Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Talking 'Walt's People' with Didier Ghez in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'

You have to admire someone who takes on a project he admits will take 20 to 30 years to complete.

Didier Ghez is nine years into that project.

Didier Ghez
In a few weeks, he'll release Volume 13(!) of Walt's People, a collection of in-depth interviews with the men and women who knew, worked with, and were inspired by Walt Disney. Like its 12 predecessors, the contributors to these volumes read like a Who's Who of Disney historians: John Canemaker, Jim Korkis, Michael Barrier, Paul Anderson and many others. Of course, the interview subjects are pretty impressive too: Woolie Reitherman, Floyd Gottfredson, Fess Parker, Virginia Davis and Roy E. Disney, just to name a few.

Walt's People was born from an e-mail conversation Didier had with Jim Korkis in 2004 lamenting the dearth of serious Disney history that was available to researchers and armchair historians. As Didier wrote in Volume 1, "Huge amounts of amazing material was sleeping in working cabinets of serious Disney historians, unavailable to Disney enthusiasts for lack of publishing venues. Some would surface from time to time in a book released by Hyperion, some would see the light of day in a fanzine or on a website, but this seemed to happen less and less often."

And so, Didier got to work, reaching out to his fellow historians to clean out those working cabinets and dust off those under-utilized conversations with the greats of Disney history. Thirteen volumes later, he has amassed an astounding oral history of Disney, told by the animators, directors, artists and Imagineers who were there.

In my conversation with Didier in The Mouse Castle Lounge, we talk about his passion for Disney history and all the work he's put into making Walt's People a reality. We also discuss his upcoming book projects, which include the story of Walt Disney's trip to Europe in 1935 and how it continued to influence the Walt Disney Studios decades later.

We've got nothing but good people--Walt's people--in this week's Mouse Castle Lounge. Enjoy!

For more about Didier Ghez, visit disneybooks.blogspot.com or didierghez.com.

The Mouse Castle Lounge can also be heard on iTunes and Stitcher.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ghosts of the New York World's Fair in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'

Very little remains of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Nearly 50 years after this mass celebration of 20th century technology, cultural diversity and peaceful understanding took over Flushing Meadows in New York City, all that's left are mostly shells. The Unisphere, a 12-story Earth's globe surrounded by shooting fountains--the centerpiece of the Fair--is the rare exception, although its fountains are turned on sporadically at best anymore. Nearby are three rusted observation towers overlooking a crumbling arena of steel and concrete. In its heyday, this was the New York State Pavilion with its futuristic "Sky-Streak" elevators and the "Tent of Tomorrow" housing a huge floor map of New York State made of terrazzo. Unlike most of the surrounding attractions, there were plans to keep this pavilion open long after the fair closed, to find some use for it in the heart of New York City's fourth-largest public park, but they never materialized. And so, for decades, public officials have been handing off the responsibility of what to do with the New York State Pavilion to the next set of public officials and no one has really done anything. Private interests have occasionally found use for it. There were brief periods when the venue was used as a skating rink or a concert arena, but little else. Today, the pavilion is fenced off due to safety concerns and to discourage vandals.

Matthew Silva at what remains of
the New York State Pavilion
The New York World's Fair was the birthplace of some of Walt Disney's greatest attractions. It's a Small World opened here. So did the Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Dinosaurs from Ford's Magic Skyway would be transplanted to Disneyland to make up the Primeval World. These were among the most popular of the more than 150 attractions and pavilions at the fair certainly because of their cutting-edge audio-animatronic technology, but also because, well, they were just Disney and Walt always knew how to put on a good show.

As a Disney fan, it was impossible for me to wander around Flushing Meadows and not think about the great successes Walt had here. That's why its important for me to try to preserve the few physical remnants left over from the New York World's Fair. Matthew Silva, a filmmaker and native New Yorker, wants to see the New York State Pavilion saved simply because he grew up in the shadow of the observation towers and doesn't want to lose them. They're iconic symbols of the great city and state of New York and it would be a tragedy to see them torn down, or worse, to continue to slowly deteriorate. In The Mouse Castle Lounge this week, I talk to Matthew about his work to save the pavilion and to produce a documentary about its history. It's a fascinating conversation with a young man who has a passion for preservation and a great appreciation for history.

Also in the Lounge, I wrap up my conversation with Tim O'Day, who has been sharing his wonderful stories about his 40-year association with the Walt Disney Company. This week, Tim talks about the craziness that ensued hosting the world premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest at Disneyland, especially when Johnny Depp decided to show up late.

It's preservation and pirates in this week's episode of The Mouse Castle Lounge. Enjoy!

For more information about Matthew and what you can do to help save the New York State Pavilion, please visit:

The Mouse Castle Lounge can also be heard on iTunes and Stitcher.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Reflections at 36,000 Feet

No, really, I was at a conference.

First, I'd like to thank Southwest Airlines for keeping me on the Grid high over New Mexico right now. This blog post would not have been possible without them. What did we do before Internet access on planes? Napped, I suppose, or read trashy novels, or annoyed the passengers next to us.

After a busy week of traveling on the east coast, I'm finally winging my way back home in Las Vegas. While so many of my Disney comrades (perhaps you were one of them) celebrated Disneyland's birthday or made their way to the insanity of Comic-Con this week, I attended a conference in Cape Cod on behalf of my day job that is a necessary evil to pay for all my Disney indulgences. I can't say the conference was the most exciting event I've ever attended, but I will admit there are far worse places than Hyannis to do business in July. Soft ocean breezes and friendly drinking establishments do take the sting out of droning speakers and death by PowerPoint.

My trip was not without its share of Disney magic though.

A few days before fulfilling my conference obligations, I took a side trip to New York to visit my good friend Ron (a fellow Disney nerd, of course) and enjoy a whirlwind tour of the Big Apple, replete with subway rides and massive Times Square crowds. Last Friday night, I saw Motown at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (fantastic music, cringe-worthy dialog) and dashed through the rain to experience the Disney Store on Broadway (which is pretty much just a large, noisy, overcrowded Disney Store). Saturday was when I really let my Disney dork flag fly, though. Hopefully, you'll recall back in May the conversation I began in The Mouse Castle Lounge with Sarah Ashman Gillespie, the younger sister of Disney songwriting legend Howard Ashman. Well, as luck would have it, Sarah lives not too far from New York City and was nice enough to meet me for lunch at the Cinema Brasserie just off Fifth Avenue. Sarah and I chatted for over two hours about life, the universe and Howard Ashman and I'm pleased to say she is every bit as gracious, charming and funny in person as she is over the phone. Don't expect our lunch to generate any new episode in the Lounge, however. This was purely a social visit and I purposely kept my recorder off. This was just a wonderfully pleasant conversation between friends.

The rusting hulk of the New York Pavilion.

I did get some show material out of my next adventure, though. Later in the afternoon I caught the 7 train out to Flushing Meadows to meet filmmaker Matthew Silva. Matthew is raising money to fund a documentary about the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, specifically the modern ruin that is the New York Pavilion. If you're not familiar with the Pavilion, you'll certainly recognize it if you've ever seen the movie Men in Black. The observation towers that the villainous bug climbs in an effort to escape Earth at the end of the film are in fact part of the New York Pavilion. And trust me, movie magic made them look far better than they look in real life. Nearly 50 years of neglect has caused the pavilion to rust and deteriorate and Matthew is among a group of earnest preservationists who are trying to save the few surviving remnants of the great Fair. Disney fans will remember the Fair as one of the watershed events of Walt Disney's career. It was here that he debuted some of his most iconic attractions: It's a Small World, the Carousel of Progress, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Ford Pavilion's Magic Skyway (which would be transplanted, in part, to the Primeval World at Disneyland). Matthew showed me around Flushing Meadows for several hours and we talked at length about the New York Pavilion. That, most definitely, will be in the next episode of The Mouse Castle Lounge. Look for it later this weekend. In the meantime, if you want to know more about Matthew's efforts--and maybe support the cause--visit www.aquarelapictures.com.

Okay, I'll be landing soon, so that's it for now. Disney adventures are great, but it's always nice to finally be home.



Monday, July 8, 2013

'The Lone Ranger' and Tim O'Day (Part 2) in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'

Tim O'Day has been hanging out with the cool kids for years. In part two of our conversation in The Mouse Castle Lounge, he tells us more about a few of them: Disney Legends John Hench, Herb Ryman and Marc and Alice Davis. It's all about orange sweaters, purple jackets and European travel. No, really. It's what the cool kids do.

Tim also explains why there's nothing better than death by chocolate at the Haunted Mansion, unless of course, you're also having dinner there with the likes of Andreas Deja and Kim Irvine. Not a bad gig if you can get it. Which offers you this chilling challenge, to find a way out....but why would you want to?

Finally, in the Lounge this week, We take an inside look at The Lone Ranger, which failed miserably with the critics and at the box office over the weekend. Still, I get some insight on why director Gore Verbinski sees the Lone Ranger as such an iconic, heroic character and why Johnny Depp chose the Indian over the cowboy to play Tonto.

The guests have arrived and the bar is open. Enjoy your visit to The Mouse Castle Lounge.

(l. to r.) Tim O'Day, Imagineer Tony Baxter and D23 Expo presenter Craig Hodgkins
The Mouse Castle Lounge can also be heard on iTunes and Stitcher.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

'The Lone Ranger' Bites the Dust Big Time

Armie Hammer (r.) and Johnny Depp
as The Lone Ranger and Tonto
The legend you heard is true. The Lone Ranger is a mess. And not a particularly entertaining one.

Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski have made entertaining messes together before. Parts two and three of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy were excessive, campy and convoluted, but they were also fun and full of energy. Forget that Verbinski admitted even he couldn't keep track of all the plot twists in Dead Man's Chest. Give 'em a broadside and full speed ahead!

If only The Lone Ranger had that giddy sense of adventure.

What it has instead is a scattershot story that veers wildly from violent action-adventure to buddy comedy to revisionist western, and the effect is jarring. If Verbinski and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio had picked one approach and stuck with it, they might have made a better movie. Instead, they deliver a film that has no idea what it wants to be and can't decide whether to revere or parody its main characters.

The Lone Ranger basically adheres to the origin story made popular decades ago on radio and television. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is part of a posse of Texas Rangers tracking down ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). When Cavendish and his gang ambush the Rangers, Reid becomes the sole survivor of a massacre that takes the life of his brother. After recovering from the attack with the help of the noble Indian Tonto (Depp), he swears to get even, but in the name of justice, not vengeance.

In the fondly remembered TV series of the 1950s, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels played the Lone Ranger and Tonto as straitlaced heroes always ready to defend truth and honor. It was hokey and sincere and taught many a life lesson to impressionable children of the baby boom. Flash forward 60 years and this new iteration of The Lone Ranger no longer believes playing it straight will resonate with contemporary audiences. And so, Tonto isn't a loyal sidekick anymore. He's a spirit warrior with a screw loose who wears a dead crow on his head. Meanwhile, Reid is a noble but clueless buffoon, who needs Tonto's savvy to survive in the wild west.

Our heroes wear their quirks on their sleeves, but they're surrounded by every cliche known to movie westerns: the prairie wife and mother (Ruth Wilson) is steadfast and resolute, the whorehouse madam (Helena Bonham Carter) has a heart of gold (and an artificial leg that fires bullets--okay, that's new), and the railroad executive (Tom Wilkinson) is a corrupt robber baron. And though the movie tries to pepper the supporting characters with quirks of their own (Cavendish is prone to fits of cannibalism; one of his henchmen likes to cross-dress), these traits feel forced and superfluous. The Lone Ranger doesn't have the confidence to tell a conventional old west story, so it piles on the distractions to mask how thin the story really is.

Which brings us back to our heroes. For the movie to have any chance of succeeding, there needs to be chemistry between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Hammer and Depp just don't have it. Like so many buddy films, their on-screen relationship starts out more adversarial than friendly, but it never gels from there. They're both linked by the common cause of tracking down the villain, but mostly they just seem to get on each other's nerves. At one point midway through the film, both Reid and Tonto find themselves buried to their necks in sand. When Reid fashions his escape, he does so inexplicably without making any attempt to rescue Tonto. Perhaps it's payback for Tonto deliberately dragging him through horse manure, but we're never really sure. This is clearly not your grandpa's Lone Ranger.

Depp plays Tonto in full war paint with all the eccentricities and tics that have been his trademark since he peaked with Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl. Quite honestly, I'm getting tired of his schtick. For all his preferences for out-there characters, I would have no objections to him playing more Donnie Brascos and J.M. Barries again and fewer Willy Wonkas and Mad Hatters. There is only so much more heavy makeup and wild costumes I can take anymore. Depp is a gifted actor, but enough already. His Tonto is not a character, but a caricature that does more harm than good to the portrayal of Native Americans in film.

The Lone Ranger manages to tack on a nifty chase scene involving trains near the end of the film, but by then it's too late. All the slogging through a predictable story with characters we really don't care about dooms a film that forgot why these characters mattered in the first place.