Thanks to Freddy Martin, we can share that in a recently-discovered video mailed to Disney CEO Michael Eisner in 2003, late TV host and producer Dick Clark proposes that Disneyland celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ U.S. invasion with a complete retheming of the iconic theme park using themes and music from the band’s beloved song catalog.
Surely it’s easy to imagine a nostalgic multiverse where Walt Disney and The Beatles come together to create something magnificent to multiply their magic, creativity, and dreams for a better world.
This is the story of the time Dick Clark sent a videotaped proposal to Disney CEO Michael Eisner suggesting he retheme Disneyland for a year-long Beatles tribute – and what Eisner thought of the idea.
Dick Clark – The Deal Broker
Most folks are only familiar with famed TV host and media mogul Dick Clark as the host of American Bandstand and his self-branded New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, but he was known in the entertainment industry as a notorious negotiator, shrewd deal-maker, and prolific executive producer with hundreds of shows and live media events bearing his name.
Here’s just a few of the epic deals that earned Dick his deal-maker reputation:
- Originally just one of dozens of regional dance shows for teens, Dick convinced ABC to take Bandstand nationwide as a syndicated network show.
- New Year’s Eve has never been the same since Dick grabbed the mic from Big Band era star Guy Lombardo and convinced ABC that the Times Square tradition should be all about new artists and new music.
- He created the American Music Awards to give the fans the opportunity to vote for their favorite artists and recordings, rather than industry insiders.
- In 1983, Dick rescued the Golden Globes from obscurity, polished it up, put it on NBC, and made it the hippest Hollywood awards event in the industry.
With creative ideas being the lifeblood of a deal-maker’s business, it was common practice for Dick’s staffers to pitch new ideas to him for shows and partnerships. If Dick thought an idea had merit, he would greenlight it for development and break out his Rolodex of Hollywood friends and contacts to find the partnerships to make it happen.
In 2003, Dick was approached by one of his long-time staff members with an idea to commemorate the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ first visit to the U.S. with a year-long celebration at Disneyland. But Dick was going to need some convincing.
Jeff James is the world’s foremost expert on the life and career of Dick Clark. With nearly four decades (38 years) at Dick Clark Productions (DCP), the company Dick founded in 1957, Jeff stewards Dick’s massive archive of valuable media assets. He has acquired a near-encyclopedic memory of every show, special guest, performance and historic television moment Dick Clark and his team produced.
And the one television moment that is conspicuously missing from the Dick Clark Media Archives is one that never happened.
“Dick never managed to get The Beatles on American Bandstand,” Jeff said. “For Dick Clark, the man who was present for nearly every great moment in pop music history, The Beatles were the one that got away.”
Perhaps that’s why Jeff thought in 2003 that Dick would jump at the chance to orchestrate another great moment in Beatles history, this time at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
“I’m a huge Beatles fan. At any given time, I probably have a Beatles song running through my head,” laughed Jeff in our interview. “At that time, I had begun producing historic ‘look back’ segments for a lot of Dick’s awards shows and I was interacting with him quite a bit. I couldn’t help think of what could have been if the Beatles had appeared on Bandstand.”
Jeff is also a big Disneyland fan.
“My kids were still young back then and we had annual passes to Disneyland. Every time we’d visit, I’d find myself daydreaming about ways the Disney experience might feel if it were flavored with songs by The Beatles.”
For Jeff, the daydreaming began with the Submarine Voyage, a ride that takes guests to the depths of the sea in, you guessed it, yellow submarines.
“It was just too perfect,” said Jeff. “I’m always thinking in terms of square pegs in square holes, and there’s no better peg for a Beatles/Disneyland mix than the Yellow Submarines.”
Soon ideas for how other attractions might be given a Beatles flavor began to crowd Jeff’s mind, so he started keeping a journal of “Beatlesland” ideas.
“I always had a yellow pad on my desk where I wrote down the ideas as they came to me,” said Jeff. “Drive My Car would be perfect for Autopia. Paul McCartney’s Jets is perfect for the Rocket Jets in Tomorrowland.”
From there, he worked out ideas for nearly every ride and attraction in the park.
“I Am the Walrus is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so what better ride than Alice in Wonderland to bring that song to life,” said Jeff.
Jeff was convinced that Disney would bite at the concept because of the company’s history of adopting nostalgic themes at their theme parks and previous partnerships with major musical acts.
“I remember in the 80s, Disneyland had a blast-from-the-past promotion where the whole park had 50s decorations and music and a parade with music from Grease and sock hops and everything,” said Jeff. “And of course, Captain EO was huge with Michael Jackson getting a prime spot in Tomorrowland.”
Other precedent-setting attractions seemed to support Jeff’s idea at the time including the addition of music to Space Mountain featuring a soundtrack by surf guitar legend Dick Dale, and the opening of Rock’n’Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith at Disney Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando.
Jeff’s next move was to convince Dick of the idea and then get him to use his connections and clout to open a door with Disney to explore the idea further. So with his yellow pad notes transposed into a full proposal, Jeff set a pitch meeting with Dick and brought everything he had to the table.
However, Dick was also a businessman. He understood Disney’s commitment to maintaining their established brand and foresaw the company’s reaction to the idea.
“I remember he told me that Disney wouldn’t like the idea,” said Jeff. “He said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’ But I was persistent. Besides, we were neighbors,” Jeff said. Dick’s former offices on Olive Avenue in Burbank were just two blocks from the Disney Studios.
Despite his hesitancy (and accurate prediction of Disney’s response) Dick agreed to record the audio for a seven-minute pitch video, which Jeff directed in the studio’s recording booth.
With Dick’s reluctant blessing, Jeff packaged up the VHS tape with a cover letter from Dick Clark. Dick’s assistant then sent it by courier to the office of Michael Eisner, then CEO of the Walt Disney Company.
The Beatles & Disney – A Match Never Made
This wouldn’t be the first time a Disney / Beatles collaboration was attempted. Surely owing to fear of potential market confusion and resulting cultural clashes, matchmakers of the past were unsuccessful. The two entertainment giants would have to satisfy themselves with references to one another in separate works.
The Yellow Submarine, The Beatles 1968 animated motion-picture musical was a modern-day fairy tale marketed to the emergent hippie audience. The film’s focus on illuminating the music rather than story was reminiscent of Walt Disney’s 1940 experimental concert film, Fantasia.
The film’s villains are the Blue Meanies, an army of ne’er-do-wells intent on silencing the spread of The Beatles music throughout “Pepperland,” a psychedelic utopia. The rank and file Blue Meanies all wore what appear to Mickey Mouse ears, an apparent dig on the compliant masses and the squares in big business.
Disneyland’s America Sings, the successor to the Carousel of Progress attraction, was an all animatronics show that took guests on a journey through the history of American music. The show’s finale featured a rock band led by a long haired hippie stork modeled after John Lennon. His hair was literally a mop, a clear reference to the most popular musical act to ever invade America.
Perhaps the most notable and notorious moment when Disney and Beatles history crossed paths was when John Lennon signed the papers dissolving The Beatles at the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida.
So in 2003, against that backdrop of arms-length tributes and near misses, Michael Eisner sat at his desk opening a package from Dick Clark containing a VHS video tape proposing the ultimate Disney / Beatles collaboration.
The Video Proposal
The video opens with Ed Sullivan introducing The Beatles to America for their first ever stateside TV performance. Then the familiar harmonies of She Loves You gives the video its driving rhythm. That’s when Dick’s voice comes in.
The first time his voice is heard, one may be struck by how familiar and comforting it is. There was a time not long ago when Dick’s voice was heard on television nearly every single day. But it has been a decade since Dick passed away on April 18, 2012, so to hear him again, strong of voice and full of character, rings an unexpected nostalgic bell.
Jeff James said of the recording session, “Even though Dick wasn’t 100% behind the idea, he still gave a full measure of his talent and it really shows in the record. That’s Dick being Dick.”
Dick then suggests a year-long celebration of the Beatles’ 40th anniversary of their American debut with a total retheming of Disneyland park. narrates a ride-by-ride tour of Disneyland describing how each attraction, show, and themed land could be rethemed and reimagined with Beatles music as their soundtracks.
Some musical matchups hit quite well. Drive My Car, for instance, sounds great playing over images of riders on the Autopia raceway, Free as a Bird gives flight to Dumbo, and The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill takes that song’s tiger hunter protagonist on a boat ride through The Jungle Cruise. Of course the most on-the-nose blend of Beatles song and Disneyland ride is the overlay of Yellow Submarine onto the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, which is a ride on, you guessed it, yellow submarines.
Other matchups are fun because the energy of the music matches the energy of the ride, like Help! on the Matterhorn Bobsleds or Revolution on Space Mountain. Still, others trigger instant laughter due to the silliness of the suggestions. “Great Moments with Mr. Lennon” and “Ringo’s Starr Tours” generate giggles every time.
Still, other song suggestions don’t hit the mark quite like the others. For instance, Critter Country, a land populated by toddler favorites Winnie the Pooh and friends, is rethemed to Norwegian Wood, a Beatles song about a jilted lover with pyromaniacal tendencies.
The video images show their age as the editor clearly utilized clips from early 90s Disneyland souvenir videos along with some self-shot home video footage. Contrasted with today’s social media video clips of the park, there is a simplicity and innocence to the older video clips as they recall a younger Disneyland with far fewer guests crowding the walkways.
The video proposal ends with Dick Clark suggesting an inspired blend of Beatles imagination and Disney magic; retheming the musical boat ride It’s a Small World with the words and music of All You Need Is Love. These two anthems of friendship, peace, and understanding were both made popular during a time of great civil unrest, and the message of the two seems to ring even truer today.
With the video over, Michael Eisner and his team of Disney executives were left to consider the question posed in Dick Clark’s video: Would a Beatles retheme of Disneyland be a marketing boom or a total bust?
The answer came in the form of a letter from Christopher N. Curtin, Disney lobbyist and Special Assistant to Michael Eisner, addressed to Mr. Dick Clark, who walked it into Jeff’s office, slapped it on his desk, and said, “Better luck next time, kid.”
The letter explains that, although the idea is “clever and novel,” the Walt Disney Company would be unlikely to undertake it as a promotional effort. Preparations for the park’s own 50th anniversary would be their priority in the coming years.
“I saw that word ‘unlikely’ and thought of that line in Dumb and Dumber, ‘So there’s a chance,” laughed Jeff.
The letter goes on to explain that Disney does have an ongoing relationship with The Beatles through other company divisions.
As rejection letters go, this one is quite impressive – almost to be considered a rousing success owing to the sheer corporate star power listed in the carbon copies, each one provided a copy of the VHS tape to review.
- Bob Chapek, then President of Distribution and current CEO of the Walt Disney Company
- Tari Garza, then Director, Synergy, Partnership Marketing, Promotions, Disneyland Resort
- Cynthia Harris, then Senior VP, Park Operations, Disneyland Resort
- Gordon Ho, then Senior VP, Marketing & Business Development, Walt Disney Company
- Howard Pickett, Senior VP, Marketing, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts
- Jay Rasulo, then President of the theme park division, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts
- Lori Sale, then Senior VP, Worldwide Promotion, Miramax Films
- Marty Sklar, Disney Legend and then President of Walt Disney Imagineering
- Bryan Wittman, then Corporate Vice President, Global Special Events, Walt Disney Company
With Eisner, Marty Sklar, the long-time and beloved leader of Imagineering, and Bob Chapek, the embattled current CEO of Disney, all having received the “Beatlesland Video, Jeff felt accomplished knowing the best of the best had heard his idea out.
You can watch the video below.
Check out the full article from Freddy Martin here.
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