BACKSTORY (August 9, 2009): Two panel discussions occurred to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of The Mansion; one held at the Grand Californian Hotel and one held during the dinner served over in California Adventure. The first discussion had Tony Baxter, Kim Irvine, and Jason Surrell (Imagineer and author of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies).
Kim showed up in full face makeup as Madame Leota, with her blond hair teased out appropriately. She truly does resemble her mother (the original Madame Leota, Imagineer Leota Toombs). Most touching part of the discussion was hearing Kim talk about her mother, whose voice as Madame Leota was dubbed by actress Eleanor Audley. Leota’s actual higher-pitched voice can be heard at the end of the attraction, where she acted and spoke for herself as Little Leota, the ethereal bridal figure that repeats "Hurry Back.” Kim said that when she went on the attraction with her children, she would always point to "Grandma" at the end of the ride. When Madame Leota had to be re-created for the Nightmare Before Christmas Holiday overlay at Disneyland, Kim stood in for her mother. With advancements in life-mask creation, the detail of Kim's head turned out to be much more lifelike than the one created 40 years ago from her mother's face. When the original film of her mother was projected onto her (Kim's) life-mask, it was a perfect fit because of the similar bone structure between mother and daughter. So when you enter the seance room, it is Kim’s head in the crystal ball year-round with her mother's face projected onto the head during the off-holiday season. Kim discussed the process at both lectures and how her head was put in a brace so that it wouldn't move while being filmed for the Seance projection; at the 2nd lecture, she let the audience know that her mom came home from the process and told her that X Atencio tied her hair to the chair when she did it; what a kinky bunch those early Imagineers must have been! Kim was once recognized by a woman who asked her if she was the woman in the Seance room at the Mansion; when Kim replied "yes," the woman said, "Don't you get tired of sitting under that table with your head in that crystal ball all day long?" Kim had many other fond memories of her mother (as well as a large blow-up of an opening day photo with her mom) and was proud to be carrying on the tradition of working at Disney.
The stage also had a photo of Leota with Claude Coats, the other very influencial Imagineer who worked on The Haunted Mansion and was a huge mentor to Tony Baxter.Jason shared a story told to him by Rolly Crump about Marc Davis & small world. Apparently during one of the initial test ride-throughs, Marc told Walt that he noticed Luxembourg was missing in the line-up of countries. Walt acknowledged Marc's comment but things continued. After about the third time that Marc brought it up, Walt lifted the one eyebrow and told Marc that nobody gave a s&*t about Luxembourg. Apologies to all my readers from Luxembourg.
There were the usual digs about the Eddie Murphy "The Haunted Mansion" movie and Tony trotted out his Hatbox Ghost stories for the umpteenth time. Still, it was very refreshing to hear Tony breathlessly speak of his ability to go through both Pirates and The Mansion during their test phases—he was in teenage Disney Geek heaven. It is obvious that he has always had (and still does have) a passion for the Anaheim park. He also mentioned that the movie "The Haunting" (1963) with Julie Harris & Claire Bloom was a major influence on the attraction. The second panel discussion was held over in California Adventure inside the soundstage where the Constance & George "wedding feast" was held. Tim O’Day was the moderator for this one, with Kim, Tony, and Jason in attendance again, joined by Alice Davis (Marc's widow) and X Atencio, songwriter of "Grim Grinning Ghosts" and "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)."
A few of the tales from the first discussion were repeated, but there were also a few new gems. I believe it was Kim who said that with the original Pirates and Mansion attractions, neither was really about telling a story; they were more like a fantastic cocktail party where guests would go from conversation to conversation. What a fantastic analogy. I believe the "error" on many of the newer attractions is that their creators attempt to cram a story into a 4 minute attraction and many of the guests just don't get it. The interesting vignettes that stand alone in Pirates & The Mansion bear repeated viewings without having to have a linked storyline that holds each vignette together. Marty Sklar's "retirement country club" sign gave the Haunted Mansion all the storyline that it needed. Another interesting one from Tony had to do with the French/Europeans and the Mansion created for Disneyland Paris (Phantom Manor). He said that Europeans like scary and they like funny, but didn’t care for the two put together. Naturally, this caused the attraction to change quite a bit as Anaheim & Orlando’s are full of Marc Davis' humor along with a few safely scary touches for good measure. Any attempts that John Lasseter was going to make to change Phantom Manor or upgrade it were abandoned when he was told by the French that they loved their version best and thought it should stay just as it was. When in France, do as the French do.
When it comes to "scary," both Tony & Kim said that after hours when everything was "off," going through the Mansion could be a little on the eerie side. Kim said she refused to go through it alone and usually recruits another Imagineer to go with her ("Don't you have a sound check to do? Good...let's go!"). Tony said that even when the power was off for the attraction, sometimes the Audio Animatronics retain a little "juice," and often they'll continue to move at very inopportune moments, causing quite a scare.
Alice remembered Walt's wish to make the house immaculate on the outside so that guests could see that the entire park was well-manicured. She also remembered that Walt wanted the Haunted Mansion to be for the entire family and not so scary as to frighten the little ones into having nightmares. Alice has always been outspoken, and as she put it, at ago 80 she’s earned the right to say what she wants to. She was very clear in expressing her opinion that she felt that much of what Marc put into the Mansion (the gags, the humor, and his skill as an artist) had either been ruined or removed. O’Day attempted damage control by saying that his stretch portraits were still in the mansion, but Alice quickly corrected him that the versions being used now were not by Marc, nor was the coloring correct. Once that uncomfortable moment passed though, Alice did say that she and her group of Imagineers had their time to shine and explore and that she felt that today’s Imagineers should be given the chance to do the same, and that as long as people lined up for the attractions, she was okay with that. You can see in the following example that she is correct about the changing of the portraits over the years.
Besides the consistent digs at Eddie Murphy's Haunted Mansion, X Atencio also got one in when O'Day asked him if he was excited to go through the Mansion that night. X answered he'd already been on that attraction before, however, sure...he'd go on it again, and see if "they'd added Jack Sparrow to it." Much laughter followed that one. He also got a laugh when O'Day asked him if he ever imagined back in the 60's that his two hit songs "Grim Grinning Ghosts" and "Pirate's Life For Me" would still be around 40 years later. X quickly replied, "I didn't even think I'd still be around 40 years later!"
Jason said that when interviewing actress Jennifer Tilly (Madame Leota in the "Haunted Mansion" movie) for his book, she told him that she'd heard that her head would replace Leota Toombs' in the mansion if the movie was a success. Jason laughed at that one, but Kim just groaned.
Tony was particularly touching in his discussion about the charm of the Anaheim park, and that he was particularly proud that when foot traffic along the Rivers of America in front of the Pirate's attraction threatened the removal of trees and landscaping, his decision to build the underpass and footbridge allowed even more plants and trees to be installed, thus preserving the charm of the park. Again, obvious that he truly cares about the Anaheim property, regardless of what many grumble about.
The evening concluded with a procession over to Disneyland for "wedding" cake at the Mansion and two hours of being able to ride the Haunted Mansion as much as you please. What a trip that was! For the first time ever, I got to ride the stretching elevator back up to the top; a little creepy, as you get the feeling that the room will crush you as it closes back up. Actor Nicolas Cage (with Goth-looking son Weston Coppola Cage) made a very quick appearance as well, posing for a handful of photos with guests before departing.