An Interview with Show Producer Jeff Burke

Leading the crew of artists and technicians who adapted Frontierland for Disneyland Paris, Jeff Burke was the driving creative force behind the attraction we know today as Phantom Manor. Audio producer Greg Meader says that “Jeff had a vision of what he wanted Phantom Manor to be. He knew what it should look like, sound like and he knew the story he wanted to tell.” In 2003 and 2012, Jeff Burke took the time to answer our questions about the creation of the ride and more.

What was your introduction to the world of Disney theme parks?

Like many of my “baby-boom” generation, my first exposure to the Anaheim Park was through the popular 1950’s television show, “Disneyland.” As a kid, watching Walt Disney introduce each episode with exciting descriptions of the Park’s different Lands, my anticipation of actually visiting such a wonderful place continued to build.

Then on a family trip to Disneyland in 1955 during its first year, I found the Magic Kingdom not only fulfilled but far exceeded my wildest childhood expectations. Those treasured first memories of the Park have lasted a lifetime.

How did you end up working for WED Imagineering?

After graduation from UCLA’s College of Design, I worked for a company that created puppet characters for TV commercials. A fellow puppet design colleague, Peggy Van Pelt, had moved on to work for WED Enterprises and encouraged me to arrange an interview with the Disney firm. Upon review of my portfolio of characters combined with my puppetry background, I was offered a job in figure finishing the Audio-Animatronic characters.

My first assignment as an Imagineer was to assist the figure finishing team in creating “fur suits” for the “Country Bear Jamboree” characters. From figure finishing, I was reassigned to WED’s model shop. Then, as design teams were being formed to create EPCOT Center, I was moved into show design.

You and John Olson have an on-screen appearance as two brothers in the eponymous segment at EPCOT’s American Adventure. Can you tell us how that came about?

Both John Olson and I were working in the model shop, when we were approached by show producers for the “American Adventure” attraction of EPCOT’s World Showcase to portray brothers in the show’s Civil War sequence, “Two Brothers.” With appropriate period costuming, we posed for a series of photos to be featured in the sequence. John was cast as a Confederate soldier and I was outfitted in a Union officer’s uniform.

Additionally, the sculpture studio created head busts of us both, which were then transformed into full Audio-Animatronic figures. Though it was an honor to be included in the moving “Two Brothers” sequence of the popular “American Adventure” attraction, it seemed somewhat strange to see oneself onstage as an A.A. figure.

How did you get involved with the Frontierland project?

Tony Baxter had already assembled his team of executive designers and we were in the process of determining which lands and attractions would be appropriate for Paris Disneyland in 1985. When Tony and I discussed the possibility of a once-refined Victorian manor house to be constructed with a weather-beaten and foreboding exterior, it seemed we had found the home for the Paris version of the Haunted Mansion. So the concept of Phantom Manor was born. When Tony acknowledged my interest in the lore of the Old West while discussing Phantom Manor, he asked if I would like to design Frontierland and that’s how I was put in charge of the land.

Frontierland at Disneyland Paris has certainly one of the most elaborate “mythologies” of any land in a Disney theme park. Can you tell us how it came to be?

A background mythology for Frontierland was developed after the list of attractions for the land was determined. Considering the European fascination for the Old West, we set the “story” of Paris Frontierland in the American Southwest of the mid to late 1800’s. Then we modified each attraction to support this setting and time frame. For example, Big Thunder Mountain, which visually anchors the land with the look of Monument Valley, also represents the excitement and spectacle of the Gold Rush Era. Fort Comstock, Frontierland’s visual marquee, stands not only as evidence of the early outposts of the West but provides a logical transition to the bustling Gold Rush town of Thunder Mesa. At the opposite end of the land the Cowboy Cookout salutes the ranchers and farmers who settled the West during the latter years of the 19th century. Although each attraction, restaurant and shop tells its own unique story, when combined they form the vibrant and colorful tapestry of the legendary American Old West.

Did the changes from the original Haunted Mansion, such as the run-down-looking facade, meet up with reluctance from fellow imagineers?

Initially, there may have been some skepticism regarding the dilapidated appearance of the exterior of Phantom Manor. We felt strongly, though, that the Mansion’s foreboding facade was important to convey a sense of mystery and intrigue as to what frightening adventures are contained within its walls. While there is an overlay of Old West stylization, essentially all the classic elements of the Haunted Mansion ride remain intact.

How did John Debney get involved with Phantom Manor?

I met John Debney through Tom Morris who was having John write new arrangements of the “Small World” score for Paris’ Fantasyland. When I asked John if he would take the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” theme and turn it into a Waltz Macabre continuity theme for the ride, his response was immediate. He played a short refrain of the familiar theme on a piano but in a minor key in waltz tempo. It was the magical beginning of what was to become John’s hauntingly beautiful orchestration of the entire Phantom Manor score.

Looking back, what was the hardest part in creating Phantom Manor?

The greatest challenge in creating the attraction was to declare it finished. To stop readjusting elements, fine-tuning everything from lights to animation and just walk away - just trusting that the spirits of Phantom Manor would take over when the front doors were opened to guests who would hopefully experience something new with each return visit - that was the greatest challenge.

Did you have to abandon any concepts which you would have liked to include in the attraction?

Fortunately, all the best concepts conceived for the main attraction were incorporated into Phantom Manor as it currently stands. However, the preshow and post-show are nowhere near as elaborate as originally designed. The queue which currently winds through the garden pavillion was initially intended to take the guest inside an ornate Victorian carriage house and stable where lighting, sound and special effects would have created an eerie atmospheric pre-ride experience. The Boot Hill area, which serves as a post-show, features only a few of the animated elements and special effects which were originally designed to provide a disquietingly peculiar atmosphere through which the guest was to exit.

If you could go back today and change something about the ride, what would it be?

Perhaps the main change I would make to Phantom Manor now is to enhance the nightmarish quality of the Phantom Canyon finale scene. Adding appropriately surreal projected imagery seen through additional wisps of fog would contribute to the otherworldly atmosphere this scene was always meant to evoke.

So... is the Phantom the Bride’s father?

The Phantom is possibly the father of the Bride or just possibly the elusive and shadowy embodiment of all that is evil - or possibly both!

Can you tell us a little bit about your current projects?

Currently, as a freelance designer, I now work in my home studio. Returning to my puppetry background, I’m in the process of art directing a theatrical production featuring dimensional characters. I’m also developing a series of illustrations for a publishing company which specializes in educational materials.

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