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California 2009 Recap Part 2 – NFFC Disneyana Convention: Evening with Paige O’Hara, Jodi Benson, Sherri Stoner and Don Hahn

The National Fantasy Fan Club celebrated it’s 25th year of bringing together Disneyana fans by surprising Jodi Benson (Ariel from The Little Mermaid) and Paige O’Hara (Belle from Beauty and the Beast) with NFFC Legends Awards at the NFFC Banquet on July 16th, 2009. Legends Awards are traditionally handed out during the Lunch with a Legend later in the week (and others were, including posthumously to Imagineers David Mumford and Bruce Gordon).

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My thanks to Benson, O’Hara and the talented producer Don Hahn for taking the time to speak to us. They were very generous after a long evening, which included 2 hours of signing autographs and taking photos for all in attendance at the banquet – the autograph session didn’t end until just after 11pm. Hahn served as the host for the event, guiding the 3 guests – Benson, O’Hara and actress Sherri Stoner, the body model for Ariel (and the voice of Slappy Squirrel in Animaniacs) – in a memorable evening of interviews, video clips and songs.

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One of the highlights of the banquet was seeing unreleased footage of behind-the-scenes recording sessions. There was a series of clips showing a frustrated Paige O’Hara as she started the Beauty and the Beast title song over and over, sometimes before any of the lyrics had been sung. O’Hara told me she’d never seen the footage before: “I’d seen a photograph of it, but never (video of) that full day.”  She continued about seeing these clips for the first time from onstage at the banquet, “I got very melancholy, choked up…there were several takes of that one first phrase.  I know many of them were the directors (orders to stop the take), but half of them were me, because I was really stuck on that one phrase.” O’Hara wanted it perfect, as “this was for history.

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Benson was also visibly moved as she watched the clips of herself from 20 years ago. “A lot of times it feels like yesterday, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. I guess I’m now starting to realize the impact this film has on peoples lives.” That same theme came up when I asked Benson about tearfully receiving the NFFC Legend Award (past recipients have included Imagineers Marc Davis and Tony Baxter, as well as the recently passed Wayne Allwine, the voice of Mickey Mouse). Benson said, “I just don’t think of the film as being around that long. It just doesn’t feel that like it’s that long to me…so when people say ‘I grew up with you’, and now there are these grown children…it just came to a realization that to get an award like that, with the name ‘Legend’ on it, this is something that is going to be around a lot longer, long past me.”

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O’Hara was also similarly moved about the award, “I was so touched…I had no idea…no clue, neither did Jodi. It’s a great honor, a really great honor.”

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Don Hahn is himself a past NFFC Legend award recipient, with a long and storied career that has included a Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast. He currently has several projects in the works, including the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty,  and the Disneynature follow-up to Earth, simply titled Oceans. About directing Waking Sleeping Beauty, a film that chronicles animation in the 80’s and 90’s, he says, “This is something that has been a labor of love for the last two years.” Hahn spoke with John Lasseter and said,  “We should document this era in animation.” Hahn then continued,  “Wouldn’t you have loved to have a documentary about Freddie Moore, Bill Tytla, and Frank and Ollie when they were in their prime?  It doesn’t exist.”  Waking Sleeping Beauty will feature lyricist Howard Ashman, writer Kirk Wise, animator Glen Keane and “directors and great artists who make these movies happen.”

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I did ask Hahn what it was like to be part of what many consider the second (or third) Golden Age of Disney animation. “I promise you we didn’t know it was a new Golden Age”, Hahn laughed, then said seriously, “It really was a perfect storm of people, circumstances and the audience. Everybody was ready for it. It was a long time since Disney had done a fairy tale.  The Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale in 30 years when it came out. I think it surprised us all.”  He continued that the perfect storm also included great executives, including Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the late Frank Wells. “We were really lucky to be there in the right place at the right time.” To see these incredible films now, you’d never think that there were problems getting them made. But that wasn’t the case, said Hahn. “Any one of them (the films) could have gone south at any moment. Most of them did at some moments…Beauty and the Beast went through terrible story changes, and there were times I couldn’t get anyone to work on The Lion King. I would say, ‘There are songs by Elton John, and it’s set in Africa’…and people would just walk way from it and say ‘good luck’.”

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Hahn’s project, “Oceans” comes out Earth Day, 2010. Hahn said “It’s been filming for 4 or 5 years…it has the most amazing footage you’ve ever seen”. Expect more films coming from Disneynature as well, “we’ve got 6 of them going right now.” Hahn mentioned the upcoming film Hidden Beauty for 2011 (which currently comes up as Naked Beauty: A Love Story that Feeds the Earth on the IMDB), as well as films on African cats and chimpanzees.

Both Paige O’Hara and Jodi Benson have current projects as well. O’Hara stars in Menopause The Musical® in Las Vegas, and has a Judy Garland musical in the works that has been written for her. Jodi Benson reprises her role as Barbie in Toy Story 3, as well as narrating a series of Baby Faith DVD’s.

Thank you again to Paige O’Hara, Jodi Benson and Don Hahn. For those interested in the NFFC and being part of incredible events like this one, please visit NFFC.org.