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Ruminations: Picture the early days of Disneyland

Ruminations: Picture the early days of Disneyland

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If you’ve been reading this space for a while, you know that I have a thing for black and white photography. You may recall that I took the old reliable Brownie Hawkeye to Disneyland with me on July 17th, 2005. My goal was to try and capture the feel of that day much as guests had done some 50 years earlier.

Call it the lure of the retro scene if you will, but for me there is just something about the way light plays out in these printed images. That same fascination has attracted photographers from Matthew Brady to Ansel Adams to O. Winston Link and then some. Recently, I had the chance to become better acquainted with the work of another photographer: Mell Kilpatrick. I only have one word to describe how I felt.


What else can I say? Here was someone who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to capture Disneyland on film, even before it welcomed those first guests. As a news photographer with the Santa Ana (now the Orange County) Register, Mell got to see a lot of life that most of us miss. Odds are that if it was news of any kind, as a newspaper photographer, he was on hand to capture it for the next days issue. According to the web page with his biography, Mell:

" ... covered Orange County in every possible manner — by air, on foot, by car, and even by boat. Determined never to miss a photo opportunity, he even attached a small camera to the dashboard of his car pointing out the front windshield!”

Mell had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. With Walt Disney’s new project taking shape in the area his paper covered, he got the opportunity to capture Disneyland on film as the property it covered went from orange groves to theme park. And it didn’t hurt that he was able to offer his dark room for the Disney public relations staff. That opened the door to his being on call to cover special moments of the construction as well as being one of the invited press photographers for the parks opening day festivities. Sadly, he passed away in 1962 at the age of 60. But his work capturing those early days on film would eventually pay dividends for Disney fans.

His grand daughter, Carlene Thie, has been sharing Mell’s work with us by publishing a series of books featuring many of the images he captured in the early years of Disneyland. Today, Ape Pen Publishing offers five books that make extensive use of the images that Mell captured at Disneyland.

The most recent of these is entitled, “Homecoming Destination Disneyland.” But this volume has something special to offer readers. Not only does it have a great selection of images, but it also offers the reader something even more exciting: a reproduction of pages from the Disneyland Opening Day press kit; a description of a typical day at Disneyland along with a vintage biography of Walt Disney. They are a great look back at what Walt and the Disney staff envisioned for guests. Those items were so rare that even the Disney Archives didn’t have copies of them until these copies were sold to them.

This volume also includes commentary from some very interesting people. For example, Keith Murdoch, the former City Manager of Anaheim, shares how the City of Anaheim helped to see that Disneyland came to occupy the land at the intersection of the Golden State Freeway and Harbor Blvd. Another commentary of note is that of Ron Dominguez (former Executive Vice President of Disneyland), whose family home was once part of the land the Park sits on today. Stories from folks like Fess Parker, Jack Lundquist and Wally Boag about their days at Disneyland are a great treat.

However, some of the comments from folks about Disneyland still need bit of editing. Art Linkletter refers to having worked with Walt on the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics before the Disneyland opening. But that event actually took place in the winter 1960, five years after Disneyland opened! (To be fair, Art made the same error in his remarks at Disneyland on July 17th, 2005, but it still should have been a fact checked or caught by someone along the way.)

And as interesting as some of the comments are, I found myself wondering why they ended up in a volume about Disneyland. The pages from Don Knotts and Tim Conway may be interesting, but as far as I am aware, they didn’t contribute to Disneyland as shown in the images of the book. Perhaps they would have been better saved for another book about memories of working for the Disney Company. Even the Floyd Norman and Willie Ito cartoons seemed a bit out of place here to me, as fun as they were.

After reading through the book, I sat down again and took the time to look closer at the photos. I was amazed to find the following details captured by Mell:

  • Sign posts on a gas lamp in front of the Swift Market House note the intersection of North Main Street and Center Street. (Now I wonder where the name changes from North to South Main Street…) Check Page 56 for the color view of Mell at work at Disneyland.
  • While many folks do recall that Main Street originally had many businesses found on the main street of any small town, would you believe a children’s shoe store at Disneyland? How about Blue Bird Shoes for Children! Check page 27 for that tidbit.
  • On the same page, in the view of Main Street, you will also see all four horse drawn streetcars in service at the same time. I can’t recall seeing more two cars in service at one time in many years.
  • Or how about the interior of the Yale and Towne Lock shop? Check out Page 54 for that and compare it to the interior of today’s Crystal Arts and Silhouette Studio shops on Main Street. From my last visit, I was amazed to see how much of that early interior décor survives some 50 years later.
  • That image of Frito the Kid at the Casa De Fritos on Page 70 brought back some great memories of exchanging a nickel for a bag of “those delicious golden corn chips.”
  • And why is it fitting (at least to me) that Vice President Richard Nixon and family receive the key to Disneyland from Fess Parker as C.V. Woods looks on? Check Page 58

As much as I enjoyed looking through the photos, I must admit that there was a fair amount of information that I felt could have been shared about the images. Knowing the rest of the story behind the images would have made them all the more interesting for the reader.

For example, the cover image shows the dress rehearsal for Disneyland’s opening day television show. Yet nowhere in the text in the book does it mention this. (So how do I know this? Watch your copy of Dateline Disneyland sometime and you’ll spot Walt wearing a suit and tie as he gives the dedication, rather than the casual jacket and open collar in the cover photo.) Other opening day images presented capture scenes both the rehearsal and the live television broadcast. Again knowing which was which would have helped present a clearer view for the reader. Perhaps even explaining a bit about why the rehearsal took place would have made the images all the more interesting.

Take for example the scenes on 88 and 89 of the christening of the sailing ship Columbia. How is it that Admiral Joe Fowler (a genius behind much of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World construction) rates only a passing mention as the Columbia’s acting skipper, yet the US Navy representative and his wife are clearly identified?

Another series of images in different places in the book shows Walt and Santa Fe Railroad president Fred Gurley on hand for the dedication of the Grand Canyon Diorama (and the then new Santa Fe & Disneyland steam locomotive #3, the “Fred Gurley”). It would have been nice to have grouped the images all together and told the story of the special events of the day. With Mell described as being on hand for many events of this type, this would have made a great way to illustrate that point.

Instead these images are shown in reference to Frontierland – completely on the other side of the Park! And on Page 93, a photo of Walt meeting the Santa Fe’s passenger train mascot, “Chico”, the Indian boy, is printed backwards.

In addition to the books, Ape Pen also offers other items for sale on their web pages. One promising addition is a series of colorized note cards made from some of the images. These two are great for the fans of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. The first with the view of car 106, the “Grand Canyon” (today known as the “Lilly Belle”) is a real gem! Not only does it show the great sign on the door, the car is seen in the original backstage train storage shed. A great vintage behind the scenes sneak peek…

The second shows Walt and Santa Fe Railroad President Fred Gurley in the cab of the new Santa Fe & Disneyland steam locomotive #3 arriving for the ceremonial opening of the Grand Canyon diorama just beyond the Tomorrowland station. A wonderful color and sepia tone rendition of this classic view!

As much as it may seem that the above comments about this book are the “nitpickings” of a somewhat obsessed Disney fan (and I will admit to some of that), I will say that I have enjoyed this book. And if you haven’t seen Mell’s work, I do suggest picking up one of the five volumes to check it out. “Homecoming Destination Disneyland” was my first exposure to it and likely will not be the last.

And I am still jealous…

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  • Roger, I think Ape Pen Publishing needs to hire you as a consultant before publishing their next Disney book. Maybe they'll hire you for the second edition of this one, too.
  • Roger,

    I know that ABC attempted to block out many scenes to form a shooting script for the live Disneyland show in the ten-ish days leading up to the 17th.  In many cases these attempts ended up in minor hostilities with the construction crew.  But do you know on what day the ABC crew staged the dress rehearsal that included Walt?  I have the book.  I've seen the photos.  Based on the plants in town square, I'm guessing this would have to be the 15th or the 16th?   Also do you have a good source that would describe the events of that dress rehearsal?

  • From what I know, the final dress rehearsal took place on the morning of the 17th. As for a solid source to confirm what happened? I would love to hear from someone who was there... This was a first in television broadcasting in many ways, very ambitious, exciting and I am sure nerve wracking. Anyone who has ever spent time with a live television production crew knows that things can get out of hand in a second!

    And yes, I know that there were some problems with various crafts. The most visible one was the incident with Art Linkletter having to find his microphone, buried in a pile of lumber, as seen during the telecast.
  • Thanks, Roger.  That's helpful.

    I've got to pull out my copy of Homecoming and check the photos again later today.  Correct me where I'm wrong:  But from memory, Walt wokeup around 6am in his fire house apartment because of the trucks delivering the very last of the asphalt for the Main Street / Town Square area.  He's locked in his apartment because the door is sealed shut from a new coat of paint.  He calls security and is let out, around 6:30, then goes off to get coffee.  I'm guessing that--even though the asphalt story has probably been enlarged over the years--that it still took a couple hours to finish up the bare sections of Main St.  This leave maybe 8-9:30am for a dress rehershal to clear the area before guests are allowed in.  Now I'm curious to check those photos to see where the shadows lie.  Also, Roy and Edna don't arrive until after the park is open as they come by car and encounter significant traffic when they reach Orange County. So Roy and Edna should not be in the rehershal photos if they occur in the morning, before opening.

    Correct me where I'm wrong above--this is just from memory.

    I'll drop you a note later today.  My copy of the book is over in my office. I'll check it later today.  But I'm very curious about it now.
  • Looking over the photo in question, the shadows are directly overhead. A guess on my part that the rehearsal took place about noon with guests already inside the Park.

    As for who is who in the photo, I don't know who is the woman. To her right is Goodwin Knight, Governor of California. Beside him is the minister who provided the invocation for the ceremony. I believe that is a nephew of Walt's. Can't recall the name right off the bat. And of course, next to him is Walt.
  • If walt's nephew is there it had to be early afternoon.  He was the last of the major participants to arrive.  I can find a reference for that.   I believe it's in one of the Thomas books, but would have to check.  So the rehearsal would have to be early afternoon, as you say, with guests in the park.   I've taken a new look at the photo now.  My guess: they are staging the shot and setting up the cameras, somewhat of a walk-through.

    Also, do you have an email address?  I have a question about the dress rehearsal for walt's Epcot film, the one shot immediately before his surgery.  I've heard that a number of close friends, such as Linkletter, showed up for the rehearsal.  I was hoping you might know more about that.
  • You can find me at teamzurgatearthlinkdotnet.

    I don't know about the Epcot film...
  • I always find your reviews quite interesting, Mr Colton, and can't agree with you more about this publication (I own all five of them).

    I do know that those books are picture books and that the text is rather secondary but when i started reading the first page of this volume and saw SO MANY typos with even Disney characters' names misspelled (I just LOLed when I saw how Mary Costa's name has been butchered!!) that I stuck to the pictures!

    My belief is that the books are "thrown together" by someone who's obviously not a keen Disney fan, not really acknowledging that, precisely, mainly true Disney fans would be attracted to such publications, which might end up looking like some "offense" to such fans!

    No big deal really...

    THANK YOU for the corrections your review brings; that "trivia" is very much appreciated!
  • Isn’t it amazing how people can cast stones. I would like them to do better, than what this lady has done. I say hats off to ya girl, for a job well done. Making an impact and crossing bridges that no one would ever think could be possible.(like getting 5 books into Disneyland - hummmmm) You might have made some errors in this book. Boy I don’t see anyone doing what you have done; I just see them complaining. So the next time others point the finger, tell us what you have accomplished in your life time. What Disney product did you write and get into the Park?? Even those awesome books we love some much with that perfection writing aren’t even in the park. Wow, it’s amazing what one person has accomplished and how so many seem to be so critical of or should we say envious! I think your books are great for what they are, and I’ll buy your next one!!!!
  • While there has been little debate over the wonderful pictures in this book, I think that the rest of the criticism has somewhat missed the point. For me, the book is more about memories and about the feelings of returning to someplace comfortable and familiar. Just as our childhood homes were there before we existed, for most of us, so was Disneyland. Seeing the pictures connects us with that past through our own experiences. It gives us a deeper understanding of a place we feel so familiar with and comfortable in - truly a 'homecoming'. The same is true for the interviews. Just because they were not there on opening day, or involved in the construction of Disneyland, doesn't mean that they do not have fond and lasting memories of Disney. Likewise, those who were there, such as Art Linkletter, may have memories that are off in timeline but specific in detail. At this point, you may confuse events of your 7th birthday with those of your 5th, but it doesn't make those memories any less vivid, or touching. For me, the book is much like going through a shoe-box you find in the attic filled with old photo's and letters. Some are of people and places that are familiar from your own experience, others of events and people from before you were born. They are in no particular order, and may have more or less relevance to you and events in your life, but, in the end, they are part of the history of your family and home. In that sense, 'Homecoming' is more photo journal than photo journalism. More memories than history. Both similar but very different, and both very powerful in their own way.
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