Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Lost Treasure

As I think I have mentioned before, I am a bit of a media hoarder. I would post a picture of the myriad of books and DVDs in my apartment if I had no shame, but any of my friends and family can attest to the full shelves. That overflow onto the floor. In stacks. I actually can't watch Hoarders on A&E because I get scared that I'm watching myself in twenty years. I shudder.

This does mean, however, that I have amassed an impressive collection of Disney stuff. I have a booty load of Art of... books (both Disney and Pixar), books about Disney parks, films, and animators, Disney DVDs and Blu-rays (just getting started there after getting a Blu-ray player for Christmas- thanks Mama!), and Disney CDs. I'm sure that I'll get around to writing about a lot of these, but today I want to talk about the one that got away.

Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. It's described on Amazon thusly: "Originally airing in three parts on "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," this thrilling adventure stars Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Syn, a kindly country vicar in 18th-century England. Only a few know that Syn is also the masked Scarecrow, notorious leader of a band of smugglers, who defends the villagers from unjust taxes and oppression by King George III's men." Sounds pretty cool, huh? Apparently it had a huge following, but they released a pretty small number of them. I think it's safe to assume that a good chunk of those were bought by resellers currently asking for a kidney or my firstborn in exchange for the much sought-after discs.

It is part of the Walt Disney Treasures Series that was put out by Disney from 2001-2009 before being put on indefinite hiatus. Most likely the series is now dead. And it breaks my heart. The main goal of this series of limited edition DVDs was to release early output from Disney. Mostly stuff from Walt's days. Each set was created with care. They were remastered and usually stuffed with fantastic special features to make collectors like me drool. They made and released a certain number of each title and then they quickly went out of print, making some of them highly collectible. The early ones in the series and some of the later ones, which had relatively tiny pressings, are pretty hard to get a hold of at a price that isn't exorbitant. My friend Dr. Syn over there? He goes for upwards of $150 dollars on a good day. A cheap date he ain't.

I started collecting the Walt Disney Treasures sets rather late in the game, getting my first one the same year they stopped production on the line. That left me with a lot of catching up to do. It started innocently enough. I was just starting to dip my toe into the pool of Disney geekdom. Buying things here and there that struck my fancy. I bought the "More Silly Symphonies" set because I wanted to own "Ferdinand the Bull" on DVD so I didn't have to watch it on a YouTube video like this:

At the time, I was working at a bookstore and running the children's programming. I had read the book, which has always been one of my favorites, to the kids and they loved it. I was impressed that that book, which had been around for over 70 years, not only had such a progressive message (he was born this way long before Gaga was born, period), but was so entertaining to the kids. Though I'm sure that my interpretive skills didn't hurt. I'm a pretty awesome storybook reader, if I do say so myself.

This is when I realized that the book had been made into a cartoon by Disney back in the day. I don't remember the cartoon from my childhood. Even though my Nana had the Disney channel, which used to play a good number of classic shorts back in the day, and I distinctly remember checking out the Silly Symphonies VHS (remember those, kids?) from the video store, Ferdinand was not among those I remember seeing. Watching it with relatively fresh eyes, I was impressed with how much justice they did to the story. They didn't veer to far from Munro Leaf's original book and took obvious inspiration from Robert Lawson's fantastic illustrations.

But they added that intangible Disney spark. One of my favorite moments is the mother cow's reaction when the narrator says "Even though she was a cow". Brilliant.

I went onto eBay and bought a copy of the set for a reasonable price. And I got hooked. Both on eBay, which should have its own twelve step program, and the series. I grew up during the Disney renaissance of the late eighties and early nineties, but even when I was younger I was more aware than most kids of the older output. When they started releasing the live action movies on VHS (remember the days when you had to stop, rewind, stop, press play and hope you were kind of at the place in the movie you wanted- and how much that sucked?), I would beg my parents to buy me one every time we went to Sam's Club on the weekends to stock up on essentials. We'd walk out with an oversized bottle of ketchup, a pack of twenty paper towel rolls and Candleshoe.

When I started collecting the Treasures, a whole new world of Disney opened up to me, with new horizons to pursue. I now have on my shelf every set except for the good Doctor. Mickey Mouse Club serials and episodes, almost all of the classic shorts, classic films about Disneyland, and other fascinating miscellania from the era before Walt's death. It is odd to feel a sense of nostalgia about a time I didn't live through, but that's what these DVDs made me feel. It is a record of a certain time in the history of both Disney and of America. These have become comfort food to me. I oftentimes put on a Goofy short (I love the "Art of..." ones especially) or "Disneyland 10th Anniversary", where Miss Disneyland Tencennial Julie Reihm and Walt show us The Haunted Mansion and The Pirates of the Caribbean in progress ("By going up the waterfall...?"). I'm kind of obsessed with her. She's so cute I could just eat her up.

In a lot of ways I feel that Disney has turned its back on the past since the death of Roy E. Disney in 2009. He was the last person at the top who had a true connection to what the company used to be. I wish that they could find a way to embrace those of us who love classic Disney content, but with the potential layoff of hundreds in the Home Entertainment division, I doubt that formal releases of more obscure material are on the horizon. However, with the way we consume media changing so quickly, it seems that there are possible solutions.

My vote? I would love to see a Classic Disney iPad app, like HBOGo or Hulu where you could stream classic Disney I know that I, for one, would shell out for that app. Maybe they could even pull some newer items out of the vault. I would give my eyeteeth to be able to watch "Disney's Halloween Treat" in decent quality. Remember that gem of a compilation from the eighties and nineties?

The problem is that they assume that most of the people who would want content like this are older, preferring DVD releases and terrified of embracing new technology. I myself am an old man about that stuff. I would much rather have something tangible I can put on my shelf, but I understand how impractical that can be for the company when DVD sales on the whole are down. It would be great if they could find a way to release print-on-demand bare bones versions of hard-to-find material, like the Warner Archive Collection. The Disney Movie Club exclusives are a step in the right direction. They're a step in the right direction after all. That's how I finally got my hot little hands on Polly, hallelujah and amen. Personally I would love to see radtastic Blu-ray releases with amazeballs special features, but I doubt that will ever come to pass. Some kind of streaming of this kind of stuff is much better than having no access to it at all.

So for now, I will be content with lusting after Dr. Syn until he is mine, finally completing my set. Hopefully the higher ups at Disney will come around and realize that without finding ways to expose new generations to classic material, they are missing out on an opportunity to further the Disney legacy, which is part of what makes them special. Pirates of the Caribbean 16: The Voodoo Spell of the Pearl Necklace sure won't. 

Just as any of the lands in the Magic Kingdom links us to another time and place, to what's come before us and what we believed was on its way, so do these films, songs and pieces of art. They deserve to be both preserved and made available for those kids that are out there, like I was, who would rather sit in awe of "The Cookie Carnival" than see Transformers destroy the universe, and for people like me, who want to both remember the wonder I felt as a child and discover the wonder experienced by generations of children before me.

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