Interview: Animatronic Lincoln at Lincoln Memorial Shrine

Posted 10/8/2018 By Zethyn McKinley
Garner Holt Productions
The Lincoln Memorial Shrine

Reflections of the Face of Lincoln,” a new exhibit that features an impressive animatronic bust of the 16th president, recently opened at the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, California, where it will remain on display through December 29, 2018. We recently talked to the Shrine’s curator, Dr. Nathan Gonzales, to learn more about the Shrine, its founder Robert Watchorn, and the new exhibit.


Why was President Lincoln so significant to the Watchorn family, and why did they choose Redlands as the site for their monument to him?

It’s an interesting story. Robert Watchorn was born to a poor family in central England in 1858. As a child, he worked in coal mines to help support his family. By the time he was 22, he decided, like so many others have, to come to the United States in hopes of finding a better life. After arriving in America, he worked in coal mining in Pennsylvania, and became active with miners’ rights, which drew attention from the governor of Pennsylvania. He was the first secretary of the United Mine Workers. He then entered the immigration service of the United States, first at the border with Canada, and then, in 1905, as commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, a position to which he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. He left the service in 1909, and landed on his feet as treasurer of the Union Oil Company. He later formed his own company, Watchorn Oil & Gas, which hit some wildcat strikes in Oklahoma, making him a very wealthy man.

In Abraham Lincoln, he saw a personal story similar to his own, one that embodied the promise of America: the right to better yourself and rise above the station of your birth. During the 1920s, Robert and his wife Alma began wintering in Redlands—as many who could afford to leave “winter” chose to do—and they saw in California a need for something to honor his hero Lincoln. At the same time, they sought a way to memorialize their son Ewart, who died a few years after his service in World War I. The first idea was to add a wing for a Lincoln library to A.K. Smiley Public Library, the local public library, but by 1931 that changed to a stand-alone “shrine” to President Lincoln. Today, the mission of the museum has broadened to include not only Lincoln, but also the events and people leading up to, including, and after the American Civil War.


Tell us a bit about “Reflections of the Face of Lincoln.” What should visitors expect to see and experience?

Reflections of Lincoln Exhibit
Garner Holt Productions

This attraction builds on the kind of experiences that visitors to major theme parks might expect. “Holographic” representations of Frederick Douglass and Clara Barton help tell the stories of slavery and war; and the magical appearance of Lincoln reveals the most advanced, expressive, and lifelike animatronic human face ever created. Lincoln, who is voiced by veteran voice actor Peter Renaday—also known for his portrayal of Lincoln at Walt Disney World’s “Hall of Presidents”—recites a kind of “Lincoln’s greatest hits” speech, which draws quotes from his most famous speeches and writings to manufacture a monologue that is comprised entirely of Lincoln’s words. The attraction is narrated by a character named Vinnie Ream, the sculptor who is best known for her statue of Lincoln that is located in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The attraction packs a lot of punch into 10 minutes, from the causes of the war, to the tragedies of the war, and finally to the “coming to life” of the sixteenth president—and visitors leave with a better understanding of the conflict and Lincoln’s crucial role in shaping the nation we are today. 

Animatronic Lincoln
Garner Holt Productions


Garner Holt Productions, Inc., best known for Disney creations, created the animatronic Lincoln. Can you tell us more about how the project got started and how you got to display it?

Garner Holt Animatronic Lincoln
Garner Holt Productions

The Shrine is fortunate that Garner Holt actually grew up in nearby San Bernardino. Part of what got him into animatronics was seeing “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland as a youth. Pair that with Bill Butler, the Director of Creative Design at Garner Holt Productions who dreamt up this whole attraction. Bill actually worked at the Lincoln Shrine as a high school and college student, and had been formulating possibilities for several years before he finally approached the museum with his concept of this attraction. He saw it as a way to showcase their newest technology with animatronic expressiveness. He and Garner talked it over, then presented the idea to the Shrine, and now the rest is, as they say, history.


Can people learn more about the animatronic Lincoln even if they aren’t able to visit the Shrine in person?

Absolutely! Garner Holt Productions has placed several videos about their creation of Lincoln and this attraction on YouTube, so anyone with an internet connection can see and learn about some of the exciting aspects of the production.


Beside “Reflections on Lincoln,” what else does the Shrine offer for Lincoln and Civil War enthusiasts?

Lincoln Memorial Shrine Exhibit Hall
Garner Holt Productions
The Lincoln Memorial Shrine

Since it first opened in 1932, the Lincoln Memorial Shrine is still the only museum and research center dedicated exclusively to the study of Lincoln and the American Civil War west of the Mississippi. Exhibits are changed regularly to examine different aspects of Lincoln and the war through artifacts, manuscripts, images, and compelling. Admission to the museum is always free! One of the highlights of the collections is a painting Norman Rockwell created in 1944 to accompany a poem by Carl Sandburg called “The Long Shadow of Lincoln,” both of which were published in the February 10, 1945, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Researchers have come from all over the United States to mine the Shrine’s Civil War collections, from great scholars whose names would be familiar to readers of The Civil War Monitor, to enthusiasts who are interested in finding answers to their own important questions. It’s an amazing resource, and we welcome anyone who is interested in furthering their own education on this transformative period in our history, just like Lincoln and Watchorn did for their own educations.

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