(From Animato #39, 1998. See that issue for a bunch of wonderful illustrations to this piece by some very talented cartoonists.)
The Ones that Didn't Make it
By Harry McCracken
When it comes to the cartoon business, imitation has always been the sincerest form of competition. As most animation buffs know, the unexpected and gigantic success of Walt Disney's Snow White prompted just about every American cartoon studio to plan an animated feature of its own. Max Fleischer said that he would produce an adaptation of Gulliver's Travels; Walter Lantz made plans to animate Aladdin and his Lamp with Abbott and Costello; Paul Terry announced with great fanfare an animated King Lear with Farmer Alfalfa in the titular role.
Ultimately, most of these film were never made. One by one, Disney's competitors came to the conclusion that the feature-length cartoon was something that Walt and Co. could keep for themselves. But did you know about the second time, more than fifteen years later, that a surprise Disney hit led to hasty imitations?
This time, it wasn't a movie. Instead, it was a theme park -- the first one of them all. I speak of Disneyland, of course. When it became clear that Disney's Anaheim fun spot was going to be a smash hit, virtually every other cartoon studio wanted a piece of the amusement-park action. And this time, the studios weren't about to abort their plans before fruition.
The story of the Disneyland imitations of the mid-1950s is one of the most sordid in animation history, one that the studios have successfully suppressed for decades. Eleven years ago, I wrote about it for Animato #13, previewing a book-length manuscript I'd completed on the subject -- "Cartoon Babylon." Sadly, I was unable to find a publisher brave enough to take on such a taboo subject. Whether it was just a general timidity on the part of the New York book trade or threats from Walter Lantz's goons, I can't say.
Thank goodness that Animato is fearless enough to tackle this important topic once again. Because all known photographs of the parks disappeared log ago (by accident? I think not!), this magazine has commissioned a distinguished panel of artists to create painstaking visual reconstructions of the parks. My thanks to them.
Paul Terry was the first to complete his park. Terrytown (which was located in Tarrytown, New York, a source of endless confusion) opened barely six months after Disneyland. Like all Terry projects, the park scraped by on a minuscule budget. No money was allocated for costumes, so Farmer Alfalfa was portrayed by a local punch-drunk (but appropriately wizened and bearded) derelict. The hordes of mice that were a staple of Terry cartoons were played by hundreds of real mice -- a highly effective method, but which most park patrons didn't seem to care for. Since Heckle and Jeckle looked exactly alike, Terry saw no reason to pay two separate actors to portray the characters. Only one magpie appeared at the park, alternately insisting that he was either Heckle or Jeckle and that his twin was elsewhere on the premises.
Terrytown -- located in an abandoned lot surrounded by condemned tenement buildings -- was never popular. After a narcotics-crazed actor portraying Oil Can Harry began attacking and kidnapping female patrons, the park was quietly shuttered in early 1957.
Casper the Friendly Ghost's Wraithville, the park opened by Terry's New York competitors at Famous Studios, was slightly more successful. Located in the spacious basement of the Famous building in New York City, Wraithville's main attraction was Famous's popular ghost character Casper, who -- in an effective money-saving measure -- always remained invisible, which meant that no actor needed to be hired to portray him.
Attractions such as Katnip's Kasino and Baby Huey's Dangerous Duckpond helped make Wraithville a modest financial success, which, ironically enough, led to its eventual downfall, ironically enough. Famous used its profits to create a realistic, visible Casper character who, amid much publicity, made his debut early in 1958. From our vantage point, what happened seems entirely predictable: as soon as Casper entered the park, hundreds of visitors screamed "A GH-H-H-O-ST!" in unison, clumped together to form a giant pair of shoes, and ran away. The park was never able to rebuild its success after that, and was shortly thereafter sold to the Harvey Comics company for use as warehouse space. Today, it serves as overflow seating for one of the busiest Roy Rogers' fast-food locations in Manhattan.
Warner Bros. Looneyland seemed at first to be a sure thing. Although Jack Warner has unfairly tarred with the reputation of being disinterested in his cartoon department, he lavished attention on Looneyland, investing millions of dollars in prime Southern California real estate, elaborate costumes, and thrilling rides. The park was days away from a planned grand opening in the Spring of 1956 when Warner discovered to his horror that, contrary to what he'd always understood, his studio didn't make the Mickey Mouse cartoons after all. Looneyland had been entirely based on a Mickey Mouse theme. When Warner was told that his park would have to feature Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck instead, he quickly lost interest and the project was terminated at the last minute.
Woody Woodpecker's Wonderful Village was Universal's planned amusement park, constructed in Anaheim, only a quarter mile from Disneyland itself. The park featured Woody's Giant Birdhouse, Andy Panda's Chinese Forest, Milford's Pig Sty, and numerous other charming attractions based closely on Walter Lantz's beloved creations. An enormous and expensive grand opening was planned for July of 1957, but hours before the gates were to be thrown open to the throngs of visitors that had already gathered outside the park, a Universal executive discovered that more money could be made by using the park as a tax write-off than by opening it. The grand opening was abruptly canceled.
For four decades, the park has stood has stood locked, empty, and unattended, where it has become a well-known source of puzzlement for Anaheim residents, few of whom know the true story behind it. Woody Woodpecker's Wonderful Village continues to be an enormously successful tax shelter, accounting last year for more than one-third of Universal's net profits.
Remember the beloved cartoon characters created by the Republic and Eshbaugh studios in the 1940s? By 1956, neither did anyone else, which is why the two studios were forced to pool their efforts in a project called [[Republic/Eshbaugh City]]. Between them, they had only two characters -- Republic's Charlie Horse and Eshbaugh's Cap'n Cub -- each of whom had starred in only one cartoon. Moreover, the Cap'n's sole personality trait -- the glee with which he gunned down Axis soldiers -- was no longer quite as appealing as it had seemed during WWII.
Nevertheless, the two studios purchased a quarter-acre parcel of land near Bridgeport, Connecticut and constructed a small park. After several months of modest success, tragedy struck: Cap'n Cub suffered one of the first documented cases of "flashback" when a group of Japanese tourists unexpectedly visited the park. The Cap'n's much-publicized trial and death in the electric chair put a significant damper on the park's business and it did not reopen for the 1957 season.
Gerald McBoing Boing's Planet Moo, inspired by the cartoon of the same name, was opened by the avant-garde young turks of UPA in Boulder Colorado in late 1956. The park, featuring such highbrow characters as Gerald, Mr. Magoo, Christopher Crumpet, and Ham and Hattie, was handsomely designed and featured restrained, sophisticated attractions. But its management slowly came to realize that the only attendees were Gilbert Seldes, Arthur Knight, and a small group of East Coast intellectuals, and the park was closed after less than a year of operation.
Quimbyburg, located in Downey, California and named in honor of producer Fred Quimby, was MGM's entry in the amusement park race. The studio's ambition was to give the park the "MGM touch," with a general lavishness to rival that of Disneyland itself. But MGM officials made the fatal error of assigning Fred "Tex" Avery to head up the project. A skilled animator, Avery was wholly inexperienced with the quite different demands of dealing with the human performers who had been hired to portray Tom and Jerry, Droopy, the Avery Wolf, and other famous characters who populated the park. Avery learned only through a series of on-the-job mistakes that if a human performer's limbs were made to fly off the body, they could not be reattached as easily as with a cartoon character. It also took repeated accidents with anvils for Avery to realize that it was not a good idea to drop them on park employees.
Nevertheless, the MGM name made the park the most successful of the Disneyland imitations until the morning of December 3rd. 1955, when, during a parade inspired by Avery's cartoon Bad Luck Blackie, an ocean liner was unintentionally dropped on hundreds of parade spectators. Quimbyburg was hastily closed, and an attempt to reopen it in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s under Gene Deitch's supervision was unsuccessful.
Van Beuren Valley was conceived in 1956 as little more than a crude financial scam. Isadore Rasmussen, a former employee of the by then long-defunct Van Beuren studio, purchased the rights to its characters for a pittance, then convinced a group of Arab investors that a Van Beuren-themed park would be a huge success. Moreover, he assured them that Ames, Iowa -- where he happened to own ten acres of marshland -- was the perfect location, being located so close to the center of the country.
Rasmussen then proceeded to embezzle virtual all of the money entrusted to him, spending only a few hundred dollars on makeshift attractions inspired by such deservedly forgotten characters as the original Tom and Jerry, Molly Moo Cow, and the citizens of Parrot Town. We all know what happened next: To Rasmussen's bemusement and his backers' delight, the park became enormously successful, leading to the great rebirth of interest in the Van Beuren characters, the reopening of the studio, the construction of Van Beuren World, Tokyo Van Beuren Valley, and many other profitable spinoffs.
And so ends the true story of the Disneyland ripoffs. A disgraceful story, certainly not a pretty one -- but one (I hope you'll agree) that cried out to be told.
Did the studios learn their lesson once and for all from their theme park fiascos? Hardly. I'm currently researching two more recent disasters that followed on the heels of the Disney Channel (R.I.P., Terryvision USA) and the Disney Store (anyone remember Little Audrey's Lingerie Warehouse?). Barring my mysterious death -- the sort that seems to happen to so many crusading journalists -- I'll report back with more details as I find them.
Hary McCracken, who has written for Animato since 1985, has a vivid imagination. This article first appeared (in slightly different form) in Animato #13.