Sunday, July 05, 2009

Ad Astra Per Aspera

I have long celebrated and chronicled Disney-related futurism here at 2719 Hyperion. Connecting the Disney dots between the 1939 World's Fair, the Tomorrowland television episodes and ultimately Walt Disney's own vision of the future embodied in his plans for EPCOT, has been one of my more consistent passions over the past couple of decades. And it is also a passion that extends beyond Disney relevance; I continue to be fascinated and intrigued by the nostalgic futurism that became a significant part of 20th century popular culture.

So it is in these contexts that I experienced such joy and excitement upon discovering Brian Fies' wonderful graphic novel Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? It was as if Fies had channeled so many of my passions--the '39 Fair, comic books, Disney and the space program, just to name a few--into 200 beautifully illustrated pages that chronicle the birth, death and potential rebirth of forward-thinking idealism.

Fies tells the story of a father and son who enthusiastically visit the 1939 New York World's Fair, and are introduced to The World of Tomorrow--television, Elektro the robot, Futurama--just to name a few of its many wonders. Buddy and Pop readily embrace the Fair's idealistic message; Buddy through the wide-eyed wonder of a child, his father through a more grounded view of the necessity of hard work and intelligence.

Fies then employs an odd yet ultimately ingenious storytelling device. Each chapter of the story takes place in a subsequent decade, progressing through the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. These chapters continue the story of Buddy and Pop as they witness the evolution of the World of Tomorrow, but the pair age slower than the passage of time. Buddy begins in 1939 as a young boy of ten or so, but by 1975 is still a teenager straining at the boundaries of their father-son dynamic. All the ideals, hopes and dreams of three separate generations become encapsulated in Buddy and Pop's time-displaced half century journey.

Accompanying each of these chapters is a mock comic book that features the adventures of Commander Cap Crater and his young sidekick, the Cosmic Kid. These two characters are thinly vieled four-color incarnations of Buddy and Pop, and similarly journey through the decades, with each era's comic book brilliantly reflecting that time frame's comic book culture. The publisher creatively delivers these pages via halftone-dot newsprint.

Walt Disney is mentioned throughout, most prominently during the 1955 chapter where Fies correctly gives the Disneyland television program its due for bringing the notion of space exploration prominently into the public eye. Disney's death, and his unrealized dream of EPCOT is mentioned in the 1975 chapter, a vignette that summarizes the cynicism and cultural failures that ultimately squelched much of the forward thinking idealism that Buddy and Pop had previously embraced. Similarly, Commander Cap Crater retires his comic book when confronted with a reality that undermines the very principles of a brave and noble journey into the future.

But Fies does not dwell on futures lost. His concluding chapter jumps to a not-too-distant future that is both idealistic and realistic, bringing Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? to both a happy and satisfying conclusion.

If Disney's original EPCOT film gave you goosebumps, or if you ever emerged excited and energized after riding Spaceship Earth or Horizons at EPCOT Center, you will no doubt be similarly thrilled and motivated by Brian Fies amazing journey across the 20th century. It is a hopeful, happy vision, and one I intend to revisit many times in my own world of tomorrow.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

America on Parade

Editor's Note: To celebrate Independence Day, we thought we'd revisit this patriotic-themed post from the 2719 Hyperion Archives, originally published in July of 2007.
America on Parade was the centerpiece of the Bicentennial celebrations at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 1976. Disney World was still relatively new and the elaborate parade represented the most extensive entertainment offering the resort had brought forth up until that point.

The parade, which premiered in June of 1975 and ran until September of 1976, combined traditional Disney characters with an entirely new cast of stylized creations called the “People of America.” Numbering over 300, the “People of America” were akin to the doll-like figures of It’s a Small World, but grown up, enlarged and much more elaborate in both costume and setting. Floats were themed to a wide range of subjects, encompassing everything from the first Thanksgiving to women’s suffrage. Perhaps the most famous and notable of the floats was the large oversize rocking chair featuring Betsy Ross sewing an equally oversize American flag.

The endeavor was two years in the making and the creative talents behind it were challenged to present something that was happy and whimsical, yet did not diminish the historical significance of the Bicentennial celebration. A souvenir book on the parade described some of that early concept brainstorming:

Because of Disney's vast experience and expertise in producing entertainments on a grand scale, it was very fitting, as America came to its 200th anniversary, that Walt Disney's company take a leading role in using Disneyland and Walt Disney World as a showcase for the best that America has been and has to offer.

Thus, the long task of collecting reference material on which to create this new and exciting event began. From the outset, the project's goal was not to glorify the famous wars of America, as others had done in the past. Instead, the purpose is to present the lighter, more beautiful aspects of America, those things which have helped make it a great nation. Research on America's history, people, achievements and life-styles was conducted for nearly a year. Thousands of man-hours went into producing the basic concept for a parade... for more than a parade.

As the concept unfolded, it was decided that the parade would be far more than a historical look at our country. The moving pageantry would also recreate memorable moments, such as the first Thanksgiving, Sunday in the park, school days, and many other events. Important American creations and contributions, such as transportation achievements, and inventions like the light bulb, electric iron, and the phonograph, would also be featured. Our beloved pastimes and ways of life including sporting events, popcorn, hot dogs, ice cream, television, movies, and the circus would also become highlights of America on Parade.

The production process was equally extensive in both time and scope as this excerpt illustrates:

When both blueprints and models of the America On Parade stages and settings were completed, the Disney team brought together all the top set design manufacturers in the United States and presented them with the parade plans. These professional theatrical builders, with broad experience in building everything from elaborate floats for the New Year's Day "Tourna­ment of Roses" Parade to grandiose sets for motion pictures and Las Vegas shows, expressed great excitement about America on Parade. After construction contracts were awarded to several firms, work began from coast-to-coast—from Pacoima, California to New York City. Other stages and settings were built in Las Vegas, Nevada and cities in Florida... Orlando, Deland, and Grant.

Because two of everything had to be built for the double production in California and Florida close coordination of all shipping activities was necessary to avoid delays and mix-ups.

Before reaching their final destination, some of the stages had to travel over 3,000 miles.

One of the most interesting aspects of America on Parade was the soundtrack that was created using a restored 1890 band organ. The “Sadie Mae” was discovered in Sikeston, Missouri, and after over 1400 hours of restoration work, it was sent to a Nashville studio where the parade music was recorded. The musical arrangements for America on Parade were done by Don Dorsey, who would go on to produce the music for such theme park spectaculars as the Main Street Electrical Parade and Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. Dorsey’s contributions were especially significant, as they ultimately led to the creation of the Mickey Track computer system that synchronized the parade’s audio between floats and parade zones throughout the park.

In addition, Disney musical veterans the Sherman Brothers wrote and composed a new song, “The Glorious Fourth,” to be the musical centerpiece of the pageant.
Much in the way that attractions like Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean were unique for presenting non-Disney character related entertainment, so was the People of America portion of America on Parade distinct and notable. With its highly stylized designs and nostalgic musical accompaniments, it remains a memorable presentation from Walt Disney World's first decade.