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Voice of Disneyland's Lincoln takes criticism

The animatronic president is set to debut after getting a high-tech update. But scholars say his speech, unchanged from when it appeared decades ago, is not like the real thing.

December 18, 2009|By Dawn C. Chmielewski
  • Abraham Lincoln has the same voice as before but now has cutting-edge technology that gives him nuanced facial expressions.
Abraham Lincoln has the same voice as before but now has cutting-edge technology… (Don Kelsen / Los Angeles…)

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 today on a new high-tech version of Lincoln for its "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" show at the Opera House on Main Street in Disneyland.

The animatronic Lincoln, incorporating cutting-edge technology that gives the mechanical man nuanced, lifelike facial expressions and lip movements, first premiered debuted at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.

While Although Disney imagineers spent the last year sweating such technological details as how to coax Lincoln's synthetic lips to purse as if he were saying "oooh," they nonetheless left the audio pastiche of Lincoln quotes that the figure speaks unchanged.

Instead, Disney dusted off and remastered the original 40-plus-year audio recordings made by character actor Royal Dano. And Dano's rendition, despite being identified in the public's mind as the voice of Lincoln, 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 35 books about 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."

To be sure, no one living today has ever heard Lincoln speak -- and there are no recordings. Much of what scholars have deduced about Lincoln's delivery comes from contemporary accounts of his relatively 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- to mid-20th century patois of people living in rural Kentucky, where Lincoln was raised. Waterston, for example, studied these recordings in the Library of Congress for his role as the president in an NBC miniseries, "Gore Vidal's Lincoln."

"The very best of the Lincoln impersonators will speak in that dialect," said White said, a La Canada resident. "They'll speak as if they're from rural Indiana, rural Kentucky."

As in: Thank you, Mr. Cheerman (not Mr. Chairman).

Getting Mr. Lincoln pitch-perfect has been the subject of considerable interest -- and not a small amount of controversy -- among historians.

"I do think the voice is important -- to get the accent right," Holzer said. "We've been all over the lot on this. Is it Raymond Massey? Is it Richard Boone? Gregrory Peck played Lincoln in a miniseries ("The Blue and The Gray")."

But other historians note that Disney doesn't misrepresent Lincoln, even if the audience that sits for the 15-minute presentation may not necessarily glean the richer context behind the five speeches that have been excerpted.

"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, Illinois' state historian and the chief consultant on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Indeed, the primary objective of Disney's imagineers was to restore the sense of skin-prickling awe audiences experienced in 1964, when they first saw Mr. Lincoln rise, somewhat herky-jerky, from his chair to speak.

In their latest effort, the engineers worked to create a more lifelike Lincoln, with sculptors consulting 26 original photographs, and his life and death masks to re-create his visage -- down to the asymmetry of his mouth and eyebrows. Then, engineers figured out how to capture the musculature of the face using 16 micro-miniaturized motors pushing and pulling silicone skin.

Besides, say Disney executives, a voice is often in the ears of beholders.

Tony Baxter, senior vice president for creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, said criticisms about the authenticity of Dano's performance are all based on third-person accounts of Lincoln's voice -- no one knows for sure. And while although Baxter acknowledges that 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. "Weighing it all, it felt like more of a humbling voice that we felt was more appropriate with what we were trying to do," Baxter said. "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."

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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