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. [I'm told that the following photo and the one below it are not the same site, as there were two Boeing plants in the vicinity. See the Comments. Nevertheless, you can still get a rough idea of the before-and-after effect by comparing them.]
And when they were done, it looked like this:
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.