Editor’s Note: The internet is not a very friendly place. The anonymity the medium provides makes it real easy for arrogant bullies to spoil everything with their own cynicism and self-loathing rather than focus on celebrating the good, innocent aspects of life. Editing Chris Queen for more than 3 years now has been like taking a regular booster shot of Southern sunshine. He always brings a smile to my face with his articles celebrating the “great, big beautiful tomorrow” that’s coming. Here’s how he concluded the ninth article in this collection:
“Cynics will always find something negative to look to about the future. The world around us can make us jaded about what may be in store for us. But when I walk through the gates of Walt Disney World — especially Epcot — I sense a palpable excitement about what can be in the future. Give me the optimistic futurism of Walt Disney over cynicism and grimness any day.”
Over the years at PJ Lifestyle Chris has covered and researched Walt Disney the man and the company he founded. Future collections of his work will highlight some of his intriguing discoveries. For now, please also check out the previous best-of collections published last weekend: 10 of Walter Hudson’s Greatest Hits, 10 of Hannah Sternberg’s Greatest Hits, and 10 of Kathy Shaidle’s Greatest Hits. For more great articles, also check out the list of PJ Lifestyle’s Top 50 List Articles of 2013. – Dave Swindle
By my count, I’ve been to Walt Disney World 25 times, though others in my family think I may have been more.
December 5, 2011:
Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the 20th century’s greatest visionary artist and entrepreneur.
April 12, 2014:
You won’t really understand Walt Disney until you start reading…
Maybe Netflix can resurrect some of these?
February 24, 2012:
Oscar’s Only Human…
April 23, 2012:
May 3, 2013:
The Man Behind The Mouse underwent a political transition from naive socialist cartoonist to staunch conservative mogul.
“I say believe in the future, the world is getting better; there are lots of possibilities.” — Walt Disney
So where do all the bad dialects come from?
1. The Ten Things You Must Do at Disney World
By my count, I’ve been to Walt Disney World 25 times, though others in my family think I may have been more times.
I’m a major Disney fan — I grew up on Disney, and it has been a key influence throughout my life. From films to music to television series there’s always been some type of Disney entertainment playing in the background. I can’t think of a period in my life without Disney.
Growing up in a family that’s nutty for Disney, Walt Disney World has always been our favorite vacation destination. My parents honeymooned there and they first took me as an infant. By my count, I’ve been to Walt Disney World 25 times, though others in my family think I may have been more times. Since my nieces were born, we’ve tried to make our pilgrimages at least once a year.
I love planning our trips to Walt Disney World almost as much as I love going there. Planning helps us build anticipation and makes our trips that much sweeter. There’s no greater excitement than the expectancy that comes with a Walt Disney World trip.
My whole family have become experts for our friends and acquaintances when it comes to Walt Disney World. People constantly ask us for tips and trip-planning advice. In fact, my sister and I have talked about opening a travel agency specializing in Disney trips.
So without further ado, here’s a list of ten essential Walt Disney World experiences. If you’ve never been or if you haven’t been in a long time, hopefully these tips will help you plan and know what to expect. If you’ve been many times like me, maybe this list can inspire some good-natured debate about what’s best at Walt Disney World.
10. Shop at World Of Disney.
No trip to Walt Disney World is complete without picking up a couple of souvenirs, and while there’s plenty of shopping at the parks and resorts, there’s no better place to shop than World Of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace. The largest Disney Store in the world (literally), World Of Disney contains a dozen rooms filled with an extensive collection of Disney merchandise.
World Of Disney boasts around 51,000 square feet of product. You name it, and chances are you can find it there. From apparel to entertainment to housewares and cookware to typical souvenirs, there are plenty of items to choose from. Many of the items at World Of Disney are unique to Walt Disney World, while others are designed especially for certain occasions. The store is also home to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where little girls can get a princess makeover.
Don’t let the size and scope of World of Disney overwhelm you. Like all of Disney’s parks, the store is built around a central hub — in this case it’s a sculpture of Cinderella Castle. Many of the rooms are specifically themed to make it easy to know what merchandise is in them. Even though lines can build up at some of the registers, there are a few that are off the beaten path and offer less wait.
One of the coolest things about World Of Disney is that cast members can ship your items home, or if you’re staying on Disney property, they’ll send your purchases to the resort where you’re staying.
9. Ride the Monorail.
There are plenty of forms of transportation at Walt Disney World, from “old-school” ways of getting around to innovative, futuristic methods. None of them are as fascinating and unique as the Walt Disney World Monorail System. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the Monorail. As an adult, I have a similar fascination, and the monorails are still an integral part of my trips.
The eleven trains — soon to be twelve with the addition of Monorail Peach this fall — ride high off the ground on 26 inch-wide concrete beams. The system covers 14.7 lane miles, traveling three routes: an express route from the Transportation & Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom, a resort route from the Transportation & Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom that stops at three resort hotels, and a route from the Transportation & Ticket Center to Epcot.
Along each route, narrations tell you the history and trivia about the parks and hotels, aswell as previews of coming attractions. The view from the trains is stunning and in the hotter months the monorails are a cool respite from the heat.
One special treat is to ride in the front of the monorail. Up to four guests can travel in the front compartment. All you have to do is ask one of the cast members when you arrive on the platform, and if you’re early enough, you just might get to ride.
It may not seem like such a unique and innovative form of transportation these days (especially since it has changed little in 40 years), but the monorail truly is a fun way to get around.
8. Eat a Dole Whip.
There’s a myriad of great stuff to eat at Walt Disney World, and there are tons of ways to satisfy any craving – or to try something new. Each of the parks have options ranging from snack bars to quick eat to fine dining.
(On a side note, Disney offers a Dining Plan to its resort guests. For one reasonable price each day, guests can enjoy dining and snacks, including many fine dining experiences. At certain times of the year, Dining Plans are offered free with room reservations!)
One of the best snacks at Walt Disney World is the Dole Whip. It can’t be much simpler: a non-dairy, soft-serve pineapple frozen treat. It’s available by itself, as a float with pineapple juice, or swirled with vanilla soft-serve. And it’s nothing short of amazing!
Dole Whips are available at the Aloha Isle snack counter in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom and at Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian Resort. The soft-serve is also available in vanilla or chocolate, or as a Coke or root beer float. But why would you settle for something so ordinary when you can have a delicious, one-of-a-kind Dole Whip?
Next: The best place to stay for a Disney World vacation…
7. Explore the Resorts.
There’s no substitute for staying on Disney property. Staying at a Disney resort has many wonderful perks, such as Extra Magic Hours (special early openings and late closings at various parks throughout the week), complete access to Disney transportation, and the Dining Plan.
If you’re unable or choose not to stay in a Disney resort, you still owe it to yourself to check them out. Take some time during your trip to ride around to a few of the resorts and see how beautiful they are. Just like the parks, Walt Disney World’s resort hotels are completely immersive experiences.
Five of the resorts are a quick ride from the Magic Kingdom. The Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Resort, and Grand Floridian Resort are on the monorail loop, and you can visit each of them in just a few minutes. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (my personal favorite) and Fort Wilderness Campground are a short, pleasant boat ride from the Magic Kingdom.
If you’re at Epcot and looking to take a break and explore, next to the United Kingdom pavilion is
a boat launch that will take you to the Swan and Dolphin hotels, as well as the Yacht Club, Beach Club, and Boardwalk Resorts. The other resorts are available by bus from any of the parks or the Transportation & Ticket Center, but require extra travel time.
I like to take the time while I’m there to take a look at the resorts where I’m not staying. The resorts are even more magical around Christmas, when they’re exquisitely decorated — another example of how Disney succeeds by nailing every detail.
6. Take Advantage of Holidays and Special Events.
Walt Disney World is magical any time of the year, but there’s something even more special about the Disney touch during holidays. Disney’s cast members take extra care to create unique experiences at various times throughout the year.
From mid-September to the beginning of November, the Magic Kingdom celebrates Halloween. You’ll find clever, detailed jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows, and other fun Halloween finery throughout the park.
On certain nights during this Fall period, the Magic Kingdom offers Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, a separately ticketed event in which the park is open to a limited number of guests. Here you’ll encounter characters dressed up for the occasion. The kids can trick or treat and the parade features the cast of The Haunted Mansion while the fireworks show is taken over by the Disney Villains.
At Christmas, the park comes to life with holiday magic all its own. Christmas decorations throughout the parks, resorts, and shopping areas are exquisite and themed to the most intimate detail. The Magic Kingdom hosts Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, another event with separate tickets and limited capacity featuring special parades and fireworks, cookies and hot chocolate, and a snow on Main Street USA.
At Epcot’s Candlelight Processional, a celebrity narrator reads the Biblical Christmas story, while a choir of cast members sings carols. Epcot’s World Showcase pavilions offer storytelling and crafts. Disney’s Hollywood Studios hosts the Osborne Family Spectacle Of Dancing Lights, the world’s largest outdoor lighting display. Many of the resort hotels have unique Christmas experiences and displays as well.
Epcot offers a pair of special events that aren’t tied to a particular holiday. The International Flower & Garden Festival features beautiful topiaries and lovely gardens every spring, while the International Food & Wine Festival boasts special tastings of dishes and drinks from all around the world in the fall.
These events offer an extra special bit of magic for those who attend. Crowds can be a bit heavier during the special events and holidays, but they’re rarely insurmountable.
There’s a certain misconception that Walt Disney World is for kids, especially Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom.
On the contrary, the Fantasyland attractions pay the greatest homage to the classic Disney films and the entertainment that Walt Disney’s name was built on, which makes Fantasyland a great place to relive your childhood.
OK, so adults may look silly on a few of the Fantasyland rides — try not looking awkward on the carousel or Dumbo The Flying Elephant — but that shouldn’t stop even the most jaded cynics from enjoying the rest of what Fantasyland has to offer.
The attractions in Fantasyland, like pretty much everything else at Walt Disney World, do a flawless job of capturing the essence of their source material. Snow White’s Scary Adventures puts you right in the middle of the action of Walt Disney’s first animated feature. The spinning, dizzying teacups of the Mad Tea Party match the trippy feel of Alice In Wonderland. Peter Pan’s Flight is every bit as breathtaking as Wendy, Michael, and John’s first trip to Never Land, while guests travel right into the storybook with The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh.
Check out this YouTube video of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride:
And then there’s “it’s a small world,” probably one of the most iconic attractions in the Magic Kingdom. Some people despise it, while others become even more enthralled every time they ride it. In reality it’s a sweet, charming little ride that can leave even the most cynical guest singing along on the way out.
Over the next couple of years Fantasyland is undergoing an unprecedented expansion, nearly doubling the land’s size and adding several more attractions, including ones based on Beauty And The Beast and The Little Mermaid, along with a double-capacity Dumbo ride and so much more. It’ll be exciting to see how Fantasyland evolves with this project.
Next: An African safari in Florida…
4. Enjoy the Spectacular Sights of Kilimanjaro Safaris.
One of the most enjoyable attractions in all of Walt Disney World is Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The crowning jewel of Walt Disney World’s most recently added theme park is a truly breathtaking experience. It’s the closest thing to being on an actual African safari.
Your journey begins as you enter the Africa section of Animal Kingdom. The setting for this “land” of the park is the fictional village of Harambe, a town that has transformed itself into a wildlife preserve. As you wind through the queue line for the safari, you encounter videos and signage that educate you on the types of animals you may see there.
Once you board your open-sided vehicle, you’re off to see an astounding collection of animals from antelopes to zebras. My favorite animals there have to be the giraffes, and on one recent trip we had a truly spectacular encounter with them. For some reason the vehicles ahead of us were delayed, and we had to stop. One giraffe kept getting nearer and nearer to our vehicle, until it stopped about 20 feet from us! Needless to say we were able to get some great pictures.
Kilimanjaro Safaris carries an added fascination for folks who are interested in what goes on behind the scenes. The animals there are in as natural a habitat as could be designed. Completely natural barriers and hidden artificial berms keep the animals away from the safari vehicles. The landscape has been transformed to look less like Florida and as much like Africa as possible. The area is a prime example of Disney’s creativity and attention to detail. Of course, since it’s Disney, there’s a well-thought storyline for the safari.
Kilimanjaro Safaris is an astounding experience, and the nearby Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is a fitting complement to the safari where families can take a leisurely stroll to see the animals. Both attractions are animal experiences in a way that only Disney can deliver.
3. Take In the Beauty of the Parks at Night.
As magical as Walt Disney World always is, the parks become even more spectacular after dark. Though Disney’s Animal Kingdom closes before dark so that the animals can be maintained and fed, the other three parks take on a life of their own at night, and they even have special events.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios becomes even more glamorous after dark. The Hollywood Boulevard, Echo Lake, and Sunset Boulevard areas of the park take on an added character. The Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster looks more energetic and exciting, while the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is much eerier at night.
The most special nighttime event at Hollywood Studios is Fantasmic! which takes place select nights in an amphitheater designed to pay tribute to the Hollywood Bowl. In Fantasmic! Mickey Mouse, in full garb as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, battles the most ferocious of the Disney Villains in an unforgettable fire and water show.
At Epcot, the nighttime magic is noticeable as well. Though it often closes earlier in the evenings, Future World looks amazing after dark, especially the iconic Spaceship Earth and the beautiful planets at the entrance to Mission: SPACE. World Showcase is even more stunning at night, with each nation’s pavilions looking even richer under the lights.
The centerpiece of the nighttime experience at Epcot is IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, which features fireworks, lasers, pyrotechnics, and other lighting effects in a truly moving presentation. It’s a show you’ll never forget.
Nothing beats the Magic Kingdom for an exciting, special night. Every land seems to come to life when the sun goes down. The streets bustle with a different vibe, and the kinetics of each attraction seem to be even more inviting. Cinderella Castle is a sight to behold, and the fireworks are always worth staying out late for.
One of the best things about the Magic Kingdom at night is the parade. This park has a history of great parades at night (check out this article I wrote about that history), and the current one, The Main Street Electrical Parade, is no exception. One of the most special events is the oldest parade at Walt Disney World: the Electrical Water Pageant, which takes place on the shores of Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of each of the resort hotels near the Magic Kingdom.
2. Brave the Mountain Range.
For its famous family atmosphere and vast selection of rides for all ages, Walt Disney World manages to pack some genuine thrills into its parks. Attractions like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster are heart-stopping. Mission: SPACE simulates zero gravity, while Test Track roars along at 65 miles per hour. Even some of the tamer classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion have a tinge of scariness to them to go with the fun.
But there’s no better collection of thrill rides than what many affectionately call the Walt Disney World Mountain Range: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and Expedition Everest. The first three are in the Magic Kingdom, while Expedition Everest is in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Space Mountain looms over Tomorrowland in stark, retro-futuristic white. With its spires and exposed support beams, it’s clear that something intriguing awaits inside. You may only hurtle along at 28 miles per hour but the suspense and disorientation of the darkness make it feel infinitely faster. Space Mountain is a historic attraction as well, since it’s the world’s first completely indoor roller coaster and the first major ride to have made its debut at Walt Disney World before opening at Disneyland.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is one of two mountains in Frontierland, and it’s a Disneyfied twist on the old mine train concept. Big Thunder Mountain rises 197 feet in the air over the western edge of the park, representing the farthest west part of Frontierland in both style and geography. It’s a rip-roarin’ runaway train ride through the steep canyons and rock formations of Utah.
Splash Mountain, right next door to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, is Disney’s version of the log flume ride. The attraction is based on the characters from the beloved, long-out-of-print film Song of the South. Splash Mountain follows the adventures of Br’er Rabbit as he tries to avoid the clutches of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear and find his “laughing place.” It feels like an easy, yet fast-paced, ride along the river until you encounter the big drop which sends you careening down the hill at 40 miles per hour.
The newest addition to the mountain range is Expedition Everest. This may be one of the most carefully and painstakingly created attractions in all of Walt Disney World. The entire queue line is meant to immerse riders into the spirit of an outpost at the foot of the Himalayas, and every detail is based on years of research. The ride itself is a heart-pounding ride on a tea train through the Himalayas — but something’s clearly amiss. An encounter with the Yeti sends the train forward and backward at breakneck speeds down the mountain. One tip: when you reach the top of the mountain, look around for a brief but breathtaking view of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The four mountain rides are definite must-do attractions for thrill seekers of all ages. Each one provides a distinct yet genuine brand of excitement to the parks.
Finally: The best ride in the park…
1. Feast Your Eyes (And Ears — And Nose) On Soarin’.
The most amazing experience at Walt Disney World is also one of the hardest to explain. Soarin’ is a truly unique multimedia attraction that must be seen to be believed. Originally a gift from Disneyland, Soarin’ is a tour of some of California’s most beautiful areas — from the Golden Gate Bridge to Lake Tahoe to DisneyLand — from the point of view of a hang glider.
The perspective on Soarin’ is truly unique and immersive. You float between hot air balloons, alongside fighter jets, over cowboys on horseback, and above Los Angeles’ traffic. A golf ball whizzes just past your head. Fireworks explode right before your eyes. Soarin’ truly recreates the sensation of hang gliding in a memorable way.
Soarin’ is a feast for the senses as well. Specially designed fans create the perception of the wind in your face. Scent machines give you the impression of actually smelling the pine trees and orange groves. The majestic score by Academy Award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith suits the mood of the trip through the Golden State.
The attraction is an engineering marvel as well. While Imagineers (Disney’s creative folks) were debating the way to make the experience of Soarin’ work while efficiently moving guests through the ride, Imagineer Mark Sumner got his childhood Erector set out of the attic and set to work on a solution. The actual ride system mirrors his Erector set concept nearly identically.
Soarin’ is a quintessential Disney experience. It’s the only ride I’ve ever seen guests applaud at the end. It’s also one my family loves to enjoy over and over again. You will too.
I’ve read somewhere that you could spend an entire year at Walt Disney World and not do everything. I believe it. These ten tips are by no means an exhaustive list of the best attractions and most unique experiences at Walt Disney World. Instead, think of this top ten list as a start to finding your own magical, essential experiences, and share with me in the comments section what your favorites are.
December 5, 2011
2. Walt Disney’s Five Greatest Innovations
Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the 20th century’s greatest visionary artist and entrepreneur.
Walt Disney started with little more than talent and ambition and built one of the most powerful entertainment empires known to man. Many people think of him as simply the man who created Mickey Mouse, or as a television host or studio head, but Disney played a vital, hands-on role in his company’s success.
Disney won 22 Academy Awards, an Emmy, and countless other honors for his work. He was also a visionary like few others in history, and he belongs on the list of true American innovators along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs.
In honor of Disney’s birthday, here is a list of five of his greatest innovations. Some of them are obvious, while others aren’t as well known. But all changed the way we view entertainment and art.
(Author’s note: I relied on two books about Walt Disney for this column. Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original is more or less his “official” biography, while Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination is a recently published account. Both books are comprehensive and well-written, and I highly recommend them.)
Walt Disney revolutionized animation. Before Disney, cartoons were crudely drawn and poorly animated with weak stories consisting of little more than quick gags. They were cheap and profitable, but Disney took them to the next level.
The earliest animation was the cartoon short, and Disney worked hard to raise the bar. One of the first Mickey Mouse shorts, Steamboat Willie (1928), was the first to synchronize music to animation. It was so successful that the two previous silent Mickey Mouse shorts were rereleased with new soundtracks. Disney went further with music in his cartoons with The Three Little Pigs (1933) by adding a theme song, “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf,” which quickly became a best selling tune.
Disney took short animation to the next level in other ways with his Silly Symphonies series. Flowers And Trees (1932) was the first cartoon in Technicolor, and it won the first Academy Award for animation. Five years later, The Old Mill was the first short to use the multiplane camera, a Disney Studios invention which added an element of dimension to cartoons. The Old Mill also won an Oscar.
After his successes with shorts, Disney decided to expand his animation art to feature length cartoons. Many in Hollywood doubted if strong storylines and more realistic characters would work in animation, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was called “Disney’s Folly” until it garnered critical praise and turned a handsome profit.
Some animated films like Dumbo (1941) and Cinderella (1950) were critical and financial successes, while others like Fantasia (1940) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were less profitable in spite of favorable reviews. During this period the studio also discovered that they could re-release the animated features every seven years, generating 100% profit and making successes out of even the least profitable works.
Just after World War II, when the studio began to branch out into live action films, Disney had the idea to blend live action and animated sequences for Song of the South (1946). It worked so well that the studio tried the technique again with Mary Poppins (1964) and in pictures after Walt Disney’s death like Tron (1982) — which combined live actors with early computer animation — and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
It’s not hard to imagine that, without Disney’s contributions to the medium, we wouldn’t have the rich landscape of animation that we have today, from the studio’s inimitable princess films to the increasing creativity of Pixar.
4. Higher Education
One of Disney’s lesser known innovations — unless, perhaps, you live in California — was his contribution to higher education. Disney was the visionary behind the development of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Disney had a long history of commitment to artists’ training. From the early days of the Disney Studios, he teamed up with the Chouinard Art Institute to hold regular classes taught by masters of various media. Zookeepers often brought live animals in for the animators to learn how to replicate natural movement.
At the same time that the Disney Studio was experiencing unprecedented success in the early ’60s, Chouinard had fallen on hard times. Disney developed a vision for a school that would provide comprehensive arts training. “A school should offer a kind of cross-pollenization that would develop the best in its students,” he said, and he came up with the idea of combining Chouinard with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, another school that was in danger of folding.
After months of research and consultation, Disney felt he had a concept for what would become CalArts. He presented this plan to the public for the first time in a short film (below) that accompanied the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964.
Though Walt Disney would not live to see CalArts’ opening, the school maintained his vision of an interdisciplinary arts education. CalArts opened its doors in 1970 at a temporary location before moving the following year to a permanent campus in Valencia, CA, on land donated by the studio. To this day, CalArts is one of America’s preeminent educational institutions.
Disney was a trailblazer in merchandising. He understood early on that the right merchandise could become an effective tool to promote Disney movies and TV shows. He also knew that products — and even music — could turn into profits.
As soon as Mickey Mouse became popular Disney manufacturers inundated him with ideas to cash in on the phenomenon. Disney only wanted the best products to bear Mickey’s name and image, so he ignored many requests. The studio negotiated a 2.5-5 percent royalty on all items, and at the depth of the Great Depression consumers bought hundreds of thousands of items from toys to ice cream cones to the famous Mickey Mouse watches. In fact, the sale of windup Mickey Mouse handcars was credited with bringing Lionel Trains back from bankruptcy.
Around the same time, Disney’s hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from The Three Little Pigs resonated with Depression-era audiences and became an anthem for the times. Conductors and bandleaders pressed the studio for sheet music, and multiple artists recorded the song.
In the early 50s, as the studio was beginning to get its feet wet in television, the Disneyland program aired Davy Crockett. Audiences made the series a surprise hit and Disney looked for ways to market the new success. A trade embargo with China led to surpluses of raccoon skins and inspired the studio to negotiate a deal for coonskin hats like the one worn by Crockett on the show. Demand far exceeded expectations and they sold by the millions.
Composer George Bruns put together a song titled “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” for the show. The producers considered the track filler but it too quickly became a hit, selling ten million copies and spending a month at #1 on the Billboard charts while three other versions made the Top Ten, including one recorded by the show’s star, Fess Parker.
Even though we take merchandising for granted these days, in Disney’s time these fresh innovations helped change American entertainment.
Long before a television sat in every living room, Disney understood the power of the new medium. As far back as the late 1930s he refused to sell the rights to his films, though he didn’t realize yet how popular television would become.
Years later, he said:
…everybody wanted to buy all our old product. We wouldn’t sell it. We wouldn’t hear of it. We wanted to handle it ourselves, make good use of it.
When it came to television, the one thing I wanted was to control my product. I didn’t want anybody else to have it. I wanted to control the format and what I did with it.
In 1950, NBC approached the studio with an idea for a Christmas special. Disney saw the value of promoting upcoming films on television and consented. Audiences loved the show so much that he produced another one the following year.
During the early stages of planning Disneyland, Disney and his brother Roy knew they had to raise funds for the project creatively, so Roy traveled to New York to meet with network executives to discuss TV’s ability to finance and promote the park. ABC agreed to a weekly Disney series in exchange for a stake in Disneyland.
The Disneyland series debuted in October 1954 and was an unqualified smash. The studio used the series to hype the theme park and promote Disney films.
Disney presciently insisted on filming as many segments as possible in color — even though most televisions still used black and white — because he believed color would become the standard. A few years later, he moved his show to NBC, where the entire program was broadcast in color and retitled Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
With this new success the studio committed to quality television for the whole family. The Mickey Mouse Club, the forebear to the juggernaut that is the Disney Channel today, arrived next followed with more shows to come in the decades that followed.
Disney clearly saw the value of the infant medium of television. He was aware of the power of promotion through TV and he used it to connect with the public in an entirely new way.
1. Theme Parks
Disney’s greatest and most tangible influence is in the realm of the theme park. From the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Disney theme parks led the industry as the gold standard of excellence in amusement park entertainment. And it all started with Disney’s regular family outings.
Before Disneyland, most Americans regarded amusement parks as tawdry and unclean. Shoddy rides and less-than-friendly personnel easily spoiled fun family days. Most parks aimed only at children, leaving little for adults to do. Disney would take his daughters to a Los Angeles park most weekends, and his vision for Disneyland was born on one of these daddy-daughter days.
Disney wondered why amusement parks didn’t cater to the whole family and why they weren’t cleaner and more inviting. He spent months researching successful parks across the country and figuring out ways to combine and “plus” the best ideas. He wanted his parks to be completely immersive experiences where guests could leave the world behind.
After years of planning and preparation, Disneyland opened in July 1955. A success from the start, Disney began to think of ways he could improve on the experience. The urban blight which quickly surrounded Disneyland made the entrepreneur wish he had bought a larger tract of land for a new resort where he could control the surrounding area.
After seeing how East Coast audiences responded to his attractions at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, Disney began to explore the idea of a larger park somewhere east of California. The company bought 27,000 acres in Central Florida to create a complete vacation destination. Disney even initially included plans for a futuristic city in his Florida Project.
Though he did not live to see the completion of Walt Disney World, the legacy of its namesake lives on in exquisitely detailed parks and resorts, cutting-edge technology behind the scenes, and even a planned community just outside the park’s gates. Walt Disney World exceeded the expectations of anyone who heard the original grand vision for the resort.
The success of Disneyland and Disney World led to Disney parks in Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong, as well as a future resort planned for Shanghai. Additionally, Disney operates a cruise line, a timeshare program, a Hawaiian resort, and a line of boutique international adventures. Of course, that success spawned plenty of imitators over the years. The truth is, none of these vacation destinations would have been possible without the creative vision of Walt Disney.
Disney filled many roles in his 65 years: artist, husband and father, philanthropist, anti-Communist, filmmaker, and even the original voice of Mickey Mouse. But his greatest role was as an American innovator. From animation to television to theme parks Disney left his mark on our culture and enhanced our lives.
April 12, 2014:
3. Ten Books Every Disney Fan Should Read
You won’t really understand Walt Disney until you start reading…
The Walt Disney Company has provided quality entertainment to generations of fans for almost nine decades now. No other company has done what Disney did with such excellence — from animation to live-action films to television to totally immersive theme park experiences.
Disney fandom requires a certain level of passion, but there are some whose devotion to all things Disney rises to another level. I call them “Disney Nerds,” lovingly so, because I consider myself one. Actually, I debated whether to use the term. I prefer “Disney Aficionados,” but worried it sounded too pompous.
Whatever you call us, I’ve compiled a list of ten essential books for Disney Nerds. Think of this list as summer reading for the die-hard Disney fan. The books you’ll see in this post run the gamut from theme park guides to historical chronicles to the ultimate biography of the man himself, Walt Disney. Each book will expand your knowledge (and hopefully love) of Disney culture in its own unique way.
Get ready to dig in and feast your eyes on some great Disney reading. For the list, I’ve tried to choose books that are readily available, and have provided links to order or download them for Kindle apps where applicable. So here we go.
10. The Imagineering Way: Ideas To Ignite Your Creativity by The Imagineers
Obviously the Disney company holds creativity in high regard, and the Imagineers serve as the gatekeepers of Disney’s creative efforts. The discipline of Imagineering (a hybrid of imagination and engineering) covers a broad range, from painting and lighting to research and master planning.
If you’re anything like me, you often wonder how the Imagineers do what they do, holding such high standards of creativity on a consistent basis. The Imagineers have peeled back the curtain just a bit to reveal the secrets to igniting creativity in their book The Imagineering Way, and they have managed to create an invaluable bit of reading for people in creative fields.
In typical Imagineering fashion, each chapter takes on a different format: one author may write a personal anecdote, while an artist might draw a comic panel that says something about creativity. Some chapters offer practical ideas, while others serve simply to encourage. Representatives of different fields of Imagineering show up, from show writers to landscapers to executives.
With its lighthearted tone and loads of inspiration packed into a small package, The Imagineering Way is an essential read not just for Disney fans but for creatives of any kind. The Imagineers also published a companion volume titled The Imagineering Workout which offers exercises to help stretch those creative muscles.
9, 8, 7, 6, & 5. The Imagineering Field Guides by The Imagineers
Not only do the Imagineers want us to ignite our creativity, but they also want us to see the Disney parks — at least the American ones — through their eyes. You may think I’m cheating by putting all of these books together in one entry, but I can’t separate them. The interested newcomer and the seasoned Disney traveler alike will find a wealth of fascinating and fun information in The Imagineering Field Guides.
The Imagineers have published five books in the series: The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom, The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot, The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and — so you West Coast Disney fans won’t feel left out — The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland.
You won’t find your typical travel guide information (starred restaurant reviews, parade times, and the like) in these books; instead, you’ll learn a little about each attraction in the parks, as well as some history, trivia, and glimpses into the processes and tricks of the trade the Imagineers use, such as Audio Animatronics and forced perspective.
The authors aim to enhance guests’ enjoyment of the parks with the information they arm us with. They start out by tying each park back to Walt Disney’s original vision for the parks, and then they break each park down by land, highlighting attractions and some of the more interesting features throughout the parks. I’ve read all five of them several times, and I always walk away enjoying and understanding the parks I love even more.
4. Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends by Jeff Kurtti
I first became familiar with Jeff Kurtti’s writing from his 1996 book Since The World Began, which was his 25th anniversary history of Walt Disney World (and which he has sadly not updated or reprinted). That book made clear his love for the Disney company and its alumni. Kurtti has written over a dozen more books about Disney products, people, and properties, but his best work by far is Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends. In this book, Kurtti tells the stories of 30 people who made their mark during the early days of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI).
The author divides the book into sections, and artists from disciplines as diverse as writing, mixed media, modeling, all the way up to the executive office get their due here. Well known Imagineers like the Sherman Brothers, Herb Ryman, and Rolly Crump have chapters in the book, as do more obscure — but equally important — people such as Bob Gurr, Harriet Burns, and Bill Evans. “Renaissance Imagineer” John Hench, who worked for WDI until his death in 2004 at age 95, merits his own section. The book is jam-packed with information, yet it feels like a coffee-table book with its full color spreads and copious photographs.
Kurtti does not aim to chronicle the story of every early Imagineer (after all, where’s Mary Blair?); rather, Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends is a lovely portrait of many influential Imagineers of the mid-20th century. As Imagineering great Marty Sklar — who deserves his own chapter in this book — writes in his foreword:
Only the team leader has his name on the front door, but Walt Disney knew who designed and built the house. So the next time you visit Disneyland [or Disney World –CQ] take a few minutes for a leisurely stroll down Main Street, U.S.A. Look up at the windows above the shop fronts. There you will find their names. They were the generals and admirals, and it was an army and navy like no other. They are Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends.
3. Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas
I’ve seen plenty of biographies of Walt Disney and have even read a few of them. Some of them gloss over Walt’s flaws while others attempt to paint him as some sort of monster, and these books don’t do justice to the truth. I’ve found a handful of Walt Disney biographies that treat him fairly.
I enjoyed Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, despite the fact that it was overly long and the author made some psychoanalytical leaps with which I wasn’t comfortable. I’m currently reading Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney — had I been able to finish it in time, it likely would have made this list. My friend and editor David Swindle recommended Disney’s World by Leonard Mosley, and soon I’ll get my hands on a copy of it too. [Editor update, 12/16/13: I rescind my recommendation of Disney’s World. It’s a fun book most of the way through but 2/3rds in it starts dumping disinformation on Disney, accusing him of antisemitism without sources. Don’t bother with it.]
None of the books about Walt that I’ve read hold a candle to Bob Thomas’ excellent Walt Disney: An American Original. I would call it the closest thing to an official biography of Walt, though it’s far from a hagiography. The company gave Thomas what was then unprecedented access to its archives, including Walt’s office, which the company left in the exact same state as it was when Disney last worked in it. Thomas spoke with Disney family members, company employees, and some of Walt’s closest associates. Many of the people he interviewed have since passed away.
This level of access to the people who surrounded Walt Disney as well as the legacy he left behind make for a compelling, thorough, warts-and-all portrait of the man behind the legend. Thomas begins with Walt’s childhood days and covers the entirety of his life, including a tender account of Disney’s last days. I haven’t read anything else that covers the life of Walt Disney in such a comprehensive way. Thomas’ meticulous research and expert writing helped me see Walt as a human being as much as a hero.
2. Working With Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists by Don Peri
As the people who worked directly with Walt Disney age and pass on, fans should cherish their firsthand perspectives on toiling alongside the creative genius himself. The interviews with those who knew him convey what it was like to be a part of the Disney organization in its early days. Writer Don Peri captured his conversations with 15 of those artists in his invaluable book Working With Walt (also available for Kindle).
In compiling these interviews for publication, Peri writes in his introduction that his intent was to speak with those who, in spite of Walt’s negatives, loved and respected Disney:
To be honest, I did not try to cover the whole spectrum of people, with their divergent personalities and points of view, who worked at the studio.
The people in this book are not unbiased. They admired, respected, even loved Walt Disney, and yet all of them experienced the full force of Walt’s personality. The word most often used to describe their feelings about Walt is “awe.” They were then, and for the rest of their lives remained, in awe of him.
Disney aficionados will recognize some of Peri’s interview subjects: Ken Anderson, Harper Goff, Wilfred Jackson, Herb Ryman. Other names are lesser known, including Marcellite Garner, one of the first female Disney employees and the original voice of Minnie Mouse. Each subject contributes his or her unique recollections and impressions of the man whose talent and vision started it all. In publishing these conversations, Peri has done all Disney fans a great service.
(Author’s note: during my search for links to the books I’m writing about here, I discovered that Peri has written a sequel, Working With Disney, that covers a larger gamut of Disney personalities, including Imagineers and Mouseketeers. I’ve downloaded it to my iPad and can’t wait to read it!)
1. Project Future by Chad Denver Emerson
We’ve learned about Walt Disney and his inner circle, and we’ve uncovered some of the secrets behind the company’s success. Now it’s time to sink our teeth into one of the most fascinating episodes in Disney lore: the acquisition and development of the land that would become Walt Disney World.
Author Chad Denver Emerson tells this amazing but true tale in his book Project Future (also available for Kindle). Emerson relates a story that is part spy novel — complete with clandestine meetings, secret identities, and obfuscated phone and paper trails — and part Grisham-esque legal and political page turner — including last-minute legislative changes and a lawsuit that went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.
Not long after Disneyland opened, Walt began looking at options for some kind of park in the eastern half of the country. Buoyed by the success of his projects at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, he started searching even more intently for an “East Coast Disneyland” and settled on Central Florida, near the sleepy town of Orlando. The company bought tracts of land under assumed names so as not to draw attention to the purchases and thus drive up prices.
Walt outlined his dream for the park in the legendary EPCOT Film:
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The company knew that achieving Walt’s dream would prove difficult if the Florida Project (which was the park’s name before Walt’s death — after Walt passed, his brother Roy Disney christened it Walt Disney World) fell under state and county jurisdiction, so Disney took advantage of a somewhat obscure provision on the books in Florida that allows for the creation of autonomous improvement districts. The company weathered Walt’s death and shakeups in both the legislature and governor’s mansion to shepherd their unprecedented legislation through. Finally, Disney essentially sued itself, convincing the state of Florida to file suit against the new Reedy Creek Improvement District in order to prove that the special powers that belonged to the district would withstand any legal challenges.
Though the book bogs down a bit near the end as Emerson cites several field studies proving Walt Disney World’s success, for the most part Project Future tells a fascinating story that deserves a wider audience among Disney fans.
For extra credit, I recommend Christopher Finch’s The Art of Walt Disney, a massive coffee-table book packed with artwork from the entire history of Disney films, television, and theme parks. It costs considerably more than a typical book, so it’s quite an investment, which is why I didn’t include it in the list.
So, my fellow Disney Nerds, here’s your summer reading list. Enjoy these books. Savor what the authors have to share. Immerse yourself in all things Disney. You won’t regret it.
4. Five TV Shows That Didn’t Get the Chance They Deserved
Maybe Netflix can resurrect some of these?
Over the years I’ve had the misfortune of falling head over heels for a new TV show only to see brilliant network executives cancel it before an audience could appear. It seems to be an issue more often these days. New series come and go, shattered by the network hammer long before they have a chance to garner fans and viewers.
It wasn’t always this way. Shows like Seinfeld and Taxi took years to develop a following, while networks often keep “prestige” shows like 30 Rock on the air despite poor ratings. Recently in The Hollywood Reporter, columnist Tim Goodman posed an interesting question: “Do TV Series Get or Deserve Second Chances?” Before basically answering “yes and no,” Goodman noted:
The fact is, it’s getting harder and harder to cultivate a hit series on television and keep the numbers steady. Already the mythological 500-channel universe is rapidly becoming a reality, diluting the available audience. It’s a wider, not deeper world now. Consequently, the definition of a hit, particularly for network television, continues to nosedive. Any series above 10 million total viewers is a massive hit – when, in the not-too-distant past, that was a number that could get you canceled.
Here are five shows that didn’t get the chance they deserved. I’ve limited myself to the last 20 years in compiling this list. The nice thing is that, with modern technology like DVDs, Netflix, and YouTube, people can become fans of these shows all over again.
We’ll start with a show that tackled one of the most divisive eras in our nation’s recent history…
5. I’ll Fly Away (1991-1993)
The networks rarely choose to portray the civil rights era on series television, but one drama tried in the early ‘90s: I’ll Fly Away. Much of the show, which ran for two seasons on NBC, was filmed in and around my hometown, so I have a bit of a personal connection with it.
I’ll Fly Away tells the story of the nascent civil rights movement through two parallel stories. Small town attorney Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston) is a widower raising three children. His law practice is successful, but when he begins to take on civil rights cases, his view of the world changes. Meanwhile, his black nanny (Regina Taylor) also sees the sea change taking place in the South, inspiring her own political activism.
Filmed on location in small towns in Georgia, the show’s Southern details hit the mark (as did the accents). The writing and directing were excellent, in spite of an earnest, left-leaning bent. The children on the show were precocious and thoughtful without being saccharine. Both Waterston and Taylor played their roles with a quiet intensity that contrasted with the stormy nature of the times.
I’ll Fly Away won two Emmys and several other awards in its short run. After NBC cancelled the show, PBS made a TV movie to tie up the loose ends. PBS also reran the entire series one time. I’ll Fly Away has never been released on DVD, and it seemed as though it would be a series lost to the past. However, one YouTube user has made all of the program’s episodes available in a playlist. Thanks to modern technology, viewers can seek out I’ll Fly Away again.
Next we’ll look at a heartfelt comedy set in the world of sports media…
4. Sports Night (1998-2000)
One of the most underrated comedies of the last years of the 20th century was Sports Night. Aaron Sorkin created and developed the series, which was set at a Sports Center-type show, also called Sports Night.
The cast was amazing and not well known at the time. Felicity Huffman starred as producer Dana Whitaker. The anchors Dan Rydell and Casey McCall were played by Josh Charles and Peter Krause and modeled after ESPN anchors like Dan Patrick, Craig Kilborn, and Keith Olbermann. Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd portrayed associate producers Jeremy Goodwin and Natalie Hurley. Rounding out the principal cast was the venerable Robert Guillaume as network honcho Isaac Jaffe.
Sports Night bore many of the hallmarks of its creator’s films and TV series. It was a quick-witted program with fast-paced banter, and Sorkin’s iconic “walk and talk” segments appeared again. Plenty of poignant drama brought depth throughout the show — in fact, it’s better described as a comedy-drama than as a traditional sitcom. During the first season, ABC added a laugh track to the show, but they gradually lowered the volume throughout the season and got rid of it for the second.
The show wasn’t afraid of controversial issues: From the legalization of marijuana to the fight over the Confederate flag to violence against women. Guillaume suffered a stroke in the middle of the first season, and his condition and recovery were written into the storyline.
Sports Night was nominated for eight Emmys and won three. The show’s stars have gone on to other well-known roles. Krause currently stars on Parenthood, while Charles is a member of the cast of The Good Wife. Huffman won an Emmy for her role on Desperate Housewives.
After the second season ABC cancelled Sports Night. Sorkin received offers to relocate the show to HBO, Showtime, or USA, but he declined, choosing to focus on The West Wing. Comedy Central acquired the rights to the show and ran it at least once, and it has appeared internationally too. Fortunately, the series is available on DVD and Netflix, and it’s well worth checking out.
Next we’ll take a look at a trippy, time-bending show…
3. Life On Mars (2008-2009)
Imagine this scenario: you’re an NYPD detective in 2008, and you’re hot on the trail of a suspect. You get hit by a car, and when you wake up it’s 1973. That was the premise of ABC’s brilliant and imaginative Life On Mars, which was a remake of the BBC series by the same name.
Life On Mars is a clever take on the old fish-out-of-water premise, with Jason O’Mara starring as Sam Tyler, the detective who was transported back in time. Sam’s shock in adjusting to the ‘70s is palpable. Between the clothes, the antiquated police techniques (No warrants? No DNA?), and the attitudes toward women it’s clear that he is a stranger in a strange land. As viewers, we feel his visceral shock at seeing the Twin Towers still standing.
Terrific characters portrayed by great actors populate the series. Michael Imperioli is unforgettable as the uncouth Ray Carling, while Jonathan Murphy is pitch-perfect as the spacey young detective Chris Skelton. Gretchen Mol plays Officer Annie Norris with sweetness and determination, and Harvey Keitel is at his unhinged best as Lt. Gene Hunt.
Life On Mars especially shines when Tyler tries to solve crimes in 1973 without the benefit of modern law enforcement technology. Sam also spends plenty of time trying to figure out why he somehow stumbled 35 years into the past. He has a surprising ally in Annie, who humors him even if she doesn’t exactly believe him.
There are some fantastical elements in the show that add to the mystery of Sam’s state. He hears voices through his television and radio alluding to doctors, leading Sam to wonder if he is in a coma or dead (in 2008). Though he never really solves the mystery in 1973, the program ends in a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek kind of way, a nice reward for those who supported the show through all 17 episodes.
ABC only gave Life On Mars a single season. It would’ve been nice to have seen the mystery play out over two or three seasons. Life On Mars is available on DVD and Netflix for those who want to give it a shot.
Next we’ll witness a future comedy great in his early years…
2. The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993)
Before Ben Stiller became one of the go-to guys for neurotic movie comedy he created a short-lived sketch comedy series on Fox. The Ben Stiller Show was as edgy and hip as comedy got on network TV. It was timely and trendy, from the cast to the parody subjects, all the way down to the cool Dweezil Zappa theme music (which still sounds great):
The series starred a veritable who’s who of cutting edge comics: Stiller, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, and Andy Dick, and the writing team was led by Stiller and Judd Apatow. The humor was fast-paced, and the show consisted mainly of television, movie, and commercial parodies. The sketches were inspired: Cape Fear featuring Eddie Munster in place of Robert DeNiro, various celebrities audition to host The Tonight Show, and U2 managed by Mr. Kincaid of The Partridge Family and doing cereal ads.
Some sketches had specific targets, while others were more general. Take a look at one that skewers commercials that rely on sex appeal:
Granted, much of the show is dated to the early ’90s, but it’s still funny and holds up well. One of the show’s unintentional treats is the chance to see Garofalo before she became a complete Marxist moonbat. In many of her roles she essentially parodies what she has become today. To see her making fun of PBS pledge breaks or Sinead O’Connor’s holier-than-thou platitudes is a delicious irony.
Unfortunately, The Ben Stiller Show was apparently too hip for prime time viewers (even on Fox) and only lasted 12 episodes. Comedy Central has rerun the series at least once. All 12 episodes came out on DVD a few years back along with a previously unaired episode and it’s available on Netflix.
Finally, we’ll look at a show that captured the changing lives of returning World War II vets…
1. Homefront (1991-1993)
A truly good historical drama can immerse the viewer in a completely different time. Homefront, which ran for two seasons on ABC, was one of those shows:
As a group of young soldiers return to their hometown of River Run, Ohio, they and their families adjust to the changes. The women who worked in the factory during the war lose their jobs to “the boys.” One soldier comes home to find his fiancee in love with his younger brother, while another breaks his girlfriend’s heart by bringing home his English wife, and yet another doesn’t make it home alive.
The show also documents two young residents of the town as one starts a show business career and the other tries out for the Cleveland Indians. The series also chronicles the division within the town as one man tries to establish a union at the factory. In addition, Homefront tackled issues of racism, antisemitism, and sexual discrimination.
The beautifully written show captured the essence of the ’40s with spot-on sets, costumes, and music. In fact, the program won Emmy awards for costuming, hairstyling, and art direction.
Many of the series’ cast members have gone on to greater success on other shows. Kyle Chandler recently won an Emmy for his work on Friday Night Lights, and Hattie Winston went on to costar on the Ted Danson comedy Becker. Ken Jenkins and Mimi Kennedy have had long careers as character actors on many shows, and John Slattery is best known for his memorable role as Roger Sterling on Mad Men.
Sadly, the show has never been available on DVD, except in bootleg form. It has been on rerun on a couple of smaller cable networks but has rarely been seen since its original airing. A few years back, there were several fan sites and petitions asking to have the show released on DVD, but most of the websites seem to be inactive now. It’s a shame that such a great show appeared to be consigned to memory, until one YouTube user uploaded the show scene by scene. Homefront should have had a longer run. It deserves to be seen again, and with the advent of the internet, it can.
These are just a few of the great television shows that never got a chance to find fans. Hopefully the networks will one day learn to nurture series and give them time to develop an audience, but I’m not holding my breath.
Feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I’m interested to see if others remember these programs, and I’d love to find out about other short-lived shows.
This post contains an image courtesy of PChStudios and Shutterstock.
February 24, 2012:
5. The 10 Biggest Academy Awards Blunders
Oscar’s Only Human…
Jack Haley, Jr. hit upon a brilliant idea. The producer of the 1979 Oscars telecast devised a special medley of hit songs the Academy never nominated. Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis, Jr. would perform it at the ceremony. The Academy’s Music Branch protested, but when Haley and host Johnny Carson threatened to walk they relented.
A smash hit, the audience applauded “Oscar’s Only Human” throughout and treated the performers to a prolonged ovation.
Oscar is only human, and he’s made some terrible mistakes over the years. From controversial wins to unfortunate slights to sins of showmanship, the Academy Awards have failed time and time again.
In honor of this Sunday’s broadcast, here are my personal picks for Oscar’s ten most egregious screw-ups:
In 1985 Whoopi Goldberg made a big splash. She earned a Grammy for her first comedy album as well as a Golden Globe and an Oscar nod for her film debut in The Color Purple. Five years later, her movie career had faltered, thanks to a series of flops.
But then came the perfect storm that was Ghost. With the makings of the quintessential chick flick — sexy stars in Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and a supernatural romantic subplot — Goldberg appears for comic relief as the medium used to communicate beyond the grave.
While a surprise box-office smash,critics didn’t take kindly to Ghost. Julie Salomon of the Wall Street Journal said the film wasn’t “awful enough to be a great trash movie, but it often comes close.” Yet when the Academy Award nominations came out, Ghost scored five, including one for Best Picture.
The big story at the Oscars that year was Kevin Costner’s revisionist Western Dances With Wolves, but Goldberg managed to walk home with the Best Supporting Actress trophy. Considering her competition that year — Lorraine Bracco, Annette Bening, Mary McDonnell, and Diane Ladd, all from dramatic films — it’s curious that Goldberg won for such a comic role.
Film historians and critics have long considered 1939 a golden year for movies. A list of the year’s notable films reads like the cream of the classic crop: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”), Wuthering Heights, The Wizard Of Oz, and a little Civil War drama called Gone With The Wind.
The Best Actor category that year was packed with iconic performances. The nominees included Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, and, um, Mickey Rooney for something called Babes In Arms.
Strangely enough, the voters chose British actor Robert Donat for the inspirational teacher drama Goodbye Mr. Chips over Gable, Stewart, and Olivier.
Donat’s win cast a black cloud over Gone With The Wind’s triumphant night — eight Oscars and two special awards — and producer David O. Selznick considered Gable’s loss his greatest disappointment that year.
Time has not been so kind to Donat. His is one of the least remembered performances in a banner year for cinema, and he isn’t as highly regarded as his competitors. Or, as one writer put it:
Seventy years later, we’re still quoting Gable, while we’re googling who Robert Donat was, how his performance could have outshone Gable’s, and what Goodbye Mr. Chips was about.
It’s an odd tradition for directors of highly regarded films to miss out on a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. It happened to Steven Spielberg twice — first for Jaws and again a decade later for The Color Purple. Barbra Streisand failed to get a nod for The Prince Of Tides, and Rob Reiner didn’t garner a nomination for A Few Good Men.
Driving Miss Daisy was one of the most beautiful films of 1989. Its depiction of mid-20th century Atlanta was meticulous, and the cast gave tremendous performances. Australian director Bruce Beresford brought the pieces together yet the Academy did not see fit to nominate him for Best Director.
Beresford’s omission became a focal point of the awards broadcast. In his opening monologue, host Billy Crystal referred to Driving Miss Daisy as “the movie that apparently directed itself,” a remark that led to cheers from the crowd. Best Adapted Screenplay winner Alfred Uhry called Beresford “great and unheralded,” while Best Actress Jessica Tandy thanked her “forgotten” director. Finally, producer Richard Zanuck gave Beresford his due when he accepted the Best Picture award:
We’re up here for one very simple reason, and that’s the fact that Bruce Beresford is a brilliant director, it’s as simple as that.
Driving Miss Daisy became the first film in 57 years to win Best Picture without a nominated director. On a successful night for the team behind Driving Miss Daisy, it was a real shame for Bruce Beresford to walk away empty handed.
7. The Little Film That Could (But Didn’t)
One of the most compelling documentaries of all time was 1994’s Hoop Dreams, a film following William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young men from inner city Chicago on their quest to make it in the NBA. Director Steve James initially planned to make a 30 minute short for PBS. What he wound up with after five years was 250 hours of footage, which he cut down to a three hour movie.
Hoop Dreams was an instant critical favorite and a surprising success for a documentary. Critic Owen Gleiberman called it “a movie with more passion and suspense than most dramatic features.” The film wound up earning nearly $12 million at the box office.
When the time came to campaign for the Academy Awards, Fine Line Features went for broke. The studio sent letters to Academy members asking them to consider the documentary for Best Picture. Later on, Fine Line Features head Ira Deutchman admitted that the studio didn’t actually think voters would nominate the film for Best Picture, but he was surprised at how many voters he had heard from who said they would consider it.
However, when the Academy released the nominations, Hoop Dreams was nowhere to be found in the Documentary category (though it did pick up a nod for Best Editing). Many considered the omission to be the biggest injustice of the awards season. One journalist referred to the Academy’s failure to nominate Hoop Dreams as a “singularly unspeakable outrage,” and Oscar host David Letterman called the Academy out in a Top Ten list during the broadcast.
The Best Documentary award that year went to a film about the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The winning documentary’s director just happened to be a former chair of the Academy’s Documentary Committee. Hoop Dreams’ omission led the Academy to reexamine its procedures for nominating documentaries. But it was too little too late for Fine Line Features.
6. Second Best Director?
On Oscar night in 1973, two of the previous year’s greatest films competed neck-and-neck throughout the night. For the most part, 1972’s Oscar race came down to the dynastic sweep of The Godfather versus the intentionally tawdry musical Cabaret.
At first, it looked like no contest: by the time the Best Director presentation rolled around, Cabaret had won six statuettes, while The Godfather had none. Director George Stephens and Julie Andrews gave the Best Director award to Cabaret’s Bob Fosse over Francis Ford Coppola while a stunned audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looked on. Venerable columnist Army Archerd later wrote that the “biggest gasp from the Academy members — and guests — greeted the announcement.”
Thirty-nine years after that Oscar show, I can’t help but wonder what the voters were thinking giving Cabaret eight awards — the most to a non-Best Picture winner at that time — to The Godfather’s three.
5. Al Pacino’s Lifetime Achievement — I Mean, Best Actor — Award
The Academy has a strange history of neglecting iconic actors then giving them awards for lesser roles later on in their careers. They’re almost like lifetime achievement trophies disguised as competitive awards.
We’ve seen it so many times. Henry Fonda deserved his Best Actor win for On Golden Pond in 1982, but Oscar passed him over so many times and that year was literally his last chance to win. Paul Newman’s Oscar for 1986’s The Color Of Money felt like a consolation prize because he failed to win for so many better performances (and because the Academy gave him a lifetime achievement award the year before).
The most obvious case of this phenomenon was Al Pacino’s Best Actor win in 1993. Pacino, of course, was one of the most memorable actors of the 1970s, giving a string of electrifying performances and receiving six Oscar nominations prior to 1992. Pacino received two nominations that year — Best Actor for Scent Of A Woman and Best Supporting Actor for David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. He lost the latter to Gene Hackman, but he won in the Best Actor category.
Pacino’s win seems like too little too late because Scent Of A Woman was largely a critical failure — in spite of garnering four Academy Award nods. One writer went so far as to call it a “cheap, dull, and loathsome waste of film” and noted that “the only feeling it arouses is a torrential rage.”
Honestly, it just seems as though the Academy was making up for lost time giving Pacino the Best Actor after so many iconic performances — including one in the Best Supporting Actor category that same year.
4. It’s Hard Out Here For A What?
Sometimes it’s painful to watch the Academy try to be hip and pay attention to trends. In the 2000s, Oscar embraced hip-hop — twice. In 2003, Eminem won Best Song for “Lose Yourself” from the film 8 Mile, and it was a good choice.
Three years later, the Academy honored another rap song, and the choice left millions scratching their heads. The Best Song of 2005, according to the Academy, was “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” from the movie Hustle & Flow. Yes, that’s right. From now until the end of time, the rap trio Three-6 Mafia can refer to themselves as Oscar winners.
Over at Big Hollywood, Kurt Schlichter put it best when he said:
For once, the saccharine Disney ditties and the generic pop hits were thrust aside in favor of a gritty urban tune that finally dared to musically explore the difficulties that industrious entrepreneurs face in their daily lives. Yeah, nothing like a song we can all relate to.
I wonder how many Academy members — who I’m sure had a great laugh when they voted for Three-6 Mafia — regretted their smartass choice for Best Song that year.
3. The Worst Awards Show Of All Time
The Academy left the 61st annual ceremony in the hands of producer Allan Carr, best known for producing Grease and Can’t Stop The Music and discovering such diverse celebrities as Olivia Newton-John, Mark Hamill, and Steve Guttenberg. Carr was also known for throwing lavish parties, and the Academy hoped his touch would liven the ceremony.
Carr promised “the antithesis of tacky,” and he put his clout to use to lure as many famous names as possible to present awards. He went with a host-free format for the show and grouped presenters into categories he named “costars,” “couples,” and “compadres.” One of his innovations still stands today — he traded the traditional announcement of “and the winner is…” to “and the Oscar goes to…”
The broadcast opened with actress Eileen Bowman portraying Snow White, dressed in sequins and singing with a screechy voice. This number led into Merv Griffin performing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts” while stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s sat at tables in a nightclub setting. After Griffin, Snow White was back, this time duetting with Rob Lowe on a medley of “Proud Mary” and “Hooray For Hollywood,” both with revised lyrics.
Before viewers saw the first award presentation, three addresses followed the opening number, including one by Lily Tomlin, who opined:
More than a billion and a half people watched that. And at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it.
Carr chose not to allow the three Best Song nominees to perform on the broadcast, but he made room for film clip montages devoted to tap dancing, movie musicals, and — ironically enough — performances of previous Best Song winners.
The show featured yet another lengthy production number, this one featuring the stars of “young Hollywood.” Titled “I Want To Be An Oscar Winner,” the performance included Patrick Demspey, Ricki Lake, Christian Slater, and Corey Feldman, along with 15 others. One critic cracked that the number “inspired no confidence in Hollywood’s future.”
All in all, the show took a major critical drubbing, and the attacks started practically as soon as the broadcast ended. Carr testily defended his production, but after the hits he took, he kept a low profile until his death in 1999. The ceremony was such a laughingstock that Walt Disney Studios threatened to sue the Academy and Carr. The next year when Billy Crystal was named host, he remarked at a press conference that “a Snow White piñata would be a good idea.”
The 1989 Academy Awards have taken their rightful place in history as the worst awards show of all time.
2. I Wonder If Academy Members Ever Suffer From Voters’ Remorse?
Most Oscar winners accept theirs with grace and class. Others wind up giving boring speeches, reading lists of names off a piece of paper. And then there are the winners who personify everything wrong with the Academy Awards. I’m looking at you, Roberto Benigni.
The Italian actor-director-writer released a film in 1998 titled Life Is Beautiful. It was a comedy set in a concentration camp. A Holocaust comedy. Just let that sink in.
I’ll defer to Schlichter again:
This award was so manifestly undeserved that it made President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize seem as underwhelming as a third place middle school science fair ribbon tossed at Albert Einstein.
Someone told Roberto Benigni a terrible lie – that he was amusing. In fact, he is the most annoying performer in the entire history of cinema…
Oddly enough, the Academy fell for Benigni’s schtick hook, line, and sinker. Perhaps it’s their peculiar obsession with the Holocaust, or maybe Benigni somehow charmed the voters. Either way, this obnoxious fool walked away with statuettes for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film.
Benigni’s acceptance speeches were truly bizarre. Take a look.
Fortunately for us, Benigni faded back into the obscurity he deserves. Unfortunately for us, the Academy can’t take his Oscars back.
1. The Least Deserving Best Picture Of All Time
Sometimes the Academy Awards go to the most hyped movies instead of those films that are most deserving. Take The English Patient for example. Or American Beauty. Or Out Of Africa. Or Dances With Wolves. You get the idea.
The biggest example of this phenomenon is a film that’s a sacred cow for some people, but it’s truly the most undeserving Best Picture winner of them all. I’m talking about Forrest Gump.
The premise of Forrest Gump is ridiculous. A mentally deficient man with a bad haircut and even worse Southern accent manages to find himself among all the important events of the mid-20th century, stopping to spout off inane sayings here and there. Don’t get me wrong — the special effects are great, but Forrest Gump is a picture I literally could only watch once. It’s that bad. Why this movie is so well-loved is beyond me.
And Tom Hanks for Best Actor? As an actor, Hanks is a national treasure, but his performance in Forrest Gump is horrid. The Academy should’ve saved his second Oscar for Apollo 13.
The six awards that Forrest Gump won look even more ludicrous next to the film’s competition — specifically Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Can anyone honestly tell me that this:
is better than this:
It’s painfully obvious that Forrest Gump was the least deserving Best Picture of all time.
(Author’s note: I couldn’t have written this post without tremendous help and inspiration from two books: Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona and Inside Oscar 2 by Bona. Both books are absolute must-haves for awards show junkies and movie history buffs like me.)
April 23, 2012:
6. Ten Bands That Define Southern Rock
I’ve always been a fan of Southern Rock. I grew up about halfway between Atlanta and Athens — two Georgia cities with vibrant music scenes, and over the years I’ve found myself drawn to the music of this colorful region of the country.
Though much early rock music originated in the South, a subgenre emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s — a melding of rock, country, and blues that earned the name Southern Rock. The themes of regional pride, wanderlust, and hardship are as prevalent in Southern Rock as the universal themes of love and loss, and many modern Southern Rockers have tried to come to grips with the South’s sometimes difficult and painful history.
Today, Southern Rock is far from monolithic — in fact, there’s something for just about everybody. The genre covers ground as varied as the region itself, from storytellers like Shawn Mullins and Bill Mallonee, to jam bands like Widespread Panic and the Derek Trucks Band, to the soulful stylings of artists like Mother’s Finest, Ashley Cleveland, and Alabama Shakes, to the new Southern sounds of bands like Kings of Leon and The Features. Even Christian bands like Third Day and Needtobreathe have managed to successfully cultivate a Southern Rock sound.
Here’s my list of ten bands that define Southern Rock. I don’t intend for this to necessarily be the most comprehensive list, nor do I mean to imply that these bands are the absolute best of the genre. My main criterion was to limit the list to bands that originated in the South — that’s why you won’t see bands like The Eagles, Poco, Ram Jam, or Bad Company on the list, even though they may well deserve to be. I also didn’t include solo artists on the list.
With all that said, enjoy the list!
In the early ’70s, a group of seasoned studio musicians made the move from Florida to Doraville, “a little bit of country in the city,” (so the song goes) just outside of Atlanta. They forged a uniquely soulful style and quickly became the party band of choice throughout their adopted hometown. Unforgettable hits like “So Into You” and “Imaginary Lover,” made them more than just a regional phenomenon. Their music provided the soundtrack for the youth of a growing Southern city, and a few of their songs have gone on to become staples of classic-rock radio. (Essential listening: “Doraville,” “Champagne Jam,” “So Into You”)
Hootie & The Blowfish spent years traveling throughout the South, honing their skills on the college circuit. In 1994, they teamed up with Don Gehman to record Cracked Rear View, creating an album of brilliant rock with a true Southern flair, a pattern they followed, more or less, for the next few years. Their guys-next-door accessibility put a pop patina on their sound, and their exploration of Southern themes (more so on the album cuts than on the singles) and celebration of their influences (especially on 2000′s Scattered, Smothered, & Covered) renders their Southern-ness undeniable. The fact that they were a racially integrated band in the unfortunately fragmented world of modern radio shouldn’t go without mentioning, and of course it’s interesting to note that lead singer Darius Rucker has gone on to become the first black artist since Charley Pride to top the country charts. (Essential listening: “Hold My Hand,” “She Crawls Away,” “Gravity Of The Situation”)
8. ZZ Top
Texas trio ZZ Top formed in 1970 with musicians who had grown up on a steady diet of Texas music. The band made a name for themselves as a gritty blues combo, grinding out tight riffs and catchy tunes, but as the ’80s dawned, ZZ Top decided to embrace the changing times. Adding synthesizers to the mix and making memorable videos, ZZ Top experienced greater mainstream success than they ever had before. Throw in a unique look — long beards and spinning guitars — and you have the makings of a band destined to make a splash on MTV. As popular as their ’80s output has been, nothing can top the scruffy, bluesy, indelibly Texas rock ZZ Top released in the ’70s. It’s worth nothing that ZZ Top is one of the few bands out there with their original lineup intact after over 40 years — that’s no small feat in and of itself. (Essential listening: “Legs,” “La Grange,” “Sleeping Bag”)
R.E.M. came along at an exciting time in the history of what we now call alternative rock. The first wave of punk had subsided, and New Wave hadn’t quite caught on. It was the perfect time for R.E.M. to experiment with chiming guitars and lyrics that celebrated the mystery of the South. The band honed their sound at the University of Georgia (my alma mater) and played at soon-to-be legendary venues on the burgeoning Athens music scene — places with names like 40 Watt and The Georgia Theatre. Somewhere along the way they took on the title of the “Fathers of College Rock.” Over the years they achieved astounding success and made plenty of changes to their sound, but the graceful and gloriously weird Southern Rock they made in their early days still manages to elicit chills. (Essential listening: “Driver 8,” “Fall On Me,” “Imitation Of Life”)
No other modern band has captured the spirit of the hard-working, hard-living poor of the American South like Drive-By Truckers. My friend Trey Bailey calls their music “dirty Southern trailer park rawk,” and there may not be a more apt description. This is a band that has turned the plight of the stubborn, proud, underprivileged Southerner into an art form. (And, because of them, I never refer to what I’m wearing as an outfit.) One listen to any of their dark masterpiece albums will open up the world of the people of the South that writers, musicians, and filmmakers alike often overlook or make fun of. Drive-By Truckers have created fascinating songs, worthy of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Truly amazing stuff. (Essential listening: “Ronnie And Neil,” “Outfit,” “Never Gonna Change”)
South Carolina’s Marshall Tucker Band walked a fine line between several distinct musical styles — country, folk, rock, jazz, and jam-band — and synthesized them into their own unique Southern Rock sound. One can’t help but wonder whose idea it was to invite the flute player into the band, but the flute somehow manages to add to the band’s unique flair. The band honed their craft in the early 1970′s, in a rehearsal hall owned by, you guessed it, Marshall Tucker, until they became a tight unit, crafting a sound that included long jams, expert musicianship, and Doug Gray’s vocals, which sound like a cross between Waylon and Willie. Their well-known songs, such as “Heard It In A Love Song,” “Fire On The Mountain,” and “Can’t You See,” tell only part of the story: other songs like “This Ol’ Cowboy” travel across multiple musical styles while still sounding like Southern Rock. Oh yeah, and the flute never really sounds out of place. (Essential listening: “Heard It In A Love Song,” “Take The Highway,” “This Ol’ Cowboy”)
When they think of The Charlie Daniels Band, most music fans immediately remember “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and maybe even “In America,” the band’s two biggest Hot 100 hits. CDB have been even more successful on the country charts, and they definitely walk the country line of Southern Rock. Daniels is more than just a virtuoso fiddle player and vocalist — he also wields a mean guitar and has played alongside some of the biggest names in music. Daniels fearlessly speaks out about what he believes in — God, love of country, Southern pride, and freedom — and he and the band have never shied away from exploring these themes in their music. Daniels barely allowed a 2010 stroke to slow him down, and after 50 years of hits on the pop, rock, country, and Christian charts, the Charlie Daniels Band is still going strong. (Essential listening: “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” “Still In Saigon,” “The South’s Gonna Do It Again”)
Rolling Stone once called this band “the most ‘rock & roll’ rock & roll band alive,” and they deserve a place on this list for “Remedy” and ”She Talks To Angels” alone. The Black Crowes look and play as if they just walked out of some kind of 1970′s time warp. All the elements of vintage Southern Rock are there: blistering guitars, soaring B-3 and electric piano, gospel-styled female backing vocals. Those elements set the stage for Chris Robinson’s fiery, soulful vocals to unfurl like some gritty banshee. Chris and his brother Rich feuded with the best (or worst?) of rock & roll brothers, and the band’s flashy showmanship and fiery passion caused critics and record buyers to take notice. The road they’ve traveled is littered with great rock & roll stories and even more incredible songs. (Essential listening: “She Talks To Angels,” “Remedy,” “Kickin’ My Heart Around”)
Everybody knows “Sweet Home Alabama” and (yell it) “Freebird.” Everybody knows about the plane crash. Their story is almost as legendary as it is true. And yet, most people don’t realize what set Skynyrd apart from the other bands of the day, Southern Rock or not — the swagger and bravado of the late Ronnie Van Zandt. Blues and country influences, a whopping three guitarists, and Billy Powell’s perfect boogie-woogie piano helped add to the distinctive sound as well. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music was largely about pride: pride in the South itself, pride in traditional values, pride in the band’s own ability to rock. Skynyrd gamely carries on today, traveling much of the same musical territory as 35 years ago, but the near mythic status of Ronnie Van Zandt and a showstopping, powerful band is a tall shadow to stand in. (Essential listening: “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man,” “Workin’ For MCA”)
No band in Southern Rock history has had the staying power or the unique ability to transcend genre as the Allman Brothers Band has. Often sliding into country, sometimes stretching into blues, usually jamming live, turning songs into 20-minute opuses, the band touches on all the conventions of the Southern Rock genre without turning them into cliches. They’ve weathered the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, only to emerge stronger and more successful. They have featured distinct vocals by Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, and later Warren Haynes, and have still managed to create a sound that is largely consistent and mostly excellent. They still put on an amazing live show — with two drummers! For forty years and counting, the Allman Brothers Band has defined and redefined Southern Rock genre, making it better, not by polishing it, but by highlighting the rough edges of rock. (Essential listening: “Jessica,” “Blue Sky,” “Whippin’ Post”)
So there’s my list. My hope is that you’ll discover some music you haven’t heard before or dig a little deeper into the artists you already love. Southern Rock is such a vast genre of music that even the most casual listener is bound to find something he or she can really enjoy.
7. Five Scenarios You Can Always Expect on Hell’s Kitchen
As much as I love television series with intricate plots, thought-provoking writing, and nuanced acting, when summer rolls around I find myself drawn to programming that’s, well, less mentally stimulating. That’s right — my summer TV viewing drifts toward reality shows.
Since its debut in 2005, I’ve loved Hell’s Kitchen. The show’s tenth season airs on Fox at 8:00 Monday and Tuesday nights. Renowned chef Gordon Ramsay serves as host and judge, as well as a strange combination of mentor and drill sergeant. Ramsay puts challenges to his competitors each week with his controversial, abrasive style as the aspiring chefs fight for a sweet gig as head chef at a new 5-Star restaurant.
The contestants on Hell’s Kitchen display true passion and come from all walks of life. In the first few seasons the aspiring chefs seemed as earnest as they were talented and eager, but in latter seasons, the producers wised up to what reality viewers really want: soap-opera-style drama! This season viewers would be hard-pressed to find many contestants capable of running a restaurant kitchen. The would-be head chefs spend too much time smoking, drinking, partying, and fighting to appear serious as a head chef.
As entertaining as it is, Hell’s Kitchen comes across as pretty coarse viewing, especially when looking at its companion show, the far more refined and inspiring MasterChef, which also features Ramsay and airs immediately following Hell’s Kitchen. The censor on Hell’s Kitchen earns his keep, as profanity flies generously from both Ramsay and the contestants.
Like so many other summer television shows, Hell’s Kitchen is also pretty predictable. Viewers know exactly what to expect, which adds to the series’ entertainment value. Here’s a list counting down five scenarios that viewers can always expect to see without fail during Hell’s Kitchen.
Viewers can count on lopsided challenge wins by one team during a season of Hell’s Kitchen. Watching one team triumph in nearly every challenge, enjoying lavish rewards while the losers endure disgusting, humilating punishments has turned into a Hell’s Kitchen tradition. Dominance by one team appears to be even more prominent in the early stages of the season, but it happens all season long nonetheless.
This season, the red team — comprised solely of women — has won nearly every challenge Chef Ramsay can cook up, much to the consternation of the men on the blue team. Whether the challenges involve individual efforts or teamwork, the red team has managed to come out on top most of the time, often overcoming poor decision-making. The blue team is so unused to victory that they meet their rare wins with an attitude that resembles relief. It takes a combination of talent, teamwork, and luck to win the challenges, and the red team looks to have the formula down pat.
4. Teams Make A Mockery Of Unity
The teams on Hell’s Kitchen lack the key needed for success: unity. The infighting and name calling never cease, even on the most successful teams. One team or another can pull themselves together to win a challenge or finish a dinner service and then tear each other apart in the dorms.
As successful as they are in challenges — and often at dinner services — the red team epitomizes disunity. One minute Barbie and Tiffany go at each others’ throats, and the next Kimmie and Robyn shout each other down.
In fact, much of the conflict within the red team centered around Robyn until Chef Ramsay moved her to the decimated blue team. By contrast, the blue team usually gets over their conflict much more quickly.
3. (Self-Professed) Expert Chefs Commit Rookie Mistakes
For the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen to think of themselves as seasoned professionals, they sure do make plenty of rookie mistakes. Perhaps it’s the pressure of working with Gordon Ramsay, or the stress of having one’s fate judged on national television, but you can set your watch by the fact that at least one aspiring head chef will make some kind of boneheaded error that should be beyond the training and skill set of a professional cook.
Anyone could expect that some of the more demanding dishes would throw a chef off his or her game — Beef Wellington alone ought to make even the coolest cook break out in a cold sweat. But it’s some of the simplest dishes that confound these contestants: things like cooking a proper steak or making a risotto that is suitable for fine dining. Scallops have become a particular Achilles’ heel for this season’s contestants, and I’ve seen a depressing number of poorly cooked ones go in the trash bins all season long.
Many of the chefs make the same mistakes over and over again, which brings up the question: why does Chef Ramsay put up with it? If I were him, I’d have scrapped nearly all this season’s contestants and replaced them with new ones!
2. Mistake-Prone Chefs Exhibit Laughable Arrogance
It takes a certain measure of cockiness to make it as a chef, but rarely before has primetime seen such a display of needless arrogance as that on Hell’s Kitchen, especially this season. To hear the chefs tell the tale, their skills surpass that of any cook that has come before. The Bible says, “pride goes before destruction,” and — wouldn’t you know it — often one competitor or another utters some ridiculously cocky pronouncement right before Chef Ramsay cleans his clock.
This season’s worst offender hands down has been Royce. All season long, he has promised “Rolls Royce service” — a groan-worthy pun, but par for the course for this guy — but he has failed to deliver more often than not. He displays his arrogance in the most laughable ways.
Mercifully, Chef Ramsay let Royce go last week.
1. At Least One Competitor Flies Under the Radar
Year in and year out, we watch so many of the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen make fools of themselves with idiotic mistakes, while others shine as excellent chefs. Curiously, there’s one competitor — sometimes more than one, but usually only one — who flies under the radar until the final stages of the season.
This cook will often fail to distinguish himself or herself and simply fade into the background; in fact, we viewers sometimes forget that he or she even existed. Often, this under-the-radar behavior actually stems from unusual teamwork skills, or he or she may be a diamond emerging from the rough at just the right time.
Justin and Christina both have what it takes to be this season’s under-the-radar competitor. Justin hasn’t distinguished himself much as an exceptional cook (which may sound like an insult, but keep reading), but he hasn’t borne the brunt of Chef Ramsay’s ire either. Rather, he proves himself as a capable chef and team player week in and week out, and he demonstrates staying power. Christina has emerged as both a leader and a voice of reason on the red team. Both of these two should turn into forces to be reckoned with as the contestants are picked off one by one.
Some wags may argue that Hell’s Kitchen represents everything that’s wrong with summer television, and I reply, “so what?” Predictable? I suppose. Trashy? Sure. Mind-numbing? You bet! Hell’s Kitchen epitomizes summer viewing in that it’s unashamed, unadulterated fun, with no thinking involved. That’s why I keep coming back to it this time every year.
8. Walt Disney’s Fascinating Political Journey
The Man Behind The Mouse underwent a political transition from naive socialist cartoonist to staunch conservative mogul.
We tend to think of Hollywood as a bastion of leftism, and rightly so. Books like Ron Radosh’s Red Star Over Hollywood demonstrate the deep-seated left-wing dominance of the entertainment industry. Even with the leftism prevalent in Hollywood’s Golden Age, many unabashed conservatives found success without compromising their principles, including one of the most creative minds in the business — Walt Disney.
Several biographers and writers that I’ve read have tried to declare that Walt Disney was apolitical, but I find this conclusion not to be true. Diane Disney Miller once said that her father was “kind of a strange figure” politically, and Walt admitted his own political naiveté:
A long time ago, I found out that I knew nothing whatsoever about this game of politics and since then I’ve preferred to keep silent about the entire matter rather than see my name attached to any statement that was not my own.
But plenty of people surrounding Walt Disney knew the truth: that he was conservative to his core. Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” said that Walt’s right-leaning politics made him uncomfortable and that politics drove a rift in their friendship in Disney’s later years. Radical writer Maurice Rapf, who worked on several Disney films, including Song of the South, said, “He was very conservative except in one particular — he was a very strong environmentalist.” However, Walt Disney’s conservatism did not manifest itself until after he had been a businessman for several years.
Walt Disney’s early exposure to politics came from his father, Elias, who was a Socialist — in particular, he followed the philosophy of J. A. Wayland. Wayland created a unique strain of Prairie Socialism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Daniel J. Flynn, in his book A Conservative History of the American Left, tells of how Wayland “reached Americans with the message [of Socialism] that had been heretofore explained in a German, Yiddish, or Russian accent, but never with a Bible-belt twang.”
Wayland’s newspaper, Appeal to Reason, “was folksy” and “reached the common man’s ears but irritated the intellectual’s.” Elias Disney subscribed to Appeal to Reason, and Walt remembered cutting his teeth as an artist by copying the cartoons. Walt said he “could draw cartoons of ‘Capital’ and ‘Labor’ pretty good, the big fat capitalist with the money with his foot on the neck of the laboring man with the little cap on his head.”
Elias Disney voted for Progressive William Jennings Bryan and Socialist Eugene Debs in presidential elections, despite being an entrepreneur and employer. Walt believed that he learned from his father how to be a friend of the working man, and he claimed to carry that belief even after his journey rightward.
As Walt moved into his thirties and became established in Hollywood and influence by his brother, his politics began to change. He told one writer:
In the election of 1936, I just couldn’t go Republican. … Roy and I split. Roy went Republican and I voted for Roosevelt. By 1940 and everything that happened in the next four years, I was right back on the other bandwagon. I became a [Wendell] Willkie man. He was a great man.
However, he stopped short of endorsing Willkie that year.
By 1941, unions began to organize many employees of the Disney Studios, and they went out on strike that May. The picket line struck a blow to the company’s fragile financial state at the time, and the strike hurt Walt personally. Though the employees who led the strike, animator Art Babbitt and layout artist Dave Hilberman, had communist leanings, most of the rank-and-file strikers did not. Nevertheless, both Roy and Walt Disney laid the blame for the strike at the feet of Communism. Roy admitted that he and Walt believed that “money was never the basic problem in this thing, as much as communism [sic].”
For Walt, the strike solidified his political transformation. He contrasted his father’s socialism (“I grew up believing a lot of that…”) with his own experiences as a businessman and employer (“…but I was disillusioned”). He came to terms with this disillusionment during the strike, and he said, “A lot of my dad’s socialistic ideas began to go out the window.”
Despite his strong anti-Communism, Walt rarely discriminated personally based on politics. As Michael Barrier puts it:
He was not an aggressive Red hunter; his conservatism had a strongly personal cast. An employee’s politics were not of any particular concern to him if that employee was not challenging him as Art Babbitt and Dave Hilberman had. Some of Disney’s employees, like Ward Kimball, flourished even though it was no secret that their politics were far more liberal than his. Maurice Rapf, who worked for Disney as a live-action screenwriter for two and a half years in the middle 1940s, was an extreme example. He wrote many years later that Disney “knew very well that I was a dedicated left-winger. He may have even known that I was a Communist.”
Even though in 1944 he declared himself an “independent voter” with “allegiance to no political party,” Walt publicly endorsed Republican Thomas Dewey for president. He gave a speech in support of Dewey, and even told someone, “I’m sorry I can only give money.” He allowed a Dewey rally to take place at the studios, and he served as one of Dewey’s electors from California. That same year, his fellow members of a new conservative organization in Hollywood called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals named him vice president.
Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness in October 1947. He gave an emotional testimony about the 1941 strike, recalling — to the point of breaking down in tears — how he believed the Communist influence on the strikers to be the reason they walked the picket line. He said, “I definitely feel it was a Communist group trying to take over my artists and they did take them over.”
In 1952, The Disney Studios produced a campaign spot for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican nominee for president. Eisenhower backer and cosmetics executive Jacqueline Cochran approached Roy O. Disney, who in turn talked his brother into creating an ad. Once advertising executive Rosser Reeves convinced Eisenhower to use the Disney spot along with other ads, he became the first presidential candidate to advertise on television. Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson would not deign to appear in any ads, as he thought it was beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate.
The Disney commercial features a parade of Americans marching — to the right, naturally — to the catchy tune “We’ll Take Ike (To Washington)” while a silhouetted figure, representing Stevenson, rides a donkey leftward. Winston Hibler, voice of the True Life Adventures series, provides narration.
[jwplayer config=”pjm_lifestyle” mediaid=”39287″]
A longer version of the spot included a confused animated voter seeking answers to the issues of the day. A live-action actor responds, and the voter decides to support “Ike.” The Disney-produced commercial ran more often than any other campaign ad, and supposedly it was the most popular ad that year. The Disney Studios never produced another political campaign ad.
Disney and Eisenhower became friends after the campaign. Walt served in Eisenhower’s “People to People” program during his second term, and the two men occasionally vacationed at Palm Spring’s Smoke Tree resort at the same time. In 1963, Eisenhower presented Walt with the George Washington Award for “communicating the hope and aspirations of our free society to the far corners of the planet.”
The most definitive proof that authors often cite of Walt Disney’s political leanings is a check from Walt’s personal account dated November 12, 1959, and made out to the Republican National Finance Committee.
That same year, Vice President Richard Nixon visited Disneyland to commemorate the opening of the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail. Nixon and Disney had become good friends by that time.
Once, Walt gave a speech in which he recalled an encounter with a policeman who gave him a ticket for making an illegal left turn. Apparently, the officer had cited Disney in the past for the same problem, and he suggested to Walt that he stick only to right turns. Walt replied that doing so would be easy because, in his own words, “I lean that way anyway.”
By 1964, Walt was firmly in the Republican camp with no apparent turning back. The golf cart he rode around the studio sported a noticeable “Vote for Goldwater” bumper sticker, and Disney talked actor George Murphy, another Republican, into running for Senate. Walt even put together a fundraising dinner for Murphy and allowed Murphy to use his likeness for a campaign mailing. Walt attended the Republican National Convention that year, where he had his picture taken with former President Eisenhower.
An incident from 1964 which reveals both Walt’s political leanings and his impish sense of humor involves his trip to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson, who was already in the heat of the 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Johnson presented the award to Disney on September 14, 1964.
Walt had a small gold button stud that had the letter “G” and the number “64” (signifying Goldwater in 1964) that would be under his left lapel and clearly visible only if he flipped it. He also asked for a much larger button clearly declaring “Vote for Goldwater,” so if anyone complained about his wearing the smaller pin, Walt would flash the larger button and ask, “Would you prefer if I wear this one instead?”
People who attended the ceremony recollected that Walt, with his back to the audience, did flip the lapel to show Johnson the small pin. Johnson was already aware of Walt’s fervent support for Goldwater from a phone conversation the president had with one of his advisors eight days before the ceremony. Johnson was not happy but didn’t say anything about it, and apparently there were no repercussions. With glee, Walt later told the story to others at the Disney Studios.
In 1966, Disney backed his friend Ronald Reagan in his successful campaign for governor of California. Reagan was one of the hosts for the television coverage of Disneyland’s opening in 1955, and, like Walt, he had undergone a left-to-right conversion during the New Deal era. Of course, we know where Reagan went after he served as California’s governor.
Oddly enough, in the last year or so of his life, Disney said to his daughter Diane, “You know, I consider myself a true liberal.” Whether his statement reveals his political naiveté or whether he was thinking of the classical notion of liberalism remains a mystery.
Walt Disney may have not been the most politically educated man of his day, but I don’t believe he was truly apolitical. Rather, I think he held a set of core beliefs dear to his heart and that, by and large, they coincide with conservative, Judeo-Christian values. Over the next few weeks, I’m setting out to prove my theory. Stay tuned as I demonstrate how certain values show up throughout the Disney canon.
9. Walt Disney’s Optimistic Futurism
“I say believe in the future, the world is getting better; there are lots of possibilities.” — Walt Disney
Many visions of the future — from 1984 to Silent Spring to Blade Runner to After Earth — lead us to believe a bleak, gray-skied world awaits. The prevailing theme of dystopian futurists is that we and the generations to follow are going to destroy our society or our planet because of our greed. Most futurists view the world through a cynical, grim prism, and optimistic futurists come few and far between. One of them left his mark on the world in a most indelible way — Walt Disney.
When many people think of Disney they feel nostalgia, fantasy, and escapism, but in reality, Walt possessed a strong vision for making the future better than the present. He believed that technology and free enterprise held the key to a positive future.
Walt’s futuristic dreams began to manifest themselves in the science-fiction-crazy 1950s. On the Disneyland television series, he devoted entire episodes to the conquest of space, landing on the moon, going beyond the moon, and using satellites to improve life on Earth. He and director Ward Kimball worked with leading scientific lights such as Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley to create diagrams and dramatizations of potential space travel that even predate NASA — and what ended up on the screen resembled actual space travel in surprising ways!
When Walt opened Disneyland in 1955, the Tomorrowland area of the park took place in 1986! For Disney and the Imagineers, the future was wide open and buzzed with a kinetic energy. New and innovative transportation systems made their debut there. The Disneyland Monorail was unlike anything guests had seen. The WEDWay People Mover, which we now call the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, employed linear induction technology to move guests around quietly and using only electricity. Both transportation systems leave a unique impression on guests even today.
When the organizers of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair approached Disney about developing exhibits, Walt saw the fair as an opportunity to show how thrilling the future could be. One exhibit in particular, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, took a look at the technological innovations of the past and dared to glance at what technology can do for the future. Richard and Robert Sherman provided the soundtrack for the attraction with their giddily optimistic tune “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” The attraction moved to Walt Disney World in the 1970s and underwent a few changes. The Carousel of Progress still spins today at the Magic Kingdom.
As the sprawl of metropolitan Los Angeles closed in on Disneyland’s landlocked space, Walt sought to take his grand futuristic visions to the next level. He wanted to solve the problem of tacky urban blight, and he sought “the blessing of size” to allow those dreams to become a reality. The company stealthily bought up 33 square miles of land in central Florida for his most ambitious idea yet, and it encompassed more than just a theme park:
I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.
But where do we begin? How do we start answering this great challenge? Well, we’re convinced we must start with the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community.
Of course, the Florida Project would include a theme park, modeled after Disneyland but having its own distinct character and flavor. But the jewel in the crown of the Florida Project was a model city Walt called EPCOT — Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. This community would include a climate-controlled, vibrant downtown area under a glass dome and a pedestrian friendly suburban space with monorails and People Movers to shuttle residents back and forth throughout the city and to the theme park. Disney would invite the best and brightest of American industry to build plants there and test their products among residents.
In October 1966, Walt himself outlined the concept in his last appearance on film, The Epcot Film:
Yes, the EPCOT idea sounds too good to be true, and, sadly, it died with Walt in December 1966. After Walt Disney passed away, the Imagineers didn’t really know how far to go with his vision of a planned community. Walt’s brother Roy tabled the idea altogether, and the company focused on the theme park, which became Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
The Magic Kingdom itself boasted some futuristic innovations: a pneumatic trash collection system, a series of underground tunnels for cast member use, new ride and parade control programs, and a filtration project that used water hyacinths to clean wastewater. One of the hotels, the Contemporary Resort, embodied sleek, futuristic design. Disney even put the monorail system and the People Movers to use in Florida.
Eleven years after the Magic Kingdom’s debut, EPCOT finally opened, albeit in a much different format. The Imagineers under the leadership of Disney CEO Card Walker chose to keep the spirit of EPCOT alive within the structure of a second theme park in Florida.
One half of the park celebrated the cultures of the world, with native college students working in painstaking replicas of their country’s most beautiful areas, while the other half looked to the future, identifying problems in our world and devising innovative solutions. The company made certain to the public that EPCOT Center (as it was known in its early days) was a theme park unlike any other.
EPCOT Center’s attractions continued to display Walt’s vision of a thrilling future through human cooperation, industry, and capitalism (most of the attractions had corporate sponsors). Spaceship Earth celebrates how communication can bring people together. Universe of Energy explores alternatives to fossil fuels. Horizons looked at exciting possibilities for the 21st century. World of Motion examined transportation. Journey into Imagination takes a glance at creativity. The Land analyzes man’s relationship to the land around him and demonstrates new farming techniques. The Living Seas contains what was at the time of its opening the world’s largest aquarium. Though the park sometimes took its subject matter too seriously in the early days, the Imagineers have added humor and whimsy to many of the attractions over the years.
So, where does Walt Disney’s brand of optimistic futurism stand today? You can still see it best in the parks. The Carousel of Progress still runs in Florida’s Tomorrowland, and, though it’s a bit dated, the attraction still has its followers. Innoventions at Epcot and Disneyland highlight new technologies and ideas that are just around the corner. Spaceship Earth, The Land, and The Living Seas have undergone changes that reflect changing times and new Disney characters, while Journey into Imagination and Universe of Energy desperately need updating. Mission: SPACE and Test Track have replaced Horizons and World of Motion, respectively. The town of Celebration, Florida, just south of the parks and resorts, represents the closest thing to Walt’s urban vision, yet it is still a more traditional town. Though the Imagineers have tempered some of the more naive aspects of Walt’s vision, they have remained quite true to his idea of futurism.
Walt Disney’s friend Ray Bradbury — no stranger to futurism himself – once spoke about Disney’s legacy of optimistic futurism:
Everyone in the world will come to these gates. Why? Because they want to look at the world of the future. They want to see how to make better human beings. That’s what the whole thing is about. The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World and Epcot, then indeed the world can be a better place.
Bradbury got it right. Cynics will always find something negative to look to about the future. The world around us can make us jaded about what may be in store for us. But when I walk through the gates of Walt Disney World — especially Epcot — I sense a palpable excitement about what can be in the future. Give me the optimistic futurism of Walt Disney over cynicism and grimness any day.
10. Hollywood’s Terrible Southern Accent Syndrome
For years, the town where I grew up – and where I still live – has succumbed to Hollywood fever. Since 1955, television and film crews have called Covington, GA home. I have fond memories of five-year-old me standing on the corner in front of the pharmacy where my mom worked (next door to where I work now) with her and her boss watching cars race down the street over and over again. The chase scene was part of a pilot for a little new show called The Dukes of Hazzard. The show filmed its first season here before going back to Hollywood.
Years later, I appeared as an extra, along with the rest of my high school chorus, in an episode of In the Heat of the Night, (that’s me, second from the left on the back row in the video below) which filmed its six seasons in Covington. The library where I worked doubled as the police station, and we would remain open on filming days while the actors would come inside and talk with us in between takes. Currently, The Vampire Diaries films here, and the atmosphere on filming days buzzes with electricity. A local couple makes thousands of dollars every month giving tours to fans who call themselves Vampire Stalkers.
Our town has been the stage for Oscar winners (My Cousin Vinny‘s Marissa Tomei and a short called The Accountant) and Emmy winners (Carroll O’Connor of In the Heat of the Night). Celebrities as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Amy Grant, and Denzel Washington have passed in front of the cameras in our town. Needless to say, we longtime Covington residents are used to show business.
Covington isn’t that unique. Production companies film all over the South – and have done so for years. So why is it that, most any time a character from the South opens his or her mouth on television or film, the accent that comes out is terrible?
For those of y’all who don’t know, the South is a diverse region – a melting pot in the truest sense of the phrase. From one region to the next – and even from town to town – you’ll find unique cultures. The same goes for dialects. At Slice of Hope, Tim Knight points out the diversity of Southern accents:
Of course, there isn’t just one southern accent, just like there isn’t just one Texas accent. A person from Georgia is going to sound very different from a guy from Mississippi or a person from South Carolina. And if you’re from Florida, well, you probably don’t sound like anything special at all.
But one thing is for sure. Any authentic southern accent, no matter what the state, wasn’t created at Warner Brothers.
I don’t know where Hollywood producers and casting agents have experienced the South. Perhaps they’ve only visited the beaches in Florida, where no one has a Southern accent, or maybe the Atlanta airport, where one can find approximately 3,500 different accents. Either way, Hollywood doesn’t seem to grasp the differences in accents.
You see, to Hollywood, the South has two basic dialects, which I’ll call the White Trash accent and the Old South accent. In this clip from The Office, Atlanta native Ed Helms demonstrates both inflections perfectly:
Both accents are useful for Hollywood. Producers often use them to enforce stereotypes. The Old South accent – which you can still hear in my grandparents’ and even my parent’s generations – is meant to suggest refinement on the surface but in Hollywood represents someone who looks down on everyone else or hides a bigoted past just beneath the surface. The White Trash accent twangs it up to the extreme and is useful for portraying rubes and stupid hicks. As a matter of fact, I cringe every time a dumb character comes on screen in a sitcom – almost inevitably he or she will speak with an overdone Southern drawl.
So, who are the worst violators? On internet forums and in my own informal polling, consensus offenders include Dan Aykroyd in Driving Miss Daisy, much of the cast of HBO’s True Blood, and Nicolas Cage in just about any role that requires him to use a Southern accent. Personally, I find Tom Hanks’ drawl in Forrest Gump (White Trash Exhibit A) detestable, but the absolute worst accents belong to two cast members in the North & South miniseries. Teri Garber takes the Old South dialect to new lows, and Philip Casnoff could have singlehandedly destroyed the South with whatever that is coming out of his mouth:
Don’t get me wrong – you can find some good Southern accents from time to time. Jessica Tandy nailed the Old Atlanta speech patterns in Driving Miss Daisy (though she loses points for mispronouncing some Atlanta place names). More recent television series like Friday Night Lights and Nashville feature really good accents among their actors. Native Southerners like Kyle Chandler and Nick Searcy do their region proud.
So where do all the bad dialects come from? Hollywood often doesn’t bother to find accents that truly represent the South basically because they don’t really care about Southerners. We live in what they call “flyover country” between the coasts. Hollywood has developed its neat stereotypes of us, and its denizens aren’t interested in finding out if they’re even true.
If Hollywood ever wants the real thing, they should come down here and experience the South – not just as a filming location, but as a culture to respect and enjoy. They would find a varied, beautiful way of life and amazing people. Come on, Hollywood: we’d be glad to show y’all around!