For the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, the Disney company designed four paviliions, which later they reimagined for Disneyland. In this first volume of a definitive series, historian Andrew Kiste presents the story of the first of these pavilions: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
Two score and fifteen years ago, Walt Disney took an opportunity to bring his unique style of entertainment to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadow. Initially using the fair as an opportunity to determine the level of interest in his theme-park attractions with the "more sophisticated tastes" of those east of the Mississippi River, he quickly realized the opportunity that partnering with the fair would give him in raising funds for new technology to be used at Disneyland in California.
After visiting Walt in California, Robert Moses, the president of the New York World's Fair Corporation, was fascinated with WED Enterprises' new audio-animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln, demanding it be included in his fair. WED quickly established a relationship with the State of Illinois to develop an attraction for its World's Fair pavilion. However, the use of an animatronic Lincoln, only one hundred years after his death, was fraught with controversy, technological setbacks, and procrastination by the Illinois Commission on the New York World's Fair.
Andrew Kiste examines the never-before-told story of the relationship between Walt Disney, WED Enterprises, and the State of Illinois, as together they developed "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" for the Illinois Pavilion at the New York World's Fair of 1964-1965. Drawn extensively from archival documents discovered in the Illinois State Archives, as well as first-hand interviews with employees of the Illinois "Land of Lincoln" Pavilion at the Fair, Kiste brings the fascinating story of Disney's development of attractions for the Fair to life for the first time.
Part I: Before the Fair
Chapter 1: A Brief History of World’s Fairs
Chapter 2: A Park Everyone Can Enjoy
Part II: Making the Magic Happen
Chapter 3: Planning the Fair
Chapter 4: Printing Money
Chapter 5: A New Birth
Chapter 6: Great Moments
Chapter 7: Faithful Duty to the End
“Are you ready, Walt?” Hamilton Luske asked from the director’s chair behind the cameras.
Walt Disney looked down at his chest, straightening his black tie and creasing the lapels of his gray jacket. “I’m ready, Ham.” Looking behind himself at the bulletin board pinned with concept art and stepping closer to the silver bust of the nation’s sixteenth president, Walt folded his hands against his midsection.
“Quiet on the set!” Luske yelled.
Walt looked at the teleprompter alongside the camera, the title of The Wonderful World of Color episode at the top, “Disneyland Around the Seasons.” He realized that this episode had a special significance for him, marking some of the latest additions and improvements to his Disneyland park, which had celebrated its tenth anniversary only a year before.
The whir of the cameras began. Luske paused a moment to let them start recording. “Action!” he yelled.
“Ever since I was a youngster,” Walt began, “I have had a great admiration for Abraham Lincoln.” Reaching out his hand to his left, the show’s host began to walk towards a small, elevated diorama portraying a stage, the dome of the US Capitol building in the distance with a red, white and blue sky in the background and a small figure of Abraham Lincoln standing in the center.
“So when we decided to bring to Disneyland’s visitors some great moments of Mr. Lincoln’s life,” Walt continued, “we began an exhaustive research.” After a brief pause, he continued walking to his left where a framed photograph showed a close-up view of Lincoln standing on a stage, his hands behind his back.
“We studied his mannerisms, his gestures, and even his voice characteristics. Above all, we wanted to create a faithful physical likeness in this audio-animatronic figure of Mr. Lincoln.” The camera zoomed in revealing that the photograph was not actually of Abraham Lincoln, but rather a Disney-created likeness of the man.
“When we held the opening ceremonies, it was a great occasion for all of us.”
“Cut!” Luske yelled. “That was good, Walt. I think we got the shot we needed.”
Walt walked over to a nearby chair and sat down, spreading his legs slightly with his forearms resting on his knees. He felt a slight catch in his chest as he gasped for air. Attributing it to the lights of the studio and the long day of work, Walt didn’t realize his wheezing was a result of the lung cancer that would claim his life only three days before “Disneyland Around the Seasons” would air on December 18, 1966. Whenever he found himself struggling to breathe, Walt would think back to fond memories. Nearby, Ham Luske and the co-producer of The Wonderful World of Color Harry Tytle were reviewing the footage just shot in a Moviola device. From his chair just off set, Walt could hear his line about the opening ceremonies and dedication for “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland on the park’s tenth anniversary on July 18, 1965.
It had been a sunny day. Surrounded by a number of guests, Walt, his wife Lillian and Disneyland’s ambassador “Miss Tencennial” Julie Rheim stood together before a red ribbon holding a large pair of scissors. Cameras flashed, capturing the moment as the three smiled at the camera.
“Here we go!” Walt called over the crowd, cuing the Disneyland band to start playing nearby. The scissors closed on the ribbon, but it remained intact. Rheim started to laugh as Walt tried not to grimace. He had hoped this wouldn’t happen again; it had taken Richard Nixon’s children eight tries with the oversized scissors when dedicating the Disneyland Monorail in 1959. Luckily, this was not the case in 1965, because with the second snap of the scissors, Walt, Lillian, and Rheim officially opened Main Street USA’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at the Main Street Opera House.
As the band continued to play, guests watching the ceremony clapped enthusiastically. Above the cheers and applause, Walt couldn’t hear the brief exchange between his wife and Miss Tencennial, so he smiled to those standing around and behind them instead.
After the official dedication of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” Walt invited guests into the foyer and theater of the Opera House to enjoy the first public showing of the presentation. With the rest of the building vacant, he invited members of the press with him, Lillian, and Rheim to the exit of the theater, where he was joined by Jim Cassin, the Executive Director of the Illinois Commission to the New York World’s Fair, and other members of the Illinois Commission. Walt conducted a brief dedication of a Tourist Information Kiosk located at the exit of the theater, serving as a mere formality out of respect to those who had helped bring Mr. Lincoln back to life in animatronic form at the New York World’s Fair.
After the conclusion of the kiosk’s dedication, Walt and a small group stepped to the side to watch the reactions of Disneyland guests as they exited the show. Smiles plastered every face. However, Walt didn’t watch the faces of the guests, but rather those of the men and women standing around him: James Algar, who had written and directed “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln;” Cassin, who, partnering with Ralph Newman, the Commission’s Chairman, had been instrumental in bringing the story of the Great Emancipator to the New York World’s Fair; and many of the Imagineers and designers who had helped to bring the figure to electronic life.
“Walt.” Luske’s voice brought the dreamer back to the current reality of the studio. “We are ready to record the voiceover for some of the show segments.”
Walt cleared his throat and pushed himself up out of the chair feeling a sense of pride for accomplishing his childhood dream of bringing the Great Emancipator to life.
Andrew Kiste teaches high school history in Greensboro, North Carolina, and has loved both Disney World and writing for as long as he can remember. He was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and made many family trips to Walt Disney World over the years. Always interested in American and world history, he found himself gravitating to the rides and attractions that centered around historical topics, such as the Hall of Presidents, Pirates of the Caribbean, Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, Spaceship Earth, and The American Adventure. After a lengthy trip to Walt Disney World while still in high school, Andrew began doing research online about the park and frequenting fan blogs, forums, and websites. Some time later, he published his first historical article about a Disney attraction, and then his first three books, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volumes 1, 2, and 3. From there he has not looked back.…