Originally I wrote this in a different blog entry. I did more research then decided I should re-write it with more info. So, the first blog is still here, while this is the new one.
If there’s one thing Disney knows, it’s how to endorse they’re features in their theme parks. On any given day you can find parades, meet & greets, window displays, prop displays, or promotional items featuring their latest venture.
The more popular the feature, the more they do. But, of course, even the ones they think will be successful don’t always wind up so, so the endorsing of the feature might end sooner than they planned. Still, they might leave a few things still there that if you happen to know where to look you’ll find something (like the next time you’re in Disney Hollywood Studios near the Echo Lake section, look up for Detective Eddie Valiant’s office complete with Roger Rabbit cut out in the window shades).
One of my favorite examples of this would be Disney’s The Rocketeer, which at one time was flying around Disney’s M-G-M Studios and now only exists as a few little nods to yester year in the newly themed Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Still, if you do know where to look, you can find references to the rocket packed hero in this park, Epcot and even in Disney Springs.
The Rocketeer is of course based off the 1980’s comic book by Dave Stevens. The very first appearance was in issue one of Mike Grell’s Starslayer by Pacific Comic. This is just an ad for the Rocketeer comic which would premier in issues two and three of Starslayer as a six page filler for the comic. Pacific Comics then released issues three and four of the first mini-series in Pacific Presents (1982-1985). Pacific Comics then closed. Eclipse Comics took over and finished the first mini-series, then released a trade, before closing as well.
Between 1988-1989 two more companies put out the Rocketeer comic, this being the second mini-series. First was Comico, which put out issues one and two of “Cliff’s New York Adventure” before closing. Dark Horse Comics finished the mini-series by putting out the final two issues.
The comic itself has pulp roots; in fact the first mini-series reveals the creator of the rocket pack as none other than Doc Savage, while in the second mini-series The Rocketeer teams up with The Shadow. The comics also have roots in the old movie serials from the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Much from the comics did make it into the movie, like Cliff finding the rocket, his friend Peevy, his girlfriend, the Gee Bee racer, the scene of the Rocketeer saving Malcolm from the plane, the Bulldog Café, a mysterious inventor of the rocket and the character Lothar.
Long before Disney got involved with the Rocketeer, creator Dave Stevens was looking to develop it into a film. One idea was sort of a black and white independent film, low budget, like the old movie serials. The very first time the comic rights were optioned was in 1983 by director Steve Miner. They worked on the script, though they couldn’t come up with one they liked, so by 1985 Miner was out and Stevens teamed up with screenwriter Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson.
Bilson and DeMeo helped work out the plot, characters and helped keep it true to the time period. When they felt comfortable with what they had they began to pitch it around Hollywood, but every studio turned them down. They saved Disney for last knowing that if they were to work with the studio the creative team wouldn’t really make much money, but the movie would get made, so they pitched it to Disney with the intention of it being released as a Touchstone Pictures release.
Disney’s main reason for getting involved was the possibility of toys (which ironically there were no action figures made with the exception of the rubber bend’em doll, though there was plenty of merchandise). During negotiations Stevens walked away a few times, and it was during one of these times that director Steven Spielberg offered to direct the picture under his Amblin studio if Disney wasn’t interested.
When Disney heard the news, Disney Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg threatened to sue under the terms “implied contract”. Spielberg was in the works with Disney on Roger Rabbit and didn’t want it to create any issues, so he dropped out. (One could only imagine what a Spielberg directed Rocketeer movie would have looked like. Despite Joe Johnston’s excellent work on the film, you can’t help but ponder this.)
Negotiations with Disney continued for at least one more year, but this would not be the only time Disney interfered with the production of the Rocketeer. Slow negotiations were just the tip of the iceberg for what Dave Stevens and Joe Johnston would have to endure when Disney finally green lit the film for production.
Once negotiations were finally complete and Stevens signed over certain rights of the Rocketeer to Disney, Stevens helped the production crew by handing them all his research information he used for the time period which he referenced in the comic book. This consisted of blue prints for plane hangars and bleachers, schematics for building the auto-gyro, reference photos and drawings of the Bulldog Café, field uniforms worn by the air-circus staff, and contacts for vintage planes needed for the movie like the Gee Bee racer.
Stevens would wind up being on set everyday from morning to night from pre-production all the way through post. Disney executives weren’t too thrilled with this, but no doubt this was good for director Joe Johnston when he needed reference.
Disney also had issues with the writing team of Bilson and DeMeo. They worked on the script for five years, constantly revising it per Disney requests. During these five years they were fired, Disney brought in new writers for the screenplay, only for Disney to hate what they did, throw it out, and rehire Bilson and DeMeo. This would happen three times.
Originally the writing team handed Disney a seven page treatment in 1986 as to what the film would be. Disney then had them write and rewrite the script until Disney finally approved the script and green lit the film.
Even more perplexing was when Disney said they didn’t want to set the movie in 1938 but instead in a more modern day era. This idea quickly faded, though CEO Michael Eisner’s dislike of the Rocketeer’s helmet soon became an issue. He thought it should look something more like an astronaut would wear. This was something director Joe Johnston did not like, feeling it changed much of who the character was and threatened to walk if such changes were made. Despite the helmet being redesigned to stay true to the comic yet to also please the CEO, Eisner continued to say no. With a week left before filming was to begin, Dave Stevens sketched out a design like the comics, hired a sculptor to create a mock version of it that was finally deemed suitable to Eisner.
Casting was another issue. While Johnston wanted to cast an unknown to play the part of Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer, Disney wanted a well known actor. Names such as Kevin Costner, Matthew Modine, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russel, Bill Paxton, Vincent D’Onofrio and even Emilio Estevez auditioned or were close to getting the role. But the one star Disney was banking on, but turned it down, was Johnny Depp. In the end, the role went to relative unknown Billy Campbell, who looks like the drawings Dave Stevens did of Secord in the comics. This was Campbell’s first feature film.
For the role of Jenny Blake, actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane & Elizabeth McGovern were considered before Jennifer Connelly got the role. Actor Lloyd Bridges was offered the role of Peevy but turned it down, Alan Arkin took the role. Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance were offered the role of Neville Sinclair, though the role went to Timothy Dalton. Even more interesting, the role of mob boss Eddie Valentine was offered to Joe Pesci. He too turned it down and the role went to Paul Sorvino. For the role of Lothar, Neville Sinclair’ thug, the role went to actor Tiny Ron. His makeup was created by Rick Baker, based off of 1940’s actor Rondo Hatton, whose facial features were due to acromegally.
Disney set the budget at $25 million with a 76 day shooting schedule, though Joe Johntson, who came from a special effects background from I.L.M., knew this wouldn’t work. In the end the budget cost $30 million and took 96 days to shoot.
With production set to begin the biggest thing was to get Cliff Secord in the air as both a pilot and the Rocketeer. For the pilot Campbell actually did go in a plane even though he had a fear of flying in them. Director Joe Johnston asked him if he’d be willing to do this, though the plan was if he said no they could put the plane on a hill, shoot it with the blue sky in the background and he’d never leave the ground.
Campbell, despite his fear, said he’d be willing to go in the actual plane. To do this, a stunt pilot, Craig Hosking, piloted a plane with two cockpits. While Hoskings flew the plan the camera faced Campbell in the second cockpit. The rear of the plane was painted to look like the Gee Bee. Campbell would act like he was piloting the plane.
In order for the Rocketeer to fly this would be completed two different ways. One using special effects and the other practical effects. While this was the early 1990’s and computers were beginning to be the norm for special effects, this was not the case for the Rocketeer (though they were used to help a bit). Terminator 2 had computer effects in the film, created by no other then I.L.M. But for the Rocketeer they went to the tried and true methods of stop motion for the former and a stuntman on strings for the latter.
For the stop motion two 18” tall figures were created which gave them more detail. The puppets consisted of metal “skeletons” with ball joints, hinges & swivels. They also had multiple points of articulation in the hips & chest for mount rods. The clothes for the puppet were designed to include the folds & wrinkles like the ones on the actor & stuntman wore, to keep the puppets as detailed as possible.
The idea for two puppets was that while one was being used the second could be set up while filming the first one. Besides moving the puppets one frame at a time a motion control cameras helped with things like adding a tilt, pan or roll when needed. Typically, one shot might take between two to six hours to animate.
One great improved scene involving the puppet was when the Rocketeer flies up besides a plane & salutes. The animator suggested that when he does this he accidentally hits the off switch & falls down into a cloud where we’ll see a flash as we figure he restarts the jet pack. Joe Johnston liked the idea & let them animate it.
Early stop motion shots in the film has the Rocketeer flying a bit out of control to show he was not yet used to the rocket pack, but as the film goes on we’d see him get better which meant the animators would animate the puppets smoother. 2D animators would then hand animate the flames of the jet pack, or include extra flash bursts when close to the camera.
With the combo of the stop motion puppet, motion control cameras & optical effects composited into lice action aerial plates, I.L.M. would achieve believability in the Rocketeer’s flight as well as combining it with the shots of the stuntmen on wires.
For the stuntmen on wires a harness was rigged with two wires in the hips area. The stuntman was then suspended under a helicopter. While the rockets is supposed to make the Rocketeer fly at 300 mph, the filmmakers achieved this with camera speed while filming with the helicopter going 90 mph 120 feet in the sky. The wires had the Rocketeer go about 15 mph, but with all these tricks it looks like 100 mph. The helmet for the stuntman weight 50 lbs while the pack was shielded to protect the stuntman from the engines heat & he also wore insulated clothes.
For the scenes of the Rocketeer saving Malcolm in Miss Mabel, a 1916 bi-plane, they used a combo of stop motion & a mock up of the plane suspended from a helicopter, though when the Rocketeer falls from the plane an actual stuntman did the stunt, a 100-foot freefall with the parachute hidden in the rocket pack. It took three shots for this scene.
Despite the effort to get the entire screenplay on film, some scenes were never filmed, such as little character scenes, a more daring battle in the South Seas Club (which was cut for financial reasons) or the scene where the Rocketeer saves someone in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The scene itself was an exterior one to be filmed in then Disney’s M-G-M Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) which when originally created was a working studio & theme park. Filming was set for two days in January of 1991 where at a Hollywood premier the Rocketeer flies by the theatre. A worker working the spotlight sees him, shines the light on him, only to slip & fall.
The Rocketeer catches him & sets him down only to land in the wet cement. He then blasts off leaving his prints & blast marks while Sid Grauman writes The Rocketeer in the wet cement. Though the scene was never shot the Rocketeer’s foot prints & blast marks can be found in Disney’s Hollywood studios to the left of the front of their Chinese Theatre. Other scenes that were cut out due to editing were for time. However none of these scenes have ever been released by Disney on the Rocketeer DVD or laser disc.
With production finishing, early sequel talks begun. One would have Cliff as a World War II pilot where he has to become the Rocketeer to fight a Nazi version of him over the skies of Europe. Even director Joe Johnston had ideas, such as the second film starting with a singed Lothar crawling out of the Hollywood Reservoir at the beginning of the second film. Disney had signed Billy Campbell for three pictures & Jenifer Connelly for two, so sequels were expected for the series.
The Rocketeer was originally signed to be a trilogy under the Touchstone Picture franchise, however, once signed, Disney Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg pulled a switch & told everyone that the Rocketeer would not be released under Touchstone but under Walt Disney Pictures since Disney needed a live action hit that summer.
On June 19, 1991 Disney released a 22 minute television special titled “Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air” hosted by the Rocketeer star Billy Campbell where they premiered a look at the film. With a budget of $35 million, The Rocketeer was released on June 21, 1991, premiering at the El Capitan Theatre (this was the first film to premiere there after Disney spent 2 years restoring the theatre). A collectible coupon book was created for the premiere which had five different pieces of colored art work by Dave Stevens (three were of the Rocketeer, one of the Bulldog Café & the other of the Gee Bee) for the street party held in front of the theatre during the premiere.
With the Rocketeer released Walt Disney World was promoting the film in their Disney M-G-M Studios theme park. Each night in the park, during the Sorcery in the Sky fireworks show, the Rocketeer would fly around the Grauman’s Chinese theatre.
In the Echo Lake section of the park, what was once Lakeside News was converted into “Peevy’s Polar Pipeline”, which sold frozen Coca-Cola drinks, water & snacks. The themeing of this stand is designed to look like Peevy’s work station, but if you look left you’ll see one of the Rocketeer’s helmets on display (this has been confirmed to be one of the stunt helmets) & just below it the Rocketeer’s jet pack. There was also a framed newspaper with the headline of the Rocketeer’s first appearance, a pennant of Bigelow’s Air Circus (on the right side) & on the menu for the stand, the blue prints of the rocket pack were drawn if you looked closely.
In the Muppet Courtyard where Pizza Rizzo’s is now, was once a Rocketeer Gallery. Inside were props from the moving including 2 puppets of the Rocketeer, one of Malcolm, as well as the giant Spruce Goose & auto gyro. There were 5 Rocketeer helmets on display as well as the jet pack, including one used as a prototype, which was based off of the Dave Stevens’ comic (this rocket pack had one rocket instead of two like the one used in the film).
On the Studio Back Lot Tour there were more Rocketeer items to be found. His helmet, rocket pack & even the statue of the broken headed “Lucky Lindy” were all on display in the queue for the ride while on the tour itself you could see the actual façade of the Bulldog Café, Cliff’s Gee Bee & Howard Hughes’ auto gyro. During the tour you’d also drive through a covered area where they explained wardrobe & on a mannequin was the outfit the Rocketeer wore.
In Disney’s Hollywood Studio’s (formerly Disney’s M-G-M until they went through a name change) Peevy’s Polar Pipeline is still there. So too are the Rocketeer footprints in the cement (dated 6-21-91, the opening day of the film) in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. However, with the Great Movie Ride, which was the ride inside the Chinese Theatre, now closed & a Mickey & Minnie themed ride being put there, the fate of the theatre, as well as the Rocketeer’s footprints is yet to be decided what will happen to them. On opening weekend the Rocketeer brought in $9,600,754 while each additional weekend sales dropped. One major factor was that the Rocketeer had two summer blockbusters to compete with, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, which was released on June 14th, & Terminator 2 Judgment Day, which was released on July 3rd.
Domestically the Rocketeer brought in $46,6704,056. Despite making back what it earned, Disney felt the film did not perform as they expected & soon Rocketeer merchandise was dropped in price & sent out to the mid-west to stores like Pick-N-Save or 99 Cent stores. Most of the items never even made it out to the East or West coast.
The Rocketeer Gallery & the Back Lot Tour might be gone, but despite Disney writing the film off as unsuccessful, the movie found a cult following in video stores. If only moderately successful in theatres, the Rocketeer was extremely successful with VHS rentals which proved this was a great film & perhaps Disney pulled the plug on the Rocketeer franchise too soon.
In the Sci-fi Diner there are traces of the Rocketeer. Walk down the left entrance way & you’ll see in a little storage box with plexiglass a copy of the Los Angeles Examiner which says “Who is the Rocketeer?” There’s also a copy of the Los Angeles Times with the headline “Flying Man Saves Pilot” if you look. High on the walls of the diner façade is a Rocketeer jet pack painted to blend in with the scenery. Rumor has it there’s even a South Seas Club menu too. For a time, during the “One Man’s Dream” exhibit, the Rocketeer’s jetpack was on display.
Over in Epcot you can find a trace of the Rocketeer if you listen closely enough. If you go to the World Fellowship Fountain you can hear James Horner’s score of the film with a piece titled “The Flying Circus” (Horner, who was signed to conduct the score late in post-production had only 2 ½ weeks to score the film which had 100 minutes of music in it, due to test screening & re-edits, even while he was writing the score.)
In Disney Springs if you take a walk into Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar you can find reference to the Rocketeer as well. Jock is of course known as the pilot for Indiana Jones in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Looking around the bar you’ll find references to Raiders & Indy; however this is a pilots place, & if you look close enough you’ll see a Bigelow’s Air Circus banner behind the bar as well as a poster.
Even in Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort there’s a reference to him. In Trader Sam’s Grotto if you look you’ll find a menu for the South Seas Club.
But the Rocketeer might not be forgotten after all. For the 20th anniversary of the film D23, the official Disney fan club celebrated the Rocketeer at the El Capitan theatre, where the movie first premiered, with a special screening. Director Joe Johnston, as well as Billy Campbell were there, along with props & wardrobes from the movie. If that wasn’t enough, there was even exclusive merchandise for sale.
Disney even announced a re-boot of sorts of the Rocketeer, which would be set several years after the first one where Cliff Secord is now missing & a young African American woman becomes the Rocketeer.
So perhaps Disney is coming full circle with the property. As for the original, Dave Stevens has said, “…(the)…whole first flight sequence where he rescues Malcolm was right out of the comic, … what Joe did with it was breathtaking. I was so proud! …the overall spirit & sweetness of the series is still there, intact”.
It’s great to see Disney still release new merchandise of the Rocketeer in the parks, & more recently with the likes of Jock Lindsey’s & Trader Sam’s it’s great to see Disney putting in these little Easter Eggs. It’s like finding Hidden Mickey’s.
Here’s to hoping we’ll get more of the Rocketeer in references in the parks in the next few years.