It’s the anniversary of the 1964-65 New York Worlds Fair so let’s talk more about the events that took place at the Walt Disney Studio as the Old Maestro prepared for this impressive world showcase. Not surprisingly, Walt Disney wanted to be the talk of the fair by providing stellar attractions that would blow people away. Never one to fall back on what had worked in the past, the innovative leader was determined to come up with ground breaking, new attractions. As expected, Walt would be pushing the envelope in his quest for something original while his critics stood on the sidelines mocking his impressive plans.

One of the ideas Walt Disney came up with was a show entitled, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” It would be an impressive show that would chronicle the life of the 16th President of the United States. The show would begin with beautiful paintings by Imagineering artist, Sam McKim and once that segment was complete, the music would suddenly surge as stunning lighting effects reveal a seated figure on stage. However, the show was only beginning. As the curtains parted, the figure would rise to his feet and deliver an impassioned speech to the audience. It would not be an actor playing a role, rather an “audio-animatronic” figure with life like features and movements that could only be described as human.

This was a pretty tall order for the Disney Imagineers. Keep in mind this was the early sixties and no one had the technology we all use today. This was all analog, boys and girls. Think clunky retro-technology of compression tubes, gears and switches. Saddled with these limitations, the Disney Imagineers had to work magic and it sure wasn’t easy. A group of us animators gathered in the machine shop on the Disney studio back lot to get a first look at Abraham Lincoln. At least, an automatic version of the 16th President. Suddenly, the device was switched on, and the figure sprang to life. However, it wasn’t a pretty version of life. The Audio-Animatronic device suddenly lurched forward, it’s movements twitchy and uncoordinated. I have to confess it was more Frankenstein monster than the President of the United States. The old animators headed back to their offices in the Animation Building laughing their heads off. It would appear that the Old Maestro had finally bitten off more than he could chew. This robotic device was hardly inspiring. It was darn right scary. I returned to my desk and quickly whipped out this cartoon sketch that I’ve reproduced here. The animators got a chuckle out of “Abraham Lincoln” going after the boss.

As you all know, Walt Disney had the last laugh. The attraction at the New York Worlds Fair proved to be a hit with the public and once the fair had completed its run, the amazing attraction became a fixture at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim. If you’ve seen “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” you know what I mean. The show is stunning. It’s a celebration of everything great about America. Walt Disney, more than anyone else knew how to tell the story of a great man and do it in a manner that can only be called, “Disney.” This kid remembers seeing the completed show back in the early sixties and I’ll tell you it was jaw dropping. Once again, the Old Maestro proved you can never dream too big. And, once again, he demonstrated that to all of us.

Reproduced here is a gag I drew back in the early sixties when Walt Disney was developing the attraction, "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." Things didn't always go well in the early attempts and I decided to have some fun with Walt.

Reproduced here is a gag I drew back in the early sixties when Walt Disney was developing the attraction, "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." Things didn't always go well in the early attempts and I decided to have some fun with Walt.

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AuthorFloyd Norman

Back in the sixties it seemed every day was an exciting day. You never knew what you might find or discover while wandering the Walt Disney Studio lot. On this particular morning we were in for a surprise. As we turned the corner near sound stage one we happened upon a remarkable sight. Huge dinosaurs loomed over us, and we felt we had suddenly returned to a primordial jungle in our earth’s prehistoric past.

Well, you probably already know Walt Disney and his team of magic makers were busily creating attractions for the upcoming New York’s World Fair that would be held during the years, 1964-65. It was a massive undertaking and you would have thought the Old Maestro had enough on his hands without this huge undertaking. However, even though Walt had several animated features in preparation and the upcoming Mary Poppins live-action movie being prepped, he wasn’t about to pass on this incredible challenge that would test the talent and resources of Walt Disney Productions.

I’ll have to confess seeing these massive dinosaurs being created was a remarkable sight. As a matter of fact, a good deal of the attractions for the New York’s Worlds Fair were created right here on the Walt Disney Studio lot. We were a bee hive of activity and it seemed Walt had pulled out all the stops in order to get the job done. The Disney artists, technicians, carpenters and machinists were working feverishly in order to meet the Worlds Fair deadline. If you were lucky enough to be working at Walt Disney Productions back in the early sixties you had a front row seat and a view of these amazing attractions as they were being created. Yes, the sixties were a remarkable time, and Walt Disney showed no signs of slowing down. We never knew what magic tricks Walt was going to pull out of his hat next, but I guarantee you, he had no shortage of amazing ideas. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow, okay?

Dinosaurs on stage one at the Walt Disney Studio lot. Yes, they were there in all their glory and it was an amazing sight.

Dinosaurs on stage one at the Walt Disney Studio lot. Yes, they were there in all their glory and it was an amazing sight.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman

This is my view as I’m sitting on a park bench outside the Animation Building at the Walt Disney Studio. The year is 2014, but the years long past are still in my head. I shared this bench with a number of Disney friends and colleagues over the years and the first name that comes to mind is famed Disney composer, Oliver Wallace. Ollie and I would sit on this bench at break time and enjoy a pleasant conversation. If you don’t know who Ollie Wallace is I’ll give you a hint. The composer scored dozens of Disney animated short cartoons and feature films. Ollie had a full head of assertive white hair much like the famous orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Well into his eighties, Ollie Wallace was always a joy to speak with. I also sat on this bench with Kay Silva. Kay was one of the many women working at Disney back in the fifties and one of the many female artists you’ll never read about. As I’ve often said, few people realize how many women worked here and the important role they played in the making of animated films. Kay had a great sense of humor and we would sit and joke as people walked past. Kay was due for open heart surgery back then and she took it all in stride. Sadly, she never survived the operation, but my memories of her remain fresh and clear as if it were yesterday.

As I sit here I suddenly realize behind me is the window of my very first Disney office. Back in February of 1956 a group of young artists were taking their first shot at becoming  Disney animators. We would have a month of training before the decision was made to keep us or let us go. The seven young hopefuls were put in a large office in B-Wing, the very same office directly behind me. Of course, there were many Disney artists who occupied 1B-1 over the years. Back in the sixties, Blaine Gibson and Jack Fergis sculpted mermaids for Disneyland in the very same space. In the seventies, the office was the home of Disney Animation Scene Planning and was run by Ruthie Thompson and Bob Ferguson. 102 years of age, Ruthie Thompson is still with us today.

My memories of Disney past is a long time ago and yet it still seems like yesterday. I can even remember the names of my pals and colleagues and the large office we shared. Tom Yakutis, Tom Dagenais, Rick Gonzales, David Michener, Jack Foster, Bob Ray and Stan Chin were my seven comrades hoping for a job at Disney. Luckily, we all made the cut and most of our group stayed in animation the remainder of our careers. Bob Ray didn’t stay at Disney for long and Stan Chin later left for an advertising career in New York. The rest of us managed to do okay. Rick Gonzales became a top character designer at Ruby-Spears and Dave Michener became a story artist, animator and director. Tom Dagenais kept his word and left the drawing board for a writing gig. Tom heard that writers were being paid more than the artists. The very funny, Tom Yakutis even became a professor at a Midwestern university before returning to cartoon world and wrapping up his career at the Walt Disney Studios in the nineties.

As I sit on this park bench I realize much has changed over the past fifty years and the Walt Disney Studio is hardly the same company it was back in 1956. Although animation’s future has never looked more promising, it’s hardly the same business I entered back in the fifties when cartoon making was considered an odd, quirky and unstable profession. However, in 2014 animation has become big time and big business and Disney’s recent movie has already netted over a billion dollars. That’s a good thing, I suppose but somehow I just can’t seem to get excited. I keep remembering the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney and a business that used to be filled with magic instead of money.

This is my view from the park bench on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I shared this bench with many a Disney Legend when I was a kid. My memories of those conversations are as fresh and clear today as they were fifty years ago.

This is my view from the park bench on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I shared this bench with many a Disney Legend when I was a kid. My memories of those conversations are as fresh and clear today as they were fifty years ago.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman
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