No one knows Disney history, or tells it better, than Jim Korkis, and he’s back with a new set of 20 stories from his Vault of Walt. Whether it’s Disney films, Disney theme parks, or Walt himself, Jim’s stories will charm and delight Disney fans of all ages.
The best-selling Vault of Walt series has brought serious, but fun, Disney history to tens of thousands of readers. Now in its fourth volume, the series features former Disney cast member and master storyteller Jim Korkis’ home-spun, entertaining tales, from the early years of Walt Disney to the present.
Step inside the vault with Jim to hear about:
Discover these and many other new tales of Disney history, as only Jim Korkis can tell them, in The Vault of Walt: Volume 5.
Then be sure to check ALL the volumes in The Vault of Walt!
Foreword by Paula Sigman Lowery
Introduction by Jim Korkis
Part 1: Walt Disney Stories
Walt's Love of Nature
Walt Battles the Commies: The HUAC Testimony
The Men Who Would Be Walt Disney
The Hands of Walt Disney
And Now Your Host … Walt Disney
Part 2: Disney Film Stories
The Classic Pete's Dragon
The Disney Package Features
The Forgotten Films of Figment
Disneyland U.S.A.: The Movie
Two Holiday Cartoons: Funny Little Bunnies and Trick or Treat
Part 3: Disney Park Stories
The Origin of the Disneyland Wienie
Robobama: President Obama in the Hall of Presidents
The Story of The American Adventure
The Story of Disneyland’s Upjohn Pharmacy
The Magic of Animation: Back to Neverland
Part 4: Other Disney Walt Stories
Walt and the 1960 Winter Olympics
The Disney Christmas Comic Strips
The Story of Disney 8mm Home Movies
Tinker Bell Cocktail
In Praise of Ron Miller
I suppose you could call me the “accidental” Disney historian.
I planned to be a children’s librarian, to tell stories and foster in children and young adults a love of reading and a passion for research. But when I left graduate school armed with a master’s degree in library and information science, positions in children’s libraries were few and far between.
Instead, I found myself working alongside Dave Smith in the Walt Disney Archives at the Disney Studio in Burbank, California. I thought I’d be there for perhaps two years, before returning to the children’s room. However, I found myself deeply engaged with the legacy of Walt Disney, working alongside and learning from many of his colleagues, and helping researchers both inside and outside the company with their inquiries into Disney’s history.
I never did go back into children’s librarianship. I spent 20 wonderful years at Disney before “retiring” to raise a family and work with my husband, Howard Lowery, in managing an animation art gallery in Burbank and producing a series of art auctions and book signings.
A few years later I was thrilled and honored when Walt Disney’s daughter Diane and her family asked me—along with author Jeff Kurtti and Imagineer Bruce Gordon—to help develop the content for the acclaimed Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. These days I serve as a historical consultant for the museum as well as for many divisions of The Walt Disney Company.
The story of Walt Disney, and the legacy he and his team of artists and storytellers have left to the world, continues to fascinate us, perhaps more than ever before. We want to know more, to go behind-the-scenes, and learn about not only what he accomplished, but also how and why he did it. Although much of this history is contained within the files of The Walt Disney Company and inaccessible to the general public, much is also available through the recollections of those who worked with and for him, telling the stories of the projects they shared.
By exploring and investigating these stories we gain a deeper understanding of the man behind the magic, and the men and women who brought his visions to life. While some of the stories may be familiar, hearing them from different perspectives often provides greater comprehension. The more we know, the more we can appreciate Walt’s legacy. By preserving and sharing these stories, we make them available for the next generation of artists and designers to carry his legacy forward.
Among the group of acknowledged Disney historians are a number of truly stellar researchers and documentarians who dig deep, peeling back the layers and revealing previously unseen truths. Their works are the backbone of my research collection. Their names are undoubtedly familiar (and if not, they should be!): Robin Allan, Mike Barrier, John Baxter, Randy Bright, John Canemaker, Andreas Deja, Christopher Finch, Didier Ghez, Bruce Gordon, John Grant, Don Hahn, J.B. Kaufman, Jeff Kurtti, Leonard Maltin, Cecil Munsey, Don Peri, Brian Sibley, Marty Sklar, Dave Smith, Charles Solomon, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and Bob Thomas (whose Walt Disney: An American Original, is still—in my opinion—the definitive biography).
Author Jim Korkis is truly an esteemed member of this select group. He does meticulous research, and generously shares his findings with intelligence, insight, grace, and style.
Prior to writing books under his own name, from 2006 to 2010 Jim regularly wrote a splendid internet column under the pseudonym Wade Sampson. When Jeff, Bruce, and I were working on the Walt Disney Family Museum project, I regularly sent “Wade’s” columns to Walt’s daughter Diane, using them to support the story we were telling.
I particularly appreciated Jim’s series, “In Walt’s Words”. The Walt Disney Archives had published an in-house collection of Walt’s quotes (which has since been published by Disney Editions), but Jim’s research into obscure magazine articles and interviews with Walt provided additional (and deeper) insights into Walt’s thinking. Jim’s “In Walt’s Words” columns have become a much-used resource in my digital reference collection; when verifying the authenticity of supposed “Walt quotes”, I not only reach out to Marty Sklar, who wrote many of Walt’s speeches, but to Jim as well.
After receiving one of Jim’s essays in 2008, Diane wrote to me: “I’ve admired ‘Wade Sampson’s’ writings, in both of his identities, because they were so empty of P.R. babble, and really sounded like Dad.” She appreciated Jim’s always enthusiastic support of the Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened in 2009, and the following year wrote the foreword for his first book, The Vault of Walt.
Since then Jim has written four Vault of Walt volumes, plus many other Disney-related titles. All are impeccably researched and eminently enjoyable. I am eager to read this fifth installment. I know we are all in for a treat!
My dad used to say, “As you get older, time seems to move faster.”
My personal theory is that the time you have left is such a smaller percentage of the time you have already lived that each passing day significantly lessens what is left. When you are younger, there seems to be so much time that you take it for granted.
When I was a kid, time seemed slow and endless and I desperately wanted to speed it up to get to summer vacation or some other goal like being old enough for a driver’s license. I wanted to be more in control of my time rather than having dictated to me how I would use it by school, parents, and other outside forces.
It never occurred to me that you actually became less in control of your time as you get older because of adult responsibilities, and that as you became more aware of all the things that need to be done, there seems to be less time to do them all.
When people tell me that I am so prolific in writing about Disney history, it never occurs to them that some of it is a desperation to get this material in print in the little time that I have left, that I have written on the subject for thirty-five years so some of the basic research or rough drafts have already been done, and that I need the income from new books to support myself and pay my bills.
These factors helped in my producing another volume in the popular Vault of Walt series that is now in your hands.
The specter of all those unfinished Disney books that have been announced over the years, but which their authors couldn’t complete, continue to exhort me to write, write, and write some more while I still can, rather than dreaming that “some day” I will write them when I can find more time.
In addition, this year is the 50th anniversary of the passing of Walt Disney. Few people are still alive who knew and worked with Walt. If they were thirty years old when Walt passed away, they are eighty years old today. Each month, there is another one who leaves to work on whatever grand project Walt is planning in heaven.
As a result, many so-called experts and academics have filled the gap and started pontificating on who Walt was and what he was thinking. People who never met him or were never even born when he passed away a half century ago seem to feel quite comfortable talking intimately about him and what he thought and felt.
Trust me. No one knew what Walt was thinking or might do next when he was alive. He was constantly surprising the people he worked with for years.
New discoveries about Walt pop up every day. Just recently, I was browsing through some of the issues in my old magazine collection and ran across an article in the February 1934 issue of Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan. It covers some of the behind-the-scenes stories of the making of the animated short Three Little Pigs (1933) that I used as background material for a chapter about that cartoon in the very first edition of The Vault of Walt. However, since I didn’t need that information, a different paragraph caught my eye when I read the article this time. It described what Walt looked like in 1934:
He is a good-looking fellow. A quick description of him would be “a younger edition of Adolphe Menjou”. However, he doesn’t strive to be well dressed. His studio attire ranges from business suits to blue-denim overalls and tennis shoes. He will walk around the lot stripped to the waist on hot days.
Walt used to walk topless around the Hyperion Studios lot on hot days? I knew the studio did not have air conditioning, just fans. I also knew it could get hot in those stuffy rooms, from interviews with animators who worked there at the time. Yet, in no other biography or article about Walt did it mention him stripping to the waist at work, although it makes perfect sense.
It was an example that new information about Walt is still in “plain sight” waiting to be discovered even decades after his death.
Yet these modern day Disney pop culture “authorities” concentrate on well-worn, often rebuked, stories and instead psycho-analyze Walt, make odd assumptions about his choices, and hold him accountable to the different standards and culture of today instead of examining how visionary he was for his time period when it came to things like employing women in prominent positions or offering notable opportunities and assistance to different minorities and religions or his commitment to conservation.
They propose that he must have had some dark ulterior agenda behind all that he did. He didn’t. Sometimes his temper might flare or he would be stubborn or amazingly naïve just like the rest of us, but he was never a Disney villain. All of the accusations against Walt started after Walt was gone, and now fewer and fewer people are left who can personally refute these falsehoods.
Thus, it becomes even more imperative to get the real stories in print so people can come to their own conclusions based on facts, not speculation or innuendo.
One afternoon in 1965, when former Disney executive Marty Sklar brought him a proposal for the corporate annual report, Walt told him:
Walt Disney is a thing. An image that people have in their minds. And I spent my whole life building it. Walt Disney the person isn’t the image, necessarily. I drink and I smoke and there’s a whole lot of other things that I do that I don’t want to be part of that image. I’m not Walt Disney anymore.
The fascinating real stories about Walt are being supplanted by presumptions, sometimes based on a distorted publicity image.
When it comes to Disney films, so many new films from so many different franchises are appearing each year that some interesting past releases have been shoved aside or diminished so a remake can be lauded without comparison. The stories behind the making of Disney movies are fascinating, but like stories about Walt, they are not being shared with new generations.
The Disney parks are constantly changing as well.
Just in the last twenty-five years, so many things have disappeared from Disney’s Hollywood Studios (including its original name of Disney-MGM Studios) that even before the addition of Star Wars Land and Pixar Land it was almost completely unrecognizable to guests who visited the park in its earliest years.
Things that delighted millions of Disney theme park guests are gone and forgotten today and the stories about them were never documented.
So, like the rest of the volumes in this series, this newest edition is an attempt to briefly stall the march of time and get into print the information about the many worlds of Disney past that may help enhance understanding and appreciation.
There is always more to any story, but, hopefully, this is a good place to start.
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for over three decades. He is also an award-winning teacher, a professional actor and magician, and the author of several books.
Korkis grew up in Glendale, California, right next to Burbank, the home of the Disney studios. As a teenager, Korkis got a chance to meet the Disney animators and Imagineers who lived nearby, and began writing about them for local newspapers.
In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he portrayed the character Prospector Pat in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, and Merlin the Magician for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.
In 1996, Korkis became a full-time animation instructor at the Disney Institute teaching all of their animation classes, as well as those on animation history and improvisational acting techniques. As the Disney Institute re-organized, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, the group that researched, wrote, and facilitated backstage tours and programs for Disney guests and Disneyana conventions.
Eventually, Korkis moved to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs, and then as a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center. He researched, wrote, and facilitated over two hundred different presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and for such Disney corporate clients as Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Blue Cross, Toys “R” Us, and Military Sales.
Korkis has also been the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom; has written articles for several Disney publications, including Disney Adventures, Disney Files (DVC), Sketches, and Disney Insider; and has worked on many different special projects for the Disney Company.
In 2004, Disney awarded Jim Korkis its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.
If you have a question for Jim Korkis that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
I was about 15 when I interviewed Jack Hannah with my little tape recorder and school notebook with questions printed neatly in ink. I learned to develop a very good memory because often when the tape recorder was running, people would freeze up. So, I sometimes turned off the tape recorder and just took notes which I later verified with the person. I always gave them a chance to review what they had said and make any changes. I lost a lot of great stories, although I still have them in my files for future generations, but gained a lot of trust.
I was very, very lucky. I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that when I saw their names in the end credits of the weekly Disney television show that I couldn't just find their names in the local phone book and call them up. Ninety percent of them were gracious, but there were about ten percent who thought it was a joke and that maybe one of their friends had put me up to phoning them.
It was like dominoes. Once I did one interview and the person was pleased, he put me in touch with others. After some of those interviews were published in my school paper and local newspapers, it gave me some greater credibility. Later, when they started to appear in magazines, I got even more opportunities.
JIM: You know, one of the proudest things for me about my books is that not a single factual error has been found.
To do my research, I start with all the interviews I've done over the past three decades, some of which are some available in the Walt's People series of books edited by Didier Ghezz. When necessary, I contact other Disney historians and authorities to fill in the gaps. And I have amassed a huge library of books, magazines, and documents.
When I moved from California to Florida, I brought with me over 20,000 pounds of Disney research material. The moving company that had just charged me a flat fee was shocked they had so severely underestimated the weight, and lost thousands of dollars. That was over fifteen years ago and the collection has only grown since that time.
About The Vault of Walt Series
JIM: I was fortunate to grow up in the Los Angeles area at a time when I had access to some of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers. They shared with me some wonderful stories. I wrote articles about their for various magazines and “fanzines” of the time. All of those publications are long gone and often difficult to find today.
As more and more of Walt’s “original cast” pass away, I realized that their stories had not been properly documented, and that unless I did something, they would be lost. Everyone always told me I should write a book telling these tales and finally I decided to do it.
JIM: She actually contacted me. Her son, Walter, loved the Disney history columns and articles I was writing and would send them to her. I was overwhelmed that she enjoyed them. She was appreciative that I tried to treat her dad fairly and not try to psycho-analyze why he did what he did.
She also liked that I revealed things she never knew about her father. As we talked and I told her I was doing the book, I asked if she would write the foreword. She agreed immediately and I had it within a week. She even invited me to go to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and give a presentation. She is an incredible woman.
JIM: Obviously, the ones about her dad were a big hit. She especially liked the chapter about Walt and his feelings toward religion. She told me that it accurately reflected how she saw her dad act.
JIM: That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I tried to put in all the stories I loved because I figured this might be the only book about Disney I would ever write.
One chapter that I have grown to love even more since it was first published is the one about Walt’s love of miniatures. I recently found more information about that subject, and then on the trip to Disney Family Museum, I was able to spend hours examining some of Walt’s collection up close.
About Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
JIM: I wanted to read a “Making of the Song of the South” book, but nobody else was ever going to write it. I wanted to know the history behind the production, why Walt made certain choices, and as many behind-the-scenes tidbits that could be told. I didn’t want to read a sociological thesis on racism.
Fortunately, over the years I had interviewed some of the people involved in the production, had seen the film multiple times, and had gathered material from pressbooks to newspaper articles to radio shows of the era.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Song of the South. I wanted to get the facts in print and let people make up their own minds.
JIM: I thought I knew a lot after being actively involved in Disney history for over three decades, but writing this book showed me how little I really know.
For example, I learned that it was Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck for decades, who did the whistling for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder. I learned that Ward Kimball used to host meetings of UFO enthusiasts at his home. I learned that the Disney Company tried for years to make a John Carter of Mars feature. I learned that Walt himself tried to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I learned that Disney operated a secret studio to make animated television commercials in the mid-1950s to raise money to build Disneyland. And so much more.
Even the most knowledgeable Disney fans will find new treasures of information on every page of this book.
JIM: Walt Disney was not racist. That is one of those urban myths which popped up long after Walt died, and so he was unable to defend himself.
In my book, I make it clear that Walt had no racist intent at all in making Song of the South. He merely wanted to share the famous Uncle Remus stories that he enjoyed as a child, and he treated the black cast with respect and generosity.
Many people don't realize that the events in the film take place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction. So many offensive Hollywood films made at the same time as Song of the South, even one with little Shirley Temple, depicted the Old South during the Civil War in an unrealistic manner. Walt's film got lumped in with them, and he was a visible target for a much larger crusade.
With John Cawley:
After World War II, a "Red Scare" consumed many Americans, who feared a "Red under every bed". Some Hollywood executives and actors testified before Congress about the perceived Communist threat. Walt was among them.
After World War II, America became deeply concerned about protecting itself from the Russian “Red Menace”. The Cold War created an era of paranoia that the Soviet Communists would attack with atomic weapons at any minute and bury us all before we had a chance to get to a fallout shelter or “duck and cover”.
Senator Joe McCarthy tried to enhance his political profile with his witch-hunting methods of accusing people of being Communists. There were also the publicized Congressional hearings trying to find Communist sympathizers in the film industry who were supposedly influencing the messages that American films were presenting.
Few people know that besides regular live-action motion pictures, the animation industry itself was also a target and many animators lost their livelihoods because of their supposed Communist sympathies. Simply labeling a person a Communist was enough to get that person fired and blacklisted by the entertainment industry for years.
Walt Disney was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) as a “friendly witness” in 1947. This meant not only that he was vehemently against communism, but that he was willing to publicly “name names” of people whom he believed might have Communist sympathies.
The 1947 committee called twenty-four “friendly” and eleven “unfriendly” witnesses to offer testimony. Eight other scheduled unfriendly witnesses were never called to testify. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-Communist, pro-free enterprise political group to which Walt belonged for a time, furnished most of the friendly witnesses who identified instances of alleged Communist activity in Hollywood.
In addition to commenting on perceived Communist influences in the film content, these witnesses also identified alleged Communists and Communist sympathizers at the hearings.
The friendly witnesses included Jack Warner of the Warner Brothers studio, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, film actors Gary Cooper, George Murphy, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, and Robert Montgomery, screenwriter and novelist Ayn Rand, screenwriter Robert Hughes, animator and studio owner Walt Disney, film director Leo McCarey, Ronald Reagan (president of SAG, the Screen Actors Guild), and union leader Roy Brewer.
In addition to identifying individuals they believed to be Communists, friendly witnesses were often asked if they believed Hollywood should make anti-Communist films to reveal “the dangers and intrigue of the Communist Party here in the United States” and if they believed that the US should outlaw the Communist Party. Many witnesses falsely identified people as Communists simply because they did not like them or disagreed with them.
Hundreds of careers were destroyed. However, the fear of a Communist influence in the entertainment industry was not totally irrational, and it is important to realize that the Red Menace was a deeply emotional fear that pervaded everything at the time and that Walt was testifying because he felt the communist philosophy was completely un-American.
Additional hearings by the committee were held in 1951–52, 1953–55, and 1957–58.
To call Walt Disney politically naive would be an understatement. As early as 1931, a Nazi newspaper condemned Mickey Mouse as:
[T]the most miserable ideal ever revealed … the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal…. Down with Mickey Mouse!
Adolf Hitler repeatedly denounced Mickey Mouse and in 1937 tried to ban Mickey from German cinemas. Walt’s response at the time, in Overland Monthy magazine, was to state that:
Mr. A. Hitler, the Nazi old thing, says that Mickey’s silly. Imagine that! Well, Mickey’s going to save Mr. A. Hitler from drowning or something some day … then won’t Mr. A. Hitler be ashamed….
At best, Walt might have been slightly concerned about Hitler’s effect on foreign market distribution of his animated product, but certainly wasn’t politically astute enough to realize how deeply Hitler’s political agenda would impact the American way of life. Once he did become aware, he devoted the entire resources of his studio to winning World War II and defeating the Nazis.
As a young man, Walt really had no political convictions, despite his early support of Franklin Roosevelt that he disavowed in later years. At best, he might have been politically considered a “populist” rather than an actual Democrat or a Republican.
As he grew older, Walt became a staunchly conservative Republican, often bullying his animation staff to make campaign contributions to Republican politicians running for office, like George Murphy and Richard Nixon.
One animator told me that in the 1960s, Walt’s golf cart pargo that he used to get around the backlot of the Disney Studio had a big bumper sticker that read: “Vote for Goldwater!” When he received the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson in 1964, Walt wore a Goldwater button under his lapel that he mischievously flashed to Johnson, who was Goldwater’s Democratic opponent in the upcoming election.
When Walt gave a speech and mentioned that he had some minor traffic tickets for illegal left turns and the officer warned him to only make right turns in the future, Walt smiled and said that would be an easy request because “I lean that way anyway.”
Many believe it was the infamous Disney strike of 1941 that turned Walt away from some of his earlier, more liberal beliefs and toward a harder conservative viewpoint.
The strike occurred because the animators were actively talking about creating a union to protest what they felt was the Disney Studio’s inequitable, arbitrary pay scale, based largely on Walt’s whims. One person in the room like Art Babbit could be making $300 or more a week, while his assistant made $25 a week and ink and painters might make as little as $16 a week, which was not enough to pay normal bills.
During the strike, Walt took out an ad in Variety, the industry trade paper, on July 2, 1941 to proclaim:
I am positively convinced that communistic agitation, leadership and activities have brought about this strike.
Animator Ward Kimball (who didn’t go out on the strike, but stayed inside the studio as part of management) told me that Walt calling the strikers “Communists” was typical “Walt overkill”. It was an easy way of discrediting somebody. Kimball said:
Look, you have to realize that in those days if you said anything against the status quo, if you were even slightly liberal, you were called a communist. It’s still the magic buzz word. If they want to destroy somebody, they say he’s a communist. In those days you were automatically called a communist if you believed in unions.
Walt was really getting all this from [Disney lawyer Gunther] Lessing who was sure that all labor leaders and union members were Commies, that he was dealing with pure communists straight from the Soviet Union. They weren’t! They were fellow artists who wanted an equitable wage.
Walt’s reasoning was that anybody who was against what he wanted to do HAD to be a Communist because Walt was such a staunch American.
Walt felt betrayed by his “boys” who went out on strike and decided that the only reason for that betrayal must have been outside influences like Communist instigators.
To read the rest of the story, pick up your copy of The Vault of Walt: Volume 5.
Upon his election, Barack Obama joined a powerful and popular society: the great (and sometimes not-so-great) statesmen on stage at Disney World's Hall of Presidents.
The Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom was based on an attraction that Walt Disney himself had conceived for a never-built area of Disneyland called Liberty Street, where guests could see moving representations of all the presidents and hear them speak.
When the Hall of Presidents opened in 1971, President Richard Nixon was in office and supposedly visited the park to take a look at his audio-animatronics doppelganger. Since that time, seven additional presidents have been added to the attraction, with President Obama the latest in 2009.
Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, but there are only 43 men standing on the stage because Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, so he is both the 22nd and 24th president.
Obama stands on stage next to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the only other two presidents programmed to speak. Washington’s speech explaining the importance of the presidental oath of office uses portions of a speech he actually gave during his second inauguration ceremony.
Actor David Morse, best known for his work on the television series St. Elsewhere, provides the voice of Washington. He played Washington in the 2008 Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning HBO mini-series John Adams, for which he received an Emmy nomination.
Royal Dano provides the voice of Abraham Lincoln. Walt Disney had seen Dano perform as Lincoln in the acclaimed 1952 five-part Omnibus television program of the same name written by James Agee. Dano was the original voice for the character at Walt Disney World from 1971, as he was for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland from 1964 and the New York World’s Fair. At Walt Disney World, he was replaced from 1993–2008 by Pete Renoudet.
In 2009, during the rehab of the attraction, Imagineering located out-takes and other clips of Dano’s original recordings to use in the current show. The figure in the new version delivers the Gettysburg Address in its entirety.
While there has been some discussion over the decades among historians that Dano did not accurately capture Lincoln’s real voice, almost everyone agrees that his interpretation was “emotionally right”.
Even before the debut at the 1964–65 New York’s World Fair, Walt Disney had to go to Illinois to defend his audio-animatronics re-creation of Lincoln that some in the state felt was going to be “ghoulish” and “grotesque”. Walt told them:
He is going to speak to you. His voice is as close as we could get from actual descriptions of this great man. He will appear in a very dignified setting. While seated in a chair before speaking, he will drop his head in thought, a characteristic Lincoln action.
When he is introduced he will stand—putting his hands behind his back—as though deep in thought. He will appear as life-like as I am standing before you—perhaps more so. I have more at stake in this than the state of Illinois. I am staking my reputation on this—my integrity; I am not a carnival operator.
The first contemporary president to speak in the Hall of Presidents attraction was Bill Clinton, followed eight years later by George W. Bush.
The entire show in the 700-seat theater may not be as entertaining as some people might want, but the technological achievement as well as attention to detail is astounding. For instance, President Franklin Roosevelt wears polio braces under his pant legs as he did in real life, even though they are never seen by the audience.
The newest version of the show that premiered in 2009 is called The Hall of Presidents: A Celebration of Liberty’s Leaders, and it focuses on the bond between the president and the people. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin consulted on the project and said those who see the show should feel a greater sense of closeness to the presidents.
More than a hundred craftsmen contributed to the Obama figure, which they playfully nicknamed Robobama. It was kept under tight secrecy in a Los Angeles warehouse. Disney’s replica of Obama is more realistic than its predecessors thanks to new technology such as a more flexible silicone skin. It was officially unveiled to the public on July 4, 2009. However, there was a lot of work to get to that debut.
Disney animator Blaine Gibson sculpted every president except Obama. When he was sculpting the bust of George W. Bush following his election in 2000, Gibson hinted that for the next president, the job might be passed along to his protégé, Valerie Edwards, a director of sculpting for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Valerie is the daughter of Disney animator George Edwards, who worked on projects like the Disney animated feature film Sleeping Beauty (1959). In his leisure, he painted desert landscapes that were exhibited in art galleries. Edwards died in 1987.
Valerie was the sculptor responsible for the figures of Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbossa for the rehab of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in 2006. She was mentored by Imagineer John Hench for seventeen years, and has a background in science as well as art. She was laid off from Disney in 2010 after twenty-one years of working for Imagineering.
In 2009, Valerie commented on the challenges of sculpting Obama:
It was a great challenge and certainly, for me, it was time to put my best foot forward. After all, Blaine is a tough act to follow.
There are techniques and tools that I learned to embrace from him and add to my repertoire. For this kind of work, it’s not only sculpture as fine art, but sculpture as a mechanical art as well—because of all the internal mechanisms built into the figures. Blaine was the guy who developed this type of sculpture, and he had—and still has—so much to share.
To gather much of the physical information she needed to begin her Obama sculpture, Valerie looked at countless campaign photographs on the internet that showed Obama from a variety of different angles and from all sides. She studied hundreds of photos and hours of video in order to capture every physical attribute and nuance of the president’s look and personality. She stated:
On the internet, you can see so much and select what’s actually useful for detail, because what we’re creating has to be as realistic as possible.
Naturally, there is anatomy involved, but also math. Because so many parts of his face are moving mechanically, you have to be vigilant about diameters and circumferences. The calibration all had to be done through photos and scientific references for musculature.
It’s about finding a pleasant overall look in the facial composition and paying attention to his speech patterns, the muscles that work his face and his expressions both at rest and during speaking. Once it’s done, there are a lot of progressive meetings to meet criteria of other groups that handle the figure and create the movement.
Living up to audience expectations was daunting, to say the least. Certainly this is a figure of a person everybody is acquainted with. They see him on the television and in media constantly. We had an expert anatomist look at it to make sure it was structurally sound and to guide us mechanically.
We’re always working to find new materials and techniques that will deliver a more realistic figure. It’s a constant search for new materials and technology.
It goes from my hands to the audio-animatronics programmers where myriad functions are keyed into the figure’s mechanical substructures for the mouth, eyes and every perfectly synced facial movement.
Then artists work on the finishing facial touches and hairpiece. During the manufacturing phase, I checked on the figure to make sure the external package was not compromised.
Well, it’s a great pressure of course to completely do an accurate job of somebody that’s in the media so often. I can watch the different speeches and I can watch his cadence as he speaks, I can watch his muscles as they move, I can see how his face changes as he speaks to see if there’s any dominance in muscle.
President Obama recorded a recitation of the oath of office and a short speech on March 4, 2009, in the White House Map Room—the same room where he retook the actual oath after a minor flub on Inauguration Day—to accommodate the Hall of President’s updated sound system.
To read the rest of the story, pick up your copy of The Vault of Walt: Volume 5.