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How America got Moused by the Right

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Message Sherman Yellen
As I read the controversy about "The Path to 9/11," and the comments about ABC/Disney advancing a right wing agenda, spinning an anti-Clinton take on that tragic event, I recalled a short time in the early nineteen seventies when I was employed by WED, the creative arm of Disney that was preparing The American Pavilion for Disney World in Florida. It was my first and last experience with Disney editing American history to favor their conservative point of view.

Having written the pilot and several episodes of the award winning PBS series, "The Adams Chronicles," a study of John Adams and his relation to the American Revolution, the Disney people called my agent and I was hired on to create material for those robotic figures who would represent important personages from our history in the American Pavilion. I took the job because it gave me access to a world I had loved as a child. No bigger M. Mouse or D. Duck fan existed than myself when young. I had laughed uproariously at Thumper, wept copiously for Bambi, and could name the seven dwarfs before I could count to seven. Moreover, this would give me enormous credit with my young son who would get a vip tour of the Disney Studios and Disneyland. So I packed up my family and we went west, me to work for the mouse, they to discover the wonders of Los Angeles.

I was treated with every courtesy, and introduced to some of the most remarkable artists and set designers, whose work was - as the kids say - awesome. I started to work on my assignment, which was to find the words for some outstanding Americans that could be spoken by those audio-animatronic figures. But when I proposed some words by Mark Twain or Eleanor Roosevelt, I was confronted by blank stares followed by great unease. Twain was okay in his folkloric witticisms, but not in his leftish humanitariansm, and anti-trust politics. Eleanor was still a suspect figure, despised by the right, a funny looking do-gooder who had no place in the hallowed halls of the new American Pavilion - which was to celebrate American history as Walt, a 19th century conservative, saw it. Besides she was a woman. And Minnie Mouse was always a minor player in the Disney cartoon world. The Disney Organization in those days was still a place where people asked themselves "What would Walt do if he was alive today?" And the answer was always steer to the right -the far right and head for the heartland.

After taking my boy Nick to Disneyland a few times it became clear to me that this wasn't just the best amusement park in America, filled with fun rides and fabricated jungle thrils, it was a profound political statement. Walt had recreated a white clapboard Victorian America which had never existed, a place without Blacks, Chinese, Jews, Italians, Irish Catholics, a white Protestant Republican America bordered by picket fences and charming gingerbread houses, all of which contained items to be bought. It was safe, sterile, exhaustingly charming. Moreover, it was a high church of the souvenier. This was an America cleansed of its rich ethnicity, one that celebrated wonders and inventions; a Thomas Edison, Henry Ford America - a remarkable inventive America, but one that was incomplete and tainted by small town bigotries. In Disneyland's view of America there were no slaves or indentured servants, only the big eared mice and the other patented characters there to pose with you for photographs -like the natives on a distant tropical isle.

I did have a famous (at least to my family) altercation in Disneyland. My six year old son Nick and I were stuck under a waterfall during a malfunctioning ride. An hour later when they got the ride going again and we departed from it soaked to our skins, I asked for my money back. The smiling Disney rep explained that it was not the policy of Disneyland to return money, but they would provide us with a script ticket for a replacement ride. I noted that neither my drenched boy or I were in a mood to take another ride. We just wanted to get our money back, get back to our car, and drive home. I was told that it was not possible for me to get cash back from Disneyland. That was not the policy of Disneyland. In my exasperation - I do get exasperated with systems that do not allow for special circumstances - I shouted out "f*ck Disneyland!" and suddenly found myself offered the money for the ride. I had just discovered the keys to the Magic Kingdom.

This may seem somewhat far afield from "The Path to 9/11" but I don't think so. Even under the new management of Disney the cry of "What would Walt do?" could be heard by me as they created this so called "docu-drama." Walt would have shaped history to favor his Republican cronies, and distorted, if he could not ignore, history that gave his side a black mark. Like it or not, Mickey, Walt, and ABC/Disney, 9/11 happened under George Bush's watch, and you can build all your white picket fences around that fact, but that ain't history- it's Disneyland.
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SHERMAN YELLEN, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the musical, The Rothschilds. His screenwriting has won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, for his drama John Adams, Lawyer - in the PBS series The Adams (more...)
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