Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mr. Franklin's Travels

Sometimes in the course of gathering up information about a certain ride or show, I end up with an excess of information with no good way to organize it, unless it be in the form of a collection of trivia bullet points. This sort of stuff generally goes unpublished here, inevitably relegated to "hey, did you know" sorts of moments I can have with friends while in the parks discussing such matters. The following case involving a certain Mr. Ben Franklin is one such example wherein I discovered something quite by accident but which I had no real good way of presenting online. however, thanks to a few serendipitous discoveries, I can make a case for relating the story of Mr. Franklin.

For those who aren't fully up to speed on the design and creation of WED's 1971 "One Nation Under God" Hall of Presidents attraction, the bulk of the show comprised a 70mm, five-screen film detailing the difficulties the United States Constitution faced, from her ratification through the nullification crisis and the Civil War. This story was told employing an astonishing number of original paintings created by WED artists led by John De Cuir, a Hollywood art designer whose most famous - and last - credit was Ghostbusters. De Cuir led a team of a dozen artists who worked daily for two years to create almost one hundred pieces of art which reflected historical reality and the dominant artistic temperament of the day. The signing of the Constitution was seen in European style burnished realistic tones, Washington putting down the Whiskey Rebellion in the style of New England folk art, Lincoln's brooding soliloquy in the flowing style of Winslow Homer, and the 20th century's progress in the style of modern art. That more of these remarkable pieces are not used in the new version of the show is the absolute only complaint I can make against it.

These paintings were as much the show as the presidents, the WED placed many of them in the waiting area for the show - not the originals, mind you, but photographic reproductions mounted on plywood and framed. Some of these made their way into other areas of the Magic Kingdom as well - City Hall on Main Street still has a version of the WED painting of the driving of the golden spike to complete the transcontinental railroad, and the Penny Arcade on Main Street had a few others.

All of these images were removed from the Hall of Presidents rotunda in 2000, to make way for the display of presidential portraits and artifacts which it currently houses. Three framed pictures do remain however, two of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln/Douglas debates, and another of Ben Franklin, in the exit hallway for the show.

This picture is unique in two ways. One, it is an actual painting executed on wood, which can clearly be seen in my flash photo above. Secondly, it is not the picture used in the original two Hall of Presidents shows, which was executed in a far more polished style and did originally hang in the Hall of Presidents rotunda. This painting came from somewhere else. Now one of the strange things about Walt Disney World is how certain props seem to hang around forever, appearing and disappearing and showing up in new places unexpectedly. This Ben Franklin portrait is one such example.

This is an image scanned out of a 1973 Walt Disney World guidebook.

If you look carefully above the fireplace in what is now the George & Martha Washington Room inside the Liberty Tree Tavern, you can see a framed portrait of Ben Franklin, and I am 99% certain that it is the exact same portrait that hangs in the Hall of Presidents today. When the Liberty Tree Tavern's interior was redone in the 1990's to give each of its' rooms a specific theme, for whatever reason this painting was selected to migrate across the street to the Hall of Presidents, where it remains to this day.

Now why this particular portrait was selected to be saved is somewhat mysterious. Liberty Tree Tavern does have a Ben Franklin room and you can go look yourself at the two portraits of the famed statesman which hang in it, both of which are photographic reproductions of commonly seen portraits of the man. I do, however, have it on reasonably good authority that this portrait of Ben Franklin is a Marc Davis original. I can't confirm it but we do know that Davis would, on occasion, contribute original art to the theme parks, such as the famous "pirate wench" in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean and also supposedly the original stretching portraits in the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. I would not be surprised if, in 1971, those portraits of the performers in the Country Bear Jamboree lobby were painted by Davis as well. So we're not out of the realm of established fact here.

Whether it is a Davis original or not, be sure to stop by the Franklin portrait on your next jaunt through the Hall of Presidents. I don't think I need to mention that even if it is an authentic Davis piece, which many of us will never be able to see in our lives, don't paw all over it - it's amazing that it hasn't been more abused than it is, being in direct reach of guests. Pay your respects to a real survivor, a real remnant of a theme park that opened in a very different state some 40 years ago.