Skip to main content


Showing posts from August, 2018

When is a castle not a castle?

A castle is a fortress meant to protect the regent. The king and queen’s living and entertaining spaces are surrounded by a walled city, which is, in turn, surrounded by battlements and defensive constructions, such as moats and walls which taper out (called a battered wall) to make scaling with ladders more difficult. Bridges across the moat can be retracted or raised, and strategic points often feature a series of obstacles--“defense in depth” as it’s known. A drawbridge typically has a strengthened gate (a portcullis, literally “sliding door”) behind it, and paths toward the central “keep” are more maze-like than linear. Defensive aspects can turn offensive--hot tar can be poured from the parapets, the moving edge of the portcullis often had sharpened spikes, and crenelations (the up and down along the parapet) were meant to shield archers.

Because many fairy tales involve royalty, castles figure in stories from Snow White to Cinderella. As a rule, the military aspects don’t matte…

The Original Woody and Buzz

Walt Disney imagined a quaint Mickey Mouse Park, about the size of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. It would be educational in the way that Knott's Berry Farm illustrated the Old West for the younger generation, and it would be gracious, like a patio meal at the Farmer's Market. Then the economists got involved.

Architects who could create an idealized little park existed, such as James E. Dolena, who had recently designed Walt's new home in the Holmby Hills and had earlier designed integrating improvements to the Farmer's Market. But Dolena was sixty-five and planning to retire. Wayne McAllister, designer of the El Rancho Vegas, the Agua Caliente resort, and the Bob's Big Boy restaurant that Walt passed on his way to work, was humanist and flexible enough to handle Walt's Mickey Mouse commission. 
Instead, Walt turned to the International Style firm of Pereira and Luckman. Bill Pereira had recently built CBS Television City—stark white planes edged in b…

A Depot for Magnolia Park

Walt Disney snapped up the movie rights to Sterling North's story Midnight and Jeremiah (1943) and began imagining a live action and animated film describing young Jeremiah's adventures with his pet black sheep, Midnight. Set in Pike County, Indiana (between St. Louis and Louisville) in 1903, an early scene in the nostalgic film shows the excitement of seeing a famous horse, passing through town on the train.

This scene, not in the original book, required adding a train and depot to the set, built near Visalia, California. Director Harold Schuster recalled that "the railroad station was already there as were the railroad tracks," but perhaps the station seemed too "California." Architect and set designer John V. Cowles, Jr. designed a cozy, authentic little depot for the film. Most of the production was filmed in the latter half of 1946, and when the set was struck, Walt made a gift of the depot set to animator Ward Kimball.

Why would an animator want a fi…

Show Boat on the River

Updated 8/7/2018: I am grateful to Disneyland and modern steamboat expert James Horecka for his corrections and additional information for this post.

In late 1931, Walt and Lillian Disney toured the United States on a doctor-prescribed vacation. One thing the thirty-year-old phenom responsible for Mickey Mouse wanted to do was to cruise down the Mississippi River on a paddlewheeler. He had lived as a boy on a farm not far from Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and the freedom of a riverboat—and it's destination, New Orleans—held a strong appeal. Unfortunately, Walt had Mickey Mouse money to spend just as the country descended into the Great Depression—no one was offering pleasure cruises on the river under the circumstances.

On the river, docks and wharves were rare, so riverboats carried bridges called landing stages and incorporated a boom arm to place them. The boats had a shallow draft and could approach the riverbank close enough that a twenty or thirty foot pla…

Walt Wants a Pretzel

Walt Disney was fascinated by the mixture of terror and joy on children's faces as their electric vehicles crashed through the exit doors of the Haunted Castle at Dave Bradley's kiddieland.

"I had a little dark ride," Bradley explained to me. "It was all very dark and I had thrown up a black light and things would pop up and scare the hell out of the kids. It was just as scary as I could make it. Kids are born, brought up to believe in scary. At night, they go to bed, there's a boogeyman right there. They see all this stuff. They believe it."

The electric dark ride was called a Pretzel, after the company that invented the ride: the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company of Bridgeton, New Jersey (45 miles west of Atlantic City). The founder, Leon Cassidy, patented the concept in 1928. At the time, many parks had a Mill Ride, in which boats traveled in a flume, propelled by the moving water. Cassidy's goal was to create a Mill Ride that did not require the p…

The Movie Museum

Walt Disney wants a movie house on Main Street, U.S.A. Of course he does—he grew up with the movies. Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops, Mabel Normand. Nothing says turn-of-the-century America like silent movies (even if the movies didn't get started until 1908 or so).

The bad news is that you have to design it for him (assuming that you are Roger Broggie, Walt's projection, camera and general Machine Shop wizard). Would Disneyland's paying customers want to see a full-length silent picture show in a dark theater? Probably not—they came to see the Magic Kingdom. So, the movie house became sort of a motion picture museum. But what to exhibit? Hand-cranked cameras? Still photographs of stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Mary Pickford?

The movies were not really silent, anyway. Grand theaters hired musicians to play grandiose organs to accompany the films. Lesser theaters might have a pianist, or just a player piano.

Photographs would not do; the films themselves would be the exh…