Friday, February 09, 2018

The Swisskapolka!

Don't call me swissy-pants.

Let me tell you, it was no job for the faint-hearted.  The turnstile position at the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse required nerves of tempered steel to endure the sideways glances from Disneyland visitors who'd never before seen a guy wearing a blouse and knee socks (not to mention those green knickers borrowed from Geppetto.)

Next, you had to be ever-watchful for any unexpected arboreal emergencies, such as the time the water system went berserk, or the summer evening in 1986 when a pale-complexioned woman climbed up to the highest point and "shipwrecked her supper" over the handrail. For the next two hours, the gate was closed while custodial hosed pathways, stairs, plants, rocks and everything else that had been affected.

And most important of all, a successful and effective Treehouse Host needed to be able to summon up whatever it took to survive...
The Swisskapolka! 

Composer Buddy Baker's original handwritten swisskamusic!

Please don't misunderstand, I love the music.  I really LOVE it!!  It's a perky little polka played on a pipe organ to put pep in your step as you merrily explore the world's most fabulous treetop domicile.

But imagine if you will...back in my day the Treehouse was a full eight-hour shift all to itself. For most of those eight hours you stood (no sitting or leaning allowed) and greeted every person who came through the turnstile, only earning parole a few times a day when somebody from the Tiki Room would walk over and "bump" you to a break.  But for most of the long summer day, it was just you and that big rotating waterwheel splashing at your back...and, of course, the never-ending music, flowing down from above.

Until the day the Swiss Family shipped out and Tarzan the apeman swung in.

In 2000, the actual prop organ that had "played" since 1962 was sold on eBay (Oh, the indignity!)  This photo, taken by Disney Auctions, with damaged keyboard and missing stops, was the final public appearance of the Treehouse organ.  

But the polka music lives on, not only from the gramophone swisska-tribute at Tarzan's Treehouse, but on CD, on youTube, and of course, in my head where it continues to play on and on and on.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Swiss Family Treehouse Sprouts

It's the early part of 1962 and six tons of steel are rapidly 
becoming the Family Robinson's island homestead.
Had construction stopped right here it still would have 
been a very impressive work of minimalist modern art.

By summer things are filling out fast.  
Wood planks across scaffolding provide access for the 
crew attaching branches and red vinyl leaves by hand.

Artful rock formations are sculpted of concrete over a steel 
frame for the jungle riverbed at the tree's base.

While way up high, a sloping roof is fashioned of fireproofed 
palm thatch for the "Crow's Nest", treetop quarters of the 
three Robinson boys, Fritz, Ernst, and Francis.  
(Notice the telephone in the foreground, for 
emergency calls back to civilization.)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Quaint Little Church of Storybook Land

"There's nothing quite like messing about in boats," according to Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, and anyone who cruises the Storybook Land canal in Disneyland is in for a special treat. The castles, villages, and hammy hamlets that lie along the river's edge are miniature masterpieces of the highest order.  

1955: The church was constructed at the Disney Studio in Burbank.

Often overlooked and under appreciated, the stone chapel of "Alice's Village" is one of the finest buildings created for the attraction—and it's also one of the largest, despite being scaled one inch to the foot.

Scenic artists Frank Armitage (L) and Walt Perigoy choose colors for the church.

Layout for the  "Alice in Wonderland" setting of Storybook Land.

Hardly noticeable are the tiny sculpted gargoyles that adorn the tower.
 The church is made of marine plywood and redwood, covered in fiberglass.  Metal flashings were used for the foundation to resist rot, and the building has openings so that air can circulate through to prevent mildew.

The left and right sides of the shingled tower roof.
The elaborate stained glass is authentic and soldered by hand.
It was designed by Frank Armitage, and leaded together by Harriet Burns. 
Barely visible here is the tiny graveyard with headstones and crosses.
The right side...
...and the barely-seen rear!
The show script, as recited by our boat's human guide, informs us that Alice lives in the little thatched house situated between the church and the rabbit hole.  It's not difficult to imagine a tiny girl hurrying upon the tree-shaded path, in pursuit of a mysterious white rabbit.

Alice's church in 2006.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Perilous Illustrations by Mort Künstler

Eeee-YOW! This pair of hair-raising paintings by Mort Kunstler really pack a wallop. These two guys—or perhaps the same unlucky guy—are about to become fish food for some monstrous creatures in these fantastic illustrations for a 1950s pulp magazine.

As a young freelance artist, Kunstler created "way out" scenarios for men's adventure magazines, paperbacks, model kit packaging, and even Mad magazine. Spectacular stuff!

Mort Künstler's official website
Mort Künstler at American Art Archives

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Art of the Big Fig

Jungle Book Big Fig
Between 1999 and 2006, Jody and I did quite a lot of things for Disney's Consumer Products division.  We designed concepts for toys, dolls, dishes, Christmas ornaments, stained glass lamps, snowglobes, cookie jars, teapots, music boxes, enamel pins, and zillions of other things made of resin, ceramic, glass, wood, pewter and sometimes bronze.

Thumper Big Fig
Is there another corporation on Earth that has produced as many tchotchkes as Disney?
Maleficent Big Fig

Peter Pan big fig

Nothing can enliven your living space like a figurine, especially a jumbo-sized character from a favorite movie. Together Jody and I concepted and did sculpt revisions on over sixty big figs, each one starting with a sketch and a painting.

Mr. Toad Big Fig concept
This artwork, never seen by the public, was presented in quarterly meetings, or line reviews, to help visualize products that, nine months later, would travel across the ocean from China aboard cargo ships destined for Disney's distribution warehouses - And, from there, to stores, theme parks, and eventually into childless homes all across the United States!

Lumiere Big Fig
Goofy Big Fig
Disneyland 50th Anniversary Big Fig
Who's afraid of the Big Bad Fig?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Big Fig List

The List.

We're often asked for a comprehensive list of all the Disney "big figures" that Jody and I have worked on together.  And so, here it is.

This is also a fine place to mention that producing these sorts of items is always the result of a team effort.  With few exceptions, these figures were sculpted by other artists, and the success of the character likeness depends as much on their ability, as on our concepts and guidance.

We'd like to acknowledge the exceptionally talented artist Pete Emslie who drew splendid character turnarounds for many of our very best figures, and to Bo Tsai, our favorite sculptor in China.  Sadly, Bo passed away in 2012, but his contribution to worldwide Disney merchandise over many decades is legendary.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Fancy Feathers: Restoring Tiki Room Birds

Original 1963 Tiki Room animatronic "robin"
It's a special treat to get up-close-and-personal with these beautiful little figures.  For several years I've had the great fun of "figure finishing" some of Disney's historic Audio-Animatronic characters, both internally for the Disney Company and for private collections. Tiki Room birds are my favorite, mainly because of their small size, and because I'm such a fan of the attraction's design.  The mechanized cast of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room in Anaheim consists of 77 birds, 136 flowers and 12 tiki drummers (not to mention several chanting totems).  Each figure is a work of whimsy and craftsmanship.
Original robin figures being assembled at WED, vintage photo
The smallest talents in the show are the "robins" (there are 20 of 'em) perched in cages suspended from the woven mat ceiling of the theater.  They really are quite tiny and, I think, easily overlooked. Compared to the more sophisticated animation of  Jose and the other "Master of Ceremonies" macaws, the robins perform very subtle functions.  Heads turn, beaks open, tail feathers twitch, and some of the robins can flap their wings. They have just enough life spark to convincingly do their job as chorus members. 

Recently I restored two original 1963 robins, one after the other, that had been retired from the show decades ago.  They both had the fiberglass bodies used in the early California and Florida shows.  In the 1980s, a new generation of birds sporting bodies made of lightweight Kydex were developed for Tokyo Disneyland. The Anaheim show today is a mix of old and new bird performers.
Creating the fur patterns in our studio
Both robins arrived at our studio in pretty bad shape, with soiled fur, overly-handled feathers, and fiberglass parts gritty from too many coats of paint and hardened glue. The photos below were shot after a weeklong deep cleaning inside and out, priming and painting. I built display perches and replaced the birds' missing feet.  I removed their back panels and thoroughly cleaned the inner-workings.
Wingless robin with moving head
It's amazing how much is packed into the interior of a tiny bird. Two rubber hoses, each roughly the thickness of a spaghetti noodle, carry air pressure through the bird's legs into the two cylindrical chambers in his body. The left cylinder operates the tail, and the right cylinder turns the head side to side .

The next photo is a different robin with slightly different functions.

Robin with moving wings and tail
For this variation, the tail moves, but not the head.  Instead the right cylinder pushes open the wings which are hinged at the shoulder. Black electrical wires lead to the head where audio impulses synched to the show's soundtrack would operate a tiny magnet behind the lower jaw, making his beak open and close.  When the five robins in each birdcage are moving together, the resulting performance seems choreographed to the music.
Pardon me, buddy, your little black wires are showing.
Restoration complete and ready to tweet.
With the addition of fur cloth and feathers sourced from Disneyland's original supplier, the birds really come to life. Chicken hackles for a jaunty topknot, coque feathers for the forked tails, and wings adorned with duck quills dyed green and pre-sorted for their natural left side/right side curves.  It takes care and patience to do a nice job.

The Tiki Room's avian actors were sculpted in 1962 by Blaine Gibson, based on Marc Davis's drawings. Engineers Roger Broggie and Bob Gurr devised the inner workings and perches for each bird, and the resulting figures were taken to show-quality appearance by three supremely talented women: Harriet Burns, Leota Tooms, and Glendra von Kessel.  I was so lucky to meet Blaine and Harriet in the '90s and learn from them about their work on these fanciful creatures—"based on nature but styled for drama."  I'm immensely grateful for the rare opportunity to take on a project like this. The best part is just being able to spend a little time enjoying these great characters in detail.