Kraftland: Richard Kraft's Disney Collection: Invisibilia Richard Kraft was in a fog of grief when he bought his first Disney collectible at an auction. But once he started, he couldn't stop. In the first episode of our new fall season, we explore the role of positive distraction in the face of adversity.
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Kraftland

Kraftland

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HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

I'm Hanna Rosin. This is NPR's INVISIBILIA. And we are thrilled to welcome you to the first episode of our official fall season. So about once a month, we are going to bring you a story that may sound a little different from what you usually hear in our spring season. It may be a little shorter. It may feature a new voice, no experts. What? No experts? But the goal of every episode is still to help you see the invisible forces at work in your own life because, as we like to say, if you can't see them, you can't change.

So after this deeply intellectual preamble, it makes sense that our first episode of the season would feature a big hunk of plastic - a very beloved one. Producer Meghan Keane has this story.

MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: For many years, the most important thing in Richard's life was an elephant - a 5-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, shiny Dumbo with a floppy pink hat. It was a Dumbo from the Disney ride. He would climb in and fly into the sky. Richard had bought it and hung it in his living room, and it spent years there hanging, looking like it was about to come in for a landing onto the coffee table. For over two decades, it smiled at Richard Kraft as he came down the stairs each morning, soothing his pain, filling him with fatherly pride.

RICHARD KRAFT: It's a sensation of his friendly face staring at you, and I can wake up in the morning, go downstairs, and there he is.

KEANE: But then one day he decided he needed to say goodbye to the plastic Dumbo - just needed to walk away, put an end to it. So he put it up for auction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: The day after I turned 16, I helped carry my sick father down the stairs to take him to the hospital. There in the sterile waiting room, my mother explained as gently as she could that my father was never going to leave the confines of his hospital bed alive. I heard the words, but I was really focused on this children's coloring book that was in front of me. I spent the rest of my father's days facing away from him, coloring in the lines of circus animals and kites.

Every time I think about my father's dying days, I see that stupid coloring book. It feels like a cheat to me. Why was I avoiding the reality right in front of me, hiding in a world of striped tents and dumb, dancing dogs? Was I just too scared to face the truth?

Richard is the father of a friend of mine, and when I heard about his life with Dumbo, I felt like I had to talk to him. His story and my story start in similar ways because, before Dumbo, there was a whole other elephant in the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY DAVIES' "LAND OF THE PHARAOHS A")

KEANE: When Richard Kraft and his older brother David were kids, they used to sit at home and listen to movie soundtracks. Their bedroom walls were lined with sagging bookcases stuffed with their vinyl collection. And they really loved this one soundtrack.

KRAFT: Yes, my brother and I loved Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack to "The Ten Commandments." That corny Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner movie. And my brother and I loved listening to that record going, oh, that's the voice of God theme. That's the Israeli theme.

KEANE: It wasn't just about one-upping each other on soundtrack knowledge; something truly wonderful happened each time they fired up the record player. They were scooped up from their bedroom floor and whisked onto the floor of the Red Sea.

KRAFT: We were now in the world of "The Ten Commandments," and the parting of the Red Sea seemed cinematically important. And nothing in our real world felt like that or looked like that, but the music made us feel that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY DAVIES' "LAND OF THE PHARAOHS A")

KEANE: Soundtracks have a kind of special power. They're a great shortcut to making you feel an emotion. It's kind of their whole purpose. You know what else soundtracks are good for? Not feeling emotions.

KRAFT: I can stop it. The record's going to end. I'm not going to be drowning in my tears for eternity; I'll probably be drowning in my tears for the next 3 minutes and 58 seconds, as the counter counts down, and I know when this thing's going to end.

KEANE: There was a good reason for Richard to be drowning in his tears because his brother David was often bedridden with an IV pinned to his arm. Richard would race home to be with David after a day out.

KRAFT: I'd come home and relay them back to him. He'd ask me endless questions. I would sneak a tape recorder into movie theaters to record movies and then play it back to him and describe what was going on on the screen while we listened to the audio.

KEANE: David had Crohn's disease, meaning his body was attacking his digestive system. Sometimes he would miss long stretches of school because of hospital stays, which was hard for Richard because David was the center of his life.

KRAFT: There was never going to be anyone in life as interested in every detail of what was going on with me as with my brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: The household routine revolved around a chronically sick child. But they didn't ever all sit down and check in, you know, process their feelings, visit a family therapist. Instead, Richard's father dealt with things in a different way. He made himself the master of distraction. He would take them on what he called scavenger hunts for more soundtracks at the Goodwill. He'd bring home used board games all the time. But the biggest and the most enticing distraction of them all - a yearly trip to Disneyland, just a few hours south of their sleepy farming town.

KRAFT: And a trip to Disneyland was our No. 1 - everything's going well today; let's go to Disneyland. And my brother and I used to preplan our trips to Disneyland. We had a map of the park on our bedroom wall, and we would spend weeks discussing what rides we were going to go on and what order.

KEANE: That's the Kraft way - set your emotional thermostat on joy and sing heigh-ho, heigh-ho until your negative feelings escape you...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEIGH-HO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) We dig, dig, dig...

KEANE: ...because airing them?

KRAFT: How are you feeling? It must be scary that your brother could be dying at any point of time.

KEANE: That never came up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK CHURCHILL's "HEIGH-HO")

KEANE: The boys grew up, and when the brothers were in their early 30s, David went in for an experimental intestinal transplant. It didn't work, and at the age of 35, he died. Richard's father broke the news to him, true to the Kraft family style.

KRAFT: And I specifically remembered - my dad said, no big emotions. Let's not have big emotions.

KEANE: Really? He said that at that time?

KRAFT: Yes. On the phone call where he tells me David had died.

KEANE: I mean, that seems like the perfect time to have big emotions, right? Your...

KRAFT: No, we're saving it until something major happened.

(LAUGHTER)

KEANE: Wow.

KRAFT: I think, in general, my dad and I feared if we got into emotions, it was going to become quicksand that we would never get out of.

KEANE: The cloud that had been following Richard his whole life turned the darkest it had ever been.

KRAFT: I was lost. I didn't know where to turn.

KEANE: But on some level, he did know where to turn. So Richard just started driving.

KRAFT: I just somehow instinctually drove to Disneyland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: Disneyland. Imagine Richard, a 32-year-old man who's just lost his brother, walking through the tunnel at the entrance of Disneyland, coming out into the light, seeing happy families, kids with balloons and Mickey Mouse ears. He wanders over to an old favorite ride of his and David's, Pirates of the Caribbean. He settles into a boat filled with other tourists.

KRAFT: I definitely felt the most alone. It was dark, and it was spooky in there. And the song "Yo Ho" is playing throughout it, and it's kind of - it's a jolly song, contrasting burning buildings and a mayor being dunked in a well and pirate ships firing at each other. Yet it's sort of like chaos with the soundtrack of perky.

KEANE: As the boat wades through the chemicalized theme park waters, Richard has a thought.

KRAFT: Oh, this was a good idea. It was a feeling of satisfaction that I figured out something that might work for me to deal with my grieving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: If animatronic pirates could find a happy song to sing as their town burned down, maybe Richard could, too. Maybe he didn't need to feel big emotions about David's death; he could just replace them with the fun emotions of Disney.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANE SHORT AND HELEN GOCHER'S "MUCH HAPPIER (TRAILER MUSIC)")

KRAFT: One of the things I think I've always appreciated about Disneyland is there's a finite amount of time that you're immersed in anything, and so I can escape within the attraction for X amount of time, under very controlled conditions, and then reemerge outside of it and be OK.

KEANE: Just like with the soundtracks, these rides allowed Richard to step into a space with all the trappings of an emotional experience. And when the timer was finished...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KEANE: ...Big emotions over. At this point, Richard was really gaining momentum in his career. He ended up becoming an agent for soundtrack composers. He had a son. So it wasn't practical to go to Disneyland every day. But getting older and more settled did not mean he eased up on the "Heigh-Ho" philosophy of life. Instead, he dove in deeper.

One day, he doesn't really remember how, but he heard about a Disneyland auction; there a sleek green and yellow poster of an old Autopia ride caught his eye. It was on display at Disneyland in the 1950s. In the forefront, it shows a father and son zipping along in a car with these big smiles.

KRAFT: And it just - it was the idealized version of the childhood that I kind of had, but it sure looked a lot better in the poster. And I bid on it, and I won it, and I hung it up in my office. And it was like, wait - I'm bringing Disneyland into my space, and I didn't even know that was a possibility.

KEANE: But once he did know, he wanted more. And he didn't want commemorative collectibles like T-shirts or keychains; no, he wanted pieces of the actual park, which is how he found himself in a spectacular bidding war with an anonymous phone bidder who may or may not have been Michael Jackson. At one point, Richard got so into it he stood on his chair just to amp up the drama.

KRAFT: And I say, no - $35,000. And there's a gasp.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP GASPING)

KRAFT: And then she looks over at me and gestures with her hand, it is yours. And the crowd erupts, and I feel like a rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: This, of course, was Dumbo. And with that, he was off. He bought Jose, the animatronic bird from the Tiki Room. Jose lived in his son's bedroom...

KRAFT: Jose lived in my son's bedroom because we turned that into the Tiki Room.

KEANE: No. Oh, my gosh.

KRAFT: Yeah.

KEANE: The car from Mr. Toad's...

KRAFT: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is this beautifully designed car. So I got one of those.

KEANE: As well as a PeopleMover and a Skyway vehicle.

KRAFT: These little cars that fit four people that...

KEANE: These little cars that fit four people that traveled through Fantasyland. Also, these huge clamshell cars from The Haunted Mansion, which are apparently called Doom Buggies. And they're not exactly, like, attractive, but it's the Doom Buggy.

KRAFT: How cool could that be?

KEANE: He bought and bought until his house became so packed with Disney things that his friends started calling his place Kraftland. And now the only thing people talked about when they came over was the elephant in the room.

KRAFT: Yes, I put a $35,000 elephant in the room that could then be discussed.

KEANE: Now Richard wasn't the guy with the dead brother; he was the guy with the Dumbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY DAVIES' "FANTASY WORLD A")

ROSIN: An in-home Tiki park, Jose the bird, a dune buggy - at this point, Richard's home is stuffed with Disney memorabilia. After the break, things get even more out of control. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: Richard's son Nicholas told me that his father had once made a feature-length film about his collection. When I asked him to send it to me, he wrote back with a link and said it is basically the most overproduced home movie of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINDING KRAFTLAND")

KRAFT: Disneyland's like a shopping spree, you know? We'll go, and I'll be like, oh, wait. That's in our kitchen.

KEANE: Richard even hired a old Disneyland employee to host a walk-through of his home collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINDING KRAFTLAND")

STACY: Hey, there. I'm your host, Stacy (ph). And I'm here to take you on a tour of the top 10 attractions at one of the wildest, craziest, most over-the-top homes this side of Xanadu.

KEANE: And seeing it all together - it just looks over the top. So I decided to find a way to ask him if this was, you know, just bingeing on empty emotional calories. But Richard was one step ahead of me. He's done a lot of therapy over the years, so he sees all the angles.

KRAFT: I think part of the emptiness inside of me got filled up with - filled up or sidetracked with a new identity as Mr. Disneyland collector.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KRAFT: Shockingly, owning plastic pieces from a theme park is not really filling up my soul, but it's a really interesting distraction.

KEANE: OK. So it is distraction, just like that stupid coloring book I was drawing in at my father's deathbed. But then, isn't that cheating? I mean, I tend to be skeptical of people who just move on way too quickly. Like, the rest of us are just patiently waiting through this hard, long process, and people like Richard get to cut to the front.

I pressed him again. Was there ever a time you just faced down your big emotions head-on, just broke down crying? And he told me this story of a relationship with a woman named Karen. He was divorced when he met her. She was separated from her husband. And she worked at a church. He jokingly called her church lady. And she wasn't really super into his collection.

KRAFT: She was so mildly interested in it. And it was like, oh, she loves me not because I have the Mouse Trap game or because I have Dumbo. She loved me 'cause she must love me. I remember thinking how nice it was making baloney sandwiches in the morning for her son to go to school. It was just lacking drama, and it was also lacking flash. It was incredibly comforting.

KEANE: Richard says it was the most nurturing relationship he's ever been in. But, Richard being Richard, the desire to add distracting adventures back into their baloney-sandwich life crept back in. Eventually, they ended things. Karen wanted to give it another go with the husband she had been separated from. It was another loss. This time, Richard coped differently - no animatronic pirates, no smiling Dumbo around him - just Richard sitting alone on his porch, crying.

KRAFT: But I had been lulled into turning down the volume, turning down the noise, turning down the impulse. And then it was like, even if I do that, it's not - it's still going to get the same result.

KEANE: So yes, he did try the difficult, noble way - letting the big emotions in. But that didn't quite work out. Then, distraction didn't quite have the same effect on him either. One time, he stayed up all night at a hotel, bidding on hundreds of antique bridge tallies, which he didn't care about at all - cared so little that when the box arrived, he didn't even open it.

And then he decided to try a radically different tack. He was going to create a show-stopping, massive distraction by getting rid of his main distraction once and for all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo.

KEANE: At this point, Richard's son had gone off to the East Coast for college, and Richard was living alone. He surveyed the dune buggy, the Skyway vehicle. And they all seemed kind of sunbaked and sad.

KRAFT: I got really melancholy walking around my home, feeling what probably most empty nesters feel. But imagine being an empty nester living in a faux-Disneyland.

KEANE: So he boxed it up and put almost everything in storage. The idea to sell it all - that didn't come up until five years later. Richard had a daughter who was born with a rare genetic disorder called Coffin-Siris syndrome. He wanted to set her up for life and raise money for other kids with special needs. That's when he decided to get rid of his collection. And it's also when I finally understood how the fine art of distraction worked for Richard and how it could help me take the pressure off of myself for how I behaved when my father was dying.

Now, Richard did not just auction off things quietly and anonymously. No, of course not. For a month, he took over an abandoned Sports Authority in the Valley and made his entire collection into a marvelous exhibit. Fifty thousand people came out. Some of them dressed up in Haunted Mansion T-shirts...

KRAFT: Awesome shirt.

KEANE: ...And Disney princess costumes...

KRAFT: Excellent.

KEANE: ...All wanting to see his collection. Richard walked around like he was Walt Disney himself - laughing, creating spur-of-the-moment games...

KRAFT: Awesome shirt. I'm here to point out awesome shirts.

KEANE: ...Asking people about their favorite Disneyland attractions...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, I just wanted to thank you for sharing it.

KRAFT: Are you enjoying it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I am so enjoying it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

KRAFT: I am so enjoying it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Such a blessing...

KRAFT: What's your favorite...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Your good friend, Dumbo...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Dumbo...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: And it was on the second day that I realized a key part of Richard's brand of distraction.

KRAFT: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

JANET: Hi. It's so good to see you.

KEANE: Richard's high school girlfriend Janet waved him down, and instantly, they started talking about all their memories of when they went to Disneyland, like the time they went to a souvenir shop and just bought little trinkets for everyone in the shop just to do a good thing. After they hug, Richard says...

KRAFT: You see all this stuff from David?

JANET: Oh, my God, yeah. I was here yesterday.

KRAFT: Oh, I didn't know that.

JANET: And I just started crying just seeing David as a little kid and you as a little kid, too.

KEANE: It was true. There were monitors throughout the whole place with lots of old family photos, and there was David, his smiles dotting the exhibit floor.

JANET: Richard's parting with something that he's loved all of his life, and a lot of people would just quietly sell one piece after another and be really - going through a big depression about it. And he's celebrating all of this. He's turned it into a celebration. I don't know. It seems so very craftlike to me that this is happening.

KEANE: Richard wasn't completely avoiding the elephant in the room - the giant hole left in his life from losing his brother. He was just letting in the pain bit by bit and, at the same time, amplifying the fun around him to soften the blow. It's like one of those New Orleans jazz funerals - a core of sadness surrounded by waves and waves of joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Unintelligible). Who said 600? Go six one time. Opening bid - that man right here in the front row. And 600...

KEANE: The Dumbo ended up going for $420,000. The first poster Richard bought, the Autopia one - that went for $250,000. Two trashcans from Frontierland - $8,000. Some Disneyland bubble bath from 1955 - $5,000. Richard gave a lot of that to charity.

When you're staring down an emotion that could swallow you whole, you have to find some way to shrink it down into something manageable. That's what Richard's done, and that's what I was doing at the age of 16 with that coloring book. I was just letting in reality in reasonable bits that I could handle so I wouldn't become paralyzed because here's the whole truth.

During those nine months my father was battling cancer, I wasn't just coloring. I was dancing in the school musicals, studying for the SATs, singing bad pop music in the car with my friends. I was a teenager looking for a way forward even with the weight of grief on my back.

KRAFT: And I know I paid prices for that, so I'm not deluding myself that way, but I have to delude myself somehow. So I might as well pick the one that's - you know, I get to live a life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE + PLACES' "A HISTORY IN LAST NAMES")

ROSIN: That's it for today's show. INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin, and Alix Spiegel. Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf, and our executive producer is Cara Tallo. INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. This bonus episode was produced by Jake Arlow. We had help from Mark Memmott and Micah Ratner, fact-checking by William Brennan. And our technical director is Andy Huether. And vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

Special thanks to Nicholas Kraft for helping with logistics. Thank you also to Connor Moore for the song "Ride," Jonathan Barlow for the song "Lantern," People + Places for the song "A History In Last Names" and Holy Holy Vine for the song "Screen Glow And The Mountainside." As for us, you can find all things INVISIBLIA at our website npr.org/invisibilia. And now for a moment of non-Zen...

KEANE: But then isn't that - oh, I'm pretty sure.

ROSIN: All right. Oh, and check back next month. We'll have the next installment of our fall season in your feeds in September. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAUNT THE HOME")

CAMP: (Singing) Northwestern streets in my head...

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