The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Forty-odd years ago, Uncle Walt Imagineered a new kind of escapism. And now there's no way out of paradise.

In the beginning, Walt Disney created Disneyland and Disneyworld. And L.A. was without form and void; and the darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of Walt moved upon the face of the freeways.

And Walt said, Let there be Imagineering, and there was Imagineering. And Walt saw that it was good; and Walt divided the Imagineers from Walt Disney Studios and called it WED Enterprises.

And Walt said: Let there be a berm in the midst of Anaheim, and let it divide the ugly urban sprawl from the raw America which was inside it; and it was so. And Walt called that which was inside the berm Disneylandia. And the evening and the morning were 1955.

And Walt said, Let the past and the present be gathered together unto one place. And Walt called the past Main Street; and the future he called Tomorrowland; and Walt saw that it was good.

And the evening and the morning were the 257th day after breaking ground. And 30,000 guests came to the garden of Disneylandia, although Walt had only invited 20,000. And the asphalt was syrupy, and the rides would not move, and there were no water fountains, and the trains did not run on time. And Walt saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was not good.

Thus Disneylandia was unfinished, and all the host of them. And on the 258th day, Walt began his work anew, "plussing" the theme park into the shape of what he'd first imagined. And for the next six months he would not rest.

The genesis of Disneyland is the subject of a new exhibit at the Walker Art Center, and good Uncle Walt--despite his prodigious creative output--somehow remains a cipher at the center of the show: the first Imagineer, whose small world is now writ so large. Titled Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, the show includes some 350-odd architectural drawings, sketches, models, and plans, all collected from the long-sealed vaults of Disney's vaunted Imagineering division. Here, Disney's brilliant scheme appears in its full chronology: from the miniature rail line that circled Walt's suburban backyard to the many variations on the castle that was to become the icon of the Magic Kingdom.

University of Minnesota professor Karal Ann Marling has curated the show and written an excellent essay--the centerpiece to the publication accompanying the exhibit--that spells out the definitive design and construction history of America's most real imaginary place (or are those two words reversed?). Professionally, Marling has tackled popular-culture projects ranging from WPA post-office murals to the origins of our mecca-in-Memphis, Graceland; in 1994, she wrote a meditation on the magic of Disney in As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. On a personal level, though, Marling's mouse-ear connection goes back to a moment so serendipitous that it might only be called Disneyesque: As a 12-year-old girl growing up in Rochester, New York, Marling won a trip to Disneyland.

"I remember standing on the balcony at the Disneyland hotel," Marling recalls, "and watching the fireworks with my mother, after we had left the park at night. And the fireworks were lighting up this fairy-tale castle that had only existed for me in two-dimensional storybooks up until that point. And the possibility that your imaginative life could dominate your real life has always been the guiding force in my existence since then."

CITY PAGES: Walt said that he wanted Disneyland to be different from the "dirty, phony places run by tough-looking people." What do you think he meant by that?

KARAL ANN MARLING: Well, that comes from his own personal experience of trying to find a place where he could spend a day with his daughters in the late '30s and early '40s. Dirty is easy to understand if he's taking the kids to what was available in the so-called "family amusement" business in California. In the '40s, that would have been places where a sailor would probably be in danger of his life. In terms of phony, I think he meant kind of phony-baloney: You pay your money and you don't get what you bargained for. I think we need to use that term in its period context. I don't think he meant ersatz [laughs].

CP: Is there a lot of irony in Disney? Did he look at things with that kind of eye?

KAM: No. I don't think he had an ironic bone in his body [laughs]. Minnesotans should probably like him a lot.

CP: You say Main Street feels so intimate because it's a corner of Walt Disney's psyche that he shared with his guests. What part of his psyche do you think it is that wants to escape a place where there are a lot of tough-looking carnies?

KAM: I don't think you can get too Freudian about this, frankly. But there's a wonderful passage in Pinocchio, which is a movie he really took a hand in, in which Pinocchio goes to a place called Pleasure Island, and it's a classical American or Californian amusement park at the turn of the century. And there are giant cigars and the kids get into terrible trouble and they deface works of art.

CP: That's a scary scene...

KAM: Yeah, it is. It seems to be sort of the end of western civilization. And so it's clear that constructive values of building up rather than tearing down are important to Walt. And he seems to me to express in that Pleasure Island sequence his view that amusement parks didn't do that--that they didn't add anything to the sum of human pleasure, and culture. And that's maybe the difference in what he wanted to do with his park. As for how Main Street specifically does this, I mean it's clear he values order over disorder, for example. It is clear to me that Walt was nostalgic--that's not a word I use [as] a dirty word. I think it's a very positive one. I think he saw his memories of his childhood as incorporating something wondrous, something slower, something where it was clear who loved who, and what obligations people owed one another, that as adults we sometimes all wished we had.

CP: Was he taken as weird for having that kind of preference? A lot of adult men who live a kind of emotional life centered around the things that excited them as children are taken for perverts.

KAM: About 80 percent of the men I knew as a child had hobbies that were not unlike Walt's. One of the things that happened in postwar America is that people who had been regimented a long time--whether that was by the deprivations of the Depression or service in World War II, or coming back and then going into a kind of corporate lifestyle--lead a very rich, imaginative life in their free time. Most of the men I knew were model railroaders, and spent infinite hours with both their boys and their girls, sitting next to railroad tracks watching steam trains. And when the steam era passed, they often built them in their backyards or their basements, a lot like Walt did. I don't think one in 10 men today could probably change the washer in the sink.

CP: There weren't any undercurrents that there might be something untoward about a man whose imaginative life was rooted in childhood?

KAM: No. I don't believe there was. I mean Walt Disney was a man like other men: He surely had a temper, and he was snoopy, and he drank a little, and all those other things that dads did in the '50s. But basically, I don't see him as much different from my own father.

CP: How did Disney work with his designers and artists: guys like Herb Ryman, John Hench, and Bill Martin? He would spiel for hours.

KAM: He would talk and they would interpret. That's how art directors usually work in movies. Often times, directors and producers aren't the most articulate folks in the world, nor do they have finished scripts when they start. So that talking process is always important. Plus Walt always did that anyway with his animation. They tell the story of Sleeping Beauty: He called a special meeting at the studio one night after work, and got up and acted out all the parts. And this was the first anyone had ever heard of doing a feature in animation.

CP: Did he give his design team a lot of credit--and how did they end up getting paid?

KAM: I don't think anybody ever starved working for Disney. I spent a fair amount of time interviewing people who were employees of Disney in the '50s and they all seem to have a very comfortable old age. You have to remember too that he moved into feature animation in the Depression. And the architecture schools around the country--to say nothing of the art schools--were cranking out students at a phenomenal clip, and they had nowhere to go. Huge numbers of graduates from California architecture schools went into the studios because they could become set designers, and things like that. The movie industry was one of the few still percolating along in California at any rate at all in the '30s.

CP: Walt had encountered serious labor troubles with the animators strike in the '40s...

KAM: 1941.

CP: ...and then also had trouble with the building contractors at Disneyland. Is union busting an easy charge to make?

KAM: [interrupts] I frankly don't know anything about it. I'm writing about architecture, and how you build architecture and esthetics. And as far as I know, there's not an Imagineer who ever had a labor trouble with Walt Disney.

CP: One of the things I'm trying to get at with these questions about labor is whether the kind of anxiety that an experience like Disneyland was supposed to soothe was brought about by the same work conditions that seem to appear in the Disney economy.

KAM: I think that's way too broad. The anxieties that were meant to be soothed by Disneyland were anxieties about driving cars down long, featureless streets. They were anxieties that you didn't even know you had, about feeling overpowered by buildings that were much taller than you were. I'm talking on a visceral, esthetic, body level. I'm not talking on some kind of mega-political level. The anxieties had to do with how you feel about walking down the street in the city.

CP: To what extent would it seem that building a simulacrum of the kind of city he wanted coincided with the death of those actual cities in California?

KAM: It did. When Walt builds Disneyland, the Pacific Red Cars are still running around. He himself is part of the great suburban sprawl that's starting around Los Angeles when he moves to Holmby Hills. Yet we know for a fact that he liked walkable places. He liked intimate urban environments. Suburbia had already gone almost to pot by the time Disneyland opens, so it's clearly a response against that. There are ironies involved here too, because if it weren't for the freeway system, you couldn't have gotten to Disneyland in the first place, and Orange County real estate wouldn't have been accessible to Walt and the general public. At the same time, exactly that suburban sprawl and the use of the single family car is what's countered all over the place in Disneyland. I mean, Walt practically ruptured himself trying to find attractive means of public transportation that would make people feel good about that kind of thing. Most of the time [in Disneyland] you're going to take the monorail, because he's convinced the monorail is the wave of the future. And I'm half convinced the reason he thought monorails were going to be so cool is because they were so dramatic and fun to look at. There are just hundreds and hundreds of drawings of various monorail cars salted around in the Disney archives.

CP: So do you think the Disney conspiracy theorists are on to anything?

KAM: No. I think they're insane. I think they ought to get a life [laughs]. And I hope their children grow up to be normal and happy!

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