Who knew the story of renovating an old theatre and playing with some stage props could be completely intriguing to little kids?
Disney did of course, because they are master storytellers. Every attraction every created at any Disney park starts with a story.
We were invited on a media trip to see Mary Poppins and preview the backstage tour. Our guide was none other than Dana Amendola who oversaw the renovation of the theatre.
As an architecture and history nut, I was enthralled with every detail of the renovation from finding original light fixtures sealed in to old walls to the Ziegfield Folly ghost who has apparently not “left the building.” The real surprise was how much my children enjoyed it, 11 and 6-year-old boys are not generally the audience for a trip down architectural memory lane. Two weeks later, they are still talking about “knockers” and “Olive, the ghost.
The New Amsterdam was originally built in 1903.
Over the next century it had been stripped, painted brown and used to show Kung Fu movies in the seedy part of town (what is now the fabulous and family friendly Times Square). When Disney undertook the renovation effort, nothing of its former glory remained.
Since they didn’t have any photos of the original theatre they worked from the journals of ladies who had attended the theater. After a show the female theatre goers would write vivid descriptions in their diaries of everything from the carpets to the light fixtures. These were the primary sources used to recreate the New Amsterdam.
The tour included not only the theatre, but also backstage and onstage. Whenever someone “famous” comes to see the show, they get to sign the wings. I would debate whether or not the Real Housewives of New Jersey count, but Gia signed just below Sarah Palin.
Backstage we were all allowed to play with the props from not only Mary Poppins but also The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. Keaton tried on Simba’s head, which is surprisingly light. I did my best Mary Poppin’s impression while JJ tested out King Neptune’s throne. When our guide asked the children if they thought other kids would like to take a tour like this and play with the real props he got an earful of “YES!”
My boys had two favorite parts of the tour. They learned where the term “knockers” likely came from (in their opionions). One of the many treasures found hidden in the walls was and old Ziegfield Folly knocker. The audience used them to “knock” when they saw something they liked. You can figure out the rest, my boys did.
The ghost story was by far the favorite however. I don’t believe that Disney is making this one up, they just got lucky. One of the Zigfield girls met her untimely demise. She appears regularly at the theatre, but only to men (smart girl). So to this day, the overnight guard is a woman. It’s become a tradition to blow a kiss to her picture on the way out the door.
I hope the backstage tour of the New Amsterdam becomes a public attraction and that everyone enjoys it as much as we did.