Monday, February 27, 2006

Lincoln's Second Assassination

Imagineers are certainly allowed to revisit earlier attractions at the parks to reassess their relevance with current audiences but with every additional touch-up of Disneyland's 'Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln' it seems the very heart and soul of this stirring stage presentation gets another bullet to the head.

A more sophisticated Audio Animatronic figure arriving in the 80's was initially a cause for celebration, but when the animators got hold of Lincoln they were more fixated on the technology than the performance, making Abe flap around like Richard Simmons on speed.

And then its latest incarnation, opening several years ago, appeared to be the final death rattle. For some reason the show wasn't about Lincoln's timeless and inspiring words anymore but a showcase for a 3-D sound system that was getting all the Imagineering Audiophiles panties in a bunch, a system by which guests could hear realistic dimensional sound all around them via lightweight headsets.

So now, just before the curtains come up on Abe, you can hear in excruciating detail the imaginary grandfather clock in the far right corner of the room, scissors clip at your hair and, in what might be the most cringe inducing experience in theme park history, the breathy effete voice of Abe Lincoln whispering softly in your ear, each syllable sending a soft burst of air into your skull. In one fleeting instant our great moment with Lincoln has turned into something that feels like a prelude to bad touch; something unwelcome and dirty.

Once the curtains open it's apparent that all hallmarks of quality and class have been stripped from the stage. No more the regal red carpet, the high sheen oak furniture, the ghostly image of the Capital in the background. Now it's all grey, funereal and bone cold. And instead of Lincoln sharing his timeless thoughts on liberty, equality and freedom as he once did (in a speech cleverly cobbled together from several of his writings) this go-round he speaks to gathered dignitaries at the consecration of a cemetary. Yes, it's the Gettysburg Address.

And while the Gettysburg Address is perhaps the finest speech a President ever made, it is utterly and completely inappropriate for this show's grand vision. An audience unaware of the context of the Gettysburg Address will hear nothing but high-minded jabber. The earlier monologue, on the other hand, played as a proud stand-alone discourse on American values and, in our post 9-11 world, is more eerily relevant and potent than it's ever been before.

The Gettysburg Address and its relevance to world events today? Not so much.

Oh, to imagine Lincoln back at Disneyland doing what he did best; inspiring guests to once again feel proud to be part of the American Experience.


Anonymous said...

I'm a journalist who has interviewed Diane Disney Miller -- her quote about Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln: "Dad's heart and soul was in that show."

I hope if the show reopens at Disneyland -- we've been promised it will return -- that they sincerely consider bringing back the Royal Dano performance from the compilation of Lincoln's public addresses and writings. I'd also like to see a bit more Lincoln history on display in the before or after-show lobby areas and talk about how Walt Disney was influenced by our 16th President.

Like one of the Sherman Brothers said, Walt didn't care whether you were black, white or Jewish, he just cared that you were a good person.

Merlin Jones said...

Walt's original show was so stirring and so much more relevant a message to today's viewer - - and the original scoring and vocal arragements always gave me goose pimples.

I could never understand why the soaring Battle Hymn of the Republic was replaced by that cheesy EPCOT America song back in the 80's (and still was truncated when reinstated for the odd 3-D sound version of the show more recently).

In terms of art direction, the attempts to make Lincoln look more "relevant" have also been an huge misstep, adding long coats and "hipper" hairstyles from 80's Hollywood Westerns, when the original costume and make-up design far more evoked the historical Lincoln.

The Disneyland CD sets confirm that Walt's original Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln has never been surpassed in terms of show content and presentation - - It's time - - after 20 years - - to bring it back!

4:27 PM

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see issues like this raised. So often we can be so distracted by the huge issues at stake that the smaller things can slip through the cracks. I think it's been the insidious creep of sub-mediocrity into the C- and D-tickets over the last decade that have really marked the decline of the parks. Think of the replacements for Journey into Imagination at EPCOT, for example.

For me there are a few core attractions that simply mean pure Walt for me. While I think that the parks aren't meant to be a museum, these few attractions should be kept pure out of respect for the man whose ideals created it all. To me these 'untouchables' would include Lincoln, the Tiki Room, and the Carousel of Progress.

I couldn't believe what they did to Mr. Lincoln in the most recent rehab. The audio gimmick is incredibly inappropriate and out of place; that haircut bit was ripped off from Disney-MGM for pete's sake.

So, well done on calling this out. It's attention to detail like this that will revive the parks the way that they should be.


Anonymous said...

Ron Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame wrote a blog entry about how much he loved the original speech and how it shaped his politics and BSG in general (scroll down to Feb 2, 2006 entry):

Anonymous said...

OK start eh bashing: but why should Lincoln return to DL in the first place?

Let's look at it this way: it was a breathtaking AA-presentation when it opened but since has long lost its splendor. Take a look at the lines for this attraction - they do not exist. While Disney fans and local start the battle cry everytime WDI proposes to close the attraction, they are not visiting the attraction. Therefore, it is back to the old question. What do we want for DL?

Shall it be a museum? In that case keep Lincoln and return it to its original version. But please also get rid of all the new attractions like Indy!

Or shall DL be a breathing, living theme park, evolving with its guests and the american culture? In the later case it is important to stay true to Walt's vision - but it surely also means that old attractions which noone is willing to watch anymore can't be kept around for ever only because they were interesting once upon a time. See, different from the Tiki Room Lincoln always was kind of "heavy stuff" and up to today this shows in the bad attendance for Lincoln.

The new 50s movie seems to pull in way bigger crowds. Which in my mind is enough to warrant a veto against bringing Lincoln back - maybe move him to a museum somewhere? There it would create a way higher positive impact since the competition is weaker for guest interest.

Certainly the question remains what to do with the opera house. You can't keep the 50s movie around forever. So ... why not return to Walt's vision?? Creating something bold, exciting and new! Creating a new show featuring maybe a movie and AA segment??

Anonymous said...

Apparently, I am a lone voice. While I am highly sympathetic to most concerns about the recent direction of the parks, I thoroughly enjoyed the Gettysburg-ization of the Lincoln attraction.

To me, this was an example of one of the things that has been missing at Disneyland -- the unexpected (and unmarketed) surprises and innovations you once could count on during a visit. I thought the "you are there" sense of attending on of the most impactful moments of American history was pretty thrilling, spine-tingling and inspiring. My kids agreed.

At least, do me the favor of not making this the lead story on the Blog. There are far worse problems for Lasseter & Co. to tackle.

Tor Stenstad said...

Good post. It's worth noting that the recently opened Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL, treats the Lincoln legacy with honor and still provides a jaw-dropping, compelling, and emotional experience. If anything, the Springfield museum should provide the Disney imagineers with a clear example of how to make history accessable without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Anonymous said...

Another element of the show that was desecrated in the latest update is the actual sequence of the Lincoln AA's movements. In the original version of the show, the figure is revealed to the guests seated in a chair in a position that echoed DC's Lincoln monument, and as the musical overture crescendoed, the figure unexpectedly rose from his seat to make his speech. This always elicited an excited gasp from guests and was another very imnportant show aspect that balanced the historical content with entertainment content. The latest update had the figure already revealed standing and after the speech the figure simply sits down in a much simplified chair. A very flat ending to a show that is intended to edutain in the manner of all of Walt's best attractions.

Will Robison said...

Interesting comments on both sides. Count me amongst the people that loved the Old Lincoln and want to see it back, but there were several good reasons people had for not wanting it back as well. I think the problem has become that Disneyland is 50 years old and the other parks are rapidly aging as well. What needs to be decided is what is the vision for the next 50 years. Does Disneyland become a museum? Or do they simply forget the past in favor of constantly changing attractions in an attempt to make everything about the here and the now? A balance needs to be struck, I think. And an appropriate place for Disney history to shine needs to be found.

Jenny Lerew said...

Great post. I want to address Wil Robinson: Lincoln is a part of the past, and so was the "original" Mr. Lincoln show, but he's also timeless, and frankly, if something ain't broke, why "fix" it? And especially so pointlessly?
There are lots of thrills in Disneyland. The "Great Moments" and accompanying "Walt Disney Story" were far from being "museum" pieces--they were new to thousands--millions of new visitors to Disneyland. I really oppose the urge to change something simply because it's been there for a "long" time...that kind of thinking has frankly resulted in a Los Angeles with zero sense of architectural history, atmosphere, and open space. As far as Disneyland is concerned, it's still a young place in many ways; the original conception of Lincoln, in particular the patchwork speech he was given(so well done), was a brilliant achievment. I've always detested the cheap-shot "oh, typical DISNEY: A Lincoln robot, how crass" slant the snarkier press has taken for the last 35 years; I was genuinely moved by Lincoln as a kid, in the manner I think the imagineers were going for. Oh well.
The "new" version really is a poor revision.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with the "new" Lincoln is a problem we have seen with more recent Disney attractions. It has NO heart. It is a gee-wiz technically superior show with no heart.
The "old " Lincoln was a GREAT show because it had HEART. Even in the beautifully (VERY low-tech) paintings it was moving and made you believe in the American dream.
But this is just a problem with Lincoln, but also most of DCA and a number of other more recent attractions.

Anonymous said...

Lets face it...AA figures, for the most part, and particularly the human variety, just don't astound the way they did in 1964. (Especially the younger video game generation)

I vote for returning Lincoln, but in a smaller (50 seat?) venue, where those few who go can get an up close and intimate experience. Part of my problem with the show is seeing it with 15 people in a 500 seat house.

There was a poropsal floating around to put him into a new theater where the Main Street Cinema is now. God knows, less people go in there than the old Lincoln show...

Anonymous said...

A small intimate Lincoln theater with the original New York World's Fair show would be a perfect setting. The serious school teachers could continue to bring their students, and those guests who never forgot why Walt and Lincoln together symbolized all that is magnificent in our unforgetable American origins.

One can only understand this relationship had they been there in the Studio the morning Walt directed the crew that recorded Royal Dano's solemn performance. Walt's creative twinkle in his eye was the brightest I'd ever seen. Lincoln should never be removed from Disneyland, but remain to show the dignity that is Abraham Lincoln and Walt Disney.

S.T. Lewis said...

I wanted to comment on this, and then I read what Merlin Jones wrote. Now all I have left to say is... "exactly!" And also, I don't need a haircut. Audio gimmicks may have their place, but it's not stepping on the toes of President Lincoln.

ChristianZ said...

The change in the Lincoln show was the death blow to my already terminally ill respect for Disney as a company.

Don't lose all your respect just yet. It should be obvious that the point of this blog is getting the problems fixed.