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A naked Lincoln among the highlights of the Ford Museum's "Behind the Magic" exhibit

A naked Lincoln among the highlights of the Ford Museum's "Behind the Magic" exhibit

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As late as the afternoon of Thursday, September 22, large banners were prominently displayed around the massive grounds of the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan announcing that "Behind the Magic: Fifty Years of Disneyland" would be open on Friday, September 23, 2005. But it was not so.

Due to problems completing the exhibit on deadline, the opening has been delayed for one week until Friday, September 30. It will be worth the wait.

My wife and I had been invited to the private, pre-opening President's Dinner and preview of the

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exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum on Wednesday, September 21, 2005. When we checked in with the museum staff on Wednesday morning, we were informed that the dinner had been cancelled and the opening postponed. Museum staff members were quite appropriately dismayed that no one has contacted us and that we had flown up from Missouri without being notified of the change.

However, I persuaded the museum staff to allow us to have a personal guided tour of the exhibit, even though it was clearly not ready to open to the public. The Disney Company staff members involved with the exhibit were initially reluctant to allow anyone to see it in its state of unreadiness. I called a friend at WDI in Glendale and subsequently, the museum staff agreed that we could be admitted.

Mr. Scott Mallwitz, Director of Experience Design for The Henry Ford, was a gracious host and clearly had become quite knowledgeable about the history of "The Happiest Place on Earth." He shared with us some of the problems encountered in putting together what looks to be the most well-mounted account of the park's development and history ever attempted.

The exhibit bears a similarity to the excellent display at the Disney/MGM Studios theme park at Walt Disney World in Florida, "One Man's Dream". In fact, some artifacts from that exhibit have been transferred to this one. In addition, many artifacts and pieces of artwork which have never before been seen by the public grace the BTM show.

Ride vehicles from "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" and "Peter Pan's Flight" are included, but the standout piece is clearly the original Abraham Lincoln figure from the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. As Tony Baxter mentioned in a presentation at the Marceline Toonfest the previous weekend (a topic for another article) the original Lincoln figure operated during the later part of the Fair at the same time as the second-generation Lincoln figure began his run at Disneyland. The original figure from New York has never before been seen by the public since the close of the Fair.

Certainly, no other Animatronic figure has ever been exposed to the pubic in the manner that our nation's 16th President will be in this exhibit. The figure will be buck naked!

The Lincoln figure in "Behind the Magic" will not have on a stitch of clothing. His entire mechanical apparatus will be visible with the sole exception of his face which will retain its life-like life mask just as it did when Lincoln had his clothes on. One of the surprising things is how small the actual mechanical apparatus below the feet of the figure is. The whole thing is contained in a box approximately 2x3x2 feet.

One of The Ford Museum's most famous artifacts is the chair in which Lincoln sat on that fateful night at Ford's Theater (not affiliated with the Ford Motor Company). The upper portion of the high-backed, upholstered chair is stained with large amounts of Lincoln's blood. Apparently the museum staff joked among themselves about displaying the Animatronic President in that very same chair! However, that notion was discarded almost immediately.

Much of the rest of the exhibit consists of beautiful concept art and images of the park's history which can be accessed through interactive computer screens. The screens are displayed side-by-side with original artwork.

My own small contribution to the exhibit is a postcard of Marceline's main street from the early 20th century when Walt Disney and his family lived there. The postcard is displayed near other images of "Main Street, U.S.A." and illustrates the fact that Marceline's main street was indeed the inspiration for the entryway to The Magic Kingdom.

We spent much of our time in Dearborn touring Greenfield Village, a park created by Henry Ford and dedicated to the theme of American history, circa 1750-1950. Walt Disney visited Greenfield Village in April of 1940 and again with Imagineer/animator Ward Kimball in 1948, following their visit to The Chicago Railroad Fair. There is good reason to believe that Walt's visits to Greenfield Village influenced his design of Disneyland. Some of the historic buildings are arranged around the Village Green, which of course corresponds to the town square in Midwestern towns like Marceline, Missouri, Walt's early boyhood hometown. A similar town square is just inside the entrance to Disneyland.

Several of the other features of Greenfield Village also seem to be reflected in Disneyland. These include a steam-driven railroad on which passengers travel in open-sided cars much like the ones at Disneyland. When Walt visited Greenfield Village, the railway was a short line, but it was later expanded to circle the entire Village much as the Disneyland Railroad circles that park.

Among the other rides available to Greenfield Village visitors is a trip on the "Suwanee" sternwheeler steamboat which circles "Suwanee Island", just as the Mark Twain Steamboat circles Tom Sawyer Island and other boats circle similar islands in the Disney parks in Florida and Tokyo. Visitors can also take rides in genuine Model T automobiles manufactured during the early part of the 20th century similar to vehicles in Disneyland. Other available modes of transportation include a horse-drawn omnibus, which is not on rails, but nonetheless resembles the horse-drawn trolley in Disneyland. Both the cars and omnibus travel the Main Street section of Greenfield.

One of the most fundamental resemblances between the two parks is the fact that Greenfield Village consists largely of historic buildings associated with famous Americans. These include Noah Webster's home, Robert Frost's home, the Wright brothers' bicycle shop and home, and an Illinois Courthouse where Lincoln was known to have practiced law. The idea of including such buildings in Disneyland is reflected in the large painting created by Peter Ellenshaw and shown by Walt on the Disneyland television program before actual construction on Disneyland had begun. In that early bird's-eye view of the park, (which is part of this exhibit) Walt's original plan to put just such buildings on what became Tom Sawyer Island is shown. That same concept appears on early Disneyland maps and other licensed merchandise. Walt had intended to fill the island with reconstructions of buildings like Mount Vernon, Monticello and other quintessentially American architecture. Although he soon dropped that idea in favor of an island like Mark Twain's characters enjoyed, the earlier version reflects a concept similar to that of Greenfield Village.

When Walt and Ward Kimball visited the Village in 1940 and '48, they had tintype photographs made of themselves at the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio. Although such photos are no longer made there, the building remains just as it was when Walt and Ward were there.

"Behind the Magic" includes more than 200 pieces of art and artifacts beautifully displayed in over 3,000 square feet of space. It also features a nice shop with some merchandise unique to this exhibit. Included is an interesting softcover book which reproduces many of the items on display, including my postcard of Marceline's main street.

Displayed outside the entryway to the exhibit is a Jolly Trolley from Toontown. Also displayed near that entryway is a permanent part of The Henry Ford Museum's collection which provides an interesting counterpoint to an icon of early Disneyland. The Dymaxion house is very similar in concept and execution to the House of the Future built and sponsored by Monsanto Corporation in the early days of Disneyland. While the Monsanto house was constructed primarily of fiberglass and plastics, the Dymaxion house, designed by R. Buckminster Fuller a decade earlier, is made of aluminum.

In 1946, Fuller proposed to the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas that its aircraft manufacturing facility, which had been building aluminum airplanes until the end of World War II, be converted to the peacetime purpose of building aluminum homes for the families of returning veterans. The Dymaxion is round with a peaked roof, and mounted on a single spindle which is set in concrete in the ground at a depth of approximately 8 to 10 feet. Other than that single spindle in the middle, there is no foundation for the house.

Creative differences between the Beech Company and Fuller led to the demise of the project, but The Ford Museum acquired both of the existing prototypes of the house and combined what remained of them into an exhibit of what might have been. It represents a very interesting example of what The House of the Future might have looked like if Disneyland had opened a decade earlier.

A special day of presentations is planned for Friday, November 11 in Dearborn. Vice-chair of Walt Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar, Karal Ann Marling, guest curator of the exhibit and Scott Mallwitz will all be making presentations about the exhibit that day.

"Behind the Magic" will be at The Henry Ford through the end of the year. It will then travel to a museum in the San Francisco Bay area, and reportedly will then return to a venue in the Midwest before traveling to other major museums throughout the country during the next few years. However, if you can get to Dearborn before the end of 2005, you will have the added pleasure of an opportunity to see one of the major influences on the design of Disneyland at the same time that you take in this excellent exhibit.

Editor's note: Dan Viets is the author of arguably one of the better Disney history books to be published in the past few years, "Walt Disney's Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius." So if you'd like to learn more about Walt's formative days in Marceline & Kansas City (Not to mention detailed information about Disney's aborted indoor theme park project, "Riverboat Square"), then I urge you to pick up a copy.

 

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