time it unveiled a new attraction.  They intended to leave no jaw undropped, no mind unboggled, world without end, amen.


You know, I think that to some degree this crescendo of marvels was a mirage.  From the Tiki Room to Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress was indeed a leap forward, but that was it.  1964 proved to be the AA climax, the point beyond which '60's technology simply could not go.  But Walt was nothing if not a marketing genius, and since most Disneyland guests had never seen the World's Fair, the skillful introduction of 1964 attractions in '65, '66, and '67 created the illusion of continual technological progress.  The Disneyland version of Small World was much larger than the NYWF version, using sheer scale as part of its "wow" factor.  The same was true of POTC.  From a purely techno point of view, there's only one AA figure in Pirates (viz, the Auctioneer) that is of comparable complexity with the Abraham Lincoln figure or "Father" in the COP, but no one seemed to notice that.  With Pirates, once again sheer scale and the quality of showmanship gave the impression that the ball continued to move downfield in every sense.  What will those R & D geniuses at Disney come up with next year?  They haven't disappointed us yet!

Then 1968 goes by.  Then half of 1969 is gone.  All eyes are impatiently set on the next miracle-in-waiting.  Great Caesar's ghost, what technological marvels will the Mansion display when it finally opens?  What eye-popping explosion in show scale?  And a haunted house!  Can you imagine?  We couldn't wait.


Are we ready???  This is a joke, right?

But what we expected was not what we got.

The Haunted Mansion was the first major new Disneyland attraction since forever that did
not represent ANY advance of ANY kind in either size or technological sophistication.  Zero.

Oh, there were a few fresh new tricks, notably the "Leota effect," but once you figured that one out (I swear, my brother and I figured her out after one day), it was obvious that it did not represent anything new in audio-animatronics.  The entire show was no bigger than Pirates—in fact, it was smaller—and the AA figures were no more sophisticated—in fact, they were less.  Not that the show wasn't amusing, it's just that we had come to expect . . . more.


Now, you could make a case that this deviation from the script was a fluke.  The team at WED was indeed a little numb, almost in a state of shock, after Walt's passing, and the HM was the first attraction completed without Walt around to make the big gutsy decisions, adjudicating the debates over fundamental issues like show concept and design, which were still in a state of flux in 1966.  (Pirates was well past all of that when Walt died, and it could coast to the finish line.)  It would be tempting to conclude that with the HM they settled for a pale imitation of POTC, as if they were anxious to just finish the damn thing and clear the pipeline of Walt-era projects so that they could pause, regroup, reassess, and redefine themselves for a totally post-Walt world.

That's a tempting analysis, and there may be some truth to it, but on the whole I don't subscribe to it.  For one thing, there was still a relatively easy way to keep the carousel of progress spinning, and that was through scale.  Everyone knows that the HM façade was built in 1962 and just sat there for seven years, but did you know that the show building out back was not built until late in 1968?  They could have chosen to make the ride noticeably longer and bigger than POTC and satisfy public expectations that way.  Marc Davis had gags galore.  There were plenty of unused ideas.  Hey, how about a haunted kitchen?  a haunted bath?



You could also argue that the HM was simply the point where they decided to end the charade.  Perhaps you can successfully top yourself with each new outing for awhile, but sooner or later it's going to defeat you.  No one can do that forever.  Better to commit yourself to variety and to quality, eliminating impossible forms of competition with your own past.  I think that this argument too has some merit.  Seen this way, the HM was the pivot point, the watershed that made possible '70's attractions like the Mickey Mouse Revue, Country Bears, and America Sings.  As I recall, no one felt pressured to compare those attractions with Pirates to see if they represented the next step upward on some kind of endless golden ladder.  Rather, people recognized intuitively that they were creative departures, utilizing AA technology to do something different.  "Hey look, we've had birds, people, dolls and dinosaurs, but this time they're bringing cartoon characters to life."  Thanks to the Mansion, each major new attraction would now stand or fall on its own terms, evaluated not as to whether it was bigger or technologically more sophisticated than the last one but as to whether it won over the audience with old-fashioned, well-crafted showmanship.  Did it create a believable world unto itself?  And did the things that transpired in that world connect with the human experience—that is, did the show have a heart?  (Of course this had always been the only essential question, but impossible expectations about presentation were now mercifully eliminated.)

You can stop a train by deliberately applying the brakes and coming to a graceful halt, or you can have a wreck.  That'll do it too, you know.  By the above analysis, the HM could have been a disaster, and it would still have served a useful purpose historically, bringing one era to an end and freeing up the options for the next.  But time marches on, and most younger guests today don't know or care which old ride came before which old ride.  Sorry, my peers, but the perception of 1960's Disneyland as one big shining crescendo of upward progress is a memory that belongs to us old fogeys.  As that mental picture has faded, it seems that the estimation of the HM as a top-tier, all-time classic seems to have grown, until we are where we are today.  Obviously, it didn't change the game by being a train wreck!  Therefore, an essentially negative evaluation of the HM, defining it in terms of what it was not, won't do.  What it was, positively, will be the subject of our next outing.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Coincidence? I think not ! I think so ! I think maybe

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What is it about uncovering a source of inspiration behind something that we love that gives us (some of us, anyway) so much pleasure?  We do a lot of that around here, in case you haven't noticed, so it's a pertinent question.  My guess is that finding a hitherto-unknown influence behind the thing we so admire does a couple of things.

First, it connects the isolated thing with the rest of the world, making it a point of human expression bigger than itself.  You pull on what seems superficially to be a trivial thread and find the rest of the universe attached.  It's one of the reasons I defend something as silly as doing a blog on the Haunted Mansion.  Thanks to the artistry of the dozens of contributing talents, this particular work is complex enough to open little windows right and left into the larger world of human experience.  It's an entry point, a conversation starter, and it requires no PhD to get into it.

Second, this kind of sleuthing can shed further light on the creative process that produced the thing we love.  What did the artists simply take from what went before, and what did they contribute out of their own genius?  The ability to create something new out of something old is a fascinating thing, and we love to watch.

Of course, there are occupational hazards with this sort of thing.  One pitfall is that it's easy after awhile to start acting like these artists were empty shells, unable to generate anything original.  Without thinking, you begin to assume that behind every item in the HM there must be a movie or a book or a painting, as if guys like Ken Anderson and Marc Davis couldn't come up with any entirely original ideas!  Another pitfall is that most of the time you are dealing with possibilities and probabilities rather than smoking-gun certainties, and sometimes you're just getting all jazzed up about a coincidence.  Notwithstanding the first pitfall, we must remember that the Imagineers have explicitly stated that they combed through material looking for ideas, and after all, in order for their ghostly conjurations to connect instantly with audiences there would have to be some cultural connections already in place, something that gives rise to recognition.


Notwithstanding the second pitfall, so long as one is modest in one's claims and makes liberal use of "possible," "plausible," and "probable," there is no harm in putting things out there for others to puzzle over and enjoy, even if some discussions properly end in question marks.

In this post I present some one-offs, some isolated Mansionalia and possible influences, for your consideration.

One inspiration that we have previously pointed out is "The Old Witch," an EC comics "host" character who graced the covers of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear comics in the early 1950's.  "The Old Witch" obviously served as the model for Marc Davis's Hatchet Man:


But once we know that Davis was flipping through these old comics, one can't help wondering about other items that come up...


Well, we know that the hanging-man gag goes back to Ken Anderson ('57-'58), and the stretching portrait gallery goes back to Yale and Rolly ('59-'61), all of this being before Marc Davis came on board ('64), so even if you're suspicious, it's hard to know where this one fits in.  It's old enough (1954) to have been an influence on Anderson, theoretically.  It's eyebrow raising, I'll grant you, but that's about the extent of it for moi.

Long-Forgottenista and blogger "Brother Bill" has suggested that the table in the Grand Ballroom owes something to Miss Havisham's cobweb-shrouded table in David Lean's classic 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations.  You will recall that Miss H was a jilted bride who sorta went round the bend and kept her wedding table untouched all her life.  Quite a sad old sicko, was Miss H.  You have to wonder if the character contributed a little something to the Mansion's bride character (and also Melanie at Phantom Manor).  As for the table, take a look, and compare concept art from Davis and also Claude Coats.




I have to admit I wasn't bowled over when I first read the suggestion, but when the pix are put side-by-side, it looks mighty good.  Not a smoking gun, but definitely a possibility.

In the same comment, Brother Bill also pointed out another example of possible inspiration that others have noticed, especially the all-seeing eye of Brandon at Ghost Relations Department.  Joan Crawford was originally supposed to star in the 1964 thriller, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, but she dropped out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.  Some early publicity shots were released with Crawford in them, including this one:


It doesn't take an overactive imagination to see that this could well have been an inspiration for another
famous Marc Davis piece, produced not long after the above photo appeared in Life magazine.


Left to right, that's Davis's initial sketch, his own concept painting, and the basic form the painting takes today in the actual attraction (artist: Clem Hall).  As GRD points out, the plot of the movie includes an axe-murdered fiancé, a mad widow, and an antebellum Louisiana mansion, among other suggestive elements.  I think this one rates rather high on the probability meter.

The credit goes to Triana (aka The Dark Lady, at Micechat) for the following one.  For some reason we seem to be trapped in the stretching portrait gallery.  This time we turn our gaze toward the Tightrope Gal...


Hall on the left, Davis on the right.  Anyway, Triana is pretty convinced that the following
sketch by John Tenniel (that's right, the guy who illustrated the Alice books) inspired our Ally Gal.


This was originally published in Punch, in 1863.  It has now been reprinted in Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians (St. Martin's; 2001), but that's obviously too late to help us.  The subject is the death of Madame Genieve, a Victorian high-wire daredevil who died when her line broke.  Hmm.  I don't know about this one.  I'll let you Forgottenistas debate it.

And finally, let's talk about what has come to be called the "Haw Branch haunting."  As the story goes, an old plantation house in Haw Branch, Virginia, was restored and reoccupied by relatives after sitting empty for half a century.  An old cousin of the new owners sent them a portrait of a distant and long-dead relative named Florence Wright.  They were told in a letter that it was a beautiful portrait in colored pastels.  When they opened the crate, they were surprised to find that it was a charcoal sketch in black and white.  Oh well.  They went ahead and hung it up.


Naturally, the house started acting haunted after that.  Strange voices, bloodcurdling screams, shadowy apparitions, strange noises and smells—the whole panoply.  Weirdest of all, the portrait slowly changed over a period of several months, ending up fully and vividly colored, beginning with the rose.  A local psychic decided that Florence's spirit was locked in the portrait, which had not been finished at the time she died (which was true), and that she had the power to drain it of color if she was unhappy with her surroundings.

Hmm.  A haunted, changing portrait, you say?  Beautiful young woman?  Did poor Florence serve as an influence on Marc Davis, you ask?


Gotcha.  The Haw Branch haunting took place late in 1969, about the same time the Mansion opened, actually.  The family completed the remodeling and moved into the house in August of that year, and the portrait arrived not long afterwards.  It could not have been an influence on the HM.  See, I warned you about coincidences.

Of course, if you believe in ghosts and strange synchronicities, you can still look for mysterious links between the near-simultaneous debuts of April-December and Florence Wright, but that takes us into very different waters.  Besides, a REAL changing portrait that colors and uncolors itself by some unseen hand?  Who could believe such things?




Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thinking BIG

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This is going to be a very unusual post.  It's about 95% irrelevant to the Haunted Mansion, and yet, in order to claim that 5% it's necessary to wade through the whole.  Not that the topic is dull, because it's not, so we'll have some fun getting to that 5%.

One of the things we admire about the HM is the sheer audacity in its imagineering.  Those stretchrooms, for example, are just as impressive today as they were when they were first designed, nearly a half-century ago.  It took a bold imagination to dream up something that unique.  Since they were in the building when it was built (in 1962), they were designed during the period when Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey had the Mansion assignment.  In fact, Rolly designed the original stretchroom portraits, but Marc Davis didn't like them and came up with a set of new ones (and don't we all wish we could have seen Rolly's versions!).  The ingenious stretching effects, with a complex system of telescoping wall panels and unrolling paintings, were almost certainly a Yale Gracey invention.

For sheer scale, however, the prize for audacity goes to the Grand Ballroom, the largest "Pepper's Ghost" illusion ever created.  The arcade that you look through is roughly 90 feet long and 30 feet high.  There are eight panes of glass, each one about 10.5' x 23.5'.


"Uh, you guys do realize that no one has ever even made a sheet of glass that big, don't you?"  "No foolin'?  Hm.  So, what's your point?"

Testicular diameter, my friends.

They ordered up at least eighteen of them—eight plus a spare for Anaheim and eight plus a spare for Orlando. 
(The spares are stored behind the fireplace on the right side.)  Transport and installation took careful planning (duh).


When you're looking at the Ballroom, part of the wow factor comes from the sense of space, the sheer size of the scene.


Okay, hold that thought.  Now let's go all the way back to World War II for a long parenthesis.

Believe it or not, in February of 1942 Japanese submarines appeared along the California coast, and one of them actually fired a few shells at an oil storage facility in Santa Barbara.  One of them hit a pier.  That was a rude wake-up call.  Suddenly it was apparent that the continental U.S. was vulnerable to attack.  Among the prime targets for possible Japanese bombing runs were a number of important aircraft manufacturing plants along the west coast.  It was decided that these plants had to be disguised.  For help, the military turned to the major movie studios—MGM, Fox, Warners, Paramount, Universal, and of course, Disney.  An army of set designers, art directors, painters, animators, carpenters, and prop designers took up the task of camouflaging the airplane factories and other vulnerable targets, 34 in all.

The Boeing manufacturing plant in Seattle was not the first to get the magic transformation, but frankly it provides some of the best photos, so we'll start there.  The site covered nearly 26 acres.  What the movie men did was design an entire fake neighborhood, a Potemkin Village, all of it set on a vast field of chicken wire and burlap and elevated above the plant on wooden stilts.  Here's the plant before they began:


And when they were done, it looked like this:


Dude.
As luck would have it, we have some nice close-ups of a spot you can easily identify in the above photo.



They figured out that it's hard to tell the difference between a four-foot wall and an eight-foot wall from the air,
so they saved material and weight by making a lot of the houses pretty squat.  Forced perspective!


She almost looks real, doesn't she?


Buildings were plywood or canvas on wooden frames.  Trees were chicken wire treated with adhesive and then covered with chicken feathers and painted green.  Lawns were green-painted burlap.  It all looked phony up close (just look at the "cars" in the above photo), but from the air it was realistic enough to fool even local pilots.  Rubber cars were re-located daily, simulating going to work and coming home.  Fake laundry went up and down on clotheslines.

Impressive as Seattle was, the artisans did little to blend it into the larger environment.  Streets go off the edge into nowhere.  Nearby airfields and other buildings were left uncamouflaged.  The Boeing cover was designed to be "invisible" to a pilot looking specifically for something else.


The covers for the Douglas aircraft plant in Santa Monica and the Lockheed plant in Burbank were more ambitious about blending into the larger landscape.  One of the designers for the wizardry that follows was a Disney man, the legendary Harper Goff!

The chief designer at Santa Monica was somebody named Edward Huntsman-Trout, and a lot of talent from Warner Bros made it happen.  Goff was reportedly involved, but his specific contribution is unknown.  Anyway, here's what it looked like when it was all done.


The building at top (purple) is a fake, a replica of the actual main plant, which is underneath the floating neighborhood
along with other buildings (green area).  The runway up there (purple) is also fake.  All of the pink
area is fake, either trompe l'oeil painting right on the ground, or a canopy with a model on it.


Another pair of shots for comparison:


The blue area is just paint.  The long blue section on our left is the actual runway.  The area outlined in green is the phony suburb on stilts.  If you look close (red circles), you can see the elevated "streets" lined up to match the "streets" painted on the ground below.  On the right, a fake highway in the sky is visually spliced into a real road below, right at the slight bend.


Here's a gif I put together with two photos, one from May '42 and one from Sept '42.  In the first one they've just gotten started on the project, and in the second they're getting close to finishing.  In the first one you can see the real plant at the bottom, with its saw-tooth roof.  The large black area with gray squares in it is the real runway, with the camouflage paint job already begun (that explains the gray rectangles).  In the second picture the dummy plant is nearly done (at the top of the photo) and the phony screen over the real plant complex is mostly done.  The slight bend in the road, pointed out above, is visible in the lower left, a handy reference point.  The whole project took about six months.



Let's go down below.  So cool.  See the scaffolding holding up the "houses" overhead?  Impressive.


This thing was a monster.  About 5 million square feet of chicken wire, stretched over 400 poles.





Heh.  Whoever painted those windows indulged in a little artistic overkill, I'd say.

At the edges, they simply tapered down to real ground level:


Made a good area for parking.  Just don't bump your head on the lawn as you get out of the car.


Really tall building?  Simple.  That's where the "hill" goes.



Painting the roses red, we're painting the roses red...



The best-known of these projects is the Lockheed plant in Burbank, where a lot of Disney talent contributed.  Harper Goff's design
contribution was probably more important here.  Many of you have probably seen some of these before, but they never fail to impress.

Now you see it:


Now you don't:





A lot of people were part of this underground, undercover operation.




After the battle of Midway, the Japanese fleet was no longer a threat to the mainland, and all of this stuff came down in 1945.

It would be great if we had a list of Disney artisans involved in this large-scale illusioneering, but as it is we can only speculate. [Blaine Gibson was reportedly involved; see Comments below.]  Claude Coats joined Disney in 1935 as a background painter.  Yale Gracey joined in 1939 as a layout artist.  It is not at all unlikely that they were among the small army of artisans who contributed to these massive camouflage projects.  The Lockheed plant was only a few blocks away from the Disney studios.  Over in England, they had hired professional magicians years earlier to help create decoys and decoy strategies that would fool the Nazis.  With his lifelong interest in magic, one can easily imagine Yale lending his talents to the problem of making whole airfields disappear.

So...what's the point?  Take a look again at the photos with which we began:



I swear they look different now.  They almost look...well, they almost look tiny.  The whole purpose of this exercise was to de-mystify (if only a little bit) the big-scale mindset of the Imagineers who came up with the sort of things you see at Disneyland and at the New York World's Fair.  De-mystify, but certainly not diminish!  Seriously, after you've created illusions that are literally the size of an entire neighborhood, not much is going to feel too big.  These guys were part of what has come to be called the "greatest generation."  One reason they were such a can-do generation is that they could, did.
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