Sunday, April 13, 2008

The World May Never be the Same

To my beloved readers: those of you who frequent this blog undoubtedly know about my deep esteem and love of Mary Blair and equally my passion for maintaining the integrity of Walt's original ideas and philosophies. Many of you read and gave heartfelt responses to one of my most emotionally infused entries to date regarding the closure of the Disney Gallery last Fall. So often it seems the only bandage for a broken heart is hope: in this case the hope that with one grave mistake lessons will be learned and such errors will never again be repeated. It would appear that the Disney Company has no such conscience. I'm certain that Disney-centric bloggers visiting this page will have already heard the death knell that is the news regarding "It's a Small World" at the original Disneyland park. For those of you who haven't, an angry buzz, nay growing outcry is spreading as a result of a new "revamping" to Mary Blair's original concept and themed ride "It's a Small World", originally produced for the 1964 World's Fair. Now, before I opine on whether all of the clamor is warranted or not, I think it's important to take a turn through the halls of "Small World's" history so we can gain a better understanding of why this project was started in the first place...

It was 1956. Disneyland was but one year old when Walt was invited to attend a prestigious conference, at the invitation of President Eisenhower, with the intention of creating some kind of national organization to help promote world peace. This was an arena that Walt had worked in before, and it wasn't the first time the government had turned to Disney to help convey its political messages - The "Goodwill Ambassador Tour" that took Disney and Blair, among other Disney artists, to South America in the early 1940's resulting in the creation of "The Three Caballeros" and "Saludos Amigos" being a prime example. The organization which ultimately materialized as a result of the 1956 conference was the People to People Student Ambassador program, however, Walt was left inspired by the ideas from the conference and began putting his best imagineers, concept artists, and songwriters (eg. Mary Blair, Marc Davis, Joyce Carlson, The Sherman Brothers) to work on what would ultimately become "It's a Small World." The idea, of course, was to represent all of the children of the world, in unity, emitting one message: that our differences, our languages, our nationalities, matter so little when we realize that we are all human beings experiencing largely the same needs, the same dreams, and the same emotions.

Fast forward to present. In January Disney announced that it would be closing Small World for refurbishments until early 2009. Originally plans included basic audio/sound improvements, boat and flume remodeling to more easily accommodate disabled guests, and a possible paint job or two. By March, however, rumors began circling that logistical and cosmetic changes were only part of the plan and that the company had begun implementing more substantial storytelling alterations. The restyling, as I understand it, is to include the addition of more "popular" Disney characters such as Donald Duck, Simba, and Lilo and Stitch - to name a few. But the most egregious and downright puzzling alteration is the abolition of Mary's well-known "Rainforest" scene which will be replaced by a new segment: "Up with America." I'm immediately left scratching my head. Can someone please explain to me what U.S. patriotism has to do with the idea of world peace and the message that ultimately we are all one and equal on this earth? How does one possibly derive from lyrics that state "there's so much that we share" the idea that U.S. culture is sovereign from the rest of the world - afterall, not everyone in this small world is American. It's completely antithetical to the entire philosophy behind the ride's original concept, and in my opinion, completely misplaced.

A regular staple of my blogging diet, Re-Imagineering, has been closely following and fervently commenting on the "It's a Small World", um, downgrade. They summed up the contradiction of the refurbished segments this way:

"In consciously excluding a large scale U.S.A.-land from It’s a Small World (a lone cowboy and Indian in the finale was just enough), the original show writers were asking American audiences to step away from their own national consciousness and take stock in the wider world around them. It’s a Small World was never about nationalistic fervor. It was about finding our common humanity outside our own borders."

In addition to some of its own persuasive clamor regarding the refurbishments, Re-Imagineering has posted a string of touching comments from the art and design community, as well as a letter to the Disney Corporation from Kevin Blair, son of Mary Blair, decrying the changes as "idiotic" and "a marginalization" of his mother's work. I don't need to tell you that it's worth the read.

Others in the online community are taking a more pro-active approach. A website entitled, "Save the Small World" has been gathering supporters since its launch, encouraging readers to take a stance against the company and affording ways to do so. It's slogan, "Save the Rainforest, Save the Small World" has been catching like wildfire around Disney blogging sites. It contains the most comprehensive list that I've found including press releases and news articles regarding the rumors and responses from Disney's spokespeople.

At the end of all of this lunacy, I'm extremely sad to say that I wish I could garner the same outrage I hear from the rest of the community - but I cannot. It's not that I think this is any less heinous than the offended public, but my faith that this company might finally set itself on the track toward the ideals of a greater world, a greater humankind, and a greater sense of beauty in the world are dwindling fast. I have become numb to the thoughtless antics of the so-called artists and engineers that the company has employed to market its poor ideas. I am heartbroken. Some things are so sacred that the occurrence of desecration never allows the observer to move beyond a state of disbelief. This is where I am. I would have believed that the company might install gift shops replete with mass marketed plush and plastic at the end of nearly half of its attractions; I would have believed that they would fire all of their animators and replace them with international CGI artists; I would have even believed that the Disney Corporation would close the Disney Gallery and replace it with a tactic for attracting more consumers to its "Year of a Million Dreams" sweepstakes. But this... well, this I simply cannot believe.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Let's Dance at Disneyland!

As you may know, I have become increasingly thrilled with iTunes’ release of heretofore out of print vintage Walt Disney Records from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The folks at iTunes seem to be releasing these albums in waves, a few at a time. A few complaints: It has been brought to my attention that they do not necessarily last a long time, so if you see one you have to have, it’s best to jump on it as it may not always be available. Additionally, it can be hard to pin down some of these records, especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. A broad search for “Walt Disney Records” produces little except the latest Hannah Montana album. The best way, I have found, to browse for these vintage albums is by starting with the name of one such album or group that you know (for example “The Mellomen”) and then do a chain reaction search of sorts by clicking different albums in the box called, “Listeners also Bought” for more leads. It really is kind of like finding a needle in a haystack, but when you stumble upon something good, well, it’s almost like being a kid on Christmas morning again.

The newest wave of Walt Disney Records released brought a bunch of gems. My favorite, hands down, is a 1956 (only one year after the park opened) album, “Date Nite at Disneyland,” with the Elliott Brothers and Disneyland Date Niters Orchestra. Evidently the Elliott Brothers Orchestra was a regular entertainment staple around Disneyland in the 1950’s and ‘60s. They played in the big band/jazz/swing style that was popular at the time, providing evening entertainment for Friday and Saturday “Date Nites” at Disneyland during the summer (And evidently until 1 am?? Can anyone verify this?). It’s the kind of wholesome entertainment you would expect from the time, and which admittedly gets my toes tapping and wanting to strap on my Mary Janes for a twirl on the dance floor. It’s not difficult to imagine the hoards of teenagers coupling off under the striped canvas of the Carnation Plaza Gardens swinging and swaying with the bandstand raging on through the night.

Above image courtesy of the Vintage Disneyland Tickets Blog

Of course the “Date Nite at Disneyland” album is the most comprehensive Elliott Brothers’ Orchestra album I’m aware of. Their opening hit, “Let’s Dance at Disneyland” can also be found on the Musical History of Disneyland album. If you want to see the Elliott Brothers in action, there’s a great segment showcasing their talent in the “Disneyland After Dark” Episode on the Disneyland USA DVD which is part of the Disney Treasures Collection. Now that I mention it, that entire episode is well worth watching. It features some excellent footage of Annette Funicello, Bobby Rydell, the great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and even a very young Osmond Brothers Quartet. Also of note, I found an interesting link to a list of big bands and artists who played at Disneyland at the website. It’s really mind boggling to think that such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie and his Orchestra have all played there.