Imagineering The Haunted Mansion with Rolly Crump

Posted on Wed, 10/31/2012 - 15:00

In anticipation of October 31, we had been sharing stories about Disneyland's The Haunted Mansion. Last Friday, WDFM volunteer and Disney historian Joseph Titizian told us about the history and Walt's involvement with this attraction. Earlier this week, Disney Legend Harriet Burns's granddaughter Chelsea Clair shared with us a little-known story about her grandmother and The Haunted Mansion's Madame Leota.

In celebration of Halloween today, we are so pleased and honored to have Disney Legend and Imagineer Rolly Crump share with us—exclusively for Storyboard—his story about his involvement with Imagineering The Haunted Mansion, and what it was like to work with Walt Disney!

Let’s take it from the beginning. Back in 1959, when I first started with WED (Walt Disney Imagineering)—when it was still on the studio lot—one of my first assignments was to work on concepts for The Haunted Mansion. They put [fellow Disney Imagineer] Yale Gracey and I together; he was background painter then, and we were given a great, big room to sit in and come up with some concepts that might work for The Haunted Mansion. Before we officially started on this project, Yale and I went through a whole bunch of sketches, which were created previously because Walt had always wanted a haunted mansion since the conception of Disneyland. Because of this, Walt had different artists come up with concepts of what they thought the haunted mansion should look like. Everything created previously took an “old spook house” approach—where you had eyes that followed you, and you’d hear weird sounds and stuff. Yale and I took a different approach and basically started thinking about, and developing, the idea of illusions.

There was a little interruption for a little while as the 1964 New York World’s Fair came along, so there was a couple-year-lapse when no one was working on the Haunted Mansion. After the World’s Fair finished, Walt started giving us assignments again, so I started doing little sketches for a Haunted Mansion concept. As I wasn’t very taken aback by the sketches and approaches that other artists had gone with at the time, I thought I needed to take it to the next level. There were two films I had seen that had just stuck with me; one being Jean Cacteau’s Beauty and the Beast film that was made in 1946. In that version, the Beast lived in a huge castle where you would see human arms in the hallways, holding torches. As the Beast walked forward, the human arms would move forward with him to light his way. When he reached his living room, there were human heads on the sconces on the wall directly to the left and right of this huge fireplace, with steam and smoke coming out of them.  When I saw that, I thought to myself how great it all looked, and thought that we needed to inject some of that stuff into our own Haunted Mansion—with architecture created out of human parts. The first attempt I tried was with “the candle man”, which was a man with his hands up in the air, with his fingers on fire. We also developed a chair that would start talking to you—kind of like with Madame Leota’s head, except there was a face projected onto the chair, which would speak to you as you walked by.

After a couple months of working on this project, the Haunted Mansion was handed back to (Disney Animator/Imagineer) Marc Davis and some other architects. So we all started working together to create a presentation that we could start showing to Walt.

The room where we gave the presentation to Walt had a very long table in the center. That morning, Walt came in through the door and sat on one end of the table, looking down it. (Disney Animator/Imagineer) Claude Coats’s presentation was positioned on the right of the table. Marc’s was directly in front. The architects had their stuff on the left… and they put all of my stuff in a corner of the room, behind Walt. After a four hour presentation with Walt, when everyone had finished presenting, Walt asked, "What's this stuff behind me?"

The boys in the room told him, "Well, that’s something Rolly has been working on."

“What is it that Rolly has been working on?” Walt asked.

They told him, "You should ask Rolly about that."

“Well, Rolly, what have you got?” Walt asked, turning to me. I told him, “I don't know… “ and then I told him the same story about the two films that I had seen, telling him that I thought the Haunted Mansion stuff should have some serial-istic stuff in it because of all the illusions we could potentially create. If we could really lean in that direction and start doing stuff we had ever done before, I thought this ride could be really magical.

So Walt said, “explain it to me,” so I started telling him about it; and after I was done, he said, "This is kind of weird… YEAH, this is really weird." After going back and forth for five or so minutes with me on how we can actually use this stuff in the ride, Walt stood up and walked out. When he had left, the rest of the guys in the room told me they knew Walt wouldn't like my concepts because they were too weird, but I said that it's alright, because I was just having a lot of fun.

The very next morning, I got into work at 7:30 and Walt Disney was sitting I my chair, at my desk…! When I walked up, Walt said, “Rolly, you son of a gun! I didn’t get an ounce of sleep last night because of all those sketches and concepts you showed me yesterday… they were so weird!” Immediately, I profusely apologized, and he responded, “Don’t feel sorry—I came up with an answer. We’re going to do a 'Museum of the Weird.' We are going to have our Haunted Mansion, but when you exit it, we are going to advertise that we’ve gone around the world and have found everything we can find that is weird to display in that exit area.”

Walt then gathered the original six guys who were in the meeting with us the day before, and took them all through the whole thing of how exactly the "Museum of the Weird" was going to be built, where it was going to be used, and how it was going to work. He gave about a 45 minute presentation before he said he was tired, got up, and left to go home. That was when the rest of the guys turned to me and changed their tune, "We really knew you had something there, Rolly."


Yale had a book called The Boy Mechanic, which was part of a series by Popular Mechanics, and the copy he had was published in 1913. This book had a little illustration in there on how to do Pepper's Ghost using a little skeleton hanging there, and it had line-drawings, too, showing where the piece of glass went and everything. Yale was really quite intrigued with that. As we always worked on models, whenever we showed Walt a concept, we did a model of it. So Yale built a little model of Pepper's Ghost to show Walt, which he got a charge out of. But what we needed to do was really take it to the next level. Yale and I worked for a solid year on illusions for the Mansion, as well as ideas to put in there. And so probably I'd say within the first nine months, we did a full-scale mock of Pepper's Ghost in one of the sound stages at Disney Studios. We did all kinds of stuff with it. It was full-size, so you can bring an audience in and put on a little bit of a show, without showing them how it worked, but still giving them the illusion.

[Editor’s note: The most popular effect in Disney’s Haunted Mansion also happens to be the oldest. “Pepper’s Ghost,” a trick that utilizes both light and glass, was named after British inventor John Henry Pepper. The effect basically entails lighting an object from behind glass, which causes it to produce a ghost-like reflection in another room/area. While it was Pepper who popularized the illusion in 1860, he didn’t invent it. Its origins date as far back as the 1500s.]

"Pepper’s Ghost" is an illusion is one you can use in many, many ways. The way we used it is the Haunted Mansion's ballroom sequence. Prior to the ride, we designed separate rooms like little theaters, so you would be working your way through the Haunted Mansion, accompanied by a Ghost Host (you wouldn’t see him, just hear him), but he would take you through the rooms and through the scenes.

At that time—and while Walt was still alive—the Haunted Mansion was always a walk-through and was not yet a ride. [The ride opened in 1969, three years after Walt's passing.] This was great because the illusions we developed in the walk-through was able to get the public more involved with the attraction as we brought ghosts right in your face, and then had them disappear. There was one illusion that Yale and I had developed where, right after you were brought down in the elevator, there would be a gateway with a cosmic thing behind the gate. You would hear the Ghost Host voice talking to you, and then suddenly have a ghost appear from thin air, walk out through the gate, and appear in front of you as a human person. This worked as a walk-through, but you can’t have those types of illusions when you’re dealing with a ride, which is what concerned me when the attraction changed. We could have created much stronger vignettes to get the public involved if it stayed a walk-through, because when you’re in a car, you’re safe. But if you’re walking around the mansion in the open, we could play with the people and spooky illusions.

For example, one of the illusions that we had created had to do with an old sea captain who had evidently lived in that Mansion. He had killed his wife and bricked her up behind the fireplace before going out to sea. Well, when he went out to sea, his ship sank and he died… so the story goes that he would come back to his room in that Mansion. So we did this illusion where little by little, you would see the sea captain slowly appear in the middle of the room. When he finally appeared, he was covered with seaweed, and wearing the rain slickers that captains wore, with the hat and boots and everything, but he was a skeleton. He had seaweed hanging on him and water dripping off of him, and all of this was done offstage. We had another room to the side where we lit him up very slowly, and actually had a shower, pouring over the top of him so that all the water kept dripping off of him… and little by little, he would become more solid. And just as he was starting to become a solid form, the ghost of his wife would appear behind the fireplace. She's just a skeleton, and she has a shroud on her; and she charges out of the fireplace, screaming, flying out of there just to attack him. And just as she gets to him, the two of them disappear. It ran about two minutes long, and it was a beautiful illusion.

Eventually, we were afraid that maybe there would be vandalism throughout the attraction, which is why it had turned into a ride. So the best thing we could come up with when the walk-through transformed into a ride, was to create a ballroom sequence, with the effect being that you can see through all of the animatronics, giving it a ghostly effect. In the Mansion how it is currently, it is all cycle animation. The people are just sitting there, and sitting there, and sitting there… or maybe dancing in circles. But there's not that continuity of the storyline that a walk-through had. But then Yale came up with something incredible; he got a loop projector of a haunted face, and projected it onto a little Beethoven statue, so when you look at the little statue with the face on it, it looked like the little statue would come to life. When we showed it to Walt, he loved it, so that eventually came to be Madame Leota’s illusion in the crystal ball.

What can I say about working with Walt Disney? Oh god, well… it was heaven! I just loved him and got around beautifully with him. There was something about Walt that I felt really comfortable with.

Whenever we had meetings with Walt, I would sit next to him. After a three or four-hour work session, Walt would leave and everyone else would stay in the room, going over what Walt had talked about, trying to figure out what it was he really meant. I wasn't of the same age group of all those other guys who worked with Walt all those years—I was always the youngest one—but I really wanted to understand what it was Walt was saying, so I was very intent on listening to him. Sitting next to him through all those meetings, I would sometimes grab his coattails as he was leaving and ask, "Excuse me, sir… there are a couple points we talked about today that I didn't really understand. Would you run those by me again?" And he was really sweet. He would sit with me for as long as I needed to give me all the background information, making sure I knew everything I needed to get me to do what I needed to achieve. Sometimes, I would ask him, "What do you think?" And he would respond, "Hell, I don't know!" But because we were honest with each other, Walt and I ended up with a pretty good relationship. He was just a love. I loved him, and I loved sitting with him, and I was just very honest with him.

Sometimes, in meetings, when Walt would ask the other guys a question, they would give him a song and dance if they didn't know the answer. They didn't want to make Walt feel like they didn't know what was going on. He knew they were singing and dancing, but he still loved them anyway. But if I didn't know what was going on, I would always ask him. I felt comfortable enough with him to be a normal person, and in turn, he was a normal person with me.

If you ask anyone who knew Walt personally, you would get a different answer each time, because he would talk to you about what you were interested in, and his interest was always in you, and what you did. It’s very special. One thing that’s really kind of cute is that I never thought that Walt ever talked to anyone about me… but after Walt had passed away, we had a big meeting luncheon at the 33 Club in Disneyland, and Walt's brother, Roy Disney, was there. When I was standing in line for the buffet, Roy came up to me and asked, "Are you Rolly Crump?" I responded, "Yes," and Roy had told me, "My brother used to talk about you… A LOT." I was shocked because it never dawned on me that I had ever made an impact on him. But I have heard from a number of people, after Walt’s passing, that my name was used by him often, so that brought tears to my eyes, and that was really special.

It has probably been a couple years since I last visited the Haunted Mansion. I don’t get down to the park much anymore, but when I think of the Haunted Mansion, I truly feel that what we had designed was fine and worked out great… I wouldn’t change anything about it. We all did a beautiful job, and I don’t think it could get any better than that.


[This story was collected, edited, and prepared by WDFM volunteer/blogger Keith Gluck and Communications Manager Andi Wang.]