INTERVIEW: Celebrating the 45th Anniversary of Disney’s Haunted Mansion with Jeff Baham

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DoomBuggies.com founder Jeff Baham. Used with Permission.
DoomBuggies.com founder Jeff Baham. Used with Permission.

Even though the California and Florida editions of Disney’s Haunted Mansion were not constructed on the same day 45 years ago, it seems appropriate to acknowledge August 9, 1969 since the versions are so similarly conceived. So it is in this “spirit” that we have caught up with DoomBuggies.com founder, Mousetalgia founder and co-host, and author of the just-released The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion Jeff Baham. Jeff has joined us for a look into the Mansion’s spooky history as we anticipate its 45th Anniversary.

Brian: Jeff, thanks for being with us for such a ghoulish occasion.
Jeff: Thanks. I’m always up for discussing one of my favorite topics.
Brian: Given that, I think it’s safe to assume that you have a rather nice collection of Haunted Mansion artifacts and collectibles. What is your favorite piece of Haunted Mansion history?
Jeff: My favorite piece is a silk-screened poster from Disneyland advertising “I Scream Sundaes,” featuring the famous hitchhiking ghosts. I was lucky enough to purchase this from someone who worked in the park’s print shop, where they had a copy or two of the silk-screened prints archived. It has been pictured in books before, but I’ve never seen one out on the market. I love it — very vintage, very classic Disneyland.
Brian: It’s all about who you know and being in the right place at the right time.
Jeff: And a little luck.
Brian: You reference “vintage Disneyland” and there are definitely different vibes between WDW and Disneyland. Regarding the Mansion specifically, there are some obvious differences and some not-so-obvious differences. Why the architectural variance in the Florida and California versions of the Haunted Mansion?
Jeff: I’ve heard Tony Baxter say that they didn’t want to put a southern plantation-style home in Florida since that type of architecture might not be as uncommon out on the east coast as it is here in California. But I suspect the Imagineers also wanted to play with the scale and apparent scope of the attraction. Part of the charm of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is that so much happens in a space that should be obviously far too small to contain it all. I can imagine some designers may have had the idea that the suspension of disbelief was too high for such a small house — but I still run into people to this day that marvel at how so much action can take place in Disneyland’s tiny southern manor. They really have no idea that there is a separate show building!
Brian: Passport2Dreams has a fairly exhaustive post about this exact topic for anyone that is interested.
Jeff: Yes. She’s very thorough.
Brian: When I first started going to the parks I really didn’t understand all the love the Mansion got. After doing little reading, however, I have formed my own opinion on this. With so many great attractions in the Disney parks, why do you think the Haunted Mansion remains far and away the most popular?
Jeff: I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that the internet has enabled like-minded souls to find each other and many of these people like to walk briefly on the wild side without really dabbling in anything awful or gruesome. Halloween and Disney’s Haunted Mansion are two perfect expressions and outlets for this kind of personality. Another reason is that the attraction contains something more than just scenes —it contains magic. Literal stage magic. Some of the tricks Imagineer Yale Gracey came up with were adapted from techniques reaching back all the way to the late 1700s, while other tricks he used were cutting edge in the ’60s. Even today new digital techniques are being utilized in the Mansion. It’s an audio-animatronics show, it’s a magic show, and it’s a spook show. It covers a lot of bases.
Brian: That’s better than my answer.
Jeff. Ha. Well it’s what I do.
Brian:  Both the Florida and California Mansions went through some changes in the late 2000s. What changes or refurbishments would you like to see in the next 10 years?
Jeff: Well, I guess I’m a purist. I always prefer that the Imagineers either take an attraction away completely or leave it alone if it’s a classic. But I don’t get upset about it when they do change things — I just hope for the best. That said, I think one of the most effective additions to the Mansion in recent years has been the audio effects in the Walt Disney World stretching gallery. It brings the room to terrifying life in a way that Disneyland’s can’t match.
Brian: I’m more a purist as well. I walk that line between “Stop!” and “Just please don’t blow it.”
Jeff: I might like to see what the Imagineers could do with enhanced audio effects throughout the attraction — or even smells. But I’m essentially a purist.
Brian: An interview like this isn’t complete unless there’s at least one question about the Hat Box Ghost. Tell us what you know about the Hat Box Ghost and its amazing disappearing act.
Jeff: I can’t tell you everything!
Brian: Ha ha. Of course you can’t.
Jeff: But I can say this – the gag was sketched out by Marc Davis among many other equally worthy characters and ghostly creations, and Yale Gracey did his best to make it work; but the Haunted Mansion relies on stage magic, not close-up effects. Whatever they tried, they just couldn’t get the head to completely vanish when it appeared in the hat box. Because of this, only days after the attraction opened, Marc asked to have it removed. Blaine Gibson sculpted the head that was used, which was one of the ghost heads used a number of times in the attraction – for the skeletal hitchhiker and a family portrait or two hanging in the corridor of doors. The Imagineers know that the legend of the Hat Box Ghost has grown tremendously over the years to the point that I think they are truly torn over whether or not it would make sense for them to revisit the character at all. Nothing they do could ever live up to the hype in people’s imaginations. But ol’ Hattie may show up someday — maybe in a slightly different location, in a slightly different form. Who knows.
Brian: I’ve read that the timing of the illusion was a problem as well. That is, the entire gag couldn’t be pulled off in the time allocated by the speed of the doom buggy.
Jeff: I’ve read that as well. It makes sense.
Brian: Given the length of time between concept and completion and the imagineering legends that contributed to the attraction, the Haunted Mansion is practically a “museum of imagineering.” What is most interesting to you personally about the Mansion’s history?
Jeff: I think one of the most interesting aspects of the Haunted Mansion’s history is simply Walt’s tenacity in having it placed into Disneyland and his motivation behind putting it there. Every park that Walt had a hand in creating, from his original Mickey Mouse Park that was intended for a small lot in Burbank, to Disneyland, to the Riverfront Square project in St. Louis, and finally to the Magic Kingdom in Florida — each of those proposed parks had a haunted house included in the design. In fact, in the park Walt was proposing for St. Louis, the plans called for the front gates to open toward a boulevard that ended with a hill upon which was to sit a dramatic haunted house, rather than a castle like the other parks. At Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion was always in development. It was probably in the conversation before the park even opened in 1955 and assuredly since 1957 when Ken Anderson started designing the attraction in earnest. Walt clearly believed that any park that would echo his concept of American life would also necessarily include some sort of haunted house.
Brian: Ah. I’ve never looked at it that way. That’s fascinating.
Jeff: Walt’s understanding of the American psyche is fascinating.
Brian: Right. Walt Disney’s footprint on Twentieth Century Americana is staggering. Next question. Sea captains, Beauregard, the Ghost Host, Leota, the bride, the raven. There has been quite a bit written about the Haunted Mansion story and how it came together (or didn’t come together, depending on the source). What has your research led you to conclude about the origin of the current Haunted Mansion story?
Jeff: The origin stories of the Haunted Mansion are many because some of the designers responsible for its creation never really regarded it as a success. So each of their takes on the project stand alone. Generally speaking, I think you could consider Ken Anderson’s initial stabs at a storyline for the attraction, based on a sea captain and a probable marital tragedy, among the foundations with the deepest roots. Much of what Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump did when creating special effects and magical techniques were based on Ken’s sketches and ideas. Even Marc Davis, when he came to the project in the early ’60s, started by trying to visualize the ideas that Ken had developed, with brides and pirates, et cetera. Some of the minor details came about later in the game, when X. Atencio was writing the script for the Ghost Host. My conjecture is that it all boils down to the fact that Walt Disney himself was never completely satisfied with the solutions that had been developed for the attraction, up to the time of his death. Ken wrote treatments and built sample sets with intricate scenes developed to show to Walt. But he eventually was sent back to Animation to help with Sleeping Beauty so he must not have captured exactly what Walt was envisioning. Ditto the rest of the team when they came back after the World’s Fair. I think that’s why when Rolly had something way outside of the box to add to the conversation with his ideas for surreal characters and scenes for the Mansion, Walt was very open to him — even if he never really knew exactly what to do with them, eventually suggesting a sort of “Museum of the Weird.”

Halloween Overlay. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel
Halloween Overlay. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel

Brian: I visited Disneyland during the Halloween overlay in the last couple of years. I thought it was a nice mash-up that created quite a lot of energy. Why do you think WDW doesn’t use the holiday overlay for its version of the Mansion?
Jeff: I think that too many people make once-in-a-lifetime trips to Walt Disney World for the park to decide to radically change the Florida attraction for an extended period of time. At Halloween, they probably want a to provide guests with a haunted house to visit, not a winter wonderland. I think that’s probably the main concern — but you never know what might happen.
Brian: And I get the sense that California has more season pass guests, by percentage, than WDW. I’ve always thought that contributed to the decision.
Jeff: That could be.
Brian: How about a book recommendation, Jeff. What resources are available for those of us that want to know more about Haunted Mansion history?
Jeff: Funny you should ask. My own book on the history of the Haunted Mansion is set to be released this month from Theme Park Press. Called The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, it presents an in-depth look at the various key players in the attraction’s development, their struggles and conflicts, and how the attraction finally came to exist as it is. I utilized hours of new interviews and a thorough review of all of the Haunted Mansion-related events and panels held at the various parks over the past 15 years. Nothing else comes close to the level of detail and variety of source material. Having shamelessly plugged that project, I would say that The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies should be in your library as well because it has a wealth of cool artwork pulled from Disney’s archives. And here’s a pro tip: one book that any hardcore Haunted Mansion fan should have in their library is a copy of  Decorative Art of Victoria’s Era by Frances Lichten, which was published in 1950 and is still readily available as a used book for very reasonable prices on Amazon.com. This is the book that Ken Anderson borrowed from the Disney Studios’ library and used very specifically to create the look of the Haunted Mansion’s architecture. It’s quite likely that he, and other Imagineers, also utilized the book for advice regarding cast iron, home decor, and other elements that went into the development of the look of the Haunted Mansion facades. It’s a distinct part of the history of the Haunted Mansion, and a sort of Haunted Mansion collectible in its own right.
Brian: That is definitely a pro tip.
Jeff: You need to buy it if you don’t already have it.
Brian: I guess you’ve seen a lot of the new Haunted Mansion merchandise that will be available this fall. What “got to have it” items have you found? Note: I have actually asked for the 13-hour wall clock from doombuggies.com for Christmas.
Jeff: Why wait until Christmas?
Brian: My wife, Karen, said so.
Jeff: Good decision. It seems Disney is really testing the well of Haunted Mansion fandom to see how deep it really goes. The recent announcement includes over 100 new products, not to mention the art that releases this year for the 45th anniversary at Disneyland. I’ve finally moved more into the “vintage collectibles” realm of Haunted Mansion collecting, but I do like some of the new home decor that Disney has come up with.
Brian: I really like the plate.
Jeff: You or Karen?
Brian: I’d rather not say.
Jeff: Ha. I guess the item I’d most like to get my hands on is the newest Ink and Paint Department release at Disneyland Park which features a hand-created cel of the Hat Box Ghost. It’s quite beautiful, and a very limited edition.
Brian: Thanks for your time, Jeff. That’s it for us. It’s always a pleasure. Hopefully we can do it again sometime.

Be sure to check out Jeff’s web site at www.doombuggies.com and follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffBaham.  And I’m excited about the release of The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted MansionIts includes a foreword by Rolly Crump and is a must for any Haunted Mansion fan. Thanks again, Jeff. And Happy Anniversary Haunted Mansion!

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