Today, Universal Orlando Resort celebrates its 25th anniversary. The ever-evolving park is almost unrecognizable twenty-five years later - Amity Island is now Diagon Alley, Gru and his Minions have replaced the world of Hanna-Barbera, Blue Man Group now resides in the former home of Nickelodeon Studios, The Tonight Show ride will soon replace what was once Ghostbusters headquarters, Doc Brown's Institute of Future Technology is now Springfield's Krustyland, and Curious George is swinging through what was once the Bates Motel and mansion.
Susan Lustig, a producer of Universal Studios Florida, was kind enough to share her experiences in helping create what is, in my opinion, the greatest theme park of all time.
Susan Lustig: I had been a producer of corporate events for Imero Fiorentino Associates (IFA), a production company in New York and Hollywood, known primarily for their lighting and staging designs for live concerts, road tours and television. When I joined them they were expanding into production of large corporate events, corporate theatre, exhibits and exhibitions. When I was laid off I wrote a letter to Peter Alexander who, at the time, was in charge of Production and Design for Universal Studios Hollywood. After our first meeting I was hired as a producer. I worked on a variety of projects for their Hollywood theme park. Some were shelved and some got the green light.
One of the approved projects was Star Trek Adventure. About this same time, Universal was in the early stages of planning Universal Studios Florida. Since I was origninally hired for the Florida project, when it was finally given the green light I had to relinquish my Star Trek project. Fortunately, Phil Hettema was able to pick up those reigns. The rest of my time there was one of the most enjoyable, gratifying, and amazing journeys of my career. My opening-day attractions were Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies, Murder, She Wrote: Post Production and Animal Actors Stage.
SL: I think it started while I was in high school. Six Flags Over Mid-America (which was later renamed Six Flags St. Louis) had just opened. So, thinking it would be a lot of fun, I got a job as a train conductor. The rest, as they say, is history.
When I went off to college I did so with the intention of being a math major, but then the theatre bug bit me and bit me hard. Before I knew it I was a theatre major. I received my BFA from Southern Methodist University in General Theatre. However, before going to graduate school, I designed the lighting for a live show in Busch Gardens Williamsburg during its first year of operation. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on as a ride supervisor. Later, I moved to New York City and received my MFA in Theatre Design with an emphasis in Lighting Design from New York University.
It just dawned on me that in one capacity or another I’ve been part of the opening-day team for four theme parks, each one owned by a different company - Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios Florida, and Disney’s California Adventure. I think that qualifies me as an industrial-grade “parkie”!
SL: The day after graduating from NYU I was hired by IFA as a draftsperson and model builder. In time, I found myself on the road as production assistant for a variety of projects both large and small. Best of all, I was working side-by-side with a group of amazingly talented people. Although I started with IFA as a production assistant, I eventually moved into lighting and set design and finally producer. I produced a variety of live entertainment shows, special events, exhibits, and unique product introductions.
One of my highlights was co-producing (Joe Layton was the Executive Producer and staged the event) A Tribute to Alan & Marilyn Bergman at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It starred Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Melissa Manchester, Joel Grey, Norman Lear, Carmen McRae, Bea Arthur, Jack Jones and more. What an incredible, memorable, and priceless experience!
I’ve always felt my strength was in the brainstorming phase of a project. However, I also enjoy the left-brain / right-brain aspects of the production process… on one hand working with clients, budgets, and schedules while on the other hand dealing with creative. It was a perfect fit for me. I learned the old adage very early on,“Fast, Cheap, and Good. Pick Two.”
SL: Strangely enough, I don’t. Mostly because it was nearly twenty-five years ago. Needless to say I was awe-struck to be working for Universal Studios, “The Entertainment Capital of L.A.” For me, it was a dream come true. The first couple of years we were housed in the Technicolor building on the backlot. How amazing! Anytime I wanted I could drive through that backlot where so many iconic films were made. On one occasion I remember going to the commissary and there was Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn standing in front of the menu board discussing what each might have for lunch. Another day we were researching for the Murder She Wrote attraction and sat in on an edit session for one of the first episodes of Law and Order. They were discussing the sound effects of a gun and if it was the correct sound for that particular model.
JA: Since you were there from the beginning, were there any projects that never made it off the drawing board and into the park?
SL: That’s such a very good question. I wish I could remember. When I was hired Universal already had a version of the entire park completed and were pitching it to potential partners. Many attractions were conceived and pitched before I was involved. I do know that many concepts were changed or replaced because of feedback from those early pitch meetings.
JA: What was your daily schedule like from 1986 to 1990?
SL: We juggled multiple attractions at the same time. Very early on, until new producers could be hired, I was responsible for all shows and Craig Barr was to head up all the rides. We both worked for Peter Alexander, the Vice President and Executive Producer for Universal Studios Florida.
SL: We were pretty lucky. We never had to cut anything. However, one of the areas, in the upstairs interactive space, looked somewhat sparse to my eye. I really wanted to fill it in a little more. But after seeing how the guests flowed through the space it was obvious that such a change was not necessary.
|(Psycho stage show portion of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)|
SL: As luck would have it, Diane was (and is) married to Chris Stapleton, our fabulous Art Director. Like Chris, Diane is also a noted art director and artist. After Universal Studios Florida opened, Chris stayed and produced Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. Both attractions were part of the new Islands of Adventure.
Eventually I looked through the budget, pulling in a few dollars here and there, until we found enough to make the collage. It was somewhat like going through one’s sofa cushions for loose change. That collage was really the perfect introduction to Hitch’s world. As an aside, we listed the title of every Hitchcock movie in the frames of the film border. Adirondack Scenic in Glens Falls, New York built the collage, as well as many of the Hitchcock set pieces.
|(Pre-show lobby of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)|
SL: I don’t recall that there was any backlash due to the length of our shows. As long as we could gently move the required number of guests through within a given amount of time we were most definitely in pole position. As you can imagine, all parks must set and meet their hourly capacity. Generally speaking, a guest’s length-of-stay, especially at the end of an attraction, is not a problem… hey, can you say merchandise? In fact, the Hitchcock store had the highest sales per square foot in the park.
|(The set of The Birds 3-D segment from Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)|
SL: In 1954 Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 3-D. However, when it was ready for release, 3-D had already run its course and a decision was made to release the “flat” version instead. Fortunately, we were able to access the original 3-D version, both right and left eye. This gave us the idea for the “chaos ensues” section of the first theater. The first part the film was a montage of clips from all of Hitchcock's movies, except the ones to which we couldn’t secure the rights such as North by Northwest (1959). We distributed the 3-D glasses in the lobby where the attraction’s host explained that Hitch made a film in 3-D called Dial M for Murder.
During the last part of the film, the narrator (a voice-double of Hitchcock) tells the audience to put on their 3-D glasses. We started with the scene where Grace Kelly reaches back for a pair of scissors to stab her attacker. The frame appears to jump in the film gate and sounds start coming from the projection booth. This, of course, was the beginning of The Birds attack sequence, all projected in 3-D. When we screened the film for the first time in the theatre we knew we had a homerun when the projectionist jumped up and screamed “oh no” as the film appeared to be jumping and burning. We loved that. It made our day.
|(Saboteur segment of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)|
JA: Tell me about the creation of the Psycho stage show - was it the first theme park attraction to actually be rated PG-13?
SL: I don’t think we ever thought of our show being the first PG-13 rated theme park attraction. We simply felt it wasn’t appropriate for those under the age of thirteen. We wanted to alert parents up front to allow them to make the decision about whether the attraction was appropriate for their children.
SL: I remember that day quite vividly. Ms. Leigh came on opening day - as did Jimmy Stewart, Tippi Hedren, and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell. June 7th, 1990 was opening day. It was a typical, sizzling-hot and humid Florida morning. Our celebrity guests' interviews were scheduled outdoors on a black stage that had no shade. I’m sure you get the picture. Because of a communication mix-up, hosts assigned to escort the celebrities to the stage ended up taking Mr. Stewart and Mrs. O’Connell inside the Hitchcock attraction instead. We were all on radios and I get a call that they lost Jimmy Stewart. "LOST JIMMY STEWART?" By this time, the Hitchcock attraction was open to the public and guests had chased poor Mr. and Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. O’Connell through the building… all the way to the second floor. They ended up trapped in a stairwell with their quite confused guides. I followed their trail and finally got them extricated safe-and-sound to the stage.
|(Strangers on a Train segment of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)|
After the press event I escorted Ms. Leigh and Mrs. O’Connell through the attraction. The first theater, as I mentioned, was the Hitchcock tribute (film clips from his many movies). When the sequence with the 3-D bird attack began, Janet Leigh and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell went crazy. They were cowering, bobbing, weaving, laughing, and having a wonderful time along with the rest of the audience. I remember Ms. Leigh saying, “Remember what Hitch said, it’s only a movie!”
SL: I was on the set for all the filming we did with James Stewart, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe, and Norman Lloyd. Yes, it certainly was amazing having them be a part of the attraction.
SL: The overall theme for the park was the entertainment industry, in particular movies and television. With the tagline guests were invited to “ride the movies” and enjoy the numerous attractions and live shows. That’s a very broad subject and right away we knew we had our work cut out for us as we focused on a huge, yet important, component of production - a little something called post-production, or what goes on after the cameras stop rolling. It may not be as glamorous as being on a set, but it is an essential creative discipline in television and movie making.
The big payoff was in the final room where we played the entire scene back for them with all the changes they’d made with sound effects, voices, and editing. It always got great laughs. It also meant that no two shows were ever alike. For the audience, the show was great fun but they also saw first-hand the basic components of what goes on after the shooting stops.
|(Murder, She Wrote: Post Production)|
SL: The perfect guest comment that defined our goals for the show came from a young couple as they exited the Hitchcock attraction. They felt the show was a "very entertaining PBS special." I was thrilled. Entertaining plus learning is just what we were after. It was “edutainment” perhaps even before the term even existed. And today, because of the live interaction between guests and actors, it might be considered “social-tainment” as well.
SL: Jaws had a dedicated production team from the very beginning so I wasn’t involved with the opening-day attraction. As I recall, it had been open for about a year when Universal executives decided they needed to rethink some of the engineering and give the ride a complete overhaul. I believe it was closed for about two years.
Our preshow director was John Larsen from Kevin Biles Design. Some of our actors were a wee-bit inexperienced and simply didn’t know their lines! John, however, did a fantastic job of pulling it all together. Like getting blood from a turnip, John worked his magic with the pros and amateurs alike. Add to that John’s wizardry in the edit bay and it did turn out to be a pretty unique little video.
SL: Themed entertainment has changed so much since I started in the business and it continues to change today. As for me, I consult in that world from time to time but my main focus these days is creating websites and graphics for my clients.
Advice really depends on a person’s passion. What are their passions? What are their talents? Today, themed entertainment is rebounding from the 2008 financial downturn. As a result, there are more and more creative and technical positions out there - writers, production designers, set-designers, costume designers, audio designers, ride designers, engineers, architects, graphic artists, scenic painters, film directors, effects designers, and editors.
Become a sponge and learn everything you can about it. In the beginning it may not be exactly what you want, but you never know where it might lead. If nothing else, think of it as a stepping-stone. Above all, don’t stop learning and don’t stop trying! The brilliance of the Transformers and Spider-Man rides cannot be over-emphasized. Those state-of-the-art attractions allow guests to experience the ultimate in movie-making, high-tech ride design. They seamlessly blend storytelling with technology. Today’s theme parks can no longer be accused of using old technology, they are inventing it.
I believe it was Confucius who said, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
SL: I have a ton of t-shirts, caps, and sweat shirts from Universal, but no real memorabilia. I do have my Hitchcock team jacket that was made as part of the actors’ costume. Also, I have a ton of under construction Universal photographs. That’s it!
SL: We all craved watching real audiences go through our attractions. Having invested years of time, blood, sweat, and tears then having to wait for opening day and the ultimate payoff was difficult. I loved going in my shows as a tourist. I’d usually sit in the front row. Then, as the house lights went down, I’d slowly turn around to watch the audience faces and reactions. That was my reward. My bonus, if you will.
Thank you so much Jason for your interest in my projects. It was gratifying to hear your reaction to shows we created twenty-five years ago. That's a huge, beautiful, bow-wrapped, glittery present! It was an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Thanks for the memories and thanks again for the opportunity.
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