Magic

Magic!  What an amazing word and there is so much meaning in those five simple letters.  There is the “magic” in a child’s eyes when they spy the gifts under the tree at Christmas.  There is the “magic” that a stage magician conjures up by diverting us and seemingly makes impossible things happen.  There is the scary “magic” that real witches perform or at least claim to perform by casting spells and make potions and charms.  Then there is the fictional “magic”, the magic of The Lord of the Rings, Bewitched, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, this is the magic I’m going to focus on today.  This is my own history of magic.

I guess my first exposure to fictional magic would have been the television show Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York as well as the amazing Agnes Morehead.  The premise of the series was that a mortal Darin Stevens marries a witch a fact that he is unaware of until after the marriage takes place.  When he finds out he forbids her to use her powers in the house and of course this is impossible especially with his wife’s family of witches and warlocks always at hand.  This show was cute and funny and stayed on the air for several years even after having the original Darin replaced by another actor.

The next bit of magic would have been when I was introduced to the classic film The Wizard of Oz.  The Wizard of Oz is based on the children’s book written by L Frank Baum and published on March 17, 1900.  It quick became a childhood classic and Baum would go on to write fourteen more Oz books.  These could have made a great movie series but for some reason MGM, the studio that produced the original film, made the adventures of Dorothy trying to find her way home. A dream, so no future films could be done.

There seems to be certain films everyone is afraid to touch because they are perfect the way they are.  The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz are four of those.  People have tried to do sequels to Oz, but they all pale in comparison the original movie which was almost flowless in its making.

The Wizard of Oz in the 60s became a yearly treat that families would gather around their television sets to watch around the Easter holiday.  My family was no exception and I remember being little and hiding behind my father whenever The Wicked Witch of The West would make her appearance.  There wasn’t a lot of magic actually done in The Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy gest to Oz by tornado.  She walks to The Emerald City and meets non-human creatures and talking animals but the only magic that is actually performed is Glinda magically having the Ruby Slippers appear on Dorothy’s feet, The Wicked Witch conjuring the poppy field and Glinda creating the snow that destroys the poppies effects.  Of course, Glinda makes her appearances in a magic bubble and The Wicked Witch rides a broom stick but that’s about it.  To compare the two there was more magic in a half hour of Bewitched than there was in the full-length movie of The Wizard of Oz.

But Oz was magical in an of itself.  A talking Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion as well as talking apple trees and colors that were brighter and more beautiful than in our own gray world made this movie a delight for our senses.  And at the end of the 1930s when America was just coming out of the depression but was on the brink of another world war, that kind of beauty and unreality was much needed by children and adults.

My next stop in my magical tour must be Neverland.  I was introduced to Peter Pan fairly young.  My mother was a big fan of musicals and when Peter Pan starring Mary Martin was aired on television in the early 60s it was a family event.

Peter Pan began as a nonmusical stage play by JM Barrie.  Mr. Barrie based his play on his relationship with three young boys and the games they would play.  Peter Pan opened in 1904 and did very well.  Mr. Barrie was already a celebrated playwright, but Peter Pan elevated him to an immortal status and is the only thing still remembered today.  Peter became so famous that Barrie, told everyone to watch Kensington Gardens for a surprise on a certain date and when London woke up that morning there was the magnificent statue of Peter in the gardens.

It was in 1911 that Barrie published the novel that told the story of his play for all the world.  He titled the novel Peter Pan and Wendy, and it is still enjoyed by people today.

Peter Pan is a difficult role, and it was decided early on that a child could not handle the work in a full length play so a woman has been traditionally cast as Peter.  In recent times in cartoons and films as well as some stage production this has changed but more often than not Peter is still played by a woman.

Peter Pan has very little magic.  In fact, the only magic we see is Peter teaching the children to fly.  We know there are fairies as Tinker Bell is a main character in the play and we know that is by thinking good thoughts and the use of fairy dust that we can learn to fly.  Bu that is the extent of the observable magic in the play.

Let’s talk about flying.  When Barrie first opened his play in 1904 Peter had only one requirement to fly.  You had to think good thoughts.  Many children left the theater with that idea in their heads and soon found themselves jumping off roofs and out of windows thinking they would fly.  This of course caused some injuries but as far as I know no life was lost.  On learning this Barrie modified his play to add fairy dust to the flying equation and the attempts ceased.  I believed a similar situation occurred in 1964 when Disney released Mary Poppins and Mary seemed to fly by umbrella to the front door of the Bank’s home.  I know my friends and I spent some time jumping from steps with an umbrella in hand, but we never got air born.

Neverland is a magic place.  It is inhabited by fairies, and mermaids.  We know from the play that it is Spring, summer, Winter and Fall all at the same time on different parts of the island.  Peter describes it as crammed with hardly any room between one adventure and another.  And of course, if you go there as a child, you never grow up.  There is magic in the very soil of Neverland.

I was transported as a child to Neverland in my dreams.  Not long after seeing the Mary Martin TV special I brought to see the Disney version of the classic story.  The problem with Disney and Miss Martin’s work is that they watered the story down quite a lot.  They took out the scary stuff and so missed some of the best parts.  In time I grew to love the book that Barrie wrote mush more than the film versions.  To this day no one has written Peter the way Barrie did.  I would love to see new stage production that left it all intact.

The fantasy that taught me how to think would begin and end with The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  The Phantom Tollbooth is about a bored little boy whose name is Milo.  Milo has no interest in anything until one day a mysterious box appears in his room.  The box contains a life size toy toll booth which Milo proceeds to put together.  When it’s completed Milo gets into his toy electric car and drives thru into The Land Beyond.  

Milo’s adventures in the Lands Beyond are filled with strange creatures that are magical in some ways but they only way to deal with them is to think.  There is the land of the doldrums where you get very sleepy, and can get yourself killed if you don’t wake up and begin to think your way out by reciting poetry and equations as well as using your imagination.  Milo is saved from The Doldrums by Tok a watchdog.  This is a large dog that has a clock built into his side and he guards time he especially is after those who waste time.

Milo is told the story of the Lands Beyond and knows that there are problems there that could be solved if the Princesses Rhyme and Reason could be rescued from the castle in the clouds which must be gotten to through by way of The Mountains of Ignorance. This stuff is great.  He must first get permission to save them from the warring kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis the kingdoms or Words and Numbers.  The kings hate each other even though they are brothers because they each believe that their own kingdom is better than the other.  In other words, words are better than numbers and numbers are better than words.

Milo has many adventures in The Lands Beyond and meets many strange creatures including a Spelling Bee and a Humbug but he eventually reaches the princesses and rescues them through the power of thinking.  When he returns home, he has a new lease on life and is no longer bored as there is always something new to learn.  This is a lesson many adults could use right now.

As I grew up so did my magic stories.  First there was my comic book heroes.  Doctor Strange from Marvel Comics and Doctor Fate from DC.  Doctor Fate came first and made his first appearance in the early 1940s in the pages of More Fun Comics.  He is Kent Nelson who, as a boy, finds The Helmet of Nabu an ancient Egyptian wizard, when he puts the helmet on, he becomes Doctor fate with all kinds of magic abilities.  Doctor Fate would fade away with the rest of the comic book heroes in the early 1950s as discussed in earlier blogs.  He would return the 1960s in the pages on The Justice League of America when DC Comics rebirths The Justice Society in the pages of that magazine.  He would eventually get his own title for a short while but for the most part remain a supporting character in the comic book universe.  With the popularity of the television series Stargirl and the reemergence of The Justice Society Doctor Fate may soon make a return.

Doctor Strange made his first appearance in Strange Tales and remains a favorite character of mine to this day.  Steven Strange is a surgeon, skilled and vain about those skills.  He cares only for money and little for the actual people he treats. An accident renders his hands useless and in seeking a cure he becomes a penniless derelict.  His search continues, however, and he makes it to Tibet where he hears of a man known as The Ancient One who may be able to help him.  He seeks The Ancient One out and finds him only discover that it is sorcery that the Ancient One believes can cure Strange.  Strange, being a man of science, rejects this and decides to leave only to discover that the Ancient One’s disciple Murdo is going to kill The Ancient One.  Strange attempts to warn the old man only to be stopped by a spell put on him by Murdo.  The Ancient One saves both Himself and Strange and Strange becomes the new disciple.  After years of training Doctor Strange become The Master of the Mystic Arts and a main player in the Marvel Comics and Cinematic Universe.

My journey in fictional magic continued.  The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magic Kingdom of Landover, The Belgariad and The Harry Potter books all added to my magical fun and adventure.

Why does magic entice all of us so much?  Why does the idea of conjuring strike our imaginations so hard?  I think the answer lies in what CS Lewis once said.  Lewis, the author of the Narnia books said “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  And we were made for another world.  When God created us in The Garden of Eden, he created us in a perfect world and was grooming us to be like him.  He wasn’t looking for slaves or he wouldn’t have given us the ability to choose.  But the ability to choose comes with consequences.  Adam and Eve were told they could do whatever they wanted except to eat from the fruit of one tree.  They couldn’t accept that one rule and so were banished from a perfect world into this one.  And here we remain as Lewis calls us, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.

But God left in us a desire for our true home.  He gave us glimpses of that home in our imaginations and in the many books of fantasy that have been written.  Whether you are a fan of The Shire or Shangri La, or Neverland or Oz all of those places are glimpses of Eden our true home and the place we all long for.

The thing is we have another act of God where in we can begin to get Eden back.  God sent his son Jesus to pay for the sins of Adam and all the rest of us.  Jesus’ death on the cross and his ultimate resurrection pave the way to the real place of magic known as Eden or Heaven.  To return to that place God asks only one thing from us and that is to believe that Jesus died and was resurrected for us.  That’s it.  This is what Tolkien called “the one true myth.” No great acts of heroism or penance are required just belief that in the work God has done.  Will our lives change after that?  Yes, they will but the change will come not as an act of payment but as an act of gratitude that comes from believing in this amazing gift.  It would be the same way you would act toward the person who showed up at your door with the keys to a brand-new house or a car.  Just handed those keys to you and said enjoy it.  We would go out of our way to show our gratitude.  This is why our lives change when we understand what God has done for us.

I will continue to enjoy the fantasy worlds that are so much a part of my life.  These worlds have added color and excitement and mystery to this existence, but they have also been a pointer.  Little by little they pointed me back to Eden and to God.

DISNEY

It was December 1966.  I was 5 years old, and my mother told me Walt Disney had died.  I remember going out to our side yard and wandering around feeling a little lost.  I know I didn’t really understand what death was at that age, but I knew something precious had been lost never to be found again.

Of course, I didn’t know Walt Disney and yet he had been a part of my life every Sunday night for as far back as I can remember.  He hosted what I remember, being called, The Wonderful World of Color.  We didn’t have a color TV set yet, but those shows were wonderful.  Walt led us into the deepest parts of our imaginations and taught us the about the natural world on those Sunday nights.  He was woven into my generations DNA, and I believe I am the better for it.

Walt Disney, his television shows, his movies, his music his cartoons, his toys and his theme parks have played a huge part in my life.  They are part of what makes me who I am, and they help sustain me in the tough times.

It has been 55 years since Walt Disney died and yet his philosophy and his work lives on.  It has been in danger of being lost and sometimes the quality of what was produced was not always great.  The 1980s were a tough time for The Disney Studio but somehow it always comes back.  Disney always finds a way to fly again.

I think my first Disney film that I was taken to Was Mary Poppins.  Now I’m not sure I saw the original release as I was three when the movie debuted.  But back in the 1960s a movie could play at theaters for a couple of years or make the rounds to different theaters.  The Sound of Music was running well into the 1970s from its initial 1966 release.  Movies don’t do that today.  I believe I was probably about 5 years old when I was taken to Mary Poppins, and I fell in love with a wonderful Nanny that could fly with a umbrella and walk up the smoke that came out of chimneys.  Oh, and lest I forget, cleaning out your room with a snap of your fingers was awesome too.  One thing I disliked doing was cleaning my room.

Fun fact:  Julie Andrews was given a song in Mary Poppins that she didn’t much care for.  The Sherman brothers, Richard, and Robert, decided to write a new song for her to take its place.  When, I believe it was Richard, got home from work that day his daughter came in from school and he asked her about her day.  She told him that they had received the polio vaccine on a small sugar cube.  That was all he needed.  He got in touch with his brother and soon A Spoonful of Sugar was written.  It didn’t become a radio standard but it’s part of what we like to refer as The Great American Songbook.

In reflection it’s a little funny to me that back then children and adults took a vaccine without question.  Everyone knew what polio could do and they were eager to remain healthy.  Now today I don’t think a child could be given a vaccine at school and some parents don’t allow their children to get the childhood vaccines that are necessary.  Then there is the resistance of people to take the vaccine that could save their lives right now as we face a worldwide pandemic.  With the last important vaccine, we got a song.  What will get from what we have now?

Another fun fact about Mary Poppins.  Richard and Robert Sherman were the only composer and lyricist ever to be given offices at The Walt Disney Studio.  After Mary Poppins was released when Walt was feeling down, he would call the brothers in to play Feed the Birds, another iconic song from the film.  Mary Poppins had some stiff competition at The Academy Awards that year.  It was competing against My Fair Lady.  And though My Fair Lady would win for best picture.  Mary Poppins took best actress, Julie Andrews, and best song which was Chim Chim Cheree.  I always thought that was kind of funny as in my opinion that was the weakest song in the film.

Disney continued to delight, entertain, and educate me as the years went by.  Films like The Jungle Book would follow and Bed knobs and Broomsticks, with the great Angela Lansbury, The Love Bug and The Winnie the Pooh shorts.

When Disney first acquired the rights to do Winnie the Pooh it was originally thought of as a full-length film.  When the film was completed, Walt insisted that the movie be cut into shorts and would be shown before a full-length Disney feature.  The film was broken down into Winnie the Pooh and The Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery day. I know I saw both on the big screen when they came out.  But I only remember that I saw Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with my mother before seeing The Love Bug.  In 1977 Disney released the full film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Putting those shorts back together.

That’s something else that needs explaining.  Back in the 60s and into the 70s when you went to the movies you didn’t go to see just one thing like today.  There was always a cartoon or a short documentary first.  With most movies it was a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, but with a Disney Film you could never know what you might get but it was always good.  They even had double features where you would see two movies for the price of one.  I remember going to see a double feature Of Yours Mine and Ours and The Yellow Submarine with my family at a Drive In.  I was asleep before The Yellow Submarine got under way.

The Disney Studio had a policy with its animated movies to release them every seven years.  I was nine when Peter Pan was released again.  The film made its debut in 1953 and was magical from the start.  Of course, Tinker Bell became a Disney Icon opening all his television shows, I knew her well, but not so much Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Peter Pan changed me somehow.  It awoke in me a spirit of adventure that I never really knew I had before.  I went from playing cops and robbers and Cowboys and Indians to playing Peter Pan and the lost boys and I was Peter.  We had a creek across the street from the house I grew up in and at places the creek had banks that were four or five feet high.  That was good enough to become my home underground, like Peter’s.  A little way up the street there was a tree that was easy to climb and where you couldn’t be seen in the leaves that was my place to fly to.  When things got bad for me in one way or another, I would wish fervently that Peter would come and take me to Neverland. 

In The Bible we read Jesus saying that “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think that’s the great lesson of Peter Pan.  We don’t have to grow up completely we can keep the child inside of us alive and be filled with living in the present moment, finding joy in the sound water makes in a creek or stream, or being happy with simple things.  I remember when a refrigerator box gave me more pleasure than the most expensive toys.  The toy could only be one thing.  That box could be anything.  Maybe we surround ourselves with all of our adult to toys because we are lookiing for an empty box.

It was about this time that my cousin Maryann and her husband Chuck were moving to California, eventually settling in San Jose.  (yes, I am proud to say my cousin can answer the age old question, “Do you know the way to San Jose?)   The important thing was they were moving to the state that had Disneyland.

Disneyland was my big hope back in those days.  But there were six of us in the family and a trip across the country was out of the question.  We went on vacations.  We had great times down the shore in Wildwood NJ and twice to Canada.  We were even taken To Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, but it was no Disneyland.  The reason I bring this up is because Maryanne had a younger sister, Diane, in the year that Maryann and Chuck lived in California My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve along with Diane went to visit.

A trip by plane anywhere in those days was a big deal in our family and all of us went to the airport to see them off.  And all of us was a lot.  My grandmother my parents, myself and my brother and sisters and my other aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I knew that they were going to Disneyland and asked my cousin, more like pleaded with her, to get me Peter Pan’s autograph.  I knew he was there I saw him there on TV.  They came back and my cousin had no autograph for me.  She told me that Peter was played by a woman in the park, and she didn’t think I would want it.  I was terribly disappointed.  To this day on my trips to Disney World, where I know for a fact Peter is a boy I still hope for an autograph or at the very least a picture with my hero, but it has yet to happen.

This was the early 70s and Disney magic still filled our lives.  Angela Lansbury would play her first part for Disney in the wonderful Bed knobs and Broomsticks.  I spent many nights dreaming that I had a magic bed that could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and where did I go on those imaginary flights?  Disney World, of course.

!971 brought us Disney World.  This was a project that Walt himself had started before he passed away.  He secretly acquired the land in Florida and then made promotional films.  He unfortunately never saw Disney World completed, but he walked the grounds and imagined where everything would be.  Those dreams were kept alive by Walt’s brother Roy who put off his retirement until Disney World could be completed.

It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, 1973, that my mom, dad and my sister Susan and I went to Disney World.  12 years old is the perfect time to be in Magic Kingdom.  You are old enough to appreciate it and not old enough to become cynical like most teenagers do.  I enjoyed every minute of that trip.  The first time I saw Cinderella Castle I knew I had found my special place in some ways I had come home.

My friend Brad, who is a pastor, told me long ago that we all have sacred places.  Those places are unique to us and the to the way God had made us.  For some people it is great churches and cathedrals.  For other people that sacredness is found high in the mountains or the ocean shore.  Though I have felt the sacredness by the ocean I feel very close to God standing outside Cinderella Castle and looking up at the towering spires.  Maybe it’s because as a Christian I know I am part of The Kingdom or God and I’m sure that His Kingdom is filled with such fairy tale palaces.  Or maybe its’s because in that spot reality and fantasy bend and become one, and one day I believe that my faith in the things I cannot see and the reality that I live in now will also become one.  I will see and know God and His son Jesus and The Holy Spirit as they really are.  In my own head that all comes together in Disney World.

The 70s turned into the 80s and part of me did grow up and part of me got a little cynical.  We went back to Disney World in 1976 and I still thoroughly loved that trip, but something had changed.  I wasn’t going to many Disney movies now.  I put most of the childhood stuff away and had to get through junior and senior high school.  Those years were hard for me.  They are for most of us, and I had a hard time figuring out who I was.  I fell in love with other things during that time.  Movie musicals and stage shows as well as other activities.  My interest in Disney waned until 1991.

In 1991 Disney released the second of it’s renaissance movies Beauty and the Beast.  The first of these films was The Little Mermaid.  I hadn’t seen that.  In fact, I avoided it.  Disney’s animated films of the 1980s were lack luster and I figured The Little Mermaid would just be more of the same.  I was completely mistaken, of course, and found that out when I watched the film for the first time at my friend’s Manny’s house.  I was living with him and his family at the time in Syracuse NY which is where I would also see Beauty and the Beast.

In the animated film the character of Mrs. Potts was played by Angela Lansbury.  Sometime, before the film was released, in a Disney special on TV, as the finale, Miss Lansbury appeared in a beautiful gown, with a full orchestra and sang the title song.  Disney magic was 100% back in that song.

I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away by the incredible animation that was being played out before my eyes.  This film rivaled anything that Broadway or MGM ever produced.  Every member of the voice cast was perfect and well suited to the roles.  The scene of the dance in the dining hall took your breath away as much as when the king sweeps Anna up in his arms to dance in The King and I.  It would be years later in 2020 after Disney World restructured Fantasyland that I would I have a chance to eat in that dining hall in the Be Our Guest restaurant.  That was magical too.  Sitting there with my good friend and Disney Buddy, Pam, enjoying an amazing meal in place that looked exactly the animated film.  Disney had made magic come to life.

After Beauty and The Beast almost every Disney movie was a treat.  I’m not die hard, I didn’t like all of them but most of them yes, absolutely.  Aladdin, Tarzan, Toy Story, James and the Gian Peach, and more recently, the live action remake of Cinderella, Mary Poppins Returns and the live action Beauty and the Beast which opened on my birthday in 2017 all continued to bring magic to my life.

I am very lucky and blessed in my friend Pam who lives in Florida.  I would be blessed to know her wherever she lived but we are both fans of Disney and the last time I was in Disney World she spent much time with me making my trip extra special.  She also allowed me to talk and dream and she allowed me to be me and that is the greatest gift anyone can give another person. That was February of 2020 after I returned form that trip Covid 19 struck and paralyzed the world.  Disney World shut down and the movie theaters shut down, but Disney helped rescue us during this time with their new streaming service Disney+, that not only gave us a great portion of the Disney Movie and TV show catalogue but also gave us Broadway’s Hamilton to watch in our homes with the original cast.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece Melissa, her husband Chris and their kids Caitlyn, Dominic and Joseph.  They are a whole family of Disney fans and do many Disney things together.  We swap stories, pictures and recipes, especially for the famous Disney Parks Dole Whip and the Strawberry Soup at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Disney World property.  Disney is in my DNA and that gene got passed down.

In the 1980s my boss Barb had us watch the film version of a book called In Search of Excellence.  Part of the film focused on the Disney company and their philosophy for work.  No one in the parks is an employee.  They are all cast members expected to play a part as long as they are at work.  Once they start their jobs they are on stage and must play the character they are assigned whether it be a hostess or a dishwasher as if they are in front of an audience.  No attitude, a constant smile, no guest in a Disney owned business is ever to see a cast member in any thing but a good mood.  I was a dialysis technician at the time and decided it would be a good idea to adapt this philosophy as my own. I’m an amateur actor, so developing a work character for myself was a joy.  I’m not saying I was perfect at this.  I had bad days and messed up more than once, but I think over all I became better at my job because I believed that my patients were better served by a happy smiling me than a grumpy me.  I tried to keep that work philosophy wherever I worked, and it has served me well.

There is so much more I could say about Disney.  We got our first dog, Lightning, a dalmatian, after my seeing 101 Dalmatians.  There were other trips to Disney World, and I left out adventures in Epcot and Animal Kingdom.  There are wonderful movies that I didn’t mention like The Happiest Millionaire and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh both of which I hope you take the time to find and watch.  There is The Disney Channel that appeared on cable networks in the 80s but also imported a wonderful stop action animated television show from England, The Wind in the Willows, that show gave me hours of entertainment and also introduced to the breat children’s classic book by Kenneth Graham.  There is the fact that Disney now owns both Marvel Comics and The Star Wars franchise and has given us all so many new adventures over the last dozen years, and lastly Disney magic brought to New York City where they bought and refurbished many run-down theaters that were close to 100 years old so they could bring Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins to the stage.  Disney Magic in a whole new medium.

Walt Disney is quoted as saying “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”.  I am now 60 years old and find myself reinventing me.  I’m doing this blog which is new, I’m working on a book and I’m working on some other surprises for the near future.  At 60 I feel like a 30-year-old with a lot of experience.  I have something left to give to this world and as long as I live, I hope I have the opportunity to give it.  I believe that’s what Walt would do.