After the announcement that Universal Studios in Orlando was going to drop the Laurel and Hardy characters from their theme park, I received much support from fans all over the world.  What follows is the text of the letter I sent to the VP of Entertainment as a cover letter to the twenty or so messages I forwarded on behalf of L&H fans.  After my letter is the response I received from the VP, and my response to that letter.

Please consider writing again!

Mr. Skip Sherman
Vice President of Entertainment
1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Trailer 65
Orlando, FL 32819 USA


My cover letter to Skip Sherman:

February 27, 2002

Mr. Skip Sherman
Vice President of Entertainment
1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Trailer 65
Orlando, Florida 32819

Dear Mr. Sherman:

It was with great dismay and sorrow that I recently read about the decision Universal Studios made to eliminate the look-alike actors portraying various icons of American film.  As you can certainly tell from the stationary upon which this letter is written, my primary concern is the elimination of the Laurel and Hardy characters.

I am Grand Sheik of the Orlando tent (chapter) of the Sons of the Desert.  The Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society, is made up of over 220 tents all over the world.  The group, founded in 1965, has thousands and thousands of members many of whom have written to me over the years to tell me how thrilled they were to see Laurel and Hardy during their visit to Universal Studios.  My response has always included our pride that two of our members, your employees Jamie McKenna and Mike MacArthur, are known internationally as the definitive Laurel and Hardy impersonators. 

One of the most enjoyable parts of my visits to Universal has been watching the classic movie characters come to life!  The Laurel and Hardy characters are particularly popular in Europe; an area I know is a particularly important market for visitors to your park.  The enclosed notes are primarily from European fans and I believe that you can readily see the concern that your decision has raised, even causing some tourists to reconsider their plans to visit Universal Studios when they visit Orlando.

Why should you bring all of the characters back?  That's simple:  they are movie history!  You may have created new characters, such as Chiquita Bonita, but they are simple creations and will have no longevity.  Just look at your competitors further west on I-4.  They clearly know the value of their characters, such as Mickey Mouse who has not "appeared" in a major theatrical release in something like 30 years!  Yet Disney still very successfully focuses attention on that character in advertising and in the park. 

The Orlando Sentinel ran an article yesterday, February 26, regarding the promotion of Robert Gault to president and chief operating officer of Universal Orlando.  In that article is the following statement relative to the elimination of the movie characters:  "In place of their relatively staid autograph signing and posing for photographs, a new generation of high-voltage, song-and-dance acts such as Chiquita Bonita - a Latin bombshell - are being introduced."  Again, I refer you to your competitors. The simple appearance of Mickey and Minnie Mouse,  Donald Duck, Goofy, and the others starts a rush of people in their direction to simply have a picture taken with them.  They do not "perform"!

I believe that given the opportunity to fully utilize the characters they portray, Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, the Marx Brothers, etc. could provide a wonderful, engaging, entertaining experience for your guests with "real" movie stars, not just the allegedly "staid" autograph.

Please reconsider your decision to remove the wonderful icons of Hollywood past.  You have the opportunity to help people learn about the characters and come to love them rather than tossing them in the trash bin of Hollywood history.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this request.

Sincerely,


Gary Meiseles
Grand Sheik
Babes in Toyland
Orlando Oasis 127

cc:  Mr. Robert Gault, President and Chief Operating Officer

Skip Sherman's response to me:

Dear Mr. Meiseles:

I received your letter dated February 27, 2002.  I want to thank you for taking the time to express your concerns regarding the use of the Celebrity characters, in particular Laurel & Hardy.

The Entertainment Department of Universal Orlando must stay current with all the cutting edge changes within the industry and we constantly seek new ways to thrill our guests.  Our work is heavily dependent upon the most up-to-date, state of the art knowledge in movies, television, and theater.  We are always looking at the entertainment we are offering and how we can heighten the guest experience through these offerings.

As a student of classic films you have obviously been exposed to the wonderful beginnings of the film industry and of Universal Films.  The characters that propelled Universal into the forefront of the film business, have been and will forever, be a part of our entertainment program.  We will continue to utilize these celebrities to bring the Hollywood experience to our customers through special events and other avenues that take advantage of the talents these performers have.

In an effort to maximize our entertainment offerings, we have created shows and experiences that will hopefully take the guest beyond their expectations.  As you may know we continue to utilize many of our celebrity characters on a day-to-day basis.  Included in those are Lucy and Ricky, Doc Brown, the Ghostbusters, Jake and Elwood Blues and the agents from Men In Black to name a few.  We continue to add new characters as the industry introduces them, like Shrek and Lord Farquaad.  It is necessary for us to not only stay true to our history but to offer new product as well. The newly approved entertainment program has put nineteen new characters on the streets for our guests and in the process creating fun and exciting guest experience through out the day.

We appreciate your support through the years and hope that you continue to make us your entertainment destination.  Again, thank you for taking the time to share your comments with me.  Please continue to keep Universal Films alive through your efforts.

Sincerely yours,

Skip Sherman
Senior Vice President - Entertainment

My follow-up letter to Skip Sherman:

March 28, 2002

Mr. Skip Sherman
Vice President of Entertainment
1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Trailer 65
Orlando, Florida 32819

Dear Mr. Sherman:

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my recent package of information addressing the decision to remove the classic celebrity characters from your park.  I tried to email this message to you but it came back, so I thought I would drop you this note. 

While I disagree with the decision, I certainly understand that the decision was driven for business reasons and was made in what was believed to be the best interests of the park and the company.  I have attached a couple of additional messages from fans that I have received, this time from Charlie Chaplin and Marx Brothers fans.  They too are displeased with the decision. 

I ask to take just a little more of your time to try and make my point.

In your recent letter to me you make the following statement:  "As you may know we continue to utilize many of our celebrity characters on a day-to-day basis.  Included in those are Lucy and Ricky, Doc Brown, the Ghostbusters, Jake and Elwood Blues and the agents from Men In Black to name a few.  We continue to add new characters as the industry introduces them, like Shrek and Lord Farquaad.  It is necessary for us to not only stay true to our history but to offer new product as well."  (emphasis added)

I certainly understand the need to remain current by offering new product, but I fail to see how you are staying "true to (y)our history" when the oldest characters you will retain in the park are from a 1950's television show (albeit, a great show)!  Where are the characters that will allow you to remain true to history?  How will you introduce this history to new generations?  Your company has an unbelievably valuable resource in your film vaults.  How about showcasing the characters in the park and selling the videos and DVDs once you get people hooked?  Instead, the characters are apparently relegated to "special events."  When and how will I, as a customer paying at the gate, be able to see these characters?

In closing, I believe that you can add new characters to remain current and vital in your competitive market, while also including the classic characters.  The addition of one group does not necessitate the elimination of the other group.

Again, thank you for your time, and I urge you to reconsider this decision.

Sincerely,


Gary Meiseles
Grand Sheik
Babes in Toyland
Orlando Oasis 127

cc:          Mr. Robert Gault, President and Chief Operating Officer


Universal Studios Orlando Information
From the August 23, 2002 edition of the Orlando Sentinel:

A new generation of street entertainers at Universal Studios, who earlier this year replaced look-alike actors impersonating Marilyn Monroe, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, are getting the hook.

The lively characters, including Latin bombshell Sarita Bonita, singer and dancer Rico Suave, and dancing sword fighters called the Swashbucklers, were supposed to keep visitors entertained between rides and stage shows.

"When you try new things, you don't always know what will be successful," Universal spokeswoman Susan Lomax said.

Rico Suave was pulled from his Hollywood Boulevard performances a few weeks ago. "He just didn't work," Lomax said.

But she said the other characters are simply going on hiatus and will be brought back later.

Lomax said the Swashbucklers and Sarita Bonita -- originally introduced as Chiquita Bonita -- received good reviews from guests in surveys. But she said recently thinner crowds detract from the "energy and excitement" needed to create the right atmosphere in which to present the acts.

"The actors feed off a big audience. When there aren't enough guests there, the performances just aren't the same," Lomax said.

Sarita Bonita's last performance will be Sept. 14.

The strategy of putting an act on hiatus during slow periods is unusual, some theme park experts say.

At Walt Disney World, for example, when crowds decline the frequency of appearances by certain street performers is reduced, but the acts are not eliminated entirely.

"You want your guests to have the same entertainment experience whether the park is busy or not," said Pete Stapp, an attractions consultant who has worked at both Universal Studios and Disney World.

None of the changes are because of the recent upheavel for parent company Vivendi Universal in France, which recently replaced its chairman. The conglomerate has seen its stock plummet and is shopping for a buyer of its entertainment assets.

Bob Gault, the new Universal Orlando president who green-lighted the new acts as part of a $1.6 million addition to the attraction's street entertainment budget, wasn't available for comment.

Lomax said management's current plans are to possibly bring back some of the characters during the expected busy tourism season that runs Thanksgiving week to Jan.1. She said management would try to find other jobs for the displaced actors.

But some actors' contracts, originally scheduled to run until Dec. 31, have been terminated, Universal employees said. Lomax said any contract terminations were done on an individual basis and not as part of widespread layoffs.

Some annual passholders at Universal criticized the introduction of the new characters earlier this year because they replaced several actors who impersonated historic movie personalities such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Marilyn Monroe.

The new characters are original creations of Universal Studios, unlike most street performers there previously who had Hollywood film pedigrees.

Several other street acts introduced gradually this year will survive, at least for now. They include the Lucy and Ricky Ricardo singing and comedy routine, the "Street Breaks" dancers and the Men In Black rappers.

Lomax said that even more new street performers may debut soon, but she would not identify them.

Robert Johnson can be reached at 407-420-5664 or rjohnson@orlandosentinel.com.
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