Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All Things Disney

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, May 06, 2007)

There were many things that shaped me as a kid growing up. But the two biggest things were 50s & 60s horror/monster movies and cartoons. Horror movies are something I'll talk about at a later date. As for cartoons, there were many that I loved. Of course, the Warner Bros line up of characters were a big influence on me. I also loved the MGM line, especially Droopy Dog and Tom & Jerry. The Fleischer Studios/King Features Popeye The Sailor cartoons were always a favorite and were probably more responsible for my adolescent love of vegetables than anything else. And I was crazy about the now-banned Heckle & Jeckle cartoons. It depresses the hell out of me that generations of children won't get to see these great animated shorts due to the political correctness of our times.

Someday I'll blather on about all the cartoons above. But today I want to concentrate on the studio that I picked to highlight in my Top Friends section this month. That would be the Walt Disney Studio and Disneyland. All the early things Disney did had perhaps the biggest influence on me as a kid than anything else and continue to pull me in unexpected directions to this day.

I was at Disneyland the first week it opened in 1955. Of course, I was only a year old and I don't remember one bit of it. But since I grew up in Southern California, eventually settling in Orange County until my escape in the mid-70s, Disneyland was readily available. I spent many days exploring Disneyland, first with my family, and then as I grew older, all by myself and with my friends. I can still remember the excitement of discovering new rides as they opened.

There are two very early memories I have of Disneyland. The first is that glimpse of the giant squid from "20000 Leagues Under The Sea" that was in Tomorrowland. I have always been frightened of the anything in the ocean and that squid was a thing of terrifying wonder and beauty to me. The exhibit closed in 1966, just before the opening of the newly designed Tomorrowland.

The second thing I can remember happened to me as a very young child. We were walking down Main Street and my parents popped into one of the stores to pick up some souvenir. Monsters already infatuated me and there was what looked like a statue of the Phantom Of The Opera standing outside the Main Street Cinema, which was showing the earliest, silent version of the film. I walked up to the statue and stood there staring at it when suddenly it jumped and said "boo" to me. It was a guy dressed as the Phantom standing very still, just waiting for someone like me to come along. I screamed and headed off down Main Street looking for someplace, any place to hide from the monster that was sure to kill and eat me. It took my parents close to an hour to find me. I don't remember where I was hiding, but I had unfortunately crapped my pants and was in a very bad state. That incident had quite an effect on me. It didn't effect me movie viewing habits. I was still fascinated by monsters growing up. But to this day I get nervous when a cast member dressed as a character approaches me. Not just at Disneyland, but anywhere. I'll even shy away from the poorly dressed characters that prowl around Graumann's Chinese Theatre in downtown Hollywood.

The Enchanted Tiki Room opened in 1963 and my first trip there when I was 9 years old scarred me for life. I've forever been obsessed by all things Tiki since then and I even have a scale model of one of the Tiki Drummers sitting in my living room that was cast from the original molds used for the ride. (Its one of my most prized possessions, right next to a scale model of one of the Zanti Misfits from the 60s TV show, "The Outer Limits".) My dad and I were equally excited about the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride when it opened in 1967. We had heard all the news reports in advance and while the thought of falling down a waterfall to enter the ride was exciting as hell, the idea that we would have to go up a waterfall to escape was just mind boggling. Seeing that giant eyeball looking at me towards the end of Adventure Thru Inner Space, which also opened in 1967, was a thrill that I will always remember. I probably miss that ride more than any other of the extinct, discontinued rides. My first trip into the Haunted Mansion in 1969, when I was 14 years old, was wonderfully scary. I never grew used to those ghost heads that pop up behind the tombstones. They always make me jump.

I can still remember the excitement of the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland and the spinning, balancing rocks ready to fall on our heads. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride still are wonderful favorites, even into my adult years. Riding on the now extinct Flyer Saucers were a thrill while trying to figure out just how they made those things actually float above the ground. And the goofy sea serpent at the end of the Submarine Voyage fascinated me. (I hear its back at the end of the new "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage", a fact that I'm extremely excited by.)

As I grew older, my friends and I spent more time at the park. I went to high school in Orange, which was minutes from Disneyland. We would go there a lot with our girlfriends, because rides like the People Mover and the Adventure Thru Inner Space were perfect for being left alone and making out. (This was before Disneyland had security cameras throughout every square foot of every ride. It was also before I became honest with myself and realized that I'd rather be making out with boys instead of all those girlfriends.)

After I got out of high school and got involved with the LA music scene, Disneyland didn't quite seem as important as other things, although I still found myself there at least once a year. I remember going with a group of friends during the punk rock days. The group included Siouxsie of the Banshees and the Disney security people didn't want to let her in because her mini skirt was too short. She ended up having to wear a long leather coat all day in the park, and it was very warm that day. But we had a hell of a lot of fun riding the rides and ignoring the stares.

There was also the problem of the later Eisner years when Paul pressler was running the park and managed to cheapen everything about it. This was a dire time for Disneyland fans as rides closed with no replacements and the park declined into a filthy, unrepaired mess. That didn't help keep the magic alive in me.

About a decade ago, I began to grow fascinated with Disneyland again and Skip and I began to go to the park more and more. We eventually bought season passes and found ourselves there at least once a week and maybe even more. That ended this year when we finally realized we couldn't afford the yearly passes any more. They run close to $400 each and at this time its just out of our reach, although I'm hoping by fall, we can make it work once again. I miss the place and can't wait to get back there again.

But that's just the park. The Disney influence was much more far-reaching than just the theme park. I grew up with Disney on the TV and movie screens. I can still remember marching around the living room singing the "Mickey Mouse Club Theme" and laughing at the various predicaments Donald Duck got himself into with each show intro. I religiously watched "The Wonderful World Of Disney" as a very young child and kept watching it when it changed to "The Wonderful World Of Color" in 1961. I can still remember seeing the films "Donald In Mathmagic Land" and "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" in school. And all the various cartoons were a joy, especially when Donald Duck was tormented by those rascally little brats, Chip & Dale. I loved Donald Duck. He was always angry, much as I was as a child (and still am), but despite his frequent meltdowns, he managed to remain happy and lovable. I still try to achieve that balance myself, although I'm sure I'm not as successful at it as Donald was. I still own a complete collection (although all are reissues) of the Carl Bark's Donald Duck comics. These comic books are amongst the richest examples of graphic storytelling that exists today. They are full of exciting adventures and beautiful artwork. Carl Barks was the creator of many characters in the Donald universe, including Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone Gander, and another of my all-time favorites, Uncle Scrooge McDuck.

Then there were the movies. I enjoyed most of the Disney live-action films, like "The Absent-Minded Professor", "The Incredible Journey", and "That Darn Cat", but none of them really thrilled me much with the notible exceptions of both "Babes In Toyland" and "Mary Poppins". You can probably make an argument that both of those are close to animated features anyways. I did recently see a number of the Disney True-Life Adventure nature films again though, and I have to admit that they must have had quite an effect on me as a child as I still remembered many of the key scenes in them after four decades.

But the animated features were amazing and they still influence me to this day. I've seen all the Disney feature length animated films at least once. Many of the classics I've seen several times. I'll never forget the fright of the evil queens in "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty". The heartbreak over the deaths of the mothers of "Bambi" and "Dumbo" was excruciatingly emotional. And the unexplored wonders of life presented in "Alice In Wonderland" and "Peter Pan" led me in many different directions in my quest for my own life wonders.

From the time I was born to now, for 53 years, Disney has influenced me and shaped me. I wouldn't be who I am today without the work of Walt Disney to guide me. I will always be a fan and he will always be a personal hero.

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