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The entrance to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is currently topped with a gigantic pair of mouse ears. A new exhibition celebrating Disneyland's 50th anniversary is on display there. Visitors may be surprised to learn of the relationship between Walt Disney's theme park and Henry Ford's Museum. Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE reporting:

Historians at the Henry Ford Museum approached Disney executives several years ago, asking for the right to create an exhibit in honor of Disneyland's 50th anniversary. Carl Winston is a professor of tourism management at San Diego State University. He says Walt Disney visited the museum and its Greenfield Village at least twice in the 1940s and was captivated by what he saw.

Professor CARL WINSTON (San Diego State University): I think a lot of the inspirations came from Greenfield Village, where there was a museumlike quality almost to the facility that was sort of capturing a point in time in America's history where life was simple and clean and safe.

(Soundbite of music)

Group: (Singing) We've got a date tonight at 8, so meet me down on Main Street.

HEADLEE: Greenfield Village is a park where Henry Ford installed dozens of historic buildings and structures that he collected around the country and brought, piece by piece, to Michigan. There's a courtroom where Abraham Lincoln once argued cases, the house where Noah Webster wrote the dictionary and the bicycle shop where Orville and Wilbur Wright designed the first working airplane. At Greenfield Village, Disney saw the re-creation of an historic Main Street. He saw a real lagoon with a working steamboat, and he saw a working antique steam train. Those are all things that he re-created in Anaheim, California. Scott Mallwitz of the Henry Ford Museum says both Walt Disney and Henry Ford felt a strong desire to preserve the past and create a sense of place.

Mr. SCOTT MALLWITZ (Henry Ford Museum): They fixated on what it meant to be an American at the turn of the century, and then were fascinated with how stories are told and how things unfolded and then how you could get the mechanical to serve your needs. Now that's Henry and that's Walt.

HEADLEE: Mallwitz is leading a tour through the Henry Ford's Disneyland exhibit. The show covers 7,500 square feet and includes 250 pieces of original artwork, cardboard models, sketches and photographs, tracing the conception and development of the world's first modern theme park. Perhaps the most unique piece is the Abraham Lincoln audio-animatronic figure created for the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. Mallwitz says the robot amazed audiences when it was unveiled.

Mr. MALLWITZ: To get a figure to rise and speak to an audience and then to take his chair again after the show ended had never been done before, never been considered and certainly no one knew how to do it.

HEADLEE: The Lincoln figure has never been displayed before outside of Disneyland since 1964. Disney executives have always kept a stranglehold on their corporate image and how it's used. Surprisingly, the Disney Corporation has given permission for the figure to be displayed with the mechanics revealed. The familiar face of Abraham Lincoln is perched atop a complicated assembly of steel gears, well-oiled levers and thin wires. Another valuable piece is the original map of Disneyland created by Disney and artist Herb Ryman. Scott Mallwitz says Disneyland has influenced American society in some surprising ways. He says architects and city planners are now visiting the park to measure the dimensions of porches and storefronts on Main Street.

Mr. MALLWITZ: People are studying the relationships of these streets to sidewalks in Main Street, much like the way the imagineers studied the relationship of streets and sidewalks of existing small towns in America to get the right emotional feeling and connectivity for play in communities.

HEADLEE: More than 500 million people from all over the world have visited Disneyland in the past 50 years. Marty Sklar is the vice chairman of Disney Imagineering. He was the involved in the original creation of Disneyland in 1955.

Mr. MARTY SKLAR (Disney Imagineering): How many things in our culture last 50 years? Not very many of them, and for a public place to have that kind of stature is pretty astounding.

HEADLEE: The exhibit is called Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland. It'll be at the Henry Ford Museum through January 1st of next year before it moves on to San Francisco. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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