Wednesday 16 November 2016

Walt Disney and the Gay Nineties

In a 1997 exhibition of the same name, scholar Karal Ann Marling aptly described Walt Disney's theme park ventures as "The Architecture of Reassurance." Through gingerbread houses, Western stockades, futuristic rocketships, and fairy tale villages, visitors to the newly christened Disneyland in the Fifties and Sixties could find nostalgia, comfort, and hope for the future through the uncertainties of America's changing culture and global position in the post-war milieu. Complimenting Walt Disney's Disneyland, the theme park, was Walt Disney's Disneyland the television series. Each week, Walt's comforting public persona would introduce updates on the theme park, behind-the-scenes programs for newly arriving films, and reruns of past cinematic successes, each themed to a different section of the park, be it Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, or Tomorrowland. When first unveiled to the world, "Disneyland" was not merely a theme park or a TV show or motion pictures, but a state of mind. The gateway to this mentality was Main Street U.S.A. and the reassuring myth of the Gay Nineties.

The Gay Nineties were a romantic myth of the American 1890's and 1900's most prevalent in the 1930's through 1960's. This ideal of a simplified "Good Old Days" provided a psychological reprieve from the complications of the Dirty Thirties, World War II and dawning Cold War. Ironically so, considering that the actual 1890's were not so gay and included, amongst other things, an economic depression (from whence came the trope of the abandoned, haunted Victorian mansion) and American colonial expansionism typified in the Battle of Wounded Knee and Spanish American War. Rarely do such details interfere with historical romanticism, however. It popped up through numerous films and television series during the time period, including The Gay Nineties released in 1933 and remade in 1942. Abbot and Costello had fun with The Naughty Nineties (1945), from which one finds the famous rendition of their "Who's on First" routine. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin frequented the era, as did Mae West, in such films as She Done Him Wrong (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), and Klondike Annie (1936). Nostalgia for the Gay Nineties grew to include the Antebellum South in Gone With the Wind (1939) and Show Boat (1936). Cinema likely did the most to fix the image of the Gay Nineties and extend it to a general, idealized Victorian Era.

Walt's own recollections of the turn of the 19th century were filtered through the eyes of a child. He was born in Chicago in 1901 and his family moved to Marceline, Missouri, in 1906. They moved again, in 1911, to Kansas City. Walt's experience of small town, "Main Street U.S.A." was a brief span of four years between the ages of five and nine, just long enough to leave a dream-like impression. Though not old enough to operate from perfectly clear recollections, Walt was at just the right age for the invention of the "Gay Nineties" in the Twenties and Thirties. Every generation seems to go through a crisis of nostalgia in its mid-twenties and thirties, whichever decade that may have been. For Walt's generation it manifested in a myth of bustled women in big feathered hats, men sporting seersucker suits and handlebar moustaches, barbershop quartets, pennyfarthings, and horseless carriages.

Long before Walt built Main Street U.S.A., his studio eased into stories of Victorian nostalgia. Shorts like The Nifty Nineties (1941), Crazy Over Daisy (1950), Casey at Bat (1946), The Brave Engineer (1950), Football Now and Then (1953), and Pigs is Pigs (1954) capitalized on it, as did feature films like Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1949). The latter was especially personal for Walt. Starring Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten of Song of the South, supported by folk singer Burl Ives, So Dear to My Heart is the story of a boy and his black sheep in rural America, replete with Godfearing values and the rural charm of county fairs and dime stores, as well as animated interludes and a magnificent steam engine. Of it, Walt was quoted as saying "So Dear was especially close to me. Why, that's the life my brother and I grew up with as kids in Missouri."

Introduction to So Dear to my Heart.

The Nifty Nineties, starring Mickey Mouse, acts as something of a thesis statement for the Gay Nineties ideal. The short's Vaudevillian duo were based on two Disney animators into whose personal lives the Gay Nineties seeped. "Fred" was Fred Moore and "Ward" was Ward Kimball, the more chronic of the two cases. Kimball's most unsung recognition comes from having designed and animated Jiminy Cricket, The Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and the Crows from Dumbo, as well as animating the grand, insane "Three Caballeros" musical number from the eponymous film.

The Nifty Nineties.

Behind the scenes, Kimball was a rabid rail fan and is credited with helping nurture Walt Disney's own interest in trains. It was an interest that led inexorably towards the Disneyland Railroad, upon the tracks of which now roll the engine #5 Ward Kimball. Kimball enjoyed a full-size, narrow-gauge railway of his own in his backyard, dubbed the Grizzly Flats Railroad. Quaint photos from the unveiling show the party reveling in a Gay Nineties atmosphere and shooting their own slapstick silent films. As a gift, Walt donated the station from So Dear to My Heart to the Grizzly Flats RR... Only to ask for it back when he needed it for Disneyland. Kimball, who put a great deal of effort into fixing the false front into a real building refused, and the Frontierland/New Orleans Square station seen in Disneyland today is a replica.

Walt and Ward with their toys.

Lookout! The Grizzly Flats RR is now operational!

Kimball also achieved some degree of fame as the trombonist and leader behind the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland Jazz band composed of Disney animators. Other members included Frank Thomas, Danny Alguire, Harper Goff (designer of the Nautilus), Clarke Mallery, Monte Mountjoy and Ed Penner, all of whom wore vintage firemen's helmets and rode around in an antique fire truck. The group had a storied career, recording some 13 albums before commitments to Disney forced them to pack it in. Walt always said that they would be allowed to do their side project so long as it never interfered with their day jobs. They did, however, appear in the One Hour in Wonderland Disney Christmas special, the Disneyland opening day broadcast and the Goofy cartoon How to Dance, as well as record one of their albums live at Disneyland.

The Firehouse Five Plus Two perform Red Hot River Valley

As the Fifties drew on, Walt's indulgence of Victorian romanticism ramped up and culminated in Disney's own recreation of that nostalgic myth in Disneyland, with its Main Street U.S.A. and Disneyland Railroad. Lady and the Tramp (1955) was an expression of it, as was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Sci-Fi form the year before, and Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland in fairy tale form in 1953 and 1951 respectively. Ordinarily, a Gay Nineties setting is distinguished from a simply Victorian setting by a more affected set of tropes and a generally more American sensibility.

Nevertheless, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is intrinsic to understanding this period of Disney's nostalgia-driven film-making. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea used the Victorian setting of Jules Verne as a safe distance from which to explore the threat of atomic power, reassuring modern day viewers that the Fifties would be an enlightened time for the use of such immense natural forces. Walt Disney's great paean to the Atomic Age - an episode of his TV series entitled Our Friend the Atom - even began with the closing scenes of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

When Disneyland was still in its planning stages, a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea walkthrough attraction was slated for the Opera House on Main Street. On first blush this would seem incongruous, since Sci-Fi would seem to belong more appropriately in Tomorrowland. Yet consider that 20,000 Leagues has a Victorian setting, and it is the set-up for a moral-political message that would receive its payoff in Tomorrowland. Just as the film was a cautionary tale placing the discovery of atomic power back 100 years to offer a utopian promise that the modern age would be able to use that power responsibly, having the attraction in Main Street would affirm that atomic anxiety is a thing of the past that the utopian promises of Tomorrowland would leave behind. As it happened, however, a shortage of money and attractions for Tomorrowland shuffled 20,000 Leagues over to the building currently occupied by Star Tours.

Detail of an original layout for Main Street USA, with the 20,000 Leagues
walkthrough attraction in the Opera House (right side of the illustration). 

When Disneyland was originally designed and built, the central hub worked as an axis that united and contrasted the disparate sections of the park. Frontierland and Tomorrowland are right across from each other because they contrast two eras of exploration: the settlement of the Western frontier and the settlement of the Interstellar frontier. They contrast the idealized vision of the past with the idealized vision of the future, the spread of civilization across the world and into space (alas that this poetry has been whittled away by Pirates on one end and Pixar on the other). Adventureland did not actually gain an axial contrast until 1959 when the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage and Monorail were inserted into Tomorrowland. Then they had the romance of exploration from both the bygone era of colonialism and the modern era of scientific discovery. Main Street U.S.A. most directly contrasted with Fantasyland, but it also did more than that.

Main Street U.S.A. was intended, the story goes, to be a fanciful recreation of Walt Disney's boyhood memories. When he looked to Harper Goff to realize this nostalgic kick, Goff took inspiration from his own boyhood home of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and distinctive buildings from a few other small towns. These would also have appealed to the guests of their generation. For their children it would have recalled seeing black-and-white movies set during the Gay Nineties that were popular in the Thirties and Forties. For the grandkids it would have been like their grandparents’ stories come to life.

For the majority of guests, then, Main Street USA was a reversion to childhood. It was taking them back to the halcyon days of yore when grandma was just a blushing girl and grandpa a stumbling boy. From there it is an easy transition from childhood frivolity to childhood fantasy, from the town square of fact to the royal court of fairy tales. Not only that, but it also primed guests for a reversion to childhood fascination with the Wild West and childhood hopes for a radiant future. Main Street U.S.A. is the first thing a guest sees when they go to Disneyland, as well as the last. Main Street starts before one even enters the park, before they pass under the entry plaque declaring that they are entering a world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy. The turnstiles, train station, and steam trains of the Disneyland Railroad are all in gingerbread Victorian style. Passing under the archway, the stationmaster’s call echoing in their ears, guests emerge into the bustle of the town square. Here are horseless carriages and horse-drawn streetcars, popcorn carts and penny fortune tellers, refrains of barbershop and ragtime, and the quaintly ornate buildings of America's collective nostalgia of the 19th century.

Given the importance of music in setting the mood of Main Street U.S.A. (and to the Disney company in general... What would a Disney film be without music?), Disneyland Records released several albums pulled from the park and its performers. The album Disneyland Band Concert, recorded live at Disneyland in 1956, is a mix of classic Disney tunes with genuine era music performed by the Disneyland marching band. Dee Fisher on Main Street's Wurlitzer organ recorded an album entitled Echoes of Disneyland, which is wonderfully evocative of a incandescent summer evening in Walt's original theme park. Life of the Party featured music from Disneyland's own player piano in the Wonderland Music Store on Main Street in two volumes.  

Meet Me Down on Main Street was performed by the house barbershop quartet, The Mellomen. Perhaps the most famous member of the foursome is Thurl Ravenscroft who is a familiar voice throughout Disneyland and as the original growl behind Tony the Tiger. In his posthumous life, he can be seen as one of the Singing Busts in the Haunted Mansion's grand "swingin' wake" finale. Meet Me Down on Main Street perfectly captures the mood of Main Street U.S.A., as articulated by the lyrics of the eponymous song:

The firemen's band is gonna' play,
So meet me down on Main Street.
They'll play "tra-ra-ra-boom-de-ay",
Parading down on Main Street.
We'll pause a while at the popcorn stand,
What an evening, ain't it grand?
Our little home town is a fairy land
Down on old Main Street. 


Unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, most of Disney's Gay Nineties films were family stories affirming relational bonds, and being Disney, they were also renowned for their music. The Happiest Millionaire from 1967 and Summer Magic from 1963 both contributed medleys to Disneyland's Main Street background music mix. The Sherman Brothers, who wrote many of Disney's most iconic soundtracks including Mary Poppins (1965) and It's a Small World, contributed a survey of American musical history in the cartoon A Symposium on Popular Songs (1962) and soundtrack album Tinpanorama.

In it's own way, Summer Magic reflected on modern uncertainties in Victorian form. There is no specific date given to the events of the film, only a joke "Place: Boston... Time: Rag." The story revolves around a family fallen on hard times after the death of their patriarch, forcing them to move away to a small town in rural Maine. Their reduction to poverty because of the father's poor investments reflects the economic depression that hit in the mid-1890's, a perpetual concern. The social upheavals in American and global society at the time left the field ripe for reassuring nostalgia. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy emerged as national leaders in the preceding years by offering hope in the midst of troubles.

The "Ugly Bug Ball" number from Summer Magic,
which you might remember from Ren and Stimpy.

Summer Magic once more starred Burl Ives, this time along Disney's big child star, Hayley Mills. Her career with Disney began in 1960 with Pollyanna, adapting Eleanor Porter's 1913 novel. A quintessential Gay Nineties film, it is the quaint story of a girl who is brought into the household of the family who founded the village of Harringtontown. The townsfolk are eventually stirred from depression under the thumb of the Harringtons to near revolution by the antics of such a pleasant child. Revolution, that is, in the form of a blissful town carnival (and an incredible sermon by the preacher, played by Karl Malden). Problems follow and Pollyanna doesn't always remain the happy-go-lucky character, and though the end appears catastrophic and uncertain, there is still a sense of hope and good cheer.

Opening to Pollyanna, replete with quaint Gay Nineties imagery.

The Happiest Millionaire, besides being the final film Walt Disney was personally involved with, is based on the life of true-life philanthropist and eccentric Anthony J. Drexel Biddle. It is several steps removed from his life, being a film adaptation of a play adapted from the book written by Cordelia Drexel Biddle about ten years after her father's untimely passing in 1948. As such, some of the genuine historical circumstances have been massaged out (for example, Angier Duke, played by John Davidson, lost a hand and most of that arm in 1905, and he drowned in 1923, a few years after the events of the movie). In return we receive a rollicking Disney musical that examines, with a light heart, issues of social change. The "Nouveau Riche" New York Dukes butt heads with the "Old Money" Philadelphia Biddles, Angier Duke wants to leave inherited wealth behind to pursue his dreams of being an automotive industrialist in Detroit, the Irish butler John Lawless is looking for new life and opportunity in America, and Anthony Drexel Biddle is trying to drum up support for American involvement in The Great War. The film was released during the Summer of Love, in the thick of opposition to the Vietnam War, and Lawless' song "I'll always be Irish" even includes a reference to how "some day" there may even be an Irish president.

Tommy Steele's opening number from The Happiest Millionaire.

Victorian nostalgia has been a running concern for Disney ever since Walt's passing in 1966. It has only been with Shanghai Disneyland in 2016, that Imagineers dispensed with a Main Street as a "Magic Kingdom" park's opening act (and even then, its Mickey Avenue is a pastiche of Main Street). That might be the first crack, but Disney nevertheless remains the last bastion of Gay Nineties romanticism. Interest in Victoriana comes in waves, but despite fashions and films, it is unlikely that the nostalgic myth of the Gay Nineties will ever make a serious return. Society no longer has use for the reassurances that the myth provides, but it always seems to have a use for the reassurances offered by Disney.

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