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Published: Thursday, 2/15/2007

'Disney on Ice' costume designer remains true to the animated characters

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Timon the meerkat, left, and Pumbaa the warthog from The Lion King hit the ice. Timon the meerkat, left, and Pumbaa the warthog from The Lion King hit the ice.
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"Look, I just want to talk with Mickey. Ten minutes, that's all." Truth is, I'd settle for Minnie. I was desperate. I'd talk to Pluto. My deadline was looming. "Are you certain Geppetto can't be dragged away from his workbench for five minutes to plug the latest installment of the touring behemoth that is Disney on Ice?" It pulls into the Toledo Sports Arena next week for eight shows. Disney said no. Characters are off-limits.

Nemo? No. Cinderella? No. How about one of the Seven Dwarfs? No.

In the last 12 months I've arranged interviews with Brad Pitt and the Dixie Chicks, Russell Crowe and Will Ferrell, and as convoluted and tough as movie publicists can get, never were the conversations as perverse as they were for Disney On Ice. The publicists themselves were nice, but their hands were tied: I wanted to speak with someone inside one of the big-headed costumes and they didn't understand the question.

"What big-headed costumes?"

When you attend Disney on Ice, I was told, you are not looking at people inside costumes. There is no one inside those costumes. You are looking at Goofy, period. The publicists are always quick to say this with a wink, but it's serious, official Disney-think. I've always wondered about the difficulty of doing pirouettes and leaps when a big mouse head obscures your own. Beauty and Beast apparently perform a lovely romantic dance. There's all that Beast hair. How do you spin covered in shag carpeting, let along avoid tripping? I played hockey and I can't imagine doing it with a helmet that obscured my peripheral vision, as I assume the costume heads must. It's a fair question. But it implies Mickey isn't doing the skating - so, no.

Another fair question is whether the professional skaters, who must stay in character, ever wish they'd get a little billing? After 26 years of Disney on Ice productions, these shows have never been less than generous, and this year's, 100 Years of Magic, is especially impressive in scale and scope - a two-hour census of the entire Magic Kingdom, with 250 costume designs, numerous parade floats, a 36-foot-long whale (Monstro from Pinocchio), a simulated avalanche from Mulan, the fish from Finding Nemo, the all-green Army men from Toy Story, on and on.

And to think: It's all done by talking mice and fairy princesses.

Not quite. Disney did allow me to speak with the show's costume designer, Scott Lane, who has not swallowed the Kool-Aid quite yet. "Each costume has to look as much like the animation as possible," he said. Sometimes, as when depicting skating fish, he's allowed a little impressionistic license, but generally, no. "Monsters was hard. Nobody had legs." Then there was the Little Mermaid, "who can't do much on ice, in a practical sense. But who wants to see her sit on a rock all night?"

Lots of Spandex gets utilized, "and characters are from all different periods, so we come up with ways to make Spandex look like wool, tweed. From a distance, a speed skating suit can look like lace." When I brought up the big heads, though, he clammed up. "I would never suggest Mickey had a head. He's completely real."

When I pleaded for a clue, he said what you hear periodically from people entrusted with a cultural legacy: He is very respectful of what Walt Disney created and the standards he demanded. "I really think of myself as a gatekeeper of an image. I don't want to dispel any child's belief."

It's admirable, of course. It'd be easier to take if a Disney on Ice program didn't cost $12 and you could avoid the toy peddlers in your seat (alas, you can't). But as critic Neil Gabler writes in his acclaimed new biography of Walt Disney, Disneyland was exactly that, "a land under his absolute power." He was so good at creating fantasy, to this day we tend to forget people are involved when we're talking Disney. Just last month, there was a widely reported incident at Disney World in Florida in which an employee dressed as Tigger was accused of hitting a teenager who, Tigger said, was provoking him.

Indeed, the illusion is so complete, every crack becomes legend. There's the myth of the Mickey thrown in a fountain after hours and accidentally electrocuted. There's the fact costumed characters can't take the heads off in public, only in designated spots. (Likewise, practice time for Disney on Ice skaters is a very closed affair.) There's the fact that periodically a Pooh or Minnie will sue Disney for workers' compensation, claiming neck and back pains from being a jungle gym for children. And according to a book-length study of Disney by professors at Duke University in 1995, characters have fainted in the middle of Main Street USA from heat exhaustion; Chip, of Chip and Dale, supposedly once passed out atop a float and dangled from it, lifelessly.

But can the illusion stretch into the 21st century, with camera phones and YouTube ready to document every infraction? Disney will try. You know how they used to invite kids out on the ice during Disney on Ice? They don't anymore, Lane said. "Someone might be disappointed if they're not picked." Their illusion would be shattered.

"Disney on Ice: 100 Years of Magic" will be presented Wednesday through Feb. 25 in the Toledo Sports Arena, One Main St. Show times will be 7 p.m. Wednesday through Feb. 23, 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 and 7 p.m. Feb. 24, and 1 and 4:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Tickets are $14.50, $18.50, $27.50, and $37.50 from the box office, 419-698-4545, or Ticketmaster, 419-474-1333

Contact Christopher Borrelli at:

cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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