The Final Bells Toll for Disney's Hunchback Show

by Kenny Cottrell
Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the October 15, 2002, Issue #160 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

It was definitely a sad moment for me when I learned that Saturday, September 28, 2002, would mark the last performance of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame -- A Musical Adventure, at the Disney-MGM Studios. When I heard that, I knew that I would make sure I saw the last day of shows.

In fact, I have followed the Hunchback show since its inception at the Studios. I had made a point of seeing the last performance of the show's Backlot Theater predecessor, Spirit of Pocahontas, in 1996, so I *had* to see the first performance of Hunchback. I was an extremely happy camper on that day, June 21, 1996, when my all-time favorite female WDW entertainer opened the show as Esmeralda. (To this day no one has been able to quite match her singing voice.) I became very familiar with the cast and saw many shows, quite a few changes in cast (usually in the gypsies, but some in the principal roles) and lots of Matt the Juggler, who provided the warm-up, or pre-show, act.

During the spring and summer of this year, I made Hunchback a regular stop on my "things to see while at Walt Disney World" list. This was partially because I've been on a live WDW entertainment kick for the last year, seeking out entertainers I've seen in other live WDW shows, such as the Kids of the Kingdom and the Pleasure Island Explosion Dancers.

One recent Wednesday night during an online chat among Disney fans, a group of folks were discussing Hunchback's upcoming finale. A friend of mine named Donna found out I was planning to see all four of the Hunchback's last-day shows. She had already made her arrangements to fly down to WDW for that weekend to do the same thing. When she learned of my plans, she asked if she could join me. I told Donna I would arrive at the Disney-MGM Studios that day about 10 a.m. (the first show was at noon) so that I could be in line by 11 a.m. -- she would find me there.

On September 28, I reached the Studios a little before 10 a.m. I had enough time for one ride on the Rock'n'Roller Coaster before I headed over to the Backlot Theater to see if anything was going on there. I wasn't necessarily expecting anyone to be in line yet, but I wasn't going to be surprised, either. Well, as I turned off New York Street and headed toward the Backlot Theater, I found a line already forming. It wasn't too long, only about 10 people, but I decided it was time for me to get in line, too.

On the previous Wednesday, there had been some folks, myself included, who had been to all four of shows of the day, and one of the men, Len, was already in line with a friend of his. Also in line were a small girl dressed up as a gypsy (she was first), then two girls who had made shirts from pictures they had taken with the Cast, two more mother/daughter teams, and a young married couple I lost track of. None of us really introduced ourselves -- I already recognized most everyone in line anyway. Now, does that tell you that I've seen too many of these shows?

Sarah and a friend arrived shortly after I did. She was part of the Wednesday crew, and I had known she would be there for the last day, too. When Karen, Kyle and Rande appeared, they headed to the front of the line and gave us two books that would be given to two actors who played Quasimodo -- we could sign them and give them best wishes if we wanted to. We passed the books around during the first two shows and filled them up quite a bit. They also had brought some signs they'd made to hold up during the performances.

We joked about the line as it grew and grew and grew. The greeter Cast Members had to figure out how to deal with getting the extensions and ropes out to help control the ever-lengthening queue. And we started to wonder right then what the final show was going to be like.

The stage managers and greeters were very nice and let us in earlier than they normally did. They did this for all four shows, in fact, and it was much appreciated. Each Guest had his or her own mission, so we all scattered to get our favorite seats -- with a lot of us trying to get the aisle seats next to the runway part of the stage. Donna didn't really care where we sat, so I guided us to a runway aisle seat on house right. (Over the course of the day, we actually sat three times on house right and once on house left.) We all did a pretty good job of not stepping on any others' toes, as far as getting someone's *favorite* seat.

It was finally time for Matt's first preshow of the day. I really think he was surprised at the crowd reaction, but he accepted it quickly. The audience gave him thunderous applause as he came out on stage. As the day went on, the opening applause got longer and longer, and he always graciously accepted it all. He joked as he noticed that the Guests in the floor seats were reacting differently than those in the bleachers: "The bleacher section has no clue what is going on."

With so many devoted fans in the audience, Matt had a lot of "help" with his show. As he introduced "The Diablo", a Chinese toy with a Spanish name, he told us, as he always had during every performance, that with the help of his Spanish classes he knew that it meant... "this thing." The crowd of fans yelled it out in unison with him!

And that set the mood for the last day of performances of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Musical Adventure.

After a standing ovation for Matt's pre-show, the traditional "stand clear of the runway" announcement was given, then backstage I could see the signals: red light, yellow light, green light, and it was show time. The four-member gypsy troupe entered from the back of the theater to thunderous applause.

The adrenaline was running high amongst the Cast Members, the audience was stoked, and the combination of the two really pumped up the Cast's performance. The singing was top-notch, and the dancers hit their cues seemingly flawlessly. After the first show was over, without any hesitation and without second thought, the standing-room only audience gave a standing ovation. The Cast was clearly appreciative and had a hard time controlling their emotions. And this was only the first show of the day.

After the show, Donna leaned over and asked me if I thought the cast was putting more into it, if the show was better than usual. I told her, "It always is," since it's been my experience that the last, as well as the first, performances of any show are always more high-energy than others.

One show down, three more to go, and it was time for lunch. I held our place in line while Donna went off for pizzas. As we ate them, I noticed, along with our fellow theater-goer Casper, that there was a sort of "meet and greet" after the show. We weren't sure who it was for, but we could see it was going on.

As we ate lunch, I began to think about how the end of this show was going to affect me. One of the habits I have when watching live entertainment is kind of putting myself into the cast by figuring out which Cast Member I would like to be. It isn't that I am picking a character to play, but figuring out which Cast Member seems to have a personality that closely matches my own. I know... it's strange, but it's something I've done since I was a child, along with always making eye contact with the cast.

Because of these habits, I had developed a favorite gypsy to watch. He was kind of a "swing" gypsy in that he knew almost all of the gypsy roles. (Of the 13 gypsy roles, three were female only, nine were male only and one was played by either a male or a female.) At one point I figured I had seen my favorite gypsy in eight of the 10 roles. And even one show in the spring he played Hugo, which was a surprise for me. I always liked him in the role of one of the two goat handlers -- his facial expressions when he did that part were always amazing.

During that last day, we had noticed that each show had slight cast changes, giving as many members of the cast a chance to perform. (In the past, the gypsies usually played the same role for the first two shows, then some would switch roles for the last two shows.)

That day, my favorite gypsy played three different roles, including one of the goat handler parts. Up until the Wednesday shows, I hadn't thought that the last day was going to affect me much. But during the standing ovation for the last Wednesday show, there I was, watching the cast, seeing them start to get emotional, including my favorite gypsy. I knew then that if he lost control during the last day of shows, it would be hard for me not to lose it myself.

Another preshow, another show. Two shows down, two to go, back in line for the third show. We were getting pretty good at this, although those of us waiting for the next show had determined that we were just competing against each other for line positions. The queue got longer earlier with each succeeding show and we continued to speculate as to what the last show was going to be like.

Casper noticed again that someone was holding a "meet and greet" in between shows. We saw that it wasn't for specific people, but for whomever stayed after the show. After we were seated for that third show, I ran to the restroom. On my way back into the Theater, I realized that some of the regulars were forfeiting their seats to stay in line, so they could be first in for the final show.

Another preshow, another show. Three shows down, one to go.

Now was the time to figure out the strategy for the last show. Casper wanted to do the meet and greet, Donna wanted to run to the restroom and I was confused as to what should be the priority: the meet and greet, the line... what?

Eventually, Casper and Len stayed for the meet and greet, Donna went to the restroom, and I decided to get in line. We were the furthest back in the line that we had been all day. I kept a lookout for Donna and tried to see where Casper and Len ended up. Not until we were let in did I find them (and Rande, Kyle and Karen). They all had gotten their usual aisle seats on the runway, but Donna and I couldn't. I didn't mind too much, but I was confused how the others had managed to get such good seats. Not until after the show did I learn that those who had stayed for the third meet and greet were allowed to stay in the theater and were seated first. I could have hit myself for knowing too much and over-analyzing the situation. Most times it does benefit me, but this once I didn't really know what the outcome was going to be.

Finally, it was time for Matt's final preshow. This time, it *started* with a standing ovation, and the applause lasted quite a while. Matt must have known that we were going to do this, and he graciously took all the applause. He had made each show that day a little different, as he could tell that a larger than normal part of the crowd was returning to every show. And of course, he received another standing ovation at the end of his performance. After more than six years of performing more than 6,000 shows, Matt the Juggler ended his run at the Backlot Theater on a very positive high note.

A standing-room only theater, a final runway announcement, a final red light followed by a final yellow light followed by the final green light. The doors swung open, the gypsy troupe started the Final Show.

The cast and audience was pumped up more than ever before. The theater echoed with applause, and even more applause followed every singing number. We don't know what it was like backstage between shows that day, but I'm sure the Cast Members must have been letting their emotions go. But, amazingly, they managed to control themselves during the final performance. Rande held up the signs she'd brought to tell the Cast how much their shows had been enjoyed and appreciated. I could see in the Cast Members' faces that they appreciated the gesture, especially during this last show. And, as they had for all the shows that day, they put everything they could into the Final Show.

As they finished, they were met with another standing ovation. The crowd was rowdy and some folks even stood on their seats for the ovation. The applause lasted long enough for a curtain call from the Cast. It was great and made for a great ending.

Afterwards, the Cast held one more meet and greet for the fans -- Matt even came out -- and Donna wanted her picture taken with the principals. We all made our way out of the theater, and for one last time Len, Casper, Donna Rande, Kyle, Karen and I got together. Someone (Casper, if I recall correctly) wanted a photo of us all. Donna took the first picture, and then someone nearby volunteered to take a picture of all of us. Of course, then all the cameras came out! As one final tribute to the cast and show, Rande took the signs she had brought and carefully placed them around the sign of the theater. I asked Donna to take a picture of Rande, Kyle, and Karen walking away from the signs.

After bidding a few Cast Members good luck as they walked to their farewell dinner, we all went our separate ways, but we've managed to stay in touch. It turned out that Rande and Karen read the rec.arts.disney.parks newsgroup, too -- a connection we didn't know we had until after we all returned home. And I've tracked Casper down to give him a video that Karen and Rande made for us.

It's been more than two weeks now since the last performance of Hunchback. After a few viewings, I've realized that the Beauty and the Beast show at the Studios is not going to replace Hunchback on my "favorites" list.

Though the Cast and Crew have been placed in many other positions and roles by now, I've only run into one so far. Just this last Saturday, I saw one of Hunchback's long-time greeter Cast Members working at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Play It! I told her that I thought she looked much better in green (her former costume color) than blue (her new costume). She agreed -- she, like me and many others, is going to miss the Hunchback show.

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Karen adds:

If you are disappointed in the closing of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Musical Adventure show which was performed at Disney MGM Studio's Backlot Theater from June 1996 - September 2002, we urge you to voice your feelings to Disney without hesitation. Our only request is that you keep your message in a "positive" Disney nature.

E-Mail WDW Guest Relations: WDW Guest Communications [WDW.Guest.Communications@disney.com]

You may also write a letter to be mailed to: Walt Disney World Guest Communications PO Box 10040 Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.