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Did you ever hear about ... "Khrushchev at Disneyland"?

Jim Hill

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Did you ever hear about ... "Khrushchev at Disneyland"?

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You know, I get letters like this all the time:

Dear Jim -

Don't you think that it's awful that the Walt Disney Company has started making movies that are based on its theme park attractions. Awful, creatively bankrupt films like "The Country Bears," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion." I'm certain that Walt would be rolling over in his Frigidaire if he knew that Disney studio execs had stooped so low. Basing multi-million dollars movies on Audio Animatronic ghosts, buccaneers or bears ... Etc, etc.

Me? I guess I don't really see "The Country Bears," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" and "The Haunted Mansion" as a sign of the end times. Why? Well, because:

1. I'm actually in the "Country Bears" movie. Honestly. I was an extra for that concert scene at the very end of the picture. In fact - if you look really close - you can catch a brief glimpse of my very large forehead as the crowd surges into Country Bear Hall.

2. Just prior to the start of filming of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were hired to rewrite the film's script. Given that these two guys wrote the very funny screenplays for "Aladdin" and "Shrek," I now have reasonably high hopes that this Jerry Bruckheimer production will be somewhat entertaining.

3. Rob Minkoff -- who really did a great job directing "Stuart Little" and "Stuart Little II" -- is helming Disney's "Haunted Mansion" movie. So -- if Rob (the co-director of "The Lion King") is riding herd on this Eddie Murphy comedy -- chances are that this effects-filled film will be reasonably fun.

4. More to the point, I'm not really allowed to make fun of the idea that the Walt Disney Company would dare to turn its theme park attractions into feature films. Why for? Well, back in 1992, I and my then-writing partner, Sheila Greenberg, actually wrote a screenplay for a movie that was to have been based on Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride.

Was Sheila and my "Haunted Mansion" script any good? Well, I guess so. By that I mean: Our screenplay was actually optioned by Keystone Entertainment (you know, that production company that makes all those "Air Bud" movies?) in March of 1998. Keystone told Sheila and I that they planned to pitch the project to ABC as a possible TV movie. Something that could perhaps air around Halloween on "The Wonderful Word of Disney."

Unfortunately, just like 99.999% of the scripts that get optioned out in LA, nothing ever became of our "Haunted Mansion" screenplay. Which was admittedly somewhat disappointing. But -- on the other hand -- it was still very nice to get a paycheck for all that hard work ...

ANYWAY ... If I did have a complaint about the Walt Disney Company turning to its theme parks in its search for fodder for future feature films, it's just that studio execs are missing out on some pretty obvious subject matter. An incident right out of Disneyland's own history that Walt Disney himself once thought would make a great motion picture.

What am I talking about? Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's non-visit to Disneyland.

I don't know how many of you JimHillMedia.com readers are actually familiar with the details surrounding this incident. Which occurred during Khrushchev's 11-day trip to the US in September 1959. The Soviet Premier and his entourage arrived in Washington D.C. and -- after making a brief stop at the UN in New York City -- flew out to LA ... and that's when all the trouble started.

The Los Angeles leg of Nikita's nationwide tour really did get off to an awful start. By that I mean: As the Premier's motorcade sped away from LAX, the limousines were actually pelted with tomatoes.

Then Khrushchev was taken to 20th Century Fox, where he and his family were supposed to be feted at a luncheon that featured hundreds of Hollywood's top stars; Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Maclaine, David Niven and Maurice Chevalier were there.

Which (you'd think) would have been enough to entertain the Soviet Premier.

Not Nikita. He stood up at this luncheon and -- in front of the entire Hollywood press corps -- had a hissy fit. Here's an excerpt from the remarks that Khrushchev made that afternoon:

"We have come to this town where lives the cream of American art. And just imagine (that) I, a Premier, a Soviet representative, when I came here to this city, I was given a plan. A program of what I was to be shown and whom I was to meet here.

But just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. I asked 'Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?' I do not know.

And just listen - just listen to what I was told - to what reason I was told. We, which means the American authorities, can not guarantee your security if you go there.

What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken over the place that can destroy me? Then what must I do? Commit suicide?

This is the situation I am in. Your guest. For me, this situation is inconceivable. I can not find words to explain this to my people."

Truth be told, the Soviet Premier was somewhat mistaken. The original itinerary for the Los Angeles leg of his U.S. tour called for just Khrushchev's wife and children to tour the "Happiest Place on Earth," while Nikita was scheduled to tour a housing development out in Granada Hills. But when the Russian leader learned where his family was headed, he reportedly told his State Department handlers "Well, I wanna go to Disneyland too."

This -- unfortunately -- was just impossible to pull off on such short notice. Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker immediately put the kibosh on Khrushchev's request. Citing the difficulty of providing adequate security for the Soviet Premier and his motorcade all the way out to Anaheim.

Now where this gets interesting is that -- somewhere along the way, as US officials were preparing for Khrushchev's arrival in America -- Walt Disney was told that the Russian Premier and his family were interested in visiting Disneyland. And Walt (of course) immediately saw this official state visit as a huge opportunity to generate some publicity for his four-year-old theme park.

Disneyland's PR staff envisioned creating a photo opportunity by having Walt and Khrushchev stand on the "Submarine Voyage"'s loading dock as all eight of the ride's faux subs floated by. Disney's gag writers even provided a quip for Walt to casually toss off at this photo op. As Nikita looked out at all of those subs, Disney was supposed to say: "Well, now, Mr. Khrushchev, here's my Disneyland submarine fleet. It's the eighth largest submarine fleet in the world."

Walt was -- of course -- disappointed when he learned that, due to security concerns, only Mrs. Khrushchev and the kids would be coming out to the Park that afternoon. So imagine Disney's delight when this firestorm of publicity suddenly rose up when the Soviet Premier was told that he wouldn't be allowed to go to "The Happiest Place on Earth" too.

Because -- once Nitika learned that his own trip out to Anaheim had been axed -- he fell into a truly foul mood. In a fit of pique, the Soviet Premier declared that -- since it wasn't safe for him to go to Disneyland -- then it wasn't safe for his wife and children to go out to Anaheim either. So their long planned Disneyland excursion got canceled ASAP.

Immediately after the luncheon broke up, Khrushchev was taken to a nearby soundstage where the Russian Premier observed the filming of a scene from a forthcoming 20th Century Fox musical, "Can Can." But -- rather than being titillated by the sight of Juliet Prowse flashing her 19th century bloomers as she performed the film's title number -- Nikita reportedly declared the whole episode "horribly decadent." Which embarrassed State Department officials as well as offending the Soviet Premier's Hollywood hosts.

From there, Khrushchev's motorcade was taken to Granada Hills, where the Russian Premier was supposed to tour model homes along Sophia Avenue. But -- since Nikita was still sulking about not being allowed to go to Disneyland -- he refused to even get out of his limousine.

As he pouted inside the car, Khrushchev reportedly told his State Department handlers that "... putting me in a closed car and stewing me in the sun is not the right way to guarantee my safety. This (not being allowed to go to Disneyland) development causes me bitter regret. I thought I could come here as a free man."

To add insult to injury, four Soviet newsmen (who had been assigned to cover Khrushchev's US trip) slipped away to Anaheim for the afternoon. They spent four happy hours touring Disneyland, then told US reporters that they believed that the Russian Premier and his family would have really enjoyed the theme park.

Later that evening, Khrushchev gave a speech at a Los Angeles area hotel ... but there was, understandably, very little written about whatever remarks the Soviet Premier made at that long-forgotten dinner. Given that the next day's newspapers devoted page after page to coverage of Nikita's very public tantrum once he learned that he was not going to be allowed to visit Disneyland.

Khrushchev and his party tried to put some distance between themselves and the Disneyland debacle by quickly boarding a train and heading up to San Francisco. From there, the Russian Premier flew off to Des Moines and eventually returned to Washington D.C. where Nikita spent a few days with Ike at Camp David talking about Cold War-realated issues.

Which (you'd think) would be how history would remember the Soviet Premier's 1959 trip to the United States. That Khrushchev and Eisenhower actually sat down and tried to find a solution to the Germany and Berlin problem. But (picture John Belushi saying this) N-O-O-O-o-o-o. All the US press corps could talk about is how upset Nikita seemed when he had been told that he wouldn't be allowed to visit Disneyland.

Within a day or so, there were political cartoons in newspapers nationwide that made fun of the Premier's very public tantrum. Even Bob Hope eventually got into the act. As part of his annual Christmas television special, Hope stood in front of hundreds of military personnel at a U.S. Air Force base in Nome and quipped: "Here we are in America's 49th state, Alaska. That's halfway between Khrushchev and Disneyland."

And of course, all this talk about how upset the Russian Premier was about not being allowed to visit "The Happiest Place on Earth" generated tons of positive publicity for Walt's theme park. Newspapers around the world printed article after article about this amusing international incident. Even Herman Wouk (best known as the author of "The Caine Mutiny" and "The Winds of War") chimed in: "I really don't blame Khrushchev for jumping up and down in a rage over missing Disneyland. There are fewer things more worth seeing in the United States or indeed anywhere in the world."

And Walt just didn't want this fun to end. He kept looking for ways to perpetuate the story. Which is why Disney insisted that clippings highlighting the whole Khrushchev affair be included in the official Disneyland press kit for a number of years after this incident.

But as the 1950s slipped into the 1960s and Khrushchev was forced from power by Leonid Brezhnev in October 1964, this story lost some of its charm. But still Walt loved to tell the tale of Nikita's tantrum. And Disney began to wonder: might there be a way that his company could continue to capitalize on this incident? Like perhaps by maybe making a movie that would put a comic spin on the whole "Khrushchev denied access to Disneyland" incident?

So Walt turned to his very best producer, Bill Walsh (best known these days as the guy who wrote and produced "Mary Poppins," "The Love Bug" and "Bedknobs & Broomsticks") and told him to create a screenplay for a live action comedy that would be based on this infamous event. So Walsh got together with his long-time collaborator, Don DaGradi, and eventually they churned out a script called "Khrushchev at Disneyland."

This screenplay (at least for the first 30 pages or so) pretty much follows how the real-life events played out: It recounts -- in a light, breezy manner -- how the Soviet leader had flown all the way to America to meet with President Eisenhower. But -- in reality -- Nikita had come to the U.S. just because he wanted to go to Disneyland.

So Khrushchev flew into Southern California, all excited that he was finally going to get his chance to visit "The Happiest Place on Earth." Only to discover that -- due to safety concerns -- the State Department had canceled his trip out to Anaheim. Moviegoers were then supposed to see a slightly comic take on the Soviet Premier's infamous tantrum at 20th Century Fox. And then ...

Well, then the film morphs into your typical Walt Disney Productions live action comedy of the 1960s. First Khrushchev is seen moping around his hotel suite in downtown Los Angeles later that evening. Then the Premier realizes that Disneyland is only 30 miles away. More importantly, that the theme park is open 'til midnight that night.

So Nikita decides that he's going to sneak out of his hotel and somehow make his way out to Anaheim. Using a goofy disguise, he gives both his Soviet security detail as well as his State Department handlers the slip. Then Khrushchev somehow makes his way out to Disneyland, with all of his handlers in hot pursuit ... and hilarity ensues.

Okay, admittedly we're not talking "Lawrence of Arabia" here. But Walt wasn't really looking to create an accurate historic drama based on this amusing international incident. Disney, Walsh, and DaGradi envisioned "Khrushchev at Disneyland" as being a film that would be very similar in tone to "That Darn Cat!" A comedy caper picture that was aimed straight at the family audience.

So -- once the script was completed -- how close did "Khrushchev at Disneyland" come to actually getting made? So close that Walt had already lined up an A-List actor to play the Premier: Academy Award winner Peter Ustinov.

If all had gone according to plan, "Khrushchev at Disneyland" would have been Peter's follow-up project for Disney Studios once work was completed on "Blackbeard's Ghost." Bill Walsh was slated to produce the picture, while the prolific Robert Stevenson would be directing.

By the fall of 1966, all of the necessary pieces were already in place. A script that was ready to shoot. An A-List actor that was positively eager to get before the camera and do his impression of the Soviet Premier. Disney's top producer was slated to ride herd on the project and the studio's very best director would be helming the picture.

So why didn't "Khrushchev at Disneyland" get made? Well, because Walt Disney died before production could officially get underway. And given that all the studio execs that Walt left behind were ... well ... fairly wimpy, these guys shied away from the project. These execs thought that "Khrushchev at Dsineyland"'s subject matter wasn't really all that appropriate for a Walt Disney Productions release. Which is why they eventually deep-sixed the picture.

Which is really a shame. Given that -- on Walt's very last trip to the Disney lot in November 1966 -- Disney dropped by the set of "Blackbeard's Ghost." And -- while he was visiting that soundstage -- Walt talked with Peter Ustinov and Bill Walsh about how much he was looking forward to "Khrushchev at Disneyland." Particularly when Ustinov told Walt how excited he was about the project. How the acclaimed actor was actually going to shave his head for the role, so that Peter could look as much as the Soviet Premier as possible.

Ustinov then cracked up Walt by saying that he planned on basing his portrayal of Khrushchev on his mother back in England. As Disney laughed, Peter insisted that his mother was a dead wringer for Nikita. "I didn't know that your Ma was bald," said Walt.

Having really enjoyed his visit to the "Blackbeard's Ghost" set, Disney quietly excused himself and left the soundstage. Once Walt had left, Walsh and Ustinov quietly remarked on how pale and gaunt the studio head had looked. According to interviews that Bill gave after Disney's passing, they both knew that Walt was "... doomed. But (we) thought that it would spread gloom and despondency around the studio if he said anything. So (Peter and I deliberately) kept quiet about (Walt's) visit."

So when Walt died in December of 1966, "Khrushchev at Disneyland" pretty much died with him. In spite of all the preparation that had already been done on the project, Walsh and DaGradi's script was shelved. I'd imagine that it's filed away somewhere on the Disney lot ... probably in the very same filing cabinet where my and Sheila's rejected screenplay for that "Haunted Mansion" movie is located.

And yet ... I can't help but think that -- if some enterprising screenwriter were to go poking around the Disney archives and unearth the "Khrushchev at Disneyland" screenplay -- that this project may actually have a little life left in it. And that -- with a little freshening up -- that Walsh and DaGradi's screenplay might still be a viable property for the studio to develop.

Oh, sure. "Khrushchev at Disneyland" is now probably not appropriate subject matter for a major release from Walt Disney Studios. But -- that said -- a rewritten version of Walsh and DaGradi's screenplay might make for a fun TV movie which could be presented on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney." Or perhaps -- with a bit more tweaking (like perhaps by adding a pre-teen girl to the film's storyline. Making her help the Soviet Premier pull off his trip out to Disneyland) -- this picture could be something that would appeal to the tweens who watch the Disney Channel.

Hey ... it's only a suggestion, folks. Make of it what you will. I'm just hoping that -- before Disney finally get around to assigning a screenwriter to develop "Big Thunder Mountain Railway: The Movie!" -- that studio execs make sure that they've explored all of their other opportunities open to them. Like maybe digging around inside the studio's archives and seeing if they can't unearth a copy of Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi's unproduced script for "Khrushchev at Disneyland."

Were this project to finally go forward, I'm sure that Walt -- wherever he is -- would approve ...

Of course, if -- while you were digging around -- you were to accidentally come across a copy of that a "Haunted Mansion" script by Jim Hill and Sheila Greenberg ... well, that might be worth a quick read too.

Ah ... never mind.

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