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Between Theatre and Themed Entertainment, the Influence Goes Both Ways

By David Barbour

I had a revelation the other day. I was editing an interview with John Haupt, who has done just about everything that one can do at world leading theme park company Disney. When asked to name the major professional influences on his career, the first name out of his mouth was Jo Mielziner.

themed entertainment and design theatre and disneyJo Mielziner? Anybody? Okay, for the younger among you, he was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s favorite scenic and lighting designer—and, before that, he was Rodgers and Hart’s favorite. His extraordinary resume includes the original productions of Pal Joey, The Glass Menagerie, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, Gypsy, and 1776, to name a very, very few. For two generations, he was one of the dominant names in professional theatre design.

But, really, why was I surprised? In the course of nearly two decades of covering various forms of entertainment, I’ve learned one thing: Everybody, but everybody, gets their training in theatre school. It’s true of designers, directors, and producers; once they have their degrees, they branch out into film, television, and, yes, the experience industry. (Yes, there is film school, but so many people get their start in theatre first.) Some of them find a career in the theatre to be too daunting, precluding a stable life with a family; others want to work on a bigger canvas. Still others want the chance to experiment with the latest technologies.

Whatever the reason, I always think the best themed entertainment experiences are informed by a theatrical panache—whether it’s the skillful lighting of a dark ride, the stunning reveal in a museum exhibit, or the all-encompassing installation that creates a unique world of its own. It’s all theatre.

Nowadays, of course, we find the world of themed entertainment is, in return, influencing the theatre. The most notable example is the emergence of the Disney organization as a major producer of Broadway musicals. It’s typical of Disney, I think, that, to mark this endeavor, the company restored an ailing Broadway house, The New Amsterdam, creating the perfect, larger-than-life environment for its shows. And, of course, the Disney shows are known for their astonishing designs and effects, from The Lion King’s animal parade to Mary Poppins’ airborne nightly ride through the auditorium. (By the way, it has become fashionable to denigrate the so-called “Disneyfication” of the Times Square District; as someone who lived in that neighborhood in the 1980s, when it was a teeming mass of grind house, sex shops, and massage parlors, I assure you, we can only be grateful to Disney for helping to spearhead the rescue of this storied neighborhood.)

Consider also the casthemed entertainment and design theatre and disneye of David Rockwell, one of the top designers of restaurants, museum exhibits, and just about anything else you can think of. I remember the first time he told me that what he really wanted to do was design a Broadway show. I said nothing, but my skepticism was sky-high—what are the chances of that happening, I wondered to myself. Now Rockwell is, in addition to everything else, a sought-after Broadway designer, thanks to his work on The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray, and Legally Blonde. The man who creates environments with a theatrical flair also creates set designs that are like little worlds of their own.

In a way, it’s almost inevitable that there should be so much two-way traffic between the theatre and the themed experience community. It’s a reflection of what I think is the biggest fundamental change in American society since World War II: The rise of the culture of entertainment. As anyone reading this knows, almost everything in our lives has been transformed into an entertainment experience—shopping, dining, travel, even the act of worship. A theatrical sensibility now informs our daily reality, a fact that makes a major challenge out of each new entertainment project. How do you astonish an audience that has already seemingly seen it all?

There’s another sense in which Jo Mielziner anticipated what’s going on in the world that is now called themed entertainment, and that TEA has helped to define. In addition to his design duties, he was also a sometime producer, at a time when a Broadway producer was the driving creative force behind a show. So it is with so many TEA member creatives, who take the wispiest of ideas and flesh them into 3-D experiences with fully formed narratives – excuse me – fully formed stories. In a very real sense, TEA members are taking theatre in new directions, making it meaningful to people who have never seen a play—who maybe never will. That’s a remarkable achievement.

David Barbour (david@plasa.org) is editor of Lighting and Sound America magazine, published by PLASA. This article first appeared in the 2009 TEA Annual & Directory, published by the Themed Entertainment Association, teaconnect.org, and is reprinted with permission.

Photo Credit: 
Top Right: New Year’s Eve In Time Square – Spencer T Tucker
Bottom Left: ATHENS 2004 City Celebration Event in Times Square – Edward Reed

See also:
Amusement Parks: Marty Sklar Announces Retirement from Disney
Branded Attractions: Visitors Experience Beer and Boats at Rotterdam and Heineken Centers
Themed Design: Modern Building Design Demands Partnership between Tech Designers and Architects
Theme Parks – A Designer’s View: Six Flags’ X2: A Ride of Genius?

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