With the news that a Marvel themed land, replete with Spider-Man and Avengers attractions, will soon displace “A Bug’s Land” in Disney California Adventure (Disneyland’s kid-sister park next door), the comic book hero fans all gave a collective cheer. But the celebrations were mired by the unwelcome surprise that Disney had already shuttered A Bug’s Land’s anchor attraction, the immersive 4-D theater masterpiece “It’s Tough to be a Bug” just a few days before!
This came as a shock to some as Disney has lately made a big deal about closing attractions so that adoring fans can say their last goodbyes. After learning their lesson when they shut down “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and herds of superfans staged toad-themed sit ins, Disney has dutifully publicized attraction closures with plenty of time to give the adherents time to visit one more time (and buy the closure-related merchandise).
Beloved attractions like “Maelstrom” and “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” at Epcot, “The Great Movie Ride” at Disney Hollywood Studios, “Hollywood Tower of Terror” at DCA have all been given appropriate mourning periods. And most recently, the controversial redesign of the contested “Buy a Wench for a Bride” scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean” has fans lining up for one last look at the human-trafficking, er, classic animatronics scene. It’s even led to an entire cottage industry of “We wants the Red-Head” fan-made and official park merchandise – no matter how inappropriate the thought may be.
But I digress.
“It’s Tough To Be A Bug” Closed Forever
So when I saw that “It’s Tough to be a Bug” was dropped into the Extinct-Attractions barrel without a lick of fanfare, I felt a twinge of sadness. Guests will never get to see the attraction’s impressive queue with an ants-eye view, the creepy-crawly parody theater posters, and the cavernous theater themed like an insect’s Pantages Theater (an I say “Ant-ages?”).
But here’s the good news.
I was in the park last Tuesday enjoying the beauty of a rainy Disney day. As I passed by A Bug’s Land, I remembered some of the rumors of a Marvel Land coming in the future. So I decided I would get a jump on it and grab some pictures for posterity, including detailed photos of the “It’s Tough to be a Bug’s” queue and interior. Little did I know, I was capturing these photos for the ages.
So I invite you to shrink down with me and enjoy one last look at “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” and the rest of A Bug’s Land before it’s all gone forever.
The Story So Far: Tom Nabbe started his Disney career at the age of twelve shilling newspapers on Main Street in Disneyland. A year later, after bugging Walt Disney like only a twelve-year-old can do, he was hired to be the Tom in Tom Sawyer Island. Taking pictures, signing autographs, and baiting fishing lines with worms. (Read Part 1 of the interview HERE.)
But his story doesn’t stop there. In fact Tom Nabbe’s Disney career is one of the most enviable and storied in the history of the Walt Disney Company.
In this second part of Tom Nabbe’s story, we meet him as a teenager. He leaves Tom Sawyer Island and begins working Rides and Attractions throughout the park. After an unforeseen tragedy cuts his military career short, he ships off to Orlando to help open the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. After an incredible string of historic attraction openings (you won’t believe his list), Tom is called to serve on the opening crew of EPCOT Center.
As if that weren’t enough Tom was honored with a window on Main Street AND received the moniker of Disney Legend. “Legend” doesn’t begin to describe this journey.
As the interview continues, I slip in that I worked at the park for a while as a Jungle Cruise Skipper under Dick Nunis.
Tom Nabbe – Oh, okay. Well, I was a Jungle Cruise Operator back in winter ‘61/62 through ‘65 and then I left to go to the Marine Corps and then I came back. I worked, depending on what seniority bought me, I probably worked a few times on the Jungle Cruise in ‘68/‘69, and then I was promoted into management in 1970.
Freddy Martin – Wow! I did not know that about you. A fellow Skipper on the phone! That’s Fantastic. How long were you in rides and attractions
The 55 Club
T – Rides and attractions for 25 years, and the the last 22 years was in support and warehousing. So 47 years total the way the company counts it. But I count it 48, because they don’t give me credit for the year that I worked for the lessee (selling the Disneyland News in 1955).
F – But you have a paycheck stub somewhere that says 55 on it, right?
T – No. I have my original hire status from 1956. Does Ron Heminger mean anything to you?
Ron and myself always contested with Dick that we were both there in the beginning and that we should be members of the 55 club. And when Ron Heminger’s dad passed away… he was going through the paperwork. He found his hire status from 1955. So Ron Heminger, Myself, and a guy by the name of Marshall Spelzer (sp) that worked in decorating, all had the same hire date; June 18, 1956.
“He didn’t change my hire date, but he did recognize that I was an honorary member of the 55 Club.”
Dick had always told us that if we could prove we were there in ‘55 and worked for the company, he’d make us members of the 55 Club. So when Ron found his paperwork, Dick followed up on his promise and changed Ron’s status to whenever the date was on his paperwork was in July of ‘55, I believe. And at the same time he gave me credit to be a member of the 55 Club. He didn’t change my hire date, but he did recognize that I was an honorary member of the 55 Club.
The Battle of Pacific Coast Highway
F – Let’s transition into your career at Disney World, you already had a ton of roles and it sounds like you went off to serve in our country’s service for a while?
T – In ‘64, I got a letter from my other uncle, Uncle Sam. And Uncle Sam sent me this letter that he wanted me to participate in Vietnam. And I decided then, I’m sort of a John Wayne fan, if I was gonna go to Vietnam, I wanted to be best trained. And as far as I’m concerned that was being trained by the Marine Corps. So I went down and I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
And I enlisted on a 3-year hitch. And the reason I did that is because a 3-year hitch basically said I had no active reserve time. So it was 3 years active duty, 3 years inactive duty to satisfy the 6-year obligation. And the reason-being is the schedulers didn’t really like the “weekend warriors.”
“I always call it my “Battle at Pacific Coast Highway,” but the drunk hit me head on on Pacific Coast Highway and put me in Long Beach Hospital for 5 months. He tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed.”
If those people that signed up in the reserve or ended up getting drafted, they were “active reserve” (for) 2 years. So they had to play soldier one weekend a month and one week out of the summer. And I didn’t want that obligation. I just wanted to do my active duty time and the inactive reserve portion of it.
What I didn’t realize is that by signing up on that 3-year hitch, that I was in turn eligible for school. I scored extremely high in electronics. They decided to make an aviation radio repair man out of me. And the incentive to graduate from that was that if you failed being a radio repairman they made a radio operator out of you.
A radio operator’s life expectancy was just slightly longer than the first lieutenant of the platoon. So you didn’t want to be a radio operator. I graduated fourth in my class. And I ended up (with) orders for Da Nang.
And I guess someone up there was looking out for me… because I was hauling all my stuff back up to – my mother lived in Newport Beach – and I was hauling my stuff up to her apartment because I had orders to Da Nang. And a drunk hit me head on.
I always call it my “Battle at Pacific Coast Highway,” but the drunk hit me head on on Pacific Coast Highway and put me in Long Beach Hospital for 5 months. He tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed.
Then after that, I ended up getting mustered out on a medical. So I joined the Marine Corps in the height of the Vietnam War. I never got more than 82 miles from home, and I didn’t have to go to Vietnam.
F – What a story!
Joining The Florida Project
T – Then, when I came back I had dreams of grandeur going to Cal State Fullerton to become an electronical engineer. And I went to school on the G.I. Bill. Tried that for almost a year.
Right about that time frame they were interviewing people to come to Walt Disney World. And so I went through a round of interviews, getting promoted into management. I sort of realized I wasn’t going to be a fantastic electronical engineer, and what I really wanted to be was a rides and attractions supervisor. So I ended up taking a job offer.
I hadn’t been east of Phoenix, that I was aware of. My mother told me that we went to Chicago on a train one time, but I don’t remember that.
So, I ended up getting married in ‘68, while I was still in the Marine Corps to a lady – we worked together at Oaks Tavern (The Stage Door Café today) in Frontierland, and she was (also) working for the Anaheim School District. We ended up getting married and relocating to Florida, in January of 1971.
Monorails, Steam Trains, and Back to the Island
Two of the attractions I had never worked as a ride operator was the steam train and the monorail. And you probably know why, is they were operated by Retlaw. And in order to be a monorail operator you had to be six-foot tall, and I was never gonna be six-foot tall.
Pete Crimmings was my manager for years and one of my mentors. Pete was going to be the manager of the transportation system of Walt Disney World. And he wanted me to operate and run the Monorail system. So when I got back from the service and got promoted, I ended up getting trained on the Monorail and the Steam Trains by Retlaw. So I finally got to work those two attractions, which is sort of neat.
“Very few people on the east coast, and that’s why the New York World’s Fair (1964) was a gigantic testing ground to see how Disney attractions go over on the East Coast.”
F – You were there early on in Florida. What was it like to see Walt Disney’s Dream go to that next level? You’d been there at the beginning of the other park.
T – It was phenomenal. The people of Florida, if you look at the demographics of the people who were going to Disneyland during that time frame, only about 13 percent of the people came from east of the Mississippi. Very few people on the east coast, and that’s why the New York World’s Fair (1964) was a gigantic testing ground to see how Disney attractions go over on the East Coast.
And all the attractions at the fair were the most popular ones. So in turn, that’s how he ended up in Florida.
And Bob Matheison was the director at that time frame and Bob had run the Small World attraction at the New York world’s fair. And when he came back he was assigned to the Florida Project by Walt.
“So after opening the Monorail system, they decided that they were gonna build Tom Sawyer’s Island. I had a little expertise in that area…”
The neat thing of that was to see things in the conceptual stage and to actually see them constructed and to know that you’re going to operate them and actually transport guests, in whatever it was you were looking at; Monorails, Osceolas (the double-deck, side-paddle wheel, walking-beam steam boats that operated on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon, “The Ports-O-Call” & “Southern Seas”), Mark Twains, except it was the Admiral Fowler. That’s what the original boat was (called) on the Rivers of America.
So after opening the Monorail system, they decided that they were gonna build Tom Sawyer’s Island. I had a little expertise in that area, so I went from the transportation system operating the monorail to Frontierland/Liberty Square for the construction of the Richard F. Irvine, which was the second sternwheeler, and Tom Sawyer’s Island.
And we did the same thing there. We invited the winners of the Hannibal contest there to participate in the opening of the island, and that was in, I wanna say June of ‘73,
Spaceships, Submarines, and Wild Mine Train
T – And then right after that, I ended up going to Tomorrowland because they were gonna build Space Mountain, the Star Jets, WedWay, Carousel of Progress, and Space Mountains. So I got tagged as a sort of nuts and bolts project guy so in turn I would go to where we were gonna build something new, and then go through the training of the people, and then actually operate it after that.
Then after we opened Space Mountain the decision was to when we opened Walt Disney World, 20k, the submarine ride, the water for the submarine ride was pumped out of the aquifer into the submarine ride, and from there it went into the moat, and from the moat it went into the Jungle Cruise, and from the jungle cruise it went to the rivers of america and then from rivers of America, it went down the light boat channel into the seven seas lagoon.
All the art directors that came down here in the beginning would go to silver springs,
“…the divers every morning had to go down and scrub the portholes of the submarines and scrub the fish and scrub the mermaids…”
And were just amazed at the clarity of the water at silver springs, and so they decided that we would get the water out of the aquifer that they wouldn’t have to chlorinate it and filter it like they had to do at Disneyland at the subs.
But in turn that wasn’t a good decision because you weren’t moving the same quantity of water through the system that was coming out of silver springs. So it started getting algae built up. And so the divers every morning had to go down and scrub the portholes of the submarines and scrub the fish and scrub the mermaids, and so the decision was to enclose 20k, and go through an entire rehab, and update everything. And we had to close it and chlorinate it.
So I went to Fantasyland to oversee that project and retrain all the sub operators and we came back up.
And once we finished that, the next thing on the horizon was Big Thunder Mountain and so I went back to Frontierland/Liberty Square for the construction of Big Thunder Mountain.
And once we opened Big Thunder Mountain, the next thing on the horizon was Epcot.
Seeing Walt’s Dream Through
And so I was moved onto the project team for Epcot into PICO. PICO’s an acronym for Project installation coordination office. And Orlando Ferrante, the Vice President of WED, actually a football player with Dick and Ron Miller, and Tommy Walker back in the good old days.
Ferrante pretty much established P.I.C.O. when they built the New York World’s Fair. And had developed that whole process, and what it was to take the people out of the operating side of the business, to be involved in construction, and once the construction was over with to be involved in the training of the people to operate the new ride and attractions, and then to be part of the management group going forward. So that was sort of the evolution of PICO.
I thought I was going to be a pavilion coordinator, but my boss at that time, Norm Doerges, decided that they wanted to develop an item tracking system for everything that we bought or built for show installation and we needed a warehouse in order to do that for that product that was gonna be stored prior to installation. Some of the product was delivered directly to the site and installed and so I ran that operation. That’s how I got into warehousing.
“The manager of distribution went on vacation at Christmas time of ‘84 and he didn’t come back. I don’t know if it was an alien abduction or what…”
F – And that’s where you were for the next 22 years?
T – Yes. Actually ‘79 through 2003.
So in ‘84, when the company went through the entire restructure and went through the greenmail all that other stuff that was going on during that time, and I don’t know if you’ve read The Storming of the Magic Kingdom, but all that was going on and I end up having the opportunity to go into Distribution Services for Walt Disney World versus being in rides and attractions at Walt Disney World, so I ended up going into the warehouse operation as the superintendent of general supplies and long term project storage.
The manager of distribution went on vacation at Christmas time of ‘84 and he didn’t come back. I don’t know if it was an alien abduction or what, but he didn’t come back and six of us interviewed for the job and I ended up getting it.
That’s how I ended up being the manager of distribution services for Walt Disney World.
And Everything Else
F – What didn’t you do in the parks?
T – I was in food in ‘65 just prior to going into the Marine Corps. When all the lessees contracts started to run out, most of them were on 5 or 10 year contracts. And ABC owned United Paramount Theaters, UPT, which ran all the fast food operations at Disneyland. In ‘65, their contract was up and Disneyland Incorporated took over the fast food operations. And I worked as the Assistant Supervisor in Frontierland outdoor foods in the Oaks Tavern area.
And then at that point then I went into the marine corps, and when I came back, I came back into rides and attractions.
Then in ‘79, after we opened Big Thunder, I worked in Area 3 food in Walt Disney World. And that was back when they were talking about Generalists. They wanted people with backgrounds in rides and attractions, and merchandise, and food. And so I had gone in and talked to Bob Matheison about getting some food experience.
And I ended up being the food manager in what they called Area 3 Food, which was Frontierland/Liberty Square and Adventureland. And I had that for just a little less than a year until I got the job offer to go to Epcot.
The only thing I haven’t done is actually operate a merchandise location, but I was in charge of all the warehousing to support merchandise, so one of my warehouse managers used to call me a merchant wannabe.
F – I would take issue with that. I mean you sold newspapers in 1955. That’s merch, right?
T – Oh yeah. Ok. Yes, I had merchandise in 1955 as a newspaper boy.
Great Moments With Mr. Nabbe
F – I know you got Disney Legend status but did you get any other honors along the way?
T – Well, I ended up with a window on main street when I retired in 03 at Walt Disney World. I tried for both parks but I didn’t make it. But they did give me a window on Main Street. It’s above the cinema on the right hand side. And the window says Sawyer Fence Painting, Proprietor, Tom Nabbe, Lake Buena Vista, Florida and Anaheim, California.
F – What were some of your greatest moments in your Disney career.
T – Every 5th anniversary for Disneyland, with the exception of the 10th cause I was gone then in the Marine Corps, my goal is to be on Main Street on July 17, and I’ve managed to accomplish that ever since 1970.
And when we were out there for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, the alumni club out there had a dinner dance, and we had gone to the dance, and while we were at the dance, Jim Cora (James Cora), does that name mean anything to you? Well Jim sorta looked at me and said, “Well, Tom, I’ll see you in September.” And I don’t know if you ever worked with Jim, but Jim was one of those guys that if he could pull your leg, and throw something out there, he’s always looking to razz you, and so I’m sort of a little curious here, but I says, well, no I won’t be back in September.
He says “We’ve been nominated and going to be inducted as Disney Legends.” I thought, “Well that’s sorta neat.”
So when we got back to the hotel room after dinner, I had called my sister who was house sitting for me, and said, “hey is there a letter from the studio there.” And she said, “oh yeah.” I said, “How about opening it up and looking at it?” And sure enough it said that we were invited back in September of 05 to be inducted as a Disney Legend, and so Cora wasn’t pulling my leg. It was an actual event that was occurring.
So we were able to come back out and they treated us like royalty. Because of the anniversary, they normally had the ceremonies at that time frame at the studio. Because of Disneyland’s 50th, they had it at Disneyland, which was sort of neat.
F – Where did that take place? At the Hub?
T – Opera House. We had lunch at a restaurant there at Downtown Disney, the Napa Rose restaurant. And I had the opportunity to have lunch with Roy Disney at that lunch. The Legends program was very much Roy’s baby. Sorta neat.
Plus Roy’s a sailor and I’m a sailor. The only difference is my boat is 16 foot and his boat is 60 feet, but sailing is sailing so we were both able to talk a little bit about sailing. He had just finished up on the Honolulu race.
NEXT: We go back again to Disneyland on July 17, 1955, when a celebrity makes Tom Nabbe’s dreams come true with a couple passes to the fateful Press Opening. You won’t want to miss one magical moment with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe in Part 3.
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Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, California Adventure, Disney Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom are all on Google Street View
As soon as Google Earth came out, I was able to travel the world from my office. I flew over favorite vacation spots, old schools I went to, places I dream of visiting, and my childhood home. Then of course Google Streetview gave me the ability to see where I would be for a meeting later, or just travel through places I love without all that pesky traffic. The most fun was always checking out the Disney parks with new perspectives you can’t get just walking through.
But you could never really get into the parks with the flyover view. That changes today! Deanna Yick, Program Manager for Google Street View just announced that we will now get “new fantastic points of view” as Street View goes the distance in Disney parks. Explore every nook and cranny of the parks without waiting in a single line and see the Disney details you may have never seen before.
Think of the benefit this will be for Disney bloggers like me, vacation planners, and the curious among us who just want to see what all the buzz is about. Here are the links to each of the parks and park sections so you can get started on your couch-side Disney vacation right now!!
I don’t know about you, but when I see old footage of Disneyland – footage from the 1960s or 1950s, before I was born – I feel something like an ache to turn back the clock. Inside me springs an anxious desire to travel back through time and visit the park in its infant stage, to experience it as my parents would have experienced it, as Walt Disney did.
So when Tom Nabbe, the boy who Walt Disney personally hired to play Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer on Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island, agreed to share his story with me (with you, my readers) I felt my time machine had arrived.
Tom Nabbe might be considered the Forrest Gump of Disney Parks history. His outrageous luck had him present at some of Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s most pivotal moments. He was a twelve-year-old when Disneyland opened less than a quarter mile from his house.
His mother weaseled him tickets to the Disneyland press opening on July 17, 1955. The very next day he landed a job as a newspaper boy, peddling the Disneyland News to park guests. He became the go-to “All American Boy” for the park’s publicity office.
In 1956, he managed to convince Walt Disney himself to hire him to play Mark Twain’s literary boy-hero, Tom Sawyer. Walt all but handed off his new island paradise for this thirteen-year-old to rule.
From then on, apart from a brief adventure in the U.S. Marine Corps, Tom embarked on a lifelong career doing nearly every possible job within the Disney organization, including helping to open the Magic Kingdom and Epcot in Walt Disney World.
Upon retirement, his career was honored with a window on Main Street. And then he was named a Disney Legend in 2005 as part of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Today, he is still sharing the magic by providing Disney Heritage training for cast members and Disney enthusiasts.
In this 3-part interview, Tom Nabbe shares his incredible story and amazing adventures as Parade Magazine once dubbed him, “The Luckiest Boy in the World.”
Becoming Tom Sawyer
Freddy Martin – How did you become Tom Sawyer?
Tom Nabbe – I was working at Disneyland as a newspaper boy. The news was one of the lessees.* Joe and Ray Amendt had the Castle News operation and they had the newspaper office on Main Street. They also rented wheelchairs, strollers. And it was one of those things where they put your name in the headline of the paper if you wanted. They did wanted posters… same thing. So they had a little printing operation to tie in with the newspaper.
Disneyland News was a monthly publication and pretty much told the history of Disneyland, current events, and coming events… little bit of history. And all the lessees at Disneyland would advertise in the paper. It was probably 40, 50 pages long and about the size of, well, more of a Chronicle or turn-of-the-century newspaper you’d see. So it’s not a full-size newspaper. Probably about a quarter of the size, page wise. And they sold for 10 cents a copy.
The deal was, if I sold over a hundred papers outside the gate in the morning then I could get inside and continue to sell newspapers for the rest of the day.
F – What do you think the purpose of that was? Incentive for you to work hard? I suppose they would want to sell papers inside too.
T – I think it was to generate money! (Laughs) They got 7 cents a copy, I got 3.
And if you look at Disneyland and Walt Disney World (and I’m assuming Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong) the merchandise location on the left hand side of the entrance is called the Newsstand. Well back at Disneyland, it was really a newsstand and it would have all the newspapers of LA and Orange County, and some nationals, the New York Times and that on sale. And that’s back when people would actually, y’know, read the paper and there was a morning edition and an evening edition.
And one of the jobs I had was, the manager of publicity, Eddie Meck, his office was at City Hall and what he wanted was a copy of every newspaper every day, so he could see what sort of articles were being written about Disneyland or the Studio. So Joe or Ray, the owners, would separate the newspapers out and I would haul them up to Eddie’s office. And so I developed a good rapport with Eddie Meck.
And any time they had a publicity shot or that type of thing, and Eddie’d go, “Hey! Get that red headed kid, that Tom guy, and we’ll use him in this shot. He’s the All-American boy with the red hair and the freckles.”
And so I ended up in a lot of the publicity shots along that line.
“Hey! Get that red headed kid, that Tom guy, and we’ll use him in this shot. He’s the All-American boy with the red hair and the freckles.”
And almost for the next year, any time I could find him in the park, I’d ask if he was still thinking about hiring me for Tom Sawyer.
One of the shots that I have is myself and Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis when they visited the park in August of ‘55. And that was one of those. They put Uncle Milty and Jerry’s name in the headline of the paper and then I posed for the picture with them out front. So that was sorta neat.
While I was doing that, towards the end of the first summer. Somebody, and I don’t remember who, told me that Walt had decided to build Tom Sawyer’s Island on the Rivers of America in Frontierland. “And you look just like Tom Sawyer! You should ask for a job.” And I thought that was a hell of an idea.
Walt was in the park quite frequently during that time frame. He used to come down on Friday nights and stay in his apartment over the weekend and drive back up to the studio on Sunday.
He was in the park, so I was able to find him. I introduced myself and I told him that I heard he was building Tom Sawyer’s Island. And that I look just like Tom Sawyer and he should hire me.
Well, he didn’t, but what he said was that he’d think about it.
So actually, I think I talked him into the character. And I think he thought about it. And almost for the next year, any time I could find him in the park, I’d ask if he was still thinking about hiring me for Tom Sawyer.
And almost for the next year, any time I could find (Walt Disney) in the park, I’d ask if he was still thinking about hiring me for Tom Sawyer.
Then, in April or May of ’56, I remember I was playing the baseball machine in the Penny Arcade, and Dick Nunis… came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
He was a supervisor of Frontierland at that time, and he says, “Tom, come with me.” And when Dick says “come with me,” you don’t argue with Dick. You go with Dick. And we went over to Frontierland and walked over the bridge there by the Chicken Plantation.
And Walt and Bill Evans (Morgan Evans), the landscape architect, was coming back off the island and we went down to the dock. And Walt said, “Tom, do you still want to be Tom Sawyer?” And I told him, “Absolutely, Mr. Disney.”
Walt said, “Tom, do you still want to be Tom Sawyer?” And I told him, “Absolutely, Mr. Disney.”
And you realize Walt dealt with a lot of kids during this time frame. Y’know, he had the Mickey Mouse Club and had a lot child actors, and they had two teenage daughters, so he was pretty comfortable talking with kids.
And one thing nice about talking with Walt is he never talked down to you. It was almost like having, I guess I would call it, having an adult conversation with a 12-year-old.
But he told me, “You need to get a work permit and a social security card. And once you did that, they’d put you to work as being Tom Sawyer.”
So that’s how I got to work as Tom Sawyer.
What did Tom Sawyer do? Tom Sawyer posed for a lot of pictures as a face character.
And they had stocked the Rivers of America with blue gill, sun perch, and catfish. We had 50 fishing poles, 25 on each of the fishing piers that were opposite the Mark Twain landing. And I maintained the poles and put bait out every day, which were worms. And if the guests wanted their hook baited, I would bait their hook.
But old, dead, smelly fish started to show up in the park. And so the decision was to make it a “catch and release” program.
When we originally started the fishing operation, it was a “catch and clean” program. So if the guests really wanted to keep their fish, then I would clean the fish and put it in a plastic bag for em.
But old, dead, smelly fish started to show up in the park. And so the decision was to make it a “catch and release” program. So we de-barbed all the hooks and I didn’t have to clean any more fish. At least I sort of liked that part of the job.
And the other part of the job was to pose for pictures. I would answer to either “Tom Sawyer” or “Huckleberry Finn.” I wouldn’t respond to Becky Thatcher or Indian Joe. But whatever the guests wanted me to be between those two characters, I would respond to that.
So I did the Tom Sawyer bit all through Jr. High School and High School. And then, in order to be a ride operator at Disneyland you had to be 18. So when I turned 18, and that was June of ’61, then I became a ride operator. Actually, I became the relief foreman on the rafts. That was my first job and I was a raft operator and relief foreman, four days weekly during that summer.
They held a contest in ’61 and replaced me with a kid by the name of Keith Murdock. And he lasted about 3 years, only at Summer time because he lived in Utah and only came down in the Summer time and lived with his Aunt and Uncle.
And after that they didn’t stock the rivers anymore, didn’t have fishing poles anymore, and didn’t have a Tom Sawyer.
F – Was there ever a Becky Thatcher?
T – No. There never was a Becky Thatcher. When the island opened in June of 56, and I think it was the 16th of June was the opening ceremony for the island, Walt invited the winners of the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher contest that they hold every year in Hannibal (Missouri, Mark Twain’s hometown) to come out. So if you see publicity shots from that time frame, those are the kids. That was a picture of the winners of the contest. I didn’t start until June 18, 2 days after the opening of the island.
And after that they didn’t stock the rivers anymore, didn’t have fishing poles anymore, and didn’t have a Tom Sawyer.
F – Let me ask you a little bit about being a kid, in that situation…
T – (cuts in laughing) Yeah, it happens to most of us!
F – Tony Baxter the Imagineer, in some of his recent speeches, talked about ‘the importance of being twelve.’ He said that when you’re twelve, your talents and passions start to coalesce and come together into who you will become in the future. What part of being that boy on the island contributed to who you became as a grown up?
T – Creative people probably started out at twelve. I’m not sure if I fall in that same category. (Laughs) Actually, Tony and I worked the subs in the ‘60s.
F – How do you feel about Tom Sawyer Island today? Do you have a sense of nostalgia? Is it just part of your past? Or is there something else about the island that…
T – Well, I haven’t been on the island in quite a while. Disneyland changed their format to a little bit more along the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. Walt Disney World stayed with pretty much the Tom Sawyer aspect.
I haven’t seen the island since they shortened the trip because of building of the Star Wars area. A lot of the change is out there, so I don’t know how to answer your question, Freddy. (Maybe) if it was something I was going to every other month. I rode around on the steamboat on the Mark Twain when I was out there for Disneyland’s 60th. I went around the island but didn’t go on the island.
“And I sort of liked that area and I watched the water flow down the flume into the grist mill.”
F – This may sound strange, but I just want stand in the same spot that Tom Sawyer, Tom Nabbe, stood on, to breathe the same air, and sort of try and picture your experience way back then. Is there a spot on the island that you remember sitting and enjoying way back then?
T – Yeah, well back when the island first opened, they didn’t have a treehouse. It was called lookout point. And just down from lookout point was a little pond and that pond is where the water for the grist mill came from.
And I always sort of liked to sit right at the edge, on benches and everything. And I sort of liked that area and I watched the water flow down the flume into the grist mill.
And I don’t know if they still have that there or not. The island has changed so much with the fireworks show, the Fantasmic show. You know, with all the stages and everything they’ve built on the front part.
F – Is there anything you hope they don’t ever change about it?
T – The way I sort of look at it, Freddy, is change is inevitable. One of the things, if you go back, that Walt basically said was that the park was gonna always be evolving.
So if they make a change for a new attraction or something better in the future, then super! I’m all for that.
NEXT: Follow Tom Nabbe’s life-adventure as he goes into the Marine Corps, then comes back to run nearly every ride at Disneyland and then heads east on the opening crew of Walt Disney World.
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Get ready to get lost in adventure at the new Tropical Hideaway in Adventureland at Disneyland. Y’all know how much I love Adventureland details and Easter eggs, and I am 100% certain this place will be loaded with them. I was in Skipper Heaven when The Jungle Navigation Ltd. Skipper Canteen restaurant was opened at Walt Disney World, and this location promises even more of the same. Look for plenty of puns and references to the notorious members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, including the namesake of those world-famous falls, Dr. Albert Falls. No doubt this announcement is prompted by the expected popularity of the Jungle Cruise movie starring Dwayne Johnson coming to theaters next year. And all the Skippers say… it better be good.Here’s the scoop from the Disney Parks Blog:
The Tropical Hideaway discovered in Adventureland at Disneyland Park
February 22nd, 2018
Calling all adventurers! There will soon be a new area of Adventureland to explore at Disneyland Park. The former Aladdin’s Oasis will soon be transformed to The Tropical Hideaway! This new experience will soon appear along the tropical shores nestled between the Jungle Cruise and “Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.” This one‐of‐a‐kind destination will be a popular rest stop for Adventureland locals and weary explorers alike. Guests will be able to rub elbows with their favorite skippers in an exotic traders’ market, featuring all of the sights, sounds and flavors of the tropics. Keep your eyes out for more information on this exciting new location as more is discovered.
What do you think about this new use of the old Tahitian Terrace space? Leave your jungle love in a comment below.
Disneyland concept art above for the Tropical Hideaway from the Disney Parks Blog. Image copyright belongs to Disney. Shared with good faith as a fan to help promote their business and creativity.
Flashback: If my cousin Andy had survived his 20s, today would have been his 40th birthday. Looking back through old memories, I found this story originally written in the months following his death. If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve deeply loved, I’m sure you too wish this DeLorean was real.
One Summer long ago, I came down from Oregon to visit my Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, and cousins in Southern California. I spent all day every day shooting baskets, playing ping pong, dreaming up epic roller coasters, and conspiring with my cousins, Robby and Andy.
Every day, that is, except Thursday. Every Thursday, our Grampy brought me and Robby with him to the Christian Business Men’s Association breakfast at a local Carrows Restaurant. After that, he’d drop us off at the church for its weekly, youth group beach trip.
But one Thursday, Grampy took all three of us to Universal Studios to ride the Studio Tour Tram.
We lifted the A-Team Van.
We posed with the shark.
Some days we still wish we could go back in time and change what ever may have gone wrong. But then we might have had to miss the sweetness of a day like that one back in 1985.
“Don’t bet your future, on one roll of the dice Better remember, lightning never strikes twice Please don’t drive eighty eight, don’t wanna be late again
So take me away, I don’t mind But you better promise me, I’ll be back in time Gotta get back in time“
YouTube personalities Sarah & Peter Brookhart left Chicago for Florida to follow their dream of Moving to Disney World. (10 Minute Read)
Moving To Disney
Did you ever dream about living at Disneyland? I know I did. I clearly remember being nine-years-old, drooping sadly out the gates after the fireworks and thinking out loud to nobody, “If I could just stay hidden in one of the caves on Tom Sawyer Island, I could wait out the security guards and have the place all to myself… forever.”
But that’s unrealistic, right? Eventually fantasies give way to reality and childlike dreams fade away.
However, sometimes when you’re not looking, the dream stirs again. Enter YouTube personalities, Sarah and Peter Brookhart.
Magic Kingdom Kids
The Brookharts are an insufferably cute pair of high school sweethearts from Chicago (seriously, folks, they’re adorable) who just recently pulled up stakes and moved to Walt Disney World to follow their dreams.
Sarah, an expressive young woman whose animated eyes, snowy complexion, and icing-blonde hair makes one think of the wooden-shoed Dutch maidens on the It’s a Small World attraction. Born into a Disney-loving family, her parents honeymooned at Walt Disney World and raised their three daughters to love castles, princesses, and talking mice. Every two years like clockwork, Sarah’s family traveled from Chicago to Florida for two weeks at a time to experience all that Disney has to offer.
Peter, broad shouldered and gregarious, did not grow up going to Disney. His family did other things on vacation, but when he fell in love with Sarah, it became inevitable – he’d have to fall in love with Disney too.
During their college years, Peter convinced Sarah to join the Disney College Program so they could spend a Summer or two working as Cast Members. Until then, Peter had never visited a Disney Park, so Sarah insisted they go down to Florida a week early because, as she says, “He has to experience the magic before he can be behind the magic.”
They were married in August of 2015, and you’ll never guess where they honeymooned. That’s right – Niagara Falls! Just kidding. They drove Route 66 to California to spend a week at Disneyland.
Back home in Chicago, surrounded by close family, working good jobs, and enjoying the support of a network of lifelong friends, the Brookharts lived a life marked by stability.
Somewhere in their hearts, however, discontent was brewing.
Home Is Where?
From time to time, Sarah and Peter toyed with the idea of moving to Orlando permanently.
“Since 2011, the thought has been in the back of our mind, ‘What would life be like if we moved out here?,” Peter said. “‘What would we be missing? What would we be gaining? Would it be forever? Would it not be forever?’ And I think it’s been just sitting on our mind for the last 6 years.”
In February of 2017, after a weeklong visit to Walt Disney World, Sarah and Peter sat near the pool at Saratoga Springs Resort sipping a vacation favorite, the Lava Smoothie. They were intent on soaking up the last few moments of Florida sun and Disney magic before the airport shuttle arrived.
And they weren’t happy.
If you’ve vacationed at Disney – or anywhere else for that matter – you’ll remember these three stages of vacation emotions. First, you experience the dogged intensity of planning and preparing for the trip. Second, you’re giddy with excitement as you finally arrive at your home-away-from-home. Third, you descend into a fog of melancholy as you reach the vacation’s final day.
The Brookharts were in that third stage.
Peter spoke in a low voice, apparently trying not to disturb the air. Sarah leaned her head against his shoulder, her eyes billowed like the Florida sky, threatening rain. So many times they’d left Disney World, and they felt sad every time, but this time was different.
“We just looked broken,” said Peter. “And it was like something (had) snapped in us.”
On the flight to Chicago they didn’t talk much. When they did speak, they could only describe a looming dread that they weren’t just going home. They were leaving their dreams behind.
“I didn’t want to be 85, talking to my grandchildren,” Peter remembered thinking, “and let them know that Grandpa didn’t follow his dreams. Grandpa didn’t try, at least, to see what living at Disney World would be like.”
After a week of hard conversations thinking and talking about what a move to Disney World might mean, Peter finally asked Sarah, “We’re doing this, right?” And that’s when their journey began.
It’s a scary thing to leave the comfort of home to follow a dream. Like the gold-rush 49ers who headed West in pursuit of fortune and glory, true courage is required to face down the fears, doubts, and obstacles that will come your way.
Sarah and Peter found courage in a growing number of pioneers who were making their own way and documenting their life journeys on YouTube; folks like the Ballinger Family or Casey Neistat.
More to the Brookhart’s interests, Disney park video bloggers like Joey Beth & Josh Bugg (It’s The Bugg’s Life), Brock & Promise (Ears2You), and the current king of the craft, Tim Tracker (TheTimTracker) proved that there is a growing demand for true-life human adventures that take place at Disney.
These trailblazers paved the way for Sarah and Peter to courageously ask, “If they could do it, why couldn’t we?”
But courage from strangers wasn’t going to be enough to uproot them from the community where they were raised.
The Ties That Bind
Sarah and Peter grew up on the Southside of Chicago in a village where you’re known by the church you attend. The small-town in a big-city vibe afforded them some of the most close-knit and satisfying community connections the Midwest has to offer; friends, jobs, lifelong connection to a city that they love…
And family. Sarah and her sisters were an inseparable trio who had gone through everything together. To Sarah, leaving her family to go live at Disney seemed like betrayal.
“We were used to being the people you could lean on,” Sarah said.” So telling someone we’re not gonna be there is a pretty harsh blow for them and it’s a pretty harsh blow for us because, you know, we enjoy being there for others.”
Even though their family was supportive of the move, the knowledge that they would be missing important family moments made it even more painful to leave.
At one point, Sarah’s sister, Christina, announced that she was pregnant. In the midst of the joy and excitement, Sarah was struck cold by the realization that she would be in Orlando throughout much of the pregnancy. With her sister-senses tingling, Christina wasn’t about to let Sarah call off the dream. She looked Sarah in the eyes and said, “You still have to go to Disney.”
The good news is, unlike the 49ers, Sarah and Peter have FaceTime, Snapchat, and their daily video diaries on YouTube to make communication with their families easy.
“Luckily for them, every single day of our lives is on the internet so they can see what we’re up to,” Sarah laughed. “But it is still up to us to make sure that we stay updated on their lives too.”
A Goal, a Plan…
Once their minds were made up to go, all they needed was a goal to aim for and a plan to get there. For Peter, a zealous foodie, there was one target he could focus on that would keep them moving forward.
“I didn’t know what job I’d have,” said Peter. “Didn’t know if we’d both have to work full normal jobs. If I’d be working weekends, second shift, third shift, first shift? We didn’t know! But all I said is, ‘I wanna be in Florida by Food and Wine festival.’”
So with Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival as the carrot to draw them on, they set about to make their plan.
Sarah is a freelance graphic artist with a steady client load. Her job would be portable. Peter would have to find a job, and searching for work from half a continent away wasn’t going to be easy.
They also needed to find an affordable place to stay (hopefully within 10 minutes of the resorts), a vehicle to get around in, and a whole lot of money for moving expenses.
Step by step, hour by hour, week by week, for 4 months they researched, saved, asked a lot of questions, and patiently pursued their dream until at last, most of the pieces had fallen into place.
Peter got a promising job with a timeshare company that would be waiting when they arrived. They found a place to rent seven minutes from the gates of Disney World (a feat they are still super proud of). They managed to save just enough to pay for all the expenses of the move, and even had something socked away to buy a car once they arrived.
Along the way, they welcomed to the family a cute little sidekick to share their adventures, a Pomeranian puppy named Eve.
But there was one more puzzle piece they would need to complete the picture. A name.
…And a Name.
Their original YouTube channel, named The Fab 5207 , was a collaboration with friends from their Disney College Program days. If they did actually make it to Florida, Sarah and Peter intended to create a brand new YouTube channel to share their adventures with their established audience and friends back home.
Their new adventures, to be filmed and published every day, would center around their relationship as a couple, their highs and lows – even their starting of a family – all within the context of their shared love for the Disney experience.
Now, every good story has a title and every YouTube channel needs a name. The Brookharts wanted to choose something just right, so they decided to look for inspiration from the man whose mouse started it all, Walt Disney.
Back in the 1960s, Walt was looking for a place to build his outrageous dream of a master-planned vacation kingdom and city of tomorrow. He settled on Central Florida as the ideal location. Long before he had a name for the place that would become Walt Disney World, Walt and his team simply referred to it as “The Florida Project.”
Whenever Walt spoke of “The Florida Project”the words seemed to flow off of his tongue with a sort of reverent excitement that revealed his true feelings for what he was certain his dream would one day become. His brother Roy reported that Walt was still scheming about the project on his death bed, using the hospital ceiling tiles as the gridlines of a map to point out where he wanted certain features and attractions.
Sadly, Roy would be the only Disney brother to see The Florida Project become a reality.
Influenced by that same spirit of hope and vision for the future, the Brookharts’ new life and video channel was sure to become a long-running documentary of their very own Florida project.
So, on July 28, 2017, The Brookhart Project set their cameras to record, kissed their families goodbye, and hit the road, bound for a brand new life in Walt Disney World.
At Home in Disney World
Six months later, Sarah and Peter sit on a bench at the Beach Club Resort just few short steps from the entrance to Epcot. They’re reflecting on the what they’ve experienced and learned since their journey began one year ago.
“What has been the child, almost, of The Brookhart Project,” said Peter, is really the lifestyle that Sarah and I have adapted and been growing into since we moved down here – and that’s just appreciating every single day, and every single minute, every single thing.”
Moving to Disney has developed a deeper appreciation for the obvious things like the rides, architecture, and the food (they did make it in time for the Food and Wine Festival after all). However, they’ve found themselves appreciating the little things even more, like the way cast members work so hard to give each guest a special experience.
“Even though we live in such a grand place, it’s this humble view on life has been the biggest gain for us.”
Naturally, they have experienced every parade, show, and attraction many times. Still, it hasn’t been all churros and Dole Whips for the couple.
“We’ve heard few snide comments,” Sarah said, “where people are like, ‘Oh, you live in Fantasyland.’ I mean we still have laundry! We still have dishes. We still have bills, we’re not eating out at the parks every night. You don’t see us when we’re downing PB & Js in the car before we head into the parks!”
And it hasn’t been easy being so far from their families.
“My family is just used to being obsessed with each other,” Sarah said. “We FaceTime every other day almost. I talk to my mom every night on the phone. But, you know, we just miss being able to stop by and shovel the sidewalk for her.”
Nonetheless, the happiness they’ve experienced as a couple and the friendships they’ve built are valuable beyond measure.
“Because we are constantly interacting with others who watch our videos, we’ve had some incredibly humbling messages sent to us about what our videos do for them.”
Once, they heard from a woman in a nursing home who was feeling trapped and hopeless. She told Sarah and Peter, “You guys give me my freedom because you take me away from this place every day.”
“Stuff like that makes me realize, this isn’t just a YouTube channel,” said Sarah.
Now that they have realized their dream of moving to Disney World, the Brookharts feel a responsibility to inspire others to pursue dreams of their own.
“Even if it’s inspiring them to do something of their own. Maybe Walt Disney World is not their ‘Disney World.’ Maybe going to explore South America is their ‘Disney World,’” said Peter.
For Sarah and Peter, Walt Disney World has become more than a vacation destination. In many ways, it has become the laboratory for a grand relationship experiment.
“No matter what,” said Sarah, “it’s kind of been strengthening us as a couple just to figure out how we want to live.”
Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you that the best ways to perpetuate the romance and insulate a relationship against divorce is to share a hobby and to keep a regular date night.
If that’s true, then Sarah and Peter’s story will end in “happily ever after.” From the day they arrived in Florida, they’ve enjoyed date night every night, wandering hand in hand together and capturing every moment in the most magical place on earth.
Freddy’s Move to Disneyland – An Epilogue
I wrote the first words of this story on board the “Ward Kimball” steam train while taking a grand circle tour of Disneyland. If you had been there, you might have thought it a little strange to see me working on my laptop as though the tunnels and tracks were a suburban Starbucks.
After observing people like the Brookharts, Peter Tu (the clapping man of Disneyland), Lou Mongello, and many others, I decided to turn what I do into something I love by doing it in the place where I feel most creative – Disneyland!
Although I didn’t actually “move to Disneyland” (I still live over an hour away), I started 2018 with the commitment to hold my “office hours” one day a week at the Disneyland Resort. You might find me running reports at the Hungry Bear in Critter Country, drafting an appeal letter on the old Motor Boat Cruise launch, or editing content on Tom Sawyer Island.
Early Summer, 2014 was a tough time for my family. My wife had cancer. My grandparents died within 2 days of one another. We lost a beloved Uncle. And my doctors saw fit to put me in a comical, full-leg cast to heal a minor fracture.
As tough as those circumstances were, none would upend our family as completely as my father’s broken back.
Driving home from a chaplains’ conference in the mountains, he lost consciousness and flipped his car. I arrived on the scene just after the ambulance had gone.
Unsure of where they’d taken him, I began dutifully collecting his personal items from the wreckage. I tried to ignore all the blood.
Later, in the emergency room, I was finally allowed to see him. He was laid out flat on a gurney in a hallway, cocooned inside a medieval bouquet of braces, restraints, and supports.
And he was telling jokes.
My Dad was a hospital chaplain for many years. Unlike most of us, he’s quite comfortable in hospitals. He spent his days comforting others, meeting their pain with prayer, loss with love, and hardship with humor.
But now the tables were turned. My father lay alone in his hospital room—broken back and legs no longer working. After weeks of surgeries, therapies, and bad news getting worse, there was nothing left to laugh about.
That’s when Andrew Skinner rolled in.
Overcoming Fears, Pain, and Limitations
Andrew Skinner is the founder of Triumph Foundation, a non-profit whose primary purpose is to encourage people with spinal cord injury to overcome their fears, pain, and limitations by pursuing an extraordinary and active life.
For newly-injured patients laying in their hospital beds facing the reality of a future in a wheelchair, Andrew is not another able-bodied doctor with flyers, advice, and platitudes. Paralyzed and in a wheelchair himself, he has instant credibility with those he visits and counsels.
And they listen. Andrew knows which path to take because he’s been there. His wisdom and hope sees beyond a patient’s current challenges as he guides them down the path to a destiny they cannot see from their hospital bed.
Think Gandalf. Think Yoda. Think Dumbledore, but with wheels instead of a wand.
Christmas In Rehab
At the time of this writing, Andrew and his team of Ambassadors and volunteers are in the midst of a two-week blitz visiting nearly every hospital and physical rehabilitation center in Southern California. They invite all the patients to come celebrate Christmas together and participate in a brief support group session. I went along again this year to see Triumph Foundation’s impact firsthand.
“Christmas is very special for me,” Andrew told a group of patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehab Center. “I spent my first Christmas after my injury in the hospital, and I know how lonely it can be. And that’s why we’re here—to show you you’re not alone, and you do have a bright future ahead.”
The room was a full house of people at various levels of recovery. There was a woman in her sixties who had fallen at home and was just getting used to working her robotic chair. There was a young man who had been in an auto accident who was just cleared to walk short distances using his cane.
One older woman, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, had a look of despair and terror on her face. She is paralyzed, in a country she doesn’t know, with nowhere to go when she is discharged, and no family to visit her.
Perhaps the most difficult to see was the two injured children (both under 10) strapped into robotic wheelchairs. Amazingly, the spirit of youthfulness and joy was still apparent on their faces as they tried their best to do what they could on their own.
Triumph’s Ambassadors of Hope
Triumph’s team of Ambassadors, trained counselors also in wheelchairs due to spinal cord issues, use these Christmas parties to introduce themselves, share their stories, and make other patients feel welcome.
“For me it was very depressing,” Walter Escamilla, a Triumph Ambassador who shared his story. “Cause i was used to going to work 10, 12 hours a day. Very active guy, playing basketball, do anything! Go out every weekend. Then after an injury like this, I felt like the world came to an end.”
Patients around the room nodded their heads. They relate to Walter’s story because they’ve experienced the exact same despair he described. He went on to share that his daughters became his inspiration to stop dwelling on his losses and start focusing on the positive things he does have.
“I thank God I live in this country where everything is accessible. Want to go to a Laker game? There’s accessible seating. Want to go to a concert? There’s accessible seating. And they treat us like rock stars.” Sweeping his arm like a maître d’ Walter beamed, “Right this way, Sir!” The patients nodded and laughed at the hopeful perspective Walter shared.
“My daughters can never say, ‘We never go anywhere because my dad’s in a wheelchair.’ On the other hand, they say, ‘Nah, we will go everywhere AND my Dad’s in a wheelchair.’”
Someone Who’s Been Through It
“And that’s the key,” said Jeff Harrison, one of Triumph’s board members and long-time volunteers. “You need someone who’s been through it, knows how tough it can be, knows where your turning points are gonna be and just guide you down the rough patches and get you out the other side.”
Of course, a Christmas party isn’t complete without gifts, so Andrew and his Ambassadors passed out stockings, treats, and “Care Baskets” full of gifts and resources to help them move forward and triumph over their obstacles.
Andrew wrapped up the visit with an encouragement that hit home for everyone in the room, paralyzed and able-bodied alike. “I like to say that paralysis is a club nobody wants to join, but once you’re in, you’re family.”
As I walked to my car, I thought again about my Dad. He spent his entire career encouraging people in the midst of their suffering. After his accident, he too could have been left without hope or a path to recover from the injury. God knows I wouldn’t have had the experience or insight to help him through the darkest hours.
But he wasn’t alone. When Andrew rolled into my Dad’s room that day, he brought with him an active and welcoming community of people who live lives full of hope and potential despite their injuries.
Morleigh Steinberg is in the midst of producing the first public showing of her husband’s series of desert photographs. “I just said to him, ‘You really gotta do something with this. People should see this. I think it’s important. And with the closure of the tour, now is the time to do it.’”
Perhaps I should mention that Morleigh’s husband is The Edge, U2’s revered lead guitarist and atmospheric sound architect.
Back in 1986, when the Irish rock band visited California’s Death Valley and Mojave Desert to shoot images for the cover of their upcoming album, The Joshua Tree, U2 photographer, Anton Corbjin, wasn’t the only one taking pictures. The Edge took up his own camera to capture the desert as he saw it.
“I think he’s got a really good eye.”
With a quiet enthusiasm that projects genuine confidence in her family’s artistic competence, Morleigh also can’t help but sound like her husband’s biggest fan.
“I think he’s got a really good eye. And it’s photography, so I said, ‘Let’s just do this.’”
Morleigh is co-owner of Arcane Space (along with singer & artist Frally Hynes), a bodega studio a couple blocks from Venice Beach in Venice, California. When we first met, I asked her about her “gallery” and she politely corrected me.
“It’s not so much a gallery as it is a space,” she mused.
That caught my attention. As a spatial storyteller with Storyland Studios, I’m fascinated by the ways people use space to express something of meaning or significance. Whether in cathedrals, office cubicles, or amusement parks, creative people are able to transform space to express something about themselves and the way they see the world. So I had to go see Arcane Space for myself.
“I think a gallery is very defined,” Morleigh later explained. “There’s a certain structure that a gallery has to set up to present artists. But we’re still trying to find out what this is and how it’s gonna work. And it feels so free. Space can be so many things.”
The entire gallery… er, space is surprisingly small and painted stark white, from the floor to the ceiling. It gives one the impression of a blank page or canvas to be used freely for artistic expression.
“We want it to be a place where we can share,” Morleigh said, “that we can express what’s going on in our lives and what’s going on in other artists’ lives. And give them an opportunity to present work, or make work, or explore work, or push work, but not in a defined gallery. But just in the space.”
Like a brand new journal or drawing pad, starting with a blank space fills a creative heart like Morleigh’s with a churning sense of potential and curiosity.
“How do you occupy space? How do you change space? And how does that make you feel? And how does it make other people feel? That’s more my curiosity. So that’s where Arcane Space came from.”
Lines In The Sky
Arcane Space’s first installation was a collection of Morleigh’s own photographs entitled “LA Sky Lines.”
Each piece featured the blue, California sky criss-crossed with telephone wires and poles, double-exposed for a disorienting kaleidoscopic effect. In most shots, the illusion confuses the eye with lines that converge in reflective patterns and unnatural vanishing points.
Some look like reflections on water, and others recall the arches and gables of a transparent greenhouse roof.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the connections that these wires make above our heads. We live in this very detached society. There’s something so tangible and so real about these wires going from pole to pole to pole to pole.”
And person to person.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the connections that these wires make above our heads.”
As I viewed the pieces myself, I recalled a childhood memory. Riding in the backseat of my parents’ car as we travelled through the San Joaquin Valley, I watched the wires and poles pass by in rhythmic waves. I remember being enchanted by the idea that there are people on either end of these wires, with miles of space between them, and they’re talking to one another.
“It’s really about the infrastructure between the sky and all these lines and wires that are connected above our heads,” she said. “I find it really delightful and very reassuring.”
True to her intention to allow the space to guide the work created there, the photographs weren’t hung on the walls. They were on the floor, leaned against the wall to create a sort of blue baseboard that follows the walls’ hard angles wherever they may lead.
“I was really looking at the whole space, and my images, and how I would use them, and that was the way they ended up. On the floor.”
This unusual arrangement allowed visitors to view the images, not as individual pieces, but as part of a larger complete work. The space itself had become the work of art.
“There’s purity in putting a picture on the wall. But you never just put a picture on a wall, do you? You always put a picture up in the relationship it has to the rest of the space.”
The Space Between Places
Morleigh’s perspective on space and our relationship with it springs from a lifetime of movement. As a lifelong dancer and choreographer, movement within space is what defines the artform she loves most.
She also grew up in Los Angeles, which, due to its never-ending sprawl connected like power lines through its notorious freeway system, forces its inhabitants to leave one defined space and move to another if they want to experience everything the city has to offer.
“There are several places in LA that are so unique, but you’re going to have to drive to them. You’re going to have to get in the car to go to them.”
Morleigh’s parents were people on the move with a passion for exposing their kids to experiences througout the city. Morleigh developed a keen interest in both the destination and the space between places.
“And I got it. I didn’t mind going from place to place to discover.”
“I lived in New York for a time and there you don’t have to drive to experience a lot of different things. Here there’s always somewhere to go. That comforts me more than having the same places within reach all the time.”
“I think how we make space and interact with space has an effect on our positivity, on our outlook, on the whole human experience.”
One Southern California place she rediscovered for herself recently was Disneyland. Walt Disney’s cartoon kingdom in Anaheim might not be the first place an artist thinks of when seeking authenticity and genuine inspiration, but Morleigh went into the experience with eyes wide open.
“I was so impressed by it. I was really impressed by the landscaping, all California drought tolerant. But then in Tomorrowland, the landscaping was all vegetables, like kale, and chard, and herbs and it was quite remarkable and I was like, ‘Right on!’”
“Then, going into the haunted house, all the things that held the chains they were all these beautiful kind of patinaed bats. And they were real! They weren’t like plastic fake stuff. They were real materials.”
While Morleigh seemed genuinely surprised at the authenticity achieved in Disneyland’s fantasy worlds, she agreed wholeheartedly with the premise that creating space for people to respond to produces genuine emotional results.
“I think how we make space and interact with space has an effect on our positivity, on our outlook, on the whole human experience.”
Outside, It’s America
At the time of this writing, Morleigh is putting the finishing touches on Arcane Space’s newest installation; The Joshua Tree – Photographs by The Edge.
To music fans around the world, the photography for U2’s fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, is widely considered the most iconic and beautifully integrated album art of all time. In many ways the photographs on the record sleeve created a unique space for the music to inhabit.
“The desert was immensely inspirational to us as a mental image for this record,” U2 bassist, Adam Clayton, told Hot Press magazine at the time of the album’s release. “Most people would take the desert on face value and think it’s some kind of barren place, which of course is true. But, in the right frame of mind it’s also a very positive image, because you can actually do something with a blank canvas, which is effectively what the desert is.”
“So let’s kind of catch the end of this magnificent tour and commemoration to that album, which meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Morleigh recognized that an opportunity to display never-before-seen images of the same brilliant landscapes captured by of one of the band members would be unique and intriguing for many people. And the timing isn’t bad either. The band just finished a worldwide tour celebrating the album’s 30th anniversary.
“It doesn’t make sense to do it 6 months from now,” said Morleigh. “That would feel like going back, you know? So let’s kind of catch the end of this magnificent tour and commemoration to that album, which meant a lot to a lot of people.”
With the confidence of a woman at the vanguard of creative exploration for her family, Morleigh convinced her husband to do the unexpected, to use the space to explore and share his own story. ”Let’s not make this about the band. Let’s make it about the landscape. And the landscape that you saw at that time.”
In honor of the 26th anniversary of U2’s brand-bending album, Achtung Baby, let’s review the record’s most gut-wrenching song. This line-by-line deconstruction of Acrobat explores the spiritual wirewalk many Christians experience as they attempt to be who they claim to be.
When I was a kid, my Dad had the odd responsibility (either self or externally imposed) to be happy and hopeful all the time. I think he believed that part of his job as a pastor was to match up his demeanor with others’ expectations. It didn’t matter if he was facing financial trouble, marital disunity, illness, or a crummy day, he needed to arrive at church with a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips. In other words, he needed to wear a mask.
The unfortunate side effect of my father’s pretense was the occasional avalanche of pent-up anger, which would fall squarely onto his unsuspecting little family. I remember riding in the car on some Sunday mornings. My brother and sister and I could sense his mounting anger rising up in the front seat. Then some straw would break his camel’s back and for the next few miles we would receive the brunt of his frustration. Then, we arrived at church.
When he climbed out of the car, a miracle happened. He instantly became a different man. Gone were the scowls and furious words. All smiles and handshakes now, his mask was back in place.
Looking back today I feel sorry for the man. I know he didn’t want to act that way. He loved us. I have no doubt. He hated himself for talking love and peace to his flock while giving rage and turmoil to the sheep he loved the most, his wife and kids. When he reads this, I’m sure the old sting of this will prick him again (not my intention Dad). The sad irony of this story is that the mask he wore was a burden even Jesus did not have to bear.
In the song Acrobat, from U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby, Bono laments the same balancing act that my father was forced to perform: “I must be an acrobat to talk like this and act like that.” Niall Stokes, the legendary Irish rock champion and Hot Press editor, wrote of the song, “Not for the first time on the record, Bono acknowledges his own weakness and inadequacy. He is more conscious now than ever before of the contradictions in his own position.”
If you are being honest, Bono’s words are your words as well. You have your beliefs and convictions. Your beliefs define you. You are red or blue, anti or pro, Jacob or Edward. In today’s wacky world of pundits and provokers, with comment boxes under everything you read or watch, you have the opportunity to shout your privately held beliefs loudly and viciously at whomever you want. But does what you say you believe match up with what you do?
I doubt it. If you happen to be a human being, duplicity is your nature.
New years resolutions fail because of this. We know we should stop smoking or drinking. We should eat better and exercise. We should be more committed in our job or school or marriage. We should make things right with our parents or siblings. We should stop abusing our spouse or our kids and making them feel small. We should stop stealing, having emotional affairs, and sneaking copious bytes of porn into our homes via fiber pipelines. We say we believe one thing, but when it comes to living what we believe, we most often do something quite different.
For Christians, this self-imposed dualism is particularly painful to live with. We desire to be like Christ, but we are drawn to sin like moths to flame. As the hymn-writer said, we are prone to wander, and wander far. And we hate it.
In Acrobat, Bono paints his own picture of this hated wandering. The singer sings something of a rotating monologue to three distinct characters: to his younger self when he was an enthusiastic Christ following idealist, to his disenchanted present self, “the acrobat” who feels distant from his faith, and finally to Jesus circa Revelation 3.
When I first met you girl*
You had fire in your soul
What happened your face
Of melting in snow
Now it looks like this
His young self, was once transformed by his faith, happily drawn into a burning light that thawed a frozen heart. The singer sees in him the strength of character needed to resist temptation and to do only good. He begs the boy he was to hold fast to the faith that sustained him, to stand firm in his convictions.
I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
’cause I need it now
To take the cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow
I can’t let you go
The singer’s present self stands in disbelief that what was once so clear and motivating now seems so distant. He mourns his loss of passion for the things of God and shouts his need to be welcomed at the table of communion. But he cannot drink the cup or eat the bread. Like so many Christians before him, he stands at the table wanting to receive, but knows painfully well that his actions do not match up with his beliefs. Because of his duplicity, he believes his place at the table is forfeit.
The acrobat… er, Apostle Paul wrote about his own struggle with this wire-walk in his letter to the first-century church in Rome. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In a particularly transparent moment, Paul shares his exasperation with himself for believing one thing and doing another. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Isn’t that the truth? Of course Paul points the finger at the root of this duplicity, his own sinful nature. “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” And it is this sinful nature that the singer, the acrobat, can’t seem to abandon.
And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
Most frightening to the singer, and any Christian who has faced his double, are Jesus’ words to the church of Laodicea found in Revelation 3. Here, Jesus rebukes this particular church (considered to be the prophetic embodiment of the modern church) for their lack of passion for Himself. Because they have lost their original heat, their passion for the things that once drew them close to Christ, He threatens to abandon them to their own self absorption. Jesus says, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” My paraphrase goes like this; Jesus cursed them saying, “You make me puke!” I can’t imagine any more frightful words for a Christian who thought he had his religion wired.
And the singer takes this curse on himself. He realizes that what was once a fire in his soul, is now a cold ember hidden beneath an empty façade of contentment and false spirituality. The acrobat walks on a wire of compromise, balancing his talk of doing good to others while his heart is far from the faith that would cause him to do so. He says he loves his neighbor as himself, but the truth is, he loves himself and desires only that which will bring him happiness.
The song ends with the singer emboldening himself to claw his way out of his duplicity and sin, and grasp onto the love for God and people he once held so tightly.
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And you can find
Your own way out
You can build
And I can will
And you can call
I can’t wait until
You can stash
And you can seize
In dreams begin
And I can love
And I can love
And I know that the tide is turning ’round
So here he stands looking into the mirror. The singer is unsatisfied with what he sees. He doesn’t want to be an acrobat any longer. He’s getting back onto the path he desires to walk, and cheering himself for the journey ahead.
It won’t be easy. In his book Crazy Love, Francis Chan said, “we have to believe it (the Gospel) enough that it changes how we live.” It’s one thing to say that. It’s another more excruciating thing to do it. But we have to do it. Christians have to believe the Gospel enough that, through the Spirit, our actions match up with our beliefs. Then, and only then, will the wire-walking end.
*I believe “girl” is used here as a way to make the characters distinct. It’s also common throughout Achtung Baby for Bono to sexy-up the songs with words like ‘baby’, ‘girl’, ‘honey child’ despite the deeply spiritual and personal nature of the content.
This post originally appeared in 2011 on my now defunct blog “isbonoachristian.blogspot.com,” an exploration of the faith and spiritual truth sometimes found in U2 lyrics.