Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Force to be Beckoned With

Growing up in San Diego, it was summer’s annual pilgrimage—waking up before dawn and piling in the car so we could arrive in Anaheim by the time the gates opened.  This was back in the time when you literally could do everything in one day, the era of “Mission to Mars”, the People Mover, Bear Country, and the E-ticket ride.  It was the "Happiest Place on Earth" and always represented not just one childhood siren song, but the whole Disney catalog we'd collected on LPs.  By the time I went to Disneyland for Grad Night (a tradition for SoCal high schools), all three Star Wars films had been released and the new ride at the Magic Kingdom was the motion simulator, Star Tours.  Little could I possibly know (or imagine) that 25 years later, I would be a fixture in the park myself, a minuscule part of these two pop culture legacies.

If you Google me, always one of the first things to pop up is my IMDB profile which includes one single acting credit: Rebel Pilot on Star Tours, The Adventures Continue (2011).  I’ve talked about my life on Skywalker Ranch before on this blog, and while many different highlights stand out (some of which I can talk about, some I can’t), that film credit is the one thing about me that the internet will likely remember the longest.  Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, so here are some thoughts on that day I spent on the green screen stages of “Kerner Optical” (ILM) in downtown San Rafael and the first time I saw the final product, many years later.

We were only given the sketchiest of outlines: we were in a hangar and we were welcoming back the patrons of the ride, who miraculously survived their thrilling adventure.  Because there were no corrective lenses “A Long Time Ago”, I had to hide my glasses inside my glove take after take, so I could only barely make out the camera as we all collectively whooped and hollered and applauded.  As is often reported, there’s a lot of down time on the set, so after multiple turns at that scene, we wore Hefty trash bag bibs while eating at the craft service tables (all our costumes were original artifacts from the first SW trilogy—see the Return of the Jedi still below).  Then there was lots of hangar B-roll footage: “I want you to walk from here across to there, but not in this area, because that’s where a big spaceship will be”, etc.  I also remember there was an actor from the prequels there (one of Padme’s guards) who had some lines to intro the ride, which we watched being filmed from the wings.  I asked if I could get a SAG card from my stint that day (I had no lines, so the answer was No) and then went back to my regular job the next day.

Years later, and just a few months after the ride opened, I left Lucasfilm.  And while the ride sounded cool (with its multiple randomizing elements, which made every experience a unique one), it hardly was convenient or practical to travel hundreds of miles to see myself for a whole 15 seconds.  But I’d hear from friends once in a while—none of whom had known I was on the new Star Tours but who could clearly pick me out among my rebel band.  I was intrigued but since the ride was in 3D, all the cel phone renditions that popped up on YouTube relegated me to a blur.  And that was part of my past anyway. Even when my mom asked to be taken to Disneyland one last time before leaving California for good, there were a lot of things I knew she wanted to do more (and with the randomizing element, there was no guarantee the herky-jerky ride which she wouldn’t enjoy would even pay off with an appearance from her son).

But then I heard there was going to be an expansion of Disneyland, which would include a huge new Star Wars section.  Would they move the ride?  It is just a flight simulator, easy to relocate.  Would it be closed for a while?  Would the now-expanding universe of new Star Wars films mean the need for constant revisions and updates?  I couldn’t be sure, but I knew I would feel like an idiot if I never saw myself on this thing.  The idea of going down seemed absurd since I had just been there recently (because a campus that big required me pushing her around in a wheelchair, Mom and I were able to go on everything she wanted).  But just around this time last year, I decided to drive down and go.

It only took two turns standing in line to see the module with me in it.  It’s a fun ride, cleverly done and entertaining.  No sign of any of the B-roll footage they shot; all the hangar footage on view as patrons wait in line is now much more CG-oriented.  No sign of Padme’s aide (C-3PO now took over hosting duties).  But sure enough, I was there in what one might call muted exuberance, welcoming myself home.  And the one module I'm in has my favorite music cue ("The Asteroid Field") from the entire series.  I found a single YouTube that shows all the original variations, so now I’m visible for the idly curious: my module (a hybrid of Eps 2 & 6) starts at timecode 19:51; I appear at 21:15.

And like I suspected, they had added a new module that included scenes from Episode 7: The Force Awakens.  Like George before it, the Mouse has the itch it can’t not scratch, this impulse to update, revise, and rebrand.  That’s particularly true of the park where I had so many childhood memories. I remember Nemo’s submarine ride when it was an homage to Jules Verne, Tarzan’s treehouse when it belonged to the Swiss Family Robinson, the Pirates ride before it was polluted by the movie’s score and uncanny valley Johnny Depp.  The reason I went in the spring was so I could ride the Haunted Mansion when it wasn’t taken over by The Nightmare Before Christmas (much as I love that film).  The one time I was on a ride that broke down and we all had to walk through it to exit outside, it was the now-long-gone miniaturization ride "Adventures thru Inner Space" which was in the same spot where Star Tours is now.

Another ride that’s no longer around is America Sings, this strange musical revue of early traditional American music, all performed by animatronic animal characters.  As it happens, most of those characters are now on Splash Mountain, in some ways an even stranger ride since it references a movie, The Song of the South (1946), that I’d wager few Disney visitors younger than I have ever seen.  There’s a perverse form of denial in the Mouse House about that controversial film since there’s no song you’ll hear more often in Disneyland than "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" (it is everywhere), but you won’t find the movie in their gift shops or the title referenced at all.  But it is a great ride and when I was on it, I had an epiphany: I’ll wager that Splash Mountain will be rebranded as a Zootopia variation at some point, since the rabbit and fox are already principal characters.  Plus, it's a safer, fresher property. Disney has little patience for the forgettable, so the regrettable seems even more likely to be casually swept away.

The one thing that made this Disneyland trip most unusual for me was that there was no urgency about lines or access or getting the most bang for my buck.  I had one mission, which I accomplished early, so the rest was active but oddly relaxing.  Some old favorites I revisited, but there was plenty of new stuff to discover: California Adventure is more serene, less congested.  The truly psychedelic Winnie-the-Pooh ride is audacious and bizarre, and the Monster’s Inc. and Little Mermaid rides are in the spirit of the old school Fantasyland storybook rides.  Cars-land is more entertaining than either of the actual movies.  I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed Toon Town as a kid (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? opened the same year as my grad night), but I did find this extraordinary little tidbit.  This is the mailbox outside Goofy's house.  Do you see the manila envelope?  Here's a close-up, upside down.
I love this inside joke.  The postmark date--July 17, 1955--was the date that the original park opened, back when Uncle Walt was alive.  And while we know a stork (voiced by one Sterling Holloway, a Disney regular) delivered the famous baby elephant in Dumbo, Roger Rabbit reminds us that in Toon Town, storks also deliver the mail.

Had any visitor even noticed that postmark before?  It’s the most incidental of grace notes.  But that’s what’s always been most amazing about the park: its meticulous attention-to-detail, embedding Easter eggs and hidden references everywhere—things you might never notice but whose cumulative impact is undeniable.  But I’ll admit it: it’s weird to be a childless single adult at the park.  It’s saturated In the cult of family and franchising and nostalgia and while it’s all impressive (almost to the point of overwhelming), I really have a hard time imagining myself ever going back.  I’ve seen everything there is to see, in some cases many times over.  Things will change, of course, but while I’ve been a lot of places across several continents, I hope to see much more out there before it’s all over.  The real world is my Tomorrowland.  And it’s even more true now than it was when I first heard the Sherman Brothers song: It is a Small World after all.  And an inviting one.

The day before I went to Disneyland, I hiked through Griffith Park and to the top of the Hollywood sign, something I’d always wanted to do.  I was in no rush, so it took a few hours of just me surrounded by nature, slowly working my way up to this gorgeous vista, a heavenly view of the City of Angels.  That hike was a bigger deal to me than what came the next day.  That was true magic. 

First, the Disney stamps.  You'll note the California Adventures card has all 5 different Mickeys (one per issue over 5 years).  Note that those postmarks are all Anaheim or Orlando (home of Disney World, which I've never visited).  To summarize:

Mickey, Donald, Goofy - Scott #3865
Bambi - #3866
Pinocchio - #3868
Mickey, Pluto - #3912
Alice in Wonderland - #3913
Snow White - #3915
Mickey, Minnie - #4025
Cinderella - #4026
Fantasia Mickey - #4192
Peter Pan - #4193
Dumbo - #4194
101 Dalmatians - #4342
Steamboat Willie - #4343
Sleeping Beauty - #4344

The two California statehood stamps are #997 and #3438.  The X-wing fighter is #4143m and the planet Neptune #5076.  Joel Chandler Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories; his stamp (on the Splash Mountain card) is #980.  The Jack-o-Lantern is #5137.  

And at the time the Muppet stamps were released, they had a 3D show at California Adventure (though it's not there now).  The Scott #s are Jim Henson (#3944k), Kermit (#3944a), Fozzie (#3944b), Statler & Waldorf (#3944e), the Swedish Chef (#3944f), and Dr. Honeydew & Beaker (#3944h).