Rats!

That Corporate Rodent Descends Upon Central Park Again

Does anyone else get the creeps from that sinister rodent? Or do people really still think of him as a jolly ambassador of all-American entertainment? Is it possible some folks are at least a tiny bit disturbed by the bland iconic presence masking a corporate empire that reams Third World workers, banalizes American culture, and operates theme parks constructed along the lines of totalitarian dream states? Or are we all too besotted watching Disney ratchet up the Dow to notice the ominous shadow of mouse ears darkening the land?

The telephone greeting offers a perky welcome to the "Disney Channel's 'PremEARS in the Park' information line" and a recording that lasts just long enough to alert callers to a "one-of-a-kind Disney movie" and rodent appreciation event. The event, a screening of Tim Allen's Jungle 2 Jungle, is presented "free" by "the Disney Channel" in partnership with Direct TV and Circuit City, and takes place in a locale that, as far as I can recall, has a century-old no-gate-fee policy--Central Park.

By bringing this "one-of-a-kind" Disney movie festival for kids and families to Central Park, the altruists at Disney would have us believe that they care about nothing more than providing dog-days respite for weary Manhattanites and their numbed-out progeny ("Lots of fun and games for the whole family")--plus a chance to meet "two of your favorite Disney characters."

Disney's "PremEARS" was originally set for July 8 and 9 at the East Meadow, a large scruffy lawn just over the El Barrio border. The locale was switched abruptly, however, because, according to Parks Department spokesperson Ed Skyler, it would be "easier to control crowds" at Rumsey Playfield.

With the highest per capita income in New York, the "crowds" who happen to inhabit the neighborhood adjacent to Rumsey Playfield are a target-market elite. How uncanny, then, that the Disney "PremEARS"should occur in their backyard just when the company is pressuring Time Warner to make its programming a basic component of the local cable feed. New York is nearly alone among the top 10 national television markets in continuing to resist the Disney Channel's incursions. "It's still a pay service there," corporate spokesperson Shirley Powell explains. "Obviously, we believe the Disney Channel should be a basic."

What better place to promote corporate essentialism than in what's arguably the country's most important urban pastoral setting? "It made the most sense locationwise," Powell continues. "If you're in New York, you have to go to Central Park."

How do you get to Central Park when you're a multibillion-dollar corporation pitching product? "We pay the park to rent the space for that evening," says another Disney executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. "In essence, we rent it out."

With the "rental" of this cherished public space comes not only an opportunity for Disney to take its small-screen programming "beyond the television set and into the communities of our kid and family viewers," as Disney's marketing vice president Eleo Hensleigh explains. It provides an opening for the company to haul out the company's "Spirit of Mickey" campaign, a blowout celebration of the 69-year-old character, and wheel in the 40-foot mouse-ear screens, along with Disney's Big Rig, a tractor trailer "decked out with a museum of Mickey products."

Is this merely another example of the private sector moving in on public space? Isn't it conceivable that the day might come when Disney, or some other megacorporation, will be permitted to "rent" the right to park its Big Rig permanently alongside the Belvedere? And then would Disney employees dressed as hypertrophic mice in plush costumes become a routine part of Central Park ecology? Don't count it out.

For the 1995 premiere of Disney's animated fantasia Pocahontas, Central Park's Great Lawn was fenced and transformed into a grotesque caricature of the corporate screening room, replete with VIP sections, special security forces, and No Smoking signs. But the Disney "PremEARS," as Parks Department spokesperson Skyler demurs, "is not a Pocahontas-scale event."

Scale is about all that differs. Our booming city doesn't lack actual movie theaters in which to launch Hollywood product. Yet last week, 20th Century Fox "rented" Riverside Park to premiere Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle, importing pet psychics, animal hairdressers, and pseudocelebrities, all to promote a movie one critic characterized as an "overstated, lowbrow bore" featuring "a guinea pig on a toilet seat, a dog with a thermometer stuck up its ass, [and] a rat that farts."

"At Dr. Doolittle, we got 2000 people and their pets," says Skyler. "People like it. It's like a drive-in. It's fun." The Rumsey Playfield, he adds, can easily accommodate that number and, being in use already for such "theater-like" activities as SummerStage, "wouldn't have been open to the public anyway" on "PremEARS" night. So the way is clear for Mickey and his friends.

 
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