The Arts
May 24-30, 2006

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Walt Disney, back when his head and body were still together

And My Frozen Corpse Goes Right There: Uncle Walt points out the salient features of his self-contained world in Peter Ellenshaw's 1958 drawing of Disneyland.

In Walt's Vaults

A new exhibit explores the art and artifacts behind Disney's Magic Kingdom

By Richard von Busack

THE PHOTO OP was perfect, and naturally they prohibited us from taking it. At the Oakland Museum of California's exhibit "Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland," the highlight is the naked audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Intense weariness lines his eyes. Dark yellow Plexiglas greaves and shin guards shield the rotors, servos and blocks of wood that make him move. Next to the sign forbidding photos was the history of this first robot Lincoln. Created by the Walt Disney "imagineers" for the New York World's Fair in 1964, he had been packed way for years after being shipped out West when the fair ended.

He had been found waiting in a wooden crate, years after the second model robot Lincoln had already been reciting the Second Inaugural address to millions of visitors to Disneyland.

The museum is stuffed with drawings, memorabilia and bits and pieces of Disneyland over the years. The show also includes video monitors showing clips of Walt Disney in his prime on the ABC Disneyland show. What rapport with the camera Walt Disney had! No wonder so many children trusted him. He could have easily changed places with Ronald Reagan.

On hand to open the exhibit was Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter, who lives in San Francisco and is working on the Disney Family Museum at the Presidio. She was eager to counter the stories of Disney's personal remoteness: "My dad, you know, he was a great guy, a creative, enterprising little guy. He was a hugger."

Also present was Martin Sklar, who had worked with Disney ever since he was pulled out of the UCLA Daily Bruin to publish a "Main Street USA" newspaper. Today, Sklar serves as vice chairman at Walt Disney Imagineering, which didn't keep him from recalling Disney's personal loathing of the kind of sequels the company issues every month now. "I don't make sequels," Sklar recalled Disney telling some moneymen. "In the 1930s, I made a picture called The Three Little Pigs, and I made a sequel. How many of you saw it?" No one raised their hands, according to Sklar. "You can't top pigs with pigs," Disney said.

The exhibit has its undeniable pleasures: at a child-size height, the Alice in Wonderland ride's Cheshire cat glows in an ultraviolet-lit cubbyhole. Marc Davis' paintings for the stretching room in the Haunted Mansion are just as uncanny in normal light as they were in the dark. The lady who, in a flash of lightning, turns into a gorgon plays her old familiar glissando on my spine.

Disney deserved to be likened to Ford and Edison as a shaper of the world. Call Bambi shameless anthropomorphism, but it made millions see things from the deer's point of view. But there is the other side of the Disney legacy, as seen in the videotape where he is demonstrating a mechanical bird, such as turned up in Mary Poppins.

"It's better than the real thing," Disney claims, and the counter should have a hypertext button to link up Hans Christian Andersen's cautionary fable of the emperor and the nightingale. You can't top birds with birds.

It may have been the salesman in Disney that claimed that superiority of the artificial over the real. However, Disney's history—history the museum overlooks—includes the discarded plan for the Mineral King resort, which would have required bulldozing several miles of Sequoia National Park.

Charm aside, this show functions as a huge plugola for Disneyland's 50th birthday and the raised ticket prices for the duration seem all too typical of the company's legacy of profiteering. At its worst, Disney and his followers created a tollgate at the wilderness of the imagination—well earning the robot Lincoln's silent rebuke.

Behind the Magic—50 Years of Disneyland runs through Aug. 20 at the Oakland Museum of California, 10th and Oak streets, Oakland. (510.238.2200)

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