Marc Davis in His Own Words: Imagineering the Disney Theme Parks

[[Imagineer Chris Merritt (previously) was the protege of the Disney legend Marc Davis, the character designer whose work defined the look of such classic attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Merritt has written seminal books on southern California's themed attractions, including Knott's Berry Farm and Pacific Ocean Park.

[[His latest book, Marc Davis in His Own Words: Imagineering the Disney Theme Parks, is his magnum opus: a gorgeous, two-volume, slipcased set on the life, philosophy, reminisces, career, and designs of Marc Davis, incorporating many never-seen rarities from Davis's own collection, as well as the Disney archives. Chris was kind enough to supply us with this excerpt from Chapter Nine, which tells the backstory of my beloved Haunted Mansion, largely through transcribed, verbatim quotes from Davis himself. -Cory]]

With the success of the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean, the last attraction to truly be approved by Walt Disney, the team at WED turned their efforts back to a long-delayed and never fully developed show—the Haunted Mansion. After Walt’s untimely passing in late 1966 and the struggle to get Pirates open the following year, the team found difficulty in establishing the final designs needed to go into production.

Disney’s “Spook House” had been long planned by WED, going back at least to 1956, when Marvin Davis and Sam McKim developed concept art of an abandoned haunted house for the then nascent development of New Orleans Square. It was conceived as a walk-through attraction—not unlike the Pirate Wax Museum—and in early 1957 Walt turned to Ken Anderson to develop the show.

By 1958, Ken Anderson had moved on to other projects—and the following year Walt gave Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey a make-work assignment to develop gags and mock-ups of illusions for his planned Haunted House. These were assembled at various areas on the Studio lot, including the sets created for the Zorro television program.

After a year of mock-ups, Walt directed Crump and Gracey to other projects and brought in Marvin Davis and Bill Martin to take a stab at designing the show. Both men helped develop the idea of sending guests down in an elevator to a show building outside the berm. (Dick Nunis lobbied for a similar idea about the show building for Pirates of the Caribbean in mid-1961.) Sam McKim was asked to create a more finished painting of the exterior based on Ken Anderson’s earlier rough sketch. The growing cast of WED designers assigned to the Haunted House project only increased as the years rolled on.

“And, as I say, they just kind of put everybody on it. Walt didn’t like one guy working in a room by himself—he had created a kind of teamwork. For instance, in the story department while making cartoons, there would be three or four guys . . . or sometimes just a couple of guys working together. This goes back to him being a casting director. It was one of his great skills—putting the right guy at the right time in a certain spot, or deciding that “this guy wasn’t for this” and taking him off onto something else, and getting a couple more guys in. He did this constantly—this shuffling and moving of people.”

“It had been worked on off and on for a number of years at the Studio. Well, it was a long time before Walt really wanted to work on it. The building was down there, but nothing beyond that. There was an elevator and that was about the extent of it. Marvin Davis designed and built that building, and it’s a replica of some house back somewhere—I can’t remember now. But apparently it was based on a very famous house. Then we got this idea that it could be like the beginning of a thing with an elevator that would go down, and then into it. And pretty soon you didn’t know where you were—and that was what we were trying to do with this. But the house just sat there and sat there, you know? And I had always thought of a haunted mansion as being like something out of Charles Addams, that kind of a thing. And here was this neat building! I couldn’t understand why they wanted this plain, nothing building up there. And I mentioned this to Walt, and he said, “No, Marc. I don’t agree with that. I don’t want anything in Disneyland that looks like we don’t take care of it. I think everything inside of the park should look neat. Inside you can do anything you want to the show, but outside I want things to look like we take care of them. I don’t want to see a shabby building there.” Walt Disney thought of these as places where he could take his kids and grandchildren and so on. And he was very adamant on that. He wanted it to be a clean place. So that was definitely an instruction to me. That’s why the Haunted Mansion has this very neat look. But again, nobody quite knew what they wanted to do. But when we had the elevator – the “stretching room” – that gave us a chance to do some things with some humor.”

“It was kind of a dead duck for about two to three years. It had bogged down to the point that it was never done. And as I say, these guys had worked on it and couldn’t sell it the way they had it—because apparently they were trying to tell a story that had a beginning and an end, and this was just not a good storytelling medium. If you put people in a boat, it’s awfully hard to tell a story from beginning to end with any continuity. And I think this is what happened there, and as I say, Walt didn’t buy it. This was something he felt, and I also feel very strongly: this is not a storytelling medium that we’re in. It’s a thing where we give experiences. And you find some of these situations are in themselves little experiences. But they’re not a continuity of a story of taking one of these characters from the beginning to the end and saying, “Wow – what happened to him?” It isn’t that kind of a thing.”

“As I say, we had a lot of art directors there. And these were guys—you know, most of them were architectural or like motion-picture art directors. And as far as producing the ideas, I produced most of the ideas. I’d say maybe 85 percent of the ideas that are in the Haunted Mansion are things that I did. But they were trying to tell a story about a bride who was stood up at her wedding and so on—and Walt kept saying, “No.” And that was another reason why when I inherited my part of the thing, I didn’t do that. And as I say, in the meantime the World’s Fair kind of stopped all of our thinking on these things. However, even when we were working the World’s Fair, there were times this thing would come up, and I did a lot of drawings back at that time. The way I was brought in on most of these things was Walt would say, “Well, give some thought to this or that,” you know? I was just told, “Hey, we’re gonna do this, so see what you can come up with ideas on this.””

Around mid-1964, Marc Davis got his turn on the development of the Haunted Mansion. He had spent a fair amount of time in Story as an animator, and he began by writing an outline of the attraction as he saw it in July. The treatment utilized story scenarios and gag situations partially based on Ken Anderson’s earlier treatments of the attraction as a walk-through. Acts one through three in particular hew closely to what guests would experience in the final attraction.

“Oh, I kinda dove into it, but you know, how do you find out about ghosts? And as I say, this was something that leaves you kinda scratching your head and going to the library and trying to find things that would be apropos. And I didn’t find that much, actually. So we did a pretty original thing here. Anyway, I experimented with many, many ideas. Well, there were different opinions of what it should be. But I seem to kind of like to take a thing and make it a series of little surprises. Things that you wouldn’t expect.”

ACT 1: The Stretching Room

“The audience moves into the elongating room. The ghost host introduces himself as their invisible guide. He also introduces the attendant who is dressed as a butler who will also accompany the group on their dangerous adventure in the haunted mansion. The ghost host recommends that they stay close to the sound of his voice because there are many unpredictable things that may happen and they will be much safer if they stay near him. He says, “The dead spirits have some resentment for those who wish to stay alive!” But he adds, “They are a gregarious group and they are always in search of new company. They are always pleased to meet a new ghost. Don’t let it be you!” He warns them to watch out for clutching hands without bodies, cold drafts of air and etc.

The ghost host points out the salient points of the elongating room. As the room elongates his voice may stay high in the room and gradually feed through an echo chamber. He calls attention to the fact that there are no visible exits to the room. He says there is a way out and with a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder we see a figure hanging and swaying from the ceiling. The ghost host doesn’t recommend this coward’s way out. His voice drops with a dull plop to the floor. The voice is back to normal, the walls open and he leads the group with the aid of the butler, who beckons, into the next scene.”

(Haunted Mansion walk-through outline by Marc Davis – July 27, 1964)

“I did the Stretching Room, the design of the room and the guy hanging up there—how to make it work and so on. We had a cloth ceiling that you saw through like a scrim, and then you could see this figure hanging up there. And that was your “ghost host.” We had this elevator that when you went into the ride, you went into this room, and here were these paintings. Now, each painting was divided into three parts. The girl was a painting that you’d cut off one-third down, and that was what you saw. The previous painting was the same way. Little by little, these things grew as we were there.”