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Return Flight: Peter Pan's Opening Night at El Capitan Theatre
Report from the Filmmakers Discussion Panel & Screening in Hollywood
Thursday, February 1, 2007


By Scott Wolf, MouseClubhouse.com

On February 1, 2007, I was invited to the El Capitan Theatre for the opening night of an exclusive two-week engagement of Disney's animated classic Peter Pan. Through my photos and recollections, I now invite you to join me for this experience.

This was an exciting evening for me. Disney is in my blood. Besides being a huge Disney fan, I became an Assistant Producer of Disney television animation during its boom. I used to do Disney photography of special events and even had one of my pieces hanging in Roy Disney’s office. I’ve produced a ragtime album of Disney Resort music that’s still sold at the resorts. I met my wife at Disneyland while she was working there, and I’ve had a couple of my Disneyland photography books published with the cooperation and support of the company. So as you can expect, I was very much looking forward to this event.

Disneyland has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The hand and footprints of the legendary Dick Van Dyke are among many sets which adorn the cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The menu for the El Capitan's neighbor, Disney's Soda Fountain & Studio Store.

Since moving a couple hours away from Los Angeles, I don’t get there often. Hollywood is an absolutely fascinating place and the El Capitan is at the heart of it. Right across the street is the fabulous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Next to this is the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are held each year and where they will crown the next American Idol. This is also where we witnessed some young man urinating right on the floor.

In front of the fabulous Grauman's, we put our feet in the footprints of Dick Van Dyke and Groucho Marx. A man in an incredible Spiderman costume, one of two out there, graciously posed with my son for a picture... then told us that he works on tips and would be grateful for whatever we can give.

Heading back to the El Capitan, a man with a video camera set up on the sidewalk asked me to stand in front of his camera for framing purposes. I politely declined... each time he asked.

My wife and five-year-old son eagerly moved to the Disney Soda Fountain and Studio Store. Since the last time I was at the El Capitan was to see Toy Story in 1995, this was my first time at the Soda Fountain, which opened in 2005. Stepping in there was like stepping back in time. This old-fashioned ice cream parlor had their very courteous staff appropriately dressed as soda jerks of the time. The entire staff was absolutely friendly and helpful as if they were trained the way that Walt Disney wanted his Disneyland Cast Members to be.

Captain Hook poses with the author's son. As attendees found seats, the Mighty Wurlitzer delighted the ears with organ versions of classic Disney tunes. Wendy Darling and Peter Pan (the real ones) were among the crowd.

Soon we were ready to move on to the historic El Capitan, where upon entering we were greeted by Captain Hook to my son’s delight. Okay, to my delight, too. We also had a photo opportunity with Peter Pan and Wendy before entering the theater. The El Capitan was as beautiful, clean, and kept up as if it were opening day in 1926 and the booming sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ playing classic Disney music was absolute ear candy.
What was extra special about this event is that it’s Peter Pan, a film from 1953, so that only made our trip to their 1950s soda fountain the perfect segue to our theatre experience.

To start the evening we, the audience, were introduced to Don Hahn, one of Disney’s top producers of films including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and this year’s Oscar-nominated short, The Little Matchgirl. I am familiar with Don’s work but as an animation producer, not an emcee. Nevertheless, he was the host of the event. Was I ever pleasantly surprised! He was an absolute natural for the job, as entertaining as the Master of Ceremonies as he has been as a Producer. During the panel discussion, he let his own personal interests shine through. He also had a knack for keeping the discussion lively and constantly moving without a dull moment or awkward silence.

Don began our evening with a clip from a 1952 television show, only the second that Walt Disney ever made. Walt had just finished Alice in Wonderland and wanted to promote Peter Pan and share the stars of the show on television for the first time. In this clip, we saw Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, the voices of Peter Pan and Wendy. Even better, they were in character and dressed for the part. It was certainly a treat.

The Peter Pan filmmakers' discussion panel (left to right): Eric Goldberg, Margaret Kerry, Paul Collins, June Foray, Kathryn Beaumont, and emcee Don Hahn. Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of and live action model for Wendy Darling, smiles as veteran Disney producer Don Hahn proves to be a lively Master of Ceremonies.

Now it was time for Don to introduce the illustrious panel of guests.

"The character Wendy was a character I was so in love with when I saw Peter Pan and I’m kind of still in love with Wendy and our first guest..." This is how Don introduced Kathryn Beaumont, the voice as well as the live-action model of Wendy.

Don told us that if you grew up on the planet Earth watching cartoons anywhere, you have seen the work of the next guest and that he is such a fan. She is a legend in animation, June Foray, who performed as live-action model of a mermaid in Peter Pan.

We were told that the next guest has not seen these people since the movie was made, Paul Collins, the voice of John Darling in the film.

The next lady was entertaining without even yet speaking a word, so it was not a huge surprise when Don announced that Margaret Kerry in his words "was the live action model for a character that’s gotta be one of my favorite characters, and alongside Mickey Mouse maybe one of the greatest characters the Disney studio ever created... Tinker Bell."

Finally we were introduced to Eric Goldberg who, as Don put it, is one of the most talented animators working in the industry today. He was the director of Pocahontas. He animated on Fantasia 2000, and he animated a spectacular character in Aladdin. "This is the Genie. This is the man who animated the genie in Aladdin with his own hand and his own pencil."

Not wanting to disappoint his audience, our Master of Ceremonies requested that June do her most famous voice of all, Bullwinkle’s own Rocky the flying squirrel.

Next, the conversation turned to Kathryn Beaumont, who told us about her start with Disney. There were many girls who were reading for the part and she was fortunate enough that he thought her voice was most suitable. When she went to sign the contract, she met Walt Disney. She was very nervous because she knew him and had seen all of his wonderful stories. He greeted her at the door of his office, sat her on a couch, and discussed Alice so she would have an idea of what their plans were.

June Foray had already worked on a Disney film, as the voice of Lucifer in Cinderella. When they told her they wanted her to work for Disney again, the man on the phone told her to bring her bathing suit. "I heard a lot about the casting couch," she told us as she thought this was a dirty old man, but it turned out to be respectable when she was cast as a model for the mermaid.

June Foray, who has been doing animated voice work for well over half-a-century, was the vocalist and live action model for the mermaids of "Peter Pan." Margaret Kerry, the live action model for Tinker Bell, and Paul Collins, the voice of young John Darling, were among those reminiscing over their work on Disney's 1953 masterpiece, "Peter Pan."

She and the models had to climb up and down covered two-by-fours... with their legs tied together and she assured us that when she got home she was black and blue all over. Margaret Kerry reflected that Disney was interviewing for a three and a half inch fairy that didn’t talk and she wondered, "How do you interview for a 3½-inch fairy that doesn’t talk? Which is ironic because I don’t shut up." She got a 45rpm record and choreographed pantomime of making breakfast. The next morning she went to Disney and did her pantomime and she was shown the storyboards for Peter Pan. They explained how they wanted her to step on a mirror and preen herself and how Tinker Bell liked what she saw, but was not happy with her hips. (We were treated by Margaret to a recreation of this scene.) The next morning she got a call that asked if it would be convenient for her to come to work next Tuesday. "It was exciting because I started when I was four years old in the business and nobody had ever asked me if it would be convenient. It was wonderful!" I think that gives you some insight into the differences between Disney’s studio and the others.

The panel discussed working on the film and working with Walt Disney. Kathryn told us that she was actually involved in the story meetings so she would understand her character.

They discussed how several of them were live action models for the film. They would be shot in crude representations of the set. They would lip sync their pre-recorded audio, and the animators would then be able to study the films frame by frame to animate them.

Eric Goldberg elaborated on the rotoscope process which allowed the animators to in a sense trace each frame, however they would add personality and make certain adaptations since at the heart of animation is caricature. They had the basic nuts and bolts of the movement and performance from the live action and then they could change head proportions... maybe make the head a little larger or the eyes a little bigger and things like that to make the characters more appealing as animation characters.

Those that attended school on the set reminisced about how difficult it was to both attend school and perform. It was difficult to concentrate when you were whisked from your studies to performing and then back to your studies.

In addition to the panel discussion we had some surprises, such as the bonus feature "In Walt's Words", narrated by an actor portraying Walt Disney and using a magazine article to describe his thoughts and feelings of doing Peter Pan. It was important to him that people who were familiar with the story would recognize it and approve of what they’ve done.

To conclude the discussion, we were all treated to still and photos of the panel and their contributions to the film set to the music of Peter Pan.

Animator Eric Goldberg ("Pocahontas", "Aladdin") lent a perspective on the animation in the film. Kathryn Beaumont smiles for a picture. The 68-year-old Beaumont voiced Alice (of Wonderland fame) and Wendy Darling, two of Disney's most enduring animated heroines. Richard M. Sherman makes an unannounced appearance to talk about his contributions to the "Peter Pan" Platinum Edition DVD.

To give you an idea of how special this discussion was I refer to my five-year-old son, an active, very talkative boy. He was so quiet and enthralled, listening to every word, laughing at the humorous anecdotes. Again, I had to think, "This is what Disney is all about... total entertainment for every age."

Next was an unannounced surprise as Don introduced Richard M. Sherman, who with his brother Robert B. Sherman who now resides in England, garnered Academy Awards and Grammys writing the music for Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, and numerous other Disney films and Disneyland attractions including "It’s a Small World." Richard explained to us that a few months ago he got a call from two gentlemen of Disney Home Entertainment who invited him to lunch. They showed him an old yellow typewritten paper and on it was a lyric that was written in 1939 for a version of Peter Pan that was never made. They asked him if he could do something with the words and he thought he’d give it a shot. The opening line read, "There never was another land like the Never Land." Richard didn’t feel good about that lyric and he took liberties to change it to, "There Never Never was a land like the Never Never land."

As "Walt" recalled in that dramatization I mentioned earlier, the author Barrie originally called the island "Never Never Never Land." Eventually stage versions shortened it to Never Never Land. Disney went one step further, shortening it simply to Never Land. So it was interesting that Richard opted to revert to "Never Never Land" in the song.

Richard told the folks at Buena Vista that he wanted somebody like Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle in Beauty and the Beast to sing this new song, so that’s exactly who they got. We were the first audience to be treated to this video which will be a supplement on the new two-disc Peter Pan Platinum Edition set that will be released next month.

T-Squad, a young group popular with the Radio Disney and Disney Channel demographics, performed a cover of "Second Star to the Right." Before the movie started, Tinker Bell made a personal appearance and spread some of her world-famous pixie dust around.

While basking in the reflections of the 1950s, next up was a jolt back to our current decade as Radio Disney/Disney Channel group T-Squad performed a very hip version of "Second Star to the Right." To me this just seemed out of context, however, I’m an old fuddy duddy who was born about thirty years late. I’m sure this group, which will also be featured on the DVD set will contribute to worn out discs by fans, probably a lot of children and teens that will play it repeatedly.

Finally, back to my kind of magic.
The Disney logo appeared in lights with a short medley of Peter Pan music as a live Tinker Bell danced over it and threw a handful of glittery pixie dust into the air. For the finale a blast of pixie dust (metallic confetti) shot out over the audience to squeals of delight by many including my five year old son... and me. Folks, this is Disney. This is the Disney I have grown to love. This was really Disney magic. The evening was amazing and this little touch was the perfect buildup to the newly restored print of the film.

This was the most clear, pristine print of this film yet. I’m sure it looks better than even the original audiences enjoyed when the first was first released.

One thing that is so unique about this film is that it really has it all and perhaps that’s why it’s one of my favorite movies and holds up so well after all these years. It seems modern that it could have been made today, yet it is so timeless. It has great comedy and it has heart. It has something for girls with mermaids and Wendy, and something for boys with Peter and pirates and Indians as they were called back then. It has something for young and old and to this day continues to captivate and entire audience.


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UltimateDisney.com | Peter Pan: Platinum Edition DVD Press Release | Disney's Animated Classics List
Upcoming DVD Schedule | Upcoming DVD Art | Recent DVDs | More on Disney's Platinum Editions

Report posted February 5, 2007.