Tears were shed, expectations brought low, but ultimately we came out of the Animation Presentation debacle with two priceless wristbands to tomorrow’s Live Action Film presentation and the promise of a proper night’s sleep in a proper bed and not a queue on a cement floor. That meant we had about 4 hours left of Day 1. What to do?
We decided first to go pick up our complimentary Gold Member gift. This year it was a print depicted caricatures of past Disney Legends. The queue for the gift had been long earlier in the day so it seemed like a good time to line up since we had no plans. Next door to the queue was the ShowPass distribution queue, which was empty.
Like StorePass, ShowPass gets you a place in line for a guaranteed seat to an afternoon or evening panel/presentation. The distribution area had a helpful electronic sign showing which panels still had tickets available. While we waited in line Busy Bumble skimmed over the list of available panels. “What’s the Disney Legends 30th Anniversary panel?” she asked. I opened up the D23 Expo app to see what the summary was. Sweet churros and corn dogs! Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian extraordinaire is the moderator! Disney Legends such as Kathryn Beaumont and Dave Smith will be there! Mark Hamill!!!! We didn’t do the Legends ceremony this morning but we could do this! Screw that print; it’ll be there tomorrow. Get me those ShowPasses!
So that’s how we ended up in the Legends 30th Anniversary panel, which I had pretty much written off without even looking at it. I am so glad to be wrong. This was an amazing panel with some very important Disney VIPs.
Kathryn Beaumont: Voice actress and model for Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Wendy in Peter Pan. Her voice is almost exactly the same. Eerie.
Bob Gurr: Imagineer who basically built anything with wheels in Disneyland. Two of his most famous achievements are Autopia and the Monorail!
Karen Dotrice: Most famous as Jane Banks in Mary Poppins, but she has also appeared in the Nine Lives of Thomasina.
Dave Smith: Archivist Emeritus of the Disney Archives. We had the pleasure of meeting him at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank last year.
Bill Farmer: Voice of Goofy and Pluto. Yup, every “A’hyuck” from Goofy and every bark from Pluto is him.
Andreas Deja: Animator who drew Gaston, Jafar, and Scar and has since mentored the newest generation of Disney animators.
Mark Hamill: It’s Luke Skywalker!!!
I was already pumped seeing Leonard Maltin in person. I’ve watched countless documentaries, retrospectives, and specials with him and read his critiques of films recent and past. To see that he is as congenial and engaging in person as he is on television and in his writing was a blast.
Leonard began by bringing out the sculptor behind the magnificent Legends statue: Andrea Favilli. Andrea spoke about how his design ended up become this one of a kind statue, a copy of which is given to each Legend. He was picked by Roy E. Disney and the Disney board based on a submission he admittedly didn’t think would get much attention.
He said the hardest part of designing the piece was trying to encapsulate all of the different branches of the Walt Disney Company into one piece of art. Legends come from many different disciplines (publishing, animation, music, finance, engineering, etc.) so the statue couldn’t just honor one thing. The statue blends together three principles: Imagination or the creative spirit (the scroll that transforms into a film strip with Steamboat Willie Mickey on it), Craftsmanship or dedication to practical skill and execution (the hand holding a wand aloft), and Magic or the culmination of creativity and ingenuity (the castle rising into being). Every person who has worked for Disney must have these three things and each Legend embodies these traits. Roy E. Disney asked him to explain his design both in private and in a meeting with the board, which awarded him the honor of using his design. There is a large-scale statue in Legends Plaza at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank which shows the extreme detail and beauty of his sculpture. Each Legend receives a cast bronze statue, forged in Emeryville CA, and each is slightly unique due to the casting process.
The presentation was not only a celebration of the Legends program but a celebration of the individuals on the panel. They each got a chance to talk about their experiences working for Disney and what their legacy means to them. Here’s a few of the choice stories from the panel:
- Kathryn Beaumont: Kathryn was handpicked by Walt Disney for Alice because he was looking for a voice that would appeal to both Americans and Britons. She spent much of the time on both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan learning everything about the animation process. When she was finished with her voice or modeling work (and her school work) various people would show her all the departments. She got to see the film from the storyboard phase all the way through editing and printing.
- Bob Gurr: Bob was not an engineer or mechanic by trade. He was a young kid just out of college and he happened to have a neighbor who was a high-ranking Imagineer. The guy kept mentioning things about cars on tracks and amusement park rides, even showing young Bob a few sketches and plans. One day Bob got a chance to interview for a job working at WED Enterprises (the forerunner to Imagineering) but it would be working on car bodies for what we now know is Autopia. He had never done such work in his life and didn’t know how to even begin to learn. When they asked him if he had any experience and could do it he said, “Yes!” As he told the audience: “The answer is always yes.”
- Karen Dotrice: Karen flew around in Walt Disney’s private jet (Mickey 1) quite a bit as Walt often brought the cast and crew to his vacation home in Palm Springs for breaks. Both Karen and Walt had a fear of flying, but the jet was outfitted with a play area to distract passengers. It was made to look like a vintage sweet shop. Karen spent her flights selling candy to the plane’s crew, Walt Disney, and her cast mates. As a side note in another story Karen said her reaction to accepting her Disney Legend status was a resounding “Hell yeah!” She then blushed and said, “I’ve been in America too long.” She also made Bob Gurr blush when she said that despite her sister being onstage in the West End doing a musical version of Calendar Girls (about a ladies club that creates a naughty charity calendar),our group shouldn’t expect her (Karen) to strip tonight. Naughty Bob Gurr turned tomato red and had the cutest smirk.
- Dave Smith: The first time Dave entered Walt Disney’s office it was unauthorized. He snuck in there once when he found the door was unlocked. In the end he did go in there officially to catalogue the office’s contents, but it was eerie that first time since the place seemed to be frozen in time. His work paid of when the decision was made to restore the office. Dave is an admitted Disneyphile and basically created his job out of thin air since prior to his work no one really took care of the Archives.
- Bill Farmer: Bill grew up imitating everyone and everything. He even played pranks as a kid over the phone with dead-on impressions of John Wayne, George Burns, and others. That was how he got his job with Disney: he could imitate Goofy. He now does Goofy’s voice for everything Goofy appears in (have you played Kingdom Hearts? He’s in that!). He’s also the voice of Pluto, meaning every time Pluto barks, growls, pants, whines, or otherwise makes a sound it’s him doing it.
- Andreas Deja: Andreas joined the company as the old animation legends (the Nine Old Men) were retired and slowing down in their activities. He found out that Frank and Ollie (a famous duo who were one of the Nine Old Men responsible for films like Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and The Jungle Book) were still hanging around the old Animation building. He made it his mission to essentially stalk them until he could befriend them. They became his mentors and he introduced other animators to them, carrying the traditions of the founding animators into the new generation. He now mentors the newest groups of animators and gives lectures and classes on animation (you can catch him and a retrospective of his work at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco).
- Mark Hamill: Mark had a great laugh at his bio in the expo program, which made it sound like he began his acting career on General Hospital. That was actually just the first time he ever worked for a Disney-connected group. Mark has a prolific career as a voice over actor, voicing characters in various films, television shows, and video games. Famously he’s the most recognizable contemporary voice actor for the Joker from Batman. When he first auditioned for the part he knew he had his legacy as Luke Skywalker working against him, plus the large shadows cast by Caesar Romero and Jack Nicholson who had played the Joker in live action projects. He decided he probably wasn’t going to get the job, but he’d give them his best, wildest Joker and have a great story. He was shocked when they offered him the job. He’s been shocked they’ve kept him this long.
Hearing their personal stories and seeing them as real people, not just celebrities made missing the Animation presentation worth it. Mark Hamill is as funny as everyone says he is (he gave a great double-take when he heard that the legendary actor Charles Laughton was Karen Dotrice’s godfather. He did is again when she casually dropped that his wife Elsa Lanchester was a close family friend and she’d gotten her a job on Mary Poppins).
We came out of this panel surprising elated that we’d missed out on the Feature Animation/Pixar presentation. If we’d been in there it would have been awesome, but we realized that there was a reason all these other smaller panels exist: to give everyone a chance at a one-of-a-kind expo experience. To hear Andreas Deja recount his years in animation or hear Bill Farmer give us his best impromptu Goofy was worth everything.
After that we didn’t know what else could top such a memorable panel experience. We headed back down to the ShowPass booth to see what else we could squeeze into now that we knew better than to shortchange the lesser-known panels. We had a number of options still available (people start heading home early as the day begins to wear on them, leaving seats open for the rest of us) but what caught our eye was a concert in the Arena: Melodies in Walt’s Time, the Music of Disney Live Action Films. We snagged our ShowPasses and realized we had about five minutes to get in line, so we high-tailed it to the Arena queuing area.
In another stroke of amazing luck they still had Gold Member seating available! Nice to know you ShowPass, but I’m a Gold Member for a reason. We took our places in line and were shown to some choice seats in the Arena with a wide open view of the stage and screen.
People filled in rather quickly and soon we were set for a perfect end to our first day. From behind the stage came our host: Whoopi Goldberg!
Whoopi was a blast in person, brimming with wit and humor. She poked fun at the fact she needed a teleprompter and that she was old enough to recall when some of these films came out. Just when we thought we’d calmed down from seeing her out came Leonard Maltin. We’re stalking Leonard Maltin tonight! He and Whoopi traded some fun facts about Disney’s legacy in live action films and the music behind them. A few fun ones:
- The first Disney musical was actually Babes in Toyland. It was amazing that Disney had not made a live action musical until that point, but all of their “musicals” had been feature-length animated films. The film was a box office disappointment. Leonard theorized that the story was too innocent and naive for a 1960s audience plus Laurel and Hardy had made an excellent version in the 1930s that was hard to rival. For my part I love this movie. I still sing “My sheep are gone for good. There goes our livelihood” (or “neighborhood” when I’m feeling cheeky).
- Most of Disney’s memorable music had been theme music. “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” “The Monkey’s Uncle,” “The Shaggy Dog” and others were all part of projects that were not meant to focus on music.
- The biggest problem Walt Disney faced was that other studios, chiefly MGM, had their own teams writing and producing original musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Gigi, and more). He needed his own in-house team. As it turned out they were right down the hall from his office: the Sherman Brothers, who were writing pop music for Annette Funicello.
- What solidified Disney as a studio making musicals was a true classic: Mary Poppins. With a dream team that happens once in a lifetime the film became a smash hit and changed Disney’s live action film department forever.
Whoopi brought out another familiar face: Karen Dotrice! We are totally stalking these people. Karen had some fond memories of coming to Los Angeles to film Mary Poppins. She even shared that Dick Van Dyke is her neighbor now!
Another guest of honor was Jeffrey Sherman, the son of the late great Robert B. Sherman. Jeffrey is himself a composer like his father and uncle Richard before him. He said growing up that he thought everyone’s family made up music. He had a great story from Mary Poppins about how he inadvertently inspired a famous tune. His father and uncle were heartbroken when Walt and Julie Andrews decided not to perform a particular song in the score, one that they considered their favorite. Robert went home and in the course of settling in for the evening asked Jeffrey how his day went. That day Jeffrey had taken the polio vaccine at school, which at the time was an oral immunization that nurses mixed with some sugar in the spoon so kids would take it. Robert was struck by the idea of a spoonful of sugar, and the rest they say is history.
One of my favorite actresses, Lesley Ann Warren (my favorite Cinderella from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella) came out to talk about her memories of working on The Happiest Millionaire and other Disney musicals. She had nothing but fond memories of her cast mates, including Greer Garson and Disney Legend Fred MacMurray. She even disclosed that the alligator George in the film was a real, live alligator and not a rubber prop. Tommy Steele, who played butler John, had to drag that alligator around in several scenes and Lesley Ann had to grab him a few times too. His muzzle was secured for safety, but she was still terrified. Lesley Ann also appeared in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. She had a great story after a clip was played of her in a scene competing in a dance-off with a blonde dancer. That blonde dancer was Goldie Hawn! And Kurt Russell, Goldie’s now partner, played Lesley Ann’s brother in the film. They had appeared in a film together before ever properly meeting and falling in love. By the way, Goldie Hawn was an incredible dancer.
A surprise guest was Joyce Bulifant, who played Lesley Ann’s character’s roommate Rosemary. Joyce was full of stories since she was one of those rare cases of someone who knew everyone in Hollywood before she became an actor. She was terrified filming The Happiest Millionaire since she wasn’t confident in her singing or dancing, especially compared to actors like Lesley Ann, who was a trained dancer and singer. Joyce snuck onto the Walt Disney Studios lot as often as she could to practice, until one day she was stopped by Walt Disney himself. He told her he’d noticed her sneaking onto the lot and rather than scold her he said he admired her dedication and saw a great deal of potential in her. “I have big plans for you,” he told her. A few days later he died. The crowd cried out in sympathy. We’ll never know if Joyce Bulifant could have been the next big thing. She seemed to take it in stride and said she treasured her time working there and it wasn’t the end of her career.
The final guests were Caryl Carothers, the widow of Happiest Millionaire screenwriter A.J. Carothers and their son Christopher. Caryl and A.J. were close personal friends with Walt and Lilian Disney and the Happiest Millionaire was A.J.’s biggest success. Caryl was clearly proud of her son Christopher, an accomplished musical theater actor, who had performed “Chim, Chim, Cheree” and “Fortuosity” for us.
Just when we thought the night was over and we’d been maxed out on special guests who shows up but Disney Legend Richard Sherman! Your music scored my childhood! The crowd leapt up and screamed like the biggest Hollywood star had showed up. Yeah, we’re Disney fans. Mr. Sherman seems sprightly and in good spirits, pleased to see his work loved by the crowd and appreciative of the performers.
After we left we thought things had ended on a high note, especially after such disappointment. Was there anything else that could make our night better. Yes. Yes there is.
This inventive, ingenious couple won First Place in the Inspired By category at the Mousequerade earlier today for their amazing, actually working Big Thunder Mountain Railroad costume! The train actually runs on the track (it’s got some special rails to keep it on the track) and has a light up headlight. The costume is made with extensive use of lightweight foam so that the wearer can still walk. Two years ago this couple made the famous Matterhorn costume and I think they’ve outdone themselves. This is costume nirvana for me.
It was an amazing way to end our Day 1 experience. Our emotions had run the gamut; I don’t think the Inside Out emotions could depict how we felt from one moment to the next. We were exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. Time for some grub, a soft bed, and some shut-eye before Day 2.
Up next: Day 2! Yes, You Can Injure Yourself From Clapping Too Much