Diagram of Disneyland's Plaza Pavilion mural, 1962
A warning. Today's blog post ends with a tragic account of loss and oblivion. So, if you're blissfully content with the aesthetics of your world, and wish to remain so, you might want to skip this one. Otherwise, read on!
I write a lot about Disneyland on this blog, and for many of you, that's why you come here. Disney doesn't pay me to do it. I'm passionate about the art and artists that interest and inspire me, and the classic Disneyland of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s was something very special and unique. There was nothing on earth like it. There were no "DisneyParks®" or global "Where Dreams Come True" marketing initiatives back then - there was only Disneyland. That's the Disneyland that I like, and spend time thinking about. A great deal of "classic" still exists in the park today, in quiet spots, still undisturbed by corporate synergy or the inappropriate placement of Pixar characters. But the best bits of Disneyland exist now only in photographs, old audio recordings, in vintage paper ephemera, and in our memories.
Growing up with Disneyland has been an inspiration to me my whole life, and not just for the obvious things. The inspiration to travel, to explore, to read, to paint, to sculpt are all things that I can attribute back to Disneyland visits. The sounds emitted by the Penny Arcade's antique music machines, the lush greenery of Adventureland and the Rivers of America (a particular novelty to me growing up in the Arizona desert), the folk songs heard in America Sings, and the tingly excitement of voyages through Inner Space and "liquid space" electrified the fine hairs on the back of my neck.
And there were also beautiful hand-made works of public art all through the park that made me want to become an artist myself: from Mary Blair's splendid ceramic tiles that gift-wrapped the corridor of Tomorrowland to the original dioramas in Sleeping Beauty's Castle. But my favorite work of art, by far, was a magnificent cooking-themed mural on a wall inside the Plaza Pavilion restaurant.
Do you remember it??
Finding a good color photograph of the mural is like tracking down Bigfoot, despite the fact that it was in full-view right there in the serving line, with millions of people sliding their cafeteria trays past it for over thirty years.
Well miraculously, on just a regular day in 1993, I happened to have the great foresight to take a picture of it. One solitary picture with my old beat-up Polaroid camera. It was such an afterthought on my part to take a photo that day, since the mural had been there my entire life and , of course, would always be there forever. Right?
Painted against a blazing metallic gold 'foil' background, the mural depicts a tree with its branches carrying an exotic array of foods from different regions of America and Europe. There are teapots and soup tureens, strings of sausages, Danish coffee cakes and a wedge of gooseberry pie. There are frog legs and crawfish, strange cheeses, aspics, and seafood in green gelatin, frothy steins of German hefeweizen, a coffee mug with a sour cream doughnut, and a silver dish of ice cream with a peach-half and a green candied cherry. Behind the food, in evocative dark brown silhouette, are cast-iron stoves and beer kegs, a slaughtered wild turkey and a flintlock blunderbuss, the disembodied head of a steer, a wooden ice cream churn and other archaic culinary implements and imagery that I can't even identify.
The subject matter and the obvious research involved in gathering together this panoramic smorgasbord of gustatory glories is breathtaking. No matter that the Plaza Pavilion, featuring a menu based on Stouffer's popular restaurants, did not offer any of these dishes. The mural conveyed to patrons the idea of fine dining and abundance. Two well-worn English expressions adorn a ribbon trailing through the tree's foliage: "Cooking is the oldest of all arts" and "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."
According to the Imagineering research library, the mural was created by a small team of Disney's finest. The penciled signature of art director Ken O'Connor (who among many contributions created the magical coach in "Cinderella") is on the back of one of the concept sketches. Paul Hartley, another revered art director responsible for many of Disneyland's famous attraction posters is also credited.
And speaking of attraction posters by Paul Hartley, the Stouffer's Pavilion had a great one. A popular image today purely for its inclusion of the Tahitian Terrace and the Enchanted Tiki Room (also intended to be a restaurant initially), the final poster actually references the tree mural!
(Left to right) Two "Stouffer's in Disneyland" poster concepts and the final design.
The tree with coffee and tea pots - and the sour cream doughnut.
In 1997, at the end of the summer, the Plaza Pavilion restaurant closed forever, but the building reopened sometime later as an Annual Passholder sales center. Stopping in to look at the mural, as I often had before, I was alarmed to see that it was gone! The wall was now covered with embossed wallpaper and there were a few framed posters and a cake mold nailed to it.
I expressed my horror to a friend at WDI who informed me that the mural was considered to be a treasure, and had not been removed or painted over, but was actually safe and sound behind the new wallpaper. There had been no budget for the removal of the painting, and not wanting to confuse people coming in to renew their annual passes, Imagineering had carefully placed a cut-to-fit cushion of foamcore board over the painted surface before the temporary outer covering had been put up. Someday, the hope was, either the Plaza Pavilion location could be reborn as a restaurant, or the mural would be rescued. Have no fear.
And now - the rest of the story.
Fast-forward to this summer, August 2011. After over a decade, the AP Center is finally gone for good, and word goes out that the historic Plaza Pavilion will once more return as a fabulous food service venue. Construction barriers surround the building's facade in preparation for its transformation into a Mary Poppins bakery! Hurrah! Jody and I start talking about the mural to all our Imagineering friends. The WDI art library expresses interest in preserving the mural in their permanent collection if it's not to be included in the Poppins renovation. I toss around the notion of dedicating a blogpost to the mural's history as soon as it's unearthed. My old Polaroid photo now looks especially grainy and discolored as I consider the beautiful new photos I'll take once I finally see my favorite Disneyland work of art again.
On September 1, Jody and I are in the park for an evening event and peer for the hundredth time through a quarter-inch gap in the blue construction wall, and we gasp. There it is!!!
Captured with my iPhone. The mural's final photo.
We can just make out a small portion of the art...the top of the tree, the old familiar coffee cup, the sour cream doughnut...visible above the foam wall board! We jump for joy and I immediately text a photograph of it to everyone we know.
A week and a half goes by, and we don't hear anything. Anxious, I make some calls up to WDI and leave messages. "Heard anything? Can we go over to the park and see it??"
Finally, a friend calls me back, and the news is horrible. The demolition crew on the project were told to remove a wall, and remove it they did. In the process, they uncovered the mural, but not having received any official instructions on what to do with it, totally destroyed it. Something about a concern for asbestos in the walls required all pieces to be deposited into biohazard bags and discarded.
I wish I had a happy ending to this story but I don't. It's taken me several months to digest it myself. As an artist, you go through your whole career hoping to create something beautiful, something that lasts, and that has an impact on those who experience it. The time, effort, and care that goes into creating something, whether for a commercial end or not, has a value. The mural would have been so easy to save, had someone in charge of this project not been so out of touch. You could say "Well, so what. It's just a restaurant mural of food. There are bigger problems in the world." Yes there are. But small losses like this and the attitudes that allow it tend to extend out in a wider arc. I know Disney values their past, even if only to package the past into ways to earn revenue from the most loyal portion of their audience. I don't believe that anyone purposefully intended for the mural to be demolished, but I believe it happened because no one cared to follow up on it, or bothered to put it on the 'to do' list. Budgets are only assigned to new stuff coming in, rarely for the preservation or documentation of old stuff going out. The Plaza Pavilion mural is destined for obscurity, and I can't shake my personal feeling that Disneyland is a lesser place without it.
So, art lovers, I turn to you. There's no hope to document a work of art that no one can take a picture of, unless pictures were already taken. Do you remember the Pavilion mural? Were you freaked out by the frog on the cutting board, as I was? Do you have a shot of the mural tucked away in your old vacation slides? Disney doesn't seem to have any good documentation of it in their official files, and all I've got is this one crummy Polaroid.
*Note: This post is the result of years of searching to find out more information about this artwork, and the long wait for the mural to be uncovered and rediscovered. Now that it's gone, this post and the pictures shared are all that I have. I hope someone out there has a better image of it, or more information on its creation, so together we can keep this lost piece of history alive and accounted for.