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Authors: Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir

Tags: #Journalists, #South Atlantic, #Walt Disney World (Fla.) - Employees, #Walt Disney World (Fla.), #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Photographers, #Personal Memoirs, #Disneyland (Calif.), #Amusement & Theme Parks, #Biography & Autobiography, #Travel, #South, #Biography

Chris Mitchell (2 page)

BOOK: Chris Mitchell
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Heigh-Ho

D
isney heroes don’t have mothers—Snow White, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Ariel—they all come from broken homes. Mowgli was raised by wolves, Princess Aurora by fairies. Cinderella had a wicked
step
mother, Alice had a nanny, and Lilo only had an older sister to watch over her. Bambi’s mother was shot by hunters. Dumbo’s mom was locked up in a cage. The Lost Boys, a gang of parentless runaways, led by the ultimate motherless hero, were always trying to convince Wendy to be their mother. I suppose, Disney is sending the message that you don’t have to have a perfect nuclear family to be a hero, but I preferred to see it the other way around: in order to be a hero, you had to be an orphan…or a bastard.

From the moment I arrived in Orlando, I was aware that I was entering a manufactured community. The highways were dazzlingly clean, decorated with palm trees and hibiscus flowers, which, even in late January, were bursting with color. Gleaming rental cars jumped lane dividers like frisky salmon churning beneath tall billboards that advertised entertainment at every off-ramp. The sky was as blue as a Costa Rican wave, the air robust with the smells of fragrant orange blossoms and reclaimed water. And everywhere I looked, people were smiling, like convicts who had just staged a daring escape and couldn’t quite believe they had gotten away with it. Rolling down the windows of my Jeep, I inhaled Florida and counted a million ways my Florida life would be better than its California prequel. It took less than forty-eight hours to get an interview at Walt Disney World.

It was exactly 3:00
P.M
. when I stepped out of the Magic Kingdom monorail. All around me, unseen speakers played that song from
Snow White
, where the dwarfs are going to work in the mines. I had known the lyrics by heart as a kid, but in college, I relearned them as an ode to an easy sorority (Chi-O, Chi-O, it’s off to bed we go.), and that was the version running through my head. Families thundered past me, people of all sizes and colors and abilities, eager to cross the turnstile into the land beyond. The Pearly Gates, I thought to myself. Nirvana. The images made me laugh, but I swallowed the false sentiment. This was my world now, and I didn’t want to pollute it with disenchantment. Gray clouds were just beginning to darken the sky above the Will Call kiosk as I stepped up to the window. I carried a saddlebag with my portfolio and a copy of the
Orlando Sentinel
, folded open to the Classifieds section.

Experienced photographers wanted for Disney theme park. Must be outgoing. Please provide résumé and portfolio on request.

Under the listing, I had scribbled the words “Orville. 3:00. Magic Kingdom.
DO NOT
be late!”

To signify my dedication to the photographic profession, I wore a neatly trimmed goatee and just a hint of disdain in my scowl. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail, held in place with a black band, which made me look, I felt,
artistic
. The Disney security guard looked me over for a full minute before directing me to a row of office trailers on the edge of the theme park property. He shadowed me the whole way, his anxious hand hovering above his hip as I walked up the stairs to the photography trailer and opened the door. As the door closed behind me, I heard the first fat raindrops hit the rooftop.

“I’m looking for Orville,” I announced.

“And you would be?” The man behind the desk was so large he seemed to be overflowing out of his chair.

“I’m a photographer,” I said. “We have a three o’clock.”

He ducked his head so that he could peer at me over his spectacles. I counted one two three chins. “Meeting,” he said.

“I beg your pardon.”

“You said ‘we have a three o’clock.’” He smiled proudly. “I finished your sentence.”

I checked my watch—3:05. Either my pupils were contracting or the clouds were rolling in thicker, but the trailer walls were definitely sliding closer. “Is Orville here?”

“Sure thing.” The man stood up and crossed the trailer. “Follow me.”

He invited me to sit at a Formica workbench, then disappeared. The trailer was actually a compact lab about twenty feet square. It was quiet inside, only the purring of the air conditioner as a soothing soundtrack. It smelled of photo chemicals, a rank, pungent odor that was guaranteed to turn the stomach of nonphotographers but one that set me at ease. The center of the lab was occupied by a massive film-processing machine, which hummed and clicked and spat out photos more or less constantly. The rest of the lab consisted of a three-foot-wide walkway that separated the machine from dozens of filing cabinets and bookshelves around the perimeter.

I opened my portfolio on the table and laid out tear sheets from some of my more successful shoots. When I looked up, I was surprised to see the same enormous man was easing himself into a chair next to me, surveying my work.

“So you must be Orville,” I surmised.

“Good lighting here.” He pointed to a headshot of a guy whose entire face was painted silver. “Did you use a gel to get that blue tint?”

“I used a blue-based film,” I said. “And I had it cross processed.”

He was already on to the next one. “How did you get this ghostlike image?”

It was an action shot, a skater on a handrail, taken at dusk. “I used a slow shutter speed,” I explained, “and mounted the camera on a tripod.”

“There’s a flash right about”—he pointed to a spot out of frame—“here. At quarter, maybe half power.”

“Right on the money,” I said.

He nodded and flipped through my shots, pausing every so often to ask about one detail or another. His brow was scored with thoughtful lines, his eyes quick to take in the details of each photo in my book. He turned the pages carefully, his sausage fingers tapping at the page just outside the images so as not to smudge the prints. Finally, he shut the book.

“Very nice,” he said. He stood up to adjust the processing machine, then transferred a stack of photos to a folder by the door. Outside, the rain was falling harder, but inside the lab, it was cozy. As Orville moved around the room, he turned his body sideways to shuffle between obstacles, a maneuver that did little good since he was about the same width in every direction. Taking his seat again, his expression was inscrutable. “They’re called extreme sports, right?”

“It’s just a sample,” I said. “I can have more photos sent from LA if you want to see them.”

“That won’t be necessary.” He leaned back with his arms behind his head. His white-collared shirt was yellow in the armpits. “Why do you want to work here?”

I was ready for this question. “Because I like photography,” I said. “And I like Disney.”

His fleshy lower lip gave him the bearing of a spoiled child, pouting for another piece of pie. He blinked his watery eyes slowly behind his spectacles. “But you’re a
sports
photographer.”

I was ready for this one too. I made a speech about the similarities between portrait and sport photography. “The way I see it,” I concluded, “a photographer
needs
to have sports experience to truly understand photography.”

Orville nodded. “You think so?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “And I’m hoping to learn more about portraiture from the other photographers here.”

Again, the view over the top of the spectacles. Again the chins. One two three. “Bullshit.”

I wasn’t ready for that one. “Excuse me?”

“The photographers who work here need an instruction manual just to open a box of film. They don’t know exposure settings from sunblock. Half the time, they’re not even sure which way the lens faces. Now you come waltzing in here with your ‘three o’clocks’ and your cross-processed prints, and you tell me you
like photography?
” He wrinkled his nose as if he was looking over the edge of a box of kitty litter. “I don’t buy it.”

I was at a total loss. I looked down at the photos fanned out on the desk and back up at his round face, glowering behind the spectacles.

“I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Why are you here?” He crossed his arms across his chest. “What can I—what can
Disney
possibly do for you?”

Six months before, I had been on top of the world. I was the editor of a wildly successful skate magazine; I had a network of friends that I would’ve killed or died for; my family was healthy; and I was in a relationship with my soul mate. I was unstoppable.

Which was why it was so devastating when, one crisp December morning, my boss called me into his swank LA office and fired me. It seemed that some of my editorial content was, in the words of the Christian Coalition, “offensive, obscene, and patently disgusting.” Other critics pointed out that I was a “godless bastard,” a point I took as canny observation rather than malicious critique. As an example, he showed me the interview with Nick Elliot, which featured a photo of the prodigy wall riding a tombstone in a Florida cemetery. “I can appreciate an artistic statement,” he said in an unappreciative tone, “but you’ve crossed the line.” I was escorted out of the building and told that they would pack up my stuff and send it to me later.

That weekend, while I was still reeling from my sudden loss of executive privilege, my girlfriend phoned to tell me that she had fallen in love with somebody else and would be moving out. She apologized profusely, but she had made up her mind. That was that. In fact, “that” wasn’t actually “that.” I stalked her for the next three days, sleeping in my Jeep, only to find out that the somebody she left me for was a guy who, up until that exact moment had been
L
on my speed dial, and for maybe five minutes longer, was number 2 in my Top 8.

But the worst news had begun unfolding a few months prior. Sometime during the summer of that year, my mother had become very ill. It was a strange time for me because my parents never openly mentioned it to me, preferring instead to smile through the symptoms as if nothing serious was happening. The first time my mom went into the hospital, my dad said she was getting her appendix removed. The next time, it was a minor cosmetic procedure. Every time her energy sagged, they explained that she’d had a tough day or was coming down with something or just needed a nap. I was caught up in the rituals of my own twenty-something life, so I didn’t question any of the symptoms. I assumed a new diet might’ve been the reason for her weight loss and thinner hair.

Then, on a day that was already strained to the point of breaking, I got a call from my older brother, Michael. “There’s something you need to know. And you’re going to want to sit down.” He explained that our mother was very sick. She had a deadly form of cancer known as lymphoma, which was already in the late stages by the time they detected it.

I couldn’t understand a lot of his medical jargon, but I got the gist. Because lymphoma was based in the lymph nodes, the lymph was carrying the cancerous cells though the bloodstream to every organ in her body. Could they remove the lymph nodes? It was too far along. Could they treat each organ? It was too pervasive. In essence, there was no center of operations; hence, no easy surgery to remove the cancer.

Our parents had known about the diagnosis for months, but they didn’t want to bother me with all the messy details. Mom and dad had asked him not to tell me, but he thought I should know.

My guts turned to acid, then to worms, then to acid again. Instinctively, I looked for my shadow, but I was inside, naked. The words fought their way out. “Is she okay?”

“Not really, no.”

His scientific formality burned like frostbite. “Is she in pain?”

“Yes.” He added, “A lot.” At that moment, I hated him as much as I ever had. He was talking about our mother the way he used to describe med school cadaver research over dinner—distant, cold—relishing my obvious discomfort. The asshole. Still, he was being honest with me.

“Why didn’t they tell me themselves?” I asked.

“You know how Mom is.”

“I’m calling her.”

“No!” he snapped. “You can’t tell them I told you.”

I considered this. “You want me to pretend I don’t know?”

“Only until she mentions it.”

“Any idea how long that might be?”

His voice became brittle, his paper-thin patience disintegrating completely. “Maybe never. Just do me a favor. Promise me you’ll wait for Mom to bring it up first.”

I promised.

I was crying even before I hung up the phone, childish tears I thought I’d outgrown were cascading down my cheeks. My mother had always been my champion. When my dad was working late or hidden behind his books, it was my mom who was there arranging McDonald’s French fries on a crayon-drenched placemat to explain the wonders of addition and subtraction; acting out character voices from
The Jungle Book
story while music rambled out of the living room record player; and dropping me off, picking me up, then dropping me off again at the beach. They were enchanting memories, but they were just snapshots, dusty sepia recollections, brittle and cracked with age. From the past ten years, I had nothing. I wanted to blame her for disappearing from my life, but I knew it wasn’t true. I was the one who had disappeared. I had skated away and never looked back.

That night I lay awake in bed sweating, my head crowded with fears of mortality and questions about betrayal. In just three months, my entire wonderful life had fallen to pieces, and I didn’t have a single person to confide in. My brother and I had a fairly tempestuous relationship so our conversation made me feel, if anything,
resentful
that they had trusted him with the diagnosis. True, he was a doctor, but he was a pediatrician, not an oncologist, and he wasn’t
that
much older than I was.

I was in a sort of suspended animation, gagged by my vow of silence, bound by my own sense of stubborn pride. I felt helpless to do anything for her, weak. And I was humiliated by what I was certain was my parents’ recognition of that weakness. It was a selfish and self-centered reaction, the response of a thoughtless child, but in my disoriented state, it made sense. Unable to run to her, I ran away, desperate only to run, to find a Never Land filled with Lost Boys like me who lived in a world without mothers.

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