Saturday, December 5, 2020

Disney TV (2004).

The problem with success is that it gives everyone the perfect excuse to ignore you.  That's the one catch of pop-culture that nobody ever bothers to tell you about.  If an artist comes along and is able to leave the kind of impact that seeps rights into the social mainstream, then a kind of curious metamorphosis takes place.  The kind of impact I'm thinking of doesn't happen often.  However, on the few historical occasions when they do occur, the result tends to be a slow burn form of change in the atmosphere of a culture.  The new phenomenon is able to gain such a wide cultural acceptance in a way that is so vast that it's almost hard to notice it when it happens.  There have been just a handful of artists who have left that huge a level of impact on the world's stage.  Shakespeare might have been one of them.  Walter Elias Disney is definitely another.  Walt, or at least the brand and company that he left behind, has got to be one of the current constants in our modern aesthetic landscape.  For better or worse, both the man and the studio remain as benchmarks of pop-culture.  

The tricksy part, however, is what happens when the artist and the art is able to attain a certain high level of cultural ubiquity.  My own experience is that once that happens, there is a real threat that the artist is in danger of achieving what I've heard described as "Mainstream Obscurity".  It's what happens when an artist's fame ironically becomes the very means for his or her partial occlusion in everyday social awareness.  This can have a deleterious effect on their work.  In Walt's case, most people know the Seven Dwarves theme from Snow White ("it's off to work we go").  All well and good.  Now what's the movie about?  I mean can you give, name, or know specific elements about the flick?  Can you name and discuss specific plot points.  Do you even know whether or not the film is based on any kind of source material?  If you haven't got a choice except to answer no, well then I'm afraid that makes you living proof of just how it's possible for Disney to remain a pervasive known unknown.  His efforts have succeeded to such an extent that it's easy to fool ourselves into forgetting there was a time when things were otherwise, or else might not have been at all, if certain things hadn't gone right.    

Stop and think about it for a minute.  The guy writing these words can best be described as an 80s Kid.  I was born the year Orwell made famous.  That means I was just in time for Amadeus, Ghostbusters, and the breakout performances of Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The trick, however, is that I was in no position to even realize they existed until much later.  This would have been during the 90s for me.  That's when I first saw posters and standup billboard cut outs for something called Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  There was a brief span when I couldn't set foot into a local Blockbusters without having to walk past that same damn thing, time in and out.  Pretty soon, Arnold left, and in his place one day was a black background with the image of a T-Rex skeleton on, painted in shades of black and red.  The irony is I missed Jurassic Park on its initial theatrical run.  The key point about this memory is that one of those touchstones had been around long before I even knew T2 was a sequel.  It had achieved complete and total ubiquity.  The case of Spielberg's film was different.  By that time, I was of an age where I got to observe it starting to leave its impact everywhere I went.  The latter movie had this sense of a fresh, new discovery, while the former one already had this sense that it had always been here from the start.  My experiences with Walt's legacy ran pretty much the same way.

I don't how many others went through the same experience as me.  I think the way it all happened was my parents discovered the Disney Company somehow got its own cable channel.  They showed a lot of the old Mickey and Donald cartoons, as well as some other stuff that looked harmless.  So they plopped me down in front of the idiot box and that channel became my first real experience of both media and the world.  The one person I have to thank for it all is Uncle Walt.  I got to know him through that channel.  What I took a long time catching up with was the realization neither Disney, or his channel were ever "from the beginning".  Heck, Walt didn't even create the cable incarnation of his brand.  That was the work of his successors.  And yet here it is again.  Once more we see the process of an artist whose impact is so big that it's able to keep that ripple effect going long after the originator is shuffled out the door.  This can be good and bad.  On the one hand, we still know who Walt is.  The downside is that both the man, and the history behind him tends to get obscured.  In his case, its not so much due to the passage of time, as it is down to the way the Company has chosen to market its own legacy.

I'm sort of left to wonder how many of the post-2000 Disney fans out there really know just how vast and varied the creative history of their favorite company really is?  It goes back a lot further than just an ear worm like "Let It Go".  That's just a fact of history.  However, these days it seems to be the kind of fact that too many are willing to overlook or deliberately forget.  For some reason, that kind of mindset just comes off as a mistake to me.  It's the kind of social amnesia that sooner or later comes with a heavy price-tag.  I don't know how that must sound, it just seems to be the way history works.  It has a nasty habit of being unkind to any age or person who forgets all the lessons it has to teach.  The good news is that sometimes being a fan of the Mouse House tends to mean you get guys like Joseph L. Telotte.  

He fits into a very interesting category of the fandom.  Guys like don't like to take a copy of Zootopia off the shelf every now and then, just for a few moments of enjoyment.  That's about as far as most of it goes for us, but not for some of the fans, not by a long shot.  They believe it's important to try and dig down into the history of all their favorite films from that studio.  They want to know what were the creative decisions that went into them.  Where did the inspiration come from.  How did they manage to create all the most iconic scenes from the studio's history.  These are the questions that make a particular slice of the fandom tick.  I have no idea how wide or numerous their numbers are.  I'm also not going to lie.  I'm mighty glad they're around.  It's efforts like that which help to keep a good legacy alive.

Telotte's book, is interesting for the nature of the territory it covers.  Rather than focusing in on the making of any one entry in the Disney catalogue, or another re-telling of the history of the studio, Tellote instead decides to train his lens on an oft-forgotten aspect of Walt's career.  His study is called Disney TV, and it chronicles the first time Walt decided to bring his studio into the television age. I said at the beginning that this aspect of Walt's legacy is one of those elements that has gotten overlooked because of how ubiquitous it has grown in the years since its creator's passing.  I also pointed out that wasn't always the case.  It's one of those facts of history that are so damn easy to forget.  The good news is that Tellote's book might be able to help remind us of where some our favorite childhood memories come from.

The Main Premise.

Tellote kicks off his study with a brief synopsis of "the action" of the 1950s.  For the author, "the two key components...were television and marketing (ix)".  It sounds like a shallow description for a what in reality was a much more dynamic time of inner ferment.  It's possible this is a realization that occurred to the author as well, because the next passage reads almost as if Tellote decided to backtrack and grant his initial idea a wider scope and significance.  He notes that America at the time "seemed to be increasingly disjointed from values and traditions of the past while also becoming media and market driven (ibid)".  In acknowledging this sense of upheaval, Tellote seems to be treading from one book into another.  His admission of America's growing sense of unrest places him in a critical outlook that mirrors the tone and message of David Halberstam's The Fifties, a book whose main argument is that the Eisenhower decade was and is best understood as a training ground for what would later become the social revolutions of the 1960s.  

"Finding a safe and somewhat stable position amid this action was difficult, since rapid cultural change could lend itself to fads - such as the hula hoop, coonskin cap, finned cars, and The Twist - but fads by their nature burn out quickly, becoming historical curiosities in short order, markers that help measure more stable elements of culture, as well as its needs and desires.  One of the key cultural markers at both ends of this spectrum was the Disneyland television series, which generated one of the most popular fads of the era and, along with the comforting presence of its host, Walt Disney himself, stood as a symbol of a kind of cultural and indeed psychic stability in this period (ibid)".

Tellote notes that Walt was a kind of unconscious, yet willing pioneer in this gradual transition from the cinema screen to the one in the living room.  He was the first studio mogul to come up with the idea of merchandising his product in a number of venues.  "...a key result of this mixing of family-oriented entertainment with an intense emphasis on merchandising was that even at this early stage in his career, the studio's head, "Disney the modernist...and the prophet of abundance appeared on the same stage, indistinguishable" (163).  Not simply another entertainment mogul like those who at the time ruled the movie industry - Harry Cohen, Adolph Zukor, (Louis B. Mayer, sic) - Walt Disney was emerging as a harbinger and even a symbol of America's future, as someone who not only sold the culture a cinematic product (in both traditional and nontraditional ways) but was helping to create what Paul Virilio has lately termed a "cinematic reality" that we would all inhabit (xii)".

From there, the author goes on to state his main point.  "I sketch briefly Disney's industrial background to establish a cultural context out of which one of its most important developments, one that has had a lasting impact on the American entertainment industry and our cultural environment, would not only emerge but become practically inevitable.  Disney television, which has taken a great variety of forms - numerous specials, wildly successful series such as Zorro (ABC, 1957-59) and The Mickey Mouse Club (ABC, 1955-59), The Disney Sunday Movie series (ABC, 1989), various Disney products for Saturday morning cartoon time, and especially the Disney Channel - would deliberately capitalize on those model for success, while Disney's longest-running and most influential series, Disneyland/The wonderful World of Color, would lay its foundations on this model to become a landmark of the early television era.  In fact, we might argue that because of its impact on the film industry, on American viewing habits, on the shape of the television industry, and on the changing nature of mass culture entertainment, Disneyland is one of the most influential series in the history of American television (xii-xiii)".

"To better understand Disney/The Wonderful World of Color's place in the action of the emerging postwar and postmodern culture, we shall, throughout the following discussion, follow a methodology that foregrounds these various changes.  For this study aims to be by turns both historical and postmodern.  That is, on the one hand, it offers a reliable chronology of the events leading up to the creation of the Disney anthology series and following its primary years on the ABC and NBC television networks.  It gives special emphasis to the first five years on each network, years in which the show, under its two most well-known designations of Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Color, established its identity.  And in this respect the work takes its lead from Walt Disney himself who, in his studio's films, its theme parks, and its television productions, always insisted on a solid historical grounding and a look that reflected accurate historical research.  On the other hand, this study will examine what I describe as the key episode types in the series landmark years from the vantage point provided by sociologist Paul Virilio and his assessment of how the media have affected our cultural reality.  From this awareness of how much our sense of the real is conditioned by a process of mediatization, we can begin to gauge the contributions to contemporary culture of the media event that was Disneyland (xxiv)". 

The other way Tellote sets about his goal is by devoting an entire chapter to each of the main aspects of Walt's show.  In doing this, he's just being true to the way the series was originally formatted.  "The show would, at least initially, take its shape from the theme park's design.  Walt, as host, explained that approach in the opening episode when he informed viewers that "Disneyland the place and Disneyland the TV show are all part of the same."  Since the park would have four separate "lands" - Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland - the series would alternately feature four types of shows or stories, each geared to familiar film genres: animated fantasy, for which the studio was best known, the western, the action-adventure tale, and science fiction.  As Michael Real notes, the park was "designed as a total environment made of dramatic productions complete with plot, scenery, and characters.  The visitor passes through a Disney experience just as a viewer is carried through scenes in a film by a camera" (47).  So the genre contexts - of park, film, and television - would have a natural continuity, even a kind of narrative similarity, and would, like today's Disney theme parks, play off of their links to the film world (12)".  It is the examination of each of these worlds that takes up the remainder of the book, starting out with:


This is the first aspect of the show that Tellote devotes his attention to.  It's also the one segment of the program that proved something of a minor headache.  The whole thing sort of threatened to turn into an audio/visual equivalent of the Frankenstein Monster.  To Walt's credit, it's more than a fair certainty he never meant it to play out the way they did.  The whole problem lay not so much in the chosen segment itself.  It was really all down to the nagging question of popular demand coming up against the intentions of the initial concept.  Walt always meant for the show to be a constant, rotating variety show, one with a different bill of fair from each land with every new episode.  However, things didn't quite work out that way.  As time went on, Walt and his collaborators found themselves having to expend more time and energy than planned on all things Frontierland.

"Consequently, the fifth season, one that saw a title change to Walt Disney Presents, had no new Tomorrowland entries, while the Frontierland theme dominated with season opening repeats of the original three Davy Crockett episodes and six new shows apiece devoted to historical cowboy figures...Since all twelve of those would be repeated in the course of the season, more than half of 1958-59's shows were devoted to the western genre, with even the "True-Life Adventures" films, by now almost a signature of the series, being reduced to one show.  And the next year promised more of the same, as a preseason press release announced that of the twenty-six new shows, eighteen would be frontier themed and the remaining eight split between Adventureland and Fantasyland themes (14)".

The reason for all the deck stacking is difficult to wrap our minds around in an era when everyone knows places like the Marvel Cinematic Universe are where it's at (at least as long as you count all the good stuff).  Why would anyone want to bother with ancient history, even if it's our own?  The trick here is to realize that back in the real Mad Men era, those westerns were held in the same level of respect as the MCU is today.  The whole television landscape was almost its own painted desert, with very little room for much else.  Figures like Zorro, Matt Dillon, or the Cartwright Family were the mainstays of the family living room.  People back then knew more about the imaginary lives of oat opera characters then they probably did their own congressmen.  The very fact that I have to make first re-introductions at all tells you just how much the tide has turned against each and every one of these imaginary figures.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the memory of those shows is kept alive by just a small handful of fans old and new.

What made series like that stand out was the fact that they were all riding the same collective wave.  The Western genre became something of a national darling in the aftermath of World War II.  I think a lot of it had to do with the sense of euphoria that our victory in that conflict granted us.  The Nation as a whole came out of it better than when we went in.  When most of the soldiers got back, they not only got to pick up their lives again, they also found the War had left them with money to burn, more of it than anyone has ever really seen again.  It also, as Stephen King points out, left the Country with a lingering sense of paranoia, a mental tick that might have proved of use in generating the face of the late 20th Century Gothic story.  However, the main focus for the majority of the audience remained trained on the one genre that would give a voice to that initial sense of triumphalism.  The result was a wave that created the look and feel of the modern Western as it is still probably branded on our national memory.  It was a fad that directors like John Ford knew how to exploit and even satirize.

There is a sense in which Walt kind of got lucky in the midst of all this.  He came up with the idea of telling the life of the frontier pioneer David "Davey" Crockett.  It was meant to be little more than a recounting of the life of a real, historical figure.  Nothing major seems to have been intended.  Walt, however, brought his idea out at the right place and time.  The Western Wave was still in its early phases.  As a result, the figure of Davey Crockett as able to take off in a big way, one that Walt probably didn't anticipate.  "The Crockett shows insinuated television...into a national discussion on history, heroes, and even regionalism.  Walt's assertion that he wanted Disneyland to "educate and entertain" notwithstanding, historical notions had been started and powerfully communicated; a figure from the past had been brought back, meaningfully, into the national consciousness.  The Crockett series manifestly intervened in the popular psych as no other television show had done, in the process raising consciousness about national history and its formation while insinuating questions about popular culture's - and especially the media's - role in constructing that cultural history (36-7)".

I have to admit here that I'm not too sure the current incarnation of the Mouse House has it in itself to leave that kind of an impact anymore.  If anything, its recent results have shown it to be good at just a handful of things, none of which speaks in its favor.  It can either drop the ball, or else revert to what I can only describe as an anti-type to the kind of impact Walt was able to leave behind.  I cannot imagine this current version rebooting Davey Crockett, or Zorro, and making anything meaningful out of any of it.  That's one reason why I think it's important to stress that Walt was able to make at least some kind of contribution way back then.  In an age when the popularity of the Wave could allow the cheapest Hollywood hack to phone it in, Disney was always trying to put his best foot forward.  "In effect, by entering into the public discussion as both a purveyor of historical information and as an example of how this new medium might function in the cultural arena, Disneyland assured that television, even if only as the voice of popular culture, would have to be taken seriously (37-8)".

Days of Tomorrow's Past.

One of the toughest challenges Walt ever confronted was the question of the future.  It was something that came to occupy him as he got older, although there's more to it than that.  Besides the question of what his legacy would be, Walt also developed an interest in the question of where life on this Earth was headed, and whether or not it was possible to reach for the stars.  It was never an obvious question, and it didn't occur straight away.  There was a time for a great portion of his life when Disney barely even took an interest in science or technology, expect perhaps for how it could improve his animation department.  How, why, what, or even who granted Walt an interest in Science Fiction as a genre is a question I don't think I've ever heard a sufficient answer to.  Most biographies and documentaries tend to just tackle the subject itself, without any sense of buildup or progression.  We're never given an answer to any of these questions.  Instead, they all follow the same trope of just presenting him as a futurist visionary right up front, as if he'd just sprouted out of the ground like that, all ready and complete.  It stands to reason that the truth is a bit more complex and developmental.  I just wish I knew what it was.  Any answer I could supply would have to be pure guesswork.

Readers hoping that Telotte will be able to provide us with an answer to all of this will have to come away disappointed.  All the ink he spills on the subject of Tomorrowland is spent focused more on how Walt was able to realize this enthusiasm on the living room screen.  All of Disney's scientifiction interests were meant to lobbed together under the same umbrella segment within the larger show.  Tomorrowland was meant by Walt to be the spot in the lineup dedicated to speculation and entertainment centering around man's exploration and conquest of space.  Disney also hoped to try and showcase the possibilities for the technology of the future.  

"In proposing the series, Walt anticipated that his studio could easily create programming for its announced theme segments.  It generally had satisfactory models from which to work and much material about fantasy, the frontier, and adventure to provide raw material for the shows.  However, Disney had never dealt with the future or, apart from the then current production project of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, even any sort of science fiction, a genre that became highly popular in the 1950s.  Moreover as Bill Cotter notes, no one at the studio was quite sure exactly how to portray the future" or what its most appropriate subject should be (46-7)". 

The most useful idea Walt had seems to have come from an article written by a scientist named Werner Von Braun.  "In the early 1950s, Collier's magazine invited von Braun to publish his vision regarding space exploration. Space historian Randy Liebermann has explained the significance of the Collier's articles: "After 25 years of continuous and directed thinking and endless hours of experimentation, von Braun, the world's leading rocket engineer, had the chance to come out of his sequestered military environment and through a national magazine inform the general public of his detailed blueprint for realizing manned space travel (web)".  It was this published vision that seems to have helped jump start Walt's own imagination.  Not long after, he contacted Von Braun, and the two began a working partnership.  The arrangement was simplicity itself.  Walt would use his Tomorrowland segments to showcase Von Braun's concepts for what the future of space travel could be.  In turn, Von Braun and his fellow NASA associates would deliver their findings in a way that provided the dramatic material necessary for Walt and his TV show, thus helping to fill in a nagging blank space on an otherwise complete prime-time lineup.  The  result of this collaboration was a trio of hour-length TV specials: Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond

"Both men could make the dry facts of astrophysics and rocket engineering come alive and excite millions, as they moved these concepts from magazine articles to a series of highly praised Disneyland shows, to the theme park and its Rocket to the Moon ride, and ultimately to the forefront of the national consciousness.  Together, they prepared American imaginations for 'the real thing.'  That imaginative groundwork, the creation of a broad media context in which this momentous event became not only doable but expected and linked to America's sense of itself, was central to the space program dedicated to putting a man on the moon in the 1960s.  In fact, when viewed from this vantage, the American space program, marked by the waxing and waning of public enthusiasm, seems like another media event for an era that increasingly experienced events through the media, as if the world were becoming a kind of thrill ride, with the anthology show an important stage in that ride (45-6)".

The entire Tomorrowland segments of the show are best remembered today for the trilogy mentioned above.  Taken all together, they remain an important milestone in the histories of both science and entertainment, and are both neglected in equal measure.  It's one of those mistakes that cries out for a remedy.  The curious element that unites all three specials, as Tellote notes, is how they start out on a science factual note, and then begin a slow transition from fact to fancy.  The real demarcation point in all this appears to have been the Man and the Moon special.  Like the first  entry, Man and Space, the show keeps a clear eye on the science needed to reach the moon.  However, this kernel of fact is couched at both the start and finish by flights of fancy, rather than strictest fact.  It starts out with the folklore that surrounded the moon in pre-modern.  The ending segment almost has an element of the truth.  One can sense the specter of John Glenn's first manned flight underlying some aspects of what amounts to a mini Sci-Fi drama.  However, the final result always comes off as a bit more fanciful than what the truth turned out to be.  By the time Walt and his crew reached Mars and Beyond, it's clear things were headed in a different direction from its point of origin (50-56)".  What this could have meant in terms of places Tomorrowland could have gone is something I'll have to come back to.      

For now, it's enough to note that this chapter sort of comes off as the strongest of the entire book.  Telotte seems to have discovered his element and plays it like an academic, yet well-tuned violin.  He grants the reader a sense of both the content involved with the original Tomorrowland, and sense of context of the historical perspective that helped create and sustain it.  There seems little choice left except to label it the highlight of the entire study.  The downside is that it leaves the reader wishing we could have got more of the same.  Instead, the remainder of the text is concerned with themes and ideas that some might find a bit more difficult to digest.

Lands of Adventure and Fantasy.

In some ways, the penultimate chapter is the weakest entry in the whole book.  What makes it a particular shame is that it happens when Telotte turns his attention to the subject of Fantasyland.  It holds a pretty good claim for being considered the heart or nerve center of Walt's entire operation, both as artist and entertainer.  It just makes sense to keep this in mind, and try to dive as far down into the depths of the subject as the critic can go.  The key factor to bear in mind is that it was in the realm of Fantasy, or myth and folklore, that Walt realized and utilized his best strengths as a filmmaker.  He was so good at it, in fact, that it was almost a fait acompli when Disney realized he could sometimes succeed in turning this knack to good use in the realm of amusement parks.  Therefore any critic who tackles the subject should at least give their best effort to understand Walt's relationship to the genres of myth and fairy tale.  To overlook these aspects is to sort of miss the whole of who Disney was as an artist and human being.  Tellote's problem is that he doesn't seem to have much interest in these elements.  Instead, he's shows more concern in these pages to try and focus in on his "cinematic reality" thesis.  It may make sense to him, yet it sells the reality of his subject just a bit too short.

To be fair, though, Tellote is able to give us some glimpses of insight into the lesser known moments of Disney's history.  A good example comes in the form of Adventureland.  In the theme parks, this concept translates into the Indiana Jones and Jungle Cruise rides.  On Walt's original TV show, this was the program slot dedicated to a series of short, nature documentaries known as "The True Life Adventures".  The way it worked is that Walt would often use the segment to indulge in his love of nature.  He'd assemble a documentary crew, including local wildlife experts, and send them out into all four corner of the Earth to record and catalogue both the flora, fauna, and diverse cultures that inhabit the globe.  What this meant in practice is that often times, when kids or families tuned in to an episode of Adventureland wasn't not just the world of ants, dolphins, or albatrosses.  You would also get what, at the time, must have amounted to a series of first introductions to the various tribal societies of Africa, the bull fighting customs of Spain, or a glimpse into modern life in India.  

It would be a mistake to underrate the social impact creative choices like this can sometimes have.  It probably doesn't seem so remarkable now.  However, during the middle 1950s, a TV show that devoted itself to showcasing all the cultures of the Earth was perhaps the closest the Country at the time ever got to a true enough window on the world.  One of the key things to remember in this regard is that when it comes to leaving an impact on an audience, sometimes the ones that stick around the longest are those that allow themselves to enough subtlety to the point where you don't even notice the influence until years later down the road.  It's a gross oversimplification to say that Walt shook the cage enough to get future generations to realize there were other people out there, and that a planet is a thing worth preserving.  It's true enough, however, that he was a definite contributing voice in this conversation.  Part of what helped give him that voice was the decision to go ahead with those True Life Adventures.

"In all, Disney produced thirteen such films between 1948 and 1960, some short and other features, which brought the studio consistently high profits.  Moreover, the nature films, as Janet Wasko notes, helped build Walt's "reputation as a documentarian and educator," bringing him awards from the National Geographic Society and the Audubon Society, the latter of which cited the "service to conservation" (Wasko 147) made by his studio's nature films (70)".

Aside from this, the only other major takeaway the author has about his subject all boils down to his opinions on how Walt tried to merge the concepts of the TV show and the park together.  "By providing a narrative framework around the Disneyland experience, a framework found in the anthology series and its numerous episodes on the planning, construction, and further development of the park, Disney not only created a kind of inevitable trajectory for the television audience but also laid the foundation for a maximizing of synergy, as the park experience would also draw on the various Disney films (for example, as ride inspirations), which in turn would provide raw material for additional episodes, which would further attract viewers/consumers to the park and to later theatrical releases (75)".  As far as grand, final thesis statements go, there's nothing in it that even a casual onlooker couldn't have discovered on there own.  The whole effect amounts to noticing that water is wet, and the years come in seasons.  

Conclusion: An Essential Mixed Bag.  

It is possible, believe it or not, to criticize the critic.  That's not a mind-blower observation.  It's probably as old as the Grecian Attic Poets, and any quick and hazardous peak in on social media will tell you that critics and the ones who critique them in turn are a dime a dozen.  Perhaps it's always been this way, and it just took longer than expected for everyone to notice.  It also doesn't change the fact, or make it any less of an essential function.  In the case of Tellote, the reader is presented with a decent enough premise with variable, and perhaps somewhat unequal results.  We're promised a backstage pass behind the curtain, as well as an attempt to see how that production relates to the social and historic milieu in which it was created.  That's a very worthy subject to take on, especially with a person and company like Disney.  The question is whether or not the critic is able to push his own efforts far enough to do the subject justice.  In that sense, there are ways in which Tellote sort of drops the ball.

He's willing to pour on the critical theory, yet its final results are both pedantic, and a lot more slim on the ground than I was expecting.  His focus always seems geared toward the technical aspects of the TV show's history, rather than the multi-faceted content of the program itself.  This is a shame because an anthology like the original Disneyland is one of those pop-culture goldmines that are just waiting to offer untold riches to any fan or critic who knows what they're doing.  Tellote's major failings seem to stem from a narrowing of interest, combined with a self-contradiction that almost invites a certain level of pity.  He's a literary oriented critic who can't stop focusing on the technology involved in the creative process, rather than the process at the heart of it all.  To be fair, an interest in the engineering of a marvel like the Disney parks is always going to have to be an essential part of the discussion of their creator's legacy.  The difficulty is that this leaves the book without a well thought out main focus.  

His stated goal was to focus on a TV show, and somehow it winds up being about the parks.  This creates a necessary lack of coherence in the narrative, as it makes it sounds as if the writer's interest shifted at some point during the writing of his text.  Perhaps that's the actual case.  If there's any truth to this best guess scenario, then it's obvious enough Tellote should have halted the study in its tracks, and gone back to the drawing board in order to address his real subject of interest.  At the same time, he might not have been given much of a chance.  I remember an old college professor writing that the rule of thumb in the academic world is publish or perish.  That means a lot of college teachers often have to justify their positions in order to keep their jobs.  It is just possible that sometimes this can have a deleterious effect on the final product, and Tellote's book is very much a product of the academy.

I suppose the final result has little choice expect to wind up a foregone inevitability.  Tellote tries to bring out a full picture of his subject, and instead Walt's abilities as a businessman tend to overshadow his fundamental nature as an artist.  There's no doubt that Walt had to have at least a certain amount of industry competence if he was able to survive as long as he did.  The fact remains, however, that this is not the real reason people can still recall him all these generations later.  Walt was an entertainer in the last resort.  It's what he was good at above all else.  It's what allowed him to carve a definitive niche for himself, and the art form of animation.  His anthology series serves as another feather in the cap of a wide, and varied career.  This is the main reason why Tellote's book just doesn't go as far enough as it should.

There is a great deal of matieral in the subject that remains untapped and understudied to this day.  For instance he could have examined the several other levels of impact Walt left behind as a result of his dive into the TV medium.  Right now we're going through an age when everything seems to be in flux.  As a result, it's hard to tell just what kind of effect any of the legacy medias still have or can exert over the mass audience.  At the time Disney launched his anthology show, however, the original small screen was king.  As a result, it allowed Walt a considerable level of influence over his viewers, especially in the then younger demographic.  I think he might have been able to carve out an edge for himself because of one fundamental reason.  As an artist who made his name through adapting fairy tales, Walt was just about the only, single entertainer of the time who provided an outlet for Myth in the modern world.  

The list of other artists who tried the same thing at that time can be counted on one, literal hand.  They make up handful who eventually found their own ways of doing something similar, yet different to Walt.  I just think it's important to note how long the rest of the industry was in catching up to the initial insights.  It took guys like Irwin Allen, Serling, or Roddenberry almost an entire decade to play catch up with the concept of the viability of myths being played out on the small screen.  The only other talent I can think of who fit the same mold as the others of that era would have been just a scruffy looking hippie named Jim Henson.  Each of them has helped enshrine the fantastic as the dominant storytelling mode for the modern era, and yet it's doubtful is any of them would have been near half as successful if guys like Walt hadn't helped blaze a trail for them, even if it was an indirect one.

It's because Disney was able to kick-start such changes that it almost makes sense to talk about his achievements in terms of the way they shaped and changed the consciousness of viewers at the time.  I should guard against something when I make a statement like that.  I'm not saying Walt was any kind of guru, or harbinger of any form of utopia.  I don't mean anything like that.  The evolution of public perception is very much its own thing, and it would have gone on without him.  I just think it might be possible to say that Walt was able to tap into this evolution while it was happening, and as a result, his efforts "might" be one of the clues to examine America's changing ideas about itself.  It's a concept that I find fascinating at least.  However it's also an idea that's probably a bit too esoteric for most tastes.  So with that in mind, let me shift the focus back to safer ground.

I'd like to close with an aspect of Tellote's book that I find to be the most interesting in his entire study.  It goes back to Disney's struggles with the very concept of Tomorrowland, both as an aspect of the theme park, as well as a show in a series.  He really seems to have been a late comer to the subject of the future, and the artistic imaginings it could inspire.  Once Von Braun's fact based analysis had been exhausted, the entire segment sort of found itself turned into a vacuum with nothing much to fill it in.  As a result, the Tomorrowland segments of Disneyland remained one of the most under used and little seen aspects of the show.  This scarcity was also reflected in the meager offerings the park version of the concept had to offer.  I think it stands as a perfect testament to the fact that Disney himself was often more of a romantic-nostalgic pastoralist, rather than any sort of genuine futurist.

To be fair, I'm not saying there's any shame in that.  It just means there's a lingering note of regret involved.  Tomorrowland stands as one of the show's great, unfulfilled promises.  What makes the question of "what might have been" all the more intriguing is that a possible solution was always right at the company's fingertips.  Tellote himself suggests this solution when he notes the gradual shift in perspective that the Man and Space series underwent as it evolved.  The first show was all fact based.  The second one, however, displayed a growing split between science fact and fancy.  Disney and his crew tend to show more of an interest in the fictional aspects of outer space, rather than in anything like mere conquest of the cosmos.  This fascination with the mythological aspects of space is showcased to good effect in the segment's final entry, Mars and Beyond.  

This is where Walt seems to have lost all interest in the facts, and found enough of a blank spot on the map to allow his animator's imaginations to go as wild as they want.  When the film reaches a segment where they have to envision what life could be like on the planet Mars, since they had none of today's data available to them at the time, it's almost as if the filmmakers decided, "Now would be a good spot to just drop some acid and "float downstream".  The result is a moment of animation that has to count as the most fantastical, surreal, and unsung piece of work that the Disney animators have ever managed to pull off.  Strange creepy crawlers drag their serrated bodies across the sand.  Winged monstrosities that look like a cross between a bat and vulture flit through the sky, and plants get up and walk about like humans.  As one anonymous wit once observed of the whole sequence: "This is what Wayne Barlow sees when he closes his eyes".

You can sense the fun Disney, Ward Kimball, and the rest of the crew were having when they cooked up those few, fleeting, yet stunning minutes of film.  You're also left with a sense of longing.  We're seeing a group of creative talents yearning for, and trying to reach back to the same creative wells that helped them create the Blakean, almost apocalyptic, prehistoric landscapes from The Rite of Spring.  It's one of the cartoons where Disney and his staff showed just how far their skills and imagination could reach.  It's why I tend to regard Fantasia as the studio's masterpiece.  It's just a theory, yet I can't help think there might have been a brief moment when they might have wished to use to Tomorrowland to try and recapture that epic sense of scope and grandeur.  The trouble is everyone seems to have had a hard time trying to find the right way into such concepts.  I think part of it is down to just how much of a blank slate they all had to work with.  At least the age of the dinosaurs is something definitive to work off of.  The future, at best, is all just theory until proven correct.  As a result, the irony is that for once, a blanks canvas acted as a blockage, rather than a spur to creativity.  That's why there wasn't much to offer in what viewers got with Disney's World of Tomorrow.

I also said there was an obvious solution, however.  The best way to describe the nature of that solution would be to frame it in the form of  a good old fashioned showbiz pitch.  If I had a time machine, and went back to the Disney company in 1954, and was granted an audience with the boss, here's what I would have suggested he do about Tomorrowland.  "Walt, I here you're having trouble with this one aspect for the show.  Is it really that big a deal, or a headache?  Well, you don't have to hold me to any of this.  Yet I think I might know what to do with your problem.  Right now, you've geared Tomorrowland toward exploring the facts of science.  However you can't seem to get much further than that?  Well then how about at some point you just go on an announce that you'd like to try and see what can be done with presenting or illustrating the fiction that's grown up around space exploration?  Tell audiences that at some point Tomorrowland will try and experiment with some of the best stories that Science Fiction has to offer.

"If it's done right, you could kill several birds with one stone.  From a practical perspective, you'll have tones of material to pack in for the segment itself.  The real interesting part, however, is this.  If you tinker with Tomorrowland in just the right way, you could make a genuine accomplishment.  You could create a series of either short or long subjects that just might rival anything you've done with fantasy.  Think about it, Walt.  All you've got to do to pull this off is start browsing the dime store magazine racks.  There's tons of little niche publications out there with enough material for your show.  More than that, some of the best untapped talent is working in that field.  Why not have your folks pick up as many copies of Galaxy, or Fantasy and Science Fiction, pour over what they got in them, and then just have them tell you which ones could work best for the show?  If you feel you gotta be thorough, you can always peruse through them yourself, if you think it'll help. 

"You can even go further than that, however.  Some of the young Turks who've made a living for themselves in the field are legit published authors.  They've got books of their own lining the shelves, and most of them are full of stories you could turn into episodes if you really wanted to.  Finally, you can get in touch with the guys and gals who write this stuff in person, and ask if they'd like to contribute to Tomorrowland.  I think of a pretty good list of names off the  top of my head.  If it's stories with some kind of factual basis, then you can't go wrong with Arthur C. Clarke.  Isaac Asimov could also be good at that sort of thing.  If you're more in the mood for a good old fashioned swashbuckling affair among the stars, then I suppose Leigh Brackett is the one to turn to.  If the name is familiar, then she's a player in the industry.  Yeah, no fooling.  She's working with Howard Hawks at the moment.  I think she also wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep, if I recall.  She's also got a steady hand for Sci-Fi and Fantasy.  She's published a little of both in her time.  She'd be easy to get in touch with and go from there.  

"Another good candidate is L. Sprague de Camp.  Henry Kutner and/or C.L. Moore are good for otherworldly hijinks happening in and around main street.  Eric Frank Russell and Robert Sheckley are great at humor in this vein.  Guys like Frederick Pohl, Kurt Vonnegut, and Theodore Sturgeon are always good at taking the human interest element and setting it way out in the cosmos.  While Clifford Simak seems the best at both humanism and the heart strings.  The one name I'd have to recommend above all of them, Walt, is Ray Bradbury.  You've met him yourself, right?  Well, why not just phone him up and see if he and your gang can get together to churn something out.  If I had to make a suggestion, with something like this it's probably best to start out small.  Maybe begin with a nice compact story, like Ray's The Veldt.  Next you might try one of Moore and Kutner's lighter pieces.  Then see if Fred Brown will lend you a story of his to produce.  It's called "Arena", and it can work as your first action set piece.  I think if you go with these as your first episodes, you'll be able to give audiences an idea of what they're in for with this segment.  From there, technically, you could go just about anywhere you want.

"The neat thing about this, Walt, is that you have carte blanche to push the envelope as much as you like.  You can animate these episodes, or shoot them in live action.  Or, if you want to get really creative, you can mix things up a bit.  Make a story in which the human characters are live action, while the aliens can be animated, and you can make them as comfortable or "out there" as you want.  It may even be possible to think up another story from a non-human perspective.  Think about it!  Sooner or later it wouldn't surprise me to discover that the scenarios would start to write themselves".  At least there's one idea of the kind of missed opportunities, and roads not taken.  In terms of the actual material Tellote has to work with, it's a shame he never delves as much into it as he should have.  In that regard, I'm afraid the book isn't as much of a success as it could have been.

The curious thing is, I'm not sure I can bring myself to call it a complete waste of time.  The author's interests are going north and south at once, and it can make for a disjointed reading experience at times.  However, there are moments where Telotte is able to balance out those awkward, or dry, academic moments with some genuine insight into the history of Disney's anthology.  This trait happens just enough in my opinion to enable me to say, maybe it's worth keeping around.  Disney TV is by no means the final word on a part of Walt's career that still needs a lot more care and examination.  That book, whatever it may be, is still out there, waiting in the wings.  Sure the book in this case is very flawed.  I also have to admit it does at least offer something in return for the time invested in it.  Tellote tells us a few things that even die hard Mouse House fans may not have realized.  

For instance, a good picture is given of the television landscape Walt found himself wading into.  What makes it so fascinating is the perspective all the other studios had to the the new medium of the time.  It's hard to believe the big production companies would even dare to entertaining thinking like this today, yet back in the 50s, TV was so looked down on by the major moguls of that decade, that deciding to rely on TV for your profits was seen as lowering yourself to an inferior art form.  In fact, Walt got derided for just that reason.  The punchline, of course, is just how prescient he was.  

These are all facts that Tellote unearths and unpacks for the reader.  I can safely say I wouldn't have known about any of this if I hadn't ordered a copy of this book.  In addition, the author does sometimes know when to focus in on topics like the entertainment culture that helped Walt succeed in shows like the Davey Crockett series.  It's perhaps Telotte's best saving grace.  Despite so many glaring missteps, he still knows, or is smart enough to realize that Walt remains famous for his gifts as a storyteller, and the way that talent interacted with the era which made him who he was.  In that regard, Disney TV may be something of a mixed bag.  However, the good news seems to be that it doesn't mean it's an entirely empty one.

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