Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Strange Case of Dr. Von Braun and Mr. Disney: Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and America's Final Frontier

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Strange Case of Dr. Von Braun and Mr. Disney: Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and America's Final Frontier

Article excerpt

In 1954, Walt Disney premiered an episode of his hour-long weekly television show, Disneyland, called "Man in Space." The show was meant to be both entertaining and educational--an early incarnation of televised "edutainment"--and was based on a series of articles on space exploration featured in Collier's magazine between 1952 and 1954. The Collier's articles showcased the space exploration plans of German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. They served as America's general introduction to the science of humans reaching space. Disney asked von Braun to help adapt the articles into a TV show, which would in turn serve as the basis for Disneyland's "Tomorrowland," a section of Disney's new theme park in southern California. With the help of von Braun, rocket expert Willy Ley, and several others, Tomorrowland became a space of acting out the possibilities of a future in space exploration; it even featured a scale-model rocket to the Moon.

Ironically, when Disneyland opened in 1955, Tomorrowland captured both America's hopes for the future and nostalgia for its past. Contrasted with "Frontierland," the ersatz American frontier that lay just across the park, Tomorrowland was a mirror image of America's frontier past superimposed on the future. Specifically, the myth and the "conquering" of the Western frontier encapsulated in Frontierland were reproduced in Tomorrowland, with outer space and the Moon taking the place of the material "wild frontier." Walt Disney wanted the journey portrayed in Tomorrowland's "Rocket to the Moon" ride to excite America in the same way that Davy Crockett's fort in Frontierland and the steamboat ride down the artificial Mississippi River filled Americans with nostalgia for their frontier-conquering past.

Taken together, the fictional fantasies of the old west and the space frontier reveal a great deal about American religious feeling in the 1950s. Both were grounded in the glorious myth of the American frontier. Throughout the 1950s, the memory of the material frontier and the possibility of the ephemeral space frontier comprised what Mircea Eliade called a "cultural fashion." Eliade asserted in his 1976 essay "Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions" that a cultural fashion--an element of popular culture, a leitmotif in a society's modern mythologies--represents a religious nostalgia, and "reveals something of Western man's dissatisfactions, drives, and nostalgias" (Eliade 1976, 3). More than just a passing fancy, these cultural fashions illustrate not only humankind's discontent with the modern forms of ancient religious practices, but also that "the success of certain ideas or ideologies reveals to us the spiritual and existential situation of all those for whom these ideas or ideologies constitute a kind of soteriology" (Eliade 1976, 5). In other words, by "reading" these cultural fashions, we can understand the "existential situation" of the people who participate in that fashion or movement. Popular culture and cultural interests are, then, according to Eliade, a reflection of a society's religious nostalgias, a culture's most primary and ancient religious concerns.

Over and against the specter of Communism, America's frontier myth told America's cherished principles back to itself; it illustrated Americans as democratic idealists, a people who believed in equality, free enterprise, individualism, pragmatism, optimism, and faith in God's purpose for their lives (Herberg 1955, 78-79). As the Cold War escalated, this iteration of the American frontier myth became entrenched in popular culture, and played out again and again in movies, on the radio, and television, as in Disney's Davy Crockett series. And as the 1950s expanded into the 1960s, the myth of the frontier in the old west became reanimated in the frontier of outer space.

Disney's Tomorrowland, with its beginnings as a documentary television show and in tension with Frontierland, paralleled the way in which the nostalgia for the frontier slowly became faith in the future in the American imagination. …

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