Updated November 2, 2019
This topic dangles precariously over the vast abyss known as "Disneyland micro-trivia," but in the end it escapes, Indiana Jones style, and lands squarely in the midst of the historical narration of the Haunted Mansion's development, where it plays a small but significant role. That's significant in the most literal possible reading of the word.
Our subject today is this pre-opening sign:
I think it's the best "coming attraction" sign they've ever done, but then I'm obviously biased. Something we did not know until 2019 is that Dorothea Redmond, who did some beautiful concept artwork for the HM, was largely responsible for the design and especially the coloration of the sign:
Until now, the sign's official story has run like this: Shortly after the façade building—that handsome white mansion—was completed in early 1963, Marty Sklar wrote up the text for this sign, and it was placed outside the gate of the HM. There it hung for six years, since the ride did not open until 1969. It actually played a role in establishing the basic concept for the ride after years of conflict and indecision among competing ideas advanced by various Imagineers as to what sort of attraction the HM ought to be. There was a period of sheer neglect at WED (= WDI) while other projects occupied everyone's attention (chiefly Pirates of the Caribbean and the New York World's Fair), but when the HM project was resumed, so was the controversy about the basic premise of the ride. At the end of the day it was decided that the Mansion should indeed be presented as a retirement home for a motley collection of ghosts, just like Sklar's sign had been telling people since the day the building went up. That's the story, and you find it reflected in whole or in part in many authoritative sources, including Marty Sklar's Foreward to Jason Surrell's Haunted Mansion book (p. 6).
The sign was featured in a publicity photo that has itself become a collector's item:
Since it hung out there so long, it's not surprising that a lot of photos of it can be found if you snoop around. One guy took a
homemade Viewmaster shot of it, so you can even enjoy seeing it in glorious 3-D if you've mastered the "magic eye" technique:
pics from Gorillas Dont Blog
A facsimile of the original sign was on display at the Disney Gallery in 2003, when an impressive
display of Mansionalia filled the gallery in anticipation of the release of the 2003 HM movie:
pic by Allen Huffmann
pic by Allen Huffmann
Sklar's "witty copy" migrated beyond the sign itself. The text was substantially re-used for a
mystery HM sign that hung somewhere for some reason at some time between 1992 and 2000:
Fragments of the text survive to this day in the hearse parked outside the Mansion:
It was even pirated and parroted in a non-Disney park!
We don't know exactly when the sign came down. Certainly it remained up throughout 1968.
pic from Yesterland
And Now for the Inevitable Historical Revisionism
There have always been problems with the 1963 date. The text refers to the "Museum of the Supernatural," which was another name for the "Museum of the Weird," which was Walt's idea for how to use Rolly Crump's surrealistic creations for the Mansion, as most of you know. That particular brainstorm took place in the fall of 1964, according to Rolly. Another problem is that photos taken in 1964 do not show the sign.
When did it actually go up? The question was answered conclusively when blueprints for the installation of the sign began to
show up a few years back in . . . various venues. Turns out the sign was installed not in 1963 but at the tail end of January 1965:
So it may be the case that the sign reflected a growing consensus among the Imagineers more than it served as a seminal force in shaping that consensus, although I would not discount its influence entirely. After all, the fact that the sign was out there telling folks what to expect probably made some difference as the fundamental concept of the ride jelled.
Sklar Weighs In
In mid-April of 2015, after a discussion at the Disney History Institute Facebook site, Keith Manhe contacted Marty Sklar for comment on all of this. Marty checked with the folks in WDI Archives. After some investigation, they got back to Marty, and he was good enough to confirm to Keith that the 1963 date was indeed incorrect. According to Sklar: "This may be the best researched question in the history of Disneyland! And 1965 won...two years after the Haunted Mansion was built. Those New York World's Fair pavilions/shows must have knocked us all out!"
What a Difference a Year Makes
A glimpse of the aforementioned jelling process can be seen by comparing a preview of the upcoming New Orleans Square written by Marty Sklar in 1964 with a revised version of the same document written in 1965. Both versions describe the Haunted Mansion. The 1964 version reads:
Nearby, overlooking the Rivers of America in Frontierland, the facade of an old southern-style plantation house has already been completed. It will be occupied several years hence. No frontier setting would be complete without its ghosts of another day. Disneyland's will not live in a ghost town; they will occupy a deluxe haunted mansion. Here, the lonely ghost who seeks the companionship of 1,001 restless spirits can live in a domain of illusion and imagination. There will be spine-tingling built-ins that are sure to provide new life for even the most sagging spirits: fresh cobwebs daily, wall-to-wall creaking floors, stereophonic screams, cold drafts and midnight lighting all day long - plus an endless supply of guests on whom the inventive spooks can practice individual talents, from simple scares to supernatural shockers!
As Jeff Baham points out, the 1965 version is more concrete in its details, reflecting effects created by Marc Davis in the course of the year. I would add that it also reflects Rolly Crump's "museum of the weird" oddities. This is the true historical context for the famous sign.
Nearby, overlooking the Frontierland river, an old southern-style plantation house has already been completed, and it will soon be occupied by the world's greatest collection of ghosts. No frontier setting is complete without its ghosts of another day; Disneyland's will live not in a ghost town, but in this deluxe Haunted Mansion. Filled with 1,001 illusions, this haven for restless spirits will cater to the mythological and to the metaphysical. Marble busts will talk. Ordinary-appearing portraits will dissolve into werewolves and evil beasts. Ghosts will move through solid walls. A museum will display weird statues, moving furniture and surprising mirrors.
I'll leave you with one more photo of the sign, one that clearly shows the
spider web behind the text, since you can barely see it in many photos.
Mike Pierce collection
POST SCRIPT: Here we are in January of 2020, and the "1963" myth yet lives (pix from Doombuggies).