Creating Vigo the Carpathian, and the Ghostbusters II Ending You Never Saw

Glen Eytchison was deep in the planning stages of his next theatrical production when he got a phone call from Industrial Light & Magic. It was early 1989, and employees at George Lucas’s famed visual effects house needed to create a painting of a 16th-century Carpathian warlord that could come to life for director Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters sequel. They had to do it fast: The movie was due to come out in June. Could Eytchison help them? 

Living paintings were something Eytchison knew well. As director of the Laguna Beach, California show Pageant of the Masters, he had, at that point, been creating tableaux vivants—three-dimensional sets containing actors that were lit to look like flat paintings and would, at the right moment, shockingly come to life—for more than a decade. “We’re the best at it,” he tells mental_floss. “No question about it. There’s no one any better in the world.” Eytchison was also a Ghostbusters fan whose idol was ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren—so, of course, he said he’d help. 

What followed was a whirlwind month in which Eytchison and his team created a painting that would terrify moviegoers, sewed together Vigo the Carpathian’s costume, built a physical set of the painting, and shot footage of Wilhelm von Homburg as Vigo—complete with warlord outfit and facial prosthetics—stepping out of that set to fight the Ghostbusters. Eytchison, his crew, and ILM had no idea that their creation would become an iconic movie villain.

When he flew up to meet with Muren at ILM’s headquarters, then located in San Rafael, California, Eytchison intended to talk them out of using his services. “When all is said and done, the Pageant is about wood, unbleached muslin, paint, and light,” he says. “It’s not easy—in fact, it's very difficult—but it’s based on common sense: Eliminate the shadows and the set will look flat. I didn’t want them to go, ‘We’re paying this guy and that’s all you have to do?’”

But Muren wasn’t having it. “There’s no question we could figure it out, but you already know how to do it,” he told Eytchison. “Why should we waste our time?”

So Eytchison officially signed on and took a look at the script, while Muren and the ILM team outlined what they wanted their living painting to do. “They wanted him to be convincing as a flat painting in the early museum scenes where he’s being restored,” Eytchison says. “Then they wanted him to come to life and start speaking his lines, and they wanted that to be a really shocking moment.” 

Eytchison knew he could pull that off, but first, he had to tackle the most pressing issue: Creating the artwork on which he would base his living painting. “Some of ILM’s best people had produced some really brilliant and beautiful paintings, but they had all been rejected by Ivan Reitman,” Eytchison says. “They showed me a stack of paintings; Ivan had said that they were 'too Conan.' So our first task was to create a composition that would work for Ivan, and also work for us technically. It also had to work for Wilhelm von Homburg, who had already been cast as Vigo.’”

Eytchison knew they had to get started right away if they wanted to finish in time. So he asked ILM to send a matte painter down to his home in Southern California, where the Pageant’s costume department came prepared with books from their library. “We spent the day doing research to determine what a 16th-century Carpathian warlord would look like and what he would wear,” Eytchison says. “And while they were looking at costumes, I was looking through books of painters from that time and in that geographic location so we could match the look and feel of the period.”

After the team had compiled a number of samples, the next logical step would have been to spend a couple of days creating a painting to show to Reitman, but Eytchison decided to do something a little different. “We got a blackboard and we painted a background on it,” he says. “Then we painted several versions of each element—skies, trees, the burning castle, the throne of skulls—on separate layers of acetate.”

The final acetate assemblage. Courtesy of Glen Eytchison.

ILM representatives came down to Burbank, where Ghostbusters II was shooting, and went with Eytchison and executive producer Michael C. Gross to Reitman’s trailer, where they presented the painting. “I set it in front of him and said, ‘This is what a 16th-century Carpathian warlord would wear in battle,’” Eytchison recalls. “And he said, ‘I like it, but I don’t like the tree.’ And so I took the tree cel out, and put a different one in.” Reitman experimented for a while, testing different combinations and elements, and changing the positions of the acetate layers until he had a composition that he liked; then, Eytchison taped everything down. The meeting had taken just 15 minutes.

Eytchison took that composition, along with the reference material and photos of von Homburg, to a painter named Lou Police, who has created art for everyone from Warner Bros. Television to Walt Disney Studios. “We only needed one meeting with Lou,” Eytchison says. “He dialed in immediately to what we were going for. I was able to say, ‘The sky on this painting Ivan really likes, the patina on the armor in this painting he really likes, and the skulls he really likes in this painting.’ We gave the guy a stack of reference material that we had taken out of art books and circled and pointed arrows and pointed at stuff, and he said, ‘I know exactly what you want.’” 

A few days later, Eytchison had the painting of Vigo the Carpathian in hand. He photographed it and sent it to ILM and Reitman, who approved it immediately. Things were off to a great start. There was just one problem: Eytchison knew their original plan wasn’t going to work.

Lou Police's oil painting of Vigo, which Eytchison used as reference for creating the set and photograph seen in Ghostbusters II. Courtesy of Glen Eytchison.

There’s a big difference between creating a living painting on stage, where the nearest person is 40 feet away, and creating one for a film, where the painting is blown up across a huge movie screen with the audience sitting directly beneath it. “You're going to see every pore on his face—every imperfection,” Eytchison says. Which is why he knew that Police’s painting, as good as it was, would never be an exact match for von Homburg’s actual face. They would never be able to believably switch between the painting and the set for the scenes where Vigo talked to Dr. Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol) and ultimately stepped out of the painting.

Fortunately, Eytchison had a plan: The source painting would be used as a reference, but he and his crew would build the set, place von Homburg as Vigo in it, and photograph the whole shebang. Then, they’d blow up the photo to life-size and treat it in such a way that it would look like an oil painting, and that’s what would be used on the Burbank set. “That way, when he came to life, all I had to match was what we had already done,” Eytchison says, “as opposed to taking a painting of a guy and trying to match it exactly.”

ILM agreed to the plan, and Eytchison and his Pageant of the Masters team got to work. Rather than fly everyone up to San Rafael—which didn’t make financial sense—Eytchison opted to build the set in Southern California and ship it upstate.

Mike Smithson applies makeup to von Homburg, while sculptor Judy Park holds a palette. Courtesy of Glen Eytchison.

Many things had to happen very quickly. “We asked ILM to send us the cast of von Homburg’s body, which they did, in a big wardrobe box,” Eytchison says. “It came in three pieces, and we put them back together.” While Skipper Skeoch and Marci O’Malley were building the costume using the mannequin, Richard Hill was designing the set, then constructing it with the help of John Clancy. Simultaneously. Judy Parker was creating the structural elements of the set, like the skulls, which she sculpted from Styrofoam. Both the costume and the set were painted by David Rymar and Leslie Turnbull. “You need to use a similar texture on the background and on the foreground elements, and on the costume and the skin, because it’s the texture that’s going to make everything merge together as one piece,” Eytchison says. “That’s why the set painters are also the people who painted the foreground element and the costume.” Diane Challis Davy provided additional supervision of the physical production.

All of the elements took about two weeks to construct. Everything was shipped up to ILM, where the crew set it up in a light tent, which would help to eliminate shadows. Using a stand-in for von Homburg, Eytchison spent hours tweaking the lighting and getting rid of shadows to make the set look as flat as possible.

When von Homburg arrived, ILM’s Mike Smithson applied make up and prosthetics to his face (which he had designed along with Tim Lawrence). Then, the actor was inserted into the set, which was about 4 feet deep. They spent the next week taking the photo that would be blown up and turned into the oil painting on set, and shooting tests of Wilhelm speaking, moving, and stepping out of the painting.

Reitman wanted von Homburg to deliver his lines while standing perfectly still, with only his mouth moving. “We used several techniques to help him, including building a simple armature behind him to give him reference points and support, but he was having a tough time of it,” Eytchison says. “We were also dealing with the big reveal, where he stepped out of the set and onto the stage floor. It was an awkward move for Wilhelm, and he never got it quite right.”

Despite everything, Eytchison thought the results of their month-long sprint to create the effect looked fantastic. “I’m usually the one who is most critical of our work,” he says. “But when we saw the dailies, I thought the effect was going to be really interesting, and with a few modifications to the set, we could make Wilhelm more comfortable stepping in and out.” But not everyone agreed.

Eytchison on set with von Homburg, Dennis Muren (on the ladder), and Smithson (in blue). Courtesy of Glen Eytchison.

Though Eytchison was very happy with the results of the “test shoot, something about it—Eytchison is still not sure exactly what—just didn’t work for Reitman. “Ivan changed the entire ending,” Eytchison says. The director decided to replace the living picture scenes with a visual effect of Vigo’s disembodied head floating over a river of slime. At the end of the film, the villain doesn’t step out of the painting, but disappears from it, then reappears in the scene. Eytchison and his team weren't called back for the final shoot, which is why Vigo looks so different at the end of the film.

It was a shame but, Eytchison says, that is the nature of the film industry—and he knew that going in. “I wished we had a little more time with Wilhelm to work out the bugs, but I realized that Dennis and ILM were dealing with hundreds of issues,” he says. “There were a lot of people working on it—other people at other jobs in other departments whose needs also had to be considered. And when all is said and done, you have to trust that the director knows best.” Eytchison, a director himself, understood that.

Still, Eytchison is proud of the work he and his team did. “The fact that we managed to get it up there at all—I was just so pleased and impressed that we were able to work so quickly,” he says. “And Dennis Muren, Ned Gorman, and the rest of the crew at ILM were incredible to work with. They made us feel like a part of the team from the moment we arrived, and it was much appreciated.

The photograph that was turned into the "oil painting" used on the Ghostbusters II set. Courtesy of Glen Eytchison.

Since Ghostbusters II, Eytchison has created tableaux vivants for more movies—including Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West (1999), as well as for Broadway shows like Hairspray and The Will Rogers Follies, and for television series and commercials. But Vigo is still his most popular creation. 

“I get fan mail about Vigo,” Eytchison says. “I’ve been doing this 42 years. That’s a long time, and Vigo is the one thing that just keeps coming back. I get more attention for Vigo than I get for almost anything else I’ve done.”

The two paintings of Vigo survive. The photograph done up as an oil painting glowers out over a hallway at the San Francisco offices of Lucasfilm and ILM. Lou Police’s original hangs in Ivan Reitman’s home.

© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
19 Surprising Facts About The Dark Knight
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make sequels. As the director of hit thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, his personal style never seemed to mesh with the idea of helming a mega-franchise. After reenvisioning the Caped Crusader with 2005’s Batman Begins, though, Nolan couldn’t stop thinking about how his version of Batman would respond to the introduction of The Joker. The result was The Dark Knight, a hyper-real exploration of how chaos shakes up the mission of the righteous, complete with huge stars, incredible stunts, and an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger. To revisit this landmark movie, which was released 10 years ago, here are 19 fascinating facts about The Dark Knight.


While it doesn’t adapt any one specific story to the screen, The Dark Knight did draw inspiration from several specific Batman stories in the pages of DC Comics. When researching and writing the film, director Christopher Nolan and his brother, co-writer Jonathan Nolan, specifically went back to The Joker’s very first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1 in search of how best to introduce the character. Co-writer David S. Goyer, himself a DC Comics contributor, also cites the classic stories The Long Halloween, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Killing Joke as keys to his research, with elements from each making their way into the film.


Heath Ledger in 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In addition to classic Joker stories like The Killing Joke, Nolan and star Heath Ledger drew on a diverse array of influences both in and out of comics to craft the film’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Before attempting to write the character, the Nolan brothers revisited Fritz Lang’s classic film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as a study in how to write supervillains. Visually, Nolan also specifically cited the work of painter Francis Bacon as a touchstone for Joker’s distorted view of the world.

As for Ledger, he famously locked himself away in a hotel room for weeks, experimenting with voices and mannerisms until he developed something he was satisfied with. Among his inspirations: Sex Pistols icons Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and the anarchist character Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film A Clockwork Orange.


The Dark Knight is the first Christopher Nolan film to be a sequel, and though Batman Begins ends with Gordon handing Batman the Joker card as a kind of setup for the next film, the director wasn't exactly determined to return to Gotham City. Nolan and Goyer had ideas for how a trilogy of films would happen, of course, but after Batman Begins hit big, Nolan instead went off to make magician drama The Prestige. Ultimately, the lure of telling a Joker story proved too enticing for Nolan to pass up, and he eventually re-teamed with Goyer to begin mapping out the story that would become The Dark Knight

“I didn’t have any intention of making a sequel to Batman Begins and I was quite surprised to find myself wanting to do it,” Nolan told Empire Magazine. “I just got caught up in the process of imagining how you would see a character like The Joker through the prism of what we did in the first film.”


Though other stars like Adrien Brody expressed an interest in playing the film’s key villain, Heath Ledger was the only name on Nolan’s wish list.

“When I heard he was interested in the Joker, there was never any doubt. You could just see it in his eyes,” Nolan told Newsweek. “People were a little baffled by the choice, it's true, but I've never had such a simple decision as a director.” 


Because of the actor’s untimely death in January 2008, at the age of just 28, Ledger's performance as The Joker has been somewhat mythologized by fans, so the idea that he kept a secret “Joker diary” while getting into character might sound apocryphal. In fact, Ledger really did make a diary while preparing to play the character. It included various clipped art (Alex from A Clockwork Orange figures heavily), stylized notes, and even lines from the script recopied in his own handwriting. In 2013, Ledger’s father Kim revealed the diary in a documentary, and noted that his son did immersive work like this for every role but “really took it up a notch” for The Joker.


For the role of Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend and current Gotham City assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes, Nolan had to look for a replacement. Katie Holmes played the role in 2005’s Batman Begins, but opted out of the sequel ostensibly so she could act in the comedy Mad Money. So Nolan went in search of other actresses and ultimately decided on Maggie Gyllenhaal for the role. Gyllenhaal was the final choice, but she wasn’t the only one. Other actresses up for the role included Rachel McAdams and Emily Blunt.


For many actors, the prospect of starring in a sequel to a hit film is a major draw. For others, the prospect of finally being a part of a Batman film would do the trick. For Gyllenhaal, who stepped in as Rachel Dawes, there was only one key reason to say yes: Christopher Nolan.

“When Chris approached me about the film, it was almost incidental that it was about Batman,” Gyllenhaal said. “I was lured into becoming intrigued by the character through the process of making the movie. From the very beginning, Chris was so interesting and engaging—and so interested in me and my ideas about Rachel—that I wanted to be a part of it.”


Though The Dark Knight is unquestionably a Batman movie, Nolan and company didn’t consider the Caped Crusader to be the film’s main character.

“Bruce Wayne was the protagonist of the first film,” Goyer said, “but we decided early on that he would not be the protagonist of the second film—that, in fact, Harvey Dent would be.”

To that end, finding the right actor to play Gotham’s district attorney was crucial. Nolan ultimately chose Aaron Eckhart, who reminded him of Robert Redford, to play the part, but Eckhart wasn’t the only star considered. Other potential Harvey Dents included Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, and Ryan Phillippe.


Batman fans weren’t the only skeptics when it came to Nolan’s decision to deliver a new cinematic Joker. Michael Caine, who played Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred, was very apprehensive when  Nolan told him The Dark Knight’s villain would indeed be the Clown Prince of Crime, namely because Jack Nicholson’s performance as the character in 1989’s Batman still cast a very large shadow.

“You don’t try and top Jack,” Caine said.

When Nolan informed Caine that Ledger had been cast in the role, though, the film legend came around.

“I thought: ‘Now that’s the one guy that could do it!’ [laughs] My confidence came back. And then when I did this sequence with Heath, I knew we were in for some really good stuff.


Nolan deliberately resisted the idea of giving The Joker an origin story in the film, opting instead to portray him as a force of pure anarchy with no discernible motivation other than chaos. For this reason, the character’s scarred face—as opposed to the chemically-induced frozen grin given to the character’s previous movie incarnation—had no clear source. In fact, the character deliberately tells different stories to different characters to explain where the scars came from. As a result, prosthetics supervisor Conor O’Sullivan was driven to take inspiration for the scars from real life. So, he used an actual man on the street as a reference.

“I immediately thought of the punk and skinhead era and some unsavory characters I had come across during this time,” O'Sullivan recalled. “The terminology for this type of wound is a ‘Glasgow’ or ‘Chelsea smile.’ My references had to be real. A delivery of fruit machines was made to the estate near my workshop and the man delivering them had a ‘Chelsea smile.' I plucked up the courage to ask him for a photo and he told me the story of how he had got his scars while being involved with “a dog fight”; needless to say I didn't pursue the matter, but the photos proved to be very useful reference.”


One of the most identifiable characteristics of Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is the way he almost constantly licks his lips inside and out, probing his scars with his tongue over and over again. It adds energy to the character as well as a certain menacing quality, but it apparently was not planned. According to dialect coach Gerry Grennell, who worked with Ledger on the film, that tic arose because the scar prosthetics—which extended into Ledger’s mouth—would loosen as he performed. So, he licked his lips repeatedly in an effort to keep them in place.

"The last thing that Heath wanted to do was go back and spend another 20 minutes or half hour trying to get the lips glued back again, so he licked his lips. A lot,” Grennell recalled. “And then slowly, that became a part of the character.


Though IMAX cameras are now on the verge of being used to shoot entire feature films, at the time The Dark Knight was made, the format was primarily used for documentary films to showcase things like the wondrous detail of nature. Nolan had longed for years to bring the format to features, and opted to use the ultra-heavy, ultra-expensive cameras to film several major sequences in The Dark Knight. Most famously, the film’s prologue—featuring The Joker’s bank robbery—was filmed on IMAX and released early, in its entirety, as a teaser.


For the scene in which Bruce Wayne is hosting a fundraiser for Harvey Dent in his elegant Gotham City townhouse, Ledger and a group of Joker goons were meant to burst into the party via the elevator. Caine, as Alfred, was supposed to be there waiting to greet guests as the elevator doors opened, only to be frightened by the appearance of The Joker. Caine was there waiting, the elevator doors opened, and he was apparently so frightened by what he saw that any lines he was meant to deliver during the scene completely left his mind.

"I was waiting for Batman's guests, but (the Joker) had taken over the elevator with—he has seven dwarfs and ... oh! wait until you see them,” he said while promoting the film. “So, I'd never seen any of it and the elevator door opened and they came out and I forgot every bloody line. They frightened the bloody life out of me.”


Embracing the hyperrealism of his version of Batman, Nolan opted to do many of The Dark Knight’s biggest stunts practically rather than relying on CGI. That includes arguably the biggest and most visually staggering stunt in the film: When Batman uses steel cables to flip The Joker’s 18-wheeler trailer over cab in the middle of a Gotham street. While another filmmaker might have opted to recreate the moment with computers or models, Nolan wanted to do it for real, on a real Chicago street. The task of pulling it off fell to special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, who ran tests in a more isolated area to ensure the flip wouldn’t harm any member of the crew or any neighboring buildings. With the tests successful, the production was primed to film the stunt … though Corbould still tried to talk Nolan into scaling it down.

“It was a funny thing—and this is always the way working with Chris—where he kept trying to talk me into a smaller vehicle,” Nolan said. “He said, ‘Can't it be one of those SWAT vans, not an articulated truck?!’ I kind of went along with that for a while and we storyboarded it that way and kept talking about it. And I finally just went to him and said, ‘Chris, you can do this, you're fine. It's gotta be a huge truck, it's gotta be a big 18-wheeler,’ and he went ‘Oh, all right,’ in that way he does, and he figured out a way to do it. Nobody had ever done it before and it was really a pretty amazing thing to watch."


One of the most beautiful shots in the film finds Batman, cape billowing around him, perched atop Chicago’s Sears Tower as he surveys his city. It’s a gorgeous image, but also one that easily could have been carried out by a stuntman so Bale didn’t have to take the risk. The star was having none of that. When he found out his stuntman Buster Reeves was preparing to perform the perch, Bale rushed to convince Nolan that he should be the one to stand 110 stories above Chicago for the helicopter shot. 

“It was important for me to do that shot,” Bale explained, “because I wanted to be able to say I did it. 

Bale also opted to perform a similar stunt in which Batman stands on a ledge of the IFC2 building in Hong Kong. By then, he was quite comfortable with the height. 


One of the great visual hallmarks of Nolan’s Batman films is the introduction of the Batpod, The Dark Knight’s sleek motorcycle. While it may look like an oversized version of any other bike, the pod didn’t handle the same way, so a specially trained stunt driver was required. Jean-Pierre Goy was the man. He took to the vehicle immediately and trained for months to master the high-speed sequences required for the film. Bale, who was more than willing to volunteer to drive the Batpod, was ultimately only able to ride it when it was attached to camera rigs.

“Jean-Pierre was the only one who could master it,” Bale admitted. “Everybody else just fell off instantly.”


For the scene in which The Joker sneaks into a panicked Gotham hospital to see Harvey Dent, Ledger dressed up in a nurse’s uniform. If you look closely, you’ll see that the nurse’s name tag reads “Matilda.” Matilda is Ledger’s daughter, who was born in 2005.


When The Joker and his goons crash Bruce Wayne’s fundraising party, almost everyone in the room is intimidated into silence. One man, though, is not. He tells The Joker “we’re not intimidated by thugs,” and The Joker then grabs him and holds a knife to his mouth. That man is Patrick Leahy, the Democratic U.S. Senator from Vermont. A lifelong comic book fan, Leahy has appeared in five Batman films to date, including 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where he sat alongside actress Holly Hunter in a congressional hearing.


Weird lawsuits surrounding major motion pictures are nothing new, but The Dark Knight inspired a particularly strange one. In late 2008, after the film had opened to rapturous critical acclaim and enormous box office success, Huseyin Kalkan—the mayor of Batman, Turkey—sued Nolan and Warner Brothers for what he deemed a negative impact the film had caused on his city.

"There is only one Batman in the world. The American producers used the name of our city without informing us."

Needless to say, given that Batman is still as popular as ever, the suit didn’t go anywhere.

Additional Source:
The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy, by Jody Duncan Jesser and Janine Pourroy

10 Things That Went Disastrously Wrong on Disneyland’s Opening Day

Disneyland is commonly known as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but when the park opened on July 17, 1955, it didn’t live up to its now-ubiquitous nickname. In fact, Disney employees who survived the day refer to it as “Black Sunday.” Here are 10 of the most disastrous things that went wrong.


Disneyland’s opening day was “invite only” and not for public consumption. Tickets were mailed out and only reserved for special guests, including friends and family of employees, the press, and celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. However, scores of counterfeit tickets were widespread on opening day. Disneyland was only expecting about 15,000 guests in total, but more than 28,000 people entered the park.

In addition, there were two sets of tickets with designated times: one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The time to leave Disneyland was printed on each ticket, so if it read 2:30 p.m., you were supposed to leave the park at that time to make way for the afternoon ticket holders to come in. Unfortunately, the morning ticket crowd didn’t leave, so attendance ballooned when the afternoon attendees were admitted.

There was even some money to be made from Disney's woes: one man set up a ladder outside one of the park's fences and charged $5 per person to climb it and sneak in.


Sukarno riding mini car with Walt Disney
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since Disneyland and the city of Anaheim were not prepared for the amount of people that showed up, California's Santa Ana Freeway that led into the park was backed up for seven miles. The traffic essentially shut down the freeway for hours. In fact, people were in their cars for so long that when they finally made it to Disneyland, there were reports of families taking restroom breaks in the parking lot and on the side of the freeway.


Completing Disneyland was a race to the finish. Walt Disney wanted a quick turnaround, and it took exactly one year and one day from announcement to opening day, with construction crews working around-the-clock to meet their deadlines. 

However, once the doors opened, guests could easily see that it was not completely finished. Workers were still painting structures and planting trees all over the park. Along the Canal Boats of the World (now the Storybook Land Canal Boats), weeds had yet to be removed from the riverbanks. And instead of landscaping the area, Walt Disney simply added signs with Latin plant names printed on them to make it look like they were meant to be there.

In addition, a number of rides were still under construction like Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, which showed a glimpse of what routine space travel would look like in the distant future of ... 1986.


For the lucky people who made it into Disneyland on opening day, they experienced a shortage of food and beverages in every restaurant and concession stand in the park. Because of the unexpected influx of guests, virtually all food and drink inventory was wiped out within hours.


Entrance to Disneyland circa 1957
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While there were plenty of water fountains on site, many of them were not working because of a plumbers’ strike during construction. Walt Disney had to choose between working water fountains or working restrooms for Disneyland on opening day, so he picked the latter because he felt the toilets were more important.

“A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting,” Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, explained to WIRED. “There was a plumbing strike. I’ll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, ‘Walt, there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.’ And this is classic Walt. He said, ‘Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.’”


Although Walt Disney had no control over the weather, it contributed to the disastrous opening day experience at Disneyland. Temperatures reached an intense 100 degrees, which must have been unbearable in a park without working water fountains. The day was so hot that the fresh asphalt became like a sticky tar, with guests complaining that they were getting their shoes and high heels stuck in the pavement of Main Street, U.S.A.


Like so many of the other workers toiling to make Walt Disney's one-year deadline, both Disney Imagineers and construction workers rushed to complete the theme park. As a result, a number of rides—including Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasyland—broke down or were closed altogether because they simply were not finished yet.

The growing pains didn’t stop on opening day. During the first few weeks after opening, the stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it was discovered it would flip over if it was too top-heavy; 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving (ironically the ride was designed to help children learn respectful rules of the road); and a tiger and a panther escaped from the circus attraction, which resulted in a “furious death struggle” between the animals on Main Street, U.S.A.


The iconic Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland was filled way over capacity on opening day, with about 500 people cramming into the attraction. This caused the boat to go off its track and sink in the mud, but the ordeal was far from over.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, who was working the ride on opening day, later recalled in an interview. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."


A gas leak in the park prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland for a few hours, while flames from the leak were seen trying to engulf Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Walt Disney was so busy during opening day that he didn’t learn about the fire until the following day.


Walt Disney had a partnership with the broadcast network ABC, which helped finance Disneyland with an investment of $5 million of the park’s $17 million price tag. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland, a full year before it was set to open its doors.

On opening day, Walt Disney hosted a 90-minute live TV special with co-hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future president Ronald Reagan. Over 90 million viewers tuned in to see the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And while the cameras showed the fun and excitement of Disneyland, the TV special obscured the numerous disasters described above.

However, the live broadcast itself was riddled with technical difficulties, such as guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera—namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air.

“This is not so much a show, as it is a special event,” Art Linklater said during the live broadcast from Disneyland. “The rehearsal went about the way you'd expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes all erupting at the same time, and you didn't expect any of them. So, from time to time, if I say, ‘We take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in Adventureland,’ and instead, somebody pushes the wrong button, and we catch Irene Dunne adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain, don't be too surprised.”

The live broadcast also featured the debut of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which premiered a few months later in 1955 on ABC. So at least something positive came out of all of it.


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