For a few weeks in the summer of 1981 you could see something truly extraordinary at Disneyland. Well, okay, you can always see truly extraordinary things at Disneyland, and lots of them—that’s why it exists. Something special happened at the park that summer, though, something that was never seen again. From June 20 to September 11, 1981, you could stumble upon a full-blown rock ‘n’ roll show by an original band, playing original songs, with an original look that was part Star Wars, part KISS, and entirely amazing. The band’s name was Halyx, it only existed for that one summer, and there’s now a feature-length documentary about its short history and unrealized dreams. It’s screening for free on YouTube, and if you’re at all interested in rock ‘n’ roll, theme parks, late ‘70s / early ‘80s pop culture, or insider stories about the music industry, you should block off the 80 minutes it’ll take to watch all of Live from the Space Stage: A Halyx Story.
Disney’s theme parks have always been home to a variety of live music. You can randomly encounter jazz groups, marching bands, barbershop quartets and more throughout the day, or let your kids burn through their excess energy at dance parties blasting Disney Radio pop songs. As Matthew Serrano’s film details, Halyx was conceived by Disney Records exec Gary Krisel to fill a gap in the park’s musical offerings, playing the kind of slick, professional arena rock that the teenagers of the day would listen to on AOR stations, and which would eventually wind up on classic rock playlists. To that end Disney hired professional songwriters and assembled a band of experienced, highly talented musicians—what one interviewee in the movie calls “real players’ players.”
And then Disney dressed them up in elaborate alien and robot costumes and said they were from outer space.
When Halyx was being assembled, Star Wars was the most popular thing in the country. It was only a couple of years after KISS was at its peak as a pop culture phenomenon. American teens loved space operas and extravagantly costumed rock bands. And since everything at Disneyland is about the show, Disney’s rock band couldn’t just be any group of musicians. It had to be something extraordinary, something unforgettable—something you could only see at Disneyland. And eventually, as the company hoped, at your local arena, once Halyx got signed to a label and became a breakout sensation.
And so Halyx was born. As Bambi Moé, one of the Disney execs behind the whole thing, says, “if KISS played in the Star Wars cantina, that would be Halyx.” The bassist was a seven-foot fur-covered beast that everybody just called a Wookiee, copyright be damned. The keyboard player wore a robot suit and sat in a motorized cart made to look like a small, futuristic, one-man tank. A dancer and acrobat was hired as a second percussionist, decked out with a latex lizard mask, and did light Cirque du Soleil-style stunts during the show. And the singer and lead guitarist were basically Leia and Luke if they were played by Pat Benatar and Billy Squier.
There was also a drummer. He played the drums.
Serrano’s film is a comprehensive overview of Halyx’s short, exciting life. It talks to the Disney execs who hatched the idea, the artists who came up with the band’s concept and look, the producers and songwriters who made the music possible, and the musicians who brought it all to life. And it has copious live footage of Halyx’s summer residency at the Space Stage beneath Space Mountain, on blurry, shaky, darkened videotape—visual and audio proof that Halyx did exist, but still shadowy enough to not entirely dispel the cultic mystery that has developed around the band in the 40 years since its brief existence.
As a theme park fan, the story of Halyx highlights something missing from the Disney of today. Rides and attractions based on movies and popular characters have been a part of Disneyland since it opened in 1955. The parks have also been the home of so many original concepts, though, introducing legendary Disney experiences like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and Space Mountain to the world. When the Disney of 1980 wanted to add a bit of Star Wars style flair to Tomorrowland, it tasked a group of artists to come up with a weird, original idea based around science fiction aesthetics. The Disney of today almost exclusively sticks to proven intellectual property when it comes to developing new park experiences—for something to get built today it pretty much has to be based on established characters and concepts from successful movies. A Halyx wouldn’t happen in 2020; the closest we’d get is a band made up of stormtroopers, or the droid DJ spinning Star Wars music at Oga’s Cantina in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. In exploring this short-lived, little-known, but fascinating oddity from Disneyland, Live from the Space Stage tacitly argues for the value of original ideas in theme parks.
It also represents a major accomplishment for Defunctland, the YouTube channel that produced it. There are a lot of really good YouTube channels and content creators devoted to theme parks. Someday I’ll write about that scene at length. Defunctland is one of the best and most popular. Created by Kevin Perjurer, Defunctland has explored the history of shuttered attractions and theme parks for three seasons, focusing not just on Disney and Universal but on stories from throughout the theme park industry. Its episodes have grown as the channel has become more popular over the years; in the first season most videos clocked in under 15 minutes, whereas season three’s shortest video was 20 minutes long, and three episodes were over 40 minutes. Live from the Space Stage is a real feature-length film, though, running for almost 90 minutes. It never feels padded, and doesn’t get bogged down by unnecessary attempts at artfulness, telling its story in a detailed, straightforward manner. It’s one of three documentaries I watched last week, the only one that wasn’t officially released through a prominent streaming service, and it is not just the most interesting story of the three, but also the best produced as a film. Defunctland is one of many channels to prove that YouTube videos aren’t always as amateurish or self-obsessed as the site’s biggest critics claim, and Serrano’s film is Defunctland at its very best.
If you haven’t seen Live from the Space Stage: A Halyx Story, you can find it on YouTube, or watch the whole thing below.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.