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French Arrest Mata Hari

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 267th installment in the series. 

February 13, 1917: French Arrest Mata Hari 

It’s strangely fitting that the most notorious spy of the First World War was probably guilty of nothing more than self-aggrandizement and bad judgment. 

The exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida in 1876, to a middle-class Dutch family with aspirations to social refinement; her father was a struggling hat-maker and her mother a low-ranking aristocrat with expensive tastes. Although citizens of the Netherlands their ancestry traced back to northern Germany, giving “Margreet” a cosmopolitan air, which was only reinforced by her dark features and “ethnic” appearance, fueling racist rumors of ancestors from India or Indonesia (echoing a scandalous allegation leveled at Britain’s former First Sea Lord and the inventor of the dreadnought, Jackie Fisher). 

Two years after her father declared bankruptcy, when Margreet was 15 her mother died and she was sent to live with her godfather. Noticing the effect her “exotic” appearance seemed to have on men, when she was 19 years old she responded to a newspaper personals ad placed by a Dutch colonial officer, Rudolf MacLeod, serving in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), seeking a wife. She moved to the Indies to be with MacLeod, married, and had two children by him, but tragically her older son was fatally poisoned, apparently by an angry servant.  

This tragedy spelled the end of their brief, tumultuous marriage, and following their return to Europe in 1901 Margreet left for Paris, where she parlayed her (mostly fictional) exotic background and appearance into a career as a dancer, supposedly performing the ritual dances of the libidinous Far East – naturally involving a good deal of nudity – under the name “Mata Hari,” translating as “Eye of the Day” in Malay. As expected of someone with such a scandalous occupation, she also worked as a high-class prostitute as she toured the capitals of Europe’s cosmopolitan pre-war social scene, notching up countless lovers, including assignations with many of the continent’s most famous and powerful men. 

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As it happened, May 1914 found Mata Hari in Berlin, where she had a brief affair with a German officer in the “morals” (vice) division. On the outbreak of war she tried to return to Paris, hoping to reconnect with old patrons there, arousing the suspicions of German officials who confiscated all her property, leaving her destitute. Undaunted as always, she managed to reestablish herself in the Netherlands as the mistress of a Dutch baron, and by December 1915 she was back in Paris, visiting all her old haunts and patrons. There she met and fell in love with a much younger Russian officer, the 21-year-old Vladimir de Masloff, who seemed to be equally infatuated with the aging dancer.

Fake Spy, Real Spy 

However Mata Hari was also already falling under suspicion from Allied intelligence agencies. The chief French counterintelligence officer, George Ladoux, believed (with no evidence beyond her amorous encounter with the German police officer) that she had accepted an offer from German intelligence to become a paid operative, using her liaisons with powerful men to gain access to key secrets, which she would pass back via unidentified handlers.

In fact, Mata Hari had been approached by a German agent in May 1916 in the Netherlands, and accepted an offer of 20,000 francs to work for Germany, along with a codename, “H21” – but all in bad faith, she would later insist, claiming she went along chiefly out of a desire to recoup the earlier loss of her property at the hands of German officials. Unfortunately for her, this misstep would come to light when France’s fortunes were at a particularly low ebb. 

The suspicion of Mata Hari was part of a new wave of spy mania that swept France in 1917, as politicians, the press, and government propaganda sought answers (or excuses) for the nation’s continuing inability to expel foreign invaders, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them – literally, in the case of the German Army’s impending strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Amid growing social unrest at home and mutinous rumblings at the front, the logical scapegoat was internal betrayal by people of dubious background, reviving the xenophobic and anti-Semitic themes of the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906.

The demonization also reflected a number of overlapping fears and insecurities resulting from social and cultural trends, which had gripped France and the rest of Europe by the third year of the war. These included widespread distrust of foreigners, including not just the enemy but also unreliable Allies and potentially treacherous neutrals, as well as unease over women’s growing economic power, and moral panic over the changing sexual mores of the younger generations (typified by parental concern about young women volunteering at hospitals where they could mix with men, and over young men at the front visiting prostitutes and contracting venereal disease). Deviant sex, espionage and blackmail were closely entwined in the popular imagination, thanks in part to the pre-war Redl affair and Caillaux affair

Although surveillance turned up nothing incriminating, Ladoux was so convinced that Mata Hari was a spy that he offered to make her a double agent in return for large sums of money, with a new mission of infiltrating Germany’s web of spies in France and abroad. Already under suspicion of being a German spy, in constant need of money, and with her lucrative dancing career mostly behind her, Mata Hari happily accepted the offer to become a real spy for France. 

Unfortunately for her this glamorous new career proved brief and fatal. On her first and only “mission” she traveled to Belgium and then Spain, and in November 1916 she continued her journey via Britain. When the ship put in at Cornwall, however, British agents arrested her on suspicion of being a spy and took her back to London. Here she told interrogators that she was indeed a spy – but one working for French counterintelligence. 

For some reason (perhaps excessive secrecy, or just fear of looking amateurish to his British colleagues) Ladoux now denied any connection with Mata Hari. Nevertheless the Brits, probably concluding that a washed-up exotic dancer was too implausible to be a real spy, released her and shipped her back to Spain. In December 1916, still hoping to prove her worth to Ladoux, she seduced the German military attaché in Madrid, Major Arnold Kalle, stringing him along with worthless gossip and made-up secrets about French politics, and eliciting what she believed were important military secrets in return. 

This piece of extracurricular espionage proved her undoing. The amateur spy failed to deduce that Kalle had realized exactly what she was up to, and was feeding her out-of-date and made-up information, deceiving her just as she believed she was deceiving him. When she passed these bogus “secrets” on to Ladoux, it only seemed to confirm that she was in fact a German double agent, as he’d originally suspected. Worse still, on December 13, 1916 French spies monitoring German radio traffic detected a secret transmission from Kalle to Berlin, in which he passed along secrets he attributed to her, using her codename “H21” – even though she claimed that she only received this codename recently. For this codename to already be known to Berlin, Ladoux concluded, she must have been in communication with German intelligence long before, and had therefore been hoodwinking the French all along.

However Ladoux failed to see that this was was all in fact an elaborate counterintelligence gambit perpetrated by Germany’s spymasters. The Germans were aware that the Allies had cracked this particular cipher, and were using it with the knowledge any messages they sent would be decoded, all in an attempt to sow confusion and hopefully trick the French into revealing some of their intelligence assets. Caught in the middle of this war of deceit was Mata Hari, a cheerful opportunist who now found herself far out of her depth.

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After she returned to France, on February 13, 1917, at Ladoux’s order French counterintelligence agents arrested Mata Hari as a German agent. Taken to military prison, she immediately denied the charges, writing, “I am innocent. Someone is fooling with me,” and blaming “French counterespionage, since I am in its service, and I have only acted on its instructions.” Nonetheless her notorious reputation, and her habit of embellishing or fictionalizing parts of her own past, effectively signed her death warrant: the French press and public were all too ready to believe that a foreign woman, famed for her loose morals and ability to seduce powerful men, had sold out the Republic, leading to the deaths of thousands of brave young Frenchmen. 

Mata Hari’s trial began on July 24, 1917, but with cards stacked against the 41-year old former exotic dancer, its outcome was never really in doubt. The prosecutors never presented any proof that she had actually been working for German intelligence, except for a mysterious receipt showing a payment of 5,000 francs, which it turned out was actually a gift from her old lover the baron (sent anonymously, of course, to protect his reputation). The court also prevented her defense lawyers from calling the baron or Mata Hari’s maid in the Netherlands to testify to clear up this apparently incriminating detail. 

The government did present evidence of her numerous encounters with French officers and officials – suggesting (but hardly proving) that she had extracted secrets from them; unsurprisingly, virtually none of her old lovers came forward to testify on her behalf, as this would have tarnished their reputation as well. Then the court heard of the ill-fated trip to Spain, the arrest by British intelligence in Cornwall, and the intercepted radio messages in a cracked cipher, which nobody knew had been sent on purpose to seal her doom. Most damning, Mata Hari herself admitted to receiving the codename “H21” earlier than she had previously stated, at the May 1916 meeting.

Duly convicted on eight charges of espionage, on October 15, 1917, “the greatest woman spy of the century,” who was in reality no such thing, was shot at 5 a.m. by a firing squad of twelve men at a barracks in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. Her final words: “It is unbelievable.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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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.

1. IT HAS MANY COMIC BOOK INSPIRATIONS.

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.

2. THE JOKER ALSO HAD DIVERSE INSPIRATIONS.

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.

3. NOLAN WAS INITIALLY RELUCTANT TO MAKE A SEQUEL.

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.”

4. HEATH LEDGER WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY THE JOKER.

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.” 

5. YES, HEATH LEDGER REALLY DID KEEP A JOKER DIARY.

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.

6. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL WASN’T THE ONLY ACTRESS CONSIDERED FOR RACHEL DAWES.

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.

7. GYLLENHAAL TOOK THE ROLE BASED ON NOLAN’S PRESENCE ALONE.

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.”

8. AARON ECKHART WASN’T THE ONLY STAR CONSIDERED FOR HARVEY DENT.

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.

9. MICHAEL CAINE DIDN’T THINK THE FILM WOULD WORK ... UNTIL LEDGER WAS CAST.

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.

10. THE JOKER’S SCARS WERE INSPIRED BY A REAL PERSON.

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.”

11. LEDGER LICKED HIS LIPS BECAUSE OF THE JOKER PROSTHETICS.

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.

12. THE MOVIE MADE IMAX HISTORY.

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.

13. THE JOKER FREAKED CAINE OUT SO MUCH, HE FORGOT HIS LINES.

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.”

14. THE TRUCK FLIPPING SEQUENCE WAS DONE FOR REAL.

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."

15. CHRISTIAN BALE PERCHED ON SKYSCRAPERS HIMSELF AS BATMAN.

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. 

16. BALE COULDN’T MANAGE THE BATPOD. 

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.”

17. THE FILM INCLUDES A SMALL TRIBUTE TO LEDGER’S DAUGHTER.

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.

18. A SITTING U.S. SENATOR MADE A CAMEO.

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.

19. THE MAYOR OF A CITY CALLED “BATMAN” SUED THE PRODUCTION.

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.

1. FAKE TICKETS FLOODED THE PARK.

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.

2. TRAFFIC WAS BACKED UP FOR MILES.

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.

3. THE PARK WAS COVERED WITH WET PAINT AND WEEDS.

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.

4. NO FOOD, NO DRINK, NO FUN.

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.

5. THERE WAS A PLUMBERS' STRIKE.

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.’”

6. THE WEATHER WAS SCORCHING.

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.

7. THE RIDES WERE BREAKING DOWN.

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.

8. THE MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT SANK.

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."

9. SLEEPING BEAUTY’S CASTLE ALMOST CAUGHT FIRE.

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.

10. ABC'S LIVE SHOW FROM DISNEYLAND WAS A TRAIN WRECK.

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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