The Walt's People series is an oral history of all things Disney, as told by the artists, animators, designers, engineers, and executives who made it happen, from the 1920s through the present.
Walt's People: Volume 19 features appearances by Dick Grills, Jack Kinney, Jane Kinney, Don W. Graham, Janet Martin, Lloyd Beebe, Roy E. Disney, Susan Musfelt Hoose, Terry Jo Steinberger, Carol Farris, Art Stevens, Frank Thomas, and Alan Coats.
Among the hundreds of stories in this volume:
The entertaining, informative stories in every volume of Walt's People will please both Disney scholars and eager fans alike.
Dick Grills by Dave Smith
Jack Kinney by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray
Jack and Jane Kinney by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray
Don W. Graham: A Short Autobiography
Librarian to Walt Disney by Janet Martin
Disney Character by Janet Martin
Bringing Bambi to the Screen by Janet Martin
The Janet Martin Letters by Janet Martin
Remembering the Milottes by Alan Coats
Lloyd Beebe by MICA Productions
Roy E. Disney by Michael Broggie
Susan (Musfelt) Hoose by Jim Korkis
Terry Jo Steinberger by Jim Korkis
Carol Farris by Jim Korkis
Art Stevens by Bob Thomas
Frank Thomas by Bob Thomas
Alan Coats by Didier Ghez and Jim Korkis
About the Authors
Walt Disney was very much alive to this little boy watching Sunday evening reruns of the Wonderful World of Disney in the late seventies.
I, like millions of children before me and after, was mesmerized by Walt’s magic kingdom, which he personally welcomed me into every week. What struck my young mind and still stands out today was his warm and friendly manner. He really did seem like Uncle Walt. He really appeared to be speaking to me.
For a child whose parents separated when he was very young, and having a father who was very tough (much like Walt’s dad, Elias), these Sunday night visits with Walt were the highlight of my week. I didn’t know then that a life-long fascination with Walt and his work had begun. Nor did I imagine that someday I would work for his company on the dubious sequels to his classics, amongst other things.
Of course I did not read my first book about Walt until I was about ten years old, which incidentally was when I was shocked to learn that Walt had passed away six years and almost three months before I was born. He was very much alive to me all that time. It was like learning Santa Claus isn’t real, the only difference being I figured that out early on.
Beyond that early experience with Walt and his world, I found his life story to be the real inspiration, especially in my early attempts at animation and indeed eventually breaking into the industry. In his story we find a young man who finds his calling and pushes himself harder than most people would to make it in the field he loved. That is the greatest lesson for all of us, young and old. Passion is the greatest driving force toward a happy and successful life no matter what the obstacles that are thrown in our path. Walt Disney certainly had his share of setbacks.
Walt’s life should be a subject taught at school and certainly can be with the advent of the Walt’s People series of books. Thanks to Didier and the many researchers who have shared their work with him and subsequently us as readers, we have a far more balanced view of Walt’s life and achievements along with the stories of the many people who worked with him.
I thought I had read all that was possible about Walt, and certainly after Hollywood’s Dark Prince (the less said about that the better), I was less than enthusiastic when I bought the first volume. Let me just say, I was maybe two pages in before I realized I was hooked. This was the breath of fresh air I was waiting for.
That first volume of Walt’s People arrived just as I was supervising storyboards on an independent animated feature and it lit a fire under me. It was like rediscovering a lost love. I finished it in a couple of days and e-mailed Didier right away to thank him for such a wonderful book. Of course I was excited to hear about Volume 2 being in the works at the time.
It’s been a decade since that first volume. Incidentally, December 15, 2016, marks fifty years since Walt left this mortal coil and the Walt’s People series is more important now than ever before. The proliferation of the internet has given rise to a deluge of misinformation on many subjects, Walt Disney included. Sadly, his accomplishments are being lost and that truly inspirational role model that was Walt Disney is being taken out with the tide.
We live in an ever-darkening world. The lack of positivity is staggering. There are many interesting people who have lived and can serve as role models to young people. Walt Disney should be at the top of that list. Yes, he had human failings, we all do, but how he picked himself up from his difficult childhood and went out into the world and created something so everlasting while putting smiles on the faces of millions is probably the best “self-help” story anyone could read.
I frequently return to Walt’s People and my many art books. I may be a practitioner in the field of animation, but I still feel like the student.
When Thomas Edison passed away on October 18, 1931, some cities turned off the lights to remind citizens of how he changed the world. Imagine for a moment a world without Walt: no Mickey Mouse or Snow White, no Disney theme parks, no happiest place on earth, and ultimately no inspiration for the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. No matter what you think of him personally, the world would be a very drab place without a man named Walt Disney.
My career in animation begins and ends with Walt Disney. He serves as a reminder that hard work is just as important as talent and that tough times come with the territory. Many thanks are owed by me to Didier Ghez, J.B. Kaufman, Michael Barrier, Bob Thomas, David Lesjak, Joe Campana, John Culhane, John Canemaker, Garry Apgar, Christopher Finch, and too many others to mention here. Your work keeps me inspired and, more importantly, keeps Walt Disney alive.
I have spent the last few days editing the third volume of They Drew As They Pleased. I am especially proud of that volume since it deals with the artists of the character model department, Disney’s “ivory tower,” where some of the greatest talents strived. Editing, however, is not a fun process, since it involves a lot of trimming down. And I hate trimming down, especially when it involves cutting sections of correspondence and autobiographies which are not directly linked to the subject at hand but which shed a bright light on life at the studio in the 1930s and 1940s.
My consolation, of course, is that all those letters, all those autobiographies and diaries, will one day be released, uncut, in a future volume of Walt’s People.
Speaking of diaries, I was delighted to discover a few days ago that all the diaries of Disney storyman Leo Salkin seem to have survived, along with chapters for a planned autobiography. I had spent close to ten years trying to track down those documents and managing to locate them (part of them in Italy, of all places) was a dream come true. Getting them released in book form is a complex project in itself, due to legal and other practical considerations, but I am convinced that the end goal will be reached at some point and that we will eventually be able to enjoy reading these enlightening notes and recollections.
In the meantime, I have a large number of treasures to share in this new volume of Walt’s People. My three favorites are, without a doubt, the Latin American letters from Janet Martin and the in-depth interviews with Lloyd Beebe and Alan Coats.
For years I have tried to track down all the articles written for various magazines by Disney publicist Janet Martin. I realized very early on that those articles were rarely “puff pieces” and often included information that cannot be located anywhere else, which is why I was so excited when her son, Brian Lansburgh, sent me Janet’s letters from Latin America, which provide one more time capsule when it comes to “El Grupo’s” 1941 trip.
The Lloyd Beebe interview is dear to my heart because, along with the Elma Milotte interview released in Walt’s People: Volume 18, it is one of the very best sources of information that can be located when it comes to the history of the making of the True-Life Adventures.
And finally, there is the detailed interview that Jim Korkis and I conducted over four years with Alan Coats. Alan is the son of Disney artist Claude Coats and a talented Imagineer in his own right. He is also a good friend. I believe you will enjoy reading this fascinating interview, which morphed into an autobiography.
In fact, I have a feeling that you will enjoy all of the contents of this new volume of Walt’s People.
Didier Ghez has conducted Disney research since he was a teenager in the mid-1980s. His articles about the Disney parks, Disney animation, and vintage international Disneyana, as well as his many interviews with Disney artists, have appeared in Animation Journal, Animation Magazine, Disney Twenty-Three, Persistence of Vision, StoryboarD, and Tomart’s Disneyana Update. He is the co-author of Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality, runs the Disney History blog, the Disney Books Network, and serves as managing editor of the Walt’s People book series.
If you have a question for Didier that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
About The Walt's People Series
GHEZ: The Walt’s People project was born out of an email conversation I conducted with Disney historian Jim Korkis in 2004. The Disney history magazine Persistence of Vision had not been published for years, The “E” Ticket magazine’s future was uncertain, and, of course, the grandfather of them all, Funnyworld, had passed away 20 years ago. As a result, access to serious Disney history was becoming harder that it had ever been.
The most frustrating part of this situation was that both Jim and I knew huge amounts of amazing material was sleeping in the cabinets of serious Disney historians, unavailable to others because no one would publish it. Some would surface from time to time in a book released by Disney Editions, some in a fanzine or on a website, but this seemed to happen less and less often. And what did surface was only the tip of the iceberg: Paul F. Anderson alone conducted more than 250 interviews over the years with Disney artists, most of whom are no longer with us today.
Jim had conceived the idea of a book originally called Talking Disney that would collect his best interviews with Disney artists. He suggested this to several publishers, but they all turned him down. They thought the potential market too small.
Jim’s idea, however, awakened long forgotten dreams, dreams that I had of becoming a publisher of Disney history books. By doing some research on the web I realized that new "print-on-demand" technology now allowed these dreams to become reality. This is how the project started.
Twelve volumes of Walt's People later, I decided to switch from print-on-demand to an established publisher, Theme Park Press, and am happy to say that Theme Park Press will soon re-release the earlier volumes, removing the few typos that they contain and improving the overall layout of the series.
To locate them, I usually check carefully the footnotes as well as the acknowledgments in other Disney history books, then get in touch with their authors. Also, I stay in touch with a network of Disney historians and researchers, and so I become aware of newly found documents, such as lost autobiographies, correspondence with Disney artists, and so forth, as soon as they've been discovered.
Yes, some interviews and autobiographical documents are extremely difficult to obtain. Many are only available on tapes and have to be transcribed (thanks to a network of volunteers without whom Walt’s People would not exist), which is a long and painstaking process. Some, like the seminal interview with Disney comic artist Paul Murry, took me years to obtain because even person who had originally conducted the interview could not find the tapes. But I am patient and persistent, and if there is a way to get the interview, I will try to get it, even if it takes years to do so.
One funny anecdote involves the autobiography of the Head of Disney’s Character Merchandising from the '40s to the '70s, O.B. Johnston. Nobody knew that his autobiography existed until I found a reference to an article Johnston had written for a Japanese magazine. The article was in Japanese. I managed to get a copy (which I could not read, of course) but by following the thread, I realized that it was an extract from Johnston’s autobiography, which had been written in English and was preserved by UCLA as part of the Walter Lantz Collection. (Later in his career Johnston had worked with Woody Woodpecker’s creator.) Unfortunately, UCLA did not allow anyone to make copies of the manuscript. By posting a note on the Disney History blog a few weeks later, I was lucky enough to be contacted by a friend of Johnston's family, who lives in England and who had a copy of the manuscript. This document will be included in a book, Roy's People, that will focus on the people who worked for Walt's brother Roy.
That is a tough question. The more volumes I release, the more I find outstanding interviews that should be made public, not to mention the interviews that I and a few others continue to conduct on an ongoing basis. I will need at least another 15 to 17 volumes to get most of the interviews in print.
About Disney's Grand Tour
DIDIER: The research took me close to 25 years. The actual writing took two-and-a-half years.
The official history of Disney in Europe seemed to start after World War II. We all knew about the various Disney magazines which existed in the Old World in the '30s, and we knew about the highly-prized, pre-World War II collectibles. That was about it. The rest of the story was not even sketchy: it remained a complete mystery. For a Disney historian born and raised in Paris this was highly unsatisfactory. I wanted to understand much more: How did it all start? Who were the men and women who helped establish and grow Disney's presence in Europe? How many were they? Were there any talented artists among them? And so forth.
I managed to chip away at the brick wall, by learning about the existence of Disney's first representative in Europe, William Banks Levy; by learning the name George Kamen; and by piecing together the story of some of the early Disney licensees. This was still highly unsatisfactory. We had never seen a photo of Bill Levy, there was little that we knew about George Kamen's career, and the overall picture simply was not there.
Then, in July 2011, Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's daughter, asked me a seemingly simple question: "Do you know if any photos were taken during the 'League of Nations' event that my father attended during his trip to Paris in 1935?" And the solution to the great Disney European mystery started to unravel. This "simple" question from Diane proved to be anything but. It also allowed me to focus on an event, Walt's visit to Europe in 1935, which gave me the key to the mysteries I had been investigating for twenty-three years. Remarkably, in just two years most of the answers were found.
DIDIER: Yes, I believe that casual readers, not just Disney historians, will find it a fun read. The book is heavily illustrated. We travel with Walt and his family. We see what they see and enjoy what they enjoy. And the book is full of quotes from the people who were there: Roy and Edna Disney, of course, but also many of the celebrities and interesting individuals that the Disneys met during the trip. And on top of all of this, there is the historical detective work, that I believe is quite fun: the mysteries explored in the book unravel step by step, and it is often like reading a historical novel mixed with a detective story, although the book is strict non-fiction.
DIDIER: Those books provided massive new sources of inspiration to the Story Department. "Some of those little books which I brought back with me from Europe," Walt remarked in a memo dated December 23, 1935, "have very fascinating illustrations of little peoples, bees, and small insects who live in mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. This quaint atmosphere fascinates me."
DIDIER: There are still a million events in Walt's life and career which need to be explored in detail. To name a few:
The list goes on almost forever.
Didier Ghez has edited:
Roy, Walt's nephew, remembers getting dropped off at the Disney studio after school, as a kid, and wandering its halls.
MICHAEL BROGGIE: So you were dropped off frequently [at the Hyperion studio] after school?
ROY E. DISNEY: Yes, my mother would drop me off, so that she could go shopping or something. She was an inveterate shopper all her life. I do not mean necessarily grocery shopping, I mean the other kind. [Laughs] So I’d get into Dad’s office, unless he got busy with some meeting and didn’t need me there. And so he’d say: “Go away and come back later.” I was four or five years old, I suppose, because we moved here in the valley in 1935. I was born in ‘30, so I was five years old when we moved out here and all of this I am talking about occurred before that. So I am a four-and-a-half, five-year-old kid wandering around in the old studio. And they were making mostly shorts, but they were also working on Snow White even then (which was released not so long after that, in ‘37). The strongest memory I have was walking into somebody’s room—everybody knew who I was, which was great, but a huge disadvantage because I didn’t know anybody’s name, nor would I probably remember it if I had. But a lot of guys would say, “Come on in, Roy, here is what I am doing.” It was really fun. So somebody had two or three scenes cut together of the chase, Snow White running through the forest with all the trees grabbing at her clothing and her hair. A pencil test. They had a couple of Moviolas that they used to run their pencil tests on and blew it up on a big screen. They actually had a pegboard on it, so they could rework the scene, full size. They were running a loop of about three scenes. She’s coming at you, and all the owls and stuff. Pretty amazing stuff, scared the shit out of me. I mean, it really did. And that scene was never as good to me in color as it had been in those pure pencil tests there. It was astonishing stuff. So that’s how far back it goes.
And I had an uncle, my mother’s sister’s husband, Henry Vogel, who worked in the backlot. He worked in air conditioning and shop, you know, a whole bunch of things. He was sort of a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy, a wonderful guy. So Uncle Henry was on the backlot and I used to wander out there sometimes and watch him working. Then I wandered around on the soundstage, the little soundstage that was there. And if you were there at lunch time, there were guys in there…when Dad and Walt got into polo, they set up a horse and a saddle with a net around it. So you could sit on this horse and bat polo balls and they’d fly up the net and roll back to you, so you could keep hitting around. And that was a big occupation, because a lot of those guys were playing polo in those days.
MB: Did you ever get on that horse?
RD: Yeah, but I was too small to be of much use.
MB: I think I remember you telling a story about going to one of the polo matches when you were a kid.
RD: Oh, we went all the time. They played every other weekend, I think, or it seemed like it.
MB: I think, as the story goes, one of the people there asked you, “Which one is your dad?” and he had just fallen off his horse.
RD: Dad told that one himself. He wasn’t there when it happened, so I think that was part fiction. He was a much better athlete than Walt and I think Walt fell off his horse a lot more than my dad did. Walt really was not much of an athlete. Dad was pretty good.
MB: What are some of your early recollections of Walt at the studio? Did you pop in on him when you were there?
RD: No, that would not have been an appropriate thing to do. I’d see him, you know, and wave at him, but he was always intent on working. There was kind of a bubble around him that you didn’t want to get inside of.
MB: Pretty focused?
MB: What was the general atmosphere around Hyperion in terms of people’s work ethic? Were there some hijinks going on or was it pretty serious most of the time?
RD: You always hear great hijinks stories, but they got a lot of work done. I was never conscious of people throwing spitwads at each other or stuff like that. There was an awful lot of very practiced pushpin-throwing. [Ward] Kimball was incredible. He was the only guy I ever saw that could take one and throw it overhand like that. I finally learned that I could do it this way and get the right spin on it.
MB: Bill Cottrell was also….
RD: Was Bill good?
MB: He could put one between each finger and flip it instead of….
RD: That’s pretty good. [Laughs] It was always fun with that sound material they had on the ceiling.
MB: Yes, and once in a while it would come loose.
RD: Yeah, once in a while it would fall out. [Laughs] I did an awful lot of throwing across the room, just to see if I could find a way to get the right spin on it. But one out of twenty is not a very good average.
MB: So you were ten years old then, when they moved out to Burbank.
RD: Yeah, between nine and ten, I guess.
MB: Do you remember the whole issue of moving the studio?
RD: I less remember the moving as I do being out on the lot while it was being constructed.
MB: Did you ever go over there and just play, on the site?
RD: No, if I went over there it’d be in the car with Dad and just wander around and look at the progress.
MB: Do you remember comments that your father made as you walked [there] together?
RD: Not really, no. I wish I could, but….
MB: Do you know if he was concerned at all about taking on this additional debt on the company, building this?
RD: He must have been. He didn’t bring a lot of this stuff home. You could tell what kind of a mood he was in by the way he drove in the driveway or walked into the house. There were times when you could say “Hi, Dad,” and other times when you ought to keep doing your homework. I’m sure he and Mother talked about it, but very little in front of me.
Continued in "Walt's People: Volume 19"!
Alan Coats, the son of Disney artist Claude Coats, remembers his first job with Disney, portraying a toy soldier, years before he became an Imagineer.
DIDIER GHEZ & JIM KORKIS: What was your first job at Disney? Did your dad encourage you to work there? What made you decide to apply for a job?
ALAN COATES: My first job for Disney was at Disneyland as a toy soldier in the Babes in Toyland exhibit. That was December 1961. The sets from the movie had been moved into the Opera House on Main Street. I was a ticket-taker and also patrolled the rooms to keep kids from climbing on things and getting into mischief in Mother Goose’s Village or the forest. I was already familiar with the sets from watching the filming of the movie on soundstages at the studio. The film was in release then, so the exhibit was really a big three-dimensional commercial.
The most fun on the job was working in the Forest of No Return that had guys hidden inside the moving and talking trees. They could be pretty scary. Prime targets were giggling teenage girls walking cautiously through the dark on their way to the toymaker’s shop. The trees were absolutely still, waiting for their prey to approach. When the victims were close enough, those trees would come to life with “Ahaaagah!!!” lurching at them and waving their branches. Then the screaming would start. Some of those kids were so terrified they’d run out of the forest, past the toy shop, out the exit, and into Town Square, still screaming. We laughed our heads off.
A highlight of the job was being in the two daily Christmas parades. About six or eight of us were picked to be Annette’s honor guard, marching behind her as she rode down Main Street and through the park in a vintage auto. Then we’d reverse the route and come back in the other direction later in the day, or in the evening—whatever the schedule was. Annette starred in the movie and was, of course, a major Disney celebrity, so when she and her retinue of toy soldiers approached, the crowds along the route went wild.
I saw Annette again years later at the ceremony when she received her Disney Legend award in 1992. She was in a wheelchair then. I went over and we had a nice chat about Babes, the parades, and those early days at Disneyland so many years before. She was such a gracious lady despite misfortune.
You asked me what made me apply for a job. Actually, I never applied for a job. My career at Disney just happened through “fortuosity,” I guess. Dad’s influence was a helpful factor, I’m sure, but remember, Walt was still very much a presence when I started at Disneyland and WED, and the company was still really a big family. We “Disney brats,” the sons and daughters of employees, were often fortunate to secure good starting jobs there. I feel privileged to have been able to take advantage of that opportunity.
My main job at Disneyland was absolutely, positively the best job anyone could have at the park if they were in ride operations—the captain of a launch on the Jungle Cruise.
“Welcome aboard the Amazon Belle, nature lovers. I’m Alligator Al, and I’m going to be your skipper and guide down the jungle rivers of adventure. But first, let’s turn and take one last look at the dock. Wave goodbye. We may never see it again.” Thus began another of 2,000 (or so) trips through the jungle. I started the summer of 1962. Cast members wore a button on July 17 that proclaimed: “We’re Seven Years Old Today.”
The original jungle had become a towering rainforest canopy that must have taken an army of landscapers to tame. The river had been expanded with the addition of the Sacred Bathing Pool of the Elephants that brought new realism to the animals and the African veldt with its trapped safari that added a comical touch. Two new boats, the Hondo Hattie and the Ucayali Una, increased the fleet to about a dozen “river steamers.”
I was a jungle jockey for about two and a half years, working summers and holidays, so I was a part-timer, but still had to pay union dues as a Teamster on a whopping salary of $1.98 an hour. But I’d have done it for next to nothing, just cruisin’ down the river on a lazy, warm afternoon with a boatload of thirty or so guests, wearing such a comfortable costume—floral shirt, cargo pants, sandals, and a straw hat with my name badge on it.
The joy of the job was interacting with people on board, especially the wide-eyed kids, trying to give them the best show possible. I could put on a pretty good performance, and most boatloads seemed to be totally enjoying themselves. But occasionally you’d get a group of duds that just sat there and wouldn’t react no matter how hard you tried: “Hello? Anybody there?” I’d think to myself. “I hope nobody fires three shots. I don’t want to get stuck with this bunch.” If three shots rang out in the jungle, that was the trouble signal and all had to stop immediately. It usually meant that one of the boats had gone off the rail and was adrift, most likely at the sharp turn into the hippo pool. So we had a captive audience for a while, answering questions and making jokes while a skiff was sent out with a diver to put the wayward boat back on track. When two shots were fired, that was the all-clear and we started up again. No, I never came off the rail. It almost happened once, but I jammed the handle in reverse and settled back in place just in time.
It was considered a no-no to alter the spiel. We were ordered to stick to the script as written: “There’s Old Smiley, the biggest crocodile on the river. Keep your arms inside the boat. He’s always looking for a handout.” And who could ever forget Trader Sam, “the head salesman of the jungle. He has a special today: two of his for one of yours.” I pretty much stayed with the script, but some of the pilots would wing it with some of the funniest lines—often a bit racy—and got away with it. “Those natives jumping up and down around the fire aren’t doing a war dance. They’re waiting for the men’s room. It’s a one-holer village.”
After surviving the perils of Schweitzer Falls and the rapids of Kilimanjaro, the threats of hostile natives and charging hippos, we’d make that final turn out of the treacherous, steaming jungle to see the dock up ahead. “And now comes the most dangerous part of our journey—civilization and those California freeways. And men, if your mother-in-law is still aboard, you just missed your golden opportunity. But that’s alright. Bring her back tonight, and we’ll take her half way for half fare—no questions asked. Now, as we approach the dock, please keep your hands and arms inside the boat and allow one of these smiling mechanical monkeys to help you out. And enjoy the rest of your stay in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.” God, what a great job!
You didn’t drive a boat every day. We checked the schedule sheet in the morning and got our day’s assignment—working the entrance of the queue as a ticket-taker, pulling loading or unloading duty. At times, if other attractions were shorthanded, one of us would be sent to the Swiss Family Treehouse or even Tom Sawyer Island to cover, particularly on heavy attendance days. I also worked the Big Game Shooting Gallery. We would take our breaks and lunch up on the balcony above the bazaar, looking out over the jungle and listening to the pounding, rhythmic drums from the show at the Tahitian Terrace.
DG & JK: Were you treated differently because of your dad? Was more expected of you?
AC: No and no. I was just one of the crew and wasn’t treated differently and wouldn’t expect to be. Ron Dominguez was area supervisor for Adventureland and Frontierland, and he knew who I was, as did Dick Nunis, who would come by occasionally, but I just did my job and all went smoothly. There was also a young man Billy Hoelscher, who worked as the Jungle Cruise foreman, then later was put in charge of cast activities at Walt Disney World. Nice guy.
DG & JK: Did you work the Jungle Cruise at night?
AC: My second summer saw the Swiss Family Treehouse spread above the river, and the Enchanted Tiki Room opened. I worked nights that season, and the Jungle Cruise became a totally different experience for guide and guest. It was dark out there with an aura of mystery at every turn. We had the dramatic advantage of lighting effects to “plus” the show and really had fun with it. We could switch the boat’s running lights on and off and had a hand-held spotlight for added effect.
Here was my routine when turning into the hippo pool. I’d turn off all the lights and whisper into the mike: “Now we must be very quiet. Don’t make a sound or one of the hippos might charge and possibly turn over the boat.” Silence as we entered the pool of danger. Then I would slowly pull out the pistol from its holster and shout, “Look out! There’s one charging!” Bang! Bang! The flash and sound of the shots would always get a reaction of jumps and screams from the passengers. Then the boat lights would flood the pool. “There’s another one!” Bang! Bang! “I hope we get out of here safely.” Oh, what fun we had. To be part of that show was really something special.
One late night after closing—it might have been Grad Nite—I was tired and I cut through the open Tiki Room on the way out, and the strangest thing happened to me in there. Surrounded by all the tropical birds, flowers, and Tiki gods, Jose the Parrot was watching me from his perch–I swear he was looking straight at me and following me. I stopped and looked up at him. His breast was moving as he breathed and he just kept staring at me. There was no audio, and I don’t think anything else was operating. Just Jose, staring down at me. Was Wathel Rogers hiding somewhere playing a programming trick on me? No, I don’t think so. It was kind of creepy, but fascinating that this mechanical creature could seem so real. That was my first close encounter with the magic of audio-animatronics.
I must tell the story of another solitary experience I had several years later at WDW. It was summer of 1971. We had finished lighting Cinderella Castle. It must have been 2 a.m. That’s why we lighting guys were so tired all the time. We had to work long after dark if it was an exterior job and still be on-site at 7 a.m. that morning. Anyway, I found myself, for some reason, standing alone in the middle of Main Street. I mean totally alone. Everyone else had gone home. There was silence. Just me with what seemed like the entire Magic Kingdom to myself. It’s a feeling hard to explain. I walked up the street, around the hub, and up to the castle. No one else anywhere. I had all of that great place to myself. I guess it was a bit like those early mornings when Walt would leave the apartment and roam his kingdom alone. For that brief time, this kingdom belonged to me.
I had another job those nights at Disneyland in the summer of ’63. I was part of the Tinker Bell catch crew, responsible for snagging the speeding pixie after she raced down the cable from the top of the Matterhorn at the beginning of the fireworks. Each night about a quarter to nine, I left my Jungle Cruise duties and joined a small group atop the hill behind Frontierland where a stanchion secured the glide wire that stretched to the mountain. Tink was tiny—five feet, 90 pounds, 70 years old. Tiny Kline had been a circus aerialist. Every night she’d climb up inside the Matterhorn, get into her harness, and prepare for her big moment.
At 9 p.m., the park lights would dim and the voice would boom, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, direct your attention to the sky above Sleeping Beauty Castle as Tinker Bell lights Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks.” The music would rise and Tiny Tink was headed down the line, lit by spotlights and exploding fireworks, waving her wand and flying over the cheering crowd, the Star of Disneyland. Soon, she would disappear behind the trees of Fantasyland. Where did she go? How was she stopped? Well, here’s the answer. No, she didn’t land in a pile of mattresses or such. You’d have an unconscious fairy on your hands. She was actually caught and stopped by two big men. No, I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t have the heft. I’m talking about two NFL-sized linemen here, holding an army blanket—yes, an army blanket—tautly between them in their beefy hands. They planted their feet firmly and prepared for the impact. Even at 90 pounds, Tiny was coming down the cable fast, illuminated only by the light from the fireworks. Just before she hit the blanket, she’d thrust her body forward to take the impact and woomph! The two linemen gave about three feet, wrapped her in the blanket, removed her harness, and she’d drop to the ground. Removing her wings, she was ready to run. Tiny was in a hurry. Now my job began.
I was responsible for getting her safely down the hill. There was only a loose dirt pathway and Tiny was in such a hurry. I’d take her hand and hold a large camp flashlight in the other as we both precariously scrambled down. My first night on the job, my supervisor was with me to make sure I could handle things. It wasn’t Ron, but he was nervous and anxious for her safety. Remember, she was in a big hurry. “Keep that light on her feet and the path. Don’t let her slip. Keep that light on her feet. Keep that light on her feet!” “Okay. Okay.” I got her down and over to her changing room. She was out of there in a minute and on the run again. Why was she in such a hurry, you ask? Well, she had to catch the last 9:30 bus to Los Angeles from Anaheim. She didn’t drive. She couldn’t miss her ride. So, without a pinch of pixie dust, I helped Tinker Bell make the bus every night during that wonderful Disneyland summer.
Continued in "Walt's People: Volume 19"!