Saturday, July 18, 2009

Disneyland on Day One

Fifty-four years ago yesterday, a big amusement park opened in Anaheim, California.

It was hot,  it was crowded (although the numbers of people were relatively small compared to the hordes that were to come,) and the day was mostly a showcase for a ninety minute television show that included Walt Disney, Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan and various other celebrities ...

I was present for the extravaganza, one of the dress extras for the network broadcast, there with my mother, brother and grandmother. My father, then a background artist on Disney features, had been recruited by Walt -- along with a lot of the rest of Disney's creative staff -- to pitch in and work on the rides being hurriedly installed. (Dad worked on the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" exhibit in Tomorrowland, and "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," painting murals and scenic flats. Much of the work was done in Burbank, then trucked down the new Santa Ana Freeway to the park. Dad and others were housed at a motel near Knotts Berry Farm when their presence was needed in Anaheim, since there weren't many hotel rooms in and around the orange groves in 1954-55.)

The Hulett family didn't see much of Dad on July 17, 1955; he was off doing touch-up work on various rides.

And I didn't see nearly as much of Walt's amusement park as I would have liked. On that first day, I wasn't tall enough to observe much more than adult legs and torsos for long stretches. Disneyland had not yet mastered the art of crowd flow and crowd control, so there was a tendency for mobs to mill. We were packed into the Main Street train station waiting for our chance at a ride around the park; it took a long while for us to get on Mr. Toad's Adventure, and we were present at the Mark Twain riverboat when Irene Dunne christened it in the same way sardines are present in those small, rectangular cans. (My memory of the Mark Twain is being crowded against a railing on her upper deck, staring down at the crowds and bulky television cameras with thick black cables snaking out behind them.)

Twenty-five years later, I interviewed Ward Kimball about that day. Ward was in the park with the Firehouse Five, toodling for the t.v. cameras, and he remembered the event as being hot with lots of non-functioning drinking fountains, with fresh paint on buildings and new, soft asphalt on the ground. He told me:

The Firehouse Five played in two different locations for the television special. When we finished, I ran across Lillian Disney on Main Street,  near the Plaza. The temperature was high and she looked pretty worn out. I asked her: "Lillian, what do you think of Walt's new toy?" She looked at me and said, "Well, I guess it's better than having him chase other women."

That's the way Ward told the story, and I liked his remembrance a lot, but a week after it got printed in an L.A. Times advertising supplement, a Disney management person called me to say that Lillian Disney was terribly offended by the anecdote and flatly denied it ever happened, or that she ever said those words. Since I worked for the Disney Co. at the time, I started worrying about getting fired. (Sure enough, five-and-a-half years later the Diz Co. let me go ...)

Of course, memory is a tricky thing. Some events you remember vividly, others are a dim haze, and still other happenings are fictions you once dreamed but never lived. For instance, I lied about being five years old when the park opened.

I was actually six.


Floyd Norman said...

That's a great story, Steve.

As an old codger who's been around a while I can tell you things a lot of people said they never said.

I guess there's always been a need to revise history.

Anonymous said...

"I guess there's always been a need to revise history."

You should know.

Paul Naas said...

"You should know." - Anonymous


Scotty said...

Thanks for the stories Steve, nice to read someone's personal memories of this event instead of a documentary
style description. Sounds like it was
really quite something to be there, kind of historical I guess.

sathya said...

Thanks for the story

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