Sunday, November 27, 2011

I Speak For The Tree

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??

The exterior of the Plaza Pavilion, presented by Stouffer's. 1962

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.

It's right through those doors. See it?

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?


And here it is. This photo does not do the mural justice.

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.

The AP Center in 2009. The mural sleeps.

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.

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39 comments:

Progressland said...

A wise person once told me not to love something at Disneyland too much, as it will just hurt that much more when it's removed. Because the mural was covered up right as my Disneyland visits started to increase, I never knew about it before you and Jody.

It is amazing how much and how little information there is on Disneyland's history. I've gone through at least 75% of the Disneyland Lines, seen many Vacationlands and Disney News magazines, looked at every post ever on Stuff from the Park, Gorillas Don't Blog, and Davelandblog, and never seen mention of this mural. I am so grateful that there are people like you who do care, to do everything in their power to get Disney to recognize that that old stuff is interesting for both artistic and historic reasons.

I went on the Columbia tonight for my first night trip ever. Because the boat's normally out in the heat of the day, the Below Decks Museum can get busy--but not tonight. As I was ducking from a ceiling that seemed much shorter than I remembered, I marveled that modern Disney would never consider building such a ship today, and felt privileged to still be able to admire that craftsmanship more than fifty years later. I hope the Columbia is never cut up and placed into biohazard bags.

I am also absolutely in tune with Disneyland as an inspiration in all aspects of life. When I tell people that I'm really interested in Disneyland, I "worry" they don't quite understand what I mean. I want to communicate that I love what the early Imagineers brought to the Park: a sense of history, an attention to detail, and respect for the audience. This mural embodies all of this and it's a real shame future visitors will never be able to see it in person.

Disney likes to say that Walt didn't intend Disneyland to be a museum, and I think that's fair--but I've argued in the past that if Walt removed something, the replacement was a true innovation. We can only hope that something equally wonderful replaces the mural and inspires a new generation of artists. Until then, we'll have to drown our sorrows in frozen TV dinners.

MIKE COZART said...

Guys, I was hoping this post was gonna bring news that the mural had been saved......I was so pissed when you told be it was destroyed at jason's party. My earliest memories of the mural where at a time when I was becoming fascinated with the way people from past decades depicted the past decades.......and how "Grandma's Kitchen" the mural was. ("Grandma's Kitchen") was a term sometimes used to describe 1940's and 1950's Turn-of-the-Century images on commercial art, animation, product packaging. Graphics on Disneyland's 1950's Main Street was a perfect example of this. For now everyone: document what you can!! There's some BEAUTIFUL Colin Campbell murals over at the French Market...of New Orleans....and I'm
sure Disneyland could care les that they are there because they're not "Mardi Gras" or something else. They stack supplies in front of them etc.... Jason : You are right! Disneyland will never build anything again like a Sailing Ship Columbia....or even another Mark Twain or Liberty Belle....I wouldn't be surprised in one of those boats were not long for this world! (hint-hint!!) Sad but great post guys!

Jeanine said...

That is so dreadful--Disneyland is diminished every time something like this is lost. I was always afraid to find out definitively what happened to the Mary Blair murals, in case of something just like this.

It's something on the plus side for the internet, in any case, that everyone now has access to such extensive photographic records of everything--hopefully we have less to fear of losing things created by great artists such as you and Jody in the future.

Chris Merritt said...

Wow. Don't know what to say here. Super sad. I know from experience how all too easy it is to lose this stuff during a rehab. When I worked on the Castle walk through in 2008, I almost gave myself a hernia lugging sections of hand painted walls we discovered from the original '57 show while doing demo work. Thankfully those are now in the company archives. Unfortunately, some of the hand painted sections I couldn't remove by myself (that I clearly marked as "do not destroy" in hopes of saving them when removed) were taken to with a sledgehammer after hours. Tiny remnants were all that were left when I discovered them the next day. At least I took photos...

Davelandweb said...

I was never even aware of this mural; what a post...I sure hope it inspires someone to come forward with more photos of it.

Amy said...

This is what I love about this blog. You make me care about a mural I had never previously seen, much less had an attachment to.

Major Pepperidge said...

As soon as I saw the title of this post, I knew what it was going to be about! It kills me that, bit by bit, all vestiges of the "old Disneyland" are being chipped away. I know that the place is not a museum, but what is wrong with acknowledging the past? I don't want to mention the remaining bits that I love for fear of jinxing them! Even the original orange trees are all gone. The Walt Disney Company can sometimes be incredibly obtuse about the value of preserving important artifacts, considering how much they profit from their own history.

Anyway, today's post was exceptionally well-written and thoughtful, and expresses much of what I feel. And that photo that you took is fantastic. Reminds me of the graphics in my mom's old cookbooks. I'm hoping that somebody (Ken Stack?!) has some pictures of the mural. Thanks, Kevin.

(Also, kudos to the other commenters, Progressland and Mike Cozart especially).

trouble said...

I used to work across Main Street from the mural but I never noticed it until your essay. The destruction of the beautiful mural is very sad. I hope there are other pictures of this remarkable art piece.

mike peraza said...

Kevin,

I had a bad feeling you were leading up to this and unfortunately I was right. It's not the first time that Disney artwork was unintentionally destroyed and won't be the last. I was down in the morgue (they refer to it as Animation Research these days) watching someone cut up Sleeping Beauty cinemascope paintings by lobbing off the right and left sides until they would fit on smaller shelves designated for them. I have many other stories like that which would curl your ears.

Thankfully there are also many people like you, me, the folks who read these blogs and many others who recognize the value of this art and are striving to save it for the future.

Best,
Mike

BassBone said...

Am I the only one who doesn't find the mural that attractive? It's not that big a loss for me.

thepicklebarrel said...

i just wanna puke after that story, kevin.

how, in this day of expensive, ultra-limited edition recreations of vintage park ephemera, can something like this happen?

well, you and i know the answer...in fact, why are we still asking?

oh well.... 3(

Le Cram said...

Wow! What an unforgivable blunder. Any plans for the mural to be recreated using the concept sketch you mentioned? Could you be in charge of such a project? Great post.

A113-Dean said...

Very Sad... Your post makes me wish I could have seen it.

Susette said...

Kevin~
Could you also post this on Flickr? Chances are good that someone might have a photo or slide to share with you!

Here's to the Disneyland we hold dear in our hearts and memories~

jedblau said...

I was not aware of of the mural, so I never got to see it. Now I feel like I lived next to Cary Grant for 40 years and never said hello. A huge missed opportunity for me.

Tim Pat said...

It is unfortunate. It does happen the other way sometimes. When I worked in Merch there I remember the "art people" became very aware of the mural in the little shop on the west side of the castle. Apparently it was done as a last minute thing when the park was about to open by Ken Andersen and Eyvind Earle (probably at gun point, with Walt holding the gun). It was a fantasy landscape in the style of the Sleeping Beauty film featuring Earle's primitive craggy rocks and square trees. Fortunately it had been painted on a vinyl wall covering - so it was carefully removed. ...Or so they said.

Unknown said...

While I do not have a copy of this painting, I have been video documentarying Disneyland since 2001 when I feared it may be hit with terrorist attack. My project can be found on YouTube called "infaMOUSEproject" if interested.

kittens not kids said...

Though the content here is heartbreaking, this is a beautifully written post; I love your Lorax reference ("I speak for the tree"), and I also love the way you wrap around, at the end, to a Loraxian idea: that unless someone ("like you") cares a whole lot....trees and Trees will disappear.

I'm writing about the earlier years of Disneyland for my dissertation, and visiting a couple of years ago, I was depressed at how little "original" park seems to be left.

There was, and still is in some places, SUCH a wonderful aesthetic of care in every aspect of the park - it would have been easier to leave that wall blank originally, because who expects a mural in a cafeteria-style restaurant? But someone(s) cared enough that this marvelous (and marvelously odd) mural was created, and now that same piece of art that was never expected, was always a bonus, is now, in its destruction, an aching absence.

Ken W said...

Hello all,

Having worked at the Pavilion while working at the Park I do remember the Mural. I check with some of the Cast the I know and see if they have any Pictures of it.

Becky said...

I am a (relatively) young fan of the park, and even I miss the old days, the old ways. My earliest memories are of riding Adventure Thru Inner Space and the People Mover, and looking at Mary Blair's murals (and wondering what Tomorrowland had to do with "it's a small world" -- I was three! Gimme a break!).
These days, I find the greatest serenity in finding the little nooks where Disneyland time stands still, and you get that moment of way back when.
Thank you for sharing this story. I didn't know the mural myself, but I sincerely hope you find the photos you're looking for.

Dusty "MiceChat" Sage said...

What a brilliantly written story. How quickly the mind fades. I'd seen that mural and contemplated it for scant moments when the buffet line wasn't moving, but never did I stop to really study it or imagine that it would one day be gone. I'm sorry to say that, until I read your post, I had forgotten the tree completely - lost to the fog of time. I'll share this story with my readers to see if any of them have photos, and I know they'll all appreciate the history and sentiment you have so lovingly detailed here. Thank you Kevin.

outsidetheberm said...

To answer Major Pepperidge...

We're still digging through the bins here looking for some mural photos we remember taking so very long ago.

Like Mike Cozart, we were saddened by Kevin's mural story at Jason's party. The good news is that this particular mural was a favorite of my wife's - and she has a very distinct memory of our taking photos of it.

Unfortunately, you can ask Jason just how long it takes us sometimes to locate missing fragments of history. Fifty years of gathering theme park memories makes for a lot of dusty boxes!

Have faith! I'd bet there will be other images show up, as well!

-- Ken

finky the kid said...

MIKE COZART, are you suggesting the Mark twain or Columbia may go away altogether sometime soon? Didn't they just do an extended refurb on them both?

MIKE COZART said...

FINK THE KID:

The Columbia is safe (for now........) and I didn't mention the Mark Twain.....but the other Disney American Park Steamboat isn't long for this world....nor is it's Tom Sawyer Island.

tericson said...

Kevin,

You have the talent and the means to recreate this in lithograph form, right?

And maybe Mary Blair's Tomorrowland murals?

I'd *love* to have those hanging in my home...

Tim.

Le Cram said...

MIKE COZART,
Let me guess. Florida's Tom Sawyer is going to be the newest Disney Princess meet & greet?

Connie Moreno said...

Damn...

Chris Jepsen said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Kevin. We've all seen this kind of thing, and it's always gut-wrenching.

Sadly, overreaching and confusing environmental laws often make it easier for people to destroy historic buildings or murals than to save them. If people looked at materials like asbestos and lead paint in their proper perspective (i.e. they DON'T cause leprosy on contact), and didn't fear draconian legal retribution, perhaps less history would end up in biohazard bags.

Bill said...

Kevin, I remember this exact feeling. As a kid, I had the good fortune to visit the Disney Studios and walk around the backlot. I got to see all the houses I was so familiar with from a (then) short lifetime watching nothing but Disney movies. When I revisited in the late 80s, I was saddened to see that this locale that I loved and knew so well was now a parking garage. (Joni Mitchell ringing in my ears) I'm told that Dave Smith photo-documented the backlot before it was torn down but now that he's "retired", I think the only way I'll ever see it again is through those fleeting glances of background in the films themselves. Disney has a long history of fan heartbreak.

Character Animator said...

Kevin,

Perhaps your heartbreak over the loss of that lovely mural may become your muse, inspiring you to create new work to bring enchantment and inspiration to others.

Peace,
Matthew

Character Animator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JMG said...

I ached when I got to the end of the story, dreading knowlingly the inevitable end.

Much like you with Disneyland, I grew up with WDW. Perhaps the more cavalier attitude prevalent on this coast to jettisoning classic elements from the park's history has left me inured to such things.

I suppose that DL tends to hold on a bit tighter to its history than its Florida sibling makes such a loss that much harder to bear.

Pelicanlake said...

Someone with a boingboing account should submit this story and see if the millions of readers out there have photos to share...

JimmyMerced said...

Boy does this resonate with me. I first visited Disneyland in 1969 at age 7, and the experience was incredible. And like you, I really loved the understated elegance of Disneyland in the mid-70s.

Thanks for sharing your story about the Stouffer's mural. Surely, a picture is out there somewhere.

Paul Schnebelen said...

I spent four summers working at the Pavilion, and probably walked right in front of that mural hundreds of times. I'm sorry to say I never took all much notice of it , and never stopped in to take a few pictures when I wasn't at work. Funny how often you never really appreciate something until after it's gone...

Magical Details Travel said...

I wonder if you couldn't contact Stouffer's and see if they have any photographs of the mural? It is possible since they were the pavilion sponsor.

Thank you for such a beautifully written post.

Jeremiah Good said...

I was just saying how I don't really remember the Plaza that much from when it was a food location, to young and to many attractions to get to. It is sad to hear another piece of history gone to the dumpster behind the In-Between...

This reminds me of a story I heard a few years ago when the Emporium went down for some work and when it came back up the beautiful piece of art that featured Walt was now covered by a wall of plush. It was just a backdrop painting much like the Plaza mural but it was a beautiful piece. After asking around I found that it to was just covered and left back there to be found in the future....or destroyed. If anyone has a picture of it I would love to see it, it was in the small section between the "Storybook Store" and the main floor of the Emporium.

Reesie Cup said...

Being more of a Florida-goer, I can still sympathize. The way you described this mural gave me the vague feeling I had the first time I saw the paintings in the Village Haus or the Blair-like mural in JII. It's a feeling that Disney can never ever replicate for publicity purposes.

I may never have witnessed this particular piece, but I share your love for older sections of the park. Those are truly magical as they have such a human touch. Nothing plastic or artificial about them at all. No marketing tie-in to be found. You're very lucky that Disneyland has more of these spots than my park. Continue to cherish them.

Jennifer N Burch said...

I was wondering why the new mural in the revamped Holly Jolly Bakery looked so familiar. I am a young Disney fan - compared to how old the... Disney "company" is - and I vaguely remember my first few trips in the early 90s. I don't want to make any promises, but I remember on one trip to Disneyland my mom had checked out an expensive pentax camera from her job at the time. She must have snapped at least a few rolls of film while my dad was chasing her around making sure the "$5,000" camera didn't crash into anything. She developed the film herself and made prints of various photos (mostly of my little brother and me with various characters or in front of various buildings), but I would not be shocked if she happened to have some photos of the mural. Our recent luck has certainly proved this (we've been finding photos of the park back in the 50s/60s lately). If my mom and/or I can find the box with the negatives, the proof sheet and whatever prints that were made and it happens to be there I'll scan it and send it to you. I'll be crossing my fingers throughout this search.