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History of Streetmosphere

Streetmosphere (or as they're called now Citizens of Hollywood), is a major part of the entertainment at the Disney-MGM Studios and has been since the park opened, in May 1989. How Disney brought these characters to the Studios is quite interesting and the entire idea was the brainchild of C. McNair Wilson, who would later become an Imagineer at Disney. This is the story of how Streetmosphere came to be directly from the man who created it.

C. McNair WilsonC. McNair Wilson

The beginning of Streetmosphere goes back to 1977 and a street theater company (SAK Theatre) that had about 60 actors performing at 30 renaissance festivals per year. SAK was headed up by a group of three directors, one of which was named C. McNair Wilson, (along with Terry Olson and Herb Hansen) McNair would later become an Imagineer with Disney. In 1982, the Disney Imagineers asked the group to perform in the Italy pavilion in Epcot from Opening Day of the new park although very quickly the company extended their act to the United Kingdom pavilion and following that, Imagineers asked them to add shows to Future World in Epcot starting in the CommuniCore area. By 1985, SAK Theatre company was performing 45 shows-a-day in Epcot in four different locations.

A group of Disney executives that included Randy Bright (VP of Creative Imagineering) and Bob Weiss (Later went onto become Creative Director for the Disney-MGM Studios) met with Wilson and one of his two SAK partner's, Herb Hansen, and quickly began setting up regular meetings between Disney and Wilson's group.  In March of 1985, Disney CEO Michael Eisner said the company was going to be “growing fast and growing soon” and indicated that they would be removing some of the old movie backlots at Disney Studios, Burbank, like the old Zorro set and other sets that they don't use, and wanted Imagineering to design a small studio for Disney in Florida with perhaps a small backlot and if possible, they will offer a 2 hour behind-the-scenes tram tour.  Imagineering took the idea and quickly began brainstorming an idea that morphed into what would become the Disney-MGM Studios. The Imagineers didn't want to simply copy the Universal Studios backlot tour model where the guest sees just a little behind-the-scenes information but Imagineers wanted it to be completely behind-the-scenes so that regardless of where you go, you will see real production and the how to's of movie making.

One of the original concepts for the Backlot Tour was to have an outdoor theater in the style of a 1920's silent movies era soundstage, where the stage had a roof to protect from the elements and walls of sheets to enhance the light.  Guests would sit in bleachers and the director would explain each part of the "film" and then a Buster Keaton type character "accidently" sets off a series of events and the entire place just falls apart as guests watch the entire slapstick comedy "disaster". Later when it came to budget cuts, Disney decided they should get rid of this small show in favor of developing a large stunt show-- the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Show. McNair did not want to lose the slap stick comedy and intimate with guest interaction so one night he had an idea: "What if when guests came down Hollywood Boulevard and they really are on Hollywood Boulevard?" That night, McNair brainstormed ideas with SAK cofounder Herb Hansen for different characters that would be there on Hollywood Boulevard to greet guests as they walked into the park.  Wilson drew a number of sketches and brought them to Imagineering the next day to Bob Weiss' office and showed it to Weiss, who asked what exactly Wilson's idea was.  At that time, Eisner had asked McNair to research the idea of the look-a-like characters like those at Universal theme parks where actors pretended to be deceased Hollywood stars. 

Wilson studied the look-a-like characters at Universal and discovered that the actors were really quite talented, but he found their work is wasted because the company spends a great deal of money on buying the rights to portray the star and most Universal guests don't believe that what they are seeing is real anyway, so they walk right past them.  Wilson instead proposed an original character idea to Bob Weiss, who thought it was "best new idea I've seen in years." At a meeting the next month with Michael Eisner, Wilson presented a collection of 40 characters such as a street band that looked like a Salvation Army band as well as the "Sid Cahuenga" character and based the character actor friend of McNair's from Minneapolis, Minnesota. McNair Wilson later asked his friend to audition and hired on the spot. When the Disney-MGM Studios opened, the Sid Cahuenga was on the cover of USA Today.

At a quarterly update later on with all the bosses of the Studios Wilson his character sketches on the wall and did impressions of each character for everyone at the meeting and said the characters will roam all over Hollywood Boulevard, interacting with the guests. Disney management loved it and Michael Eisner asked Wilson if it was street theater.  Wilson replied it wasn't merely street characters and it wasn't only atmosphere characters, "It's streetmosphere!" McNair had been playing with the word for some time.Everybody at Disney liked the name and idea and Wilson received a budget for about 23 actors specifically for Streetmosphere. Wilson was also tapped to design and assist in hiring actors all live elements at Disney-MGM, as well as the Adventurer's Club and Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island.