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Getting Just the Right Voices for Hunchback’s Gargoyles Proved to be a Pretty Gruesome Go

Yep. We’re raiding the JHM archives again. This time around, it’s a story from April 2000 that details all the trouble Disney Feature Animation had when it was casting Victor, Hugo, and Laverne … or should I say Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn?



Gargoyles in Hunchback of Notre Dame
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How tough can it be to do the voicework for the comic relief in a Disney animated film?

I mean, what do you do? You show up at the studio, schmooze with the director, say a few jokes, take an hour for lunch, do a few more jokes, break for tea, do another couple of jokes, then — ooops — it’s time to go home. The hardest part of the job would seem to be that long walk out to the mailbox, where you have to pick up that oversized check.

At least that’s what people seem to think happens when actors are hired to do voices for Disney films.

The reality of the job is considerably different — particularly when you’re working on a film that’s in trouble.

Cyndi Lauper – Voice of Gargoyle Quinn

Think of poor Cyndi Lauper.

All her life, this colorful pop star had wanted to be in an animated film for Disney. Whenever she went to one of the studio’s film openings or attended a Disneyland press event with her family, Lauper would badger company executives, repeatedly telling them “I want to do a cartoon with you guys.” The executives all assured Cyndi that they knew about her interest. They promised Lauper that — once the right project came along — she would be the first person that the Mouse would call.

Cyndi pestered the Mouse for years until in late 1993, that phone call she’d been waiting for finally came. Disney was just beginning development of a musical cartoon version of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The folks over at Feature Animation were wondering whether Lauper would be interesting in being a part of the project.

Would she?

Lauper practically flew over to Burbank, so eager was she to find out what the Mouse had in store for her.

On the drive over, Cyndi wondered: “They couldn’t be thinking of me for the voice of Esmerelda … could they?”

Ah … actually, no. Disney wanted Lauper to audition to be the voice of one of Quasimodo’s made-of-stone friends: Quinn, a gargoyle.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Cyndi was somewhat taken aback by this request. I mean, she knew that her voice and her looks were … somewhat unconventional. But to be considered the perfect person to portray an ugly stone statue didn’t seem like much of a compliment to Lauper.

But Cyndi — who still dreamed of achieved screen immortality as a character in a Disney animated film — shrugged off the perceived insult and threw herself into the audition process. She did a reading with Disney’s casting department, then met with the film’s directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. They liked the energy and humor Lauper brought to the part.

A week later, Cyndi was hired.

Finding Sidekicks – Why “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Added Gargoyles

Now keep in mind that Ms. Lauper was brought on board fairly early during “Hunchaback”‘s production. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore and Kevin Kline hadn’t even been hired at this point. At the time, Wise and Trousdale still weren’t quite sure how they were doing with the film. Given how serious the original Victor Hugo novel was, they knew that a new film version would need considerable comic relief — particularly if they wanted to make the project palatable to modern audiences. But what sort of jokes should they do to lighten this somber story? And where?

Wise and Trousdale felt that one of the keys to making “Hunchback” work as animation was to give Quasimodo some silly sidekicks.

These characters would have to serve two purposes:

1) Give the Hunchback someone to talk with and confide in while he was locked away in his bell tower, and — more importantly —

2) Make Quasimodo seem more lovable.

A person with loyal, funny sidekicks has got to be lovable, right?

Hoping to find the right ingredients, the “Hunchback” development team spent a few months tossing around sidekick ideas for the hunchback.

Birds and Disney Princess Films

One concept was to have Quasi befriended all of the birds that lived up in the rafters of the cathedral with him. Just like in Cinderella, his little feathered friends would have helped the hunchback through his day — doing little chores for him, cheering him up, cheering him on. You get the idea.

But — because this same bird friend idea had already been so thoroughly played out in Disney’s 1950 animated feature, “Cinderella” — Wise and Trousdale opted not to go forward with this story idea (though you can still see a hint of this character development in Quasi’s interaction with the fledgling pigeon at the beginning of the film).

Bells and Talking Objects

Then the directors toyed with the idea of having Quasi actually be friends with the bells in the tower; this was something that Hugo himself had touched on in the original novel. He had the hunchback name many of the bells in the belfry — little Sophia, Jean Marie, Anne Marie, Louise Marie and Big Marie — as well as converse with the bells. So it didn’t seem like too much of a leap for the filmmakers to have the bells talking back to Quasi.

But — again — Wise and Trousdale weren’t all that anxious to repeat something that had already been in done in a Disney film. As the directors of “Beauty and the Beast,” these guys had already made a candelabra, a mantleclock, and a teapot talk. So turning a 10 ton bell into Quasi’s close intimate friend didn’t seem like that much of a challenge to them.


So that left the gargoyles — those strange stone statues that lined the parapets of Notre Dame. Wise and Trousdale liked the idea of giving Quasi some misfit gargoyles — statues so ugly that the stonemason didn’t dare put them out on display — to hang out with. The directors and their “Hunchback” development team knocked around a few ideas and came away with some unique names and personalities for these proposed gargoyle characters. They were:


The big fat stupid one. Think of Pumbaa, only carved in stone.


The haughty, stiff, proper one. A Felix Ungar frieze.


The young, kind-hearted nurturing one. (This was the character Disney had hired Lauper to do the voice for.)

Hugo, Laverne, and Victor Gargoyles
Credit: Disney

Tribute to the Original(s) “Hunchback”

Okay … I know. You’re probably already saying to yourself: “But Jim. Those aren’t the names I remember from Disney’s animated ‘Hunchback’ movie. Weren’t the gargoyles called Victor, Hugo and Laverne?”

Yes they were … eventually.

But — when Disney’s “Hunchback” project started out — Kirk and Trousdale wanted to call the movie’s gargoyle characters Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn.


Well, if things had worked out the way Kirk and Gary had intended, these character’s names would have made a great in-joke as well as paid tribute to three great actors who already had strong ties to this story.

How so? Well, Lon Chaney starred in the first version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a silent movie Universal Studio produced in 1923.

Charles Laughton appeared in the first sound version of “Hunchback,” a black and white film that RKO Studios produced in 1939.

Anthony Quinn made the first color film version of “Hunchback,” which Allied Artists released in 1957.

Chaney. Laughton. Quinn. Get it now?

Wise and Trousdale thought that — by using these names — they’d come up with a really clever way to pay tribute to these actors who had already done such a superb job portraying Victor Hugo’s tragic hero.

Unfortunately, Disney’s legal department thought otherwise.

Disney Legal and Naming the Gargoyles

The Mouse’s lawyers were worried that Chaney and Laughton’s heirs might be offended by this gesture and decide to sue the studio. They were particularly concerned about Anthony Quinn — who is very much alive and had a reputation for suing folks at the drop of a hat — coming after the company with an army of attorneys.

So Disney’s lawyers told the “Hunchback” development team that there was no way that they’d be allowed to name their gargoyle characters after any actors — living or dead. But Kirk and Trousdale were really reluctant to give up on this gag / tribute. So, for a short time, the “Hunchback” gargoyle characters were called Lon, Charles and Anthony. Surely Disney’s legal department wouldn’t have a problem if the development team named the characters by using only the first names of the actors who’d played Quasimodo?

They could. They did. Disney’s legal department said “No” again. Which left the production team with three gargoyles to name.

Victor, Hugo, and Laverne – “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Gargoyle Sidekicks

The Victor and Hugo idea came very quickly. After all, the names paid tribute to the author of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” More to the point, he was a dead guy — so Hugo wasn’t around to try and sue Disney. The legal department LOVED this idea.

But what to call that third gargoyle? Wise and Trousdale pondered over this one for a while. As written, the character was a female as well as being a member of a trio. The name they came up with had to fit the character. More importantly, it had to be funny.

Finally, Kirk was the one who came up with the solution. He recalled the Andrew Sisters, a legendary musical trio from the 1940s — best known for their performance of the “Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy of Company B.”

And what were the sisters’ names? Patty, Maxine and Laverne. Laverne seemed like the funniest name of the three, so that’s how Cyndi Lauper’s character became known as Laverne.

Only now … it wasn’t so certain that Lauper’s character was going to stay Lauper’s character.

Troubles Voicing the Gargoyles – Laverne and Hugo

Cyndi was doing wonderful work in her recording sessions. Good, clear, sharp professional stuff. The problem was that the script — as originally written — wasn’t working. The way Lauper was portraying the character of Laverne sounded like a contemporary of Quasimodo. Someone his own age, who understood his need to get out of the bell tower and explore that great, big world “Out There.”

The trouble was that Cyndi’s youthful voice sounded too youthful. Instead of coming across as a friend who was offering Quasi wise counsel, this earlier version of Laverne sounded like some young kid urging Quasimodo to bust out of the belfry and go party. Take a walk on the wild side. Which was not how Wise and Trousdale wanted Laverne to sound, because — in the original version of the script — this was the sort of stuff Hugo was telling Quasi.

As you might have guessed, Wise and Trousdale were having script trouble with their short fat gargoyle too. They had hired veteran sitcom performer Sam McMurray — best known for his work on “The Tracey Ullman Show” — to voice Hugo. And Sam was doing a great job with Hugo as the character was written then: sort of a stone version of John Belushi’s Bluto character from the 1978 comedy, “Animal House.” A big gross funny guy.

But perhaps too gross. As test versions of Disney’s “Hunchback” were assembled — using images off of the pre-production storyboards as well as audio from those early recording sessions — it became obvious that the gargoyle trio just wasn’t jelling.

Charles Kimbrough’s work as Victor seemed right on the money. Kimbrough gave his gargoyle character the same prissy air he brought to his stuffy newscaster character, Jim Dial, on the CBS sitcom, “Murphy Brown.” This was exactly what Wise and Trousdale wanted. But there was something obviously wrong with Hugo and Laverne.

Fixing the Script

So the “Hunchback” development team reworked the script, then called Lauper and McMurray back to do some additional recording sessions. When the tapes from these sessions didn’t work out either, Kirk and Gary made another stab at fixing the script, then called Cyndi and Sam back in again to have another stab at the material.

When the tapes from these sessions fell flat as well, Wise and Trousdale had to face facts. The problem wasn’t the material. They’d just hired the wrong actors to perform their script.

Replacing Lauper & McMurray

It was now obvious that Lauper and McMurray needed to be replaced. While nobody likes to make phone calls like this, Gary and Kirk personally called Cyndi and Sam to let them know that they were off the project. Wise and Trousdale apologized profusely, explaining to Lauper and McMurray that they’d both done fine work. It was just that the characters of Laverne and Hugo — as originally written — weren’t working. Disney wanted to see if getting a fresh start on the characters, bringing in some new actors to portray these parts, might be able to get “Hunchback” back on track.

McMurray took this sad bit of news stoically, like the industry veteran that he is. But Lauper was heartbroken. She had pursued a part in a Disney animated film for nearly a decade. And Cyndi had been on board “Hunchback” almost from the project’s inception — long before Hulce, Moore, or Kline had been hired. Now she was out of the movie. Her dream job gone. Needless to say, Lauper took her dismissal very badly.

Wise and Trousdale felt awful about dashing Cyndi’s hopes for animation immortality. But they also had a film that was in production that was in serious trouble. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. So they put the memory of Lauper’s tears behind them and tried to figure out how to fix Hugo and Laverne.

Based on the early test footage, it was fairly obvious that one of Wise and Trousdale’s biggest problems is that they’d just gone too far with Hugo. The fat obnoxious gargoyle was just coming across as too gross for audiences to warm up to. When recasting Hugo, Gary and Kirk needed to find someone who was gifted at playing annoying but amusing characters that still managed to hold audience’s sympathies. But who had talent enough to pull that amazing feat off?

Jason Alexander as Hugo

Luckily, they didn’t have to look much further than the “Must See TV” line-up Thursday nights on NBC. There was Jason Alexander — playing his heart out as the neurotic but still somewhat loveable George Costanzo on “Seinfeld.” Here clearly was the man who could pull off Hugo, having already walked that thin line between amusing and annoying for five seasons of television.

When Alexander got the call to come out to Burbank and audition, he was thrilled. Just like Cyndi, Jason had been trying for years to land a part in a Disney animated film. Previously, he had tried out for the roles of Lefou and Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” as well as Timon and Pumbaa in “The Lion King.” But the closest that Alexander had come to making his toon dreams come true was landing the role of the comic villain, Abis Mal, in the 1994 direct-to-video sequel to “Aladdin,” “The Return of Jafar.”

Hugo is Jason Alexander

But here … finally … was his big break. So Jason zoomed over to Disney Feature Animation and wowed Wise and Trousdale with his audition. Alexander immediately got Hugo, figuring out — almost instinctively — how far he could take the character without making him too obnoxious. With Jason voicing this grubby little gargoyle, Hugo finally worked. Funny but feisty, Alexander’s gargoyle contrasted beautifully with Kimbrough’s tight, prissy portrayal of Victor. These two characters could now be counted on to produce huge laughs for the movie.

So now what do Gary and Kirk do with Laverne?

Finding the Voice for Laverne

It should be noted here that — at this point in the production — Wise and Trousdale were under tremendous pressure to cut the third gargoyle out of the picture. Given how well Victor and Hugo were now working, Laverne suddenly seemed unnecessary. A third wheel, if you will. Dropping that character would have saved the film a lot of money, as well as freeing up a lot more screen time for the two other gargoyles to cavort.

But Gary and Kirk felt Laverne was crucial to the film.

Hugo kept urging Quasi to take a chance, go for the gusto.

Victor was the voice of prudence and caution.

Wise and Trousdale knew that their lead character needed someone in the middle, someone with the common touch who’d tell Quasi just to listen to his heart.

So “Hunchback” Head of Story Will Finn took a stab at rethinking Laverne. Working with Trousdale, they re-imagined the female gargoyle not so much as a nurturing contemporary of Quasi but as a wise if somewhat crazy old grandmother. “The sort of woman who had a million cats and sat out on her front porch, cradling a shotgun” was how Gary liked to describe her.

This new version of Laverne looked to be just what Wise and Trousdale were looking for. Still funny, but obviously different enough from Victor and Hugo. Plus this rethink of the character — playing her as more of a favorite old aunt of Quasi — allowed Laverne to deliver that common sense advice that the lonely young hunchback so desperately needed to hear.

Having finally fixed this troubled character, Gary and Kirk were saddled with an even bigger problem: Who do they find to portray this cranky but kind-hearted old gargoyle?

Mary Wickes as Laverne

It was just about this time that the sequel to Disney’s 1992 hit, “Sister Act” — “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” — was hitting theaters. And there in a supporting role as feisty old Sister Mary Lazarus was veteran character actress Mary Wickes.

If ever you could call someone an old show business trouper, it was Mary Wickes.

Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Her career started ‘way back in the 1940s, when Wickes played second banana to Abbott and Costello in their 1941 Universal Studios comedy, “Hold that Ghost.” For the next five decades, Wickes never stopped working. She did TV with Lucille Ball, sketch comedy with Bob Hope, movie musicals with Bing Crosby, Broadway, commercials. You name it. Mary Wickes did it.

As soon as Disney Feature Animation’s casting office pointed out Wickes to Wise and Trousdale, they knew that this might finally be the person who could pull off Laverne. Wickes’ reedy mid-western voice along with her crack comic timing might just be the combination Gary and Kirk were looking for to make their third gargoyle work.

Wickes came in for her audition in early 1993. While basically a novice at feature animation, having a little voice work for TV animation in the early 1990s, Mary still nailed the part. Wickes brought to Laverne everything Wise and Trousdale had hoped she would: the humor, the heart, as well as a real sense of wisdom.

As soon as they heard Wickes’ audition tape, Gary and Kirk offered her the part. Being the old show business hand that she was, Mary was happy to just to be working. In spite of being well over 80 years old at the time, Wickes never let her age slow her down. Mary was on time to every session and gave 100% every time she was behind the mike.

Gargoyles Complete – Adding Comic Relief

Now with Alexander and Wickes on board, the gargoyle scenes in “Hunchback” finally started firing on all four cylinders. Here was the humor and the heart that Wise and Trousdale had been looking for all those months. Finally these early crucial scenes in the film — where Quasi revealed his longing to leave the bell tower and journey “Out There” into the world — began to play properly.

In fact, the Victor, Hugo and Laverne sequences began working so well that — late in production, as “Hunchback” hit a trouble spot — Wise and Trousdale turned to the gargoyles to help bail them out.

Okay. Remember the film? The trouble spot comes up well into the third act of the film. Frollo is burning down Paris in his desperate search for Esmerelda. Phoebus has been shot in the back with an arrow for defying an order from the crazed cleric. Esmerelda ends up rescuing the wounded soldier from a watery grave. Meanwhile, Quasi sit high in his belltower, wringing his hands as he rings his bells, wondering if he’ll ever see the beautiful gypsy girl alive again.

Sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it?

If ever a film needed to be lightened up for a while, it was Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” at this particular point in the plot. So Wise and Trousdale turned their gaze back on their comic relief and thought: “Maybe it’s time to give these guys a song.”

So they asked composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwarz to come up with a comic number for the gargoyles to sing to Quasi, as they tried to buck up their pal’s spirits as well as distract him — at least for a moment — away from his concerns for Esmerelda’s safety. Schwarz then came up with the idea that — in Hugo, Victor and Laverne’s eyes — the hunchback was a pretty fine looking fellow.

Out of that notion came the showstopper, “A Guy Like You,” one of the wildest, funniest numbers ever to be presented in a Disney animated film. Not since Ward Kimball’s eye-popping work in the title tune from the studio’s 1944 “The Three Caballeros” has a musical number featured so many gags. That song did just what it was supposed to: diverted Quasi’s attention — as well as the audience’s — from all the troubles in the film for a few minutes.

This song made the movie all the more heart wrenching when Esmerelda showed up — just moments later — with the injured Phoebus in tow. As the gypsy girl revealed her love for the wounded soldier, our hearts immediately went out to Quasimodo. Just seconds earlier, his friends had been assuring the hunchback that Esmerelda had to love him. Now here was the truth, slapping him in the face. It was brutal but still masterful storytelling by Wise and Trousdale. You’d have to had a heart of stone to not have been moved by that scene.

Wickes Last Performance

Sadly, “A Guy Like You” would turn out to be the very last thing Mary Wickes worked on. In October 1995, just weeks after recording the song, Wickes passed away quietly in her sleep.

Wickes’ death saddened the “Hunchback” production team, but also left them with a bit of a problem. Prior to her untimely passing, Mary had recorded almost everything that Disney needed to finish the film. But there were still a few additional pick-up lines Wise and Trousdale needed recorded to finish up Laverne’s speaking part as well as a couple of lines from “A Guy Like You” that the directors wanted smoothed over. But — with Wickes gone — how were they ever going to get this additional dialogue recorded?

Jane Withers – Mary Wickes Sound-alike

Since there was obviously no way to replace a talent like Mary Wickes, Disney began searching for a Mary Wickes sound-alike. Happily, the Mouse found one in former child star Jane Withers. Withers — best known these days for her work as Josephine the Plumber, the spokesperson for Comet Cleanser — is a gifted mimic. More to the point, she was a lifelong friend of Mary Wickes. So she could do a killer impression of Wickes’ reedy twang without even trying.

Withers was glad to help Disney out of its predicament, both for the opportunity to work as well as sort of pay tribute to her longtime friend. Jane came in quietly and quickly recorded the few little snippets of things Wise and Trousdale needed to finish up Laverne’s role in “Hunchback.” Withers was so good at doing Wickes that it’s damn near impossible to tell which actress did which part in the movie.

With that … the gargoyle portions of “Hunchback” were completed. The finished film was released in the summer of 1996. While not a huge hit like “The Lion King,” Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” got respectful reviews and did okay at the box office.

Michael Eisner Creates “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Stage Version

But one guy really fell in love with this movie: Disney chairman Michael Eisner. “Hunchback” is — hands down — Eisner’s favorite film among all the animated cartoons that Disney Studio has created in the 15 years he’s been running the company. Michael liked this movie so much that he asked Disney Theatrical Production to create a stage version of the show.

Under the direction of noted Broadway playwright / director James Lapine, a stage version of Disney’s “Hunchback” was produced last year. But not in New York. Instead, this live stage version of the movie musical had its world premiere in the summer of 1999 in Berlin. (Why Berlin? Because — of all the countries in all the world — the one place where Disney’s animated version of “Hunchback” was a true blockbuster at the box office was Germany. So — when it came time to roll out the live stage version of the show — Berlin seemed like the obvious place to go.)

The live stage version of Disney’s “Der Glockner Von Notre Dame” proved to be very popular with German audiences. It played to mostly sold out houses at the Musical Theater Berlin for three years before finally closing in June 2002.

TV Movie Version – Return of Cyndi Lauper?

And — even as you read this — Neal Meron and Craig Zadan of Storyline Entertainment are prepping a live action TV movie version of Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (which is expected to air on ABC during the 2003 – 2004 television season). And since Neal and Craig are reportedly right in the middle of casting their version of “Hunchback,” I was kind of hoping that they’d give Cyndi Lauper a chance to audition for the role of Laverne.

I mean, come on. Fair’s fair. Given all the heartbreak Lauper went through during the production of the animated version of “Hunchback,” it only stands to reason that Cyndi at least deserves a shot at playing a gargoyle in the TV movie version of “Hunchback.”

I mean, it isn’t starring in a Disney animated cartoon. But it’s close.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Film & Movies

“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland



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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.

Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.

Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film

Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.

Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …

… photographed on the island of Tobago in the West Indies and that it is shaping up into such an exciting and thrilling picture that the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ shows every promise of equaling or surpassing every production our Company has ever put out.

Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.

But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”

And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.

It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.

The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real

By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.

It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.

Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance

Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically).  Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland

The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).

There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.

And those words supposedly were “Build this.”

It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.

So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.

Adventureland Upgrades

Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.

There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.

This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.

How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”

Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”

That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.

In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.

Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America

Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).

If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.

Drained Jungle Cruise – Credit:

The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.

While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.

As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.

This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:

“Here. This is where I want you guys to build Disneyland’s version of the Swiss Family Treehouse.”

“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland

It wasn’t that easy.

The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”

Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”

The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”

Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”

Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”

Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.

So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.

Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse Construction (1962) – Credit:

And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.

The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland

This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Halley (As in Halley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).

There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Halley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.

How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?

Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.

This is where the Imagineers were wrong.

Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse

Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.

200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.

Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.

To be specific here:  Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.

Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).

Ken Annakin – Film Director

Disney Legend Ken Annakin – Credit: D23

Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.

Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.

Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”

And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.

New Robin Hood on Disney+?

Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An  Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.

So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.

So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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Film & Movies

“Khrushchev at Disneyland” – The Film Walt Disney Almost Made



Khrushchev Disneyland Film
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Did you ever hear about … “Khrushchev at Disneyland”?

It was back in October of last year that Disney+ revealed that they were now working on a film about the creation of Disneyland.

Given that Evan Spiliotopoulos – who crafted the screenplay for the Company’s live-action reimagining of “Beauty & the Beast” (which then went on to earn $1.26 billion at the worldwide box office back in 2017) – is reportedly writing the script for this yet-to-be-titled film, I have high hopes for this movie about the making of The Happiest Place on Earth.

After all, if we go by “Saving Mr. Banks” (i.e., That 2013 Walt Disney Pictures release about the making of “Mary Poppins,” where Emma Thompson played “Poppins” author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks turned in a masterful performance as Walt Disney), this company-of-storytellers has already proven that it can turn its own history into entertaining motion pictures.

But that said, if The Walt Disney Company is now actively looking for moments from its past that it can possibly turn into motion pictures … Well, might I suggest a moment that Walt himself might make one hell of a movie. And that’s Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s non-visit to Disneyland.

Khrushchev’s US Visit (1959)

I don’t know how many of you are 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.

Nikita Khrushchev stopped by 20th Century Fox studios in Los Angeles to mingle with some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Credit: PBS

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.

Visiting the “Happiest Place on Earth”

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.

Walt Disney Interested in Khrushchev Visiting Disneyland

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 then-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.

Disneyland Trip Cancelled for Nikita Khrushchev

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.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gestures as he arrives at the Mark Hopkins hotel on Sept. 20, 1959, in San Francisco. | AP Photo
Credit: Politico/AP

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.

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 19 -- Nikita S. Khrushchev's temper exploded today, not long after he arrived here from New York, when he was told that he could not go to Disneyland because security officials could not guarantee his safety.
Credit: NY Times

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 at Camp David with President Eisenhower talking about Cold War-related issues.

Which (you’d think) would be how history would remember the Soviet Premier’s 1959 trip to the United States. That Khrushchev & Eisenhower actually sat down and then tried to find a solution to their Germany & 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.

Media Covers Khrushchev’s Disneyland Denial

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.

Movie About Khrushchev’s “Disneyland Trip”

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 then be based on this infamous incident. So Walsh got together with his long-time collaborator, Don DaGradi. And eventually the two of then crafted a script or a film they wanted to call “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 supposedly flown over to America to meet with President Eisenhower. But — in reality — Nikita had actually traveled all this way because what he really wanted to do was go to Disneyland.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev
Credit: Past Daily

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 all of his State Department handlers the slip. Then Khrushchev somehow makes his way out to Disneyland, with all of these US & Soviet officials in hot pursuit … and hilarity ensues.

Okay. Admittedly, we’re not talking about “Lawrence of Arabia” here. Walt wasn’t really looking to make a historically accurate film based on this amusing, relatively minor 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 this script was completed — how close did “Khrushchev at Disneyland” actually come to getting made? So close that Walt had already lined up an A-List actor to play the Soviet Premier. And that was 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. Disney Studio had a script in hand that was ready to shoot. They also had an A-List actor that was positively eager to get in front of the cameras and then do his impression of the Soviet Premier. Not only that, but Disney’s top producer was slated to ride herd on this project and the studio’s very best director would be helming this picture.

“Khrushchev at Disneyland” Movie Halts Production

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 had left behind were … Well … The polite term for them is “cautious corporate citizens.” The not-so-polite term is “gutless wimps.”

Anyway, these guys shied away from this project. Largely because they were concerned that there would were film fans out there who wouldn’t see the humor in “Khrushchev at Disneyland.” Their genuine fear was – because of Peter Ustinov’s sure-to-be-charming performance as Nikita Khrushchev – there were certain segments of the US population that would then accuse Walt Disney Company of corrupting America’s youth / of going soft on Communism by suggesting that – GASP ! — the Russian people were actually a lot like us. That they too like to do fun things like – say – go to Disneyland.

Of course, the real irony here is that one of the main reason that Walt really wanted his Studio to make “Kruschchev at Disneyland” was because he’d already seen that a Russians-are-people-too family comedy could succeed at the box office without controversy.

“The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”

I’m talking – of course – about “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Which MGM had released to theaters in May of 1966 and had then gone on become the seventh highest grossing film of the year at the North American box office.

And I know for a fact that Walt was well aware of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” for a couple of reasons.

  • This Norman Jewison movie starred Brian Keith, who – just 5 years previous – had co-starred in Disney’s “The Parent Trap” along with Hayley Mills & Maureen O’Hara
  • The year after Disney’s “Parent Trap” had been released to theaters, Jewison had directed “40 Pounds of Trouble.” Which was the first live-action film that Walt had ever allowed to be shot on location at Disneyland Park.
  • For the entire Summer of 1966, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and Disney’s own “Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.” were duking it out at the North American box office. Seeing which family comedy would then go on to sell more tickets domestically. In the end, Disney came out on top. With that Dick Van Dyke movie selling $22 million worth of tickets in North America, while MGM’s Russians-are-people-too picture sold $21 million worth of tickets domestically.

This is why – when Walt made his very last trip to the Disney lot in November of 1966 – “Khrushchev at Disneyland” was very much on his mind. As far as Disney was concerned, this project was a go. Something that his Studio would start shooting in 1967 and then release to theaters the following year.

This is why Walt made a point of dropping by the set of “Blackbeard’s Ghost” that November morning. He wanted to let Peter Ustinov & Bill Walsh know how much he was looking forward to “Khrushchev at Disneyland.” And Ustinov … Well, Peter was supposedly even more excited about this back-then-soon-to-begin-shooting-movie than Walt was. Ustinov reportedly told Disney that – to insure that he look as much like the Soviet Premier as possible – this acclaimed actor was actually planning on shaving his head.

Ustinov then cracked up Walt by saying that he was thinking of basing his portrayal of Khrushchev on Peter’s mother back in England. As Disney laughed, Ustinov insisted that his Mom was a dead ringer for Nikita. “I didn’t know that your Ma was bald,” Walt replied.

Having really enjoyed his visit to the “Blackbeard’s Ghost” set, Disney then quietly excused himself and left the soundstage. Once Walt had left, Walsh and Ustinov quietly talked amongst themselves about how pale and gaunt the studio head had looked.

Of course, neither Peter or Bill knew that Walt had – just days earlier – been diagnosed with lung cancer. Or that – at this point – Disney had just weeks left to live.

And when Walt Disney 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 this project up until that point, Walsh and DaGradi’s script got shelved. And I’d imagine that this screenplay is now stashed away in some filing cabinet, where “Khrushchev at Disneyland” has been gathering dust for over five decades now.

Potential for “Khrushchev/Disneyland” Film

I bring up this project today … Well, for a couple of reasons.

  • Disney+ has this unending appetite for new content. And wouldn’t it be cool if the Studio were to revive a project that Walt himself once wanted to make and then make that movie available to customers of the Company’s subscription streaming service.
  • Given what’s going on in the Ukraine right now and how the Cold War keeps threatening to become a hot one … Well, while I am no fan of Vladimir Putin, I think that a movie which reminds us that the Russian people (NOT the Russian government, mind you. But the Russian PEOPLE) are people too … That might be a smart, hopeful message to put out in the world these days.

Making-of-Disneyland Movie on Disney+

Anyway … If the Company is looking for a follow-up for that making-of-Disneyland movie they’re prepping for Disney+ …

By the way … Interesting side note: The gentleman that Disney has tapped to direct this movie is David Gordon Green. He directed last year’s smash hit horror film, “Halloween Kills.” Which might make David seem like an odd choice to helm a film about The Happiest Place on Earth.

But then again, Gordon also executive-produces “The Righteous Gemstones.” Which is this wonderfully funny TV series about a family of televangelists who also own & operate a theme park. Which perhaps makes Mr. Green the perfect person to direct a movie about the creation of Disneyland.

Anyway … If Disney+ is looking for the perfect follow-up for their making-of-Disneyland movie, might I suggest that someone dig out a copy of “Khrushchev at Disneyland.”

More to the point, someone go ask Josh Gad if he’d be willing to shave off all those curly locks so that he could then play a certain Soviet Premier.

Josh Gadd and Nikita Khrushchev
Credit: Wikipedia Commons
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Film & Movies

How Mattel’s “Men in Space” Toyline Lead to the Creation of Buzz Lightyear



Buzz Lightyear Origin Story - images of Major Matt Mason, Buzz Lightyear, and Lunar Larry Concept Art
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Angus MacLane’s “Lightyear” is supposed to be … Well, not exactly an origin story for Buzz Lightyear, the action figure that we know from all of the “Toy Story” films. But Rather an explanation of why Andy is so excited at his birthday party in the first “Toy Story” movie when he gets that Buzz Lightyear toy.

You see, Andy’s seen the movie that this action figure was based on. Which is supposed to be this huge Summer blockbuster. Which is why Andy & his friends at that party react the way they do. As far as they’re concerned, the movie that spawned the Buzz Lightyear action figure line was the greatest film they’ve ever seen.

Credit: Disney

Of course, because I’m a nerd and an animation history buff, I can’t help but think about how Buzz Lightyear – the character from the “Toy Story” films, rather than the really-for-real space ranger that Chris Evans voices in “Lightyear” – really started out. Which honestly wasn’t supposed to be a spoof on Captain Kirk from “Star Trek” or Gil Gerad’s Buck Rogers from the TV show. But – rather – as a riff on a space-themed toy line that Mattel produced in the mid-1960s called “Men in Space” which was then built around a character called Major Matt Mason.

Now how we got to the “Men in Space” toy line is kind of convoluted. This story actually starts over 60 years ago when Mattel sent two dolls out into the world, Barbie & Chatty Cathy.

Doll’s For Boys – Mattel’s Space Action Figure

Mattel made money hand over fist from sales of these two products. Which then made Mattel’s competitors stand up and take notice. They too wanted in on this mass-produced plastic toy market. Which is what prompted Hasbro to do something bold in 1964. Which was to license a concept that Stanley Winston had been developing. Which is a military-themed doll for boys.

Hasbro’s G.I. Joe

Just so you know: The executives on the marketing side of Hasbro knew that that nomenclature – “dolls for boys” – wasn’t going to fly. Especially with the Dads of the 1960s. So this is why the phrase “action figure” came from.

credit: The Toys that made us

Anyway, Hasbro introduces G.I. Joe, “America’s movable fighting man” (because – again – you can’t call this toy what it actually is. Which is a poseable doll for boys) in 1964. And it’s a huge hit right out of the box.

Marx “Best in the West” Cowboy Dolls

And Hasbro & Mattel’s direct competition, Marx, sees what going on with G.I. Joe and decides that … Well, we want in on the “dolls for boys” market … So they come up with the “Best of the West” line. Which is this series of G.I. Joe-sized poseable cowboy dolls. Those arrive in the marketplace in 1965 and are also hugely successful.

Mattel Introduces “Men in Space” Toyline

So now here’s Mattel. Which has cornered the market when it comes to dolls for girls with its Barbie & Chatty Cathy lines. But now that Hasbro & Marx have blazed this brave new trail – poseable dolls for boys – with their G.I. Joe & “Best of the West” action figures, Mattel wants in too.

But now that soldiers & cowboys are the exclusive property of Hasbro & Marx, Mattel has to find some sort of hook for its new “dolls for boys” line. So rather than looking back to World War II or the glory days of the America West, Mattel decides to take a chance on what’s going on in the real world at that exact moment. Which is the space race.

Which is why – just in time for the holiday buying season of 1966 – Mattel rolls out its “Men in Space” toy line. Who is headlined by Major Matt Mason an astronaut-themed action figure “ … who lives and works on the Moon.”

Credit: Vintage Action Figures

Major Matt Mason – Astronaut-Themed Action Figure

Now what was kind of interesting about Major Matt Mason is that the toy line that he headlined was based in reality. As in: A lot of the outfits & ride vehicles that were created for Mattel’s “Men in Space” line were direct lifts of publicity images that NASA had already put out there of space vehicles that they envisioned building once man actually made it to the moon. Which brought up some interesting copyright-related issues at that time.

Now I have to tell you that Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line had problems right from the get-go. Instead of the sturdy 12-inch-tall poseable action figures that G.I. Joe and Marx’s “Best of the West” toys were … Major Matt Mason was half that size. Also, instead of hard plastic, Mattel used a rubber-like substance called Plastizol when it was making its “Men in Space” toys. That material was poured into a mold that had a wire armature inside.

Which wasn’t the sturdiest thing on the planet. Typically, after a few months of playing with your Major Matt Mason, the wire armature inside of this “Men in Space” action figure would break and it would then no longer be poseable.

Mind you, this was a deliberate choice on Mattel’s part. Their thinking was – by making Major Matt Mason half the size of G.I. Joe and then making this action figure out of cheaper material – … Well, that could then help them keep the cost of their “Men in Space” toy line down. Which would then – in theory, anyway – make these action figures far more affordable and make it possible for consumers to eventually purchase the entire playset.

Major Matt Mason’s Astronaut Friends

Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention that Major Matt Mason had friends? Well, co-workers really. Sgt. Storm, Chip Davis, and Jeff Long (who was an African-American astronaut). Who could all lived & worked together with Matt inside of a three-level lunar base and then got around the moon’s surface by using space sleds and jet propulsion packs.

Credit: Mattel

“Men in Space” Toy Sales

Mind you, Mattel’s “Men in Space” action figures didn’t sell nearly as well as that toy company had hoped they would over the 1966 holiday shopping season. And the thinking initially was that this was because Major Matt Mason & Co. didn’t have anyone that they could battle with. So – in much the same way that Buzz Lightyear has his evil nemesis, Emperor Zurg – the “Men in Space” team then found themselves (just in time for the 1967 holiday shopping season) dealing with evil aliens like Captain Lazer, Callisto, Scorpio and Or.

Unfortunately for Mattel, interest in the space program began to wane as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Which is why they decided to discontinue their “Men in Space” toy line in 1970.

Lunar Larry – The Original Buzz Lightyear

So when it comes to Buzz Lightyear, where’s the Major Matt Mason / “Men in Space” connection? Well, if you take a look back at the original concept art for Woody’s nemesis in the first “Toy Story” movie, he isn’t this G.I. Joe sized action figure. But – rather – a six-inch-tall poseable astronaut doll who (I kid you not) is called Lunar Larry.

Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, & “Men in Space” Film

FYI: If all had gone according to plan back in 2011, there would have been an even stronger “Toy Story” / “Major Matt Mason” connection. This was when it was announced in the Hollywood trades that Tom Hanks (that’s right. The voice of Woody) had co-written a movie based on Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line. Not only that, but Hanks was trying to persuade Robert Zemeckis (who Tom had worked with on “Forest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “The Polar Express,” and Disney+’s live-action “Pinocchio”) to come direct the “Major Matt Mason” – the man who lived & worked on the Moon – movie.

Wait. It gets better, Hanks himself reportedly wanted to play Major Matt Mason.

I’m not entirely sure whatever became of Tom Hanks’ “Men in Space” movie. This past February, Hanks & Zemeckis announced that they’ll be re-united with Eric Roth, the writer of “Forest Gump,” on a film adaptation of “Here.” Which is Roth’s graphic novel.

Supposedly sometime over the past 10 years, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to make a “Men in Space” movie. Hanks is still allegedly attached as a producer for this project. But given that Tom will be turning 66 next month, I doubt that he still wants to play Major Matt Mason.

Which is kind of a shame. Given what Woody once said to Buzz in the original “Toy Story” …

YOU ARE A TOY!!!  You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear, you’re an action figure!!  You are a child’s plaything!!!

… I would pay good money to see Tom Hanks play one of the original action figures: Major Matt Mason, the man who lived & worked on the Moon as part of Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line.

Credit: New York Times

This article is based on research for Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor “Episode 178”, published on June 16, 2022. Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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