The Hall of Imagineers (or how a mop saved the day)

 
The great thing about parkeology is that you never know where it is going to lead you. Such was the case as I did research on Richard Nixon’s many connections to the Disney parks.  As I mentioned in that piece Nixon was the sitting president when the Hall of Presidents opened in 1971, the 37th president of the United States of America.  As I dug deeper and deeper into the history of the Hall of Presidents I came across quite a few long forgotten stories and amazing secrets lost in time.
 
The Hall Of Presidents houses some
of the parks most amazing secrets
The inception:
The Walt Disney World resort was in development for a long time.  The first seeds of the idea were planted in the late 1950’s and by the mid 60’s were in full swing.  The official groundbreaking was held on May 30th 1967 more than four years prior to the grand opening of the park.  Compared to the incredibly rapid pace in which Disneyland was built (less than one year from announcement to grand opening) four years must have seamed like a luxuriously large amount of time. Remember, this was simply the construction phase, for many years prior plans were being developed for the rides, shows and attractions.  Despite this great lead up the Hall of Presidents somehow slipped through the cracks as a half-baked, under-developed idea.
All Disney fans know the story of how Walt tasked the Imagineers with creating a life-like humanoid figure of Abraham Lincoln for the “Great Moments with Lincoln” presentation at the 1964-1965 World’s fair. Walt wanted to expand on this idea and include all of the presidents when it was installed at Disneyland at the close of the World’s fair.  Despite much effort limited time, space and money prevented that idea from ever coming to fruition.  After Walt’s death and with the creation of an all new Disney resort in Florida the timing seemed perfect to finally make this dream come true.  Yet the nagging question of “What would Walt do?” set in.  Management pondered if Walt would really still be interested in a roll call of historical figures or if maybe that ideas time had past.  The net result was that as the years ticked by the official green light for the Hall of Presidents was never given.
 
Some of these regal presidential figures are not what they seem to be.
As late as April 1970 there were still no plans for the Hall of Presidents to be part of the Walt Disney World resort, now less than 2 years from the grand opening. The imagineers were savvy enough to assume that some form of Lincoln would be on display and therefore had a crude rendition of old Abe set up and running in the back room. However at this late date they never could have imagined that the show would amount to more than a simple display tucked away in an unused corner of Main Street, then the unthinkable happened.
 
Roy’s revelation:
In a story every bit as familiar to Disney fans as the creation of Mickey Mouse himself Roy Disney famously was peeling off some cash to pay for lunch at the Disney commissary when he had an epiphany.  As he thumbed through his bills he saw Washington then Lincoln and Jackson staring back up at him from the greenbacks they were printed on.  The gears in his head started churning, almost as if he were channeling the creative spirit of Walt. An enlightened Roy was determined to see his brother’s grandest scheme come to life!
 
Walt’s dream was almost lost forever, Roy would have none of that!
Early the next morning Roy summoned his most trusted staff.  They met in a construction trailer where Cinderella Castle would someday stand for a pre-dawn pow-wow.  Roy (not a young man at this point) had a renewed vigor not seen in years.  He did away with all the standard formalities, pushed to the front of the room and loudly proclaimed; “The presidents will live and breath at Walt Disney World, make it happen for brother Walt!” With nothing more being said Roy left the trailer, the remaining staff knew what needed to be done.
But how?  At this point there were less than 16 months before the grand opening.  There was no show building, no script and most of all no presidential figures.  How on Earth could this be accomplished?  Enter Marty Sklar, a long time Disney writer who was by Walt’s side during the early days of Disneyland and was Roy’s right hand man in the development of Walt Disney World.  Marty was not about to let down the Disney family and quickly assembled a who’s who of Disney legends.
The original dream team:
By June 1970 the dream team was in place; artists Sam McKim, Marc Davis, Herb Ryman and John Hench, animator and sculptor Blain Gibson, engineers Roger Broggie and Bob Gurr, writer Marty Sklar, master film technician Ub Iwerks, voice talent Paul Frees, Royal Dano and Dal McKennon, special effects maestro Yale Gracey and many others including Harriet Burns, Rolly Crump, Leoto Toombs, Claude Coats and a fresh faced new hire named Tony Baxter joined forces in order to bring this mighty cavalcade of American history to life.
Marty Sklar led the brigade.
The clock was ticking and the race was on, armed only with their vast ingenuity and imaginations this fiercely talented group would work day and night in a valiant struggle to meet Walt’s highest standards.
The actual location needed to house this attraction was the first piece of the puzzle to be solved.  At this point in time there was no “Liberty Square” or colonial area of the park at all.  Rather, in reaction to the huge success of the Disneyland version of the attraction, the Haunted Mansion was to be the anchor of a new ghost themed land dubbed “Spook Hill”. This area nicely bridged the gap between Frontierland and Fantasyland and held scary shops as well as a large counter service restaurant dubbed Master Gracey’s all you can eat Buffeteria “Food so good it’s scary!” The restaurant building was large enough to hold the attraction and the basic haunted house structure that had been built to house it could easily be converted to a more distinguished colonial mansion facade. With the new location set the question became how would this Hall of Presidents possibly fit into to the Spook Hill concept? 
 
The original concept art for Master Gracey’s
the eventual home of the Hall of Presidents
Rolly Crump suggested that all the deceased presidents be presented as phantoms; ghostly specters sent back from the afterlife to haunt the still living heads of state.  After some initial design for the haunted hall of presidents the decision was made to scrap Spook Hill entirely and convert the land to what we now know as Liberty Square.  This would allow the imagineer superstars to create a properly distinguished setting for the Hall, sadly it also would cause the Haunted Mansion to be out of place, a lesser problem and one that the park still lives with today.
With the physical setting dealt with and the general theater design being taken from earlier designs for the aborted Disneyland version attention now turned to the actual presidents.


Andrew Jackson gets some love from Leota Toombs.
Can you tell who that figure really is?
 
It took Blaine Gibson nearly a full year to create the life like bust of Lincoln for the World’s Fair, and that was with the added benefit of working from a life cast of Lincoln himself!  How was he going to be able to create 36 more busts in just over 12 months?  John Hench took a leadership roll and started ranking the presidents in order of importance, not based on historical or political achievements but rather on how familiar the public was with how each one looked physically.  Hench knew from experience that some corners would need to be cut and wanted to make those compromises on the least familiar faces, little did he know how severe those compromises would become.
 
Sure Lincoln looks good, Gibson had plenty of time to create him.
You kind of look like him:
Everyone of course knew Lincoln and they already had him done anyway, Washington and the more recent presidents had to look perfect as well.  But how about Chester A. Arthur or Franklin Pierce?  Who the heck even knew Franklin Pierce was a president (he was number 14) so much what he looked like!
 
Apparently this guy was once president.
 
While Blaine slaved away day and night creating the A listers as quickly as he possibly could the other imagineers started searching for solutions and short cuts on how to create the D-list presidents.  It was Tony Baxter who later recalled in a 1986 edition of “Eyes and Ears”; “We were working on maybe 3 hours of sleep a day.  I’m not sure who came up with the idea, probably one of those old guys, but someone suggested that we just use ourselves as models and no one would be the wiser.”
That was the lighting strike that the team needed, the pivotal turning point that would allow the show to go on.  Being the young punk Baxter was volunteered to be the guinea pig.  His face was wrapped in bandages and plaster and a cast was made.  Tony looked enough like James Polk (#11) to pass.  They would place him in the back, light him dimly and hope for the best. As compared to what Gibson was putting out the Baxter / Polk bust took a fraction of the time to create and none of the research. With time passing quickly and the team under the gun this was the pace they needed to be on.
 
Polk and Baxter: Separated at birth?
Baxter was in fact used for 4 or 5 of the presidents.  In a 1994 interview Tony had this to say: “Those S.O.B.s really put me through the wringer.  I mean sure, I was the new kid sent down there to work of the Submarine ride and all but they treated me like a donkey… just beat me up.  My face was wrapped up in plaster so many times I thought I was going to die. I have severe claustrophobia so with each life mask I wished death would come and save me. I can still hear that bastard Hench laughing as I was choking down plaster of Paris.”
 
Young Baxter was made to endure several rounds
of face castings.
 
Effective as it was they soon realized that Baxter could not sit in for every president and so one by one the imagineers were cast in plaster and with a bit of work, some good make up and a wig became the lesser known presidents of the United States. Herb Ryman was James Monroe (#5), John Hench was john Quincy Adams (#6) and Marc Davis became both Martin Van Buren (#8) and John Adams (#2).
Ryman once remarked “I’ll be damned if we didn’t use the night watchman for one of the presidents.  Time was ticking away and we really had no other choice, Roy was off his rocker and we had to figure it out.”
Despite the new lowered standards and the attitude of “screw it, no one will ever know” time was still racing faster then the team could keep up with.
 

With many of the presidents coming from pre-photography

eras who is to say what they really looked like. All of these
are portraits of John Adams.  This gave the imgineers great
latitude to work with.
 
A bra leads to a brilliant idea:
By the late summer of 1971 with the park opening a month away and only 33 of the presidents complete some drastic decisions needed to be made. The Imagineering team had neither the time, budget nor resources to create the remaining few figures.  They toyed with the idea of simply hiring actors to stand very still during the shows pretending to be audio-animatronic figures but did not have the money to pay them. A late night trip to the store provided the solution.  Sklar recounts; “Gibson was a mess at this stage; barely coherent.  Baxter was a cry baby and Hench and Ryman were often drunk by noon.  Between this Hall of Presidents and everything else going on the days passed by with a blink of an eye and the boys and myself could not keep up.  I was at my favorite department store, JC Penney buying some fancy lingerie for my wife’s birthday when I saw some mannequins. I realized that this was the solution we needed.  After speaking with the manager I was able to load 4 of the damn things in the back of my Town Car and I drove them back to the site.”


Skalr’s “ah-ha!” moment. 
 
This simple yet brilliant idea pulled them through. With some costumes pilfered from the local high school drama club and a bit of theatrical lighting the motionless figures looked ok, though they did not move… that is until Yale Gracey stepped in: “I just threw some fishing wire onto the wrists and necks of those dreadful things Marty brought in, one of them was even a woman!  We tied the ends to some cogs, attached a pulley system and had a small motor running the whole operation off stage.  They wobbled and teetered back and forth like nobody’s business!”  Dramatic patriotic music played loudly throughout the theater masked the motors monotonous drone.
Amazingly as opening day approached it looked like this rag tag band of miss-fits was going to actually pull it off.  The Hall of Presidents may not have been quite what Walt envisioned but it would have 37 somewhat life like figures sort of moving a little and by 1971 standards that was still enough to impress the masses.  However there was still one mishap yet to come.


President Anthony Baxter
 
A magical mop:
Blaine recounted to Disney Magazine in 1991 “Don’t you know it, about an hour before the first show John Adam’s wig got caught in a vacuum cleaner as we were doing the final prep, it was ripped to shreds beyond repair.  I told that intern Timmy Baxter or whatever his name was to run on down to the janitors closet and get me a mop.  Well that fool came back with the dirtiest used mop you have ever seen but as they say beggars can’t be choosers.  We took that mop, tied it up all pretty and tossed it on Adam’s head.  For the first two years of the Hall of Presidents existence John Adams had a dirty mop head as his hair.”


Marc Davis filled in for John Adams for several years.
As time passed various refurbishments and retro-fits corrected most of the make shift compromises the imagineers had to do in order to get the Hall of Presidents open though one of the figures currently on display is still the original Tony Baxter cast, I’ll let you look close next time you are there to figure our which one!
Sadly shortly after the opening of Walt Disney World Roy Disney passed away.  It is said that the Hall of Presidents debacle may have been what pushed him over the edge. Still this is one of the most amazing and least discussed chapters in Walt Disney World’s history.


Where’s Tony?

4 thoughts on “The Hall of Imagineers (or how a mop saved the day)

  1. I just discovered this site today while researching for my next trip. This post had me in hysterics, revealing to my cube-mates that I wasn’t exactly hard-at-work.

    Thanks for the great laugh!

  2. Expertly researched, Ted, as usual. Thanks for stepping up with this one. I had of course heard bits and pieces of this throughout the years, but never the whole story. I think they had a couple of the lifemasks available on ebay a few years back (Hoover, and I want to say maybe Taft?) Wish I would have snatched one up, but who has 50 grand lying around?

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