Over the last month, Disneyland buffs have found the true Happiest Place on Earth, which happens to be an abandoned Sports Authority in Sherman Oaks. There, two- to three-hour lines stretch down the block as hopefuls try to get into “That’s From Disneyland!,” a free, 20,000-square-foot exhibit devoted to artifacts collected over the past 25 years by agent-to-the-film-composer-stars Richard Kraft, who’ll have auctioned off every last piece by the time the pop-up comes to a close Sunday night.
It does resemble that other happy place down in Anaheim in that celebrities do generally get to skip the queue. Anyone who believes celebrities are all going to hell can find photographic confirmation in the photos posted online of Rachel Bloom and Rebel Wilson posing in a car from the now-defunct Orlando version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Magic men Darren Criss and Neil Patrick Harris have taken advantage of a photo op in front of a quartet of eight-foot-tall paintings of impending death scenarios that once resided in the Haunted Mansion’s stretchy vestibule.
Up the inoperative superstore escalator, out of public view, we find Slash, the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, and his girlfriend, Meegan Hodges, peppering Kraft with questions, not because they’re looking for representation but because they’re fascinated to have finally found someone who loves Disneyland even more than they do. These Club 33 members already own some posters of the park’s original attractions and are looking to add to their collection. “I am a diehard,” Slash says, citing his favorite attractions as “a toss-up between the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean — I’ll do everything else in the park to get to those two.” (And you thought he’d pick the Jungle Cruise.) “I wish I’d met you sooner,” he tells Kraft, maybe cognizant that some of the bigger-ticket items in the auction may be tough bids even on a rock star’s salary.
Nicholas Kraft, Richard’s 28-year-old son, aka Nicky, says they’re focusing on this as a one-and-done museum, first and foremost. “Drew Carey was going through and he was like, ‘I really want the Dumbo [ride car],’ and it was the first moment where I realized it hadn’t occurred to me that the Dumbo that floated over the living room of my childhood was going to be in someone else’s home. Richard and I have been completely checked out of the auction part of it. To us, we’re having a farewell party with 50,000 guests.” Only now can they arrive at that guestimate. ”None of us have ever done this sort of thing before, so when in the first week 10,000 people showed up, we thought. ‘Are those the 10,000 hardcore Disney people who care and then week two it’s going to go quiet?’ But week two it was 10,000 more people.” It was the son’s idea to collaborate with the Van Eaton Galleries on a less auction-esque, more fan-friendly exhibit with Instagram photo ops and memes, “to feel more like we’re sharing it and not just showcasing it behind glass. It feels like we’re having people over to the house again.”
Adds Richard: “I was never fussy about the stuff. It was always like, if I’m gonna have a Sky Bucket in the backyard, let people get in the Sky Bucket. So we didn’t want to put everything behind ropes here. One of the huge requirements was, I said we can only do this if it’s free. And there are two reasons. One is, I’ve just been waiting for the Disney lawyer to come down and put me in jail. And not the Pirates of the Caribbean jail — although I have a relationship with that dog, and he’d give me the keys. But selling tickets would have felt creepy on every level, when I didn’t charge people to come and sit in my Mr. Toad car when it was in my house.”
Slash, like many, has a hard time believing this is an “everything must go” fire sale. “Aren’t you holding onto anything?” he asks.
“Nothing,” says Richard. “The Daily Mail called me… was it a lunatic? And they’re right.” (It was actually just “fanatic,” but no matter.) “Personally, I like letting go of being defined by this. I’ve been a talent agent and loving it for over three decades, and in more recent years, I’m starting to add to that description” —he’s started producing and directing all-star Hollywood Bowl film/concert events, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Mermaid” shows. “And one of my other personas was Eccentric Collector, and I’m kind of bored being that guy.”
He lays out for Slash the sentimental root of the hoarding, as a way of reattaching to a deceased family member. His older brother, David, who would go on to become an Emmy-winning KTLA news director, suffered from Crohn’s disease, and family trips from Bakersfield to Anaheim happened only when he was on the upswing. Following David’s death in 1993, “I was really despondent and just found myself instinctually driving to Disneyland,” he says, “going down Main Street, knowing this is the same sidewalk I walked on with my brother, and even the smell of the Pirates of the Caribbean water or the feel of the lacquered hand rails made me remember these trips with my brother.” Soon he decided to pick up a souvenir — a vintage poster for the Autopia ride — and it was a fast, slippery slope from that to needing every attraction poster ever designed.
The birth of his son accelerated the mania. “I used him as my alibi to buy stuff,” Richard says. “I could justify it: ‘Oh, this tiki bird would look good in Nicky’s room.’” Dumbo’s eight-foot wingspan was no good at their house, so they got a new one where he could be hoisted through wide-open second-story windows. (“For a brief moment, Dumbo soared again,” Nicky says, “and he had that big, jolly grin, outside of a Tudor home in Encino.”) The new pool was as much as anything else a backdrop to display a 48-foot-long sea serpent rescued from the Submarine Voyage ride. For Nicky, “The chair in my room where I would watch TV and play video games just happened to be an Astro Jet.”
Richard and his brother David had grown up as Bakersfield’s unlikeliest film-music nerds, looking up famous Hollywood composers in the phone book and having their parents drive them to L.A. so they could interview the likes of Elmer Bernstein for their Xeroxed fanzine… as pre-teens, no less. It was an inevitable turn when Kraft, working as a go-fer at Cannon Films in the ‘80s, convinced the scrappy studio to let him start a music department, eventually leading to a career as an agent where Danny Elfman became his first client and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” his first deal. Now Kraft-Engel is one of the foremost music agencies, with Richard, the most fannish and least Ari Gold-like of all agents, “in nerd nirvana, as I’m making deals for Jerry Goldsmith to score [California Adventure’s] Soarin’ Over California. I get to represent Alan Menken, the renaissance man of Disney music. He came to my house and looked around and goes, ‘Am I gonna end up in a Lucite case?’ I go, ‘Probably.’”
And then, he says, “Nicky had the nerve — and this pisses me off — to grow up.” (Nicholas: “One of us had to.”) “The empty nest syndrome was just sad. So five years ago I put everything in storage and moved to a house that did not have one lick of Disney. And then, M. Night Shyamalan would not come up with a better plot twist. I became an old dad four years ago, (fathering) Daisy, a girl with special needs. For her, it’s all about experiences. The first two years of her life, she would only pay attention to things right in front of her — and then the first time we went on Small World, she stood up and started tracking everything around her. The theory of a friend of mine is that she looks like a character on Small World, so maybe she thinks she landed on her home planet. She does not care that I own It’s a Small World figures. She cares about going on It’s a Small World.
“And I had a giant keelboat that’s 40 feet long that my only real relationship to is paying $750 a month to store it in a warehouse. I thought I should let this go, let somebody else who has grandiose plans for the keel boat enjoy it, and let some of this money go to something that’s of value.” He’s donating an unspecified portion of the proceeds to two charities associated with his daughter Daisy’s disorder, Coffin-Siris Syndrome. The upstairs theater space that was created for the weekend auction also got put to use for events throughout the month, from puppetry and live animal drawing classes for kids during the day to a benefit Alan Menken concert that will take place Friday night.
A week after Slash’s visit, a musician from a different era comes in for a tour: Richard Sherman, Kraft’s client and the co-composer of most of Disneyland’s most famous original music (along with the “Mary Poppins” songs). He asks the same question as the newbies to Kraft’s world: “Is this all yours?” Every few yards, there is something with a Sherman connection. “I know this guy!” he says, spotting a Winnie the Pooh (yes, he wrote that one, too). He stops by the Small World figurines — which Nicky says his dad bought from somebody in a Frye’s parking lot in the middle of the night — and shares the story of how they had to add a parenthetical “(After All)” to the title to get around a copyright issue with another song of the same title. They stop by the Enchanted Tiki Room section of the exhibit and Sherman, Kraft and the bird Jose spend several minutes reprising that theme, before moving on to a scale model of Tomorrowland, causing Kraft to break out his own rendition of the little-remembered theme for that area, his favorite because of its unbridled optimism.
Kraft tells Sherman about some emotional moments that have popped up at the pop-up. “There’s a lot of emotion people attach to the defunct rides,” he says. “A woman came through the other day with her 8-year-old daughter. They were in the Skyway Bucket, and the woman was just in tears, holding a photo of herself with her mother on the ride, saying, ‘I never thought I’d be able to take the same photo that I took with my mother with my daughter.’”
Sometimes there is sentiment that even as great a sentimentalist as Kraft finds a little silly. “The carved wooden sign from Country Bear Jamboree was in my office for years behind the receptionist’s desk, and I didn’t hold it in high regard. I forgot it was there, because when you live with something, it just blends in. I just always thought Country Bears was like a big Chuck E. Cheese, so maybe I’m the wrong age to have cared about it. But here, it drives people crazy looking at it. If you miss it and you’ve told your children about it, it’s like, there it is, the Holy Grail.” (Adds Nicky, “A lot of adults who are musicians who’ve come through have gotten especially excited. I guess it’s like, ‘I’m a musician, those bears are musicians —I connect!’”)
The most surprising flashpoint of emotional connection, Nicky says, “is when people freak out about are the old parking lot signs we have hanging on the beams. They’re blue sheet metal, spray painted with some esoteric characters. But I’ve had 30, 40 people come up to me and go, ‘Ohhhhh, you hung the parking lot signs.’ I get it. It was at the end of a long day, you’re trudging through that parking lot, and you look up and see King Louie and know you get to go home.”
The Krafts have had second thoughts about letting go of only one item among hundreds in the collection: the store window figurine they call Melted Face Snow White, who didn’t weather the heat of storage so well. “We thought, we can’t display this,” says Nicky. “But then to have fun with it I started making a bunch of memes on Instagram of her, and suddenly she became the thing to see. You never see anything at Disneyland that’s imperfect, so to see the cracks of these things is interesting, because it reminds you, oh, it’s real stuff.’ Now, I would say 30 percent of the content that we get tagged in on social media is people posing with Melted Face Snow White — so much so that now it’s the piece that Richard wants to keep.
Says Richard, “The serpent lived out by our swimming pool in Encino wasn’t designed to be outside, so I felt really bad, because I was in charge of him and I cooked him. So I did a lot of restoration on the pieces I kind of f—ed up over the years. And at first I was embarrassed and horrified by what had become of Warped Face Snow White. But an experience of having a special-need kid is that you start seeing beauty in things that don’t look completely right, where everything is not typical. And I sort of fell in love with her, because I just think she’s sweet in a different way. And now we’ve had people come back through dressed up as her.”
An inevitable question: Why isn’t there a permanent exhibition of this stuff… like, say, at Disneyland? In some ways, it would seem like a natural — although the parks take a certain amount of flack every time they retire a ride, so it’s easy to imagine a mindset that involves not reminding customers of beloved attractions they ditched.
“Yes, it’s complex,” says Richard, “and now Disney is Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar and soon to be 20th Century Fox, too. I am not a purist. I’m happy when they replace or update attractions, because 90 percent of families are coming from somewhere else to a place they’ve never been before, and you have to have a 2018 audience go, ‘This is the most amazing thing.’ The historic aspect of it is for deep diver fans. And there’s a way to address it. Because the Disney archives has a substantially better collection than ours, and they could do a much nicer job and rotate out exhibits. I hope they see the demand and the love that exists for this, and if a gift I ended up giving back to Disneyland was a spark of inspiration to make a permanent exhibit… I don’t think it should be in Disneyland, though. That’s too meta. I think it should maybe be at Downtown Disney or over by the convention center.”
“You don’t think they’re going to find a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Anaheim and do this?” asks Nicky.
“Yes,” Richard sarcastically agrees. “I think the thing they’ll take is the sporting good aspect of it.”
The “That’s From Disneyland!” exhibit continues at 13730 Riverside Drive in Sherman Oaks daily through Friday from noon-8 p.m., followed by the auction Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. Limited hours have been added on both auction days from 4-8.