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 turning up in various pockets of pop-culture (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... on paper, this sounds like it has all the elements of the anticipated Star Tours attraction. Time Voyager may very well offer a glimpse 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 the attraction on our 1986 Summer vacation.


Now, I had a real hard time finding anything about Time Voyager on the web, outside of mentions in archived travel magazines. No personal memories posted by riders, no vintage vacation photos, no discussions about the history of the ride on fan sites... 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 titled 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?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Dynamite 3-D Poster Book (1979, Neal Adams, Scholastic Book Services)

In grade school, I was a regular patron of the Scholastic Book Club, the children's reading program that let kids order books and records from a catalog once a month and have them delivered right to their classroom.

If receiving a copy of Norman Bridwell's How To Care for Your Monster, or C.B. Colby's Strangely Enough in front of all your envious classmates wasn't incentive enough to place an order, there was sometimes a special offer for a free poster as a bonus. Admittedly these were usually lame "cute animal" posters... kittens clustered in tall grass or a droopy bloodhound wearing reading glasses, the kind of thing you might glimpse on the wall of one of the Bradford children on an episode of Eight is Enough.


But on one occasion there was a truly magnificent piece of art offered with your book order... a huge illustration of Dracula, standing in a graveyard against a full moon and a sky swarming with bats. And better still... it was in 3-D!

Now, the item below IS NOT the same image. I've yet to track down the exact poster that loomed over my bed throughout my formative years only to mysteriously disappear in the wormhole connected to my parent's garage. But after laying eyes on this beauty, I'm convinced they were both by the same artist.


This specimen comes from the 1979 Dynamite 3-D Poster Book (which would place it around the same time I remember acquiring my poster), and wouldn't you know it, this is a Scholastic Book Services offering too! (Dynamite was a celebrity-focused kids magazine, published by Scholastic, Inc. beginning in 1974. Like People Magazine for the swing-set set.)


The artist is Neal Adams, who has wielded a pen for both Marvel and DC at various points throughout his comic drawing career, which began in the so-called Silver Age and continues today, drawing both superheroes (Batman, X-Men, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, et al) and monsters, sometimes for illustrated children's records like A Story of Dracula, The Wolfman and Frankenstein (Power Records, 1975).


The Dynamite 3-D Poster Book contains six posters by Adams (The Werewolf, The Horse aka "Run Free", The Vampire, Skateboard!, Clown aka "Look Out!", and The Sorcerer), which fold out to a size of approximately 16" x 22", a pair of cardboard red and blue anaglyph glasses, and a brief article about the history of 3-D (emphasizing its success as a 1950's movie fad, although the 1960 non-3-D William Castle film 13 Ghosts gets an honorable mention.)


These posters are really gorgeous... break out the 3D glasses and enjoy!


On a related note... does anyone happen to have a copy of this little poster visible on the wall of Nicholas Bradford's bedroom? I recognize it as one of a series of funny-caption posters that were about half-page in size and printed on cardstock, this one a baby orangutan caught in mid-screech, with the cartoon bubble reading "How Come I Always Have to Take Out the Garbage?" (or comparable hilarious sentiment.) The one directly above that is another in the same series, a baby with the caption "Bald is Beautiful".

Oh dear, I have to sit down before I collapse in a heap of mirth. Anyone have images of these things?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fourth of July, 1972

Read about Fourth of July, 1963 here.
Read about Fourth of July, 1976 here.
Read about Fourth of July in classic animated specials and cartoons here.

It's July 4th, 1972, and Jason Crockett (Ray Milland, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Escape To Witch Mountain) is throwing his annual family celebration on his private island estate in the swamplands of Eden Gardens, Florida. But it's not just America's birthday, as Jason and several of his family members have birthdays in July as well. So this is a combined celebration!


There will be fireworks, games, water sports and cake.

But something is different this year. There are frogs everywhere. You can't take a step on Crockett's carefully manicured lawn without scattering a few. Of course, being located in a Florida swamp, that's not terribly unexpected. But there seems to be more than usual this year, and they are... hopping mad!

The movie is Frogs (1972, AIP). Despite sensational promises made on the one-sheet and trailer, these are not giant-sized frogs that can swallow an entire human being. They are just normal-sized, the biggest ones not much larger than a man's fist.


They aren't mutant frogs, either. There's a clear conservation theme running through the film (the tag line from the trailer is "Suppose nature gave a war...") right from the opening titles, in which Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, The Legacy), a photographer for an ecology magazine, is documenting the effects of pollution on the lake. Later we'll hear about environmental issues with Mr. Crockett's paper mill, and see him contaminating his own estate with the overzealous use of pesticides. But there's never any indication these chemicals have triggered scary genetic changes in the frogs.


The frogs don't bite. In the real world, some species of frog are known to bite humans when handled aggressively. But these frogs are picked up repeatedly, sometimes by children, and never curl a lip.

There are several deaths, but none caused by the frogs. One partygoer is mangled by an alligator while wading through swampland. Another surrenders to a dozen web-spraying tarantulas after injuring his leg. In one horrifying death scene (an outtake found only in the trailer and not the film itself) an elderly women sinks in quicksand.


Snapping turtles, snakes, centipedes, leeches, crabs, birds, and reptiles of every stripe and scale join the assault at some point. The only animal that doesn't directly cause a single death are... the frogs!


So what do these frogs do, exactly?

They teem.

That's right. Teem. Swarm. Swell. Amass.


They are not a physical threat, really. Their presence is, instead, a harbinger... a warning that if you are arrogant enough to build a palatial house in the middle of the wild, the wild is not going to respect your "no trespassing" sign. That the border of your estate is not going to be recognized, no matter how many adorable cherub statues are delineating it.


The frogs massing at your doorstep are a reminder that no matter how geographically isolated you are from the rest of the world, you can't pretend you are living on a 17th-century plantation, complete with black servants (Lance Taylor Sr., Blacula; and Mae Mercer, The Beguiled) in uniforms that wouldn't look out of place a hundred years ago.


This is 1972, and if the march of time doesn't make your once stately living room unlivable... the march of amphibians will.

Happy Fourth of July!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Unsettling Simpsons

My name is Brother Bill and I am a Simpsons fan.

I can spout Simpsons quotes off the top of my head the way a revival tent minister can quote the Good Book (and with comparable fervor!) Sure, the show has had its ups and downs--its salad days and dry patches--and the occasional unwatchable episode, but I just can't stay mad at The Simpsons. It gives so much and asks so little in return.

The Simpsons is one of the rare (maybe only? Roesanne is perhaps another) television series to truly embrace the concept of the Halloween special. And while there have been several Christmas-themed episodes, and the occasional story set around Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, or Valentine's Day, only Halloween gets the blood-red carpet rolled out for it every year, consistently and thoroughly.

Titled "Treehouse of Horror" (the debut Halloween episode, first broadcast Oct. 25, 1990, was framed as a trilogy of ghost stories being told in Bart's treehouse, and the name stuck) these non-canon episodes reimagine the first family of Springfield in a wide variety of fantastic scenarios, evoking horror films (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Amityville Horror, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nightmare on Elm Street), science fiction (Fantastic Voyage, Demon Seed, The Omega Man, The Fly) classic anthology television (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), fantasy fiction (Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe), and even Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Even relatively obscure horror radio drama Lights Out is referenced in one episode depicting a mist that turns people inside out.

Sometimes these episodes were actually set on Halloween, with The Simpsons telling ghost stories, throwing costume parties, or going trick-or-treating. The best "Treehouse" episodes captured the spirit of the season with macabre imagery and situations while still retaining the classic Simpsons humor.


But the series did not save all its "scary" content for the Treehouse episodes. Several non-Halloween episodes dealt with spooky subject matter (relatively speaking--it is a sit-com, after all).

"The Springfield Files" (S8,E10), an X-Files themed episode, follows Homer's nightly close encounter with a glowing, supernatural presence lurking in the woods. Contributing to the suspenseful atmosphere is the spine-tingling staccato of Bernard Herrmann-esque strings that, in a truly surreal spectacle, are coming from live symphony musicians riding together on a bus.


Bart carelessly sells his soul (symbolically represented by his autograph on church stationary) to Milhouse, and soon regrets it, in "Bart Sells His Soul" (S7,E4), a genuinely uneasy episode that manages to tap into real anxiety about loss of agency and regret. You can feel the existential desperation as Bart first begs for, then tries to take by force, a replacement soul from a frightened Ralph.


A stage hypnotist using Homer as his subject accidentally unlocks repressed childhood horrors in "The Blunder Years" (S13,E5), sending him into a days-long seizure of non-stop shrieking that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. Peer counseling (and some "Yaqui memory tea") eventually help Homer come to terms with a long forgotten incident involving a drowned corpse in a canal.


Sometimes isolated spooky elements would creep their way into otherwise non-scary storylines. "Lisa's First Word" (S4,E10), for example, is a funny flashback episode in which a toddler-aged Bart adjusts to the arrival of his new baby sister, Lisa. But when Homer tries to entice Bart to vacate the crib by building a homemade clown bed, the results are accidentally horrifying...


...even at a distance!


It's Lisa who is afraid to go to bed in "The Girl Who Slept Too Little" (S17,E2), after a cemetery is built next to the Simpson house, casting nightmarish shadows through her bedroom window.


In "The Ziff Who Came To Dinner" (S15,E14), Homer thoughtlessly takes the kids to R-rated horror film The Redeadening when the family-friendly cartoon they hoped to see is sold out. The children cower in their theater seats as the story of murderous possessed doll 'Baby Button Eyes' unfolds.


Sometimes these moments were not scary in a traditional sense, but were funny or weird or strange in vaguely unsettling ways.

Like this uncomfortable moment when the barber, who Bart has been working for part-time, tries to pay him with an envelope of hair, grinning vacantly as a frightened Bart backs out of the store ("Lisa the Tree Hugger", S12,E4).

In "Secrets of a Successful Marriage" (S5,E22), a fight with Marge finds Homer evicted from the house and forced to live in Bart's treehouse. Lisa pays him a visit only to find her disheveled father fashioning a substitute Marge out of a shrub. "You will respect your new mother. Now kiss her!" he insists, while shoving the effigy in Lisa's face.


Homer and Mr. Burns get a severe case of cabin-fever after becoming snowed in during a team building exercise in "Mountain of Madness" (S8,E12). Hungry and freezing, they build snowmen to pass the time. But their complete disconnection from reality comes to the fore when they decide to dress the snowmen in their own clothes, a portrait of madness as they stand shivering before their creation.


In "Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade" (S14,E3), Bart becomes so addicted to their new satellite TV that he can't concentrate at school. He hallucinates a giant TV remote while his schoolmates turn into various TV characters, including a clown (not Krusty, ironically) who informs him in a matter of fact voice that will send chills down your spine, "It's finally happened, Bart. You've lost your mind."


In another example of disturbing hallucinations, Homer imagines himself becoming wealthy through pearl diving ("Saddlesore Galactica", S11,E13), waking up in a pearl-encrusted house from a pearl-encrusted bed, being served by a pearl butler who pours him a bowl of pearls for breakfast. But even in this fairy-tale fantasy, the spoonful of pearls shatters all his teeth, causing Homer to laugh like a mad man while staring at his gaping mouth in a pearl-encrusted mirror.


In "I'm Going To Praiseland" (S12,E19), Ned Flanders builds a Bible-themed amusement park to honor the memory of his recently passed wife, Maude. The tribute takes a turn for the creepy when Ned dons a souvenir Maude mask and mimics her voice.


In that same episode, we find out Ned has been preserving the indentation of Maude's body in the bed sheets.


In "Homer vs. Dignity" (S12,E5), Mr. Burns declares war on the town of Springfield, enlisting Homer in a series of cruel and disgusting pranks, which culminate in Burns posing as Santa Claus for the Christmas parade so he can throw buckets of fish guts on the unsuspecting children gathered to see him. The deliberate spoiling with liquid viscera of what should have been a beautiful moment had me flashbacking to Carrie White's prom.


Finally, this vignette from "Colonel Homer" (S3,E20) plays like a ghost story of sorts. Homer is on a long road trip and passes a restaurant sign, "Flaming Pete's; 75 Miles". The sign entices him and he clearly looks forward to arriving there.


A while later, a second road sign, "Flaming Pete's; 30 Miles". Homer is too tired from driving to react this time.


A third sign: "Flaming Pete's; Next Exit!" Homer perks up with excitement. Flaming Pete has been beckoning to him all night and they are finally going to rendezvous.


But there is no Flaming Pete's. Flaming Pete burned down years ago, on a night just like this one. Not sure who you think you saw waving to you out there on the road, but it couldn't have been Flaming Pete.


(Yea, yea yea---I understand the actual punch-line is that a restaurant with "flaming" in its name literally went up in smoke. But I tell you, there's a ghost story buried in there!)