Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Hearse at Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion

In the 1990s a horse drawn hearse was purchased from an antiques dealer for use in a proposed Young Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular show to be staged at Disneyland. When plans for the show were scrapped, Imagineer, Bob Baranick suggested the hearse be placed outside the Haunted Mansion. Following the philosophy of storytelling through the attractions, Imagineer Tony Baxter, inspired by the invisible dogs on a lease novelty items sold at the merchandise carts outside the haunted Mansion came up with the idea of having the hearse hitched up to an invisible horse. The hearse and phantom horse made its debut in September 1995 and proved popular enough to warrant adding this feature to the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

While untrue, the urban myth that this is the very same hearse that transported Brigham Young to his grave persist. Much has been made about this false, if more interesting origin of Disnaeyland's white hearse, while I've seen very little about the, also interesting, and factual, history of the black hearse residing at the Magic Kingdom.

The black hearse at Walt Disney World appeared in the 1965 film "The Sons of Katie Elder" which starred John Wayne and Dean Martin as two of the four sons who return to Clearwater, Texas to attend their mother's funeral. When they arrive, they find that their mother is revered with almost saintly status among the town's population. They also find a darker story about their father's murder and how their mother was swindled out of her property. The sons are determined to set things right, meeting opposition at every turn.

This is a well made, more or less by the numbers, western, direct by Henry Hathaway from a screenplay by William H. Wright, Allan Weiss and Harry Essex from a story by Talbot Jennings. It has a very good cast, believable in their roles, plenty of action, nice cinematography and a score by Elmer Bernstein. The real star of the movie is not John Wayne, or Dean Martin, but Katie Elder, who never appears in the movie. It is the black hearse from the magic Kingdom which conveyed Katie Elder to her final resting place.

The hearse makes it's first appearance at the 6 minute and 56 second mark in the movie, sitting on the street, hitched to a pair of very live horses as it prepares to drive to the cemetery with Katie Elder's body.

It can be seen again, very briefly, about 2 minutes later parked outside the cemetery.

The hearse gets a lot more screen time beginning at 30 minutes and 51 seconds, when we see it's wheels being cleaned by veteran character actor, John Doucette as Hyselman. John Wayne appears to pay for his mother's funeral, only to find out it's been taken care of. We find out that he and Hyselman have known each other for some time, but that Hyselman can't, or won't help him, with details about his father's murder.

Shortly after, the swindler's hired muscle, Curley, played by a menacing George Kennedy, goes to learn what John Wayne wanted with Hyselman. Curley's manner is not so polite, and fortunately, Wayne returns to rescue Hyselman.

The hearse does not appear again.

We can see some details about the hearse as it appears in "The Sons of Katie Elder" which have been changed for it's appearance outside the Haunted Mansion. The most obvious is that the black curtains with the gold tassled edging in the windows ofthe hearse have been replaced with black curtains with purple tassled edging for its' role at Disney World, while retaining the same design. Also the wheels have been replaced. In the movie all four wheels are the same size, while outside the Haunted Mansion, the front wheels are much smaller. The wheel rims themselves also appear a bit thicker on the current incarnation. The four decorative elements on the corners of the hearse's roof have also been removed, as has the railing behind the driver's seat, replaced by two lamps.

Interestingly the tack worn by the phantom horse appears to be close to, if not identical, to the tack worn by the horses in the movie, making me wonder if this was not also original to the movie and purchased along with the hearse.

Disneyland hearse image source


Dave Lowe said...

Every great prop has a story. Never knew this.

George Taylor said...


TokyoMagic! said...

The last two times I went to Disneyland (both visits were very recent), I heard the "braying" of a horse coming from where the hearse is parked. Do you know if this is a new sound effect? I don't remember ever hearing this before.

FoxxFur said...

One thing about the Florida hearse is that, for the first decade or so of its' tenure in Florida, it seemingly was away as much as it was available for photos. As it turns out, it actually had been sitting out in the sun for twenty years or however long it was, and the wood had been bleached dry. Bringing it to Florida, a very wet climate, caused no end of upkeep problems with the hearse as it slowly became acclimated to the weather, like being rained on every day for six months.

Another strange story about the hearse: for a few years, Disney was experimenting with replacing the glass on the side facing away from the Mansion with some sort of silvered, treated glass. The idea was that this glass would have a holographic image of some sort in it that would be very hard to detect with your eyes but which, when illuminated with a camera flash, would reveal a body laying in the hearse... only in the photograph.

I have no idea how this was actually going to be done, but apparently it was a very real possibility at one point.

John Rozum said...

TokyoMagic: I do think the horse braying sound effect was a case of "plussing" the hearse at a later date, but after searching could not find any documentation to back this up. I vaguely recall watching something with Tony Baxter talking about this. I don't think it was added too recently though. It does only sound only once every so many seconds or minutes, so depending on when, and for how long you were standing nearby, and what the crowds were like that day, you could easily have missed it.

FoxxFur: I hadn't heard either of those stories before, but I would certainly believe it about the wood. I'm not sure how the photography thing would work. I've seen similar effects without the holgram aspect, using one way mirrors and dimming the lights on the back side, or brightening them in order to let you see what is there. So this aspect of it is simple, but if people were photographing the glass with a flash, they'd merely get a reflection of their flash showing up on the glass, so that wouldn't work. If they didn't use a flash, it wouldn't work either, but it would certainly be cool if it did.

Thanks everyone for stopping by.

Ethan Rogers Caren said...

Regarding the black hearse at Disneyworld... My Grandfather, Russ Rogers was an antique dealer among many other things and purchased a black hearse at a Pennsylvania auction. Shortly before the black Disney World hearse arrived on scene, representatives of Disney visited my grandfather, saw his hearse, and purchased it. When he delivered the hearse, he was directed to one of many huge warehouses where Disney stores props. I'd like to think the black hearse in front of the Haunted Mansion is the same as the one my brother and I played in as children. It sure looks like the same one. I would wager this could be proven or disproven by some records at Disney.
An interesting story: my brother was with my grandfather when he purchased the hearse. Later in the day, my brother crawled in the hearse and took a nap. Some passerbys saw him and came closer to get a better view. When he suddenly woke and looked up at them, they almost jumped out of their socks.