Jeff Kurtti has a career many would dream of. A historian of entertainment, Kurtti has consulted many entertainment companies as well as worked on multiple documentaries. Some of these documentaries being Walt Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’; The Making of a Musical Masterpiece, Mary Poppins Practically Perfect in Every Way: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece, Mickey’s Cartoon Comeback, and many more. Kurtti has also worked on multiple books that explore Disney’s history. His most recent being The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky. Wanting to learn more about his background and The Disney Monorail, I was able to interview Kurtti for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Reflecting on your youth, what were your earliest memories of Disney?
Jeff Kurtti: Like any kid, I remember Mickey and Donald, plush toys and Golden Books. In my youth, there was a Disney TV show on Sunday nights, Walt Disney Comics Digest, and comic strips in the newspaper.
Yanes: Why do you think Disney has had such an impact on you? Was there a moment in which you knew you’d be a Disney fan for life?
Kurtti: When I saw Mary Poppins at a very young age, it “flipped the switch.” Walt Disney was a real-life sorcerer and I wanted to be involved in that remarkable world.
Yanes: You have built an amazing career for yourself in culture and creative consulting. How did you manage to accomplish this?
Kurtti: I began as a fan, but I have spent my life studying the things that have had meaning to me—Disney, films, art, placemaking. They are all avocations that I have focused enough attention on to gain some expertise and authority. Someone once said “Jeff, you’ve been so lucky.” But another friend said, “No, that’s not it. Luck is opportunity meeting preparation.” I guess the lucky part is my seeing the opportunities when they present themselves, and then being able to contribute to them.
Yanes: Your projects provide a glimpse behind the scenes of many Disney icons. However, your work never robs these experiences of their magic. How do you strike the balance of explaining something without demystifying it?
Kurtti: As much as I know and understand the origins, methods, mechanics, people, and personalities of a given creative project, I maintain my own level of interest in those things, and learning more about what makes them tick. If there isn’t a compelling “why” to the story then it won’t make an engaging one to tell. The subjects of my works frequently tell me what their story is, my job is to document it, to represent a project and the people who make it. Keeping my own identity and opinions out of it is important—there are very few of my works where you’ll see any use of the “capital I.”
Yanes: Your latest project is The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky. What was the inspiration behind this project?
Kurtti: Our Editor, Jennifer Eastwood, was given a chance to pitch topics for future Disney “coffee table books,” and her sentimental nature took over. She remembered her earliest family vacations to Walt Disney World, where she stayed at Disney’s Contemporary Resort just about every summer. So, in Jen’s fond childhood memories, the Disney Monorail is iconic. I think she knew a lot of Disney fans feel that way, too.
Vanessa Hunt simply had to be a co-author. She is not just the “keeper of the keys” for the Walt Disney Imagineering Art Collection, she has a laser-sharp understanding of a kind of cultural meaning in the works she curates, she’s a big enough fan to know what will be of the most interest, and an unerring sense of visual rhythm—as well as a deep conscience about the quality of image reproduction.
I’ve known Paul Wolski for thirty years, and we’ve been good friends and colleagues so our views are very simpatico. It was as our Disney Christmas Card book went to press that we talked about this project, and he was inspired by the story and the artwork, and that notion of an “optimistic future,” to bring together all the storytelling into a unified visual statement. Working with the vast number of images that Vanessa “curated” like an exhibit designer was a huge benefit to the overall “look” of things.
Yanes: While doing research on Disney’s monorails, what were some facts you learned about it that surprised you?
Kurtti: I don’t think I had an awareness of how proactive Walt was in trying to get the city and county of Los Angeles to examine the Monorail as a viable transportation system for commuter application. It’s often referred to in the Disney vernacular, or in passing as part of the mythos; but his cheerleading to municipal leaders who dismissed him as an “entertainer” was fascinating—and a little heartbreaking.
I also had never put together how many early Disneyland design iterations of “Tomorrowland” feature a monorail as an expectation, as an expression of futurism. It’s there from the earliest notions of the Park.
Yanes: There are monorails all over the world, yet none of them are as iconic as Disney’s. Why do you think the Disney’s monorails have captured the public’s imagination?
Kurtti: Whereas boats and buses are historically embedded into the transportation landscape and feel quite familiar to us, neither captures the imagination like the monorail does—especially the Disney Monorail. It has always been portrayed and perceived as a kind of futuristic, floating train, sleek and silent gliding overhead. In a way the Monorail symbolizes Walt’s spirit of exploration, discovery and possibility—and Disney fans connect to those feelings.
Boats and busses were a utilitarian afterthought or a successor concept. They’re mundane and familiar. The monorail was such innovation in its time, and Disneyland so embedded the Monorail as a “Disney thing,” that it became a part of the cultural vernacular.
No one thinks it’s weird, for instance, that there is a realistic scale version of an Alpine mountain sprouting from the flat grove land of Anaheim. Because Disney made it part of a cultural statement that we all grew up with. Such with the Monorail. It’s just come down the generations as a “Disney thing.”
Yanes: When people finish reading this book, what do you hope they take away from it?
Kurtti: Firstly, I hope that it gives them a few hours of escape and pleasure in a very stressful and weary world. Secondly, I hope they see something, learn something, or think about something that they haven’t before.
Maybe when the world turns around, they will ride the Monorail again with a renewed appreciation and affection for it.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Kurtti: I just completed co-writing the memoir of Disney Legend and retired Chairman of Disneyland International, Jim Cora. Because of Jim’s career, Disney has theme parks around the world. His story is a personal tale of how a man and his culture became interwoven into the Disney Parks culture, and how that, in turn, made him the right man in the right time to spearhead Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo DisneySea. That book is scheduled to release next summer.
Jim’s other notable accomplishment is that he was the fool who gave me my first professional Disney job in 1986.