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In Search of the Missing Dreamfinders

In Search of the Missing Dreamfinders

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"Two tiny wings, eyes big and yellow, horns of a steer, but a lovable fellow. From head to tail, he's royal purple pigment, and there, voila! You've got a figment! A Figment of imagination," declared the character of Dreamfinder as he created a purple dragon in the original Journey Into Imagination ride that opened at Epcot's Imagination Pavilion on March 5, 1983, "Ah, ah, ah, not quite. I'll throw in a dash of childish delight."

From 1998 to June 2002, Dreamfinder and Figment, who were considered the original spokes-characters for Epcot, disappeared, with Figment returning in 2002 to a re-vamped attraction ride along with a new companion, Dr. Nigel Channing (Eric Idle), the Chairman of the Imagination Institute. Disney fans were overjoyed about the little purple dragon's return and Epcot has plans to expand Figment's presence at the Imagination Pavilion during the coming year.

But what about the missing Dreamfinder?

As Imagineer Tony Baxter told Didier Ghez in one of those outstanding interviews Didier does, "I thought, 'There is this name, the word "figment" that in English means a sprightly little character. But no one has ever visualized it, no one had ever drawn what a figment is. So, here is great word that already has a great meaning to people, but no one has ever seen what one looks like.' So we had a name that was just waiting for us to design the shape for it.

"I came to work and said, 'I have the answer for our show, it is going to be Figment.' We had come out with "Dreamfinder" earlier. That was easy, he was a Santa Claus-type who is wise and older and knows all the great things, a great thinker. But we needed a child-like character that had like a one second attention span and was a little crazy."

Dreamfinder was to be a Santa Claus character but his physical inspiration was actually another Imagineer: the then red-bearded Joe Rhode (who later went on to design Disney's Animal Kingdom). In fact, one of the walk-around Dreamfinder performers met Joe Rhode on an airplane flight years later and jokingly scolded him, "I spent years using makeup to try and get my nose to look like yours!"

To provide the voice for Dreamfinder, WED hired actor Chuck McCann. McCann was a showbiz veteran by the age of seventeen, performing his nightclub act on popular television shows. He has had a career as a serious actor ("The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"), a comic actor ("Silent Movie"), an Oliver Hardy impersonator along with Jim McGeorge in the Stan Laurel role, and as a voice artist in dozens of animated cartoons from "Duck Tales" (Duckworth and the Beagle Boys) to "Fantastic Four" (The Thing) and many more.

A man of many voices, McCann based the voice of Dreamfinder on Frank Morgan as the Wizard in MGM's "The Wizard of Oz." However, during the recording of the original sessions, there was some dispute (which has never been clearly explained) and McCann left the project. The Imagineers found a "sound alike" in Ron Schneider who had been an understudy for Wally Boag at the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Disneyland. Schneider recorded the remaining lines for the character and was hired to be the first walk around Dreamfinder character.

Schneider is the Dreamfinder who was interviewed by Bryant Gumbel on the TODAY show and who appeared with Danny Kaye in the Epcot opening ceremonies.

"Dreamfinder was already created as an audio-animatronic figure in the Imagination ride, so I had to adapt him to live as a walk-around. The great thing was that he's the Spirit of Creativity, and so could be ANYTHING he wanted to be... I started by researching the creative process and imagination, but when I got out there with the public, I had to work creatively with what they gave me, so it was a learning experience. I wound up treating the guests as curiosities that I and Figment were investigating," claimed Schneider in an on-line interview chat.

Schneider was also involved as Dreamfinder in a "lost" Dreamfinder film. Apparently there was some concern that "Magic Journeys" would not be ready in time for the opening of the Imagination Pavilion so WED prepared a back-up film with Dreamfinder directed by Mike Jittlov! Yes, the Wizard of Speed and Time apparently put together a film that was to include his own stop motion special effects. I know for a fact that Mr. Jittlov reads this site so perhaps he might be so gracious as to share some of the information behind that "lost" film that was NEVER shown because "Magic Journeys" was indeed ready on time.

Schneider was the sole Dreamfinder for quite a while, often working six days a week or more as well as performing as other characters for special events and convention shows. He also developed arthritis over the years in his left hand from trying to manipulate the Figment puppet. Another Dreamfinder developed carpal tunnel syndrome.

However, during this time there was another "lost" Dreamfinder film. Shortly after Epcot opened, the Disney Channel was born and despite the backlog of Disney cartoons and shows and films, the Channel wanted to provide original programming. So that first year, they aired three episodes of a Dreamfinder show, with actor Jack Kruschen performing the character. The episodes only ran once and were never rerun and they are not even listed in Bill Cotter's comprehensive book on Disney television.

Kruschen was a well known character actor who received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his 1960 role in Billy Wilder's comedy "The Apartment" and might be remembered as some as having played the Greek grandfather in the 1980s sitcom "Webster." So another piece of Disney history has disappeared from all records. (Schneider tried to get the Disney Company interested in another Dreamfinder television series involving storytelling but once it went to committee, the simple concept suddenly became overblown and unworkable.)

Soon, another performer joined the Dreamfinder ranks, Steve Taylor, who portrayed the role for over fifteen years and developed the "bit" of Figment grabbing a hat and flinging it away. Since Taylor was shorter than Schneider, it was often amusing when one Dreamfinder went out to perform who was tall and then an hour later a shorter Dreamfinder appeared. Just like Figment apparently, Dreamfinder could be any size he wanted to be.

These performers were the primary Dreamfinders although there were several others over the years, including Joe Higgins (one of the Dapper Dans and the original Six Bits character at Hoop De Doo Revue) who was the Dreamfinder for the groundbreaking of the Imagination Pavilion and who was there when they were experimenting (a very short lived experiment) with having the performer wear a Dreamfinder mask.

While Walt Disney World has brought back Figment, it seems a shame that Dreamfinder seems consigned to "Dreamfinder Heaven", especially since the character was created as a balance for Figment. What is especially troubling to me is I would like to know more about those missing Dreamfinder films, the Jittlov project and the Jack Kruschen shows. What were they about? Did Figment appear? And weren't there some educational films made in simple animation that featured Figment? Where are those films? Why does Disney history (especially recent history) seem to disappear?

If this short essay has sparked your imagination for Figment and Dreamfinder, then I heartily recommend you visit T.J.'s site which was the first internet site devoted to the characters and which inspired other impressive sites including Howard's site. It is thanks to the love and hard work of these two sites that Disney was convinced that Figment should make a return. Perhaps they'll also be able to help bring Dreamfinder back as well.

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