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The Quick 10: Disney's Haunted Mansion

Those of you who read my blog already know that I am a rather obsessive Haunted Mansion/Disney fan. In fact, as you read this, there's a chance that I'm at the Haunted Mansion right now"¦ I'm actually on vacation all this week and prepared the Q10s ahead of time. The Disney part is in my genetics "“ my mom is a pretty rabid fan and I grew up with pretty much all of the Mickey I could handle. I'm sure she questions where she went wrong with why I prefer 999 Happy Haunts to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Anyway, I have lots of Haunted Mansion factoids buried in my brain, so I figured it's time to dig some of it up just in time for Halloween.

magic cart

1. Museum of the Weird. The original plans called for the Mansion to be a walk-through attraction and would include a section called The Museum of the Weird. Guests would wander through the spooky house and enjoy oddities such as this one: a magic cart that would roll to life all on its own at random intervals. The Museum was the pet project of Imagineer and Disney Legend Rolly Crump, but sadly, most of his ideas never made it to fruition because they wouldn't work if the ride wasn't a walk-through. He did reveal that the famous Haunted Mansion hidden faces wallpaper was based on one of his designs for the Museum, however. Photo: DoomBuggies.com

hatbox2. Hatbox Ghost. In California, there was an exceptionally creepy ghost in the attic for a very brief time period. He was an older gent holding a hatbox, and his head would periodically disappear from his neck and appear in the box he was holding instead. They had problems getting it to work consistently, though, and elected to remove him from the attic altogether. Photo: DoomBuggies.com

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3. Tombstones with a Purpose. While you're waiting in line for the big show at the Magic Kingdom, you can entertain yourself by reading the epitaphs on the tombstones. They're funny all on their own, but when you know that each one is tied to an Imagineer, they are even more interesting. X Atencio, who wrote the lyrics for "Grim Grinning Ghosts" (and had a hand in lots of other Disney awesomeness), also wrote the inscriptions, including his own.

There are quite a few stones, so I'll just give you a smattering of them. "Dear departed Brother Dave" is Dave Burkhart, who built the model of the Mansion; "Brother Claude" is Claude Coats, designer of the track layout; "Grandpa Marc" is Marc Davis, one of the main concept designers; "Dear sweet Leota" is Leota Toombs (seriously, Toombs), a Disney artist who was also the model for the head in the crystal ball.

4. Pepper's Ghost is an illusion used in magic tricks and theater. Basically, it's using plate glass and specific lighting to make objects appear to disappear and reappear, or morph into something else (it's more complicated than that, but you get the idea). The Haunted Mansion contains the world's largest case of the Pepper's Ghost technique "“ it's the entire ballroom scene. The reflections in the glass is what causes the appearance of ghosts in the room. If you're someone who likes to spot the inconsistencies in movies and the typos in my posts, you'll enjoy this: the Imagineers screwed up when designing the scene. They forgot to flip the ghosts to account for the reflection, so if you look at the dancing ghouls, you'll see that the ladies are actually leading the men instead of the other way around.

organ5. Recycling Organs. Not those type of organs "“ pipe organs. If you visit Disneyland in Anaheim, take a close look at the organ in the ballroom scene. It's the original prop from the 1954 Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It used to belong to Captain Nemo, but now it's entertaining ghosts who are permanently partying. It fit in so perfectly that an exact replica was made for the Mansion at Disneyworld and Tokyo Disneyland. This photo is from DoomBuggies as well - click the link to learn more about the organ and how it was altered to fit in with its new home.

6. Is the Haunted Mansion really Haunted? Maybe. Personally, I think the atmosphere probably just lends itself to freaking out cast members who are there late at night closing by themselves. Then again, I've never worked there and experienced these things, so it's not really for me to say. One such ghost story is "The Man with the Cane". He makes his home at the Orlando manse and several cast members have reported seeing him. It always happens late at night to the person working at the part of the ride where people are loaded. One second, the Doom Buggies are flowing through, empty, and the next second, there's a thin, old man with a cane sitting in a buggy, staring straight ahead. The cast member attempts to say hello or make some sort of conversation, but the man doesn't acknowledge him or her "“ he just continues his journey through the room and on into the Mansion. Understandably freaked out, the cast member calls his or her supervisor and they wait for the man to come out at the end of the ride "“ but he never comes. Some say it was the ghost of Yale Gracey, one of the main Imagineers who worked on the project (Master Gracey, the man of the house, is named after him). You can find more stories about Haunted Mansion haunts at The Shadowlands (a great place if you have a few hours to waste).

7. A Real Final Resting Place. People dump ashes in the Haunted Mansion all of the time, Which lends some real credence to those haunting stories. You can read about one such instance here. Ash dumping happens so often that Disneyland had to purchase a special HEPA vacuum that can pick up ashes, but also little tiny bone fragments that are often left behind after a cremation. If you ever hear a Haunted Mansion cast member calling for a "HEPA clean-up," maybe you want to check out another attraction for a while and come back when the crew has tidied up a little.

8. Grim Grinning Ghosts. It's an undeniably catchy song with some really vivid imagery invoked in the lyrics. There might be a reason for that "“ the phrase "Grim Grinning Ghosts" first showed up in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. A sampling:

"Hard favour'd tyrant, ugly, meager, lean,
hateful divorce of love," - thus chudes she Death -
"Grim-grinning ghost, Earth's worm, What dost thou
mean
to stifle beauty and to steal his breath,"

But X Atencio swears he didn't rip the phrase off from Shakespeare. I was at a Haunted Mansion event in Disneyland in February (told you I was a Haunted Mansion geek) and X was in attendance, along with Harriet Burns, Blaine Gibson and Bob Gurr. Someone asked him where the phrase came from, and he grinned and replied, "It came from X Atencio!" But that's a pretty distinctive phrase"¦ my guess is that he probably read it somewhere a long time ago and absorbed it into his brain without even realizing.

9. The Knight in Shining Armor. If you've been on the ride, you probably remember the knight standing all by his lonesome in the hallway. And if you're paranoid, like me, you probably thought, "That would make a great place for a person to hide"¦" and then nervously wonder if it was going to come chasing after you. Well, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. It's not done anymore, but when the Mansion was newer, the Knight really did house a cast member who would run after Doom Buggies. It really freaked people out, and the knight constantly had to stop the ride when he was punched or spit on. One cast member who played the knight for a summer recalls that one of his co-workers had his nose broken. He also tells the story of having to tell a girl to put her top back on because she was in the middle of a steamy make out session with her boyfriend.

staff10. The Servant's Quarters. Showing Disney's amazing attention to detail, even a part of the house that is rarely seen is themed to the hilt. There's a little corridor that connects the outside exit hallway to the Parlor inside "“ I believe it's also the handicapped entrance. But what could have easily been a hallway with some funeral parlor-eqsue wallpaper is actually the Servant's Quarters, marked with a small sign shaped like a bat. There are bells that go to each person's chambers, each labeled with a room that pays tribute to an Imagineer. Some are repeats, so I'll just explain the ones I didn't talk about in the tombstone section. Ambassador Xavier's Lounging Lodge, Madame Leota's Boudoir, Grandfather McKim's Resting Room (Sam McKim, sketch artist), Uncle Davis' Sleeping Salon, Master Gracey's Bedchamber, Colonel Coats' Breakfast Berth and Professor Wathel's Reposing Lounge (Wathel Rogers, who designed and programmed lots of the audio-animatronics in the Mansion).

And, if you're a Disney fan and a BoingBoing fan, here's a treat: Haunted Mansion fan, BoingBoing founder and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow recounts his first Haunted Mansion experience for DoomBuggies.com. Oh, you know who else is a Haunted Mansion fan? NPH (Neil Patrick Harris). He was at the event I was at in February, which makes me like him even more than I already did.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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