Disney Rewind – April 1994 – Frank Wells dies, Beauty opens on Broadway
April 1994, 25 years ago, was marked with both tragedy and triumph for the Disney. The same month saw Beauty and the Beast, the company’s first Broadway musical, open and its president, Frank Wells, die in a helicopter crash. Here’s a look at a few moments that month, including White Fang 2, Lion King anticipation, and Michael Eisner’s expanding wallet.
Frank Wells dies (April 3): After a day of skiing on an inaccessible back country slope, Disney president and chief operating officer Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter crash, caused by mechanical problems. Wells and company chairman Michael Eisner were recruited in 1984, together rescuing the lagging company from obscurity. Almost immediately, Eisner was given the president and COO posts.
The Scarlet Letter to film in Canada (April 9): The Canadian Press reports that a “hard-hit fishing town in southwestern Nova Scotia,” Shelburne, would host the filming of Demi Moore film The Scarlet Letter. The town would bury overhead power lines in order for its historic downtown to double as New England.
Disney pairs with WordPerfect (April 11): Best known for their word processor, Utah-based WordPerfect Corp announced a new line of software called Main Street. The new line would include games featuring Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit, available only in Europe.
Frank Wells tribute (April 11): Around 3000 people attended a memorial service for Frank Wells, held in a California soundstage. Speakers at the event included Michael Eisner, Robert Redford, Candice Bergen, and Clint Eastwood. The ceremony was broadcast live in staff areas of Walt Disney World, as well. Michael Eisner shared that “over those 10 years, we never had a fight, never had a misunderstanding, never had as much as a disagreement. I was never angry at him until last Sunday. And I was angry at Frank because he was not around to help me deal with this difficult situation. I’m not angry anymore. I just miss him.”
Eisner earns record pay (April 14): Michael Eisner became the highest paid executive of a public company, ever, according to Business Week. After adding stock options to his $750,000 salary, Eisner earned $203.1 million in 1993. That was almost quadruple America’s second-highest paid executive, the head of Travelers Corp. Disney’s profits tumbled that year to just $299.8 million.
Beauty and the Beast opens on Broadway (April 18):
After a trial run in Houston and a month-long preview, Disney’s first Broadway musical opened to mixed reviews from New York critics, but phenomenal ticket sales. It would eventually move to the New Amsterdam Theatre, an Art Nouveau structure renovated by Disney. DisKingdom has more on this anniversary, this Thursday, April 18.
White Fang 2 opens (April 20): Described in press materials as being “evolved from” the Jack London book, White Fang 2 – Myth of the White Wolf opened in theatres. The original story’s lead character, Jack (Ethan Hawke) is in San Francisco, so the titular canine is now looked after by Henry Casey (Scott Bairstow).
Hollywood Pictures president resigns (April 26): Ricardo Mestres resigned as president of Disney-owned Hollywood Pictures. No reason was publicly given.
Snow White to be released on video (April 28): Disney announces that it will release 100 titles on home video in 1994, chief among them Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The October 28 release was expected to sell over 20 million copies.
Lion King merchandise already in The Disney Store (April 29): In his column, the Orlando Sentinel’s Jay Boyar remarked that The Disney Store was already full of merchandise for The Lion King. Dolls, puppets, and t-shirts were complimented with a scene from the film on the store’s screen. “I’m still looking forward to the movie, you understand,” wrote Boyar. “But all this pre-release merchandising activity smacks of over-eagerness, if not actual edginess.” This was given that the film’s characters “won’t exist as characters until the film opens,” unlike the similarly promoted The Flintstones. DisKingdom has a larger article on the merchandise in stores across the US.
Donald Duck gum is big in China (April 30): Disney was the first foreign brand to sell a billion of anything in China, claimed a Disney Hong Kong exec in an Associated Press article. In 1993, a licensee sold one billion pieces of Disney’s Donald Bubble Gum, costing less than a penny each. The article suggested that Donald was known as “Old Duck Tang” in the country. The article also trumpeted over 60 children’s boutiques in China, through another license.