Monday, December 29, 2008

Look At My Stuff, Part 1

Merry Christmas! Since we're celebrating the Most Material Time of the Year here at Passport to Dreams, I thought I'd offer a special year-end "light break" from our usual through discourse here and start a limited run of articles where you, the appreciative consumer, .... .... Look At My Stuff! My stuff and you looking... a match made on the internet! .... It will be Disney related "stuff", I assure you.

As readers of this blog may have guessed a few months back, I am a collector of records. You know -- those vinyl things you drag a stylus across to play music. They're not only fun and exciting, but sound better than your MP3s! So there.

I am especially fixated on early records, back before the variable microgroove was invented and the groove on the record's playable surface had to be uniformly as wide as the loudest portions of the music track, whether this width was used throughout the entire track or not. Early records ran fast - very fast, 78 rotations per minute, roughly the same speed as that very earliest of recorded sound devices - the wax or embrol cylinder - and pretty speedy compared to the 33 rotations per minute called for by the later LPs. And unlike those flexible LPs, made of elastic vinyl, many 78 records were made of the thick and heavy shellac.

These were different days, and not only did it take some time for 78 records to start coming with a song on each side (after all, cylinders could only contain a single song of a certain length), but these records were purchased singly, in little brown paper sleeves at the local department or music store. Pictured below are two mid-40's ten inch 78s in representative paper sleeves. This is what 90 cents would have gotten you in 1945 (45 cents each, about the same as $5 today):

This, of course, began to present a problem for anyone planning on collecting music, since stacking such items has never been desireable and uncontained, these could quickly get out of hand. The solution was to start offering bound books into which 10 or 12 10-inch 78s could be filed. Each page was numbered and in the front of each book was a ledger in which the titles of the 78s could be entered for easy access. These beautiful books began to be called "albums", since flipping through the records was equivalent to looking through a picture album. This is, by the way, why we continue to call music releases "albums" today. Below are three such albums: on top, two World War I era Victor record albums, each with a pull ring on the spine so that the music could be easily extracted from a bookshelf. Below it is a mid-40's album issued by Decca. There are other, more common albums, possibly issued by Columbia or Decca, where the spine can be unscrewed and more pages can be inserted to house more records.

I've gone on about this at great length to demonstrate how deluxe the items I'm about to show you was in 1946 when it was new, and also why the things looks the way they do. Of course, with record albums already a way of life in many homes, eventually many major companies began to offer an array of related records in an attractive and relevant album rather than having to choose just two songs from, say, a feature film or Broadway musical or record a medley of songs from a property. I've seen these albums from as early as the late 1930's but rarely before, and it was this format which eventually paved the way for LPs which featured two, three, or four discs of music.

When I was first becoming devoted to the Three Caballeros I began to scour eBay looking for the best item to have for the film, I knew that when I saw these beautiful Decca albums from the 1940's that there would never be a better piece of merchadise to represent the beauty and fun of those films. Whereas many 78 albums from this era are plain with only art on the front cover and plain brown paper inside, both of these lush 78 albums are full of beautiful art. Each even comes with a booklet of liner notes relating to the film, the music and the Disney studio, which was a pretty unusual extravagence for the time. The original price of each album, notated in pencil in the corner of my Caballeros record, was $2.75... which translates to over $30 today.

It's fairly common to find these thematic 78 albums, but often either unrelated records will be housed inside or the records will be broken. Barring either of those possibilities, the front or back panel will be torn off or the binding destroyed. Find both of these albums in good shape with their boojklets is a major find. The Saludos Amigos had been fairly mistreated, while the Three Caballeros one was in greaqt shape but the binding was slightly damaged. The music on these, by the way, is beautiful - a fresh and mellow breeze from another time and place.

I especially like this interior illustration... and its' named characters closely correspond to the "movements" of the film I have identified!

You can find these from most of the Disney films of the "golden" and "war" eras, but none of them match the beauty and lush presentation of these two sets, in my mind. The music, art and booklets are presented in digital versions online at the invaluable Kiddie Records: Saludos Amigos & The Three Caballeros. These albums aren't just great Disney, they're great history and if you find them complete in your travels you may want to pick the whole thing up.

So what happened to 78s as a format? As the 40's waned and the 1950's picked up, 78s began to fall out of favor to the similar but smaller and lighter 45s, and eventually to the 33 rpm long-playing records. While a shellac 78 could hold at most perhaps 3 and a half minutes of music, each side of a LP could hold around 20 and even more with creative pressing. 78s became associated with children's products and educational use, and the heyday of complex and beautiful album-books was replaced with more restrained boxes and sleeves.

This is a 1951 version of the very popular, long in print Merry Christmas Bing Crosby. It is housed in a simple box with a sticker on the front for cover art and minor, generic album notes on the back of the box top, like a board game. Some of the final 78s I've seen were printed on cardboard, used to promote Disneyland, and aimed squarely at children.

I don't have an overly huge collection of Disney stuff or records at my disposal, but I went to great lengths to obtain these two items, and I think they're still probably two of the nicest things I own.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Magic Corner of the World

Those of you who are in personal contact with me know that in addition to the text I've written for the excellent Widen Your World about the original Snow White's Adventures at Walt Disney World, I've also been compiling a resource on probably the single vanished Walt Disney World component which obsesses me most, which is the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village a.k.a. the Walt Disney World Village a.k.a. the Disney Village Marketplace a.k.a. Downtown Disney Marketplace. Not only is this seemingly minor establishment important in showing just how far ahead of the ball WED was in the 1970's (and they were way ahead of us today, more than ever!), but in demonstrating the fading but carefully constructed variety of options available to vacationers in the resort's pre-Eisner years - with four theme parks and something like twenty resorts, how could an intentionally discreet shopping district possibly keep up?

It was also, as will be revealed on the WYW Walt Disney World Village resource in the next few months, a very real stepping stone towards realizing Walt Disney's EPCOT, perhaps more than most people have ever known - but all that is in the future, along with a near complete list of shops which once inhabited the Village, more photos than you can shake a stick at, and more. But in the interim, please enjoy this history text on the Village, Walt Disney World's forgotten gem.

Also, be sure to take time to absorb all of Widen Your World, still the internet's premiere resource for revisiting Walt Disney world when it was really something special.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Thoughts on the Haunted Mansion

In my mind the ongoing, primarily unresolvable conflict regarding the nature of design in the Disney theme shows is regarding the nature of "authorship". The WED classics were collaborative efforts which arose from a group dynamic, and rarely were all parties truly satisfied except - perhaps - Walt Disney, in the end. Yet throughout these works, much like those films which Hollywood produced before the studio system broke down, we can find a thread of an individual voice and following it does invariably lead to some interesting places. Since my own natural predilection is towards artwork which is traceable to a single source, one of the chief efforts in my writings had been to hint at, lead to, or resolve issues of authorship in attractions where such things can be found.

For example, the dynamic between the design and atmosphere of Claude Coats and the character and appeal of Marc Davis in Pirates of the Caribbean is the conflict which absolutely structures the spectator's experience of that attraction; to my mind, Coats wins mildly at Walt Disney World and absolutely at Disneyland, yet the tension is never lost. Especially in light of the true Marc Davis 100% control shows like Country Bear Jamboree or America Sings, which are all character and no atmosphere, I think an argument can be made that within WED was the necessary environment for individual voices to be heard distinctly in individual attractions. I certainly feel the continuity of vision between Space Mountain and Horizons, for example, and so strong a grasp does Marc Davis hold on the 1971 version of the Jungle Cruise that it may as well be a totally different attraction from it's Disneyland crude-hewn original version.

And yet dozens of people lent talents to materialize Davis' bear drawings, and even The Jungle Cruise had its' foundation in an attraction designed by very different people some years earlier, and these other guiding voices have also left their marks on the show. Where and how the scales were balanced or tipped is the subject of much speculation, but WED was certainly more democratic whereas the WDI of today is more autocratic; only do voices like Joe Rohde or Tony Baxter outshine the apparent all-pervasive volume of the marketing department in rides and shows today. And yet the all-time balance, the final and absolute example of WED at their most democratic and encompassing, has to be The Haunted Mansion.

The balance between gothic horror and light humor in The Haunted Mansion is so balanced that the attraction must be termed brilliantly accidental. At every turn when the show seems as if it will tilt totally in one direction, a new element enters into the overall pattern which dulls the impact of the other. The portraits in the stretching room are reassuring in their humor but threatening in their design, an overall effect which the design and scripting of the room does nothing to counteract. The pre-show then follows with a strong suicide image and a total blackout, some of the strongest stuff in the show. Likewise, the disturbing Corridor of Doors and Endless Hallway contains a mild bit of humor right between them in the form of the coffin-escape ghoul and is followed by the serene Seance Circle. In short, the attraction is funny enough for children and scary enough for adults, and it is from this push and pull of different tonalities that the piece maintains something like dramatic tension, an escalating sense that things may indeed get out of control at any minute. There are funny visual jokes in the scary first half, and likewise the funny second half is the only portion where the attraction where the ghosts come out unexpectedly at the spectators.

I've always reconciled this dynamic as being principally the result of a front half of the attraction being developed separately from the back half; although Davis type gags are sprinkled throughout the pre-Leota Haunted Mansion and Gracey/Coats arrangements accent the scenes throughout the post-Leota show, the first part of the attraction can essentially be credited to Claude Coats, Yale Gracey and X. Atencio and the later half to Marc Davis. Atencio's script even drops out at the point where the Davis scenes, played for spectacle and humor, take over, whereas Coats and Gracey play strictly for atmosphere and horror.

The importance and utter impossibility of replicating this balance is the key factor that many clueless efforts to reiterate the same basic concept fail to perceive; even the Haunted Mansion move of 2003 brainlessly stages a mild family safe comedy in the environment of a haunted house and overcompensates for its inability to be both funny and scary in equal measure by throwing in grotesque imagery and lousy scares. The Haunted Mansion, the attraction, is never cheap or inauthentic in its' scary content, and does have the capacity to do "real damage" when it wants to. I doubt me or anybody who rode the attraction at an impressionable age will ever forget the very real fear of that incessant recorded screaming echoing down the balcony overlooking the ballroom from the attic scene, or the multiple tests of courage the attraction puts children through as you progress from room to room - the building from afar, the opening of the doors to enter, the invitation into the stretching gallery, and the fairly permanent feeling decision to enter the ride vehicle.

So here is another balance, between funny and scary, to go with the balance between Coats and Davis. Ironically, the recent refurbishment to the Haunted Mansion in 2007 has tipped the attraction very strongly towards the scary side of the equation, not just in the first few rooms but throughout the show. The stretching gallery, originally probably the most threatening part of the show, has added an arsenal of disturbing sound effects, not just fluttering bats and what may be the distant echo of an owl, but truly apocalyptic sounding groans as the room stretches, adding the implicit threat that the walls could collapse. Probably creepiest of all is the giggling chorus of voices which flutters around the room as spectators are shuffled out, commonly lost in the bustle of regular operating hours but still quite audible. It's pretty adult and subliminally disturbing stuff, and nothing that the original WED staff would've ever considered putting in their attraction of 1969.

Although now significantly dialed down, those of us there in the first few days of the attraction's operation post-refurbishment probably won't much forget how loud that groaning and rumbling in the stretch room was, or how the lightning strikes outside those new galley windows was originally loud enough to make you jump. At the endless hallway where once Jimmie MacDonald's "Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House" played, a new speaker system allows a cold, impersonal sonic whoosh to truly emanate down the hall and nearby, the nifty new scene of eyes in darkness transforming into the famous Crump-inspired wallpaper is given a genuine edge by low hissing and scratching coming from the shadows. Even the Corridor of Doors' hokey original sound effects have been turned off in favor of impersonal clanking and banging coming from behind those doors, making the scene even more disturbing and impersonal than its' original incarnation.

Curiously these changes do cast a long shadow over the spectators' experience of the Haunted Mansion but do not overall effect its' balance of tone in the way that, say, the recent changes to the Attic scene dramatically comprise its' artistic intergrity. When I was young the Haunted Mansion never really seemed dangerous but now it does, at least in the Coats/Gracey half where the strongest aural changes have been implemented. The dark tone of the new murderous bride tableau is actually less sinister overall than the original directionless attic full of leaping ghouls and featuring a bride who raised more questions than she answered (and wasn't prattling off a bad script). Thus overall the Davis half now seems a bit of a letdown after the considerable unease built by the Coats/Gracey half in its 2007 incarnation, which points to a third balance the attraction must overall preserve. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, and remarkably despite the many changes 2007 brought to the definitive variation of WED's definitive attraction, the act is still going nicely.

Which brings us to the issue of authorship once more. Who can be responsible for the so-good-it-must-be-accidental balance of the Haunted Mansion, if anyone at all? Moreover, is authorship a wise or desirable thing to impose on any Disney, WED or WDI product, or moreover anything produced by an American studio system? Walt Disney is ostensibly the author of all the work bearing his name, and yet why then does the single animated film he did direct - The Golden Touch, one of many of the bland Silly Symphonies his studio produced - utterly without special merit? Yet his touch is discernible in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in Fantasia, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in Mary Poppins and in the Disneyland of 1955 itself. Disney ultimately functioned not a fountainhead of ideas like the truly creative Hollywood executives like Daryl F. Zanuck or David O. Selznick, but a censor - the final arbiter of what got through and what didn't. He relied on other, more talented people to produce his "signature" style.

Thus, I assign authorship of The Haunted Mansion to Walt Disney, and not fully without merit. Walt Disney had been dead for 24 days, 7 months and 2 years by the time the original Haunted Mansion finally opened, and by all accounts he had missed nearly the totality of the decisions regarding what the final shape of the attraction would be. Many of his ideas that seemed set in stone - like Rolly Crump's Museum of the Weird - were discarded or cycled into the homogeneous whole of the attraction. Without Disney to veto scenes and ideas, decisions were made by committee, and the Haunted Mansion may therefore be seen as the greatest camel ever created. It may then be seen as Walt Disney's creation, if only by circumstance. The net total Walt Disney in it after all may still be greater than the net total Walt Disney in, say, Atencio and Justice's stop motion Noah's Ark of 1959.

Then maybe this whole authorship thing isn't such a great idea to float after all, right?