"Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives" opens at the Museum of Science and Industry: photos
On an upper level of the Museum of Science and Industry, a band wearing Mickey Mouse ear-hats was oom-pah–ing its way through "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins. On the occasion of the opening of "Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives," running through May 4, 2014, Mickey himself made an appearance on Wednesday alongside a burst of rainbow confetti. An overstimulated child reveled in the moment, joyfully rolling on the ground in a pile of the paper shreds as if his clothes were on fire.
Indeed, a sprinkle of the Magic Kingdom's manic glee has come to the MSI. But the exhibit's focus on the animation genius who conceived the Happiest Place on Earth isn't all smiles. In fact, with the exception of a couple of hands-on activity areas, the show doesn't necessarily cater to what has historically been Disney's primary audience: children.
The dense display of more than 300 artifacts from 90 years of Disney and the accompanying wall text tell two stories of the late, great Walter Elias Disney. There's the well-worn tale of an ambitious cartoonist with a wild imagination who birthed a global entertainment empire. And then there's the arguably more interesting, certainly more human portrait available—at least for anyone not totally fixated by the Pirates of the Caribbean props and the cases full of early Disneyana—one of a Chicago native who continually stuck his neck out and survived a number of brushes with failure, often through sheer gumption.
A prime example: Disney came up with Mickey Mouse in a last-ditch effort to keep his business from tanking. As he boarded a train from Manhattan to L.A., he began to think the marketable cartoon rodent could dig out the flagging company he and his brother Roy founded. "Born of necessity," Disney recalled years later about the creation of his most beloved character, "the little fellow literally freed us of immediate worry." MSI visitors can read the choppy, excited text of the Western Union telegram Walt sent to Roy as the more famous brother clinged to the hope that Mickey could move the company away from the brink of financial disaster: "LEAVING TONITE STOPPING OVER KC ARRIVE HOME SUNDAY MORNING SEVEN THIRTY DONT WORRY EVERYTHING OK WILL GIVE DETAILS WHEN ARRIVE—WALT."
Disney's father, Elias, was a construction worker in Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the same World's Fair that birthed the Musem of Science and Industry, though it's not clear whether Elias worked on the MSI. The show's real link to the museum is that the master of the Mouse House had an insatiable hunger for innovation—a big part of the institution's mission. After opening up shop in Hollywood in 1923, Disney was an early adopter of sound in cartoons. Steamboat Willie (1928), one of the first 'toons with synch sound, plays on a museum TV. Disney also made technical leaps in animation, particularly with regard to the use of multiplane cameras on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia. On display are stills from those and more classic Disney films, a breakdown of the revolutionary cam, as well as a recreation of a Disney Studios animator's workspace.
Disney pushed the limits of live-action cinema, as well, especially with regard to Mary Poppins. The 1964 classic gets a special 50th anniversary display at the MSI that features costumes, props and other artifacts. The museum exhibit, which debuted at California's Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, has arrived in Chicago before another warts-and-all depiction of Disney: Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the rocky, protracted production of Poppins. Set for release in December, the film stars Tom Hanks as a less-than-perfect Uncle Walt—a drinker, smoker and ocassional user of profanity, an obsessive who spent more than a decade trying to convince author P.L. Travers to give him the rights to adapt her book about the magical English nanny.
While Walt's commitment to boundary pushing was a major source of his company's success, his quixotism was also nearly Disney's undoing. In the 1940s, Walt had what sounded then like a nutty fantasy: to build a theme park based in part around the company's increasingly popular animated creations—a place where Snow White and the rest could "live." But Disney wasn't able to find funding through traditional sources, he said, "because dreams offer too little collateral." So he sold and mortgaged property (as did his brother), borrowed against his insurance and pumped in personal cash just to finance the making of the plans. A major piece of the plan, a large-scale original blueprint, hangs in the show as a reminder that the Happiest Place on Earth might have been scrapped were it not for Disney's resolve.
Walt discusses the Disneyland battle over incredible footage of crews constructing the park's environments, rides and animatronic figures on 160 acres of orange groves he purchased in Anaheim, California. Just short of the necessary cash, Disney struck a deal with then-fledgling ABC. The television station would chip in a few million dollars in exchange for Disney producing a show for the network. But his stubborn preoccupation with the project put his company perilously close to financial ruin. Except, of course, the risky move paid off. Disneyland's success spurred Walt to envision an even more ambitious project that is touched on in the exhibit: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a utopian mini-city that would become EPCOT Center. Disney would never see EPCOT take shape; he died of complications due to lung cancer 15 years before the park opened.
Beyond the history, Disney fans will certainly enjoy checking out the show's many costumes (especially the prized dress modeled for Snow White) and memorabilia, or learning to draw Mickey and other characters in the classroom area. For those who can't get away to Disneyland, "Treasures" is a fine substitute.