Monday, November 24, 2014

Walt Disney: Miniaturist

I make no secret of my appreciation for Disney. Earlier this year, I even posted one of my favorite cartoons, "Out of Scale", pitting Chip and Dale against everyone's favorite hothead, Donald Duck.

Like many Southern Californians, I grew up with annual trips to Disneyland (so did my mom), and had an annual pass when I lived fairly close by. Recently, I found out that not only was Walt Disney an avid collector and creator of miniatures...but that Disneyland was likely inspired in part by Walt's hobby.

According to a Walt Disney Family Museum blog entry, Walt saw the legendary Thorne Rooms in San Francisco in 1939 (revisiting them years later at the Art Institute of Chicago) and was collecting miniatures by 1947. Ever the storyteller, Walt came up with the idea of a touring exhibit of historical dioramas, and went so far as to consult with Eugene Kupjack (yes, THAT Eugene Kupjack).

Walt called it "Disneylandia."

You can pick your jaws up off the floor...the project was scrapped. Sort of. According to an earlier blog entry, Disneylandia grew into a theme park - Disneyland. (There were, of course, several other influences, which I won't get into for brevity's sake.) At one point "Lilliputian Land" was slated to appear between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland...this, too, was scrapped (giving a realistic range of motion to nine-inch-high mechanical people wasn't yet feasible). But, the concept lives on in the classic Fantasyland attraction "Storybook Land" (one of my favorites...I dream of seeing the Disneyland Paris version).

In the meantime, Walt built the Carolwood Pacific (a highly detailed, small-scale railroad) in his backyard (it was dismantled long ago, but the barn lives on in Los Angeles' Griffith Park)...going so far as to make his own scale-model pot-bellied stoves...eventually making 100, two of which were purchased by Mrs. Thorne herself. (A year after the railroad was installed, "Out of Scale" was in theaters. I doubt it's a coincidence.)

He didn't stop there: Walt also built his own miniature scenes. The best known is probably "Granny's Cabin", built in 1949 and based on a set from "So Dear to My Heart".

Recently, I spent a week in Florida and was able to see Granny's Cabin at Walt Disney World. As of this writing, it's on display at Disney's Hollywood Studios, inside the "One Man's Dream" exhibit...along with a 1/8 scale mechanical dancer on a tiny vaudeville stage (an early robotics experiment built by Imagineers; mentioned in the second blog post) and a number of unbelievably detailed scale models (this being Walt Disney World, castles at various Disney parks are well represented).

It's nicely done. It's not a "dollhouse" in the traditional sense, but a large, multi-roomed diorama - the facade is picture-perfect, but much of the exterior is bare wood, there isn't a conventional "roof", and the top has clunky vintage electrical cords snaking across it because - gasp - way back in 1949, long before perfectly scaled LED bulbs existed, Walt Disney went to the trouble to light his painstakingly crafted cabin with full-size electric lights. (To this Los Angeles native, it looks like a film set shrunken down to the size of a coffee table.) The level of detail in the cabin is especially impressive when you consider that it was built at a time when most miniaturists had to make everything by hand, i.e. milling tiny floorboards or turning spindles on a lathe (no Lawbre or Houseworks components in those days - heck, even Tynietoy houses had most of their details painted on). In spite of the challenge this must have posed, the interior of Granny's Cabin looks as though it could be a real place.

I do hope someone notices the sharp contrast between the diorama's plain wood shell and the detailed kitchen interior (although this blurry, badly lit snapshot does not do it justice).

There you have it...Walt Disney collected miniatures (he owned more than 1,000 by the mid-1960s). Sometimes he made them himself. And miniatures were a likely influence in the creation of Disney theme parks worldwide.

I'll leave you with a quote from the man himself: "My hobby is a life saver. When I work with these small objects, I become so absorbed that the cares of the studio fade least for a time."

Well said, Walt.

P.S. A special dollhouse was commissioned for Hong Kong Disneyland - you can read the story behind this very special creation (and see jealousy-inducing pictures) in the April 2006 issue of Miniature Collector.

P.P.S. This blog post features a picture of what appears to be a grown man playing with dolls (they look somewhat familiar, but I'm no doll expert) in a haunted dollhouse...the man is Imagineer Ken Anderson, who was working on the Haunted Mansion at the time. In the picture, he is using an early scale model and dolls to test a two-way mirror effect.

P.P.P.S. Update 12/20/14 - Storybook Land has been updated (IIRC, the last updates were from "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid")! The three mills from the Silly Symphony short "The Old Mill" have been put into storage to make room for Arendelle! I can't wait to see this.

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting! Thank you for sharing this information about Walt Disney. I have always been a huge fan of his and although I knew that he was intrigued with small things, I had no idea to what extent his interest took him and how much it influenced his theme park.
    I loved that Chip and Dale cartoon and recall seeing it on The Wonderful World of Disney that use to broadcast on t.v., every Sunday evening, when I was a kid! Good memories for me. :))