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Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part 3

Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part 3

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ...

Despite the two MCA lawsuits, Disney continued to develop plans for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot in Burbank.

At the helm of the Disney project were two Imagineers: a young Joe Rohde (then 32-years-old) and Rick Rothschild. Their mission was to seamlessly integrate a Disney-style park into a downtown urban environment. To accomplish this, Rohde and Rothchild spent hours on the top floors of nearby buildings (also in the exterior glass elevator at the Burbank Holiday Inn) to get a bird's eye view of the land earmarked for the Disney project. At that time, the land was little more than a weedy lot, bordered by the Golden State Freeway and the Burbank Civic Center. Specifically the two Imagineers wanted to observe how traffic and pedestrians moved around the 40-acre parcel. Eventually they designed a park layout in which all of the retail stores were stationed along the outside border of the property to accommodate casual shoppers. “All the crazy stuff will be in the middle,” Rhode explained.

Taking a cue from the new Pleasure Island development at Walt Disney World, the Imagineers solidified the back-story and overall theme for the Burbank property. The back-story involved a gold rush town and a movie studio. But the back-story is difficult to explain without first talking about the strange—and now mostly forgotten—original back-story for Pleasure Island.

As you recall, Pleasure Island and the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot were under development at the same time. Both were heavily themed leisure zones that would include—to some extent—shopping, restaurants, entertainment venues, and nightclubs. To explain the strange collection of buildings that would become Pleasure Island, Imagineers invented the story of Merriweather Adam Pleasure. Or (to point out the pun) Mr. M. A. Pleasure.

In the early 1900s, Mr. Pleasure docked his Mississippi steamboat in Lake Buena Vista. So impressed by the local beauty, he and his family decided to stay and open a sail-making factory and a canvas plant. Each required its own industrial building. After early success, the family built a southern mansion, a yacht house, and “The Adventurers Club,” where Mr. Pleasure kept a lifetime of travel souvenirs. The family also constructed buildings for Mr. Pleasure’s other interests, such as exotic plants and the manufacture of fireworks. But in 1941, while traveling to Antarctica, Mr. Pleasure and his wife died in an unexpected storm. In their absence, the sail-making factory and yacht town wasted away until it was rediscovered by the fine folks at Disney World, who turned it in to an nighttime entertainment center—by adapting the yacht club, the Mississippi steamboat, and the various manufacturing and industrial buildings into a collection of elaborately themed clubs.

Though the surface details are different for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot story, the underlying impulse is the same: to explain to guests that the seemingly unconnected architectural styles in the Backlot did in fact form a unified fantasy world. The story went like this:

In the late 1890s, a few residents of Burbank—or whatever Burbank was called in the 1890s—discovered gold. Shortly after thereafter, a western town developed. And some twenty or thirty years later, long after all of the gold was mined, the locals considered the best way to invest their grand fortune. Their answer: to make movies. And to make these movies, they created a backlot complete with a Parisian lane, a Spanish street, and a California boardwalk. Somewhat later they also built a TV and radio studio. Just like Mr. Pleasure’s sail factory, the old Burbank studio would go out of business in the middle of the 20th century—only to be rediscovered by Disney, who would transform the area into a theme-park-slash-shopping-district. For guests, the back-story would explain the jumble of architectural styles and the unusual use of many buildings: the western gold rush town, the American-style restaurant housed in a Parisian apartment building, the souvenir shop shoehorned into a Spanish hut, and the California boardwalk complete with a mock “Ocean” and a few carnival rides.

For the press, Rothchild spelled it out simply: The Disney-MGM Studio Backlot would be a mythical “studio backlot, where great movies of the past were filmed.” The shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and ride buildings would be tucked into old back lot facades. “That way,” he continued, “we could incorporate the variety of themes, make streets interchangeable.”

In addition to the attractions earlier announced, WDI now revealed plans for other rides and restaurants:

* Two new high-end restaurants: The first would be housed in a boat caught halfway over the top of the 60-foot waterfall—with water cascading around the vessel. While waiting for a table, guests could look out underwater windows into the Burbank Ocean to see lobster traps filled with miniature cattle—tiny herds of black-and-white plastic cows. (The miniature “aquatic beef” would supposedly be included on the menu.) The second restaurant would be a formal dining affair at the top of the Hollywood Fantasy Hotel. This elegant room would feature a planetarium projection system to create a star-scape across the domed ceiling. Constellations would change with the seasons.

* A children’s area—modeled after a sound stage—where parents could reserve private banquet rooms to have Mickey Mouse host their child’s birthday party.

* A 10-screen multiplex, a roller skating rink an ice skating rink, and venue for live theater.

* An enormous Ferris wheel that would dip down into the manmade lake, as part of the California beach boardwalk.

Imagineers were also developing a new simulator attraction—similar in style to the Star Tours attraction recently opened at Disneyland—though the storyline for this attraction was never released.

As these plans came together—and as Eisner saw potential profit in more urban parks—Disney announced that they were looking to franchise this concept. Though of course, future urban parks would not include the TV studio and the animation complex, as those would be unique to the Burbank Backlot experience. Specifically, Disney announced that it was pursuing developments in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, and San Antonio—each with a unique theme derived from the area’s local history. “We’ll be doing more of these,” Rothschild explained to a local reporter, “and we will fit them to the needs of the community.”


But while Disney was developing a full-site plan for the Burbank property—and while Eisner was trying to sell this “themed-space” concept to other cities—Burbank citizens began to receive pamphlets that described the mess Disney’s Backlot would cause for local residents.

With glossy photos and color illustrations, the first pamphlet claimed that the Disney development “will turn virtually all of downtown Burbank into a massive tourist complex and require a tax subsidy of over one-hundred million dollars.” It also claimed that the secret deal was finalized “after less than 30 minutes of council discussion” with “no competitive bidding.”

The cover of the second pamphlet featured a photo of the Disneyland castle with the caption: “It’s a nice place to visit.” The interior included images of dingy hotels, cheap liquor stores, and tacky tourist shops beside a single line of text: “But you wouldn’t want to live there.”

A third pamphlet emphasized the environmental damage the Backlot would cause to the city.

A fourth reiterated the major points made in the first three mailings, while emphasizing the cost of the Disney project to taxpayers.

The fliers were sent by a new political group known as the “Friends of Burbank,” who listed as their only address a private mail-drop. From the start Burbank officials felt they knew who was behind the attack: “Somebody, and I assume it’s MCA,” Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard said, “is spending a lot of money to get their point across.”

Two weeks after the first brochure was mailed, city officials were able to prove that, in fact, MCA was behind the “Friends of Burbank” campaign. “What the mailers failed to mention, however,” one local newspaper announced, “was the one almost certain result of the Disney project—tough competition for MCA's own Universal City complex.”

Shamed into admitting fault, an MCA attorney begrudgingly offered a statement to the press: “Obviously, we would have preferred to have a full discussion of the issues, but since Burbank will not do it, we decided to get the word out any way we could. We knew there would be consequences, but we are prepared to accept them.”

The mailings, it was revealed, cost MCA roughly $20,000 and went out to 43,000 Burbank residents.

Clearly gloating, Michael Eisner issued the statement for Disney: “This activity is totally uncharacteristic of any major American corporation. Therefore, we’re at a loss for words.”

Though the City of Burbank had originally contacted Eisner with the hopes that Disney would somehow help save a local mall project, they now found themselves in the middle of a bitter fight between two corporate rivals. One city attorney, still not grasping the overall context, told the press that these ongoing lawsuits were an “obvious attempt by a multinational corporate conglomerate to dash the dreams of a city that wants a retail shopping center.”

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of our story.

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