Thursday, November 12, 2009

DIANNE & KEN IN THE LAND OF MICKEY THE MOUSE




ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA

Driving down from Dianne's home town, Marietta, Georgia, we passed through Macon and Valdosta and eventually crossed into Florida. Our first stop was St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in North America, founded in 1565. It was "discovered" by Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish nobleman, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico. He had heard stories from the local Puerto Rican Indians about a "fountain of youth", and he sailed up there to investigate.

He noticed that the Florida natives were tall and healthy, as compared to the Spaniards who were less than 5 feet tall. The springs there yielded "sweet" (fresh) water, compared to the stale water on the Spanish ships. He decided that there must be something to this "fountain of youth" thing. Although the natives were healthy, they were no match for the diseases carried in by the Europeans, and unfortunately large numbers died of measles and smallpox from which they had no immunity.

Although the fountain of youth is a good story, histsorians still argue whether the Ponce de Leon expedition's main motive was actually gold and slaves. The New World Spaniards needed a cheap source of labor to dig up the gold they were seeking.

We spent 2 days touring St. Augustine, and it was a real find, with its classic Spanish architecture. In the 1880's, it was transformed from a sleepy village by Henry Flagler who was John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil. Money was no object to Flagler. He built the Florida East Coast Railroad which went down the East coast of Florida, all the way through Miami to Key West. But in those days, few people lived on the Florida peninsula because it was steamy malarial swampland. Flagler built hotels in St. Augustine and down the coast to Palm Beach and Miami to create a demand for his railroad. In St. Augustine, he built the magnificent Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1888 which, since 1967 has been the home of Flagler College. The harbor is graced by a beautiful black and white striped lighthouse.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that the International Golf Hall of Fame is also in St. Augustine, and we visited. The museum part was closed that day, because we arrived just before this year's induction ceremony. A lot of the people there looked famous, but I didn't know who they were.

A major attraction is the Saint Johns County Jail (no longer in use), also built by Flagler. Flagler's hotel had a location problem--it was across the street from the original jail. Since Flagler catered to the carriage trade, the nearby jail was not good for his business--it even smelled bad. When county officials balked at moving it, Flagler agreed to build a new jail at his expense. So he did. It had no running water and was not comfortable by today's standards. Air conditioning had not been invented yet. The male prisoners willingly signed up for the chain gang, just for a change of scenery. The women prisoners worked all day in the hot kitchen. Today's jails are like health clubs, compared to those of 100 years ago.

The labor force in St. Augustine, and indeed, Northern Florida and Georgia by and large consisted of "crackers", who were Southern whites of modest means. In the early 1800's, these folks, of Scots-Irish descent, settled and farmed the pine forests. The name "cracker", a pejorative term for poor, uneducated Southern whites, appears to be derived from the crack of the whips they used to herd cattle (and slaves). Before the Civil War, plantation owners recruited overseers from the local cracker population.

BOK TOWER GARDENS

We made it a point to drive down to Lake Wales in Central Florida to see the famous Edward Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. This is a 250 acre estate built by Bok, an immigrant from the Netherlands. He wanted to create carillon bells like those in his native land. He built it on Iron Mountain, the highest point in the Florida peninsula, which isn't all that high--only about 300 feet above sea level. But the lush grounds and music are beautiful.

Bok's claim to fame was that he was editor of the Ladies Home Journal. He had married well--the magazine was started by his father-in-law Cyrus Curtis.

Bok was an achiever. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok. He coined the word "living room" for the room in the house formerly known as the parlor or drawing room. In Chicago it would be called the "frontroom" (with the "tr" pronounced together).

Bok was also one of the first "peaceniks", although they weren't called that in the 1920's when the world powers were signing treaties outlawing war. He was a leader in international anti-war groups. From that standpoint, it was fortunate that he died in 1930, so he didn't get to see what happened to the world after that.

He lived his life by his grandmother's advice, "Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it."

This tower, completed in 1929 and dedicated by President Coolidge is pretty impressive. It is 205 feet high. The carillons consist of 60 bronze bells weighing from 16 pounds up to 12 tons. The Carillonneur plays twice a day, but we were disappointed to find that the concert we heard was pre-recorded. The concert, playing classical, hymnal and even popular (think Sinatra) music lasted about a half hour.

The surrounding gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.--who also did New York's Central Park-- were equally impressive, with native and exotic plants around lagoons. We walked for more than a mile down the meandering walking paths through the woodlands. Most of the plants are labled with their scientific names. This was to be our last peaceful moment before encountering the noisy crowds of Disney World.

DISNEY WORLD

Until last week, I was the only person in the U.S. over 3 years old who had never been to Disney World. Now I've been there, and after 3 days in amusement parks, my head is spinning. We went to Epcot! We went to Animal Kingdom! We went to Disney Hollywood Studios which I enjoyed the most. They induced major corporations to sponsor many of the exhibits.

We watched as they filmed action shots of Indiana Jones blowing up enemy tanks and airplanes. The same tank gets blown up twice a day. Brawny Towels sponsored an action show featuring stunt drivers being filmed doing a car chase, complete with spin-outs, in a French town. It must be properly choreographed, or someone might get hurt. The special effects guys are the unsung heroes.

Perhaps the worst job for young people is a Disney World mascot. Throughout the parks, Disney employees, many of them college students, don costumes of the Disney characters like, of course, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and the Muppet characters. Interestingly, being a mascot is among the most dangerous jobs in the park, according to Workers Comp lawyers. Unruly kids think the mascot is the real character, and they hit, poke and throw things at the characters. Not only that, wearing a heavy costume composed of unbreatheable fabric in the humid Florida climate can be bad for your health. I noticed that, for protection, security people accompany the mascots as they walk around the parks. Being a stunt man is a piece of cake, compared to playing Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney, a Chicago guy, was one of those visionaries who created an industry out of nothing. When he was about 6, his family moved to a farm in Missouri. Walt was a scrappy kid who delivered newspapers to earn money to go to art school in Kansas City and later in chicago. Always creative, he drew cartoon characters in his spare time. His first success, Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, was essentially stolen from him by his partner. Welcome to the big leagues! Like most successful people, Disney learned from his failures.

One day, he drew a picture of a mouse with big ears. He called it Mortimer. His wife Lillian said "Are you kidding me with that name? It's too pompous. Get with the program. How about Mickey the Mouse?" For domestic tranquility, Walt Disney listened to his wife. So Mickey it was. He essentially invented the animated cartoon. At the time there was no indication that the public would buy it. But they did, and the rest is history.

I learned a lot of things I didn't know before. For example, Mickey's dog, Pluto was named after the former planet which was discovered in 1930. (See KENSUSKINREPORT, Dec. 16, 2008). Mickey had a dog before that, but it was unnamed. Until 1939, Mickey Mouse had a pointed nose and looked more like a rat. Walt Disney commissioned an artist to create a kinder, gentler Mickey Mouse. The new Mickey was a little rounder, but the most important change was to draw pupils in his eyes so he could convey emotion. His squeaky voice was that of Walt Disney himself, a point of great pride to Disney.

Through the extraordinary marketing efforts of the Disney organization, Mickey Mouse has become one of the most recognizable symbols in the world and a household name, even part of the English language.

For example, in the 1996 movie Space Jam, made by Disney's competitor, Warner Bros, Bugs Bunny disparages Daffy Duck's suggestion for a name of their basketball team asking, "What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would call themself 'the Ducks'?" Of course, the Disney Corp. owns the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team. What's more American than Disney World?

KENNETH SUSKIN
11/11/09

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