Last February, on a blue and balmy Southern California morning, I drove to Disneyland to take in the famous spectacle “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” The final third of it features an almost lifelike audio-animatronic president speaking some eloquent lines, drawn from several of his speeches, on the subject of liberty.
Surprisingly, on a tourist-heavy day with thousands of customers already in the park, only 25 people turned out for the noon performance. They barely dotted the “Opera House” auditorium that can seat over 500 patrons.
I went back for the 2:00 p.m. show, when tens of thousands of perspiring people were clogging Disneyland’s sidewalks and attractions. This time only 35 people were enjoying the air-conditioned comfort, and Lincoln wisdom, at the Opera House.
Disney’s Lincoln originated at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where it was showcased at the Illinois Pavilion. The assassination and funeral of President Kennedy in 1963 had sparked a flurry of interest in Lincoln, and Fair officials went all out to bring Disney’s prototype to Queens. They gave the company a $250,000 “loan” that amounted to a Lincoln appearance fee. The state of Illinois chipped in with an additional $100,000 for Disney.
Initially, according to the New York Times, Fair audiences found the Lincoln facsimile unconvincing. The “32 channel magnetic tape” sending electronic impulses to “activate pneumatic and hydraulic valves” produced cumbersome movements of the head, arms, and torso.
During the Fair’s winter recess in early 1965, Disney engineers reworked the mechanism, and attendance more than doubled in the spring and summer: only six percent of fairgoers watched the show in 1964; in 1965 the figure surpassed 12 percent. Spectators now exclaimed to pavilion personnel that this Lincoln must be “a man impersonating a machine.”
In the summer of 1965, to mark Disneyland’s 10th anniversary, “Great Moments” also opened in Main Street’s new Opera House. Today, after decades of minor changes and temporary shutdowns, the show goes on with the more supple “autonomatronic” president installed for Lincoln’s bicentenary in 2009.
On my visit, a Disneyland employee named Bob (he preferred not to give his last name) was working the show. He has been watching over Lincoln off and on since 1979. He and others in the old guard have successfully argued for keeping Lincoln going when some in the company wished to pull the plug.
Bob advised me to sit front and center to catch the small movements in Lincoln’s face (and his audible exhalation). As the Los Angeles Times reported when the new Lincoln was unveiled, the engineers “figured out how to capture the musculature of the face using 16 micro-miniaturized motors pushing and pulling [the] silicone skin.”
This Lincoln figure still doesn’t quite look, or sound, like the actual man. He’s too broad-shouldered, and his voice is a rich baritone rather than a high-pitched tenor. His arms can make sweeping gestures, but they can’t bend up to grab his lapels. That said, Disney’s “imagineers” have come eerily close to bringing Lincoln to life.
This crafted president delivers a commanding physical presence with the slow swivel of his head, the stretch of his chest, and the delicate play of his fingers. His eyes seem to seek you out in the audience. The “Complete Show” upload includes a close-up of his eyes that is not to be missed.
It’s a shame that in 2009 Disney didn’t take the time to upgrade the show’s introductory history lesson while it was improving Lincoln’s bodily movements. Centering on Lincoln’s life and leadership, the nine-minute look at American history up to the Civil War combines narration (much of it in Lincoln’s words) with a slide show of colorful paintings and stirring music, including a haunting 90-second duet of “Two Brothers on Their Way, One Wore Blue and One Wore Gray.”
The opening images depict the arrival by ship of two groups of Europeans — the 17th-century Pilgrims and the 19th-century immigrants – but omit the arrival by ship of the African slaves. As historians have shown for over a generation, there is no way to grasp the flow of American history in general, or the greatness of Lincoln in particular, without putting slavery and its aftermath at the heart of the story.
Disney’s Lincoln tells us in passing that God “hates injustice and slavery.” But the real Mr. Lincoln went far beyond hating slavery in the abstract. He came to realize that reunion depended on emancipation, and that emancipation ultimately meant extending citizenship rights to some of the freedmen. Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois took the lead in praising him for placing political equality on the American agenda once and for all.
Since 1865 Americans have tried in a thousand ways to keep Lincoln’s memory alive, and Disney’s groundbreaking effort does so by revivifying his body. Probably no other figure in American history could have prompted such a sustained investment in technological wizardry. Americans have admired many politicians’ speeches and leadership, but for generations they have found Abraham Lincoln uniquely endearing in his moral character and his physical person.