In the previous post I suggested that the Haunted Mansion represented a watershed moment in 1969, signaling that from then on, not every new "E-ticket" attraction would necessarily be bigger or more technologically sophisticated than the last one (or pretend to be). Originality? Craftsmanship? Solid showmanship? Yes. Always. Adding one more ball to the juggling act with each new outing, ad infinitum? No. I also discussed whether this was an accidental or deliberate change. But in the end, what the HM actually is interests us far more than what it was not. We've discussed HERE and THERE and everywhere some of the major thematic threads running through the ride, as well as its overall "three-act-play" structure. But judged strictly as a form of entertainment, the Mansion has come to be recognized over time as something unique and special, a positive expression of something that wears extraordinarily well. I've been trying to put my finger on it for a long time, and I think I may have come up with something at least worth putting on the table, submitted here for your approval.
For our purposes here, I think we can ignore the graveyard scene that serves as the show's climax. There's nothing very mysterious there. It's essentially Pirates of the Caribbean with dead guys. Really, isn't that what that part of the show boils down to? I'm not knocking the graveyard jamboree—it's great, but it isn't that scene that makes the ride unique, it's what comes before it. In fact, almost everything that comes before it.
I have argued in a whole series of posts that Ken Anderson was the true father of the Haunted Mansion. The Anderson episode stands at the beginning of the story. At the other end of the story, it's easy to see the impact of the final team on the project as well. This is almost too obvious to talk about. After all, the final show script was written by X. Atencio (including the Ghost Host narration), and every single character and every single painting in the place goes back to a Marc Davis sketch. All the jokes are his jokes. And everyone credits Claude Coats for the creepy, moody environments found in the first half of the attraction. Okay, we've got the beginning and we've got the end. What about the in-between team?
Walt literally told Rolly and Yale to go and play, and for two years that's what they did, reading ghost stories and building haunted house gags and gimmicks. When the HM team was expanded after the World's Fair, both of these guys stayed on. You know, Forgottenistas, I would never have said this until recently, but I've come around to the idea that these guys may be the ones most responsible for the unique strategy of the Haunted Mansion, its approach as a piece of entertainment. In the end, it is this that explains its repeatability, its staying power. No small thing. [Edit: see now Rolly's recent remarks about Yale, quoted in the Comments section below]
Someone might object to this whole presentation on a couple of grounds. First, isn't a lot of the stuff I'm talking about here more accurately described as stagecraft? You can find fake doors all over the place in Disneyland. The HM is a show, isn't it? You could even say it's a type of theater, and what is stagecraft after all but clever deception? There is no need to turn every prop on the stage into an abracadabra moment. Second, aren't other rides, like Pirates, also loaded with this sort of "magic"? What's so unique about the HM?
As to the first objection, yes, it is stagecraft we are talking about in many cases. The difference is that here, in the Mansion, that stagecraft has become the very substance of the presentation. It's not something employed as background to the "real" show, it IS the show. As to the second objection, yes, of course there are lots of tricks in the other rides (in many cases thanks to the same guy, Yale Gracey). But the answer to this objection is the same as the answer to the first: in those rides the tricks are background to the "real" show. Yale invented an astonishingly realistic-looking fire, using a sheet of plastic, a fan, and an orange light bulb. The burning town in POTC makes good use of it. Another Yale invention, the fireflies in the Blue Bayou lagoon, is an excellent trick. They are simple and yet amazingly realistic. The fire is breathtaking, the fireflies are delightful, but nevertheless, they are never the focus of the show; they are only part of a beautifully done background.
One last comment, taking up a point I've hit a few times along the way: repeatability. Magic tricks are fun to watch, even when you know how they're done. They wear well that way. When you don't know how the Leota effect is done, or Pepper's Ghost, you tend to overshoot the mark in your attempts to figure it out. That's where all those silly mutterings about "holograms" come in. Like I said earlier, it's typical of magic tricks that they're usually simpler than you think, not more complex. But after you know how the ghosts are produced, you are still amazed at how convincing the illusions are. We need little coaxing to voluntarily forget what we know for a few moments and believe our lying eyes instead. It all makes for a very durable entertainment experience.
The "magic show" quality explains the Mansion's deliberately lower tech performance than some other rides, and in the end it may also be the secret to the Mansion's longevity. Thank you Yale. Thank you Rolly.
Oh, another addendum. There's a little matter I forgot to mention. Is it any wonder that one of the earliest and most popular Haunted Mansion souvenirs was a magic book?