Foolish Mortals are Talking

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The following article is taken from Persistence of Vision (issue #9, published in 1997). The magazine, which billed itself as "an unofficial historical journal celebrating the creative legacy of Walt Disney," was always stuffed full of detailed articles about Disney trivia and minutia, and was a Disney fan favorite. Though apparently discontinued, back issues are well worth tracking down.

Tales from the Crypt: Life in the Haunted Mansion

By Paul "Captain Monorail" Smith

August, 1969. When it finally opened at Disneyland (after nearly twelve years in development and an expenditure of $7,000,000), the Haunted Mansion became an instant hit, helping to break park attendance records for a single day - 82,516 - then a phenomenal figure. [Ed. note - It is believed now that this record has been broken; a result of the final year of the Main Street Electrical Parade.]

Although Walt never lived to approve all of its complex elements, and astonishingly, it has no storyline (primarily just a series of Marc Davis gags), it has become a classic for Disney fans. So what defines the Mansion’s spirited success? Well, this is no Stephen King stuff. Given the subject matter, it is high-tech Halloween humor which never takes itself too seriously. Lacking the dark, stark terror of Alien Encounters, the resident spooks provide lighthearted laughter and chills during the same shiver.

The WDW Version Haunted Mansion was a natural for Walt Disney World, with some expected geographic and architectural adjustments. Instead of Disneyland's New Orleans Square, it is perched at the edge of Liberty Square's Rivers of America, near the loading dock for Mike Fink's Keelboats. This is East Coast all the way. Rather than a Southern plantation mansion, its architecture strongly suggests an eighteenth-century Peter Stuyvesant Dutch manor (with a dash of Edgar Alien Poe) on the Hudson River. Paris Disneyland goes with an American Western-style theme, employing "a decayed gold rush ghost house."

An Elvira-Gowned Hostess?

"Live" hosts and hostesses are an important part of every attraction, but seldom draw attention to themselves. Stephen Fjellman, in his curious and fascinating book (although often inaccurate) Vinyl Leaves, claims that a presumably modest but beautiful Elvira-gowned hostess has been seen on occasion, greeting guests while stationed outside of the Mansion. Has anyone actually observed a Disney version of Elvira? Guests proceed along a walkway underneath a protective canopy and between several twisted trees to the cemetery.

A Preshow Cemetery

Nearly every "E Ticket" level attraction has a lively preshow to entertain the guests, whether it's a talking parrot or a rapid-fire media presentation. The Haunted Mansion is no exception-but its preshow is a static cemetery. As in a real cemetery, nothing happens, unlike its counterpart inside the Mansion, which happens to be quite-well-lively. Yep, one gains entry to this humorous haunted house by walking through a quiet cemetery honoring just twelve of the "dead," not 999 spirits. Yet chuckles abound, for there's plenty of headstone hilarity.

Breaking from the tradition of using the names of Disney characters, the appellations on the tombstones celebrate real people. But we misspeak. These are Disney characters, all right, but they are Imagineers. Taking their cue from Disneyland, team members on the Florida Project sort of publicly honored a few of their own by incorporating their names onto such craft and places as the bows of riverboats (Admiral Joe Fowler), the cabs of railroad engines (Roger Broggie), as well as second-story "business offices" on Main Street, USA.

But why the names of real people on the Haunted Mansion headstones? Disneyland's cemetery once had such mythical favorites as I. Truly Dew; Rusty Gates; I. Emma Spook; and, in my view the best: Paul Tergeist. One of three radio spots used to promote the Disneyland Mansion quoted an inscription never used: "Here lies Phineas Pock, laid to rest beneath this rock."

Well, as you might guess, these guys were some of the key designers who helped develop the Florida Mansion. This practice is an insider's gag if there ever was one, for who in the public are likely to recognize the names, except for serious Disneyana fans? Things get to be even more intriguing with the headstones, however, for the twelve epitaphs use only the first or last names of each "honored" person. It becomes a guessing game, then, to establish the identities of the people. Most are not too difficult to determine; I have been able to easily identify six names. Fortunately your fearless editor was able to provide the remaining six. As for the composer of the deathless poetry, we do know that X Atencio penned the epitaphs, including one inscription for himself!

The Compleate Inscriptions

Here are the inscriptions as they appear from the walkway. Also included is a brief description of their involvement with the Haunted Mansion.

In memory of our patriarch
dear departed Grandpa Marc
(Marc Davis-Art Director who also did most of the concept design for the attraction.)

Requiescat Francis Xavier,
no time off for good behavior, R.I.P.
(Francis Xavier "X" Atencio-The show writer who also substantially developed the storyline for the Mansion.)

Dear departed Brother Dave,
he chased a bear into a cave
(Dave Burkhart-An art director who also built the model of the Haunted Mansion.)

Master Gracey laid to rest,
no mourning please at his request, Farewell
(Yale Gracey-Yale designed many of the special effects, including the dancing ghosts, changing portraits, and the seance room.)

Good friend Gordon,
now you've crossed the River Jordan
(Gordon Williams-One of the audio designers for the attraction, as well as resident Audio-Animatronics expert.)

Rest in peace Cousin Huet,
we all know you didn't do it
(Cliff Huet-Involved in the architecture, he was also one of the primary interior designers.)

R.I.P., in memorium Uncle Myall,
here you'll lie for quite a while
(Chuck Myall-WED designer.)

Here lies good old Fred,
a great big rock fell on his head, R.I.P.
(Fred Joerger-Did the character plaster work for the Mansion.)

Here rests Wathel R. Bender,
he rode to glory on a fender. Peaceful rest
(Wathel Rogers-Audio-Animatronics programmer and designer.)

R.I.P. Mister Sewell,
the victim of a dirty duel. Peaceful rest
(Bob Sewell-Did models for the Mansion.)

At peaceful rest lies Brother Claude,
planted here beneath this sod
(Claude Coats-Designed the track layout and provided numerous atmosphere sketches.)

Here lies a man named Martin,
the lights went out on this old Spartan
(Bud Martin-former head of WDl Special Effects Dept. and an excellent lighting designer.)

Although the Mansion owes its success to numerous talented Imagineers that worked on the attraction, several key people made significant contributions. Marc Davis’ brilliant character design and funny gags literally gave the Haunted Mansion its signature. Claude Coates, as well, came through brilliantly with his background design and track layouts. Yale Gracey's special effects are a key component of the Mansion and still amaze people today. Wathel Rogers' excellent animation with the Audio-Animatronics figures really brought home many of Marc's gags. And finally, X Atencio's script and song (which is discussed elsewhere in this issue) were the glue that brought it all together.

Several publications have given highly detailed descriptions of the various components of the Mansion as they occur on the ride. We will not repeat exactly what they have done, except to share some stories, anecdotes, and a bit of insider information, some of which you Walt Disney World veterans may find to be both amusing and informative.

The Traveling Spirit

When darkness falls, by peering through the Mansion windows, one can occasionally witness a glowing "spirit" which moves about from room to room. The apparition continues into the Conservatory and is seen in the greenhouse. An apparently troublesome effect, it has been seen, I am told, only sporadically since the Mansion opened in 1971.

The Stretching Room

We begin our journey through the netherworld by walking through a wood-paneled foyer, passing through a sliding door, and entering one of two portrait galleries which in Disney vocabulary are known as the stretching rooms. Our host appears to have prepared for the assignment by sucking on lemons, grousing over the failure of his or her last date, or by imitating the cheery countenance of a typical funeral director.

We enjoy the ever changing faces in the Picture Gallery as the ceiling moves upward. Thunder and lightning draws our attention to a figure hanging above us (the popular story that started in the 1970s was that Yale Gracey had hanged himself, but it may really be the wealthy sea merchant/pirate whose story was deep-sixed early in the Mansion's development. The former story started, no doubt, because sadly, Gracey met with a violent death in the 1970s-it is a crime that is still unsolved today).

The Stretching Room once became the Stretcher Room, when some wooden molding fell from the ceiling onto five guests, inflicting minor bruises and cuts. Another story, much more interesting but untrue, is that one of the candelabras tumbled over, striking a guest and breaking his skull!

While WDW's Stretch Room looks much like its West Coast counterpart, appearances are indeed deceiving. Once the picture gallery and hanging man presentations are completed, Disneyland's guests are moved to their next experience on a downward-moving elevator. The folks in Florida only think that they are moving. Actually they go nowhere as the ceiling ascends. The illusion is similar to that of the "rapid descent" of the 20K submarines, or the elevator movement in The Living Seas pavilion-all rumble, all effect, and no action. In Florida, it's that old water table problem the Imagineers had to contend with-hence no trip to the basement as in California.

The Doom Buggies

Joining the other guests, we walk to the Load Area, where we depart for our journey aboard the 131-car Omnimover system of clam-shelled Doom Buggies which pass by every three seconds. The buggies travel at a top speed of 1.4 mph, with a load capacity of 2,618 guests per hour. That speed, plus the retainer bar, makes it difficult to escape whatever confronts us, including vocal instructions from our Ghost Host, (veteran voiceover artist Paul Frees, who gets my vote as the best in the business for his eerie delivery). Our 6-1/2 minute "delightfully demonic" ride is underway.

The Stairway and the Endless Hall

Speaking of eerie, no one likes being continually watched by strangers, but the concave faced marble busts follow us at every turn as we listen to a frightening, eight-note funeral dirge played upon a pipe organ. Rounding the bend from the Gallery, the Stairway takes us up an oversize staircase of newel posts with accents of metal tulips and bronze griffins. We emerge onto the second floor and the Endless Hall, which was inspired in part by the famous Winchester House of Mystery in San Jose, California. The Widow Winchester believed the counsel given her from a fortune teller that she would never die as long as new rooms and halls were built onto her home. Construction went on for years. She died not long after her money, and probably her sanity, ran out. Foolish mortal! Heh heh heh. At one time it was planned that, on one's left hand side, a man would be seen securely trapped in a web-snared, no doubt, by a female spider. That gag never, uh, materialized.

The Corridor of Doors

Our Doom Buggies are equipped to make 360 degree turns, so we miss nothing on either side. To the left of the Endless Hallway is the Corridor of Doors, with a chair, an umbrella, and a hat awaiting their dead owner's return. To the right is a motion-filled suit of armor and candelabra floating in the air. Locked doors bulge, handles twist, and knockers clank and bang.

Whenever I see the beastly clock with its claw-like hands that move backward, I always think of those wonderful Goofy watches whose hands did the same thing, although without the thirteen chimes. Did the watch designer get inspiration from this gag? Ha-huh, ha-huh!

The Conservatory and Grim Grinning Ghosts

The Conservatory has volumes of things to see, including a man trying to escape from a coffin loaded with plenty of rusty nails. The sepulchre would clearly never pass OSHA safety regulations. My favorite gag is the four Grim Grinning Ghosts singing the "Screaming Song"-which has got to be the highlight of the Mansion tour. A rumor that surfaced, but of course is completely apocryphal, is that Walt Disney was one of the four singers. One wonders how such rumors start; I recently looked very carefully at each of the ghosts, and could see no one remotely resembling Walt, except possibly lead singer Thurl "Tony the Tiger" Ravenscroft, (with what must be the deepest voice on this planet); accompanied by Chuck Schroeder, Verne Rowe, Bob Ebright, and Jay Meyer, all made up to look like pock-marked marble busts. These rubber-faced guys are terrific! We are also grateful to X Atencio for the lyrics and Buddy Baker for the music. You'll have to open your cerebral Mansion file, or the appropriate CD, for the melody:

"When the crypt doors creak and the tombstones quake,
spooks come out for a swinging wake
Happy haunts materialize,
and begin to vocalize...
Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize.
Now don't close your eyes and don't try to hide,
or a silly spook may sit by your side
Shrouded in a daft disguise,
they pretend to terrorize...
Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize.
As the moon climbs high o'er the dead oak tree,
spooks arrive for the midnight spree
Creepy creeps with eerie eyes,
start to shriek and harmonize...
Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize.
When you hear the knell of a requiem bell,
weird glows gleam where spirits dwell.
Restless bones etherealize,
rise as spooks of every size... ha ha ha HA HA!"

As might be expected, guests at Paris Disnevland listen to a symphonic variation of the Quadruple G theme.

Seance Circle

Another of my personal favorites is Madam Leota, the fortune teller who endlessly incantates the future from inside her crystal ball (Eleanor Audley at her spookiest). One unconfirmed story tells of a young man who climbed out of his doom buggy in an attempt to snatch Leota's ball, unaware that there is no floor between the buggy and the suspended table. He fell ten feet to the cement floor below and broke his leg. There he lay for hours, moaning and groaning-appropriate sound effects to be sure-with no one the wiser! Shortly afterward, the story goes, safety netting was installed over the pit.

Sadly, a young female teen slid out from under her safety bar and attempted to leap from her doom buggy to join her friends in another buggy. She fell and was caught in the track mechanism which dragged her about eighty feet to an intrusion pad. She died several days later from her injuries.

The Grand Hall

Musicians love the Grand Hall birthday party sequence, not only for the famous ectoplasmic dancers (they are actual figures, and it is not a hologram you're watching-just an old magician's illusion called "Pepper's Ghost"), but also for the ghostly organist seated at an organ which is reminiscent of Captain Nemo's instrument in the Nautilus. The movie prop from the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was actually dusted off by the folks in Burbank, adapted, and used in this scene for Disneyland's Mansion. When it came time to make the Mansion for WDW, so the story goes, a mold was made from the prop, and the organ was exactly recreated for its "reincarnation'' in Florida. The ghost, by the way, is playing "Grim Grinning Ghosts" off key.

The Case of the Disappearing Dust

Speaking of dust, a story repeated in Vinyl Leaves and Steve Bimbaum's famous series of guidebooks on Walt Disney World, is that specially-prepared dust is shipped to WDW in five pound sacks from a private firm in California. The "sterilized dust" is used in rejuvenating the exhibits in case they become too clean. Good and dirty is the watchword - like a typical presidential-selection campaign! According to the story, the powerful and efficient air conditioning system has sucked up tons of the stuff over the years, easily enough to bury the Mansion, and the maintenance people have to work hard to keep up with replacing the special effect. However, Mike Lee, a host at the Florida mansion for about a year, says he never heard of or saw anyone spreading the dust about, but it is a funny story if true. The spider webs are seemingly unaffected by the breezes. Their creation is a closely-guarded secret, but several black widow spiders could do a pretty creditable job for a few juicy flies.

Needless to say, each of the Mansion's 100 Audio-Animatronics figures are checked each morning, and translucent face powder, vanishing cream, and witch hazel are applied as necessary to avoid the slightest appearance of good health.

The Attic

Above the Grand Hall is the Attic, an antique hunter's dream with over 200 assorted items of the type that people never think to throw away. Our attention is drawn to a tiny bride, Little Leota (played by Leota Thomas, an employee of WED), who was locked in a trunk on her wedding night and died in the attic (probably the pirate's wife). She finally escaped, and although dead, her enlarged heart continues to beat. She invites us to come back with our death certificates!

The bride motif is big at Paris Disneyland, with several additional figures used throughout their Mansion. Out the window we go to witness a private graveyard below, illuminated with a lantern held by a shaking night watchman, his terror-stricken, faithful dog at his side.

Three Hitchhiking Ghosts

As our "delightfully dreary" adventure comes to an end, we hear a shorter version of Grim Grinning Ghosts played in the exit hallway/loadbelt, and we are joined in our outbound journey by three unusual hitchhikers:

"If you would like to join our jamboree,
there's a simple rule that's compulsory
Mortals pay a token fee,
rest in peace the haunting's free
So hurry back we would like your company."

For more detailed information about the Haunted Mansion, you'll want to read the stories which appeared in the E Ticket summer issues for 1989, 90, and 93. Beth Lee mentions the Mansion in her book, Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., p. 1996, p. 53. Leonard Shannon has an informative article, "Out of This World: Walt Disney's Museum of the Weird," Disney News, Spring 1993, pp. 32-33. See also David Mumford's "Grim Grinning Ghosts Toast 25 Years of Disneyland's Happy Haunting Grounds," in The Disney Magazine, Winter 1994, pp. 53-55. Stephen Bimbaum's annual Walt Disney World: The Official Guide provides brief but useful information. Stephen M. Fjeltman's slightly flawed but always interesting Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America, San Francisco: Westview Press, 1992, presents a different slant on the park and the Mansion. The Nickel Tour, card #0657 through #0875, has valuable historical background to the Mansion's development. See also "The Haunted Mansion," by Howard Wornom, Storyboard, September/October 1989, pp. 6-13. Among other topics, Wornom explains how many of the special effects were achieved. Publicity handouts, "News from Walt Disney World," and "Information from Walt Disney World," were nearly worthless for hard facts, excepting for colorful descriptive phrases. If its art you want, one can find Donald and Daisy Duck, as well as Goofy, pictured riding in two doom buggies in one of those "suitable for framing" centerfolds in the Fall 1986 Disney News. Special thanks go to Paul F. Anderson for his research at the Orlando Public Library and the Walt Disney Archives, and to Mike Lee, a former Haunted Mansion host who provided much valuable information.

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