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“What Would Walt Do” reveals the hidden history of WDW construction

Jim Hill returns with another book review for JHM readers. This time around, Jim reviews D.M. Miller’s thin but fun behind-the-scenes history of the building of the Walt Disney World Resort.

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You know, the Walt Disney Company has this nasty habit of rewriting its own history. Of editing out the somewhat messy parts that don’t fit in with the official, cleaned up version of events.

That’s why it’s so nice to discover a book like D. M. Miller’s “What Would Walt Do?: An Insider’s Story about the Design & Construction of Walt Disney World.” Here’s a history of the construction of the resort that hasn’t been cleaned up. Where you can learn — from someone who was actually there — what it was really like to build Disney World.

And D. M. Miller WAS right there from the beginning, my friends. He was a civil engineer who worked for a firm that was hired by Walt’s right hand man – General William E. “Joe” Potter – back in 1968 to do the survey work for the numerous drainage canals that had to be cut through the Central Florida property.

So in a way, Miller was one of the very first folks to visit Disney World. Only D.M.’s concerns weren’t long lines or overpriced eats. But rather, avoiding all the alligators, water moccasins and blood-sucking leeches that he’s encounter while hauling his survey equipment through the swamp.

Once this messy job was completed, Miller stayed on with the Disney World construction project right through to the resort’s official opening in October 1971. Which — given his “I was there” perspective — D.M. is able to give “What Would Walt Do?” readers a front row seat for the actual creation of the Vacation Kingdom.

Mind you, I don’t think that the Walt Disney Company would exactly approve of some of the anecdotes that Miller chooses to share. Things like how various construction companies took advantage of the Mouse (I.E. Bribing on-site employees so that they would count “phantom trucks,” which resulted in Walt Disney Productions being radically overcharged for the amount of clean fill that was trucked in to the site). Or even how individual construction workers pulled their own elaborate scams on Disney (Miller reveals how one construction worker built an entire camper top for his truck out of materials that he swiped from the WDW construction site).

But there are some nice stories in this book as well. D.M. singles out Roy Disney for particular praise, talking about how down-to-earth Walt’s brother was. How — before the Magic Kingdom opened — Roy Senior made a point of riding each and every one of the theme park’s attractions (Dumbo and the Merry-go-round included) to make sure that they were up to snuff. How Roy marveled at all the behind-the-scenes technology (Pointing up to the ceiling of the Utilidors, Roy Senior remarked to D.M.: “This must be what the inside of a spaceship looks like.”

Miller also shares tales about Admiral Joe Fowler, the Disney Productions vet whose favorite part of the entire WDW resort was the behind-the-scenes maintenance area in the northwest corner of Bay Lake (Why there? Because it reminded Admiral Joe so much of all the maintenance facilities that he built in the Pacific for the U.S. Navy back in WWII). As well as yarns about some lesser but no less colorful characters who worked at the WDW construction site (Like *** Inge, the Bible toting civil engineer with a trick knee who still able to stroll out onto the bare steel limbs of the Swiss Family Robinson tree house).

So is “What Would Walt Do?” worth purchasing? Well — if you’re an inside info pig like me — that answer would have to be a resounding “Yes!” I mean, where else are you going to be able to read about Roy Disney ordering that — on WDW’s official opening day — that women who weren’t wearing bras wouldn’t be allowed to enter the theme park? (Roy was forced to rescind that order just an hour after the theme park opened because of all the chaos and confusion that his edict was causing at the Magic Kingdom’s turnstiles. It seems that there were more women waiting in line who were not wearing bras than there were ladies who WERE wearing).

If, on the other hand, you’re not much of a Disney history fan, then you may want to take a pass on Miller’s book. Why for? Well, while “What Would Walt do?” isn’t exactly expensive (typically retailing for $11.95), it is a bit on a thin side. The whole book is barely 124 pages long (and those 124 pages include two different tellings about how D.M. learned — while he and his pick-up truck were parked on the still-dry-and-sandy bottom of Seven Seas Lagoon — that his son, James David, was about to be born in a Tampa hospital. Sure, that’s a nice story and all. But did we actually have to hear it twice?)

Still, if you’re interested in reading a folksy, wart-and-all take of the pre-opening days of the Disney World resort, “What Would Walt Do?: An Insider’s Story About the Design & Construction of Walt Disney World” may be the book for you.

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.

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The longish path that “Catch My Breath,” Paul Briggs’ picture book took to be published by Disney Hyperion

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How long can you hold your breath?

I ask this question because Paul Briggs wound up holding his “Breath” (i.e., “Catch My Breath,” that charming picture book which Briggs wrote & illustrated. This is also the 48-page hardcover that Disney Hyperion sent out into stores late last month as the most recent installment of its Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase series) for over five years.

“I initially submitted my pitch for a children’s book back in early 2012. But just as my idea was selected for Disney’s Artist Showcase program, I was then asked to become Head of Story on ‘Frozen,’ ” Briggs recalled during a recent phone interview. “So I put my picture book proposal in a drawer and then devoted the next year of my life to ‘Frozen.’ All with the idea that – once this job was done – I’d then turn my attention back to ‘Catch My Breath.’ “

Paul Briggs at a recent signing for “Catch My Breath,” his new picture book. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That was Paul’s plan, anyway. But then in the Fall of 2013, just as the team at Walt Disney Animation Studios was completing “Frozen,” Briggs learned that he was needed on “Big Hero 6.”

“I was literally at the ‘Frozen’ wrap party when I learned that I was going to be asked to come on board ‘Big Hero 6.’ So I was like ‘Okay! I’ll now go work on that project and then – as soon as that’s done – get back to work on my picture book,’ Paul continued. “But once I finished working on ‘Big Hero 6,’ there were another couple of projects that the Studio wanted me to help out with. Which meant that another year or so went by before I was then finally able to circle back on ‘Catch My Breath.’ “

Given all of these delays, another writer might have thought “It’s not meant to be” and have just left this book pitch in that drawer. But not Briggs.

Story sketches that Paul Briggs did for Disney’s “Frozen.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“I’m the kind of guy who likes to fold bits & pieces of his real life into the stories that he’s trying to tell. Take – for example – ‘Frozen.’ I have four sisters. Which is why – when I was working on that movie – I tried to make sure that Anna & Elsa came across as realistic siblings. That – over the course of that film’s story — these two behaved like real sisters do,” Paul explained. “Now on ‘Big Hero 6’ … Well, my Mom had just passed away as I began working on that movie. So as the story team was sorting through how to best tell ‘Big Hero 6’ ‘s story, I was in the middle of my own personal journey of understanding. Trying to learn how to accept grief into my life without it then overwhelming or undermining everything else in my life. And what I learned by going through that part of the grieving process then influenced a lot of the story suggestions that I made on ‘Big Hero 6.’ “

Truth be told, the passing of Briggs’ mother did help shape the sort of story that he was hoping to tell with “Catch My Breath.”

“The very same year that my Mom died, my son was born. So in that same short span of time, I got to see my mother take her very last breath and my first-born take his very first breath,” Paul remembered. “And that’s when it occurred to me that our breath is kind of like our bestest, closest friend. Which is why you can’t ever allow it to get away.”

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So with that creative conceit in his head, Briggs then began to sketch out a story for ‘Catch My Breath.’ A tale which Paul admits took a teeny bit of inspiration from that Grammy Award-winning author, Shel Silverstein.

“I just loved his stuff when I was growing up. But – to be honest – there are so many authors that I read when I was a kid, so many artists whose styles I’d tried to emulate when I was just getting started with my career and I was still trying to find myself that …,” Briggs stated. “Well, when it came to ‘Catch My Breath,’ what was really important to me with this picture book was that I just do my own thing. Mind you, I didn’t exactly know what that was when I was just getting started on this project. But in the end, it would up being this very intimate, personal thing.”

And given that his pitch for the Walt Disney Animation Studio Artists Showcase was so personal, Paul wasn’t entirely sure that they’d actually go for this story.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Even when I first proposed it, I was like ‘The illustrations for this book are only going to be two colors and they’re just going to be line work. Is that going to be a problem?’ But Samantha McFerrin and Scott Piehl at Disney Publishing were so supportive. And they said ‘No. This picture book is great. We love it just the way it is,’ ” Briggs said. “So barring some tiny tweaks that the three of us made for clarity’s sake, this story pretty much stayed the same throughout the entire development process. It’s pretty close to the same thing that I originally pitched.”

“Which – I have to tell you – is just not something that I’m used to. Because when we’re working on the story for a new film at Walt Disney Animation Studios, we’re just brutally honest with one another,” Paul continued. “You see, our process is that – every couple of months — we have these screenings of the animated movies that we’re making. And then we look closely at what’s working – more importantly, what’s not working – and we just attack it. I think that’s what makes the films that Disney Animation Studios makes today so great. There’s this honesty between the filmmakers & the writers & the story team & the Studio as a whole.”

And given that Briggs has been working for the Mouse for 21 years now (“I started back when I was 20. Which meant that I couldn’t drink. So it was really painful sometimes to have to work on some of these movies,” Paul laughed), he’s had a front row seat for the huge creative cultural shift that Walt Disney Animation Studios has undergone during that period.

Story sketch that Paul Briggs did for Disney’s “Tangled.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“I started at the satellite studio that Walt Disney Feature Animation had in Florida back then working on ‘Mulan.’ That was a really tight unit down there. Especially once ‘Lilo & Stitch’ came down. That was a very special movie to me,” Briggs recalled. “Then after 9 years, I moved out here. But I still run into a lot of my old Florida friends here at work. There’s definitely a feeling of family here, a sense of pride. You can definitely feel that nowadays. We all want to continue to make great films here. Which is why we’re always so focused on the next movie we’re making.”

Which is why Paul can’t get away at the moment to do the traditional promotional book tour for “Catch My Breath.” You see, he’s right in the middle of working on a project for Walt Disney Animation Studios that Briggs isn’t allowed to talk about. Not yet, anyway.

“We’re still trying to figure out what my schedule is. When the best time to travel would be, so that I can then go out in the world and do some promotion,” Paul admitted. “In the meantime, I’m sticking pretty close to home.”

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And speaking of close to home … Given that Briggs & his wife Christin have two little boys of their own (i.e., Luke & Leo), who does Paul tell his sons the lead character of “Catch My Breath” is based on?

“It’s funny.  My boys have actually asked me that. ‘Daddy, which one of us is this?” And my response is ‘Well, it’s my favorite,’ ” Briggs teased.

Here’s hoping that Luke & Leo don’t decide to try and wait out Paul out when it comes to getting a definitive answer to their which-of-us-is-this-character-actually-based-on question? Because – as Briggs has already proven by the five-plus years it took to get his children’s picture book published as part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase program – he is an infinitely patient man.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, October 3, 2017

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The Property Brothers take Jonathan and Drew’s House Party on the road to promote their new memoir

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The long Labor Day weekend is traditionally when Americans kick back for a bit. Catch a three day-long breather before these same people then plunge into all of the projects work that they’ve got planned for the Fall.

Drew Scott and Emma Slater, his professional dancing partner for the upcoming season  of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Photo by Craig Sjodin. Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Well, Drew Scott clearly never got the take-Labor-Day-off memo. For – while he’s been out in Los Angeles with his twin brother Jonathan shooting “Property Brothers at Home: Drew’s Honeymoon House” episodes (FYI: The latest season of the Scott’s super-popular house renovation / home improvement show “Buying & Selling” began airing on HGTV this past Wednesday) – Drew’s also been rehearsing with Emma Slater for their upcoming debut on ABC‘s hit reality series, “Dancing with the Stars.”

“Whenever Jonathan and I are shooting new episodes of our ‘Property Brothers’ show, we typically spend 12 – 14 hours a day in front of the cameras. But these days, as soon as I finish doing that, I then do three, sometimes three-and-a-half hours of dance rehearsal with Emma,” Scott admitted during a recent phone interview. “It’s been exhilarating but exhausting. I love taking on a new challenge.”

And speaking of challenges … The next two weeks should be especially challenging for the brothers. For – on either side of “Dancing with the Stars” September 18th premiere – Drew & Jonathan will be traveling all over the country, making stops in 11 major cities as they promote their new memoir, “It Takes Two: Our Story” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2017).

Copyright 2017 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved

“And because Drew and I have never done anything normal in our lives … Well, we decided that we didn’t want this to be the typical sign-and-shuffle kind of book tour. We wanted to do something special for our fans. Something that really lets these people know how much my brother and I appreciate all of the support that they’ve given us over the years,” Jonathan explained.

Which is why – tomorrow night at the Bergen PAC in Englewood, NJ – the Scott brothers are kicking off Jonathan and Drew’s House Party tour. Which promises to give “Property Brothers” fans an uncensored look at the lives of these 39 year-old twins.

“Our goal with this book tour is that – at each stop along the way – we want to make it seem as though we’re staging the ultimate variety show for 2000 of our closest friends. Drew and I have actually been calling this a bro-riety show, because – as part of this program – we’ll be singing a song that made Billboard’s country charts a few years back. And I’ll also be doing some magic. Plus showing behind-the-scene bloopers from the show and giving away door prizes,” this Scott Brother enthused. “There’ll be something for everyone.”

Copyright HGTV. All rights reserved

One aspect of Jonathan and Drew’s House Party that “Property Brothers” fans are particularly sure to enjoy as their impromptu design consults.

“During this interactive part of the show, Jonathan and I are going to do something that we’ve ever never done before. We’re going to have people who come out for our House Party tour submit a photo of the worst room in their house. And then Jonathan and I are going to bring these fans up onstage and we’re going to be doing live digital makeovers of these problem spaces in their homes,” Scott continued. “Mind you, it’s only the people who come out for our book tour who’ll get this opportunity. And did I mention that everyone who buys a ticket for Jonathan and Drew’s House Party also gets a free copy of ‘It Takes Two’ ?”

And what makes “It Takes Two: Our Story” different from the Scott’s earlier book, “Dream Home: The Property Brothers’ Ultimate Guide to Finding & Fixing Your Perfect House” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April  2016) ? That New York Times best seller was really more about the design side of things. Drew and Jonathan’s process when dealing with their clients. Whereas “It Takes Two” attempts to address a lot of personal questions that “Property Brothers” fans have had about this pair.

Drew & Jonathan roughing it as kids. Copyright HGTV. All rights reserved

“What we tried to do with this book, this memoir, was show the good, the bad, and the ugly. Drew and I weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths. We grew up on a ranch in Canada after all. We had to work hard for every penny. And we’ve definitely had our ups & downs over the years,” Jonathan stated.

“That’s why – when we began working on ‘It Takes Two’ – Drew and I made a pact with one another that we would not eliminate anything from this book. That if something that happened to us was an important part of our story, crucial to our fans understanding how we wound up the way we did, it was going to be in this memoir,” Scott continued. “That’s why – in ‘It Takes Two’ – even I’ve never ever talked about my divorce before, I share how painful that was for me. I also talked how when I was scammed when I was younger and how I was forced to declare bankruptcy.”

The present day has also had a lot of challenges for the Scotts. Take – for example – all the effort it takes to complete production on all of their series for HGTV.

Copyright HGTV. All rights reserved

“We shoot up to 17 episodes at a time. That means that we’re actually doing 17 full renovations at the exact same time. Which would just be impossible – especially when you take into consideration that, every two or three months or so, we move across the country to a brand-new city and then start working with families on their house renovations. But that’s where our great production team comes in. Without that well-oiled machine, our terrific design & construction crews, Jonathan and I would never be able to do what we do,” Drew said.

It’s this kind of candor about what actually goes on behind-the-scenes that’s sure to Jonathan and Drew’s House Party a must-attend event for Property Brothers fans. Not to mention the insights you’ll be able to glean about the brothers’ next show for HGTV, “Drew’s Honeymoon House” (which doesn’t officially debut ’til November).

“I overheard a recent conversation when Drew and Linda were negotiating who gets how much closet space,” Jonathan laughed. “And Drew was saying that he’d only allow her to have 30% of the closets.”

Linda Phan & Drew Scott

“That’s because my shoes are three times the size of hers!,” his brother interjected.

This is the sort of live onstage silliness that you can expect to Jonathan and Drew’s House Party. Which – after it kicks off tomorrow night at the Bergen PAC in Englewood, NJ – then travels over North America before this not-your-typical-book-tour makes its final stop at the Cobb Energy Center in Atlanta, Ga on September 19th.

And speaking of energy … That’s one of the main reasons that the Scott Brothers are so looking forward to the Jonathan and Drew’s House Party getting underway tomorrow night.

Copyright HGTV. All rights reserved

“The two of us actually come from an improv comedy, stand-up background. That why Jonathan and I have always enjoyed cracking up the crew whenever we’re on location shooting a new episode,” Drew enthused. “But now we get to do that silly sort of stuff for our biggest fans. I can’t wait to feed off of their energy of the audience.

“You know, we have a very unique relationship with our audience. Thanks to social media, we’re very, very close to a lot of these folks,” Jonathan concluded. “That – to me, anyway – is the greatest compliment. When people come up to us on the street and then say ‘You two are just like you are on the shows.’ ” That’s because we’re not pretending to be somebody else. These are the people that my brother and I actually are.” 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Monday, September 4, 2017

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With the help of ELLE Magazine & fashion designer Zac Posen, cartoon icon Betty Boop receives a modern-age makeover

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According to the folks at Phrase Finder, when one is said to be ” … putting on the dog, ” that then means that they are ” … dressing stylishly and flashily.”

Copyright King Features Syndicate, Inc. All rights reserved

Well, Betty Boop certainly got to put on the dog earlier this year. Thanks to those two new dresses that Zac Posen designed for this classic cartoon character. Each of which were colored “Betty Boop Red,” that bold new hue Pantone just created to celebrate this animation icon’s adventurous spirit.

Speaking of dogs, did you know that Betty actually started out life as a cartoon canine? Strange but true, folks. Miss Boop’s very first on-screen appearance was in “Dizzy Dishes,” a Max Fleischer Talkartoon that was first released to theaters back in August of 1930. And in this short, while this animated character does say her famous “Boop-boop-a-doop” catchphrase, she certainly doesn’t look like the Betty we know today. In her big screen debut, Boop seems to be some sort of weird amalgamation of a 1920s flapper & a French Poodle.

Fleischer’s girl-faced dog, first seen in “Dizzy Dishes.” Copyright  Fleischer Studios, Inc. All rights reserved

Even so, audiences seemed to spark to this animated character. Which is why – over the course of 10 or so shorts – Max continued to tinkered with Betty. Gradually refining her look from film & film (EX: Boop’s droopy dog ears eventually became elegant hoop earrings). Fleischer even experimented with various different names for this character (In “Barnacle Bill,” her second on-screen appearance, Betty was known as Nancy Lee. By her eighth animated short, “The Bum Bandit,” Boop was now being called Nan McGrew).

It wasn’t until “Any Rags” was released in January of 1932 that Betty finally lost her cute little poodle nose and became a fully human character. 1932 was also the year that Boop graduated from being just a supporting player at Max Fleischer Studio to being the star of her very own series of animated shorts. With the appropriately titled “Stopping the Show” being the very first Fleischer production to officially be designated as “A Betty Boop Cartoon.”

Copyright 1988 Amblin Entertainment / Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved

Since then, Betty had endured some tough times (When the powers-that-be in Hollywood began strictly enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, that then forced Fleischer to cut back on the sly adult humor that made those early Boop shorts stand out from the cartoon crowd) as well as some genuinely sweet moments (EX: Betty’s cameo appearance in 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is – for many animation fans – one of the real high points of this Robert Zemeckis film).  

But as they say, every animated-dog-character-that-eventually-gets-transformed-into-a-human-character has their day. And in Betty’s case, her long overdue return to the spotlight started in the Spring of last year. In Italy, of all places. Which is where Athletes World AW-Lab (with the permission of King Features, the New York City-based unit of Hearst which serves as Miss Boop’s worldwide agent) plastered this animation icon’s likeness all over all manner of fitness apparel. Hoodies, tank tops, sports bras and the like.

Copyright Z Palette TM. All rights reserved

Z Palette helped add some momentum to the Betty Boop modern revival movement by – just ahead of The Make-up Show 2016 in NYC- launching an exclusive limited-edition collection of makeup palettes for the beauty industry that drew their inspiration from this Fleischer Studios star.

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Rising Sun, Betty’s star experienced a dual ascension. With first the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization (i.e., the official league of Japan) producing a popular sportswear collection that featured her likeness. And then – in Shimbashi, Tokyo – the world’s first official Betty Boop Diner (featuring authentic American cuisine circa 1950) opening for business in late January of this year.

Copyright King Features Syndicate, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, given that Betty is also now associated with the Heart Truth … Well, she might advise you to go easy on those burgers & fries.

And did I mention that – back in February – MAC introduced a lipstick shade called Boop Red? Or that in its May 2017 issue, ELLE Magazine just gave this almost 87-year-old animation icon a makeover. Reimagining Betty as a modern Manhattanite who works at a music streaming start-up and wears a wardrobe that’s straight off of the Fashion Week runways.

Copyright King Features Syndicate, Inc / Hearst Communications. All rights reserved

So what’s next for Miss Boop? There was some talk in early 2016 about Betty starring in a brand-new animated series for television. But that project (which was to have been produced by Normaal Animation of France, the studio behind that new “Peanuts” series that bowed on Boomerang last Summer) has since been tabled. 

For now, Boop will continue to concentrate her efforts on the fashion world. “Look for Betty to make another big splash in this space by year’s end,” teased Frank Caruso, Vice President of Creative at King Features. Who’s been working very closely with Max Fleischer’s grandson these past few years to stage manage Betty Boop’s return to the spotlight.

DesignerZac Posen and model Crystal Renn show off his Betty Boop-inspired gown. Photo by Ruven Afanador. All rights reserved

By the way, it is genuinely ironic that Boop’s first official Betty-is-a-human-rather-than-a-dog cartoon was called “Any Rags.” Given that – if you wanted to wear those Boop-inspired glad rags that Zac Posen designed earlier this year – you’d best be prepared to pay a pretty penny. For the flirty short dress sells for $250 while the full-length gown goes for $550.

But you’d definitely be dressed to the nines were you to wear either of these outfits. Or – given that these are Betty Boop-inspired dresses (and recognizing this animation icon’s flapper-meets-French-poodle origins) – should I say ” … dressed to the canines?” 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on May 5, 2017

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