A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
Angry Puppets, Disney Avenged
Why is Francis Creighton so concerned with clearing the deceased millionaire’s name that he performs his own play every Sunday — for free — sometimes even marching cast and puppets through the bowling alley in a pre-show effort to round up non-paying customers?
BY AL RIDENOUR
A man in the throes of death is talking to a sock puppet. “It’s getting dark now, Mr. O’Rabbit,” the dying man rasps.
The creature is all flailing ears and whiplash theatrics, conveying emotion as only a sock puppet can, craning toward the heavenly portal in the ceiling of the tiny theater, its face puckering into a fistful of inspiration. “Look up there,” says the puppet, ” the angels up there — they want to form a labor union!”
The man’s delirium focuses into union-busting resolve. “Oh, we’ll take care of our labor problems this time, Mr. O’Rabbit…”
This peculiar deathbed scene is followed by a quick denouement in which the man’s widow saves his hard won empire from “corporate raiders.” The play ends. Three of the four cast members escape, while the lead actor/director packs the entire prop department back into a plastic bag and offers to do a Q & A with the seven-member audience.
The creaky shuffling silence eventually results in the release of spectators into the downstairs bowling alley. There each must find a way to cope with their reactions amid the tides of rolling balls, crashing pins, and electronic gibbering of the video arcade.
Evasively named for a fairly peripheral figure, “Mrs. Disney: A Tribute” is an amorphous wonder, an embittered musical/biography/kiddy-show about studio finance and labor relations, written by and starring Francis Creighton as Walt Disney. This biographic fantasy ostensibly about Lillian but obviously and eerily fixated on Walt is presented every Sunday at 3 p.m., upstairs from Sports Center Bowl in Studio City. Like an avant-garde production drunk on chocolate milk, it tramples all boundaries between fantasy and reality, comedy and tragedy, narrative and lecture. Contributing to the confusion is the fact that the characters work under aliases; “Mr. O’Rabbit” is code for Mickey Mouse. The hero is simply “Walt” (without the D-word). All names have been changed to protect the innocent playwright from the long arm of the Mouse’s lawyers.
Little is clarified by the play’s press kit, which consists almost entirely of pages Xeroxed from the program of another, less flattering play about Disney — “Walt and Me,” by the Canadian playwright Michael McKinlay.
“They used the name Disney all over their programs!” says Creighton, his eyes luminous with disbelief. Unlike his kingmaker stage persona, the silver-haired actor sitting in his comfortable Woodland Hills home does not seem the type to rage against authorities in court. “Longsuffering” is the word that comes to mind as he describes life in this house with convalescing parents and a three-hour daily commute to and from a difficult teaching position in East LA.
Truth be told, though, Creighton is an angry man. A full two years after seeing its American premiere at Silver Lake’s Glaxa Theater, he’s still enraged over McKinlay’s play. Not only will he bristle at its depiction of Walt as a gun-toting drunken menace to fraternal business partner Roy; Creighton’s also horrified by the producers’ brazen indifference to copyright.
“Initially, they had statues of Mickey Mouse and so forth. I called the Disney legal department and said I wanted to do a fair and positive play about Walt, and I asked them, ‘Are you aware that their whole set is a copy of Snow White?'”
What drives a man to rat for the Mouse? Why is Creighton so concerned with clearing the deceased millionaire’s name that he performs his own play every Sunday — for free — sometimes even marching cast and puppets through the bowling alley in a pre-show effort to round up non-paying customers?
Creighton’s allegiance to Disney can be traced to a brief but momentous childhood encounter he had with the magical patriarch back in 1965, oddly enough as a pint-size stockholder (because he’d been given Disney stock as a gift and was attending a shareholder’s meeting.) Creighton demurs when asked his age at the time, but it would seem safe to say, he stood out among the few hundred adults in attendance.
Recognizing Walt from TV, he remembers buttonholing the mogul with a few precocious questions. The Walt-Disney listened enthusiastically to young Francis’ idea for a Disneyland in Russia and then shared with the boy his high-flown plans for Epcot. “A big dome, and controlled weather? Cars all underground, and streets that would move people?” Creighton recalls being stunned by such far-flung visions. “I had a frozen smile, because that just seemed too fantastic.”
Nonetheless the life-long stockholder gritted his teeth through the hippy-friendly “Luv Bug” years after Walt’s death, yearning for a return to classic story lines. He could only hope that those corporate leaders closest to Walt himself — brother Roy, Roy’s son, and Walt’s reclusive widow Lillian – would respect the founder’s vision. The preservation of the familial line and Lillian’s heroic defiance of “corporate raiders” who appear like vultures at Walt’s demise – these are the touchstones of Creighton’s “Mrs. Disney: A Tribute.”
Elizabeth Gold Reynolds appears as Walt’s wife along with three other flesh-and-blood female cast members and two puppets. Remaining on stage throughout, the actresses function as a cross between Greek Chorus and Mouseketeers. Though dwarfed somewhat by the taller women in his chorus line, Creighton boosts his performance the aid of a double-breasted mogul suit and a smoke-free imitation of Walt’s ambidextrous two-cigarettes-at-once habit. Lavish in every gesture, he constantly address this particular audience of six adult males and a single young girl as “boys-and-girls-ladies-and-gentleman,” intoning his lines in that avuncular make-believe voice used by adults drafted into playing Santa Claus.
Much of the story unfolds in a World War I foxhole, where Walt shares a leisurely (and supposedly therapeutic) autobiographical narrative with a soldier blinded by nerve gas. As the story wanders back over unhappy childhood memories of his father’s apple farm where Walt was forced to pick fruit, a Greek chorus of Mouseketeers encourages children of all ages to pantomime the harvesting of invisible apples. Another call-and-response sequence invites audience members to stamp their feet like angry studio executives. Walt sketches a crude version of the Mouse for the blind man’s edification. Walt reminisces about the advent of sound and metamorphoses into Al Jolsen, to belt out a couple politically incorrect verses of “Mammy.” Walt converses with copyright-free puppet characters and discusses his early cinematic hits and misses in elliptical title-omitting language. Tidbits of studio lore are tossed by the bushel full over the heads of the audience. Disneyphiles will catch much of it. The uninitiated are buried alive.
What’s the diagnosis? The combination of disjointed mindset and bare bones staging make it tempting to write the whole thing off as haphazard avant-garde, but what about that schoolroom feel? After all, Creighton is a teacher. Perhaps it’s more of an Illustrated biographic lecture (with all the proper nouns swapped out). But it’s not so easy to pin down. The intent is neither educational nor experimental. It’s promotional. It’s a pitch. It’s out for justice.
“The whole play is geared to TV and film,” he explains. “I’m just looking for that hook, that angle. And I may have it with Mrs. Disney — emphasizing the woman’s perspective. Women’s stories are what the networks are into.”
While Ted Turner’s turned him down with a resounding ‘no’,” he says, they “could tell that I feel very passionate about my subject matter.” 20th Century Fox, he claims, has been substantially more encouraging, attending his production no less than eight times, and Nickelodeon and CBS have also expressed interest in his script, he says. Any day now…
Creighton already has a few Tinseltown notches on his belt. He mentions a role in the TV show The Fall Guy opposite Lee Majors and on stage as gay Nazi Ernst Roehm opposite Ed Asner in Hitler on Trial, written by brother John. He also refers to a film role as an adulterous preacher in 1991’s Malibu Beach Vampires, but neglects to mention that credits for this questionable horror spoof (starring surgical prodigy Angelyne and porn star Becky Le Beau) list him not only as lead actor, but also as director.
Mrs. Disney: A Tribute, however, occupies higher ground. It’s about clearing Walt’s name, and thanks to Creighton’s identification with Disney, it’s also about defending the playwright and his beliefs. Though not all the empathetic parallels are detailed in the play, Creighton is clearly walking in Walt’s shoes. Even a brief interview reveals many (almost) uncanny correspondences: Disney molded young minds; Creighton is a teacher. Disney endured labors on his father’s farm; Creighton sometimes works on a family ranch in Nebraska. Disney’s genius originally went unrecognized by financiers; Ted Turner said no. Disney’s father was a socialist; Creighton’s father was a Democrat. And both overcame their upbringing to become adamantly Republican.
In Mrs. Disney: A Tribute, the politics heat up as a “communist agitator” among the play’s Mouseketeers begins strumming a guitar singing, “Look for the union label when you are drawing a duck, horse, or mouse.” The audience is witnessing Creighton’s interpretation of one of Hollywood’s greatest strikes, the screen cartoonist guild walkout of 1941. Disney’s rant against the process whereby union votes are solicited erupts with such volcanic sincerity that it doesn’t seem like acting — and it isn’t. It’s a real-life flashback for Creighton.
“What I’m referring to in that scene,” he says, “is back when I ran for Vice President of the Teachers Union in 1998. I never got my ballot in the mail, and then I noticed that here in the West Valley, where there was a large constituency against the incumbent, that a lot of people who didn’t get ballots, and that’s just too suspicious!”
Creighton traces his relationship to Disney on the political family tree through Barry Goldwater. Though too young in 1964 to get on the Goldwater presidential bandwagon funded by Disney, Creighton can at least say (and readily does) that he’s driven Barry Goldwater’s car (while working in the offices of Congressman Barry Goldwater, Jr.). As a second-generation teacher, Creighton originally had mixed feelings about Governor Reagan but grew to respect him as he ascended to the Presidency. “Walt and Reagan” he recalls, “were definitely hard-nosed about the communists. Reagan’s Star Wars broke them, broke their economy,” he chuckles. “They couldn’t support their huge nuclear arsenal.”
“My main thesis in the play,” says Creighton, “is to show how politically involved Walt actually was and how he indirectly ended the Cold War by getting Reagan started on his way to becoming President.” And by crushing the red regime, the old boys have also cleared some land for that Russian Disneyland young Francis envisioned. The prophecy of that portentous encounter is nearly fulfilled. The King of the Magic Kingdom still works through earthly avatars. One day Ted Turner will repent.