Or How We Learned to Love the Past as the Future and Stop Worrying About It?
Oh, the sound of wailing at the end of all things Frontierland…
If you haven’t heard, Disneyland is making some changes again. Read all about it, here from Fab News over on Micechat. Part of adding Star Wars to the Park, with some long-term closures of various attractions and areas about Frontierland as a galaxy, far, far away comes to Anaheim.
With all of this at hand, I decided to give a bit of thought as to how the Frontier or the American West came to be of such interest that it got a substantial part of real estate dedicated to it when Disneyland opened.
For the sake of discussion, let us say that the American West came to be almost anything west of the Allegeheny Mountains and east of the Pacific Ocean. Fascination with it came along in American popular culture long ago. For the temporally impaired, this interest goes back to the pre-Revolutionary war era. Back when tales of what lay unexplored in the West were the stuff of dreams. When men like Daniel Boone carried popular imaginations along with them on their explorations.
In today’s era of instant gratification via Google Street View, it may be hard for many to imagine that you actually had to travel over the next hill to see for yourself what lay ahead of you. There was no preview of what was around that next bend in the river. For more than a few folks, that kind of adventure was a siren’s call waiting to be answered. If there was nothing to keep you tied to a place, you could pick up and go.
Some of the first Western tales that caught imaginations were those of writers such as James Fenimore Cooper as far back as the 1820’s. Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls of the 1850’s and later were full of the stuff that readers longed to know; fictional or not. Tales of wide open spaces, man versus nature or civilization versus the wild men of the prairies and plains made for sales.
Fascination did not stop with the printed word. Folks in the East and across the Atlantic rushed to see various Wild West shows, as early as 1872 with Ned Buntline in Chicago. Bringing the West and all of it’s excitement to civilization? Oh, yes… profitable! Consider that W.F. Cody organized his own show in 1883 and it played until 1913. And he was far from alone.
Western tales also came into some of the earliest motion pictures produced in this country.”The Great Train Robbery” was a smash hit with audiences. At the time, Edwin S. Potter’s revolutionary telling of the story wowed audiences every where it was showed. (It was as much of a game change for the day as “Star Wars” would become in the summer of 1977.) The Western film became a staple. Cowboys like “Bronco” Billy Anderson, Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger were the heroes of their day on screen and on radio.
Now, I know, thanks to a bit of ancestry, that life out West was not adventure every day. It was hard and it was boring. Men and women did what they had to do because their options were very limited. For example, when my great-great-grandfather turned to his oldest son at the age of 12 and informed him that it was time for him to make his own way in the world, choices were few. Living in central Nevada did not offer much, especially for the son of shop/saloon keeper in a boom town gone bust.
Somehow, my great-grandfather convinced some ranch owner out in the Pine Valley to hire him on as vaquero. With cattle and horses to tend, he spent the next eight years of his life on the back of a horse. Work was life. You wore the same clothes day in, day out. Same slouch hat and coat. If it got cold, and you had an extra shirt or pair of pants, you wore them too. As a hired hand, there was a bunk house and food, but it was nothing special. Life out West? Dull, dusty and downright dull.
I have been out to the Pine Valley a number of times. Sure, it has its charms. Some beautiful vistas. But at the end of my day, I could get back into the air-conditioned car and drive off to my motel room in the big city. My great-grandfather and his fellow hands? Pretty much, they stayed where they worked.
Lucky for me, the opportunity to see what railroading was all about ended life on the range. And opened another chapter. Railroading also was the stuff of dime novels, plenty of tales of exciting trips over the pass to deliver the goods.
When television came along, the Western was an established genre that audiences enjoyed and wanted more of. Popular shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” were just the thing. “Gunsmoke” had been a favorite on radio for many years before making the change to television. From 1952 to 1975, it kept audiences regaled with tales from the West. With 635 episodes, it remains the longest-running television program. Westerns also helped bring color televisions to many homes. For example, NBC (with parent RCA selling the color sets) went into color in a big way with shows such as “Bonanza” and another series from Desilu Studios, with a somewhat interesting series of stories, set along the lines of “Wagon Train to the stars”.
So, should it have been much of a surprise that when Disneyland opened in 1955, a good amount of space in the new park was devoted to the American West and was called, Frontierland. If you look at the attractions of the area as it developed, it is interesting to note that most of them dealt with transportation. The Stage Coach, the Conestoga Wagon, the Mule Pack Train, the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, the sternwheel steamboat Mark Twain, the Davy Crockett Keel Boats, the Indian Canoes, the Tom Sawyer’s Island River Rafts, the Natures Wonderland Railroad… All on the move; bringing guests out into the wild and unknown of days gone by. Safely inside the berm, in what only a few years before had been untamed orange groves.
After World War II, Americans looked to pop culture for distraction. And they found it in the West, with tales of the wide open spaces, with clearly defined heroes and villains. White hats versus black hats took up where Americans versus Nazi’s or Jap’s had been all too real. Stories where the good guy triumphed, rode off into the sunset, with or without the girl, searching for a place to settle down and call home. These were the tonic plenty of folks could see their way to enjoy.
Things changed when the space race began. In the era of mutually assured destruction by Cold War enemies via long range missiles and bombers, stories changed there setting from the Wild West to outer space. The good guys may not have worn white hats and space monsters replaced the bad guys in the black hats. Ray guns replaced six-shooter pistols, but the stories still told of a wide open galaxy, where there was always treasure waiting to be discovered on the next planet along the Milky Way.
While Frontierland may have lost some of it’s allure to guests as pop culture changed, Disneyland did not change a great deal over the years along the Rivers of America. The Painted Desert gave way to Big Thunder Mountain as thrill rides became the rage at theme parks.
While some folks would like to give George Lucas credit for changing the cinematic world by taking audiences to a galaxy, far, far way in the summer of 1977. But the story that came on screen was very similar to what was told in previous films such as “The Magnificent Seven“. Which it’s self, was a retelling of the Japanese film, “Seven Samurai“. People searching for redemption in their own way, became unlikely heroes, doing what was best for the greater good.
With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” bringing audiences back to theaters and with the Disney company acquisition of Lucasfilm (and it’s empire of intellectual properties), changing a good part of Frontierland into a Star Wars land in Anaheim is somewhat a no-brainer. Sure, Disney needs to come up with something to match Universal’s Harry Potter additions in both Florida and California. Taking guests on that journey to a part of the galaxy, far, far away is just the thing to capitalize on audience love of the film franchise.
I won’t spin up the crystal ball for a look ahead, but rather offer a glimpse back today. Into the era when the wide open spaces and adventure ahead was the wild, wild West. Where bad guys and Indians waited to trap the unsuspecting settlers, coming in search of better than what they left behind.
While some of us may still have our coon skin caps at the ready, more are ready for “lightspeed to Endor” as Captain Rex, used to say. Maybe we can still make the trip to join them and take another spin around the Rivers of America in the same visit.
See you out there on the trail…