Francis Ford Coppola’s 3-D Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson, made its debut at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Anaheim exactly twenty-three years ago yesterday, on September 18, 1986.
Amongst a team of privileged Disney employees, I was scheduled in to work a special 8-hour shift at the brand new, but not quite ready to open Star-Trader gift shop in Tomorrowland. Closed to the general public for this by-invitation-only event, the park would be inundated with celebrities and bigwigs a-plenty.
Bedecked in brand new red and gray (ugly and uncomfortable) costumes that made us look more like starchy outer-space flight attendants than merchandise vendors, my co-workers and I stood around during an official briefing on the protocol we were to strictly follow during this high-security, media-absorbed event. Our countertops were to remain spotless at all times, fully stocked with Captain EO everything, and as I had already learned from the extensive new-hire training/brainwashing I received two years prior, we would not be allowed to ask celebrities for autographs, nor would we be allowed to take pictures of, or with, anyone. In other words, we were expected to dehumanize ourselves and become a seamless part of Walt’s wild world of utopia.
Prior to this event, I’d had only one celebrity encounter to boast about, and it was one worth boasting about because it involved one of my favorite musicians and a pair of Minnie Mouse socks. It was a slow day at the park, and I was bored stiff, working in the Character Shop (soon to be transformed into the Star Trader). I had rearranged the souvenir bins, wiped and re-wiped the counters, and was about to go on break when an ordinary man with a proper British accent approached my register, asking if I could ring him up. He handed me a small pair of Minnie Mouse socks and his American Express card. I rang it up, bagged it then swiped his card through the credit machine. When I lifted the carbon sheet to check the hard copy of the draft, I saw the name Phil Collins. With my back facing him, I began to shake. I tried to take a deep breath to no avail. My mouth went dry as I turned to have him sign for his purchase. I stared at him while he signed away, and when he finished, I fumbled with the papers and tore off the top copy and handed it to him. “May I have my card back?” he asked me with an adorable smile. My insides melted as I pictured him singing “Take Me Home” in a private concert in the stock room. I handed him the card and wanted to say something normal, like “Have a nice day.” Instead, I said, “Um, thank you, Mr. Collins,” and giggled freakishly. He smiled again and walked away. I locked up my register, tempted first to rub the carbon signature on a paper but didn’t want to risk my job or something worse…
So as the Captain EO party started to roll, the celebrities began to surface in my shop. Sylvester Stallone and his Nordic blonde girlfriend/wife strolled by first. Then came Whoopi Goldberg, Nell Carter, and Cheryl Ladd. No one purchased anything for the longest time, until a woman who looked familiar approached my register to buy something. She was friendly and we chatted long enough for me to figure out she was Jo Anne Worley. I used to watch her on Laugh-In and Hollywood Squares. After Jo Anne came Chris Evert-Lloyd. Again, I don’t remember what she bought, but I do remember running her Visa through and checking to confirm that it was indeed her.
Like Joanne, Chris was very nice, too. She said she was excited to be there, and I told her I was excited to be there as well. It was all very surreal, and as the night wore on, I saw more famous people, including George Lucas, Francis Ford-Coppola, and (I think) Nicholas Cage. I didn’t see Michael Jackson though because I took my dinner break at the wrong time.
When I drove home that night, I remember being grateful for having such a cool job, but wishing I could have seen Mr. Collins again so I could say something more meaningful to him, but that would have been against all odds, right?