Article by Mike Scott from The Times-Picayune
Dreams do come true — just ask John Bullard.

How else to explain the unsolicited, too-good-to-refuse offer fielded by the New Orleans Museum of Art director back in 2007?

The pitch: How would the museum, still suffering from an extended Hurricane Katrina hangover, like to host an exclusive exhibit of works by one of the 20th century’s leading producers of popular art?
There would be no catch, no strings. Just a fairy-tale offer of a helping hand for an institution that sorely needed it.

That dream is about to become reality with the aptly named “Dreams Come True: Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studio” preparing to make its debut at the museum. Conceived partly as a local celebration of the Dec. 11 national release of Disney’s New Orleans-set animated fairy tale “The Princess and the Frog, ” it is expected to draw at least 100,000 visitors during its 17-week run.

Although the show isn’t scheduled to launch until Nov. 15, the lead-up starts today with the first in a rare, Disney-sanctioned screening series of some of the studio’s classic films, featuring a different animated fairy tale unspooling several times for NOMA members each weekend for the next month and half.

The films to be screened, all in the museum’s 225-seat Stern Auditorium, are “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, ” “Cinderella, ” “Sleeping Beauty, ” “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.

“Really, it’s a gift to the museum and the city, to help with the recovery of Katrina, ” Bullard said of the exhibit and the screening series. “They called in 2007 and said, ‘We’re doing this film (“The Princess and the Frog”). Would you be interested in hosting an exhibit in conjunction?’ I said, ‘Well, sure — Disney.’ ”

Not only will the screening series serve to whet the appetite of locals in the run-up to the “Dreams Come True” show and the “Princess and the Frog” release, but it also represents a rare opportunity for Disney fans to see the films the way they were intended to be seen: in a theater.

“I think three of these films are not currently available (on home video), ” Bullard said. “(And) most kids haven’t seen these on the big screen.”

The “Dreams Come True” exhibit will feature 600 framed pieces — from conceptual sketches to completed animation cels — in several rooms, each dedicated to one of Disney’s fairy tales. Video clips will be integrated along the way. The final room will be dedicated to “The Princess and the Frog, ” a twist on the classic “Frog Prince” story and set in the French Quarter of the 1920s.

An eight-minute video on Disney storytelling will be looped in the Stern Auditorium to introduce viewers to the exhibit, and an audio tour — narrated by local resident and “Princess and the Frog” cast member John Goodman — will be available.

For the museum, having such a potential blockbuster show land in its lap is unusual to say the least. For that show to involve an institution of the stature of Disney, which is known the world over and is famously protective of its images, is all but unprecedented.

According to Lella Smith, the creative director of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Research Library and a co-organizer of the “Dreams Come True” exhibit, the idea for the show — like the idea to set the movie here — grew out of a shared fondness for New Orleans among Disney’s creative-types, as well as a desire to offer support for the city.

“(Disney animation chief) John Lasseter and Randy Newman and all the main players — the directors, the animators — they love New Orleans, ” Smith said this week. “Initially there had been several attempts to make ‘The Princess and the Frog’ at Disney. Then it turns out that (Disney Animation sister studio) Pixar was trying to make it. . . . It’s just a really fun tale, and everyone felt that if you were going to have a fairy tale in the United States, New Orleans is the place.”

She added: “Then, 2 ½ years ago, John Lasseter said, ‘You know, I really want to do something for the people of New Orleans.’ One of the ideas was, let’s do an exhibit.’ ”

A Disney grant will cover costs of admission and transportation to the exhibit for as many as 12,000 local public school children. Disney dignitaries are also expected to attend the museum’s Nov. 13 Odyssey Ball — its signature fundraising event — and helped put museum officials in touch with jazz musician Terrence Simeon, who appears on the “Princess and the Frog” soundtrack and who will perform at the ball.

The theme for the ball this year, naturally, will be fairy tales.

“It turns out (Bullard) loves Disney, ” Smith said. “He was up for it.”

That’s putting it mildly. Bullard, who traveled to Disney facilities in California to help select the artworks to be included in the show, said he’s already ordered Mickey Mouse ears with the word “NOMA” stitched on the back. He plans to wear them on opening day.

“I grew up in Southern California, ” Bullard said, “and I was at the opening day of Disneyland (in 1955). I remember all those films — I was a Mousketeer, I had my coon-skin cap from ‘Davy Crockett.’ ”

The “Dreams Come True” exhibit and the “Princess and the Frog” film are the latest embraces in the long, warm relationship the city of New Orleans has enjoyed with the Walt Disney Co. It started with Uncle Walt’s 1966 addition of a New Orleans Square section to his Disneyland theme park, and the city and its residents have since played roles in a number of his movies, including local musician Louis Prima’s memorable turn in “The Jungle Book.”

In 1996, Disney held the premiere of its animated “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the sold-out Superdome, preceded by a Disney-style French Quarter parade, and in 2006 — just after Hurricane Katrina — the company elected to have its shareholders meeting in town as a post-Katrina show of support for the city. It was at that meeting that the plans for “The Princess and the Frog” were announced.

This also isn’t the first time the museum has pulled out the stops for a family-oriented, pop-culture exhibit. In 1981, “The Art of the Muppets” — a show dedicated to the work of Jim Henson — drew 126,112 visitors over six weeks. In 1988, 40,793 people — including children’s author Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — attended the New Orleans leg of Geisel’s traveling retrospective “Dr. Seuss: From Then to Now.”

Given the broad appeal of Disney’s films — and the fact that the New Orleans show will be the only one of its kind in North America — “Dreams Come True” has the potential to be every bit as successful.

“We want every princess from seven to 77 to come here with their tiaras on, ” Bullard said. “I’m hoping it’s going to be a big success. We need it.”

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