If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you will recall that in April I wrote about the closing of a popular stage show at the Videopolis Theater. One Man’s Dream had been in place for only a few months when it was shuttered, to make way for another show that would run for the rest of the year. That new show was created with high hopes, and marked a new direction for Disney theme park entertainment, as well as whole new realm of popular culture for the Walt Disney Company to conquer. All this, from what would turn out to be a failed attempt at a franchise.
Disney fans tend to dwell on the company’s successes, both before and after the era of Walt. But there were failures as well, some of which were pretty spectacular. Mary Poppins was preceded by the lavish, live action film musical Babes in Toyland. Hard on the heels of the overwhelming popularity of Disneyland, Walt next sunk a lot resource and goodwill into the ill-fated Mickey Mouse Club Circus. The 1977 revival of The Mickey Mouse Club was met with almost universal apathy. And in 1990 the Walt Disney Company put all the powers that its synergy could muster to launch what they fervently hoped would be an entertainment juggernaut: Dick Tracy.
This is not the place to go into all the details about this now largely forgotten film. The movie had been in development for several years. By the time Disney was involved, it had become something of a personal crusade for Warren Beatty, who was the director, producer and star. The publicity and merchandising surrounding the June 14 premiere (at Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island) made it clear that Disney intended this to be a tentpole franchise, specifically to rival that other contemporary juggernaut, Batman.
What does all this have to do with Disneyland? The Disney theme parks were also enlisted in all that synergy, having been tasked with creating live stage musicals that would open simultaneously with the release of the film. It actually opened on May 21 at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, and on June 15, the day the movie went into general release, at Videopolis in Disneyland. The creators of the show, which was saddled with the somewhat unwieldy title Dick Tracy Starring in Diamond Double Cross, had very little to work with. The plot details of the movie were still under wraps, so the writers and designers were forced to work with what they were given.
Guests at Disneyland had already noted changes at Videopolis following the removal of One Man’s Dream. As the steam trains pulled into Videopolis Station the stage was clearly visible, and the new scenery that could be seen there during the day was… somewhat odd. There was no curtain, and the entire proscenium was filled with a flat backdrop with a jagged cut-out opening in the center. As scenery was installed, it appeared to be flat graphics, painted in bold colors with black outlining. It created a lot of curiosity.
That curiosity was fulfilled when Diamond Double Cross made its debut. The show was fast paced, and did not follow the plot of the film. It was, rather, “inspired” by the movie, and used many of the same characters, as well as songs. The plot was a rather silly crime caper, involving the theft of the world famous Balonian Diamond by Big Boy Caprice and his gang. Big Boy needs the diamond in order to propose to his girlfriend (and Club Ritz headliner) Breathless Mahoney. Detective Dick Tracy is called onto the case, interrupting his own on-again, off-again romance with his best girl, Tess Trueheart. The centerpiece of the show was a great big chase sequence, in which the comically oversized diamond repeatedly changed hands. Need I tell you that by the end Dick Tracy cracks the case and saves the day?
Specific elements from the film included three musical numbers: Sooner or Later, More and Back in Business. There was an original number, Calling Dick Tracy, that was used as a recurring theme. Much was made of the fact that Madonna had been cast as Breathless Mahoney. Her final line in the theme park production acknowledged one of her recent hits. She is asked by Tracy, “How did a beautiful woman like you get caught up in a racket like this?” For her response she turned full face to the audience and deadpanned, “Well, Tracy, I guess I’m just a material girl.”
Dick Tracy Starring in Diamond Double Cross closed on December 31. It carried on until February 16, 1991 at Walt Disney World. By then it was clear that Dick Tracy was not to be the kind of hit the Walt Disney Company was seeking. The movie was a success, but not the multi-billion dollar franchise the company had hoped for it. All the tickets, all the merchandise, and all the publicity that Disney could muster did not deliver their corporate heart’s desire. But the stage show did, unwittingly, deliver something that would come to an even greater fruition a few years down the road.
Dick Tracy Starring in Diamond Double Cross has the distinction of being the first “book” musical staged at a Disney theme park. Previous to this time, stage shows had consisted of specific performers (or groups of performers) singing and playing their hits, or musical reviews, some built around specific themes but without plot lines. Diamond Double Cross was also the first show to feature true Broadway-style production values, with sets, costumes and lighting of the caliber that audiences could expect to see on any professional stage. As such, it paved the way for such later productions as The Spirit of Pocahontas, Snow White: An Enchanting Musical, and Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage. Seeing the audience reaction to these musicals prompted the Walt Disney Company to look seriously at creating actual Broadway musicals. This, in turn, led to the establishment of Walt Disney Theatrical Production in 1993. The first head of the new division was Ron Logan, who had directed stage productions at Disneyland. Today known as Disney Theatrical Productions, the group has been responsible for a string of hits including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aida, Mary Poppins, Aladdin, and Frozen. The Lion King is the third longest running musical in Broadway history, with over 9,000 performances.
So while the Dick Tracy movie may not have been the hit that the Walt Disney Company anticipated, you might say that the theme park stage show it inspired is animating stages to this day.