Friday, September 7, 2018

The Battle of Billy’s Pond (1976, Children’s Film Foundation)

Dead fish are popping up at the local fishing hole and grade schoolers Billy and Gobby are determined to find out why in “The Battle of Billy’s Pond” (1976), a Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) production I happened upon during “TV time” at my pre-school daycare in 1977.

The non-profit CFF produced hour-long children’s films for British television that would turn up on American PBS to fill time slots between regularly scheduled programs like Big Blue Marble, Powerhouse, Villa Alegre or Gettin' To Know Me (how’s that for name-dropping?)

Some of the more fantastic CFF films, such as “The Boy Who Turned Yellow” (1972), “The Glitterball” (1977) and “Sammy’s Super T-Shirt” (1978) have gone on to become cult favorites.

But “The Battle of Billy’s Pond”, based on an original story by Michael Abrams (hey, Battletruck!) and later adapted for novelization by Howard Thompson, is grounded in reality, presenting a still topical ecological message wrapped in an entertaining children’s mystery-adventure.

One element that really impressed me upon first viewing was that protagonists Billy and Gobby (a few years older than me at the time) enjoyed a freedom of movement I could only envy, roaming suburbia and its wooded rural surroundings (the film was shot entirely on location in Hertfordshire, England) on their bikes, completely unsupervised.

They were smart kids too, devising intelligent methods informed by science to solve their mystery, which begins when Billy (Ben Buckton), peering through the periscope of his gadget-loving friend Gobby (Andrew Ashby) discovers one dead fish floating below the surface of the pond he’s named after himself.

They bring the specimen home for dissection (because science!) but Billy’s cat has other ideas, snatching the fish away in its jaws. The cat is later found sick. Veterinarian’s diagnosis: chemical poisoning (don’t worry, it’s not that kind of movie… kitty makes a full recovery).

Suspecting someone is dumping chemicals at Billy’s Pond, they set up a network of cameras on trip-wires to capture the polluters at the scene.

Meanwhile, a mysterious tanker truck has been seen rolling through town, threatening to run the kids off the road on several occasions. The truck is filmed at angles obscuring the driver, emphasizing the size and noise of the mechanical monster in a way that reminds me of Spielberg’s “Duel”.

When the boys’ tripwire cameras fail to capture anything useful even though the number of dead fish are increasing, they wonder if the chemicals are being dumped somewhere upstream. But where? I’ve mentioned before, most mysteries are solved through diligent research, not traipsing around haunted houses, and this one is no different. To the library!

A geologic map of the area leads them to an underground stream passing through a nearby abandoned quarry, where they find the menacing tanker parked and being drained by men in protective biohazard suits. Case closed? Not quite. They still need to connect the quarry to the pond.

Gobby’s clever solution is to pour colored dye into the underground stream. Searching for the connecting pipeline, the kids explore a spooky maze of decrepit tunnels that evokes a haunted house (okay, so there is a little traipsing!) The scene becomes an action sequence when the chamber they are in suddenly floods with black polluted water and they must scramble to safety.

Days later, a cloud of Gobby’s green dye appears in the pond, proving connection to the quarry. But until the tanker can be positively identified, the police are reluctant to launch an investigation, especially one that might implicate prominent local chemical factory Con-Chem, manufacturer of “organic” Brezee laundry soap, whose utopian ads of children in white pajamas skipping through green pastures have been playing endlessly on television.

Armed with the latest in portable video technology (it only takes two people to carry!) and posing as student journalists, they blend in with a Con-Chem tour group. The sight of these kids bluffing entry right into Con-Chem headquarters inspired me to hatch a similar plan to con my way into the nearby movie theater, posing as a newspaper reporter or the like, to sneak a free showing of Pete’s Dragon (that plan, unfortunately, fizzled when I couldn’t find a convincing disguise, and also because I was too chicken to ever actually go through with it.)

On the tour, they spot the tanker-men and capture video of them arguing about money, but nothing incriminating enough to take to the police.

Determined to get hard evidence once and for all, they follow the tanker back to the quarry, only to be recognized by the men. One attempted kidnapping-turned-nail-biting foot-chase later, the police finally arrive just in time (the 49-minute mark!) to wrap everything up.

It’s never made clear just how deep the Con-Chem dumping scheme goes (were the tanker-men acting alone or just following orders?) but we won’t let that spoil our happy ending. A montage over the end credits shows local heroes Billy and Gobby posing for media photographers while the pond is dredged and restocked with healthy fishes.

I just love “The Battle of Billy’s Pond”.

Some CFF films from that era have been released to DVD (in PAL formatted discs that won’t work in American players), with “...Billy’s Pond” appearing on a 9-film, 3-disc set.

These screen caps came from YouTube.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Monticello Clown Puppet Murders of 1980 (The Edge of Night)

The year I began fourth grade, I found myself unwittingly entangled in the horrific drama of the Monticello Clown Puppet Murders of 1980. This was a side-effect of two big changes happening to me that year.

The first was my parents deciding I was old enough to stop attending daycare before and after school (Mom and Dad both worked, I'd been in daycare since kindergarten). Now I would carry a house key and walk to and from school on my own, hopefully avoiding Stranger Danger on my way home to an empty house.

I had officially become a latch-key kid.

Second, my grade school switched to "double-sessions". The neighborhood was growing and there were too many kids for our one school to handle. So as a temporary measure while a new school was being built, they split the day into two sessions, with half the student body attending 7:00-11:30 and the other half 11:30-3:00.

I landed the much coveted 2nd session, which meant I got to sleep in every day, rolling into school just in time for lunch.

It also meant I was home alone for several hours each morning before school started. For the first time, I had unsupervised access to the TV, and a whole new realm of programming became available for me to explore: day-time television!

It was only a couple months into the school year when my exploratory channel flipping landed me on something I hadn't seen before: The Edge of Night. The title caught my attention, sounding vaguely suspenseful, possibly supernatural.

Looks edgy!

The reality is, The Edge of Night was just one of a dozen daily soap-operas with their doctors and lawyers and courtrooms and romances and convoluted plots that seemed to drag on forever without ever actually resolving.

But that October, 1980, I wandered into the beginning of an unusual, chilling plot-line.... the Monticello Clown Puppet Murders (Monticello is the fictional mid-western town where The Edge of Night is set).

Jody Travis (Lori Loughlin, Amityville 3D, The New Kids) is waitressing at a hip disco, The Unicorn, working for tips while avoiding the fingertips of her grabby, lecherous boss, Eliot Dorn (Lee Godart, Boardwalk Empire).

Also working at the club is Kelly Mcgrath (Allan Fawcett, Puttin' On The Hits, House of Cards), a puppeteer(!) who performs in a window near the dance floor. Kelly and Jody are friends who bond over mutual dislike for the boss.

Kelly is a nice enough guy, but there's something about his puppets that is vaguely off-putting in that Uncanny Valley-meets-Candle-Cove kind of way. This piano-player puppet isn't quite the stuff of nightmares, but it lives in the same neighborhood.

Later, after the club has closed and Jody is alone cleaning tables, a fox puppet appears in the window, seeming to watch her while she works.

Assuming Kelly is operating the puppet, Jody engages in some friendly banter, which takes a sudden lurid turn when the fox inappropriately suggests he'd like to join her in bed, and then offers to share a bottle of champagne in the office. The storybook scenario of a sinister woodland creature trying to lure a young girl into temptation lends a Grimm's fairy tale motif to the scene.

Offended by the offer, Jody tries to leave, and we discover the puppeteer is actually the loathsome Eliot Dorn, who proceeds to force himself on her.

Later that evening, Eliot is at the bar alone when a small clown doll quietly rises into the stage window, appearing to watch him.

The clown then grasps a knife between its little puppet hands, brandishing it in the light while Eliot is completely oblivious.

A few skin-crawling moments later, Eliot falls to the ground, a knife protruding from his back.

Later we'll see the bloodied clown puppet being hidden in a drawer, placed there by unknown hands.

To a kid home alone for the first time, this was terrifying stuff!

There was at least one other victim in the Clown Puppet Murders plot-line, which ran from roughly October 1980 to early January 1981. Of course Kelly, the club puppeteer who hated Eliot, was the most obvious suspect (and equally obvious, he's being framed by the real killer, although I can't recall who this was eventually revealed to be.)

The puppets were operated by Larry Engler, a professional puppeteer who still performs as Poko Puppets, and authored the kids book Making Puppets Come Alive (1973), which earned mention on the Awful Library Books site (or should that be... Awfully Cool Library Books?)

Clips from some of the Clown Puppet episodes have found their way to YouTube, and I've queued up a few choice scenes at the links below:

(The Piano Player Puppet)
(The Fox Puppet)
(Clown Puppet Murder)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Lonely, Lonely" Spooky Stories (1978, Pickwick Records cereal box record)

UPDATED 11/6/2017: See bottom of post

For a few days in the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, I ran a detective agency with my friend who lived three houses down, Tiffany. We worked out of her backyard playhouse, and our biggest case (in fact, our only case) was The Mystery of the Hidden Treasure at the Empty House That Was For Sale Two Blocks Over.

The big twist in the "hidden treasure" case was that there was no treasure. More accurately, we left the case unsolved after a neighbor threatened to call the police if we kept letting ourselves into the backyard (a later attempt to return to the scene disguised as prospective buyers fooled no one.)

(image source)

So our little detective agency was forced to close its doors, ruining summer for about 5 minutes.

But Tiffany had more going for her than just a backyard playhouse... like an appreciation for ghost stories and spooky Halloween records. Sounds to Make You Shiver and The Story and Song From The Haunted Mansion were prized albums from my collection that were constantly playing in the background at my house. But one day Tiffany showed up with a record that I could never find a copy of myself, and so naturally coveted: Spooky Stories (1978, Pickwick Records), a "cereal box" record, meaning it was pressed to a very thin layer of plastic attached to a piece of cardboard (in this case, to the back of a box of Post Honeycomb or Alpha-Bits cereal).

As was the tradition with these types of records, there were multiple stories available, and it was luck of the draw which one you ended up with. Tiffany's copy contained a story I call "Lonely, Lonely" (I don't remember the actual title being credited anywhere on the record), a variation on the "Dark, Dark" type spooky story where the listener is lulled into a comforting rhythm by slowly repeated phrases, only to be startled at the end by a suddenly loud climax.

Transcript of the story below the video embed.

Lonely, Lonely
Along this lonely, lonely road,
Was this lonely, lonely hill.
Along this lonely, lonely hill
Stood this lonely, lonely house.
And inside that lonely, lonely house,
Was this creaking, squeaking stair.
At the top of the creaking, squeaking stair,
Was this long, long hallway.
And down that long, long hallway,
Was this flapping, clapping trapdoor.
And above that flapping, clapping trapdoor
Was this crying, sighing attic.
And in that crying, sighing attic
Was this shadowy, shadowy corner.
And in that shadowy, shadow corner
Was this big, old chest.
And inside that big, old chest...

UPDATE: The background music used here appears to be "borrowed" from Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" (queued to around the 15:50 mark in the embedded video below). It also sounds awfully similar to the 1977 Star Wars soundtrack by John Williams, cut no. 4, "The Desert and Robot Auction" (retitled "The Dune Sea of Tatooine/Jawa Sandcrawler" on later editions of the soundtrack). Take a listen--what do you think? Credit to reader TheLibrarySound for recognizing the Star Wars track similarity!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Introducing the SKULLastic Book Club

The Haunted Closet blog started with a book... Baleful Beasts and Eerie Creatures, and over the years several of my favorite out-of-print-good-luck-finding-a-copy-on-Ebay selections have since followed.

But for some time I've been meaning to do a post on newly published books that have found their way into my library. In fact, I've been "meaning to" for so long, some of these "new" books are several years old already (sad foghorn). But that's only a few minutes in Haunted Closet years. The important thing is these titles are relatively new releases that are still in print, so should be readily available to order.

And since I can't seem to mention ordering books without flashing back to my elementary school Scholastic Book Club, I'm presenting this month's selections as they might appear in a children's book club catalog.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the first installment of... the SKULLastic Book Club (ooh boy, am I good or what?)

Paperbacks from Hell (Grady Hendrix with Will Errickson, 2017)

One category of horror media on which I'm embarrassingly unversed is the "drugstore paperback", those provocatively-titled tomes whose covers used to proposition me, in all their full-color embossed glory, from across the 10-items-or-less checkout line. In fact, outside a few Stephen King titles, only one book of this pedigree every successfully completed the passage from carousel rack to shopping cart: Rick Hautala's Night Stone (1986)-- and that was only because the nifty 3-D skull hologram on the cover commanded me to buy it.

That hologram cover gimmick was, it turns out, an industry-first, according to Paperbacks From Hell (Grady Hendrix, 2017). In fact, there are so many nuggets of information about 70s and 80s horror fiction crammed between its pages that I can confidently fake some level of expertise on the topic the next time it comes up at the office happy hour that I never go to.

Paperbacks... kicks off with an origin story of the horror fiction phenomenon's humble beginnings as an attempt to capitalize on the lingering popularity of older gothic romance novels, before launching into plot summaries, author and artist profiles, and musings on how political and cultural shifts of the day were reflected in their lurid pages (from haunted-house-as-housing-crisis-metaphor to pagan-cult-as-urban-decay-anxiety). The chapters are divided by plot device, with Satan worship, murderous children, mutant animals and more getting their turn in the spotlight.

But Paperbacks... also functions as an art book, with full-color illustrated covers reproduced on every page. Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction provides a recommended reading strategy in the afterword.

Are You in the House Alone? (Amanda Reyes, 2017)

Are You In The House Alone is a love letter to that most unusual hybrid, the television movie. You'll find here essays on the medium from various contributors (editor is Amanda Reyes, of Made For TV Mayhem) but the meat of this book is the over 200 pages of micro-reviews, organized by era (the years 1964-1999 are covered), with a separate section reserved for Stephen King adaptations.

Being a killjoy, I naturally skipped right to the index first to see if they remembered to include my pet obscure TV movie, 1985's Final Jeopardy. They didn't. But I'm not going to complain about getting only one puppy for Christmas, because literally all my other favorite TV films get coverage here, including King adaptations Salem's Lot and It, true crime dramatizations Helter Skelter, The Legend of Lizzie Bordon and Guyana Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story, disturbing creepers Bad Ronald and Born Innocent, supernatural thrillers Baffled!, Don't Go To Sleep, Dark Night of the Scarecrow and This House Possessed, monster movies The Bermuda Depths, Gargoyles, Killdozer, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, The Last Dinosaur and Snowbeast, Satanic scare films Devil Dog: Hound of Hell, The Initiation of Sarah, Horror at 37,000 Feet and Satan's School For Girls, early Spielberg works Something Evil and Duel, slasheresques Home For The Holidays and John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me, the Kolchak series predecessors The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, and Dan Curtis anthologies Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night.

And for every one of those, there are a dozen entries for films that were completely unknown to me and have now been added to my ridiculously ambitious "watch list". This is a book you'll read at least once for pleasure, and then want to keep at hand for reference.

Art of Atari (Tim Lapetino, 2016)

This is how art books should be done. A heavy hardback with beautiful full color layouts on every thick glossy page, this magnificent brick of a book showcases the promotional and package art that launched a thousand ROM cartridges in the 1970s and 80s.

Early home video game graphics were often simplistic and crude thanks to the hardware limitations of the era, so the packaging art was not merely a marketing tool, but served as an extension of the game playing experience itself, priming the players' imagination with rich renderings of the characters and environments they would encounter as a mere grid of cubes on their TV screens.

Consoles, peripherals, and unreleased hardware prototypes are also presented here for your aesthetic consideration. But Art of Atari is not a mere picture book. The history of the Atari company is told here, one cartridge box at a time, along with artist bios, and peppered throughout with interesting bits of trivia (like the fact that the only reason a chess game was released for the Atari 2600, a system woefully inadequate for such a demanding piece of programming, was due to a threatened lawsuit prompted by the appearance of a chess piece graphic on the original system box art.)

Deep Dark Fears (Fran Krause, 2015)

I had not heard of Fran Krause or the website that inspired this kinda cute, kinda creepy book of comic strips depicting various phobias, anxieties and nightmares collected from his readers, but after reading Deep Dark Fears, I'm looking forward to the follow up volume. Some are funny, others resemble ghost stories or urban legends, and many tap into that collective Jungian swamp of shared nightmare tropes that have haunted us all at one time or another (teeth falling out, sudden nudity in public, etc.)

Monster Mash (Mark Voger, 2015)

Subtitled "The creepy kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972", Monster Mash opens with a forward by legendary horror host Zacherle, before diving head first into all aspects of the monster-kid phenomenon, with page after page of attractive, full-color magazine-style layouts. Topics range from the Universal monster dream team of Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf-Man, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, whose package film reissues in the 1950s captivated a new generation of young fans, to horror magazines Famous Monsters of Filmland and Creepy, novelty music (the Del-Aires appearance in "Horror at Party Beach" and Bobby "Boris" Pickett's eponymous hit), television shows (The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Outer Limits, Dark Shadows), Aurora plastic model kits, Mars Attacks trading cards, Ben Cooper Halloween masks, spooky Saturday morning cartoons (Scooby Doo, Milton the Monster, and The Flintstone's new neighbors The Gruesomes), hot-rod culture (Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Weird-Oh and Rat Fink characters), and more, more, MORE!

I should add that the photo of the author as a child dressed as Dark Shadows vampire Barnabas Collins is adorable.

Collecting for Dragon's Lair & Space Ace (Syd Bolton, 2013)

I've previously expressed my love for the Don Bluth animated laserdisc games Dragon's Lair and Space Ace (you can add Dragon's Lair 2: Time Warp to that list as well, although having been released years later when video arcades were on the decline, it's the machine I've spent the least amount of time on).

To me, these games represented a cosmic merging of two great loves, video games and Disney animation (Bluth was a former Disney animator who left to form his own studio in the early 80s due to concerns about quality standards at the house of mouse).

Collecting Dragon's Lair & Space Ace catalogs every arcade cabinet variation, home system adaptation, promotional item, magazine cover and toy relating to Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. Save a few very rare items, everything is pictured in full color photographs. Most fascinating to me are the early computer adaptations that employed considerable artistic license in interpreting the unique motion-picture style game play on puny 8-bit and 16-bit systems that still relied on magnetic media (it wasn't until the early 90s, when CD-ROM technology started to become commonplace, that the home versions actually began to resemble their arcade inspiration.)

There are also sections briefly covering Don Bluth's feature animation work, references to the laserdisc games in pop-culture, and unofficial emulations and fan-made homage.

This book runs a little pricey but is a must have for any Don Bluth fan.

Rack Toys: Cheap, Crazed Playthings (Brian Heller, 2012)

There are plenty of books out there for toy collectors, but this is the only one focusing on those inexpensive, poorly-made pieces of junk that were found exclusively in what passed for the toy department at your neighborhood grocery store, pharmacy or gas station.

Rack Toys (by Brian Heller, of Plaid Stallions) is a celebration of those wonderful blister-packed bits of molded rubber and plastic from the 1970s and 80s that never seemed to turn down a branding opportunity, no matter how outlandish. It's almost as if the head of marketing picked a random licensed property from one hat and a toy from the other and demanded his staff to "make it work."

But you'll be too charmed by the full color photographs of these toys and their packaging to question the logic of a Popeye grooming kit, Rocky Balboa bubble-blowing set, Space 1999 water gun, Star Trek silly putty, Planet of the Apes stunt motorcycle, Spider Man bowling game, or parachuting Incredible Hulk doll.

There's even a chapter reserved for "knock off" toys that couldn't quite land the licensing agreement so just cranked out generic imitations (e.g. "Astro Ape", a doll clearly modeled after Planet of the Apes, and a "Star Fleet" space communicator that boldly goes where no officially licensed product has gone before.)

While still in print, I've found this book is sometimes unavailable at Amazon, so you might want to just go straight to the Plaid Stallions store instead.

Mail-Order Mysteries (Kirk Demarais, 2011)

In third grade, some friends and I conspired to order a set of pellet guns we saw advertised in the pages of a comic book. Really fires! 50 pellets included! Realistic gun action and sound! Convinced our parents wouldn't approve of us receiving dangerous firearms in the mail, we swore an oath of secrecy as we made an on-foot pilgrimage to the corner 7-11 to buy a money order (even at that young age we knew not to send cash in the mail!) and arranged to have the weapons delivered to a drop-house (i.e. a friend whose parents weren't as attentive as ours and less likely to intercept the package.)

Six to eight weeks later we took delivery of three plastic "old West" looking six-shooters and 150 white pellets that resembled Tic-Tacs. These were not the deadly pump-powered air guns we were hoping for. They were, in fact, rubber-band "powered", and if you took careful aim and held the gun level, the plastic Tic-Tac would skim out the end of the barrel with all the force of a finger flick.

It wasn't quite Stand By Me, but a little innocence was lost in that amusing episode from childhood, and it taught me to be skeptical of any deal that seemed too good to true.

Mail-Order Mysteries (by Kirk Demarais of Secret Fun Spot) compiles all those sensational over-promise, under-deliver comic book ads I remember from my youth, which walked that razor-thin line between hyperbole and straight-up mail fraud. They are all here: X-Ray specs, hypno-coins, 100 Toy Soldiers footlockers, "Monster-Sized" monsters and remote control ghosts, dollar-bill printers, secret agent spy scopes and Sea Monkeys.

If that was all there was, the book would warrant purchase. But Mail-Order Mysteries ups its game considerably by also presenting the actual items themselves alongside their respective ads, accompanied by the author's humorous color commentary (on the plastic soldier 'flat' figurines, Demarais observes they "lacked one of the three dimensions we typically look for in a toy.")

If you've ever wondered what exactly those "X-ray specs" were all about, or how they could possibly ship to your home a working nuclear submarine "big enough for two kids" for $6.98, this is a peek behind that curtain.

Special Offer! Order any 3 books and receive a free poster!

(book club order form graphics and poster were found at Branded In the 80s. Set aside a few days and take a look.)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Waiting for Star Tours (Time Voyager, 1986)

1985 was a long, long time ago...

It was a dark time for Star Wars fandom. The original trilogy had completed two years earlier, with no realistic prospect of new films on the twin-starred horizon. Fans desperate for new Star Wars content had to settle for made-for-TV kiddie fare like the Ewok movies (1984's The Ewok Adventure, and its next-year follow up, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor), and cutesy Saturday morning cartoon The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour. Print media spin-off material like the daily newspaper comic strip had ceased publication in March '84, although the Marvel comic book series trudged along for another year before finally wrapping it up in May 1986 after a 107-issue run.

There hadn't been a new Star Wars novel since 1983's Lando Calrissian adventures, and the Timothy Zahn books that would kick-start a new wave of Skywalker fiction wouldn't launch until the 1990's. Immersive Star Wars videogames as we know them today were not yet a thing, and the first role-playing game to tap the Star Wars universe was still two years away (West End Games' Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game book, published in Oct. 87.)

Star Wars, it seemed, was winding down.

Geeks had to work a little harder in those dark times before The Internet to stay in the loop with their favorite fantasy franchises. That sometimes meant ponying up real money for dues membership to fan organizations like The Official Star Wars Fan Club, which remained active through the 1980s. The club's printed newsletter, Bantha Tracks, was still published quarterly, although the focus had turned to other Lucas-related ventures like the Indiana Jones series, Labyrinth, and Howard the Duck, while Star Wars-related content was relegated to the occasional backwards-looking retrospective piece (the club would eventually transform into the more appropriately named Lucasfilm Fan Club in 1987.)

So the good news couldn't have come sooner when it was announced in the Winter 1985 issue (Bantha Tracks No. 27) that Lucasfilm would be collaborating with Disney Imagineers to develop a Star Wars theme park attraction!

Turns out Star Wars was alive, and in perfect hibernation!

The prospect of my two favorite childhood things--Disneyland and Star Wars--finally coming together, was too good to be true. My imagination was ignited with fantastic visions of Disneyland someday devoting an entire land to Star Wars, or maybe even partnering with Lucasfilm to release a slate of new Star Wars films.

But those were just pipedreams.

Naturally, I devoured whatever information I could find about this mysterious new Star Wars ride while it was in development. It was to be called Star Tours, and would use cutting edge flight simulator technology, in which a tilting theater and other interactive elements moved in synchronization with newly photographed special effects footage created by ILM, to send riders on a trip around the post-Return of the Jedi galaxy, made safe for tourism thanks to the defeat of the Empire.

The Bantha Tracks blurb teased a June 1986 opening date, which was later moved to January 1987. This seemed like a huge span of time to wait (much longer than the mere 6-8 weeks it took to receive my considerably less anticipated mail-in Kool-Aid Man videogame ...and in order to cope with that excruciating wait, I had thrown myself into a strange "Kool-Aid Man phase".)

How was I expected to bide my time until Star Tours opened?

Enter Time Voyager.

Opening Memorial Day, 1986, six months before Star Tours, Time Voyager was an "experience of astonishment and wonder" that took passengers on an "intergalactic time travel experience" that blended "special effects, advanced computer technology, three-dimensional imagery, and Dolby sound and motion in an interactive global theatre setting".

Time Voyager was commissioned by Wrather Port Properties, Ltd. as part of a campaign to reinvigorate the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose exhibits they managed in Long Beach, California. The attraction itself was designed by John F. Decuir, Jr., a special effects designer for film who had worked on Ghostbusters and Fright Night (his father, John Decuir, had done design work for Disneyland, Disney World, and EPCOT Center.)

Installed under the geodesic dome that housed Howard Hughes' H4-Hercules plane, Time Voyager consisted of a sixty-foot diameter, 100-seat carousel-style theater that rotated to face a circle-shaped movie screen (or "porthole"). Electronic tilting seats and in-theater laser effects promised an experience of flight through Earth's atmosphere and into space itself.

Additionally, riders could expect a "close encounter" with friendly aliens called Orbons, who lived in the colony of Orloxin, "known to Earthlings as Halley's Comet".

That a reference to Halley's Comet was worked into the ride narrative was a timely one in 1986, as the short-period comet was completing another 75-year circuit and was visible not only through astronomer's telescopes but in various pockets of pop-culture as well (the 1985 Claymation film The Adventure of Mark Twain depicted a fantastic attempt to visit Halley's Comet on a spaceship, while software publisher Mindscape had released an educational game, The Halley Project, for home computers.)

So we have intergalactic travel, aliens, a flight-simulator style motion theater, laser effects, "astonishment and wonder"... on paper, this sounds like it has all the elements of the anticipated Star Tours attraction. Time Voyager may very well offer a sneak preview into what to expect when Star Tours finally opened the following year, was my thinking, as I convinced my family to purchase tickets ($11.95 for adults, $7.95 for children) when we visited on our 1986 Summer vacation.

Now, I had a real hard time finding information about Time Voyager on the web, outside of promotional blurbs in archived travel magazines. No personal memories posted by riders or vintage vacation photos. No discussions about the history of the ride on fan sites, or virtual recreation videos. Even designer John Decuir Jr's on-line bios frequently omit it (the only mention I could find was at the bottom of his Attractions resume at his website, here.)

And I think I know why.

Time Voyage, it turns out, was very lame.

More disappointing than that awful Kool-Aid Man game!

First of all, the "porthole" screen was just too small. It didn't come anywhere close to filling your field of vision, so the intended immersive effect of a simulator was never achieved. It felt more like you were watching a large television screen than looking out a spaceship window.

Second, rather than the entire theater tilting to simulate the pitch and roll of flight, the theater remained stationary and only your seats moved, tilting jerkily left or right. This simply didn't work. The screen remained stationary as well, so you felt completely disconnected from the on-screen action while watching it from your uncomfortably tilted seat.

Finally, we have to talk about these Orbons. These were the friendly extra-terrestrials that we encounter as we pass Halley's Comet.

Too friendly.

The aliens looked like little bald gremlins, and appeared in person as a full-head costumed character. At some point in the ride, an Orbon would emerge from hiding and proceed to dance around and wave at the audience from the front of the theater.

The handicapped seating was also located towards the very front, putting any wheelchair-seated rider in uncomfortably close proximity to the Orbon's performance area. On my visit, the Orbon, perhaps conscious that a wheelchair rider was practically sharing the stage with him, kept hugging him, patting him on the head, and otherwise making the poor guy part of the show, whether he wanted to be or not. It was all a little cringey, even to this obnoxious teenager.

I have no idea how long Time Voyager lasted, but I did not find it mentioned in a Dec. 1988 blurb for the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose attraction, and it wouldn't surprise me if had closed sooner than that.

Later that day, while roaming around the Spruce Goose exhibit, I passed a mom and dad with a young boy of maybe six or seven, who was cheerfully singing to himself.

The words his sing-song voice was reciting were, "I hate Time Voyager." Ouch!

Anyone have memories of this short-lived, definitely-not-to-be-confused-with-Star-Tours attraction?