Haunted Mansion ballroom ghosts, behind the scenes. In the photo on the left, the birthday girl is visible, and beyond her, the actual prop table guests see. Grandma in her rocking chair also is the same face and body mold used in the Carousel of Progress.
Source: Imagineering Disney
“Walt told me that he wanted to build Abraham Lincoln. He knew I knew a lot about anatomy and things, so I went ahead and put these drawings together. [….] Well, when we got him built, Mister Lincoln would go through his performance - everything would be fine, and then, all of a sudden, there’d be some kind of a glitch and he’d become spastic suddenly. The poor sound men would have to come back night after night and redo the tapes that would control the figure. And after two weeks…I guess the Fair was open….Robert Moses decided he wanted to see this Mr. Lincoln, since he’d talked the state of Illinois into buying it. He came into the Mister Lincoln show with all of the New York people and their wives…and we had to run it for them. This was maybe 11 in the morning. I sat next to Dick Irvine, and he sat next to Walt. There was General Potter, the one-time head of the Panama Canal, and he was Bob Moses’ assistant. General Potter sat on my right, as I recall, and then there was Moses and all the other officials and their wives…
Mister Lincoln went through his performance….and God….not one glitch! We wanted to hug him! The only thing was, you couldn’t go up and hug a big piece of machinery like that because it could kill you. This thing had 500 pounds of hydraulic pressure…it could kill you. Sometimes you worked on it and you forgot it wasn’t a human being. If somebody fooled around, this thing could floor you!”
-Marc Davis speaking about the 1964 New York World’s Fair (and the danger of hugging Audio-Animatronics) in Issue 7 of the E-Ticket (Summer 1989)
Well worth the read if you love the Haunted Mansion, or even if you just love obscure knowledge.
“Somewhere around the beginning of 1968 the Imagineers finally decided that the Haunted Mansion was definitely, definitely going to be a ride and not a walk-thru attraction. Throughout the latter half of 1967, the Omnimover system had proven itself in the Adventure Thru Inner Space ride in the New Tomorrowland, and so the Imagineers knew that they had at last a ride system that could be successfully adapted to a haunted house.
No area was more radically affected by this decision than the show script. Starting in 1959, Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey had worked out a series of delightful ghostly effects to be used in show scenes that would last perhaps several minutes, but practically all of that had to be scrapped when the walk-thru became a ride. Now you had to have gags that for the most part would last a second or two as people boogied on by.
By the time they decided to make the HM a ride, it had for several years been firmly in the hands of an instant-joke master, Marc Davis. He had long demonstrated—most recently with POTC—that he could tell a funny story in half a second flat.
If you think that sort of thing is easy, just try it. What’s the secret to this kind of entertainment? For one thing, you rely on stock characters, clichés, broad personality types that are instantly recognizable. For another, you frame those characters within situations that are well known in the popular culture. Because the HM presents ghost figures in the dark, the characters are hard to read by their facial expressions, and so there is a tendency at the HM to lean more heavily on the framing element than we find in POTC. An easy example occurs near the end of the ride. Almost everyone has heard legends about ghostly hitchhikers, so it takes the typical viewer almost no time at all to figure out the context of the infamous scene.
Davis puts a couple of stock characters in there, just the sort of creepy figures you might encounter out on a lonely road: there’s the Mysterious Traveler (carpet bag and all), there’s the Escaped Convict, and there’s the…uh… Nondescript Sheet Ghost. Hmm. Obviously room for improvement there, and thank goodness (or should we say badness?), because we got Ezra. Oh, and notice the exaggerated size of the thumbs, a detail intended to slam their hitchhikerliness in your face instantly.
But no one bats 1000, not even the master of the insta-joke. The rest of this post examines Marc Davis’s biggest misfire in the Haunted Mansion, and maybe in the whole park. He gambled on public recognition of the cultural setting and lost. Forget about getting the joke in under a second; most people haven’t gotten this one even after 40 years.
Okay, this scene is goofy enough to keep it from being actually boring. The idea of a mummy as a rather wimpy looking geek having a cup of tea, and hard to understand because the bandages are in the way, while a deaf old guy tries to make out what he’s saying…yeah, I suppose it’s funny in a theater-of-the-absurd kind of way. But what’s a mummy and his tomb doing in a cemetery behind a Victorian-era house? And what sort of assumed relationship is there between these characters?
The problem stems from misreading the context. Mummies come down to us in horror culture in not one but two distinct forms: the mummy as ghost and the mummy as monster. Of the two, it is the monster that has come to completely dominate the public imagination, thanks to Boris Karloff’s 1932 performance in The Mummy, an image which has only been reinforced by countless TV and film treatments, a good recent example being the 1999 remake of The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser. We all know the monster mummy: the leg-dragging, lumbering killer, fueled by some ancient curse foolishly disregarded by the soon-to-be victims. He growls a lot, but otherwise has little to say. Some might think that Marc Davis is satirizing this hulking figure with his Don Knotts mummy, but that doesn’t explain the whole setting.
Davis’s mummy is the mummy as ghost, not monster. The context here is the Victorian mummy craze. Many a 19th c. wealthy Englishman started buying up Egyptian artifacts, including actual mummies, which could be procured with relative ease. England had a fevah, and the only cure was more mummies. In fact, the West in general had a bad case of Egyptomania:
If you want to find a historical counterpart to the Victorian lady in Davis’s drawing, you can see her in this painting on the far left:
But wait a sec…where’s the ghost part? So glad you asked.
Combine this Victorian fascination with mummies with the concurrent Spiritualism craze, and inevitably there was interest in contacting not only dead old aunt Martha but that much older dead guy you haul out for parlor entertainment. And which would you rather hear? Aunt Martha or someone with the lost, ancient wisdom of Egypt? Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called “Some Words with a Mummy” in 1854, in which a mummy is revived by shooting electricity through it, and it talks (great caesar’s ghost does it talk). Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle wrote mummy stories. The latter wrote one called “Lot 249,” about a British student who finds a magical papyrus with which he animates a mummy bought at auction. Things eventually go wrong, and presto, the mummy as monster is born. But the chatty mummies favored by Spiritualists didn’t vanish without leaving some trace. Even today, “The Mummy Speaks” is a minor league cliché, usable in any number of contexts, even political commentary. Davis gambled that this image of the mummy would be instantly recognizable, but for once his comic instincts failed him.
The presence of an entire Egyptian tomb in the cemetery behind the HM reflects more of the same mania. It became fashionable to use Egyptian motifs like obelisks during the Victorian age.
Sometimes a whole section of a British boneyard was done up like an Egyptian temple. There is a famous example at Highgate Cemetery:
This sort of thing is most likely the historical background for our Egyptian tomb, and apparently some wealthy Victorian eccentric has furnished it with a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus for good measure.
Who is the deaf old guy? Honest answer? I don’t know. Neither Davis’s sketch nor the maquette figure provides a clear identification. He may represent a sort of quasi-druidic-priest-type guy, either a real one or a Victorian pretender, and naturally he’s very interested in hearing what ancient Egyptian mysteries our mummy might spill. A summary of the ride written by the WED public relations head in April of 1969 describes him as a “venerable, bearded oracle of the Renaissance period,” if that helps.
Why did they keep him and ditch the lady? I don’t know. This tableau seems to have given the Imagineers unusual trouble. Not only did they cut a whole character, but they had a hard time figuring out how they wanted to arrange the three who remained, plus the sarcophagus lid and other details.Oh yes, the joke. All this sombre, occultic interest in contacting the dead and hearing the ancient wisdom locked inside the mummy’s soul is WASTED because the stupid bandages are making him mumble incoherently, and the old guy is too deaf to hear it anyway.
“After millenia of stony silence, at last the mummy speaks! He speaks, I tell you!”Oooooh, neato. What did he say?“Uh…well, I don’t know. He was mumbling.”