Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (and then The Wonderful World of Disney) was a staple every Sunday night on television. Every week we looked forward to Walt Disney himself introduce cartoons, historic features, programs and films, all in color beginning in 1961. Those of us who attended the 1964 New York World’s Fair saw Disney’s influence everywhere. Who could forget seeing the “It’s a Small World” installation in the pavilion hosting the Pepsi salute to UNICEF. Then, of course, there was “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” the lifelike President Abraham Lincoln speaking to the audience. This was Disney’s first such ‘Audio-Animatronic’ figure that would eventually be expanded to a full “Hall of Presidents” at Disney’s theme parks.
So why did Disney select Lincoln as his first lifelike subject? Come to find out, Walt Disney had a lifelong connection to Mr. Lincoln. “Ever since I was a small boy in Illinois,” Disney once stated, “I have had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln.” As a 5th grader, Walt used cardboard to create a stovepipe hat, his father’s coat and crepe hair to make himself an impressive looking Lincoln as he recited the perfectly memorized Gettysburg Address to his classmates. It was a performance he recreated every year until his graduation.
While planning for Disneyland in 1959 it was decided that a human Audio-Animatronic Lincoln would recreate a few of his historic speeches. Once Robert Moses, the force behind the NY World’s Fair, saw an early prototype of the Lincoln display he demanded it be included in the Fair. The development timetable for the Lincoln figure needed serious shortening in order to be ready for the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” installation at the Fair. The skillful artisans at Disney Studios and W.E.D. Enterprises in California used actual historic artifacts and original photos to craft the authentic Lincoln. They even used a Life Mask of Lincoln created by Leonard Volk in 1860. The advancement in recording technology was perfected for the movements of the figure. Engineers were required to create breakthroughs in the use of the hydraulic and pneumatic systems used for the physical movements of the figure. It was a long way from the centuries old animatronic devices that utilized clockwork movements to animate the figures.
Once the NY World’s Fair was over, the Lincoln figure was shipped back to California and “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was opened on July 18, 1966. The lobby of the Lincoln exhibit at the Main Street Play House in Disneyland displayed mock-up recreations of Lincoln’s offices and historic Lincoln items. Once in the theater, the show featured a short film called “Two Brothers” discussing the story of two brothers who fought on both sides of the Civil War. The curtains then rose to reveal the moving and speaking Lincoln figure.
Walt Disney not only wanted to create a tribute to Lincoln but he saw “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” as a means to educate and bring history to life. Disney described it himself; “Most Americans will agree with me that no man has had more of a positive impact on a nation than Abraham Lincoln has on our country. He is venerated not only in our land but in many parts of the world. Yet I have always felt too few people realize that Lincoln’s concepts and philosophies are as useful, as necessary, as applicable today as they were when he pronounced them a century ago. His analysis of freedom and its true meaning, his approach to justice and equality, his own courage and strength all are as vital in the 1960’s as they were during the mid 1800’s.”