February 13, 2012

A real Mickey-Mouse broadcast

The cultural historian Karal Ann Marling (a fellow Minnesotan, by the way) wrote a very good book back in 1996 called As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s.  It's not really about television, at least not in the way that we often talk about it here.  For the most part, rather than talking about television in the 50s, Marling is referring to the cultural mileposts that we would have seen on television - things such as fashion, cars, and Elvis.

It really is a fascinating book, one that I'd like to write about at more length sometime.  For today, though, I'd like to call your attention to a television broadcast that Marling does write about at some length - the grand opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955.

The opening was broadcast live on ABC from 7:30 - 9:00 that Sunday evening, hosted by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan.  It was fitting, since ABC had helped to underwrite the construction of the park through its contract with Disney, signed in 1954, in which Disneyland agreed to produce a weekly television show in return for ABC's financial support.  Cleverly, Disney called his program Disneyland, which by sheer coincidence just happened to also be the name of his budding amusement park.  Hey, the man wasn't a business tycoon for nothing, you know.

However, as Marling recounts, the broadcast was in many ways a disaster.  The park was still under construction, traffic was backed up for over seven miles (at dawn!), there were gas leaks, food ran out, and the park was massively overcrowded (6,000 by-invitation-only guests, but 22,000 extra people arrived with counterfeit tickets). And there were technical snafus galore: women walking out of their shoes, presenters being drenched by sprinklers, cameras showing one thing while announcers talked about something else - you name it.  Linkletter, Cummings and Reagan were old pros though, smooth operators who managed to handle the adversity without losing their wits. 

The day was known around Disney HQ as "Black Sunday," and the reviews of the program were universally bad.  In addition to the glitches, the show was so heavily scripted that it lacked any sort of spontaneity, and was filled with hype, such as Cummings comparing the opening of Disneyland to the dedication of the Eiffel Tower, and the slickness that Disney has always been known for.  All was not lost, though, as Sheila Graham, the Hollywood columnist, assured her readers "Walt has always been a smart trader and I’m sure there will be some changes made.”  There were, and Disneyland wound up working out pretty well, one would have to admit - it took only seven weeks for the one-millionth visitor to pass through its gates.

More than anything, that opening broadcast points out the risks - and sheer fun - of live television.  It's hard to imagine today's television dedicating 90 minutes to the opening of an amusement park, but after all ABC had helped bankroll Disneyland, and Walt Disney was responsible for the young network's first commercial credibility. TV  

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