If you feel clueless about what you just saw on this trailer, don't feel bad: I felt the exact same way. I couldn't figure out what the movie was about. Was it Disney? Was it about a man's obsession? Obsession with what?
All I knew is that its director, Stephanie Hubbard, and her main subject, San Antonio-born art dealer Harvey Jordan, are thrilled to be having the world premiere of the film at the San Antonio Film Festival (7pm Friday, June 22, at the Santikos Rialto Theater, and 12:30pm Sun, June 24, at the Santikos Palladium).
They dropped by the Current to give me a copy of the movie, and we had the following chat.
What is "Bible Storyland"?
Harvey Jordan: In order to understand what Bible Storyland is, we need to go back to Jeffrey Todd. After he unfortunately passed away in a fire, I acquired images he owned in Los Angeles. Each image had "Bible Storyland" written on each one at the bottom and, finally, I discovered that "Bible Storyland" was the plans for an amusement park 50 years ago in Southern California. It was going to be built by some Disney creators. One of the vice presidents of Disney left and one of the animators of Disney went to work on this project.
Were they disgruntled former employees?
HJ: Well, they were both fired. But at least the vice president still had friendly relations with Disney. And both of them were fired but both of them decided to create an amusement park that would rival Disneyland. And this came out in the press in 1960. He was going to rival his own boss and show him that he could do it. So they came up with these plans for a theme park and they brought on Jack Haley, the actor who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, as the president of the theme park. He was a Catholic and very much interested in religion. On a side note, the park was going to be in the shape of a heart. And of course, Jack Haley as the Tin Man went to the Wizard of Oz for a heart. The owner and investor was going to be Donald Duncan, who popularized the yo-yo in the United States for four or five decades. Those were the people behind it, but the park was never built even behind all that power.
HJ: Well, there were various reasons why it wasn’t built. As soon as they announced plans for this park, people started questioning, "How can you have a theme park with religion?", or "How can you have a theme park with roller coasters and rides and the Bible?" So the clergy was very much against it. And if you watch the film you will see what happens with the clergy.
Stephanie Hubbard: The film has a couple of other layers. One layer is Harvey’s journey trying to avoid his domestic life by immersing himself in all the mysteries of the park, so it’s also meditation on how do we go through real life when all we want is to be in a world of fantasy. And I also think we’re sort of really digging into how religiosity has changed over the years. It’s just a thread but it is thread, it’s still there.
HJ: Maybe one downfall of the park was that there was a secular element to it. It wasn’t going to strictly be a religious park. There were actually a lot of rides and attractions that had nothing to do with the Bible but from ancient times like Cleopatra, King Tut ... Part of the religious community said, "Wait a minute... You’re building a theme park about the Bible but you’re having King Tut in it and a 'Ride to Heaven.' How did you come up with this 'Ride to Heaven'?" And they would question each ride and the promoters of the theme park said, "Alright, we’ll take out that ride, and we’ll take out this ride and that ride." And the clergy still was not appeased.
Did you talk to any survivors and descendants?
HJ: We did. We interviewed Jack Haley’s grandson. Once again, this is the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. We interviewed him in Jack Haley’s old house in Beverly Hills. We also talked with Jack Haley’s biographer. And his biographer talks about how Jack probably felt very sad by the fact that he was so Catholic and wanted to help built this theme park, this Bible theme park, and the public didn’t want it. Or at least the clergy didn’t want it. We also interviewed, among others, Donald Duncan's granddaughter who remembers her grandfather talking about the park and his role in it too.
SH: I think there is definitely a layer about the park and the historical aspects of it, but there are a lot of other layers in there that really make [the film] even more compelling.
HJ: One of my favorite interviews is with Malcolm Boyd. He is a religious leader, a gay rights activist, and he’s involved with Mark Thompson, who was the editor of The Advocate for many years. And Malcolm Boyd is a reverend in the Episcopal Church and he actually worked with the Bishop who spoke out against the park 50 years ago. Boyd was also involved in film and we talk a lot about the influence upon "Bible Storyland" from Bible films in the late '50s like Cleopatra, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments ... There was a slew in the late '50s of these really popular films and Disneyland was popular and these guys came up with the idea of merging them and create a Bible Disneyland. Boyd was also a civil rights activist and marched with Martin Luther King. So he is an amazing character. He has written about 30 books and he is one of my favorite interviews.
And now you're having the world premiere in San Antonio, your birthplace. What's your story here?
HJ: My father was in the Air Force and my family lived in San Antonio, on Rayburn Avenue. I was born at Lackland Air Force Base. Unfortunately, I left San Antonio when I was eight months old and I never lived here. I now live in Los Angeles. But I like it here and San Antonio has been nice to us since we came.
SH: And I want to acknowledge one thing about the San Antonio Film Festival: They really saw our film, they got it and they're behind the movie. We've been getting a lot of publicity, I feel they're behind us, and it's a great feeling.
HJ: We went over to the Palladium and it’s a magnificent building, kind of like a Roman edifice. And to walk into the movie theater where my movie was going to play and see this beautiful new theater and a new screen sent chills down my spine. I said, "Stephanie this is where our movie's going to be, right here on this screen." So that was very exciting.
SH: We were at the Palladium and it had a red carpet setup so it was great when they handed us our badges. We had just flown in from Los Angeles, the home of film. So here we were, and we go into this mall and there is a red carpet and a little group of volunteers and they gave us our filmmaker badges and I have to say I was so excited to stand there with my filmmaker badge. And of all the places around the world this was the place that was going to show us for the first time, and it was so exciting.
HJ: It seems like there is great energy behind the San Antonio Film Festival, and we're glad to be here.
For more information, got to safilm.com.
— Enrique Lopetegui