One of the best perks about writing blogs and covering Disney Press events, for me at least, is the wonderful friends I have made over the past 10 years. They run the gamut from Cast Members, Podcasters, Webmasters, Bloggers and the like. I also count among the crowd, many well-known Disney luminaries. One of my favorite and cherished friends is none other than Jim Korkis, internationally known Disney Historian, writer and anything else Disney. Here is a man, who just by the mention of a Disney name, object or character can immediately begin, without crib sheets or smart phone, tell amazing facts, figures and history of said subject. And he tells his tales in a prose no storyteller can ape. (With the exception of Walt Disney!). I often meet with Jim at the parks for two of our favorite activities…Lunch and talking Disney. Today, after a nice Cobb salad at the Brown Derby, we sat by Echo Lake. Of course, when we began discussing the recent removal of the Sorcerers’ Hat, Jim began on cue with an amazing story of Echo Lake. So enjoy this tale of the past, present and possible future of the Studios most overlooked areas, Jim Korkis style…
JK – We are out in the Echo Lake area of the Studios which is slated for removal, but remember when we talk about such things that Disney’s middle name is Jello, meaning that even though the plans are set, 5 minutes later anything can change. Remember the Hyperion Wharf that was slated for Downtown Disney, or how the original plans for the new Fantasyland changed over time
MN -Disney always keeps things close to the vest.
JK – Absolutely, because they don’t know what’s going to happen. After the Hat is removed, the discussion is to make this area into Mos Eisley; the Spaceport Luke Skywalker came to, with the Cantina and such. Of course it was an area filled with restaurants and merchandise shops. And this area would be just that, restaurants and shops. First to be demolished is Min and Bills ship, which sells sandwiches, drinks and such.
And unfortunately, Gertie the Dinosaur. So many people don’t realize why Gertie is here. “My gosh, what does a Dinosaur have to do with the movies or Disney?” people say. But it’s a fascinating story. Although Walt was a genius in animation, he didn’t invent it. He turned it into an art form instead of a novelty. One of the first animated films was made in 1914 by an artist named Winsor McCay. He was a newspaper artist for the Hearst newspapers. He drew a comic strip called “Little Nemo in Slumberland”. In it, a little boy would dream and go into this fantastical wonderland, and had amazing adventures, and in the last panel, he would fall out of bed, because it was all just a dream.
One day his son Robert brought home a little flip book. McCay flipped though it and thought if you made enough drawings, you could film those, and it would look like things were moving. He drew several thousand drawings of his Little Nemo character without backgrounds. He then did something unique for the time, he took the finished film and painted every individual frame with watercolor, light would come through. It was still a black and white film, but gave the illusion of being colored.
MN – “So Winsor McCay was a visionary in his day?”
JK – “Absolutely” He would perform in Vauwwwille, doing a quick sketch act, as he spoke he did quick drawings on an easel, and people loved it. He showed a bit of the Nemo animation he drew, but people thought it was a trick.
MN – “People just didn’t understand animation at the time”
JK – “Correct”. “He even did an animation called the “How a Mosquito Operates” showing a mosquito sucking blood from a sleeping man until it exploded, and again people thought it was some kind of a trick, that he was using a puppet or using wires, so McCay knew he had to come up with a new item.
McCay lived in NYC and the Museum of Natural History just unveiled a Brontosaurs skeleton. People were amazed and McCay decided to do an animation of a dinosaur, because he thought that it was something that couldn’t be faked because no one knew how a Dinosaur acted. He drew over 10,000 drawings for a few minutes of animation to create “Gertie” and decided to use it in his Vauwwwille act. After his quick sketch act, the lights dimmed, and he was onstage with a lion tamer’s outfit and whip. Behind him was a large screen, he would say…”I want to show you my new pet Gertie” He would crack the whip, and Gertie would poke her head from a cave, walk toward McCay and look directly at the audience. He would give her things to do, like “Gertie, lift your right foot” crack the whip and she would lift the foot. The audience goes, “How does that dinosaur know how to do that?”
MN -“So McCay was the first to give a cartoon character a personality?”
JK – Correct. She could get angry, stubborn, cry and since she was looking at the audience and reacting to McCay, she took on a personality. This was the beginning of “Personality Animation” or “Character Animation. Walt saw this with Ub Iwerks in 1919 while in Kansas City, and it inspired them. In the book about Ub Iwerks, “The Hand behind the Mouse” his granddaughter Leslie Iwerks told that when Ub first saw Gertie, it changed his life. He saw that you could have human beings interacting with animation. Gertie was so innovative that she inspired Walter Lantz, who did Woody Woodpecker, Paul Terry who was doing Heckle and Jeckle, and many others who were pioneers in animation.
MN – “How long did Gertie survive?”
JK – It came out in 1914 and in 1919; it was so popular it was still being run in theaters.
MN – “So Disney decided to put Gertie here at the Studios as a nod to McKay’s’ accomplishments and as an inspiration to Walt in creating Mickey Mouse”.
JK – “Absolutely” An interesting note, in the original cartoon, Gertie was white. She’s green here, because folks in the 1940s thought Dinosaurs were reptiles, and was green or brown. This is also a tribute to Walt and the New York World’s fair. He had dinosaurs like Gertie in the Ford Motor Skyway pavilion, which later went to the Grand Canyon Diorama at Disneyland. There was a Brontosaurs chewing on some greenery. The original concept drawings of Gertie did not have her chewing anything, so to honor Walt; the Imagineers had Gertie chewing the greenery. Another interesting fact. The reason Gertie has steam coming from her nostrils, in the ‘40s people thought the dinosaurs went extinct because of the ice age. You’ll notice ice on her back, that’s why it’s called the “Ice Cream of Extinction”, not distinction. Gertie is also a nod to the “California Crazy” architecture of the 1940’s.
Now, totally enthralled by this dissertation, I asked Jim to explain some of the buildings and signs and any other “goodies” that most guests do not take notice of, before the area is gone. Well, Bill and Mins Dockside diner, which is patterned after an “Open Air” tramp steamer is, based on the 1930 Movie, hit “Min and Bill” where the lead actress Marie Dressler won the Best Actress Academy Award. The ship was built by Ray Walker, who built the Columbia Sailing ship for Disneyland. There are many wonderful things in Echo Lake. For example, Peevy’s which sells Coca Cola soft drinks is based on one of the characters of my favorite movies, “The Rocketeer” He was the best friend of the Rocketeer; he was the one who worked up the jet-pack. Often overlooked, stand about 20 inches away from the menu and you’ll see the blueprints for the jet-pack. And in the building itself are actual props from the film. A stunt helmet and an actual jet-pack can be seen. And because Peevy was a mechanic in the movie, the store is done up with torches, tool chests and valves and all kinds of tools.
Jim continues…Right next to Peevy’s is the Hollywood-Vermont realty office, a nod to Walt and Roy’s first office. Walt started out in his Uncle Roberts Garage until he could afford a back room in the office for $10.00 a month. Walt left in 1924, and you can tell because in the upper window it reads…”Space for Rent” I asked Jim if these buildings were also going and he said “Absolutely and there is rumor that Indiana Jones will also go to make room. The idea is that you will follow in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker and walk towards Star Tours”.
I asked if he thought Indiana Jones would be part of Mos Eisley, and Jim said…” I believe it will become an attraction. Imagineering has certainly patented lots of new technology and it would be very suitable for a Star Wars themed attraction”. “Even the ABC sound stage is transformed into the Jedi Training Academy.
I again asked Jim what other overlooked items would be lost after the major rehab?
JK – Many don’t know it, but the Hollywood and Vine eatery is reminiscent of the one that Walt and Roy would eat at in Hollywood. Lacking money in the early days, Walt would order a meat plate and Roy a vegetable one, and they would share. Many businesses were on the second floor of these buildings and if you look atop the restaurant, you’ll see the office of Private Investigator Eddie Valiant of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. You will also see the silhouette of Roger Rabbit bursting through the window.
What’s very unique about this gag, even Cast Members that have access to it don’t get it, that shape and the direction he is heading, if you follow in a straight line, it goes directly backstage to where the Disney Florida animation studio was and on the side of the building is the same silhouette! The animation studio did all the Roger Rabbit shorts and obviously Roger was late for posing for the animators.
I then asked if the renovation would affect the two eateries, Hollywood and Vine and 50s’ Prime Time Café. “Of Course” Jim replied. “My prediction is either they or the Backlot Express will be changed into the Cantina on Mos Eisley. Also the look would intrude on the look and story of being on Tatooine.
Jim continues…”That is one of the reasons Disney removed the Sorcerers Hat, not because many fans did not like it, but it would be a visual intrusion into the new land. Even the Chinese Theater might not be safe; the word on the street is that since Disney does not own the rights to the image, it might be changed into the Carthay Circle Theater.
I then asked if Min and Bill’s and Gertie structures might be saved and Jim replied…” It all comes down to money” “There is no way to effectively remove them, that’s why the Hat was demolished instead of being moved elsewhere. There is a tradition at Disney theme parks to tear something down like World of Motion of Horizons for something new and different.
The Echo Park area in California was used to shoot many movies. In the early days, they never built sets like today; they shot on location. The real Echo Park is a man-made lake, and was called “Echo” lake because when it was being built, before the foliage was put in, you could hear echoes of people talking from all around the lake. It still exists today in the Silver lake area in Los Angeles. It is near “Keystone St. where Mack Sennett had his movie studio and made the “Keystone Kops” comedies. That’s why we have “Keystone Clothiers” as homage. Disney has many wonderful connections, but the new generation today doesn’t remember events 30 or 40 years ago, never mind a hundred!
In fact when Michael Eisner came on board, he wanted to replace the caricatures in the Hollywood Brown Derby to more recent ones, because no one today remembered the old actors. But that was not the Brown Derby. But how do you balance reality with Guest expectations?
“My feeling is to keep these things and let guests ask questions, learn and grow” But today, most people don’t have the time to do these things; they can’t see the forest for the trees. So I then asked if all the discussions today, are all this in concrete. “All I can say is these plans have been in place for a couple of years, but much depends on financing, and if the new Star Wars movie is a big hit or if Disney can negotiate the rights to use the Marvel characters in the Florida parks. Discussions about that are also going on right now. My advice is you never know how long something is going to be around at a Disney theme park so go out and enjoy it now.
Gertie may have a year or two so there is still time to drop by and get a photo. Even Pixar Place is expanding, that is why Catastrophe Canyon is being razed, for the land footprint.
So there you have it, a bit of history, trivia, and maybe a glimpse into the future of Echo Lake at the Studios, thanks to the amazing mind of Disney’s most knowledgeable guru, Mr. Jim Korkis…
If you love these kinds of stories, you might enjoy picking up one or more of the books written by Jim including the Vault of Walt series that features tales of the theme parks. They are all available at Amazon.
And even better news is that Jim is hard at work finishing up two new books to be released this summer!