Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Disney Halloween Treat

The theme song sticks in my head all October.
If you are anything like me, then you super-duper crazy-like love Halloween. I blame it on my Mama. It was always one of her favorite times of year, too. Our house was always just as decked out in black and orange in October as it was in red and green a month later. Cobwebs festooned the doorways and witches watched us from the counters. She made it joyful. And I've always loved the weird and whatever was outside of the norm, which is actually celebrated as we approach All Hallow's Eve. As I've grown, I've come to appreciate the scary side of it as well. (I'm not a fan of modern horror movie torture porn, but I love a good creepy movie. Part of the reason I love The Walking Dead and American Horror Story so much is that since they can only show so much on TV, they have to get creative to wig you out.) To me, at its best, Halloween straddles the same line between fun, freaky and frightening (apparently with its three legs) that "The Haunted Mansion" at the Disney Parks does, thanks to Marc Davis, Rolly Crump and Claude Coats.

Also, if you are anything like me, then it's a complete joy to sit in front of a device of your choosing and get lost in YouTube for a few hours. From one related video to the next, I can pick my head up and see that day has somehow turned to night as I have fallen further and further down the rabbit hole of the interwebs. But I'll be danged if I don't find some fantastic videos down there. The site is genius. Kind of an always morphing and expanding collective pop culture unconscious where that commercial from your childhood, that news broadcast from forty years ago, that new music video, that ugly-laugh causing parody, that squishily adorable little animal, and that laughing baby all co-exist and are on demand with just a little bit of searching. Pure magic.

They ask you to stay behind the ropes
for a reason, y'all.
As I was listening to the "All Haunted Mansion, All the Time" playlist on my iPod and digging around YouTube to look for some seasonal goodies to help me get into Halloween spirit I said to myself, "Hey! I bet that the people who enjoy reading your blog would get a kick out of all of these awesome Disney-related, Halloween adjacent YouTube clips that you are getting such a kick out of. Maybe you should share and stop being greedy with them like you are with that tub of Brach's Autumn Mix in your lap." I ate one more candy pumpkin, put the tub on the table within reach of Tom and our roommate Katie and agreed with myself, saying "That's a great idea!". Tom and Katie took a small handful of fall-colored sweets and looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. Finally Katie asked, "What's a good idea?" I smiled said "Oh, nothing" and we all went back to our evening's business. Just a small window into our home life, ladies and gentlemen. Fascinating, huh? So without further ado, let's get to some amazeballs videos!

This first clip is the opening song from a Disney special called Disney's Halloween Treat from 1982, which is a sort of a greatest hits of Disney creepery. I have vague recollections of watching this as a kid and being somewhat terrified, but this theme song gets itself wedged in my head throughout the entire month of October.

Here is part one out of seven of the complete Disney's Halloween Treat special. It's a great way to get your Disney Halloween fix.

I realized while writing this that the special that I actually remember is this one from 1983 called A Disney Halloween. It is somewhat similar, most importantly keeping that awesome theme song, but has different segments. Here is part one.


As I was searching for these, I stumbled upon this special, Disney Halloween Hall O' Fame from 1977, which I had no idea existed. It features Jonathan Winters as a security guard in the Disney studios after dark on Halloween, where he discovers a talking jack o'lantern in a crystal ball. They chat and watch a few cartoon shorts. It's weird, but worth a spin. This is part one of six.

Next, I want to share some of Disney's best Halloween-y shorts. This first is a classic. It is Disney's very first Silly Symphonies short, "The Skeleton Dance". Almost the whole thing was drawn by Ub Iwerks himself. It is clever, creepy and amazing. If you've never seen it, please for goodness sake, watch. You'll be shocked at how impressive it is even today, over eighty years after it was made in 1929.

This short, "Trick Or Treat", is a classic. Donald withholds candy from Huey, Dewey and Louie on Halloween who, with the help of an awesome witch, exact revenge. It's more lighthearted than I make it sound, obviously. That sounded like the set-up for a show on AMC. It's one of my faves with another great theme song that will burrow into your brain.

Here's another super-dee-duper classic short called "Lonesome Ghosts". Mickey, Donald and Goofy play ghost hunters. They are far less douchey than those ghost hunters on TV are. And far more entertaining.

I want to take the opportunity to give a shout out to Dark Side of Disney at Hong Kong Disneyland. I have never been, but take a look at the report from Disney and More. It looks like they do a spectacular job of mixing the chills into Disneyland's mythology without being unwelcoming to families or completely pandering to them either. With a legacy of awesomely creepy movies like The Watcher in the Woods, I hate that there is no Disney Park stateside that allows allows Imagineers to unleash their creativity for people who want something a bit more intense than a black and orange castle and candy stations. Here is a commercial for this year's Hong Kong celebration.

Moving into the realm of films, this next clip is from a Halloween classic called Hocus Pocus. If you have not seen it, get thee a copy of it before it's too late and another Halloween has gone by with you sad and deprived of this nineties live-action comedy gem. If you are gay, then you will be stoked to know that there is a trifecta of hilarious divas at the center of the movie- Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. Who are we kidding? If you are gay then you probably have this sucker memorized. It's probably my favorite Halloween movie of all time. Here is the requisite Bette-performing-the-heck-out-of-a-number-just-because-when-you-have-Bette-in-your-movie-it's-silly-not-to-have-her-perform-the-heck-out-of-a-number number. And it's a doozy- "I Put a Spell On You". (Amok, amok, amok...)

If you've never seen the Mary Poppins as horror movie trailer, please to enjoy. It will give you the heebie jeebies, make you grin and fill you with respect for the fine art of film trailer editing.

So you kids know what a personal connection I have to the "Haunted Mansion" attraction. If not, you can get a refresher by reading my blog post about it. I adore it. It is my favorite ride, hands down. Here are some of my favorite "Haunted Mansion" themed videos. This is a performance from The Haunted Mansion 40th Anniversary Dinner Show. They really put it together well, using characters and music from the ride to create a surprisingly awesome short stage show.

This is from the "Disneyland 10th Anniversary Special" from The Wonderful World of Color. It is on DVD, but as part of the now out-of-print Walt Disney Treasures Collection. It is easily my favorite episode, showing pieces of the then in development "Haunted Mansion", "it's a small world", and "Pirates of the Caribbean". Best of all is Miss Disneyland Tencennial, guest jockey Julie Reihm. I'm sure at some point I will devote an entire blog entry to how much I love this episode, but for now suffice it say that she is my hero. For supporting evidence, please pay special attention to the way that she handles Walt's awkward questioning. Tom and I are constantly doing impressions of Julie Reihm's "A skeleton ghost!" She is indeed so dear to our hearts.

Here is a history of the "Haunted Mansion". It's done by Disney, I believe, as a special feature for The Haunted Mansion movie with Eddie Murphy, which you should avoid at all costs. It's atrocious. The annoying thing is that you could only access it by inserting into your computer. Nope. Not your Apple computer, though. Womp womp. Just put them on the disc for the love of all that's awesome! Here is part one of two. It is short, but very well done.

I am very grateful that a good chunk of Walt-era material has been released, but it is kind of annoying that so much post-Walt stuff still sits in the vault. There is now a generation of people who are nostalgic for Disney material from the late sixties and beyond. This is part of a Wonderful World of Disney episode from 1970 called "Disneyland Showtime". The episode features Kurt Russell, the Osmonds and Miss Minnie Fae from the Hello Dolly movie romping about in Disneyland. And it makes me want to scream with joy. A huge chunk of it is a making of and ride through for the newly opened "Haunted Mansion" attraction. I wish that more of these classic episodes would be made available. Pretty please.

Here is the complete "Disneyland Showtime" episode, starting with part one of five. It is so worth watching. It's campy and silly and fun as the devil!

Here is an official 40th Anniversary tribute from Disney Parks. Another very well done short documentary.

Here is The Story and Song of the Haunted Mansion storyteller record, which is also available on CD. I like this video because it includes the illustrations. This is part one of two.

Now we move on to some rad versions of the "Haunted Mansion"'s theme song- the brilliant "Grim Grinning Ghosts" with music by Buddy Baker and lyrics by X. Atencio. First off are The Dapper Dans in Disneyland. This is classic and these guys are spot on.

Next is the Walt Disney World Band doing it marching band style from their classic self-titled album.

This just makes me giggle. It's "Grim Grinning Ghosts" in Dutch. With Dutch subtitles. I'm pretty sure it's from a Dutch version of an awkward Sing-Along Songs video that I first saw on The Disney Hipsters Blog. (PS If you've never visited their site, get your raggedy butt over there, stat! It's beyond rad!)

I know nothing about the band We Met in Chicago besides the fact that they had the good sense to made a video of themselves performing a fun, Lilith Fair-esque version of "Grim Grinning Ghosts". And for that, I grant them mad props.

I love this last clip. When Tom and I finally have a child, you can bet your butt that they will be able to give this awesome little lady a run for her money.

As one final treat, I leave you with a radio commercial from the "Haunted Mansion" CD that I've been playing nonstop. It's a fantastic disc with ride-throughs, variations, recording sessions, commercials and other various nuggets to make any "Haunted Mansion" fan swoon. I couldn't find the audio, so I transcribed it here.

Kiddie Ghost: Daddy, tell me a human story.

Papa Ghost: Well, let's see... Once upon a time there was this magical place called Disneyland. And inside Disneyland, there was a strange, deserted mansion. Then, one day the mansion became haunted by 999 ghosts.

Kiddie Ghost: Oh!

Papa Ghost: And now humans can visit the "Haunted Mansion" and get real scared.

Kiddie Ghost: Daddy, do you believe in humans?

Papa Ghost: I don't know. But I do believe in Disneyland.

I couldn't have said it better myself, Papa Ghost. Happy Halloween, y'all!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

DATE Night: Cinderella

Not trying to avoid Snow
 comparisons, are they?
So we've made it to a new decade! It's 1950 and we are finally out of the Forest of the Package Films that the forties had abandoned us in. We emerge for this week's DATE Night and, lo and behold, there's a big, bright shiny castle ahead! One styled by Mary Blair, no less! Be still my heart! There was plenty that was good about the last 10 years of Disney filmmaking, but on the whole it just didn't quite have the spark, charm, or consistency of quality that the first five films had. With Cinderella, I'm pleased to say, the tide has turned. I told you it'd be worth it to stick around!

The Background:

After a decade of hit-and-miss package films from Disney, Cinderella was the first single narrative animated feature since Bambi in 1942. It was quite a gamble to make, made at a considerable expense when the studio was in debt, but it paid off handsomely. It became a hit and the success of the film, music and merch provided an infusion of cash which later allowed for the establishment of a distribution company, forays into television, and Disneyland. It has been said that if the film had failed, it would have been the end for the studio.

Mary Blair's castle concept art.
Some choose to look at Cinderella as the beginning of the end of Disney animation's golden age. In my eyes, it is the beginning of a second golden age. The first consists of the first five films (Snow White through Bambi), which set the ground rules. This second golden age, lasting from Cinderella to The Jungle Book, uses those rules as a jumping off point, mixes in what was learned by the failed and successful experiments of the forties, and builds upon the Disney legacy to push the artistic boundaries of what was possible for and expected for in an animated film.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 5: Cinderella. You can see Mary Blair's amazing style all through this film. Cinderella is one sassy lady. She's romantic, optimistic and kind while remaining ballsy and proactive. I should be more like her. Lovely animation. Wonderful storytelling. The "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" scene is untouchable. The transformation from rags to a gown is one of the most perfect 10 second ever in film.
February 2, 2010 at 8:51pm ·

The Art:

Mary Blair. This exact shot is in the film.
8/10. I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record, but Mary Blair, Mary Blair, my heavens, Mary Blair. This blog is by nature pretty biased and she's my fave, so you'll keep hearing about her until she exits the studio after Peter Pan. Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan were the three major Disney features that really showcased her vision. Watching Cinderella for the first time as an adult, I was still a burgeoning fan of her art and saw flashes of it, but this time through I saw how the film is truly dripping with Mary Blair. I know that there were many talented artists who created these films and I will try to point them out as well here and there, but for now, as far as I'm concerned, it's Mary Blair's world and we're just living in it.

Notice the more muted colors in Mary's art.
You see her style beginning with the title cards at the opening of the film and it influences everything from the color palette to design to how shots are framed to emotional resonance. Look at the designs in the wallpaper and carpets, the contrasts of shadows and light, the famous dress ripping scene where the background get more bloody red as the stepsisters get more violently angry, some of the far shots that look like Mary Blair painted landscapes, the chill-inducing wow-moment color change before Cinderella and the Prince's waltz, the headless horseman-inspired figures chasing the pumpkin carriage, the way that the King literally turns red in anger like the characters from "Once Upon a Wintertime" or even Cinderella's iconic castle, which is glistening with Mary's style.

Mary's character design concepts for Cinderella.
Very often we we talk about Mary Blair's brilliant use of color referring to the bright, saturated tones of Alice in Wonderland or "it's a small world", but here she uses greys and silvers, powder and gunmetal blues, magentas and turquoises with just pops of bright colors to reinforce an emotional idea. Her use of color is psychological, informing us of the emotional state of a character wordlessly. It is surface as subtext. This all becomes increasingly apparent when you see her fantastic concept artwork, some of which I got to see in person at the Colors of Mary Blair exhibit at the Disney Gallery in Disneyland. (She even did initial character designs that were rejected when they decided to make the characters more rounded and more in the Disney tradition. The animators weren't ever fully able to bring her vision to the screen fully in an animated feature.) There are shots, like Cinderella and the Prince walking onto the terrace during their waltz that are taken almost directly from Mary.

The art here as a whole is stellar. This was the first time that Disney dipped its toe into the process of rotoscoping (tracing from live action footage). They did it for budgetary reasons and I must say that it is artfully done. I wouldn't have known that any of it was rotoscoped, which isn't surprising since the animators resented the idea so much that they went above and beyond to elevate it beyond simple tracing. Ward Kimball, animating the mice (with mouseholes everywhere! I want a map of where they all go in the house!) and Lucifer, deserves special mention for his humorous and precise work here. Free from the constraints of using live models, he allowed his imagination to go to wonderfully unexpected places. Other great moments include the shadows-as-jail cast as Cinderella walks into the Stepmother's room for the first time, the moon's transformation into a clock face and the gorgeous bubble section of "Sing Sweet Nightingale".

Last but not least is the whole of the "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" sequence. Every artistic element comes together to create one of the best scenes in animation and, more specifically, one of the best moments in cinema history period. Everything is spot-on here, from the Fairy Godmother's materialization, heightened by a shift in lighting and a few artfully-placed sparkles to the playful transformations of the pumpkin and animals into a carriage and entourage of sorts. Even later, after the ball, the transformation back is the flip side, as sad and defeated as the bookend is joyous and triumphant with it's trampled pumpkin bleeding glitter. The jewel in the crown of this film, however, is Cinderella's transformation. Animated by Marc Davis, it is done simply and perfectly and is over almost as soon as it starts. Yet it takes your breath away and wedges itself into your memory forever. With a curly-cued trail of fairy dust, he is able to make us experience what it feels like for our deepest dream to come true. It is commonly known as Walt's favorite piece of animation and it is probably mine as well. It is pure magic.

The Story:

Mary Blair's Fairy Godmother.
8/10. What makes the storytelling so powerful in Cinderella is that it is simple and straightforward enough for a child to understand, but it is also layered enough for adults to feel like they have something to explore as well. We open again with the storybook, harkening back to the first golden age, and then get a brief prelude to establish our story. From there we have two distinct worlds that we move back and forth between- that of Cinderella and other people and that of Cinderella and her animal friends. The scenes featuring people provide a potent emotional roller coaster from the lows of scrubbing the floor and having a dress ripped apart to the highs of going to the ball and marrying the Prince. The scenes with the animals use different styles from broad physical comedy to musical production number to Hitchcockian suspense to show us a good time. The way that these two are balanced is the key to its success. It has something for everybody, it never drags, it keeps you on the edge of your seat and you stay engaged from the very beginning to the very end. It is brilliantly constructed. My only quibble is with the end. Where is comeuppance for Lady Tremaine and her awful daughters? It's the one hole in the story that I feel needed to be filled.

The Characters:

8/10. The cast of characters here is not only beautifully designed and animated, but more dimensional than I think they are given credit for being. I think Cinderella herself has a bad reputation for being a bit empty and I think that's bogus. In the original film, she's quite layered. She is a woman who spends her life so emotionally isolated from others that she can only be herself around the animals who wouldn't mistreat her. She grew up without her birth mother, lost her father at a young age and was enslaved by a cruel stepfamily. Yet she emerges as a sassy and hopeful, biting her tongue in order to survive but making vocal air quotes when she refers to the stepsisters' "music lessons".

Shady, shady Lady Tremaine locks Cindy up.
She is so beaten into submission around other human beings that the Fairy Godmother's kindness and her own flowering around the Prince feel like a gust of cool autumn air. You understand why she is the way that she is, yet there is a spark that never lets you doubt that she has the capacity to overcome. How interesting it is that she never actually realizes that the man she has fallen in love with is the Prince himself until the Grand Duke arrives with the slipper. The moment when she drops the tray shows a woman realizing that her entire world is on the verge of changing. She purely fell in love with the man, not the title, and therefore is the one who deserves him. Her voice, by Ilene Woods, is quintessential Disney princes- kind, endearing, and lovely. It's the kind of voice you would want to sing you to sleep every night and be the first thing you hear every morning. Her face is exceptionally exquisite.

This made me giggle. I'll take one!
The supportng cast of humans have a bit of depth as well. See The Gay Scale below for my thoughts on the King and Grand Duke. The Prince is a bit of an empty vessel, but it's not his story. You love him because he loves Cinderella. I do enjoy the moment when all of the women are being presented to him and gives a WTF gesture to the King and the Grand Duke. It shows a flash of sass in him that makes him feel completely compatible with Cinderella. Plus that singing voice is silky smooth and dreamy. And he sure is easy on the eyes. And of course we can't forget Verna Felton's endearing performance as the Fairy Godmother. You may remember her voice as one of the mean elephant ladies in Dumbo. She's the dotty grandmother we all wish that we had. She is sweet, funny, and maternal. It's impossible not to fall in love with her.

We're your Never mind.
On the villainess side of things, you have Lady Tremaine and her awful daughters. Eleanor Audley provided the Lady's voice, as she later would do for Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent and Madame Leota in "The Haunted Mansion". It is pitch-perfect, showcasing the terrifying power of using restraint. That stillness is carried over into the animation, where just the shift of her eyes is enough to chill your blood. The animators also like to play with her movement into and out of shadows, signaling a literal and figurative shadiness about her. Her design, with that horrid sneer, riffs on Audley's appearance, exaggerating everything possible to make her unattractive and severe. Drizella and Anastasia also push the boundaries of purposefully ugly character design, but leans more toward the comic. They are voiced well, making you laugh at them and despise them at the same time.

The animals are wonderful and distinctive. Lucifer (also see The Gay Scale) is fabulously drawn- able to slink up stairs and turn himself into a super-weird sleeve worm for a chuckle. His humor is firmly rooted in the world of animated shorts. Malleable bodies doing ridiculous things that are possibly only through the willing suspension of disbelief. The mice add an indelible playfulness. Jaq and especially GusGus (I love him so much! I want one!) are so adorable and hilarious it is a joy to watch their hijinks. It's impossible not to go say "Awww" when you see Bruno and he is literally an underdog that you root for and gets to play the hero when he takes care of awful Lucifer. All of the various animals are depicted in a style somewhere between broad cartoonishness and realism that works beautifully.

The Music:

8/10. Walt went to Tin Pan Alley to find songwriters Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. He knew the importance of the music being successful and he wanted songwriters who could give him songs that would both work within the context of the story and also be hits. Cinderella marked the first movie for which Disney held the publishing rights to the music, so profits would help bring the studio back from the brink. The movie's songs were immensely popular, ingraining themselves firmly into the nation's collective unconsciousness even up through today, providing another revenue stream for Disney, and working beautifully in context.

Hallucinogens are a way to pass time scrubbing.
The first song is in the intro, a fine if not terribly special little title ditty praising the title character's loveliness. From there, we get a hit parade of unforgettable numbers. "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" is Cinderella's defining statement of her core belief in the power of dreams coming true. "Sing Sweet Nightingale" functions as a comic song to showcase the ridiculousness of the stepsisters which morphs into a means to starkly contrast them with Cinderella. It's also one of the very first uses of the new technology of overdubbing in order to create the chorus of Cinderellas. Again, Disney always stayed on the tipping point of technological advances. "The Work Song" shows us not only how devoted Cinderella's animal friends are, but the lyrics give us a glimpse at the hell she is living through. Since it is coming from the mice and not Cinderella, it wisely avoids making our heroine seem whiny by giving us an outsider's perspective instead of her own. "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" is a wonderfully inventive and catchy magic incantation for the Fairy Godmother which is rivaled only by the Sherman Brothers in its ability to spin gold from nonsense words. It doesn't hurt that they are able to roll right off the tongue of little ones, who take a particular joy in making the sounds. There is nothing cuter than a kid saying the phrase. Last but not least is "So This is Love", which may be my favorite song in the film. It is romantic and simple and by the end of it we feel through sheer potency of emotion that we have seen a full and believable courtship, though we have, in reality, only seen moments.

The score is also brilliantly done, by Paul Smith and Oliver wallace. It punctuates the action so wonderfully, making the the hijinks with Lucifer and the mice even funnier and the moments with Lady Tremaine even creepier. They even manage to weave in moments of musical foreshadowing, such as the strains of "So This is Love" underneath Cinderella planning for the ball. In the same way that the art and colors were tailored to find the psychological truth in the story, the score does a wonderful job in supporting the emotional truth, whether playful, romantic or terrifying.

The Gay Scale:

7/10. Shockingly enough, I missed a lot of the gay undertones the first time around. Some are somewhat obvious. The princess movie will always be dear to a gay's heart. We project our own trials onto those of a plucky heroine who triumphs despite hardships and others who try to hold her back. Cinderella is made to feel less than and alone in the world, yet manages to transform into her best self and find the man of her dreams. Underdog narrative plus princess story equals gay dream come true. The gays also love a great villainess, and Lady Tremaine is cold, grand, reserved and creepy enough to strike fear in the heart of Miranda Priestly.

Extend the pinky looking annoyed & unimpressed, Lucifer!
Spending this DATE Night with my awesome husband Tom, my rad roommate Katie and our friends Stacy and Justin, gay tendencies in characters that had totally evaded me before were pointed out left and right. This is why I like to surround myself with witty, brilliant people to steal ideas from! They pointed out that Lucifer extends his pinkies, throws shade, turns his nose up at the poor beleaguered Bruno and sneakily swishes about. He is a plump, nasty queen who takes pleasure in manipulating those he feels are beneath his station. He is the first in a line of distinctive gay-reading Disney villains.

Uh. Pardon me, sire...
The relationship between the King and the Grand Duke was also brought to my attention. There is the conspicuous lack of a (capital Q) Queen and the two royals act like an emotionally volatile set of parents raising a son together. It had never really crossed my mind until Stacy pointed it out a bit into their first scene and all of a sudden I watched their banter in an entirely new light. The way that they interacted made so much more sense. Plus, the Grand Duke is decked out in some dandy duds. The sea foam green. The monocle. The stirrup pants. It all starts to make sense that with him in the motherly role and the King in paternal mode there is a complete family unit, albeit dysfunctional, as they tend to be. 

The Bottom Line:

8/10. Cinderella marks a return to form for the studio. It is the first time that all of the elements that make a Disney animated classic a classic have been in place together since Bambi. The fact that they came out of the gate with a single narrative feature that is this well-done is nothing short than a miracle right when they needed it. The took the Snow White template and delved deeper, adding elements of psychology and artistic and stylistic experimentation. They respected a formula that they had created successfully enough to make it work for them again and yet weren't afraid to diddle with it enough to make it fresh, exciting, and a bit daring. There is very little that I don't love about this movie. There is a reason that it has resonated so deeply for generations and has (arguably) become the definitive telling of the story. Full of wishes and dreams that come true, it helps us believe that no matter who we are and where we come from, we have the potential to be anything or anyone. It's a powerful message and is rendered beautifully in a medium that even allows it to look like our dreams. Watching Cinderella is like living a dream- complete with happily ever after.

The Miscellanea:

Totes worth tracking down!
A few years back, Disney released a (too) short series of picture books featuring classic concept art for their films accompanied by retellings of the stories by great contemporary children's authors. Out of the four that they made, one had art by Gustaf Tenggren (Snow White) and three showcased the art of Mary Blair (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan). They are all beautifully done with fine reproductions of the art and solidly edited interpretations of the stories. Each one is a perfect bedtime story length. They all seem to still be in print and available at a reasonable price except, of course, for Cinderella, which now fetches over thirty bucks on Amazon. They are all worth having if you are a fan of classic Disney art, especially Mary Blair, or would like to have really well done Disney versions of the classic tales. Working very often in the children's department at my former job, I can't count the number of times someone would want "the Disney version" of whatever story. It was so lovely to be able to put these beautifully done editions in their hands. I highly recommend them.

Lest we forget all about it, Disney produced the 1997 TV remake of another classic version of Cinderella- the one originally starring another Disney stalwart, Julie Andrews, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. They cast it as if they were shooting a Benetton ad and filled it with a mix of celebrities (Whitney Houston, Whoopie Goldberg), hot young things (Brandy, Paolo Montalban), and theater folk (Bernadette Peters, Veanne Cox, Victor Garber, Jason Alexander). Here is a trailer from said television event.

Though I must say I enjoy the camp value of infinite melisma during "Impossible", I will always be terribly partial to the Lesley Ann Warren version from 1965 that I wore out on VHS as a kid and finally found on an out-of-print DVD recently. Whoa. I just blew my own mind! With this realization, a husband who's obsessed with the sixties (to the point of still watching Christina Ricci's forehead...uh...I mean Pan Am. Yes. He's the one.), and my newfound fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, I am full-on having a mid-sixties moment!

This next video is from the D23 Convention that happened a few months back in California. D23 is the official Disney fan club (of which I am finally now a member, thanks to my thoughtful hubby) and they do a big ole bi-annual event in California. Tom and I will be there in 2013 with bells on, but until then, we had to be satisfied with blogs and pictures and videos from people who were lucky enough to make it. Here we have a princess explosion! Buckle your seatbelts gays and pre-pubescent girls! It's the voices of Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Tiana all singing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" together. All four of these ladies were (deservedly) inducted as Disney Legends during this ceremony. Though y'all know that Tiana is probably my favorite princess thanks to Anika Noni Rose's amazing performance, I'm impressed that Lea Salonga's voice hasn't aged a day, Jodi Benson still sounds so strong, and Paige O'Hara has embraced her newfound status as everyone's favorite crazy cougar aunt.

As if that wasn't enough to set your gay heart aflame, here is Cher's version of the song! It's actually quite a lovely, understated take on the song, from a For Our Children charity album to benefit pediatric AIDS causes. I love this particular video because it's a fan-made travelogue video that documents a rad blonde lady's trip to see Cher in Vegas and you can tell it was done with a lot of love. I think it's just precious. When I went to Vegas, Cher had left, Bette was on hiatus and Celine was gone. Not a happy gay was I.

You know I love me some fabulous Disney covers. I dug into YouTube for y'all and found some interesting ones. "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" has had some great classic covers. This first one is a real swinger from Jo Stafford and Gordon McRae.

This next one is by Italian bass Salvatore Baccaloni. It's funny to hear an opera singer let themselves be so silly, and I love it! My favorite part is when he sings "the thingamabob-a that does the job". It makes me giggle, as does the picture they chose to put on the video. Teeheehee.

This last cover of the sing is by Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters. It has a very forties sound to it. You can clearly tell that this was made to help lure the kiddie's parents into the cinema. I adore it. There's also a charming little special feature on the Platinum Edition DVD with Perry Como singing songs from Cinderella on his TV show with the Fontane Sisters dressed up as mice (one of them does quite a good GusGus voice) and guest Ilene Woods. Perry is smooth, the Sisters are adorbs and Ilene sounds like a dream when she's not caught laughing at herself for tripping up on national television. It's a charming little lark.

I was actually saddened by the lack of great covers of "So This Is Love". I thought there would be tons since it seems to me the easiest to pull out of context and interpret for a more adult audience. Instead we get two ends of the spectrum. First is the teenybopper Disney Channel treatment from the Cheetah Girls. Um. No. They have sapped the melody right out of it. It feels lazy instead of lovestruck and substitutes vocal machinations for emotion. I suggest picking a spot in the middle and watching for about five seconds. That's all you need to get it and it's most likely all you'll be able to take. It's almost as bad as the "Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" video included on the Cinderella Platinum Edition DVD featuring a bunch of Disney Channel "stars" who are all pretty rancid, save Raven Symone, whom I adore, and the girl who grew up to be awesome as my wife Emma Stone's friend in Easy A.

At the complete opposite end it this interpretation by legendary The Dave Brubeck Quartet. I'm not a fan of this type of jazz. I feel like they often pretentiously torture the melody so much that it is unrecognizable. I am a fan of great melody, myself. That's usually what draws me into a song. To diddle with it so much that it's barely there feels almost disrespectful. Now this is purely a personal aesthetic judgement. Brubeck is very talented and well-respected. It just doesn't tickle my pickle at all, though I must say that this version of "So This Is Love" isn't as far gone as some other jazz interpretations I've heard. Brubeck himself did an entire album called Dave Digs Disney with his quartet. If this is your bag, by all means seek it out. You'll love the whole album.

This is probably my favorite thing that I uncovered on this Cinderexcavation. I have never seen this in the park and I want to so bad! It's Lady Tremaine, Drizella and Anastasia! And they perform "Sing Sweet Nightingale"! I want to go to there! Awesomesauce!

Ah! So much better right? You can relax now, because it's gonna be a lovely ride for about the next twenty years. So for next week's DATE night, I'm taking you to Wonderland, baby! And not that deconstructed, dour Tim Burton Underland. We're talking full-out, Mary Blair-y, vibrant, clever, brilliant, Golden Age Disney Alice in Wonderland! Prepare to be amazed!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bucket List NYC: Standing In the Shadow of the Unisphere

Foreground: Police tape. Background: Unisphere.
Tom and I are pretty much sure at this point that our days in Grey Gardens are time in New York City is limited. We had been going back and forth between moving to Southern California to be near some of his loved ones (and Disneyland) or to Central Florida to be near some of my loved ones (and Walt Disney World) and have come to an almost officially official decision. In the meantime, we have started a sort of informal bucket list of things we want to do here before the wind changes and take us elsewhere. There are many experiences and opportunities that are easy to take for granted as someone living in New York City.

Memorabilia in the Queens Museum of Art.
One of these bucket list items has been to make it out to the theater more. We have avoided it more often than not lately because a) it's expensive, 2) it's not usually very good, and we don't want to waste our time, energy and money on mediocre, unexciting productions that purport to be the pulse of the American theatrical heart when in truth they are are actually just lifeless. Exuent rant stage left. In our effort to give more theatre a shot, which has yielded mixed results, uncovering a few keepers and more than a few that we'd like to toss back, we decided to see a new musical in Queens, which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent. Because it was atrocious.

Disney and Moses in the Queens Museum of Art.
Thankfully, however, it was far from a wasted trip since one of the major reasons we decided to see it was the fact that it was at the Queens Theater in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. In other words, it was an excuse to check another item of the bucket list- visit the site of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, which was a major event in Disney history. It was a controversial fair, since it wasn't officially recognized by the committee that recognizes such things. Robert Moses, the powerful New Yorker who willed the fair into being, decided to break rules left and right, charging rent for the pavilions, running the fair for two years instead of only one, and hosting it before enough time had passed between it and the last fair held in the U.S. Regulations be damned, Moses plowed ahead, wanting to celebrate the 300th anniversary of New York's founding and atone for the losses his previous fair in the same spot accrued in 1939-1940. The result was that many governments couldn't officially participate, leaving industries to pick up the slack and people to claim that the fair was too commercial.

Entrance Plaza. You can see the Unisphere
in the center of the shot. It's omnipresent.
As the fair was being planned, Disneyland, designed and executed by WED Enterprises (later Imagineering) under Walt Disney's guidance, was a bit more then five years old and a certifiable smash, so it was inevitable that he would be sought out to design attractions for the event. Disneyland was put into a holding pattern for several years as Walt had the foresight to see that WED could use corporate money to develop new technologies and rides, test them out on the east coast and get a feel for how his entertainment would be welcomed there, and then bring a good chunk of that work back with them to Disneyland after the fair closed. And that's exactly what he did.

Another shot near the entrance.
I cropped out the homeless guy.
It was here that Disney introduced technologies and concepts that would allow his imagineers to take theme park attractions to whole new levels. WED was brought on to create four attractions and we can still see at the very least remnants of all of them in the parks. For Ford they created the Magic Skyway, which took people on a trip through time from the age of the dinosaurs to the present in a Ford convertible and resulted in the Omnimover ride system in place in attractions such as "The Haunted Mansion". You can also still visit the dinosaurs from the ride at Disneyland if you take the train between Tomorrowland and Main Street. The amazing Marc Davis cave people, however, have been lost to time. While you were in the queue, there were also detailed miniature representations of distant lands to peruse.

Unisphere + rainbow = happy gay photographer.
The Illinois State Pavilion featured the most advanced audio-animatronic figure created up to that point in Abraham Lincoln. People were mesmerized during the presentation, which managed to piece together an incredibly moving speech from bits of several others without sounding like a greatest hits montage. The figure ran into technical difficulties here and there (it was apparently inclined to give its audience the finger now and again) but for the most part, people were so convinced that it was a real actor up there, they would throw things at him to get a reaction. The show can still be seen at Disneyland in its original form and later spawned "The Hall of Presidents" at Walt Disney World.

The former Fountains of the Fairs are now a skate park.
For General Electric, Disney created Progressland with "The Carousel of Progress" as its centerpiece. The rise still exists in WDW in an updated form as the only attraction in that park that could literally be dusted for Walt's fingerprints. The theatrical show, using audio-animatronic actors (and pup), moved the audience from scene to scene while the stages stood still. Since it still exists, it is the best remembered piece of the exhibit, but after the show, the audience saw the Skydome Spectacular, which was a show that was projected onto the inside of the domed roof of the pavilion. Disney also developed a show using two A-A birds to help the audience understand electricity. It all owed a great deal to the unrealized Edison Square concept developed for Disneyland.

Vegetation on the bottom of the Unisphere.
Pepsi was the last company the approached Walt, asking him to create a show for UNICEF in less than a year start to finish. Even up to his neck in the three other projects for the fair, he agreed, and the classic "it's a small world" attraction was born. The major contributor was Mary Blair, who designed the look of the ride, which was a charming boat ride through the nations as we meet the children of the world. Other major contributors were the Sherman Brothers, who gave us the ubiquitous song, Alice Davis, who handled the costuming, Blaine Gibson, who designed the dolls, Claude Coats, who gave the ride its layout, and Rolly Crump, who added other touches to the design and designed the gorgeous "Tower of the Four Winds" kinetic sculpture that adorned the outside of the otherwise plainly designed show building. Along with the classic attraction that is now in every Disney destination, the boat ride gave the imagineers a new method of moving crowds through a large capacity attraction. They would later use it in "The Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Splash Mountain".

The Panorama is huge and amazing. It's the entire city
in miniature at the Queens Museum of Art.
It was hard for me to wrap my head around the way the a World's Fair works. I was born in 1980, so there have been no major World's Fairs in the U.S. since I was four years old. To be honest, to my generation Epcot in Disney has always been our World's Fair, showcasing both foreign cultures and the promise of tomorrow. The thing that is really beyond me is the ephemeral nature of the fair. It seems like such a shame that all of this amazing architecture and history is built just to be unceremoniously torn down. Even Rolly Crump's spectacular "Tower of the Four Winds" was destroyed and just dumped into the river because of the prohibitive cost of moving it. On the whole, though, it is said that Walt felt the same way I do- What a waste.

I found these vintage Disney/fair souvenirs
at the Museum gift shop.
What started as a piqued interest in the fair because of Disney has grown. It has become my latest obsession (like I need another one). I am fascinated by the time it encapsulates, when America was still full of a kind of innocence and promise that has all but evaporated in the ensuing decades. I look at the future of the world and our nation and often feel a knot of helplessness in the pit of my stomach. Such is the legacy of the generations since the Space Age. The fair captured the last gasp of a hopeful nation before it was buried beneath a pile of endless foreign conflict, cultural schisms, governmental ineptitude and rampant corporate greed.

The period of time that it represents, the fascinating architecture, the theme of "Peace Through Understanding", the grandeur to the brink of camp. All of it has captured my imagination the way it did for my parent's generation. My Mama still remembers her visit. A friend of mine (shout out to Bart!) tells of his trip with a glow in his eyes, recounting how at the end of their trip his mother told him that she would let him choose one last thing to see again before they left. He, of course, chose "it's a small world". He's a gay after my own heart. The fair has created it's own mythology and it is one that I am just starting to peel the layers back to see.

Looking towards the Fountains.
As much of a success as it may have been in some respects, the fair was a financial failure. Attendance fell well below expected numbers. Some exhibitors couldn't even afford to stay open through the end of the fair, leaving it up to the fair itself to keep them running rather than deal with the PR mess of having closed exhibitions. Robert Moses had planned to use profits from the fair to turn Flushing Meadows-Corona Park into a public space to rival Central Park. With the fair finishing in the red, that was an impossibility. Within months, the site was razed, leaving behind a few pieces of art and architecture and a shell of a space waiting to be transformed into a proper park. Time, though, was not kind. New York's finances in the late 60's and 70's were not in the greatest shape. Most of the few remnants that were left to be preserved were untended and fell prey to the elements and disrespectful humans. It is a pretty sad end to the story.

My favorite statue from the fair-
The Rocket Thrower. Hubba hubba.
Walking through the park today is an interesting experience. Pieces of the fair still exist. The Unisphere still stands and the fountains around it still flow sometimes, while empty pools that used to contain jumping fountains remain devoid of water. Some of the gorgeous statues still stand. The New York Pavilion now contains the Queens Museum of Art, with the Panorama of New York City intact and a circa-rama theater has been converted into the gorgeous theater that we went to the park to see a show in. The Observation Towers and Tent of Tomorrow with the large scale terrazzo map of New York on the floor, though landmarked, are in complete disrepair. Gotham Plaza, the entrance, is quite run down. Skateboarders have taken over every concrete surface and soccer matches the green spaces. Kids play hide and seek in overgrown bushes and race remote control cars down the walkways. Almost none of them, I would venture to bet, have a sense of history regarding the ground they're standing on.

What's left of the Observation Towers and
Tent of Tomorrow.
Today, the fair seems almost all but forgotten on its former site. I was surprised about the sense of sadness that I had walking around before we went to the show and I have spent the weeks since trying erase that feeling by diving headfirst into the history of what stood there. New York is a strange city. There is so much history here that they have to pick and choose what they are able to respectfully preserve. The 64-65 World's Fair is one of those pieces of history that has largely managed to fall through the cracks. Little of those two amazing years remains. But a trip to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on a Saturday afternoon was enough to set my mind ablaze in respect for and fascination with this incredible slice of the past- both Disney's and America's.

Of course, I scoured YouTube for interesting videos of the 64-65 Fair for you guys, since y'all are so awesomesauce. Here are the ones that really churned my butter. I hope you enjoy them!

This first one was made by Ford and shows a complete ride-through of the Magic Skyway, which otherwise might have been completely lost. Unfortunately, it doesn't contain Walt's original narration.

This is the famous "Disney Goes to the World's Fair" episode of The Wonderful World of Color. It is one of my favorite episodes and was released on a now out of print DVD in the Walt Disney treasures line. It shows Walt and his imagineers in preparation for the event. This is the first part of five.

This is a very cool special from NBC that I found where a host takes you on an overview of the entire fair. It is well-shot and the host has a dry sense of humor. It's a great way to get a taste of things that aren't Disney from the fair, and there were many. It's nice to see more of the scope. This is part one of six.

This is a commercial from the time for the subway extension that was done specifically to give people access to the fair. It's the very same 7 line that I took out to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park a few weeks ago. And it was not nearly this much fun. I wish it had been, though.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a few amazing sources of information for this entry and for the brain expansion that this journey into the 64-65 New York World's Fair has become and will continue to be for me. First is the amazing 5 CD set Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair. It contains ride-throughs with alternate versions, music, demos, show recordings and studio outtakes and is beautifully packaged with informative liner notes, which are really more like a short book. I have listened to the Ford Pavilion CD so many times that most of the tracks have slowly crept up into my iPod's most played playlist. Also, there is a fantastic book by Bill Cotter and Bill Young called Images of America: The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. It has tons of great information and black and white photos of the fair. I have been slowly digesting each morsel on the subway every day for a week, trying to soak it all in. If you are interested in more in-depth information on the fair, especially Disney's influence there, I cannot recommend these highly enough. 

The back side of the good ole U. S. of A. on the Unisphere.
I'm just at the beginning of my journey of discovery with the fair and I feel lucky that this came onto my radar while I was still living close enough to dig a little deeper in person. If you are in the area and have a passion for Disney history, it is well worth the trip to the Park. Despite the lack of buildings and landmarks, there is still a palpable sense of what was there. Though I'm sad about what was lost and will no doubt spend plenty of time trying to wrap my brain around the whole affair, I must say that I'm grateful that Walt saved so much of it and that Disney has kept it alive in one form or another. Disney has a respect for its history that even the city of New York doesn't and/or isn't able to have. I may not be able to ride a Ferris wheel housed in a giant tire, see the dancing fountains or shows, or even take a trip on the Magic Skyway, but I am able to ride "it's a small world" and the "Carousel of Progress" and be transported to a time when the idea of "a smile mean(ing) friendship to everyone" in "a great, big beautiful tomorrow" was not completely doused in irony, if only for a few minutes. In today's world that experience is not only nice but necessary. And I am extremely grateful to Disney for making it possible.

One last look at the Unisphere before we left.