In 1954, Disney Divers Bill Stropahl, Al Hansen, and others performed the underwater sequences for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, wearing what was then a new form of hybrid diving gear. Today, fifty-four years later, some of the equipment they used is back in operation for the first time: restored by Vulcania Submarine.
Pat Regan is a fairly common name. There’s a famous musician by that name who worked with Deep Purple, Camine Apice, and wrote themes for several movies; but I’m not him.
Chris Larson is also a very common name, shared by a well-known Nautilus modeler and a TV News personality in Nevada; but we’re not talking about them, either.
Chris Larson is a retired Disney Imagineer who worked for several years as a Special Effects Technician/Designer and Model Maker in Glendale, California. Below is a picture of Chris working on a model of a Disney Train Depot.
In the year 2000, part of Chris’ duties included overseeing an Imagineering R&D facility known as Bonus Built, shown below.
One afternoon (in his own words) Chris was “receiving various pieces of equipment from other WDI buildings for the purposes of inventory and determining the disposition of each item. One shipment included a large, very old, dilapidated box containing the damaged remains of a Disney 20,000 Leagues diving helmet and three mismatched diving boots.
“The Disney Archives was immediately contacted with a description of the find. They said they already had two of the helmets and weren't interested in the boots. Their instructions were to store the helmet for a year and at the end of that time, if no request for it had been made, then dispose of it. Those instructions were honored.”
Disney “Baldy” helmet on display at Walt Disney World, Orlando Florida, 2008.
In December 2007, after retiring from Disney, Chris began researching the helmet’s history. On a hunch, he contacted the agency representing Kirk Douglas to ask if the actor had any recollection of the helmet being damaged in the Longboat Fight scene. Unfortunately, Mr. Douglas could provide no information about that.
In February 2008 Chris contacted Vulcania Submarine for assistance. By his own admission, Chris was more adept at working with wood than metal, and he felt I would be best able to repair the helmet, if that’s what we decided to do. In the notarized letter of authenticity (below), Disney Imagineer Chris Larson documents his discovery; disclosure to the Disney Archives; their decision; and how I subsequently came into possession of these authentic Disney 20,000 Leagues artifacts.
Letter of Authenticity from Chris Larson, Disney Imagineering, Glendale California.
I began where Chris left off: trying to learn how what I came to call "the Lost Helmet" had gotten into such bad shape. Through careful study, I came to believe the damage may have happened during filming. But after consulting Leagues historians and cast members, I couldn’t find anyone with first-hand knowledge that would prove my theory. Thus, without proof of how it occurred, the damage was historically insignificant and not worth preserving.
Next, I solicited opinions about what should be done with the helmet. Since the cause of the damage could not be proven; and since most of the surviving Disney helmets (including the “Hero” Nemo, shown below) have received some repair over the years; the general opinion among the film authorities, Leaguers, diving helmet collectors, and vintage SCUBA enthusiasts I contacted was that this damaged and forsaken movie prop should be restored; hopefully, while maintaining as much authenticity as possible.
I gave it a lot of thought. This wasn't a rare coin that might be diminished by restoration; this was a useful machine that should be repaired and put back into service to represent its kind. Like a B-17 found in a swamp or a vintage Harley found in a barn: you bring such things back to life so future generations can enjoy seeing them in operation. So I decided restoring the helmet was the right thing to do.
Damaged “Hero” Nemo helmet in Outfitting Room set at Disney Studios, 1954; Restored Nemo in private collection, circa 1990’s.
I was experienced with this type of metalwork but I still felt a little awestruck at the task. This was a genuine Disney 20,000 Leagues artifact: one of only four Crowntop Crew Diver helmets known to still be in existence, and an ultra-rare underwater stunt version at that. Everything I’d learned in my years of producing functional replicas of the Disney diving apparatus would now factor into restoring an authentic helmet. I felt like I was holding history in my hands. I proceeded slowly; with great caution and much aforethought prior to performing each operation.
Carefully straightening bent metal with needlenose pliers: padded with tape to prevent marring the original finish.
In all, the restoration took several months. Special efforts were made to preserve the aged patina and original SFX paint, while returning the damaged metal artwork to its original shape. Whenever possible, missing pieces were replaced with authentic vintage parts. The exhaust valve and brass brail straps are the correct type; the brail nuts were handmade per original specs. The hoses are vintage originals (not modern reproductions) cut to the correct length and installed as per the originals. The spools are pure unobtanium! Actual vintage bakelite spools; not modern lathe-turned plastic reproductions. No fiberglass or resin facsimiles of any kind were used. The copper “crown” was handmade using the authentic Disney Crowntop helmet in Leon Lyons’ museum collection as a reference (Thanks Leon!) and fit perfectly into the trace marks left over from the original when installed.
I also asked what should be done with the helmet after it was restored. Most said if it could be dived, it should be. Again, I agreed; the purpose was to make it serviceable so people could see it in operation. So the restoration was both cosmetic and functional. On Sunday, October 12, 2008, we did our first test dives in the pool and the helmet passed with flying colors.
Then, on November 1, 2008, we took everything to the ocean and photographed the restored Lost Helmet in its intended environment: under the sea. That event marked the first time any of the authentic Disney 20,000 Leagues diving gear was returned to service in the fifty-four years since the movie was made.
The dive was at Puhi Bay on the East side of "the Big Island" of Hawaii. We chose that spot because it was accessible and the shoreline provided an easy entry to the dive site. But the day was not without surprises. J
As 20,000 Leagues Director Richard Fleischer said, “The sea is always there to defeat you.” Diving from the coast into the open ocean, one can become subject to rapidly changing conditions. It got a little rough. Above left, I’m readjusting my tank harness after being jostled about in fairly strong currents. And on the right you can see what halocline and particulate matter in the water do to visibility.
Here’s a close-up taken while I was walking out, and another as I was surfacing. The “spools” got tilted as I was bouncing around in the surge, but the helmet performed as well for me as it did for the Disney Divers more than five decades ago.
Pat Regan and the World’s only operational authentic Disney 20,000 Leagues diving helmet.
In closing, here’s a recent picture of Disney Imagineer Chris Larson: the man who discovered this long-lost Leagues helmet and cared enough to save it from destruction. Without Chris, none of this would have happened. Because of him, a significant piece of Leagues history was saved to dive again.
We’re proud to have Mr. Larson wear the colors reserved for our Vulcania Submarine dive crew. He can dive with us anytime. On behalf of 20,000 Leagues-fans everywhere: “Thanks for everything, Chris! You are a true Leaguer.”
UPDATE, 20 February 2015: Here's a pic of Chris and Candy celebrating their 48th Wedding Anniversary on a cruise at Lake Tahoe recently. We're extremely happy to see these two wonderful people enjoying their golden years; they really do exemplify what being a Leaguer is all about and I am proud to call them my friends. Happy Anniversary to you guys and many more happy returns of the day! Keep On Leaguin'. J
Thursday, October 04, 2018:
Identifying the Lost Helmet, and the evidence supporting how it was damaged.
Al Hansen gets to his feet after being slammed with a camera housing by Commander Hooper, as rescue divers race to his aid.
Screen identifier black board for the "shark fight" scene filmed by Hooper. Hooper slamming Hansen with the camera housing during a swim-through.
We now know the Lost Helmet is a crowntop especially-modified for underwater stunt use and worn by Disney stunt diver Al Hansen on February 27, 1954 (one day before filming was scheduled to wrap in the Bahamas) when he was "freight-trained" with a heavy movie camera housing by Navy Commander Hooper.
It also appears to be the same helmet used earlier in the "treasure chest fall" scene. The spools bolt mounting hole is just slightly bent at an angle that could have been caused when Al hit the seabed head-first.
Screen grabs from the "treasure chest fall" scene.
SUPPORTING EVIDENCE: The stunt helmet seen onscreen is the slightly-smaller two-piece "skull cap" type helmet TOA provided six of; not one of the 18 rounder "spun bonnet" pearlers which became the Nemo, 12 crowntops, and five baldies. The face mask is shorter than the pearlers. There is less distance between the spools and the front of the visor than on the other 12 crowntops. The shape of the mounting bolt hole in the visor causes the spools to sit cocked to the right. Position of the spools and the gill side covers causes the hoses to take on a distinctive shape; the left one is more splayed out and the right one forms a "hairpin turn." The corselet is not tinned like the 18 pearlers were; it's painted a dull silver. The angle of the emergency air hose elbow fitting matches that of the Lost Helmet. The gill plates have distinctive bends and the bottom of those pieces are not curved in or soldered to the helmet as they are on the other crowntops. The Lost Helmet has all those same characteristics and none that appear different or out of place.
Screen grabs from the "shark attack" scene.
The Lost Helmet's unique metalwork (with visible dents and original special effects paint) matches close-up images of the helmet in the "shark attack" scene. The type, size, and shape of the helmet and facemask; the tilt of the authentic vintage (not reproduction) spools and resultant shaping of the correct type and length authentic vintage (not reproduction) hoses; the location of each of the brass hex nuts; the SFX paint on the lower "jaw" of the face mask; these and other details seen in the "treasure chest fall" and "shark fight" scenes are also found on the Lost Helmet. Nothing about the Lost Helmet clashes with any BTS stills or images seen in the movie; plus the Lost Helmet has a documented chain of custody traceable back to Disney. Therefore, we can say with an extremely high degree of confidence that this is that same hat.
Pat Regan testing the restored Lost Helmet in the pool at Vulcania Submarine; and ocean-diving at Puhi Bay, Hawaii, November 2008.
On February 28, 1954 underwater shooting ended in the Bahamas. By early March, 1954, the gear was boxed-up and shipped back to California. In early December, 1954, some of the diving equipment was on display at Marineland.
Marineland Exhibit, December 1954.
In the year 2000, that same crowntop helmet was found in an Imagineering warehouse; in a decrepit old box with three mismatched boots that look exactly like those provided for the pre-release display at Marineland. How they all came to be in that box is unknown.
Some have suggested the helmet displayed at Marineland may be the damaged Lost Helmet. I've looked into that and I am convinced it's not. The three boots are a dead ringer for those in the box, though. So it seems highly likely the items found at Bonus Built in 2000 were part of a shipment returning from the Marineland Exhibit which somehow became lost for 46 years. But I digress.
When Disney Imagineer Chris Larson found it, the Lost Helmet was damaged and missing parts: the 4 brail straps and 12 nuts; the exhaust valve cover; the hoses, spools, and crowntop were gone. The right view plate was cracked, etc. Most significantly, the metal "face mask" was badly smashed and natural green salt-water patina had formed in the dents.
Based on a close and lengthy examination to determine the nature of the damage: soon after Hansen's last dive the helmet sustained many forceful impacts against the edge of a wooden 2X4, 2X6, or the like. It then came to rest until the seawater pooled in the dented metalwork, dried, and left a natural patina in the shape of those dents.
Exactly how that happened is unknown; the two surviving Disney stunt divers (Ricou Browning and Bill Stropahl) had completed their duties and were not on boat that day. And everyone else known to be associated with the event has passed on.
So the question arises: After Hansen's accident, did someone get angry and bash the helmet against the rails and benches of the dive barge?
Unknown, but that's possible and would explain the damage and the patina formations.
Were there any other incidents of helmet bashing?
Actually, yes. When it came time to film Ned's discovery of the ballast chamber treasure trove at Disney Studios in California, the right side of the Nemo helmet was caved in with a shape suggesting it collided with the convex surface of another helmet, The rim of the visor was also torn off and the jaw was badly bent; indicating more than a happenstance event. So the Nemo helmet was left out of the scene and Nemo's outfitting station had a crowntop, instead.
Any possible connection there? Al Hansen and "Nemo diver" Dave Rochlen were both involved with the development of the 20K diving apparatus, were considered management among the Disney Divers, and were good friends from Santa Monica along with Fred Zendar and Norm Bishop. In a heated moment, might not the anger of one revered leader in a group be rejoined by his friends? Sure, it's been known to happen.
But the Nemo helmet wasn't damaged in the Bahamas; it returned to California and Dave used it to film the "trapeze entry" into the Nautilus diving chamber at the Stage 3 wet set. Here's a picture of Dave Rochlen jumping in with a set of faux (fiberglass) diving tanks in preparation for that scene.
David Yale Rochlen hops into the pool at Disney Studios.
At some time after the Stage 3 dives and before the outfitting room scene was shot; the Nemo was also damaged and had to be repaired before it could be displayed at Disneyland.
Returning to the point: one might visualize a last day of shooting in the Bahamas that was emotionally charged, to say the least. This many years after the fact, it's all conjecture but the facts and evidence do seem to suggest something like that occurred and nothing says otherwise. You be the judge.
REMEMBERING A FRIEND
Retired Disney Imagineer Chris Larson, our friend and fellow Leaguer, passed away this year. Those of us who remain must endure the sadness of his passing and the emptiness of his loss. But let us rejoice in the knowledge that he has found peace in the eternal love of God; and the certainty that we will all meet again someday. Let us rejoice for the wonderful life he and his devoted wife Candy shared for 51 years. Let us not be saddened that he has gone to his just reward; let us celebrate the goodness he brought to this World while he was here. This was a good man. I was proud to call him my friend. When we think of Chris, let's remember the good times and smile.
Aloha O'e, brother. Until we meet again.
Copyright © 2008, 2018, Pat Regan, “All Rights Reserved.”