Review: ‘The Imagineering Story’ takes a no-holds-barred look at Disneyland’s birth and youth

A new documentary series takes an unvarnished look behind the curtain at Walt Disney Imagineering and its secretive creative laboratory where the theme park magicians design and create Disney’s fantasy worlds and attractions.

“The Imagineering Story” documentary series debuting on the new Disney+ streaming service on Nov. 12 traces the 65-year history of the Disney artists and engineers who design and build Disney theme parks and attractions around the world.

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The first episode of “The Imagineering Story” documents the successes and failures of what skeptics called “Walt’s Folly” and the creative team that dreamed up and built Disneyland with a blend of artistic skill, risk-taking spirit and high drama.

“The Imagineering Story” might be too esoteric for casual fans if it appeared as a series on ABC or dropped all at once on Netflix, but Disney+ is the perfect venue for the documentary. Hardcore Disney fans will eat it up and pore over every frame looking for new wrinkles in the often-told story and hidden secrets revealed in the footage about what’s next.

The six-part docuseries offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at Disney’s secretive creative studio and features interviews with Imagineers Bob Gurr, Alice Davis, Rolly Crump, Tony Baxter, Joe Rohde and many others.

Walt Disney tells a visitor, Associated Press’ Bob Thomas in Anaheim, where the two Disneyland trains will stop to take on passengers for the trip around the grounds. Railway Station in the background will be the first sight of Disneyland for visitors. Two entrances to the grounds will be on either side of the station. (File photo by the Associated Press)

The documentary takes viewers on a six-decade journey as Imagineering forebearer WED Enterprises creates Disneyland and every Disney theme park in Florida, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The first episode of “The Imagineering Story” covers what will be fairly familiar ground for most Disney fans — the conception, birth and early years of Disneyland. The debut episode follows a story arc that spans from early plans for the park, its frantic construction and a disastrous grand opening to the 1959 E-ticket expansion, 1964 World’s Fair and Walt Disney’s untimely death.

SEE ALSO: Can you name all 15 E-ticket rides still at Disneyland? It’s not as easy as you think

What separates the debut episode of “The Imagineering Story” from other Disneyland retrospectives are the detail, depth and magnitude of the material. The first show is full of never-before-seen construction footage of the park being built in an Anaheim orange grove.

Crowds throng Main Street U.S.A. on opening at Disneyland, July 17, 1955. (File photo by the Orange County Register/SCNG)

A helicopter flies over the earthen berm surrounding the park. Walt Disney rambles by in a Jeep along a rutted path. A 1950s station wagon travels along the Jungle Cruise route void of water and foliage. The Tomorrowland TWA rocket gets trucked into place. Crews hurriedly install the teacups. The Mark Twain riverboat takes shape.

The docuseries tells the story of Imagineering through the growth of Disney parks around the globe and the groundbreaking attractions that accompanied them.

The first episode of the docuseries captures the wonder, ingenuity and courage of the Imagineers as they embarked on Walt Disney’s grand experiment to create a theme park unlike anything the world had ever seen.

Nothing went according to plan during the lead-up to Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955. Record rainfall turned the denuded former orange groves to a muddy muck. The Rivers of America leaked and remained stubbornly dry.

The star-crossed opening of Disneyland that became known as “Black Sunday” and the chaotic days and weeks that followed play out in all their calamitous details. The Dumbo elephants had to be unloaded with step ladders, the overloaded Mark Twain nearly sank, the tea cups fell apart and needed to be welded back together.

The trackless Autopia course was surrounded by dirt. Gleeful grade schoolers T-boned each other with the cars. The Tomorrowland motorway devolved into demolition derby madness.

“They all had the attitude that they were going to ride those cars no matter what,” Imagineer Bob Gurr says in the documentary. “Instead of waiting in line like they should, they were jumping over the fence, running up the track and commandeering cars coming back into the load area and pulling people out of the cars and taking over the cars themselves. Nobody had anticipated this and it was a complete madhouse.”

There are also lighter moments. Walt Disney glides past in a Skyway bucket or takes the wheel of an Autopia car. Mermaids sun on a rock in the lagoon as the military gray submarines sail past. The short-lived but always-beloved Flying Saucers bounce on a cushion of air in Tomorrowland.

But much of the mood is darker than you might expect from a Disney-backed production. Midway through the first episode, Walt Disney provides a foreboding quote that anticipates the dysfunction and disarray that will soon follow his untimely death.

“I told them I said, ‘Look, the old man is getting old here,’” Walt Disney says in the documentary. “If anything did happen to me where I might become incapacitated in any way or anything would happen where I wouldn’t be here tomorrow, that thing has got to go on ahead or a lot of people would be hit. I’ve got to find a way.”

During the segment on the 1959 expansion, the documentary presents fascinating footage of the submarine voyage, monorail and Matterhorn mountain under construction. Imagineers in business suits and hard hats take stripped-down Matterhorn cars on test runs along the coaster track through a warren of steel girders that would eventually form the frame for the faux mountainside.

The highlight of the first episode has to be Imagineer Bob Gurr’s behind-the-scenes tour of the long-rumored, rarely-seen basketball court inside the peak of the Matterhorn mountain. Gurr sinks an underhanded free throw and adds his signature to a wall filled with the names of virtually every ride operator who has worked on the attraction.

Imagineer Rolly Crump recounts the birth of the Enchanted Tiki Room and tells a decidedly un-Disney story about Walt’s colorful concerns about early plans that conceived of the bird show as a restaurant.

“Walt always wanted a tea room, but instead we’re going to do a little restaurant,” Imagineer Rolly Crump says in the documentary. “John Hench was asked to do a rendering and in there he had birds in cages. Walt took one look at it and said, ‘John, you can’t have birds in cages.” John says, ‘Why not?’ Walt says, ‘Because they’ll poop in the food.’ That’s exactly what he said. We all cracked up. John said, ‘No, no, no. Maybe they’re little mechanical birds.’ And Walt said, ‘Oh, little mechanical birds.’ And that’s how it all got started.”

Imagineers program the movements of early audio-animatronic figures for the Carousel of Progress at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Costumeless animatronic dolls await their international attire inside It’s a Small World. The overwhelmed Imagineers try as they can to get the glitchy one-of-a-kind Abraham Lincoln animatronic figure to work in time for the World’s Fair.

“Lincoln would go into a complete spastic fit,” Gurr says in the documentary.

The most bizarre scene in the first episode of “The Imagineering Story”: A motley crew of Pirates of the Caribbean animatronic figures standing in the back of a stake-bed truck as they speed down the freeway bound for Disneyland.

The closing scenes of the first episode offer a glimpse of what’s to come in the next installment: Project X, as Disney World was known around the Imagineering offices.

The show ends on a low note. Walt Disney’s death visibly chokes up Rolly Crump and Bob Gurr — still to this day.

“We all went down to a restaurant and celebrated his life and had a few drinks,” Crump says in the documentary. “We all kind of looked at each other like, ‘What’s our next assignment?’ We really didn’t know. And John Hench made the strongest statement of all. He said, ‘Now we’ll know how much of our work Walt did for us.’”

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Long Beach’s Vicki Lawrence returns to television after 30 years

By Barbara Kingsley-Wilson

Contributing Writer 

Longtime Long Beach resident Vicki Lawrence is best known as an ensemble player in the iconic “Carol Burnett Show” and later as the star of “Mama’s Family,” which ran from 1983 to 1990.

Now Lawrence, 69, finds herself starring in a TV show for the first time in 30 years. “The Cool Kids” centers around a group of trouble-making seniors who, according to Fox publicists, believe “growing old with dignity is for chumps.” Lawrence plays the bawdy, rum-swilling, tech-savvy Margaret. Her co-stars are David Alan Grier, Martin Mull and Leslie Jordan.

Lawrence didn’t want to audition for the show, saying she was often told she was too young for parts because people expected “Mama” to show up. The script called for someone in their 70s, “And I’m like, ‘You know what? I know I’m old, but I’m not 70 yet, so no, I don’t want to go read,’” Lawrence said in a recent interview.

She also didn’t want to drive to the casting office in Santa Monica to read. She got talked into it by her agent around the time she was shooting “The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special.” She read for the part and the casting agent proceeded to ask her about the chemistry on “The Carol Burnett Show.”

As she told the New York Post, she used to look with pity on 405 commuters and told herself, “I will never be one of those idiots that does that every day.’ Now I’m one of those idiots.”

Lawrence grew up in Inglewood and now, married to Al Schultz – who was the makeup artist for “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Planet of the Apes” – lives in the Long Beach neighborhood of Naples. She spoke recently about what it’s like to return to sitcoms and actually play someone her own age.

You spent most of your career as a young woman playing an older woman, “Mama” on “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967-’78, and in your own show. Now you’re an older woman playing an older woman. Which is more fun?

Well it’s pretty fun to get to be myself. I loved Mama; she’s such a great character. Maybe she (Margaret) is me on steroids. She’s been around many many blocks. Margaret has lived a life – she’s a little ahead of the guys. It’s kinda neat that she’s not attached to a man. You get a clear opinion of a strong woman. She can be very outspoken and she has nobody to answer to. I guess there aren’t a lot of those women around.

The cast members are in their 60s and Martin Mull is 75. You guys actually seem a little young for a retirement community.

Not really. I play these places. People are opting for that at a younger age, 55. Especially people in California – housing is so expensive and they’re opting for this. … Those people are in Florida having Friday night dances. They are busy.

You have a touring show, “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show.” You played in La Mirada awhile back and there were some gray heads, in the audience, but also young people. Do you think you have a lot of younger fans? Was it because you played Hannah Montana’s grandma?

When I started my one woman show, there was a whole group of college guys … they watched “Mama’s Family.”

Vicki Lawrence takes turns on stage with the character she made famous, Thelma “Mama” Harper, in “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show.” (File photo)

Carol (Burnett) attributes the popularity to people finding us backwards. They find us on Youtube and then watch the reruns.

… Everybody asks, “When is Carol (Burnett) going to be on?” I want us us to be a well-oiled machine when Carol comes because that show ran like a top. If she has to shoot 10 hours a day, she’ll never speak to me again.

You were 18 when you started “The Carol Burnett Show.” You said something to the effect that Carol got you on the horse, but Harvey Korman taught you how to ride. I know your co-stars on the “The Cool Kids” are veterans, but anyone there that needs mentoring?

No, we’re all veterans. Leslie (Jordan) says we’ve been around the block so many times we’re dizzy. We are all pros and we’ve done this and nobody is a troublemaker.

But this one is the hardest and the farthest away from home for me. The “Carol Burnett Show” was where I grew up and learned everything. “Mama’s Family” was made up of many of the same cast and crew and it was like grad school for me. Now here we are 30 years down the road and I get the first sitcom in that many years and it’s completely new.

Vicki Lawrence on the Cool Kids set with co-star Leslie Jordan. Cool Kids is Lawrence’s first sitcom in almost 30 years. (Courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Co.)

Your start in TV was something of a Cinderella story. You were a young performer and you wrote to Carol Burnett in 1966 and included a photo and a news clipping that mentioned you resembled her. She called you at home, and then went to see you at the Miss Fireball contest, which you won. She eventually cast you in her new show even though you were young, inexperienced and very shy. The network was dubious at first, but you learned and eventually won an Emmy. Do you think this sort of scenario could happen in TV again?

No, absolutely not. First of all, no one writes a letter. The selfie has overtaken everything. I asked her (Burnett) later, “Why would you read my letter?” She said letters that are legible, written in good English and had something to say are few and far between.

Nowadays, I say if you’re not Carrie Underwood out of the box, you’re out. What happened to me would not happen again. Now where you go when you’re green is a reality show … “America’s Got Talent,” “The Voice.” And if you’re not great, you’re gone,”

Sometimes I look back and think what a novelty it was.

So you’re around longer than your comedy contemporaries. Is it hard to be asked to talk about something you did 50 years ago?

I just feel really fortunate with everything that’s happened to me. History is more interesting to me, we play this game on the set, “Does anyone have a story about Bob Marley? Or, who’s got a good Glen Campbell story?” I did. I also had Gloria Swanson and Bob Hope.

What comedies do you watch?

Not many. I like “The Barefoot Contessa.” For a while, I watched “Modern Family.” We’re more into dramas like “Madam Secretary,” “NCIS,” “Blue Bloods.” Now I’m watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” because of Charlie Day (“The Cool Kids” executive producer who plays Charlie Kelly in “It’s Always Sunny”).

Why Long Beach and not Pacific Palisades or someplace like that?

We’re serious sailors and we came down to race boats. That’s why we moved out of Hidden Hills, which was very rural then.

Do you light up your house for Christmas like other Naples residents do?

Yes we do!


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