"There's no turning back now…" The story behind the Disneyland Haunted Mansion's Ghost Host -By Jeff Baham Page 1 of 2

Inevitably, when a patron enters the parlor of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion and hears the first words from the attraction's invisible narrator (playfully calling himself your "Ghost Host"), said patron will also hear a chorus of echoes from other Disneyland veterans, reciting the Ghost Host's lines with aplomb. Celebrating it's 33rd year of operation, the Haunted Mansion is a favorite among Disneyland's guests, and the narration that carries the experience along is as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance to many of the theme park's repeat visitors.

Why does this attraction draw such devotion from its fans? The reasons may be as varied as the numerous legendary Disney talents involved with the ride's development, but one facet of the attraction is a key draw: the narration of the Mansion's resident "Ghost Host."

Beside the fact that the Haunted Mansion is one of Disneyland's classic "E-ticket" mainstay attractions, it also should be noted that Disneyland Records released a soundtrack album of the attraction to coincide with the ride's opening in 1969. Titled "The Story and Song from The Haunted Mansion," this highly sought-after LP starred a young "Ronnie" Howard (yes, the same Ron Howard that won the Academy Award for his film "A Beautiful Mind" last year) and Disney's reliable storyteller Robie Lester as "Mike" and "Karen," respectively-two teens out for a date on a stormy night who find themselves trapped in the Haunted Mansion. The Ghost Host on the LP is voice talent Pete Renoudet, who can be heard on a number of Disney productions. Due to the popularity of the attraction upon its opening, this record was well-loved by many younger Baby Boomers and older Generation "X"ers, who doubly recognize the Ghost Host character by both his lines in the theme park attraction and his extended dialogue on the LP.

The words recited by the Ghost Host were scripted by X Atencio, a veteran Disney animator that was handpicked by Walt to join the WED division of the Walt Disney Company as a storywriter for the theme parks. Atencio had first intended for the attraction to be narrated by a recurring cat or a raven character, but as a ride-through exhibit, the time necessary to allow each rider to hear the character recite its spiel wasn't possible. Rather, the narration would have to travel with the riders, in order to allow each patron to have roughly the same experience. Hence, the Ghost Host was designed as an invisible, disembodied spirit that would follow you through the halls of the Haunted Mansion. This contrivance worked well for the attraction, as it was essentially to be a series of scenes and occurrences without an inherent storyline, as is the case with many haunted attractions. The narration offered a slice of deft humor that helped keep the scenes light and mysterious, rather than dark and ominous. This is the hallmark of the Haunted Mansion: wonderful, creepy, magical effects, delivered with a light touch.

So who could properly deliver the voice that Atencio's script required? After a few general tests and auditions, the attraction's designers decided on Paul Frees, a veteran voice talent and one of Disney's finest artists. Frees was well known at the time for a number of popular assignments, not the least of them being his characterizations of Boris Badenov for Jay Ward's "The Bullwinkle Show;" Ludwig Von Drake in numerous Disney cartoon shorts; or the voice of the ticklish Pillsbury Doughboy. At Disneyland, Frees could already be heard in attractions such as "Adventure Thru Inner Space" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," both of which utilized Frees' talent for creating a compelling, somewhat sinister characterization. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 1976, Frees discussed his work for Disney as it related to his experience with darker, more ominous voice work. "I've narrated a great many films about all that is scary," Frees explains. "At Disneyland, I am the 'Host' of the Haunted House (sic)… Of course, in the old days of radio, I was the host on 'Suspense'-I was the man in black, telling a 'tale well calculated to keep you… in suspense!'" So Frees clearly had a pedigree in hosting haunting tales long before his gig as the Haunted Mansion's Host.

Although Frees also had a few parts in feature films under his belt, he preferred voice-only work. Voice-actor historian Brian Kistler points out that Frees "told me that he did at least ten movies, including 'The Shaggy Dog' and 'The Thing…'although, point blank, he did not like 'camera acting.' He indicated that he could go into a studio, record, and leave in a relatively short period of time. In on-camera acting, he complained about… how one would have to wait forever, for lights to be adjusted just right, or (how) it might be necessary to stick around for hours to shoot a scene again and again. He said he reveled in wrapping the work up quickly, heading out, and focusing on other things in life." So Frees led a well-balanced life and enjoyed his free time, despite an extraordinarily prolific career "He emphasized that this was his idea of what life should be all about," Kistler concludes.

Possibly due to Frees' commitment to make his free time paramount, the Haunted Mansion soundtrack LP that was marketed through toy and variety stores through the '70s featured a different voice talent for the Ghost Host-that of Pete Renoudet, another veteran Disney voice who can also be heard in Disney attractions such as the "Country Bear Jamboree" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Although some Disney historians feel that Renoudet was under consideration for the role of the attraction's Ghost Host, Renoudet has no such recollection, and believes that his role as the Ghost Host was always intended solely for the soundtrack album. Regardless, it is clear that the recording Renoudet did was given a more otherworldly flair with electronic echo effects in stereo, while Frees' recording for the actual attraction remains fairly clear, with a hint of plate reverb. This is likely due to the fact that Frees' voice needed to cut through all of the incidental live sound, while Renoudet's rendition needed to convince kids that they were, in fact, listening the voice of a ghost.

"The record was produced by Tutti Camarata, who did all of the Disneyland Records in those days," Renoudet recalls. Like that of Paul Frees, his recording session was more or less a one-shot deal, recorded alone without the benefit of hearing the lines from the other characters. "There were very little (retakes)," Renoudet notes. "I think the whole thing didn't take probably more than an hour and a half." Renoudet's role for the album was tightly developed and scripted, which differs slightly from Frees' situation, in which he had a little room to make the character his own. This was clearly due to the fact that Renoudet's job was to build upon an existing character, while Frees was developing the character from scratch. "The script was nailed down. There were no changes at all," Renoudet said.

The Haunted Mansion has no distinct storyline to speak of; as mentioned before, it is a series of situations string together. However, to make a story for the soundtrack album, extra narration and description was added to the Ghost Host's lines from the attraction, and many of the attraction's lines were removed. "I think they were trying to give (the kids) something to identify with… two kids going through the ride. That's why (they used) Ronnie Howard and Robie Lester-the young girl's voice," Renoudet recalls. "I thought (the record) was pretty cute. I didn't know that there was going to be as much of a story about the kids going through because… all I had, basically, was the lines that I had to do. I don't remember having a complete script with everybody else's lines so much, it was just my Ghost Host narration stuff," Renoudet said.

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