At this past weekend's Destination D event, Tim O'Day - as part
of his "Disneyland: The Happiest Place
in Pop Culture" presentation - screened a clip from "A Hole in the Head." Which
was this 1959 Frank Sinatra film, where Ol' Blue Eyes played Tony Manetta. Who
was the owner of this unsuccessful hotel in Miami who hopes to turn his
fortunes around by building "... a Disneyland" in Florida.
Which (in the context of this Frank Capra-directed movie,
anyway) is presented as sort of an off-the-wall idea. The type of thing that a
guy could only dream up if he had (you guessed it) "A Hole in the Head."
Now where this story gets a trifle bizarre is -at the exact
same time that this Sincap production was being released to theaters (i.e.
June of 1959) - Disney executives were actively contemplating building
something just like this in the Sunshine State. Just 71 miles away from where Tony
Manetta wanted to build his Disneyland-in-Florida.
Copyright Ayefour Publishing. All rights reserved
As Chad Denver Emerson recounts in his excellent "Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World" (Ayefour
Publishing, February 2010) ...
... One of the earliest indications of Walt's interest in
Florida occurred at a June 1959 meeting in Burbank, California, with NBC
executives. The executives had scheduled the meeting hoping to persuade Walt to
partner with NBC in developing a theme park in New York ...
... Walt declined to participate in the New York theme-park
project because of concerns about a short operating season and the cost of
acquiring land in the area. Yet his decline did not represent the end of his
work with NBC. That same year, he and NBC discussed developing a project in the
Palm Beach, Florida area in land owned by John D. MacArthur, an eccentric billionaire
who made much of his money by starting the Bankers Life and Casualty Company.
With this wealth, MacArthur had purchased huge tracts of land in North Palm
Disney's specific interest in a Florida resort became particularly focused when
Buzz Price conducted two Florida-based studies in 1959, one related to the
recreation market in Florida and another related to the feasibility of
developing a Disney resort in Palm Beach. The original Palm Beach proposal
involved a venture between Disney, MacArthur, and the Radio Corporation of
America [RCA], at the time owned by NBC. Walt conceived of more than just a
version of Disneyland on the east coast. Instead, building on his growing interest
in cities and urban development, the Palm Beach project called for a "Community
of Tomorrow," which included a four-hundred-acre theme park and a town center
for seventy thousand people.
So you have to wonder about how all those Disney executives
& attorneys thought when - right in the middle of all their super-secret negotiations
with NBC, RCA and MacArthur for Walt's "Community of Tomorrow" project - "A
Hole in the Head" pops up in theaters. With Frank Sinatra's character going on
& on about how "... a Disneyland" in Florida just couldn't miss.
You wanna hear the really bizarre part of this story? Because
of this whole building-a-Disneyland-in-Florida subplot in "A Hole in the Head,"
Walt actually goes out of his way to see this United Artists release. Disney
then walks away from this Frank Sinatra film raving about Keenan Wynn's
performance in that picture (Wynn plays Jerry Marx, an old crony of Tony Manetta
who's now this big-time promoter Miami. Sinatra's character in the picture goes
to see Marx at the grand opening of his new Miami Beach hotel. With the hope
that Keenan's character can then put up the $5,000,000 necessary to turn
Manetta's Disneyland-in-Miami dream into reality).
(L to R) Tommy Kirk, Keenan Wynn, Fred MacMurray and Leon Ames in "The Absent-Minded Professor." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And then the next thing you know, Walt's hiring Keenan to
appear in all sort of pictures for Walt Disney Productions. Playing Alonzo P.
Hawk in 1961's "The Absent-Minded Professor" & 1963's "Son of Flubber," and
then - after Walt's untimely passing in December of 1966 - playing the same
sort of greedy financier in 1972's "Snowball Express," 1974's "Herbie Rides Again" and 1976's "The Shaggy D.A." And Wynn got all of these parts because
Disney liked what he saw when he went to go see "A Hole in the Head." A movie
which could have potentially blown his own plans to build a
Disneyland-in-Florida right out of the water.
Anyway ... Getting back to "Project Future" now: Emerson does a great job of digging down deep
and unearthing all sorts of seldom-told tales about Walt's East Coast
adventures. Including that time in 1963 when Disney toyed with the idea of
building an attraction of sorts right at the edge of Niagara Falls. This
... came from Seagram's, the well-known liquor company. The
idea involved a Disney role in developing tourist attractions at Niagara Falls.
The irony of this proposal was that Walt himself had almost completely banned
the sale of alcohol at Disneyland. Nevertheless, his interest in an attraction
at Niagara Falls was serious enough that he visited the Falls in August of 1963
and met with local officials about the potential project. Traveling on a
Beechcraft plane the company had recently purchased, Walt arrived in Niagara
with his wife, Lillian; his brother, Roy;
and Roy's wife, Edna.
Seagram Tower circa 1963
They checked into the Hotel Sheraton Brock and that evening
joined city officials for dinner at the home of a local business leader, Paul
Schoellkopf. The next morning, Walt met with Franklin Miller, Major of Niagara
Falls, and received a bird's-eye tour of the Falls from an observation tower. At
the top, autograph-seeking fans surrounded Walt, and he obliged many of them
before being whisked off on an elevator for the trip back down. The excitement
surrounding Walt's visit was so intense that a woman squeezed into the elevator
to meet him, leaving her husband and children alone at the top of the tower.
The behavior more typically experienced by a rock star or movie icon was now
being shown to Walt.
While he denied considering a second Disneyland in Niagara,
Walt did confirm he was negotiating to participate in another type of project
on the Canadian side of the Falls. He would not give any more details, but news
reports linked his interest to an expansion of the Seagram Tower, a local
attraction which was opened in June 1962 as the brainchild of several area
business leaders by C.H. Augspurger from Buffalo, New York.
Designed by the Canadian architecture firm of Horton and
Bell, the tower was located on a nearly two-acre parcel overlooking Niagara's
Horseshoe Falls. It was there that the parties discussed Disney's involvement
in developing a "moon trip" attraction on the tower site.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"What sort of 'moon trip' attraction?," you ask. I actually
asked Buzz Price (i.e. The Disney Legend who sadly passed away last month at
the age of 89) about this project once. And as Buzz explained this project to
me, Walt was considering building a clone of Disneyland's "Rocket to the Moon"
attraction at the Seagram Tower. So that honeymooners could then take a
simulated trip to the real thing during their visit to the Falls. But sadly
(because - according to Price - Disney & Seagrams could never agree on what
an appropriate licensing fee for this Tomorrowland favorite should be), the
Niagara Falls version of Disney's "Flight to the Moon" never quite made it off
the launching pad.
That's the real fun of "Project Future." Chad Denver Emerson
has waded through that massive pile of legal filings & news clippings which
illuminates Walt Disney Productions' nearly decade-long search to find just the
right spot to build an East Coast Disneyland on. And then Emerson weeded out
all of the dry, deadly dull stuff.
And as a direct result, what you're left with is this
204-page paperback that does a pretty nifty job of walking you through that
search. Illuminating the various pitfalls that Walt & his team encountered
along the way (EX: How the deal to buy all of this land just outside of Orlando
almost fell apart in July of 1964 when Tufts initially seemed reluctant to sell
off the mineral rights to one particularly crucial piece of property that the
University owned). Not to mention all of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue that
Disney officials indulged in while they were putting together this nearly
27,000 acre parcel of Central Florida swampland.
Copyright United Artists. All rights reserved
In short, if you're a Disney history buff, you'd have to
have "A Hole in the Head" to not enjoy reading "Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World."
Am I the only person on this site that still reads really-for-real books on Disney? :) Anyway, I agree about "Project Future", Jim. It's an interesting look at the pre-history of the World, and provides some insight into what projects Disney might have developed in the East and what kind of legal hoops that Disney had to jump through to make the resort a reality.
After reading this book, I'd recommend reading "Married to the Mouse" by Richard Folgelsong. It makes a good companion piece to this book; where Emerson's book talks about disney's relationship with outside officials prior to the World's opening, "Married to the Mouse" talks about how things have been between them since, and how - like it or not - they need each other to keep things going.
Nice story and interesting connection with "A Hole in the Head" and the Florida Disney project. Just in the interest of accuracy, though, it should be pointed out that Keenan Wynn's appearance in this film was not necessarily the reason Walt Disney chose him for "The Absent-Minded Professor," since Wynn was a very visible and prolific actor in early television, particularly in the much-watched "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which also featured his father, Ed Wynn, in his first dramatic role. So while it's a very viable theory, it may not be fact that "A Hole in the Head" was such a landmark in this way, though it did give the world the song, "High Hopes."
As a resident of Palm Beach County (I drove RCA Blvd just last week!), I had heard the stories of Walt looking at Palm Beach Gardens land (which the MacArthur Foundation held until a few years ago, during in the real esate b boom) - and the story here was the lack of roads (I-95 didn't exist then - but then again, to get to WDW, you had to take 192 throu Kissimmee!) and he didn't like the competition of the Gold Coat beach for the tourists!