Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rubber Spider Revue

You know it wasn't all that long ago that you could walk into the Haunted Mansion, hop in a doombuggy, ride up through the library and past the self-playing piano and see this:


HBG2 at the excellent Long-Forgotten blog has recently written on the Haunted Mansion's debt to popular culture Halloween traditions, or the lack thereof, and locates these spiders in a tradition of iconic Halloween images - like sheet ghosts, orange and black treat bags, etc.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that, at the time when the Haunted Mansion fangroup was still being organized on the internet, a time I was absolutely a part of, everybody hated this scene. It was dark, spare, unimaginative, and cheap, and - worse of all - put square into the middle of a ride known for lavish sets and effects. I took that picture in 2002 and it was for my old GrimGhosts.Com Haunted Mansion website, by the way, so I speak from experience here!

Well... I'm not so sure about all that. I've posited in the past that the Grand Staircase scene was a bold if failed attempt to create something basically impossible to represent, that it was Claude Coats at his most representative and basic, that the concept was interesting if the execution was not, etc. By and large these opinions have not infiltrated the fan community to any extent and most people will agree that the endless staircase / spooky eyes scene that exists in that spot in the Haunted Mansion now is a far better use of that space than what was basically a flat black wall, some string and a few rubber spiders on wires.

Or, to put put it simple: rubber spiders, nobody loved you.

But here's the thing, those guys may have just been stupid rubber spiders painted day-glo colors and jerked around in webs, but those rubber spiders deserve your respect, darn it. And I'm going to prove it. You may not agree with me in the end, but at least you'll be fully equipped to understand where that scene came from and make up your own mind about something that was, after all, despite its obvious faults, part of our Magic Kingdom heritage.

Now, I've searched high and low to find the origins of those rubber spiders. Ken Sundberg offers in his super comprehensive look at Snow White's Scary Adventures that the 1955 version of that attraction may have included one or more rubber arachnids in the original Ken Andersen dungeon sequence, but photographic evidence is not forthcoming and I have a better idea anyway. Although Mansionologists like myself tend to associate these rubber spiders with Claude Coats and his ideas about negative space in themed design, Marc Davis is actually the one to blame.

This is a segment from a beautiful Davis piece from 1963, drawn for his top-to-bottom re-imagining of the Jungle Cruise's "sunken city":

And the actual scene from a mid-60s Pana-Vue Slide:

You'll notice that although Davis' concept features Ganesha, the Hindu Remover of Obstacles, the final scene actually depicts Hanuman, the ape-headed disciple of Rama. Ganesha got moved to appear just before Davis' new Indian Elephant Bathing Pool scene and the alligators which previously appeared where those elephants now play were moved to this new scene. This whole little stretch of the river has been subject to dozens of iterations which may be tracked on Daveland's Jungle Cruise page more or less chronologically, but the point is that once Hanuman shows up in his rebuilt shrine, the giant spider makes his debut in Disney history. Marc Davis spearheaded all these changes.

Let's take a close look at that Jungle Cruise spider because it's the best look you'll ever get at her.

I say that this spider must date from 1963 for a variety of reasons. The first is that it's a custom mold and an excellent one at that; we're used to seeing the default "orange spider" around these days but painted differently it can look like a pretty creepy beastie. Even had there been rubber spiders in the 1955 Snow White ride, they likely would have been off the shelf spiders. By the mid 60s WED had a very robust model shop and had the time and money to make a serious and unique rubber spider, which is what they did. It's impossible to prove but to my eye it looks like the work of Adolfo Procopio, who was WED's resident wildlife expert for almost 40 years.

Now HBG2, resident Mansionologist at Long-Forgotten Haunted Mansion, tells me that this spider and its twin which lurked in the loading area of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion for almost 35 years, were basically props, ie, not animated in any way. But from the Disneyland Haunted Mansion to the Magic Kingdom Haunted Mansion it's only a leap of about two years, so follow me now and together we'll go on a...


We'll begin our Safari at the point we began this article, in the Haunted Mansion. It's fairly common knowledge these days that the Florida Haunted Mansion expanded on the Disneyland load area concept to make the "Grand Staircase" it's own scene (or maybe not: as we used to joke, the "Grand Staircase" was neither grand nor the staircase [it is and has always been a ramp]). For a few weeks in the test and adjust phase, the scene consisted of three webs: two with the familiar rubber spiders, and one with a skeleton caught in it. The skeleton was shortly removed but the vacant web stayed for almost 35 years.

Both of these spiders got upgraded to what Disney calls "animated figures" for the 1971 show, via a wire attached to a solenoid valve which would click open and closed, causing the spider to wiggle slightly. The resulting clicking sound was familiar enough to anybody ever got stuck in this part of the ride.

Here's the spiders. This first image I stole from Imagineering Disney because it's a different angle than the first and shows the spider clearly. The second I got off Disney Fans and was taken by Al Huffman in the mid 90's, showing the second of the two spiders and webs.

(I feel like I'm making a GrimGhosts.Com page again...)

Two things about these spiders. First, they looked okay under black-light, but their webs were pretty terrible. Just look at that first spider, whose web was very impressively sized, but just filled with broken strings, spit, and debris. Goodness knows how old that iteration of his web was - twenty years? Thirty years? Scroll up and look at that 60s Pana-Vue slide and you can't tell me that these webs weren't in awful shape. I think this accounts for the poor reputation of the scene: it just looked cheap.

The second issue is that the webs weren't painted so much as sprayed with the Mansion webbing effect, giving the scene a dusty, ethereal quality. Because the web was right near a wall and very large, it was lit up a bit too much, casting light on the wall and ruining the "boundless void" effect. Had the scene been suitably black, had the webs been well maintained and commonly replaced, and painted properly, this particular part of the Haunted Mansion may have needed nothing more than some new set dressing to update it.

Well. Okay, maybe not.


Let's hop across the park and visit an attraction Marc Davis was heavily involved in c. 1969-1970: the expanded Walt Disney World Jungle Cruise. For this incarnation, Davis took his 1963 "sunken city" concept to new heights with an entire indoor sunken temple. The pivot point of the scene is a shrine to Hanuman, covered with gems and treasure and guarded by swaying cobras. This is pure gold Marc Davis intrigue, but he repeated the spiders too, to the left and right of the scene:

Also noteworthy: unlike the Disneyland original, these spiders also moved, in the same manner as the Haunted Mansion arachnids discussed above.

Both of these spiders actually look fantastic under show lighting conditions, with careful painting, properly built webs, and excellent staging. That first spider, which is to the right of the shrine, is rarely seen due to appearing extra-dim on daytime cruises but if you ride the Jungle Cruise at night and the skipper turns off all the lights on her boat as you head through the temple, you'll see and appreciate the proper appearance of this simple gag.

I've never much liked the second spider because she looks a little too flopsy and rubbery, but expand the image and you'll be able to clearly see the wire tied 'round her midsection leading behind the pillar to the solenoid that makes her wiggle. Classic Imagineering, people!

I think it's important to note that Davis still felt this simple tableau - I mean, is there anything simplier than sticking a rubber spider in a fake web? - merited inclusion in a ride which dramatically and sometimes totally reworked the basic stuff of the Disneyland original, and despite his gag having been already recycled twice in other attractions.

Twice? Actually... make that three times.


Moving further eastward, we come across the 1971 Snow White's Adventures, probably the nearest WED ever got to designing a true, traditional spookhouse dark ride. A variety of people worked on these rides, including the "1955" crew for Fantasyland, amongst them Ken Andersen and Claude Coats, plus some later-generation Imagineers who had a hand in refurbishing the 1955 originals in the 1960s: Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump.

Hey, Yale, what'cha doing there?

See? The Rubber Spider conspiracy grows by the moment.

I'll stop here and quote Ken Sundberg's Snow White Adventures page now. He's talking about the 1955 original version of the attraction at Disneyland, referencing scene where the shadow of the Witch crosses your path through an arch. In that arch was a spider web, and a picture of the scene may be found in issue #13 of The E Ticket.

"Following immediately after the Dungeons scene, the vehicle faced a huge spider web in a dark archway. The silhouetted Shadow of the Wicked Witch emerged behind the web and moved across the wall. [...] In the late 1970's the foreground of the Shadow of the Wicked Witch scene was changed glowing in fire-orange, with a spider possibly flicking across the web as the vehicle passed the archway. The movement of the Witch's shadow was also changed; it didn't move across the wall anymore, but rocked up and down to the right, as if the Witch was dipping the apple in a cauldron."

Whoever it was who decided to add this little vingette to the Walt Disney World version of the ride, however, was undoubtedly doing so in the spirit of both the original and the generally increased interest in rubber spiders at WED in the late 60s:

Mike Lee took this picture of part of the original dungeon scene in the early 90s, shortly before the ride was removed. The skeleton would flap its jaw at you and warn you to "Go Back!" You'll notice that this spider's web is painted right on the wall behind it... because this spider was the only one to actually move. That's right, it would slowly lower towards the skeleton on a track. I remembered this vividly from my early visits to Walt Disney World and after the removal of this scene - this corner is where the witch can now be seen poisoning the apple - I couldn't remember which ride it was from and swore that the Haunted Mansion spiders used to move towards you on a track.

We lost this spider, probably the most impressive of them all, in 1994.

In 2007, both of the Haunted Mansion's spiders went away, leaving the two in the Jungle Cruise the only spiders left holding down the fort. The Magic Kingdom's 1971 rubber spider population has been decimated by 60%.

Over at Disneyland, the spider in their Haunted Mansion load area bowed out in 2003 and has not been seen since. In 2005, as part of a larger refurbishment effort, the 60s WED spider was removed from the Jungle Cruise. Some new spiders, in more realistic but less fun webs, appeared deeper in the Sunken City sequence. But these spiders look off-the-shelf and don't match the subject of our article here, the 60s version.

Overseas, Tokyo Disneyland's Haunted Mansion carries on the tradition of the giant rubber spiders, and I'm sure their spiders and webs looks very good, not just because they're Tokyo Disneyland but because they each have to be removed and replaced once a year for their Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare overlay. And in an ironic twist of fate, the same year that the original WED spider was removed from the Disneyland Jungle Cruise, in Hong Kong Disneyland the "Jungle River Cruise" ride opened, the saddest and most anemic of all the Jungle Cruises. But it features an astonishing number of these fake spiders... I counted at least six in one ride video and there's probably more. So overseas at least, rubber spiders continue to haunt the darkest corners of Disney rides.

It's sort of hard to feel bad for the fate of these singularly unconvincing rubber arachnids. I've made the best possible case for them here but let's not forget: It's a rubber spider. In a fake web. Some of you have probably made more impressive rubber spider displays in your Halloween decorations than all of WED could muster in the early 70s.

But the real fascination isn't what it is, it's how easy it was to find it. All of Imagineering and WED-era design especially has maddening consistencies, consistences which made the experience of going to The Magic Kingdom or Disneyland truly singular. Beyond the obvious scope and scale of the ambition, it had to do with the excellence of the staging, the care of the painting and sculpting, and yes, sometimes, the constant recycling of materials. Submarine Voyage's tropical fish obtained a new coat of paint and became salmon jumping in and out of the water on the Mine Train Trough Nature's Wonderland. The "Old Man in the Bayou" scene of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean begets The Magic Kingdom's Beacon Joe, who makes return appearances at Tokyo and Disneyland Paris. Beacon Joe's face is a Blaine Gibson sculpture who appears elsewhere in Pirates of the Caribbean, along with several appearances in the Haunted Mansion and so on.. and on and on. These are the sort of fun games the true hardcore students of WED design can play.

So now I've clued you into a secret. Have fun playing the game and remember: it all started with a rubber spider.