Coming up on 5 years at Imagination and I’m feeling decidedly comfortable… and unsatisfied. I’ve made inroads at Walt Disney World in voice-over and gotten some commercial work and can count on a Santa gig or two when ’tis the season, but I’d love a new creative challenge.
Meanwhile my pal Peter Bloustein leaves Disney and goes to work producing dinner attractions for Robert Earl of Orlando Entertains LLC, including King Henry’s Feast and Mardi Gras. Robert Earl is a British entrepreneur with vast experience creating and managing unique dining experiences such as the Hard Rock Cafés and the Planet Hollywood chain (In fact it was one of Robert’s dinner shows in Britain that gave John Bloom the idea for 1520 AD Medieval Restaurant when he ate there just before being evicted from England in the seventies).
When Peter left EPCOT he took with him my script for a western medicine show, and thought of me when Robert Earl decided to open a new themed show in nearby Kissimmee. So in May of 1987 I hung up the dragon and went to work for Peter and Robert to create, direct and star in the Fort Liberty Wild West Dinner Show.
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I’d seen King Henry’s Feast and was wary of working for Robert; the food was okay but I found the show to be rather dull. Where 1520 AD had been childish and bawdy and fun, I felt King Henry’s Feast was beautifully produced but too authentic and stuffy. If I’m going to create a show from scratch I want it to be exciting and truly funny, with a good plot and audience participation integral to the story.
When Peter introduces me, Robert shakes my hand and says, “Ronald, I need you to understand one thing about me. I charge people $28 for a meal that costs me $1.50; I put on a show so they won’t complain about the food.”
I ask him, “Do you mind if the show’s good?”
He replies, “Not at all.”
“Then we’ll get along fine.”
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One thing King Henry’s Feast and Mardi Gras did have down perfectly was the timing: the four courses of dinner were integrated brilliantly into the timing of each show. My first assignment was to time each segment of King Henry’s Feast and see to it that their timing was perfectly matched at Fort Liberty. Again I had to ‘Deal Creatively with Operational Reality’, but over the years I’ve found that such constraints almost always make outlining a new show much simpler.
The script I’d created while at Disney had been a simple traveling medicine show starring Professor Gladstone and his daughter, Kate. Peter and Robert hand me a list of new show elements to integrate: the new setting will be a U.S. Cavalry Fort… live musical accompaniment will be provided by a guitar and piano… and the show will include a selection of variety acts and feature the Big Mountain Family of performing American Indians. It’s up to me to make this new combination work.
It seems every time I take on a new theme I acquire a new hobby. Now I start reading everything I can find about the U.S. Cavalry. Cavalry soldiers were such a motley bunch, I know I’ve found the perfect roles for my wait staff and the band.
I decide to cast the Guests as folks from the surrounding frontier who are attending a ‘territorial gathering’. The Indians will be a local tribe, friendly to the Fort but suspicious of the Professor, and the variety acts will be part of the Professor’s newly arrived Traveling Medicine Show. For a ‘B’ plot, I have the commanding officer of Fort Liberty, Capt. Charles Hancock, fall in love with Kate Gladstone.
I then create three moments of Guest participation so each member of the family has a chance to shine onstage: during a hoedown medley, the waiters grab a Mom to dance with… during the finale the Daddys portray Cavalry soldiers in the Professor’s reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand… and during the main meal small children are drafted into service and put through close-order drill as ‘New Recruits’.
While I’m pulling the script together I’m also getting an education watching Peter and Robert produce the restaurant end of things – tasting and testing food, selecting table service suitable to the period, building the venue and filling it with period decor and fittings. We hire my buddies Handpicked to help with the music and bring in a super-talented consultant to help me pull together the various medleys. And Peter introduces me to a wonderful choreographer named Ellie Potts, who I promptly cast as my daughter, Kate.
Our new Manager is Bob Moran, a former Marine Drill Sergeant. At first I think he’s too much of a hard ass, but he does come in handy for getting our wait staff/soldiers to march and respond in a military manner for the top of the show – so we get along fine for now. To play Kate on Ellie’s nights off I hire a wonderfully funny former stripper, Wendy Clay, who contributes some great comic material to the show. And for the Fort’s commanding officer I’m delighted to get Norm Riggins, former Ringmaster from Circus World. Jacob Witkin comes over from ruling England at King Henry’s Feast to fill in for me and Norm twice a week.
For the finishing touch, I head out to the costumer’s to pick up my new Professor’s suit. My hero, W.C. Fields, used to wear the most outrageous costumes whenever he was parading in his films; I called these ‘parade coats’, because they seemed designed for making a big impression from a distance. I had told the costumer to make me a suit as colorful and ugly as possible…
Yeah. I was pretty happy with that.