The Nautilus: Where Childhood Dreams Were Born

By Steve Vertlieb: I was a lonely, introverted, deeply sensitive little boy with a fertile imagination as big and as vast as the sea. The 1950’s opened the door for me to a magical kingdom, overflowing with wonders that fed my appetite, enticing my yearning heart with the promise of worlds, oceans, and a dimensional universe of both dreams and promise. While my physical world was confined to emotional conflict, and the youthful constraints of intellectual subservience, a magical little box called television opened up limitless vistas of travel, exploration, and journeys to the stars.  I could escape my fears, vulnerability, and self-doubts simply by turning that fertile “Dial of Destiny” on our new television set, inviting me to a gentle path along a beloved “Yellow Brick Road.”  It was there, and only there, that I might, perhaps, find release from the bonds and fleeting ignorance of childhood, and fly away upon wings of fancy to “Never Never Land.”

As the newborn light within its circular dome flickered hesitantly to life, I found myself riding my valiant stallion across the Western plains alongside saddle pals like Hop-A-Long Cassidy, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Bob Steele.  I galloped together with Zorro’s Fighting Legion, sat astride a camel’s humps with Buster Crabbe as Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, fought together with Gene Autry to escape The Phantom Empire, and the underground city of the future, “Murania.”  I journeyed to a Forbidden Planet at my local neighborhood Benner Theater, on a Saturday matinee, savored exotic fruits upon the surface of Altair 4, and rocketed to the Planet Mongo every weekday afternoon, during my lunch break from school, with “Chuckwagon Pete”, and his identical twin brother, “Uncle Pete” (both played by beloved early Philadelphia children’s television host Pete Boyle, the real life father of Young Frankenstein, Peter Boyle), sharing the fabled exploits of Doctor Zharkov, Prince Barin, Dale Arden, Princess Aura, Ming the Merciless and, of course Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Flash Gordon.

Buzz Corry (Ed Kemmer) courageously commanded the star cruiser “Terra,” along with Cadet Happy and I … “Uncle Milty” (Milton Berle) owned Tuesday nights … Ed Sullivan was the Toast of the Town … and a gravel-throated cinematic magician known affectionately to “children of all ages” as “Uncle Walt” brought a magic kingdom to life for millions of adoring kids.  He brought us Zorro every Thursday night on ABC TV, while sprinkling his special wand across generations over NBC Television with mythical stories and legends of Davy Crockett (starring Fess Parker), Zorro (played by swashbuckling Guy Williams … later to star in Lost in Space), The Nine Lives of Elfego Bacha (with Robert Loggia), The Swamp Fox (with Leslie Nielsen), Johnny Tremain (with Hal Stalmaster), Treasure Island (with Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton), The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (with the star of tv’s The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan), The Hardy Boys, (with Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men (starring Richard Todd), The Adventures of Spin and Marty (with Tim Considine, David Stollery,  Harry Carey Jr, and Annette Funicello), The Wonderful World of Disney, and the show that changed our youthful lives forever, The Mickey Mouse Club.

Walt Disney had been entertaining, and enchanting the children of the world since 1928 when he introduced “Steamboat Willie,” and a mouse named “Mickey” to motion picture screens.  However, it wasn’t until 1954, with the premier of Walt Disney’s Disneyland, followed by The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, and Walt Disney Presents in 1958 that this master showman made his everlasting mark on television. The memorable lyrics from Pinocchio” sung by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), brings me to tears still, while Uncle Remus (James Baskett) singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” shall bring a smile of remembrance to my lips for as long there remains breath in my body.  When I first visited my little brother and lifelong best friend, Erwin, in Los Angeles in 1974, I fulfilled a childhood dream by visiting the land of dreams … Disneyland.  As we entered the park inside the Monorail, my eyes filled with tears, and I began to sob.  I couldn’t understand why until I realized that the voice of that legendary little cricket was singing over the loudspeakers … “When You Wish Upon A Star … Makes No difference Who You Are … Anything Your Heart Desires Will Come To You. If Your Heart Is In Your Dream … No Request Is Too Extreme … When You Wish Upon A Star As Dreamers Do.  Fate Is Kind … She Brings To Those Who Love … The Sweet Fulfillment of Their Secret Longing. Like A Bolt Out of the Blue … Fate Steps In and Sees You Through … When You Wish Upon A Star … Your Dreams Come True” (Leigh Harline and Ned Washington).  I guess that’s when I lost it.  I was six years old once more.

It was during the Christmas season to come that “Uncle Walt” told us of his newest feature film attraction, a cinematic re-telling of Jules Verne’s immortal fantasy classic novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.  Directed by Richard Fleischer, with music by veteran Disney composer Paul Smith, and starring Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, James Mason as Captain Nemo, Peter Lorre as Conseil, and Paul Lukas as Professor Pierre Aronnax, this spectacular new film version was previewed on the weekly television Disney program with a special documentary about the making of the film.  The highlight of the promotional film was a brief look at the giant squid luring the vessel to its ultimate destruction, both the interior and exterior of Captain’s Nemo’s fantastic submarine, the Nautilus, and Kirk Douglas performing his soon to be “hit” recording of “A Whale of A Tale.”

My eyes grew wide, and my little jaw dropped open as I encountered the Nautilus for the very first time.  She was utterly magnificent.  I’d never seen anything quite like her.  I was utterly entranced by this vision of wonder.  My expectations grew over the weeks to come, and it was during the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, 1954, that my mother took me downtown to, perhaps, the most majestic of old movie palaces in Philadelphia, “The Mastbaum Theater,” to see Walt Disney’s production of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea for the very first time.  Located at 2001 Market Street in the very heart of the city, its vast lobby and auditorium were stunning beyond verbal description.  As luck would have it, my mom deposited me at the theater a few moments late, and I can recall missing the opening credits of the movie.  I was just nine years old when the movie opened, but I can still vividly remember walking slowly down the aisle in the already darkened theater, and seeing the Nautilus speeding toward its unwitting prey, a Victorian steamship, sailing blithely across the waves to its impending doom and destruction, as the Nautilus rammed into her bow, sinking the great vessel and her crew “Down to the Sea in Ships.”  Consumed by the ravaging waters of the eternal sea, the nautical victim of Nemo’s vengeance sank to her inevitable doom.

Early in 2023, the city of Philadelphia became the joyous recipient of the Walt Disney Company’s “100th Birthday Celebration Exhibition,” the very first stop on a worldwide tour encompassing many of the studio’s most famous, fabulous, and most cherished artifacts and treasures. I purchased tickets to the show, being held at the famed Franklin Institute, along its fabled Parkway, for my girlfriend, Shelly, and I in late Spring. From the moment that we arrived at the exhibit, I happily shed the outer garments of maturity, and became an innocent once more.  I had dwelt in ecstasy for countless hours within the land of enchantment. Few experiences in my own fragile seventy-seven years had ever come remotely close to the special feeling of bonding, and to returning “Home” that I felt upon entering this ‘Wonderful World of Disney,” this incomparable miniature “Disneyland” at my doorstep.  It was as though I had traveled back to “Oz.”

The celebration of 100 years reached its zenith, however, when the sight that I’d dreamed of for nearly seventy years came at last in view.  I’d seen a short television special on a local station in which the hosts took a brief tour of the exhibition, and so I knew that it was there … there within the confines of the museum in my own home town.  I had met Kirk Douglas in 1974 on the set of the Gene London children’s tv program in 1974, twenty years after the film’s original release.  I had even encountered the original “Robby, the Robot” full-sized prop from MGM’s 1956 science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet, at the home of William Malone, a well known film director.  There was nothing, however, that could have prepared me for the sight of the actual model of the Nautilus, used in Walt Disney’s 1954 epic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.  I gasped audibly when she came into my view at last, and my eyes filled with tears of joy and remembrance.  Here she was, actually before me, in all of her restored glory.  It remains a moment … a memory that shall lovingly occupy both my memory and my heart for all the remaining years of my life …never to be erased or forgotten.

It’s All True … “I Swear By My Tatoo.”

Steve Vertlieb and Kirk Douglas.

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16 thoughts on “The Nautilus: Where Childhood Dreams Were Born

  1. I still consider 2k Leagues to be the BEST Disney live-action film of all time (I rank Swiss Family Robinson as 2nd). Harper Goff’s design for the Nautilus is iconic. There’s never been another Nautilus design in the same league (pun not intended). I’ve had a life-long obsession with this Nautilus since my childhood, and I still mourn Disney removing the 2k League ride from WDW. Fortunately I still have the complete ride on video from my first trip there. I’ll also point other Nautilus fans to youtube where there’s a video of someone testing their one-man Nautilus mini-sub in a marina.

  2. Just a couple of weeks ago I watched 20,000 Leagues on DVD. It sticks much closer to its source material than most Disney movies have. It shows Nemo as an embittered idealist who has turned to violent means, which is what Verne intended. Peter Lorre got an opportunity to play not a villain, but a relatively ordinary person caught between Nemo’s mania, Aronnax’s fascination with the science to the exclusion of all else, and Ned Land’s impulsiveness.

  3. I remember watching the Disneyland TV episode telling about the forthcoming film.
    I believe the hour documentary was on the Disney Movie Club dvd version of the film as as an extra. Many of the episodes of the ABC Disneyland program were promotions for coming films.

  4. In 1966, on a visit to Disneyland with a bunch of fan friends—Bjo, other LASFS members, the bunch of us NY Fanoclasts—I was offered an enormous 3 or 4 foot wide model of the Nautilus, for a mere $300. Which was about $290 more than I could afford. Owell…

  5. Let’s see, I could do a remake, with the Nautilus sinking billionaires’ yachts…. And it would be right in the same vein as Verne intended.

    And I remember reading the journey of the Nautilus – the first nuclear sub, named after Verne’s – under the North Pole.

  6. I always wanted a model kit of this famous vessel. I now have a very large toy one from japan (who get all the cool Disneyana), but would still like a model kit.

  7. The Disney version of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea still looks amazing almost seventy years after it was made.

    At the age of five, my parents took me to Disney World. Among other things, we went on the Nautilus submarine ride attraction (sadly long since removed). The lake, where the ride was situated, is actually very shallow, but it really felt as if we were diving deep under the ocean. And the octopus attack scared me a lot, because it felt so real.

  8. It is my understanding that when Disneyland opened they had the walk through set of the Nautilus there, and the submarine ride was also supposed to be the Nautilus. By the time I got there the set was gone, but the ride was still cool. Then they decided to change the ride to the Atomic Submarine Nautilus. That was still ok, and my son Keith worked on it happily.

    (As Keith had been through a couple military careers and more than one war at that point he had a special sensitivity to the sound of explosions. The company understood, and sent him to the break room during the fireworks. But one night there was a tour of Big Wigs and they forgot to send him to the break room. He was standing on deck when the fireworks went off and he took a bunch of the Suits into the lagoon with him. He thought his job was over, but as his immediate superior helped him out of the water, the Superior asked: “How long were you over there, Son?”)

    Later they decided to change the ride again to match a more recent, animated, film, and they did away with all the proper nautical lingo replacing ‘fore and aft’ with ‘front and back’ on the assumption that the guests found the nautical lingo confusing.

    Steve, I sure hope that exhibit comes through San Francisco, and is not too expensive.

    As usual, your essay shows that we inhabited the same parallel universe in your parallel youths.

  9. Jon DeCles: You’re right, Disneyland did have a walk-through of the 20,000 Leagues set at some point, because I know I went through it during a couple different visits in my childhood. Just when it was removed I don’t know.

  10. It looks like they closed the 20,00 Leagues walk-through exhibit in 1966, which means it was there the first time I visited Disneyland in Dec 1964 (I don’t have any real memory of it–I was more interested in the submarine ride.)

    The submarine ride itself at Disneyland was atomic submarines from the beginning (which I do remember from 1964, having built put together a model of the USS George Washington in the early 60’s).

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  12. I’m all over a field trip to France to visit the Nautilus! When the walk-on set was at Disneyland, I was standing to one side of the main saloon, sketching, and was invited by the guard to sit down on the maroon plush semi-circular seat near the big glass “eye” that looked out at the sea. I was delighted to sit and draw, until the “eye” displayed the giant squid moving outside the window! What a jump! We are proud owners of a Tom Scherman model of the Nautilus, which he gave us as a gift. The 10 or 12 foot long Nautilus in Paris is also made by Tom. It stood on our back deck for several weeks because Tom did not have room in his department to store it. — Bjo Trimble

  13. Steve, what do you think of the film Master of the World with Vincent Price as an airborne Nemo out to pacify the world by force? I have a 16mm print of it that I have shown at SF conventions for years and it is one of my favorites, a big hit at Steampunk events, too. I would not part with it but I do have a condensed print of 20,000 Leagues, a 20-min reel which is as I recall somewhat faded and a bit jumpy at the beginning, needing some Perf-Fix edge tape the first minute or so, but I would sell this to you if you want it.

  14. The steamnoir.webs site seems to be gone but on Youtube is a large Nautilus model built by Ken Dowd over 20 years shown in a more than one hour video which presents a detailed cross section version of a model larger than the one used in the Disney film and in greater detail.

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