On the morning of December 1, Rahm Emanuel woke up, stepped out of bed, and walked to the full-length mirror in his closet. “Who’s the sexiest Mayor in Chicago?” he asked his reflection. His reflection reassured him, “You are. You’re the sexiest Mayor in Chicago.”
He then let out one of his famous profanity-laden tirades against his reflection. He wouldn’t be able to do it later in the day as he was scheduled to proclaim December 5 Walt Disney Day in Chicago. “Think about the children,” his reflection reminded him. “The children.”
On that day, December 5, a couple from Los Angeles would announce that they had purchased a home in Chicago. Now this wasn’t the first time a couple from Los Angeles would do such a thing. But something set this apart – for the home that was purchased was the very one Walt Disney was born in.
Then they had to go and announce a plan to turn it into a museum.
To make this a reality, the couple brought in the finest architects, preservationists, and historians in Chicago and a who’s who of designers and historians with their roots in Disney culture, including former TEA President Rick Rothschild, who pushed for the conversion of the living room into a Circlevision theater. Rick loves Circlevision.
Also on the team is the key to the project’s success – Heidi Trotta. As an IMAX theater manager programming Disney films and as a journalist covering the cinema industry, I had the pleasure of dealing with Heidi on multiple occasions during her tenure at Disney. She is a miracle worker.
Outside of the theme parks and cruise ships, Disney tourism is a risky business. The owners can choose to refurbish the home as a facsimile of how it looked in 1901. But as Walt only lived there for four years until moving to Missouri for that formative stage of his life, this incarnation of the museum would be less about Walt and more about his parents, Elias and Flora, and, by proxy, about the people and building of the city of Chicago.
The owners can turn the home into galleries full of displays and photos and media presentations, but that museum already exists in San Francisco. During its first year of operation, the Walt Disney Family Museum was unable to meet expected attendance figures due to a number of issues, including being out of the way, construction in the area, lack of direct public transit, confusion with the public between Disney park and Disney museum, and the fact it was piggybacking on the Walt Disney Company’s website, creating confusion as to who actually owned and ran the museum. Things in San Francisco have improved significantly, but the Chicago museum will have its own unique challenges.
Among those is that it’s small. And that it’s in a location where Walt only lived for his first four years. At the same time this is taking place, other parts of Walt Disney’s history remain neglected. Marceline, Missouri, where Walt grew up and whose Main Street influenced Disneyland’s, continues to receive only a fraction of the tourists that visit Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, some 90 minutes away. In Kansas City, a small garage stands unoccupied overlooking potholed streets at the intersections of Forest and East. Its owners hope one day to reopen it to the public, but it’s taken years to prevent demolition and to stabilize this former home of the Laugh-o-Gram Studios, where Walt started his animation career. Its future remains uncertain.
In the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, very few flock to Gelson’s Supermarket knowing they’re standing on the very ground where Disney’s first studio, the Hyperion studio, was located. Very few, but that includes Dina Benadon and Brent Young, the couple that purchased the Disney birthplace in Chicago.
Dina and Brent are animators, filmmakers, and attraction designers extraordinaire, owners of the company Super 78 Studios. On a freezing February morning in Denver, I sat down for coffee with Jay Williams, who had just joined Super 78 as a producer after a sixteen year career as a creative executive for Disney. “Brent and Dina are both huge Disney fans,” he told me. “They understand that without Disney, they wouldn’t have their careers in animation or attractions.”
In the following photo, stolen from InPark Magazine with the publisher’s permission, you can see Brent. The photo was taken just a few weeks ago at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando.
That’s Brent on the right. Next to him is Marty Sklar, who’s the key to the project’s success. On the left is my neighbor, friend and colleague Doug Barnes, owner of The Season Pass Podcast, which Brent co-hosts. Between Marty and Doug is my friend and colleague Robert Coker, a Super 78 show writer who maintains the Thrillride.com website and often appears on the Season Pass. Do not be alarmed by Robert’s blank stare. Those close to him have assured me that he never fully recovered from the Posessed show at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt. Ultimately, that’s why Robert is the key to the project’s success.
There’s one unique advantage the Disney birthplace has. As humans, we are drawn to the place of origin. There’s something primordial and sacred about it. There’s a reason that even today the Olympic flame is lit on Mt. Olympus and not in Brussels. And that’s the key to the project’s success.
With the exception of L Ron Hubbard, Walt Disney is perhaps the most deified non-political person of the 20th Century. Like the ancient gods, he created an abundance of half-human, half-animal beings who performed impossible tasks of glory in fables and tales of yore. To bring these stories to the masses, great temples were erected wherein resided poets, and songsmiths, and playwrights, and artists, and sculptors, and craftsmen of all varieties.
And then there’s the curious relationship between Marty Sklar and Moses. Jewish tradition states that the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, were spoken by the Lord and written by Moses. Many of the words spoken by Walt were written by Marty. Moses delived the Ten Commandments. Marty delivered “Mickey’s Ten Commandments.” Moses parted the Red Sea. Marty rode through the parted Red Sea at Universal Studios on more than one occasion.
Perhaps it’s all a sham. Perhaps there’s something bigger at play. One possible reason for the purchase and restoration of the Disney birthplace can be found in the 16th Century writings of the French apothecary Nostradamus. One quatrain appearing in his 1557 book Les Propheties states:
A man and woman from the Lake of Silver
Shall arrive in the City of Fire
They shall breath new life
Into the Master of Vermin
An ancient ritual they shall incur
Reversing time to its origin
A new body presented
A vessel of flesh
One could interpret the quatrain thus: “Lake of Silver” refers to the Silverlake District of Los Angeles where Dina and Brent live. “City of Fire” is Chicago, destroyed by a raging fire in 1871. “Master of Vermin” is Walt Disney. Nostradamus lived during the period of the Black Death, during which mice were considered disease spreading vermin. “Reversing time to its origin” refers to the restoration of the house. “A new body presented, A vessel of flesh” complies with many ancient beliefs about the resurrection of spirits through the habitation of living human bodies.
And Dina and Brent have already found their vessel:
Seriously folks, this is a really noble cause and I commend Dina and Brent for taking it on. You can learn more about the home’s restoration and plans for its future by reading Judy Rubin’s interview with Dina and Brent at InPark Magazine and by listening to The Season Pass Podcast interview with historian Steven Clark and architect Charlie Pipal.
Also, make sure to take the time to visit www.thrillride.com to find out what exciting theme park attraction is “possessing” Robert this week.