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Disney In Depth: 1964, A Definitive Disney Year
Brett Nachman   |  @   |  

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Anniversaries signify dates of a celebratory nature. We reflect on the past and the importance of a milestone. In the Disney universe, certain years warrant attention for the amount of quality content produce and momentous occasions held. Some might argue 1989 was Disney’s biggest year, launching the “Disney renaissance” with the release of The Little Mermaid and also the opening of Disney’s fifth theme park (Disney-MGM Studios). Others would consider 1928 (the debut of Mickey Mouse), 1937 (the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and 1955 (Disneyland’s opening) as equally significant. If we look into the future, 2015 may prove to be Disney’s most monumental year with new films from Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar and even a few major releases from Disney itself.

But how can anyone forget or dismiss 1964? This was the definitive Disney year in multiple realms. The events that took place during this 12-month period forever altered the landscape of The Walt Disney Company. 50 years later, I reason that the Disney we treasure today would not exist without the turning points that occurred in 1964.

Mary Poppins and Bert

“The world is a carousel of color,” we heard as part of the opening lyrics of The Wonderful World of Color, Walt Disney’s weekly presentation of family content on those now-minute television screens. Though the national tumultuous scene in 1964 could not contrast more with the brightness on Sunday night sets, Disney entertainment often illuminated American viewers’ lives. It served as a window into a positive world, one in which people could watch nature documentaries, Disney cartoons or even previews into the projects Disney was creating during the time. And what amazing projects there were.

The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair was as much of a revolutionary exhibition as its 1939 predecessor. American industry was working toward a better tomorrow, one of optimism and joy. Despite the rose-colored glasses many in the country’s middle and upper class attempted to view the nation they inhabited, the picture was far from sweet. Disney, whether in its films or theme park, had always offered an escape into a society people would want to reside. Everyone in Disney seemed to be cheerful, imaginative, and, most of all, hopeful. What could be more alluring? This fair represented these intangible elements and more. Its success was in many ways due to Disney’s participation.

When you think of an unmistakable Disney attraction, what comes to mind? It’s a small world preaching peace and happiness may emerge into your consciousness – and the theme may remain in your subconsciousness. This boat ride, at first appearing simple and ordinary, is far from that. As songwriter Richard Sherman has often said, it is an anthem promoting cooperation. This is Disney at its finest. From the Mary Blair designs to the carefully crafted costumes by Alice Davis, it’s a small world defines an artistic achievement. Its message rings true. The implications of this 1964-era showcase are far reaching, very evident in the global celebration of the attraction this year during its 50th anniversary.

But three other Disney-created attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which all would later call Disneyland home, deserve just as much attention as it’s a small world. Ford’s Magic Skyway led to the development of the PeopleMover system that made Disneyland’s Tomorrowland so kinetic for 30 years. The prehistoric scenes featuring dinosaurs would encourage Disney to implement a Primeval World into the Disneyland Railroad and even Epcot’s Universe of Energy.

The Illinois pavilion featured a life-like Abraham Lincoln. Blaine Gibson’s remarkable craftsmanship in making the Audio-Animatronic figure resemble the United States’ 16th president wowed audiences. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln served as Walt Disney’s tribute to a man who greatly impacted his goals. Lincoln would move to Disneyland in 1965, where he has called home (on and off) for the past 50 years.

Most importantly, though, the attraction that epitomized Disney’s presence at the 1964 New York World’s Fair was the effervescent Progressland, otherwise known as the Carousel of Progress. Chronicling decades of American technological ingenuity — thanks to you, General Electric, the often-referenced sponsor — Carousel of Progress paid attention to the potential of industrial innovations. Disney’s advanced Audio-Animatronics depicting the “ideal” American family connected with audience members who could connect with them – or those who wanted to possess their luxuries. Carousel of Progress entered Tomorrowland, too, for several years, before being transported to Walt Disney World in the 1970s.

Yes, if Disney’s only contributions to the world in 1964 were attractions for the New York World’s Fair, that alone would have made it a definitive year. Yet one movie brought a “jolly holiday” to viewers. Mary Poppins, which turns 50 years old this week, was considered Walt Disney’s crowning achievement at the time of its release. Integrating some of what the company did best (utilizing the Sherman Brothers‘ music, relying on apt director Robert Stevenson, and bringing in talented stars like Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and David Tomlinson) proved to be an irresistible formula. No other film has garnered the company so many awards. Likewise, I would bet that Poppins would be near the top of the list on many individuals’ favorite Disney films – especially for those who grew up in the 1960s.

Disney’s other 1964 productions signified the company’s American amusement, from Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello‘s The Misadventures of Merlin Jones to Hayley MillsThe Moon-Spinners. The stars seemed to be in alignment for Disney. Similarly, its actual mainstay stars, including Kirk, Funicello, Mills, Andrews, Van Dyke, Tomlinson and others managed to create Disney magic.

From a celebrity standpoint, many actors and actresses who have played memorable characters or offered their talent for The Walt Disney Company’s various entities were born in 1964. Among them are Nicolas Cage (Ben Gates, National Treasure), David Spade (Kuzco, The Emperor’s New Groove), Patrick Warburton (Kronk, The Emperor’s New Groove), Lebo M (performer, The Lion King films), Ty Pennington (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), and Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives). Absolutely, 1964 was a fruitful year in giving the world these entertainers.

It’s weird to give an amorphous thing like a year a round of virtual applause, but we Disney fans must honor the role of what the company accomplished in 1964 and the people who came out of that year to shape Disney. Disney Twenty-Three magazine did a commendable job in covering both Poppins and the 1964 New York World’s Fair in its Winter 2013 and Spring 2014 issues, and I highly recommend checking each of those magazines out for more content on these topics.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.

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