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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Kungaloosh

Here's a diverting non-Masonic post for a Sunday.
We climb the highest mountains, just to get a better view. 
We plumb the deepest oceans, cause we're daring through and through. 
We cross the scorching deserts, martini in our hands.
We ski the polar ice caps, in tuxedo looking grand.
We are reckless, brave, and loyal, and valiant to the end.
If you come in here a stranger, you will exit as a friend.
What if you found the perfect club, with a great clubhouse, a welcoming atmosphere, with a truly inviting and fun bunch of members, with something going on every night, that welcomed visitors from all over the world, that had a creed you could really get behind? 

Well, for a brief moment in time there was such a place, and the folks at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida invented it. It was the Adventurers Club.


The Club sat on Pleasure Island which was Michael Eisner's late 80s brainchild to keep visitors to the Disney resort from leaving their child friendly properties at night and spending their adult drinking dollars elsewhere in Orlando. So they built a live stage, a country western dance hall, a comedy club, bars, restaurants and other venues, and celebrated New Years Eve every single night at midnight with fireworks, confetti cannons, and searchlights.


One of those "other venues" was the Adventurers Club.




The multi- story Club was permanently stuck in New Years Eve of 1937, and it was unlike any other Disney attraction anywhere before or since. The Club was designed to recall a classic place like New York's famed 1905 Explorer's Club, home for “gentleman adventurers” like Charles Lindbergh, Edmund Hillary,  and Robert Peary (as well as drawing on some elements of Hollywood's legendary Magic Castle). With no fanfare, over the years it attracted tens if not hundreds of thousands of "new members" who wandered in not quite knowing what to expect. 

It was part static display, part animatronics, and part live theatre - that moved from eccentric room to eccentric room, with the audience as willing extras in the show. It featured a roving cast of characters who mingled in the crowd and traded wisecracks with them, while advancing the various story lines of the night. In the course of the evening, there were three "new member inductions" in the Main Salon which required everyone to learn the secret sign of recognition (no, I won't show you), the universal greeting ("Kungaloosh!"), and the club song, led by Colonel Critchlow Suchbench, Club Gleemeister (who could only be awakened by shouting "Free drink, Colonel!").




There was also the official Club motto: Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you, but always dress for the hunt!

Throughout the course of the evening, different scenes would play out in smaller rooms that had a sense of intimacy. If you went back multiple times, you discovered alcoves and bits going on that you hadn't known were there before. And while the roving characters were the same each night, the actors (who were all incredibly talented improv comics) would often switch roles on different evenings. While there was an overall script to follow for the whole six hour evening, it never turned out the same way twice.

The bulk of the show took place in the large library room, with a small stage at the front. According to Club lore, an air transport had been bungled and a massive organ crashed through the ceiling of the library, leaving debris everywhere, and they just left it there. Music for the night's various acts were provided by an invisible organist/pianist named Fingers, and the organ seemed to be playing itself. A highlight of the night was the competition for the Adventurer of the Year and its bilious award, the Balderdash Cup, which was always interestingly won by Emil Bleehall of Sandusky, Ohio, who had trained 500 one pound pigeons to tap dance on the building's steel roof to "Me And My Shadow." "But what could be more impressive than the sound of 500 one pound pigeons tap dancing on a steel roof?" Emil would ask the crowd. "ONE 500 POUND PIGEON TAP DANCING! Hit it Rhodan!" And you then, of course,  heard the crashing thuds of Rhodan on the roof.

Some of it was corny, some of it was bawdy, and a lot of it was downright hilarious. But most important, it carried the "new members" along for the ride in a deeply interactive way that few ever wanted to leave.  And after the New Years Party on the street ended, inside the Club there was the final "Hoopla" of the night (to which the proper rejoinder was also "Hoopla!")

Everything about the design of the place was just what you wanted a private club to be like. There were hundreds of photos, telegrams, messages from far flung places ostensibly sent by traveling members, and every single one had captions that could keep you occupied for hours alone just reading them all: 

"Hugh Speer Davey, 1890-1940 Essayist and Forester snatched form this mortal coil in a freak gardening accident." 
"Wadill Catchings 1890-1940 Climbing accident, Himalayas 'He Never Bounced Once'."

And naturally there was a wall of shame of members whose dues had lapsed.

Pleasure Island was meant to be primarily for adults, so there were three bars in the Club and plenty of drinks to go around (the bar stools in the Main Salon could be made to slowly descend to the floor by the bartender, you know, just because).

It would be remiss to describe this great place without giving kudos to the folks who dreamed this concept up. Roger Cox was a lead Imagineer for the project, and he was a member of another old, famed and storied New York Club, Squadron A. But he had spent time in the Explorer's Club, and he knew exactly what he was shooting for in Florida. By all accounts a very funny man with a wicked humor, he had been high school buddies with National Lampoon editor Doug Kenny (who went on to write Caddyshack and Animal House). Cox designed the concept, the backstory, the characters, many of the scenes, and the overall atmosphere. As recounted by those who worked with him, his own larger than life personality made the Club what it was. 

Meanwhile, Imagineer Joe Rohde was responsible for the visual look, feel and details of the Club. Much inspiration came from his own interests. For years, Rhode regularly held a Sunday afternoon themed soirée in his backyard in Pasadena called “The Last Days of the Raj,” as a celebration of all things in a pith helmet. According to his assistant Susan Cowan, she eventually bought some 1,500 props to pack into the Club's venue, and the detail paid off.

Craig McNair Wilson, and later Chris Oyen, were Orlando writers, directors, actors and comics who crafted the basic script over time that would ultimately "play" for almost 20 years with few changes. They had experience with up close, interactive, improv work and had provided street performers in Epcot for several years before the Adventurers Club was created. As Wilson remarked, "It was the place we always wanted to go, but it didn't exist."

Alas, such a place could not exist forever. The Pleasure Island project waxed and waned as changes happened over the years, and after the stockholder revolt led by Roy Disney against Eisner succeeded in removing him from the company, the place was doomed. A running gag of the nightly Club show was the live production of a radio program to raise money to pay the $2000 lease on the Club (made slightly problematic by the radiothon's phone number being too similar to a local Chinese restaurant). But on the night of September 27, 2008, it was announced that the radiothon had failed, the lease had been terminated, and that night would be its last. The fire marshal plaque restricted the building to just 504 persons, and saddened members had been lining up at 9AM for the 7PM opening for their final chance to raise a glass, offer the Colonel a gin and tonic, sing the club song, and bid each other a final "Kungaloosh." 



Letters were written by the thousands, petitions were created, but despite endless pleas from thousands of "members" all over the world to resurrect the Club in some way or other location, the props were largely sold or cannibalized for occasional bar interiors. A "Kungaloosh" dessert appeared at a Magic Kingdom eatery, but it was merely a sop to the saddened Adventurers. Many members of the long running cast have reunited for several occasions, conventions, and private parties, but unless it is specifically a Disney-sponsored event, they are forbidden to use the character names and costumes that became such a part of themselves for two decades. Such is the way of corporate licensing and intellectual property law.

The Club building survived for almost another 7 years, empty, as plans came and went for the old Pleasure Island property, but it fell to the wrecking ball last year. 

The first time Alice and I discovered this incredible gem back in 1990, we stayed there all night, and then came back for a second evening. We joined as Presidential level members and proudly sported our member pins and canteens. And on the second evening, as the fireworks ended for another nightly New Years Eve and we walked down the sidewalk, we looked up at the clear Florida sky and were just in time to watch a total lunar eclipse unfold. We stood there like a couple of dopey kids watching the whole event, and as often happens, we drew a little crowd of others around us who looked up too, just wondering what the hell we were gawping at. And as the Moon started to reappear out of the earth's shadow, Alice asked the perfect question of the perfect evening.

"Now how the hell did Disney pull that off?"

2 comments:

  1. I should have known, Chris. We're DVC members and take our extended family to WDW almost every year, and the AC was my favorite place there, in fact one of my favorite places in the world. I've collected various iterations of AC polo shirts, pins, and Kungaloosh glasses. I almost cried when the AC died. Remember the banner out front? "Come in a stranger, and leave a little stranger."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good post. It's fun to be part of a darn great story. Even one that is made up or part fiction. I wonder what the Explorer's Club Initiation ceremony would be like? Probably a darn great story.

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