Judge Mike Pinsky straps on his mouse ears for a nostalgic look at the Happiest Place on Earth.
"Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, dreams, and hard facts that have created America."—Walt Disney
Our cultural landmarks are writ large into our physical geography. And often, what one age views as heroic or triumphant becomes, for the next age, tragic or merely ridiculous. In his book, Lies Across America, historian James Loewen explains how the figure of Abraham Lincoln at Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial successfully draws so many people: "Lincoln is not standing, however, nor astride a horse, nor is his pose or facial expression victorious. [Monument designer] French has not forced viewers to see Lincoln in any one way" (334). Thus the image of Lincoln, unlike the statues of George Washington dressed as a Greek god or the endless monuments to the heroism of Confederate generals (mostly built in the years following the dismantling of Reconstruction, as the myth of Confederate martyrdom spread throughout the South), never seems to go out of fashion.
Which brings us, oddly enough, to Disneyland. When Walt Disney turned to television to sell his idea of a tidy theme park carved out of an Anaheim orange grove, he tapped into America's own frenzy in the 1950s to build a national mythology. This was our real ideological contribution to the Cold War: the triumph of American capitalism through popular culture—colonialism through media simulation. Disneyland became part of that mythmaking machine. Its five lands (soon there would be more) represented five worlds American culture wished to conquer, tame, and wrap up in a pretty, five-eighths scale package for consumption by the next generation.
Case in point: on the premiere episode of Disneyland, on October 27, 1954, a slightly stiff and nervous Walt presents his models for the Disneyland theme park, "a place of hopes and dreams, facts and fancy, all in one." Walt would become far more comfortable with the camera soon and begin to craft a public persona as "Uncle Walt," associating himself so indelibly with his product that his bright signature—the creation of the art department and nothing like his own scrawl—would endorse the company's decisions long after his death and mythic transcendence via the legend of his immortality through freezing.
Main Street: for Walt, "the most important" American locale. But whose Main Street is this? Walt's ideal public space is Midwestern, turn-of-the-century, and covered in comfortably middle-class shops. This is America as bourgeois utopia, with plenty of shopping but free of churches, slums, factories, and with a castle at the end of the block to remind us who is really in charge (Tim Burton would later parody this image in his fairy tale Edward Scissorhands).
Frontierland: our "native folklore" masquerading as history. But the "history" of the Old West is more myth than fact: white cowboys taming an uncivilized wilderness filled with savages. We'll talk about this more in our examination of Disney's Davy Crockett DVD release, but for now, suffice to say that the popularity of the Western in the 1950s (and even before that) was in part America's attempt to mythologize colonialism. What boy didn't love to play cowboys and Indians? Frontierland would allow them to pretend on giant playsets. In "The Disneyland Story" (this premiere episode of Disneyland), Walt turns to Norman Foster, director of the then-upcoming Davy Crockett series, who introduces Fess Parker. Parker sings for the first time the classic Crockett theme song, accompanied by charcoal sketches of Davy killing Indians and other patriotic acts. Both Main Street and Frontierland reconstruct American history into a nostalgic look back at a golden age that never was.
From the western frontier to Adventureland, "the wonder world of nature's own realm." But whose adventure is Adventureland? Look at its rides: the Swiss Family Treehouse shows how one good, Calvinist family can civilize the wilderness. The Jungle Cruise shows our ability to enter the Wild and return unchanged, with all the major rivers of the world conflated into one great River, one monolithic Nature. The pith helmets and khaki jackets are the final piece of the puzzle: this is the adventure of European colonialism, the white man's burden to civilize the wilderness. In "The Disneyland Story," Walt gives the floor to producer Ben Sharpsteen and his True-Life Adventure series, which in coming weeks will show the quirky animal kingdom, from the Galapagos Islands and its seals and turtles, to Berber tribesman of the Sahara and their "primitive expressions," to a Portuguese bullfight where (as Sharpsteen insists) the bulls have fun.
Ah, nature. Tomorrowland as well is ultimately about the taming of nature, as our goal there is to "explore the [natural, by which we mean atomic] forces and their use." Animator Ward Kimball shows us a short demonstration of passenger travel to the Moon and Mars, but we sense that Tomorrowland will do for the future what Frontierland does for history and Adventureland does for nature—Disneyland is forming a pattern. Fantasyland is left a mystery in this premiere episode, as Walt merely shows a few scratchy clips from his feature films, culminating in the "Laughing Place" number from Song of the South. In black and white, Brer Fox and Brer Bear look even more like a minstrel show than in the actual color film. Creepy.
The second half of the premiere episode of Disneyland is devoted to Mickey Mouse, showing black and white clips from several cartoons ("Plane Crazy," "The Moose Hunt," "Lonesome Ghosts," and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia). The latter two clips lose a considerable amount of force without color, but the entire segment does allow Walt to do what he does best: carve a place for his mythic characters into our cultural landscape.
If you haven't figured it out by now, the Disneyland USA DVD set, handsomely packaged in a limited edition tin as part of the Walt Disney Treasures collection, contains four episodes of the Disneyland television series devoted to the evolution of the original California park. Not only are these shows fun to watch, but they are absolutely essential for anyone interested in researching the popular ideology of post-war America. "The Disneyland Story" has a few scratches, and Walt seems overexposed in a few shots, but this is what you would have seen on your television in 1954, minus the video introduction by Leonard Maltin.
Indeed, this entire Walt Disney Treasures tin-case collection was apparently Maltin's idea, an attempt to capture Disney history. This particular Disneyland USA set seems a little thin on the extra features—only a rather redundant 10-minute featurette in which Maltin mostly shows clips from the four episodes included on the disc, and a wonderful photo gallery of those gorgeous ride posters that fill the walkway under the train station (I have some of them already as posters). It could use a timeline of Disneyland attractions, or perhaps a substantive essay on the history of Walt's foray into television (Bill Cotter has a nice book on the subject). Still, this release is a fine way to kick off the Walt Disney Treasures collection, and Maltin's contributions would become more pronounced as the series progressed.
In addition to Walt's premiere overview of the Disneyland project, Disneyland USA includes three more shows recorded at various landmark moments in the park's history. "Dateline Disneyland" is the original live broadcast (from July 17, 1955) that chronicled the opening of Disneyland. The image is rough and grainy, and subject to frequent signal drops, but that is exactly how audiences of 1955 saw it. What they didn't see has become legend: half-set asphalt, no water fountains (a plumbers' strike left Walt with the choice of bathrooms or fountains), unfinished landscaping, scores of extra tourists due to ticket counterfeiting and lax security near the perimeter walls, and general chaos. Nevertheless, Art Linkletter and company put a brave face on the proceedings.
While Walt chugs into the station on his beloved train, Art Linkletter (along with co-hosts Bob Cummings and young "Ronnie" Reagan) admits that there will be mistakes during the live broadcast from the brand-new, $17 million park—and he is right. Mistaken camera shots (at one point, Linkletter announces that the governor of California is aboard the train with Walt, and the camera shows Mickey Mouse waving—is there a message here?), false starts, lost microphones. But everyone seems to be having a grand time anyway.
After the dedication ceremony (Walt has Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish (!) military chaplains lead a silent prayer), the real governor of California makes an impassioned speech about "American capital" in this "God-loving country." We see bizarre early versions of the character costumes every kid in later years would line up to hug, and then we are off to Frontierland. Ronnie Reagan tells us about our "historic past," where we were apparently fighting a lot of "redskins" (in this case, most of the Indians were played by Boy Scouts, but later Walt would open an "Indian Village" in this section of the park). Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen, then at the peak of Crockett-mania, put on a lively dance number to a song about Davy's favorite rifle. We visit the Golden Horseshoe, then over to the Mark Twain riverboat, so overloaded that it lists dangerously, so that actress Irene Dunne (who calls Linkletter "Walt") can dedicate the boat. In the New Orleans section (later to get its own land), the Firehouse 5 Plus 2 (a jazz combo that included several Disney animators) plays while one black kid does a little tap and an "Aunt Jemima" character dances. And today's audience shakes its head in disbelief.
In Tomorrowland, the year is 1986, where (thanks to this "scientifically planned projection") we can see how we will soon conquer both the atom and space. In the "Aluminum Exhibit" (not as fun, I'd imagine, as the here-unmentioned Bathroom of the Future exhibit in the park), Dr. Heinz Haber (host of "Our Friend the Atom" on the Tomorrowland tin set) shows how splitting atoms is like setting off mousetraps. I feel safer already. Over in Autopia (utopia with cars—how American!), Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. putter along at 11 miles-per-hour. Disneyland was filled with celebrities that day—although none more ubiquitous than Danny Thomas, who seems to turn up everywhere! He balks at the thought of going on the Rocket to the Moon ride (later it would go to Mars; today, it's a restaurant called Redd Rockett's Pizza Port).
Our trip to Fantasyland is brief, with plenty of happy children boarding rides to a soundtrack of Disney tunes. Bob Cummings waves to us from the "Chicken of the Sea" Pirate Ship (think about it for a moment). Our visit to Adventureland only lasts a minute, because the 75-minute show (90 with the missing commercials) is over far too quickly, although we are promised "a true life adventure into a still unconquered and untamed region of our own world."
I'm sure we'll conquer and tame it another day, but for now, let us jump ahead to 1962. By this time, the Disneyland show had begun its transformation into a showcase for Disney technology. "Disneyland After Dark" is in great shape, with warm color and a gleeful fascination with '60s style. The production is much slicker, and Walt has mellowed into the comfortable uncle character with whom we are so familiar. After a monorail tour past the latest rides (particular attention is paid to the Matterhorn and the Submarine Voyage), we hop over to Tomorrowland for a mini-concert by Annette Funicello, Bobby Burgess (both former Mouseketeers), and teen singer Bobby Rydell, who perform for some well-dressed teens with no sense of rhythm (just watch them try to clap along). Rydell has energy, but the audience has to be directed how to dance.
After some fireworks, we head to Adventureland for some talented Tahitian dancers (East Coast residents can see a version of this show over at Orlando's Polynesian Resort luau show), including a "wild" Samoan who performs the "Fire Knife Dance" and does a fire walk. The Disney of 2001, trying to be helpful, has added a disclaimer to the bottom of the screen during these scenes. The best part of the entire show comes next: a trip to New Orleans Square, where Louis Armstrong joins fellow jazz pioneers Kid Ory and Johnny St. Cyr for several numbers. Brilliant musical chemistry and genuine friendship are in evidence here. Although the crowd does not seem to be sure what to make of all these old men and why (apart from Armstrong) they might be so famous, Walt Disney made a great choice in capturing this reunion.
We wind up at the Plaza Gardens for a brief appearance by the Osmonds (pre-Donny) and the house band hamming it up with some comical medleys. All in all, a fun 45 minutes.
By 1965, Disneyland's Tenth Anniversary, the television show had transformed fully into The Wonderful World of Color, a title mostly meant to taunt those who didn't yet own color television sets (the premiere episode had featured a manic Ludwig Van Drake singing an insane "Spectrum Song"—you've got to hear it to believe it). For the anniversary show, Walt takes Julie Reems, the "ambassador" for the park (smartly dressed in a jockey's outfit, including a riding crop!) on a tour of the new attractions. Mary Blair shows off her design work for "It's a Small World" (one of Walt's 1964 World's Fair attractions that he got to keep), and Mark Davis shows designs for the Haunted Mansion (including a "museum of the weird" feature that never materialized). A bizarre tribute to the park, including a Mary Poppins medley and a dancing birthday cake, is performed. Walt takes us on a tour of all the new attractions from the last ten years—including footage of Nixon dedicating the monorail—and we see a bit of the Tiki Room show, including behind the scenes. This episode lacks the spontaneity of the earlier shows and even includes a laugh track: by this point it is clear that Disney has settled into its comfortable routine, a complacency that would plague the company for years after Walt's death the year following this program.
But this sense of the certainty of the American mythos—the golden age of the past, the land of opportunity in the present, and the great big beautiful tomorrow of the future—all this is not just evident in Disneyland, but in America itself. Disneyland is America, as cultural critic Jean Baudrillard has pointed out, and in this sense, Disneyland USA is a chronicle of the hopes and dreams of this country throughout the Cold War. Only in a primary-colored landscape of clean entertainment and friendly faces can we be certain that can-do capitalism will triumph over the savage frontier, the forces of nature, and even the cold gaze of the stars. Fun and style will always sustain us through our battles with chaos. Or as the motto of Pleasure Island's Adventurer's Club (another send-up of the golden age of colonialism) states: "Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. But always dress for the hunt."
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Video Introductions by Film Critic Leonard Maltin
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.