Behind the Scenes with Danny Kaye and the Opening of EPCOT Center

Jim Korkis recently did a wonderful piece on Danny Kaye and the opening of EPCOT. Good ol’ Danny wasn’t all laughs and smiles it seems behind camera. Continue after the page break and have a look…

Beginning in the 1960s, Smith-Hemion were award-winning producers of musical specials for television, featuring such stars as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand (My Name is Barbra, 1965), Bette Midler, Julie Andrews, Elvis Presley and more. They had worked with Kaye in a new musical television production for Hallmark Hall of Fame of Peter Pan (1976) featuring Mia Farrow as Peter and Kaye as Captain Hook.

Kaye was one of the most popular entertainers of his time. He received many accolades for his work as an actor, singer, dancer and comic. He was also a celebrated chef and airplane pilot. In 1954 Kaye began his long association with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and that same year won a special Academy Award for his humanitarian work.

Despite his well-loved films from the 1940s and 1950s and Emmy award-winning television series in the 1960s, his general popularity as a performer began to fade during the mid-1970 as he devoted more and more time to other pursuits. He died in 1987.

Kaye appeared in the made-for-TV Smith-Hemion-produced special, “Kraft Salutes Disneyland’s 25th Anniversary” which aired on March 6, 1980.

Filmed throughout Disneyland to celebrate the park’s 25th anniversary, a young boy (Adam Rich) takes his first ever trip to Disneyland and encounters many odd characters (all played by Danny Kaye) who tell him about the park’s history.

So it was not unusual that Smith-Hemion thought of using the multi-talented performer again two years later to host the opening of EPCOT Center.

On camera, Kaye seems enthusiastic, playful and generally delightful. However, even the very best of performers known for their very public charitable work, can have a bad couple of days. Working on the special celebrating the opening of EPCOT Center, Kaye was not as affable off screen as he appeared on camera.

Bob Woodham was the first Monorail pilot hired in August 1971 for the Magic Kingdom. By 1982, he was in the role of Operations Coordinator and assigned to assist with the Epcot television special:

“Kaye was a problem right from the beginning,” Woodham remembered. “I got a call from his agent declaring that Kaye had to have a limousine. Remember, this was Central Florida in the early 1980s, so there were not a lot of options around. I did manage to get a brand new Cadillac limousine and informed the agent. A little while later I get back a phone call with the guy saying, ‘A Cadillac is completely unacceptable for Mr. Kaye. He has to have a Mercedes.’ I had to tell him that they had two choices: take the Cadillac or nothing.”
“Do you remember that scene in Future World where Kaye is with Drew Barrymore and in the background there are some guests? We had roped off a huge area so the guests were nowhere near them but could still be seen in the background. Anyway, Kaye starts his lines and the people just got so excited, they started snapping pictures. Kaye abruptly turns to them and yells, ‘I don’t go to your work and interrupt you!’ Bob Matheison was a vice-president and was a great guy. He told me, ‘We are going to keep roping off areas, not to keep the guests away from Kaye but to keep him away from the guests.’

“The final shot done which was the first used on the special was Kaye on top of the American Gardens Theater. We got one of those trucks with a bucket to take him up so he didn’t have to climb or walk. We had this trailer for him out in the back of the American Adventure and a golf cart to ferry him from the trailer to onstage where the bucket was. It was just a quick, short shot.’

“It was a light sprinkle, what I would call just misting, but Kaye didn’t stop complaining. If you look, you see a huge uncomplaining crowd beneath and behind him. His cart was parked by the truck and by a wall with some bushes. While he was up top doing his intro which lasted a minute or two, Ron Miller came by in another golf cart with Lillian Disney. They parked nearby and Lillian stayed in the cart while Ron got out to take care of some business. Kaye comes down, gets in his cart and yells “Who the f*** is this blocking me in? I am getting wet!” Ron runs over and tells him, ‘Get your ass back to your trailer and be off property by tomorrow morning.’

“Then there is the great story where Kaye is directing the West Point Glee Club and Dick Nunis shows up touring some executives from a foreign country and Kaye moons him while the singers are laughing. I didn’t notice it at first but my assistant nudged me and it was pretty obvious. Nunis never saw or never acknowledged that he saw it.’

“Nunis hated the Smith-Hemion people. Absolutely hated them and I could understand why. Nunis was never shown the script and had no OK over it even though he was in charge of the Disney parks. Sometimes, they would do things that might put Disney in a bad light or have the person playing the cast member do something wrong, like a server tipping over a tray of food and drink.’

“Nunis was especially upset with the Smith-Hemion production Kraft Salutes Walt Disney World’s 10th Anniversary that ran in January 1982. It had Michael Keaton as this long-haired, incompetent, snarky cast member doing things a cast member would never have been allowed to do, including having long hair and trying to pick up on barely legal Dana Plato. Nunis was still steaming from that special when the Epcot thing got underway.’

“Here’s an example of how upset he was. Marie Osmond was in the Epcot special and she was a doll. Everyone loved her and she had just discovered she was pregnant so between breaks with the dancers, she sat in a chair with an umbrella and was knitting.

“During one of the breaks, the cast members were given their opening day medallions and she saw them. She said, “I’d love to have one of those. I would be willing to buy it.’ I found out that Nunis was in charge of the medallions so I went to his office and told him that Marie would like one and had offered to pay for it and he hit the roof. ‘This is a trick! Smith-Hemion want it and they are not going to get it!’ So I had a long discussion with Dick and finally convinced him to begrudgingly give me an extra one for Marie. As I was leaving the office, he said, ‘If I find out it ended up with Smith-Hemion, I will track you down and kick your ass!’ Marie was very nice and appreciative.’

“I did have to clean up my language a little to tell these stories.”

Ron Miziker has a long list of accomplishments in his still thriving entertainment career. He joined the Disney Company as director of Entertainment and Show Development shortly before the opening of Walt Disney World. He was responsible for the elaborate October 25 dedication ceremony of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. He was also the producer of the EPCOT Center television special.

“At one point during the shooting, I was standing right next to Kaye who was waiting to make his entrance,” Miziker told me. “This sweet little old lady came up and said, ‘Mr. Kaye I have loved your work for so long. I’m a big fan. Is it all right if I get a picture with you?’ Kaye took her camera, threw it down to the ground and then stepped on it and walked away without saying anything.’

“Yes, Nunis really hated [director and producer] Dwight Hemion. Nunis was also angry at the reports he was getting about Kaye’s behavior. He was so angry that he insisted that Kaye not set foot on Disney property ever again. However, I needed Kaye back on property to finish filming a scene where he is conducting the West Point Glee Club and the All-American College Marching Band. So I had to call Ron Miller to get permission to get Kaye back on property.’

“So I am in this area near the fountain with Spaceship Earth in the background and Kaye is on a raised platform. Nunis storms in and is really steamed that Kaye is there. He comes up to me and starts poking his finger in my chest and his back is to Kaye.’

“Nunis yells at me, ‘You are ruining this park letting that b*st*rd in here!’

“Kaye drops his pants. He is in his skivvies and he is pretending to conduct the band and the singers. He is bending over, mooning Nunis who is so intent in chewing me out that he does not even glance behind him. The performers start giggling and then laughing.’

“I am looking at Nunis and not saying anything but I can see all of this going on behind him. When Nunis finishes, he is so upset that he storms away without ever looking behind him to see Kaye or what he was doing.”

There could be any number of reasons that some people didn’t think that Kaye was as gracious as his screen persona or misinterpreted his behavior. Unfortunately, like much of Disney history, many of the principal players involved including Kaye and Hemion are not longer around to share their side of the story. If Kaye was out of sorts doing the special, it certainly wasn’t evident in the final show.

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A Fantastic Look Inside Imagineering

Going inside of Disney’s Imagineering building is a rare occurrence. Thanks to the recent Maker Camp, today we get a rare look inside. Continue after the page break and have a look…

Maker Camp is a month-long virtual DIY camp put on by Maker Faire. Hundreds of teens participate and learn about science, technology, engineering, and math and how to put them together to make useful things. These lucky kids recent got a virtual field trip that included a tour of Walt Disney Imagineering’s facilities and time with Imagineers like Bruce Vaughn.

During the tour students and other viewers got a glimpse at some of the unique and innovative processes Imagineers use during the design phase of their projects. The fields of dimensional design (model-making, sculpting and rapid-prototyping), robotics design and programming, ride design, and previsualization (virtual experiences of yet-to-be-built attractions and facilities) were the main focus. At the end of the tour students were able to ask Bruce and other Imagineers a few questions. Here now is the hour long webcast, Enjoy!

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The "World" That Roy Built

It was a sunny, crisp October day in Florida, thousands were gathered and anxiously awaiting to see what the Disney brother’s second park had to offer. Roy O. Disney, at 78 years old and brother of the amazing Walt Disney who had died nearly five years earlier, stood stiffly next to the flagpole in the town square of Main Street U.S.A. with Mickey Mouse clenching his hand and standing by his side. Mickey was perhaps the next best thing to his late brother standing next to him and even allowed him to take the stage. You see just moments before, Roy sat on a bench as the clock was ticking for the dedication ceremony to start.

The park needed to be dedicated on live TV, but Roy wouldn’t get up. “I can’t do this without my brother” he was overheard saying. A cast member thinking quickly ran to get Mickey Mouse. Eventually Roy took Mickey’s hand, walked on stage, and in his strong Midwestern accent and tenor voice, he read off the dedication plaque: “Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney…”

Walt Disney World is really a tribute to two brothers. Walt may have dreamed castles but it was Roy who got them built. Roy was the one who, in his 70s, with a longing to retire and travel, wrestled with heat, humidity, swamp land, construction delays and finances to make Walt’s last dream a reality.
From the October 1972 Walt Disney Productions’ publication titled, The National Champion: A Report to Participants in Disneyland and Walt Disney World:

“Of the thousands of persons responsible for the creation of Walt Disney World, no one played a more important role than the late Roy O. Disney. Long known as the behind-the-scenes financial genius, he was thrust into the leadership role by the untimely passing of his brother Walt Disney in 1966. Throughout the busy years that followed, Roy devoted nearly all his time and energy to bringing Walt’s dream to reality. It was a dream that was staggeringly complex…and yet with Roy’s guidance, it did indeed become a reality…”

During October 1966, two months before Walt died, at a luncheon with Walt, his brother Roy and other Disney Company executives, Billy Dial (chairman of the First National Bank of Orlando and the power broker who helped the Disney Company make the connections for the Florida Project) asked Walt what would be the fate of the Florida project if he got hit by a truck after lunch? Walt replied, “Absolutely nothing. My brother Roy runs this company. I just piddle around.”

No one really believed that answer of course and most people regarded Roy as merely the quiet, unassuming businessman who was firm but fair and aggressively avoided the spotlight for decades. An early home movie of a sandlot baseball game at the Hyperion Disney Studio in the 1930s shows Walt proudly and prominently up at bat, even though the film demonstrates his lack of athletic prowess. Whenever the cameraman turns his movie camera toward Roy standing nearby, Roy quietly and quickly moves out of frame whenever he is aware he is being filmed.

One week after Walt Disney died, Roy spoke to a group of Disney Company executives and creative staff in a projection room at the Disney Studio. He was going to postpone his retirement. “We are going to finish this park, and we’re going to do it just the way Walt wanted it,” Roy firmly stated. “Don’t you ever forget it. I want every one of you to do just exactly what you were going to do when Walt was alive.”

One of his first decisions was that the Disneyworld project would be officially renamed “Walt Disney World.” Roy was insistent that people be reminded that this was Walt’s project. Very few others in the company agreed with that choice because of marketing reasons.

In a meeting, someone referred to it as “Disneyworld” and Roy’s hand went to his glasses as he focused on the offending word: “I’m only going to say this one more time. I want it called ‘Walt Disney World.’ Not Disney World, not Disneyland East, not anything else. Walt Disney World.”
Others tried to convince Roy to build the Magic Kingdom at the intersection of I-4 and 192 since the roads were already in place and it would temporarily eliminate the additional cost of building roads and canals. Walt’s plan was to have the theme park at the top of the property so that guests would experience the rest of the area on their way to the park rather than merely stopping at the front of the property.

Roy told the financial people, “I want to continue with Walt’s plan. So let’s quit wasting time on these meetings.”

As Roy O. Disney stood on the marshy ground of Walt Disney World, all that could be seen were black water swamps often choked with decaying, tangled roots that would have to be removed, barren dunes of white sand, and an occasional grove of pine trees. There were a handful of tethered gas balloons of different colors that also dotted the landscape to indicate the height and location of things to come like Cinderella Castle.

Roy knew he was not as charismatic as his younger brother, nor as creative. He surrounded himself with a talented group of men to make Walt’s dream a reality. On the creative end, he deferred to Dick Irvine of WED who had also been instrumental in the creation of Disneyland. On the construction end, he relied heavily on Joe Fowler and Joe Potter whose military background and “can do” attitudes were invaluable to transform the frightening wilderness into a civilization under a nearly impossible deadline.

Roy devoted much of his time to his area of expertise: finance. Escalating costs, labor challenges, and even the most effective way to raise the almost four hundred million dollars needed for the largest private construction project in the world were handled by Roy with a skill that would have eluded anyone else. However, even while delegating authority to others, Roy was clearly in command and he was the one who made the final decisions.

“Without Roy, (Walt Disney World) wouldn’t have happened,” Jack Lindquist who was then a marketing director told writer Bob Thomas, “Everyone else was so in awe of Walt that they could not step forward and take his place. It took a Disney to do it and that was Roy.”

It was Roy who proposed to the Disney Board of Directors having Card Walker and Donn Tatum become executive vice-presidents and assume some of his managerial duties to effect a smooth transition for when Walt Disney World opened. Roy planned to retire and travel.

Originally, on his trips to Orlando, Roy stayed at the Hilton Inn South near International Drive. Later, he and his wife lived in a cottage at Bay Hill, next door to Joe Fowler. Roy would work long hours during the day and at night accompanied by his wife, he would browse through the local stores. Reportedly, tool counters in stores especially fascinated him. There were five cottages allocated for Disney executives and sometimes there would be backyard cookouts to boost morale for the displaced Californians.

Roy told reporters, “Walt had this idea [for Walt Disney World]. My job all along was to help Walt do the things he wanted to do. He did the dreaming. I did the building.”

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971. The entire month of October was promoted as “Preview Month” with the official dedication scheduled as a three day event from October 23-25, 1971.

At the dedication, Roy was asked by reporters why a grandfather had felt the obligation to tackle this impossible project at this point in his life. Roy smiled, “I didn’t want to have to explain to Walt when I saw him again why the dream didn’t come true.”

Later, Roy spent time in a boat on the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of the Magic Kingdom and when asked why he wasn’t in the park to handle all the media attention, Roy quietly remarked, “Today is my brother’s day. I want them to remember my brother today.”

When the television special, The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World aired on NBC on Friday October 29, 1971, Roy sat next to his wife Edna in their Bay Hill house and began weeping.

Roy returned to California and never came back to Florida. He had planned to stay in California only until February 1st for the annual meeting and then with his wife get on a cruise ship for Australia for a few weeks and make plans for additional travel.

Roy had complained for some time about seeing something like a cloud over his vision but delayed going in for blood tests, assuming he just needed a new prescription for his glasses.

Roy Disney fell into a coma on Sunday, December 19, 1971 and was rushed to a hospital. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Monday night, December 20, 1971 in Room 421 at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank, California at the age of seventy-eight. It was the same hospital where he had sobbed uncontrollably at the loss of his younger brother a half decade earlier.

Flags flew at half staff over Walt Disney World on that Tuesday in honor of Roy but both Disneyland and Walt Disney World remained open for business. “When Walt died,” said Jack Lindquist, “Roy said a lot of people had come from a lot of different places that day to see Disneyland. And he felt it was the only way to do business.”

 Reporter Charlie Wadsworth wrote an article in the December 22, 1971, edition of The Orlando Sentinel: “It was Roy Disney’s guidance and leadership that brought Walt Disney World to its opening. He was completely dedicated to building the dreams of his brother Walt. They say a little of Roy left when Walt died in 1966 of cancer. But not much could have left. He was the keeper of the flame and had to be the curator of the spirit that Walt Disney created. He inherited the Disney entertainment empire. It was difficult for his neighbors in Windermere to grow accustomed to the fact that the little round, balding man with the twinkling eyes and inquisitive nature was the chairman of the board. But that’s the way Roy Disney wanted it. That is the way he lived…[he] was a man of great personal warmth and charm, as personable as his late brother Walt.”

Disney Legend Blaine Gibson talks about the “Sharing the Magic” statue of Roy O. Disney that sits by the flagpole in Town Square underneath the shadow of Roy’s name on the upper window of the confectionery shop.

“Roy is sitting back in the bench which indicates he was there first and Minnie came to him, not that he came up to her to ask why she was sitting down and not working,” laughed Blaine who based the pose on photographs taken of Roy in the park in October 1971. “Also he is holding her hand underneath so he is supporting it, just like he always supported Walt’s dreams.”

Roy was a modest man and, when he died, little was known of his accomplishments, especially in comparison to his brother, Walt. Roy was the man who built Walt Disney World without a cent of debt and made sure his brother’s dream became a reality for the entire world to enjoy. Thanks Roy!

Roy Disney’s opening day speech:

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Disney’s Biggest Fan?

For years George Reiger filled a gaping hole in his heart with a love for all things Disney. He’s collected several thousands pieces of Disney memorabilia ;and he even had 2,200 individual Disney-related tattoos inked on his body. Is George Reiger Disney’s biggest fan? Continue after the page break and you decide…

George Reiger considers himself Disney’s number one fan and to prove it, he has covered most of his body with over 2,200 Disney tattoos.

When people ask George Reiger why he has 2,200 tattoos relating to Disney, his answers that Disney practically raised him when he was a child and he wanted to have Mickey and the entire Magical Kingdom with him everywhere he went. George had his first tattoo, Fantasia Mickey, when he was just 18 years old. By the time he turned 20, he already had 80 Disney tattoos.

That’s when he went to the company’s owners and asked them for permission to have even more characters permanently inked on his skin. Disney agreed to let him become a walking Disney canvas, as long as he used just one tattoo artist for every one of his tattoos and didn’t make any money from them. He agreed and now his body is covered about 85% with Disney characters and settings. He has 4-5 new tattoos done every week.

To George Reiger, nothing is more important than Disney. That’s probably why he’s currently at wife number 6, with all six honeymoons spent at Walt Disney World. He lives in a Disney-themed house, full of over 24,000 Disney collector’s items.

He admits that it’s pretty bizarre for a 50-year-old man to be covered in tattoos of children’s characters, but this is what makes him happy. He spends around $50,000 on Disney every year and when he dies, he wants his ashes spread over the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, so he can live in Walt Disney World forever.

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