Dawn C. Chmielewski covers Disney for the Los Angeles Times and her latest piece is on the quest to find the best voice for the artificial Abe Lincoln that will address millions and millions of tourists who come to Anaheim. This is a longer version of the story that appeared in The Times..
It looks like Abraham Lincoln. It moves like Abraham Lincoln. And it quotes Abraham Lincoln.
But historians say it still doesn’t sound like Abraham Lincoln.
After a four-year absence, Walt Disney Co. pulls the curtain back Friday on a new high-tech version of Abraham Lincoln for its “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show at the Opera House on Main Street in Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
The animatronic Lincoln, incorporating cutting-edge technology that gives the mechanical man nuanced facial expressions, first premiered at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. While Disney engineers spent the past year accomplishing such technical feats as how to coax Lincoln’s synthetic lips to purse, they nonetheless left the audio pastiche of Lincoln quotes the figure speaks unchanged.
Instead, Disney remastered the original 40-plus-year audio recordings made by character actor Royal Dano. And Dano’s rendition didn’t sound much like that of the 16th president of the United States, prominent Lincoln historians say.
“I’m listening to Royal Dano again,” said Lincoln expert Harold Holzer, who has written extensively on the Civil War-era president. “You know, I am an absolutely committed Sam Waterston man. … I will take his readings of Lincoln over anyone’s on earth.”
Much of what scholars have deduced about Lincoln’s delivery comes from contemporary accounts describing a high-tenor voice. “He often was so nervous at the beginning, he would almost shift up into a falsetto before he settled himself,” said historian Ronald C. White Jr., author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”
The rest is inferred from a collection of Works Projects Administration recordings of regional accents, which captured a kind of the early-mid 20th century patois of people living in rural Kentucky, where Lincoln was raised.
“The very best of the Lincoln impersonators will speak in that dialect,” said White. As in: Thank you, Mr. Cheerman (not Mr. Chairman).
But other historians note Disney knows how to make Lincoln entertaining.
“What the people at Disney have done, and their genius of sorts, is that they do understand that people going to their venues aren’t going necessarily for a history lesson,” said Thomas Schwartz, the Illinois state historian.
Indeed, the primary objective of Disney’s imagineers was to restore the awe audiences experienced in 1964, when they first saw Lincoln rise from his chair to speak.
The engineers and sculptors consulted 26 original photographs and Lincoln’s life and death masks to recreate his visage.Then, they captured the musculature of the face using 16 micro-miniaturized motors pushing and pulling silicone skin. Tony Baxter, senior vice president for creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, said criticisms about Dano’s performance are all based on third-person accounts of Lincoln’s voice — no one knows for sure. And while he acknowledges Dano tends not to be as soft-spoken as the president is described, the late actor nonetheless evoked a Lincoln that is “emotionally right.”
Moreover, past attempts to change the beloved attraction met with fierce backlash.
“We changed the voice in the previous show and we got tremendous negativity, so we brought back this voice which has kind of been the voice of Abraham Lincoln for 45 years,” Baxter said.
– Dawn C. Chmielewski
PHOTO: “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” by Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times.