What Was Disneyland Like When It First Opened? Bernie McCormick Remembers
The youngest grandchildren made their first trip to Disney World over the Christmas holidays. They loved it. My fairest daughter, who hadn’t been there since she was small, came back raving about the quality of the entertainers in Magic Kingdom, impressed at how they managed to be so consistently nice to children day after day. She took the occasion to tell the kids that their grandfather, the author of this piece, once worked at Disneyland—the original theme park in California.
“Dad,” she said, “you should write about that. How many people can say they had the experience of working at Disneyland almost from the day it opened?”
The fact is, I had written about that summer of 1957, which was just two years after Walt Disney brought his now world-famous theme park creation to life. Back around 1990, when I contributed regularly to Sunshine, the Sun-Sentinel’s Sunday magazine at the time, the editor welcomed the idea of my contrasting the early years at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with the infinitely more ambitious Disney World in Orlando. I was able to get a behind-the-scenes tour of Disney World, including interviews with some of the performers who had been with the organization almost from the beginning of its Florida park in 1971.
In several cases, the Orlando performers had been, like me, college-age kids who got jobs at Disney, thinking it would be an interesting first step in a show business career, but found themselves more than 10 years later still singing or spieling at the assortment of venues that make up the vast complex. And, for the most part, seeming to enjoy the work as much as they did on their first days.
Alas, the Sun-Sentinel never ran the story. It disappointed me, for it had never turned down any of the several dozen pieces I had written for the magazine or other sections of the Sunday paper, most of which I thought less interesting than the Disneyland/Disney World story. Although I regretted having wasted a few weeks of my middle age on the project (and not getting paid), it bothered me more that I had taken up so much time of the Disney organization, which could not have been more cooperative.
So, with apologies to Disney’s PR people for the long delay, we turn back the clock to the summer of 1957. It was between junior and senior years at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, and our ROTC program sent the officer candidates to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for six weeks of training. There I learned several things that have served me well ever since. One, never call a rifle a gun; two, always call a 105 howitzer a gun, or a piece. Also, the easiest mistake in artillery is to shoot the freaking gun in exactly the wrong direction.
Few of us Philly guys had ever been west of the Susquehanna River, so four of us took the opportunity, after our army training ended in early August, to head west to California. One of our guys had a new Chevy Bel Air, a sexy set of wheels at the time. He also had a sister who lived in Monrovia, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles. She put us up in a trailer parked in her driveway. We had planned to stay in California for only a week or so, but that changed a few days after our arrival when we drove down to see Disneyland. It had opened to great publicity just two years before. There were girls working there, many of them, and not one was hard on the eyes. When we told them we were from the east, they asked when we had to be back at school. We did not need to be at La Salle until mid-September. They told us the summer college workers from California were all quitting because their school started in August. They said Disneyland was hiring and we could get jobs.
The next day we were in the office of Ron Dominguez, a guy barely older than ourselves. In fact, he hired us very close to his 22nd birthday. We did not know it then, but his connection to Disneyland was unique. His family home and 10 acres of citrus groves were part of the property Disney bought, and his home was actually incorporated into the amusement park. It served as the administrative office. He was the assistant manager of Frontierland, one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions. He was in the early days in a career that would see him rise to be executive vice president of Disney’s California attractions.
“Boys,” he said, “don’t kid me. If you will promise to stay until Sept. 15, you all have jobs.” We said we would, and we did. The next day Romeo Boyd (he had the Chevy and the sister who put us up) was assigned to the Mark Twain, a replica riverboat that is still part of Disneyland. Mitch Sukalski and I were hired as cowboys. Our job was loading people on and off a stage coach and a mule train that rode through the Painted Desert. Few adults rode the mule train. Most took the stage coach.
As Disneyland jobs went, ours was pretty mundane. Romeo, up in the Mark Twain’s wheelhouse, had a spiel, as did many of the workers in the park. If Romeo Boyd sounds like an odd name, it is. More on that later. Anyway Romeo entertained people on a loudspeaker, as did many others on various attractions, speaking the lines that made people laugh. But simply taking tickets and loading people on mules and a stage coach got old fast. What never got old was Disneyland itself. In the five weeks I worked there, I never managed to see all that went on; nor did I tire of just hanging around the park. It was endless recreation, from the early morning drive to the nightly parade and fireworks that closed out each day.
The drive from Monrovia to Anaheim was about 30 miles, but much of it was through unbuilt territory, along what is now Foothill Boulevard south from Monrovia, then through orange groves, with only a few traffic lights and very little development all the way to the park. Few people had heard of Anaheim before Disney, and it was far enough from Los Angeles to retain a rural atmosphere. In 1950 it had only about 15,000 residents. After Disneyland opened it grew quickly to 100,000. Today it is pushing 350,000.
I often drove alone, in a car Romeo’s sister loaned us. I started earlier than the other guys. At 7 a.m. the San Gabriel Mountains were beautiful, a soft violet in the distance. At that hour traffic was light. It was driving as driving should be. The fragrance of oranges filled the air. You felt good to be alive. By 9 a.m., however, that view was gone as the smog set in. By then, one did not need mountain views for inspiration. Disneyland itself was endless awe.
The park was full of attractive people. Celebrities were routine. Some, such as Jayne Mansfield, you noticed because she meant to be noticed. But other movie stars came and went inconspicuously, not easily recognizable in dark glasses. One man who was always around was Walt Disney. Word spread when he was on the prowl. He was a very normal looking person, and for a man of such achievement his face wasn’t well known—not then. He obviously saw me when I never saw him. There was a complaint about workers in Frontierland not tearing tickets in half before putting them in the box. I was the principal offender.
A second complaint ruined one of my favorite diversions. Envious of the workers who had speaking parts, I decided to improvise my own. I only did it at very quiet times, early on a Sunday morning for instance, when there were just a few parents waiting for their kids to return from the mule train ride. They stood behind a fence just feet from our loading platform, and we routinely chatted with them while waiting for the 15-minute ride to return.
I took to telling them that the mules their children were riding were not real mules, but clever animations designed for Disneyland by Mr. Elwood Muleskinner of Tacoma, Washington. All the other savage beasts in the park were fake, of course, and the people seemed amused by my spiel. One morning a tall slender fellow wearing sunglasses said to me, “You’re purdy funny, kid,” in a voice that seemed oddly familiar. When he left a co-worker asked me if I knew the man who had spoken to me. It was Jimmy Stewart.
Somebody did not like my gig. Word came down that no employees in the park were to do any unauthorized entertaining. I don’t know if that order came directly from Walt Disney, but anyone who knew him would not be surprised. By then the summer was coming to an end, and so was a little side adventure that illuminated that short time of my life.
One of the first girls we met, and one who told us about the employment opportunity, was named Rosemarie. She took an instant attraction to me, a quality I have always found appealing in young women. Rosemarie worked in a little shop in Frontierland. It had an odd scent to it—not unpleasant, just different. The shop sold little trinkets, such as earrings made from the shin bone of a calf. Rosemarie had reddish blond hair and a way of squinting her eyes to appear sexy. It worked. She was just out of high school, maybe 19, and she seemed in a hurry to grow up. She was originally from Long Island, New York, but now lived in Santa Ana, near Disneyland. I had spent much of the summer hoping for letters from a girl back in Philadelphia, and Rosemarie took my mind off the mailbox pretty quickly.
Rosemarie had several attractive girlfriends. Mitch was a compact, good looking guy, the star diver on a good La Salle swimming team. He got friendly with one of the prettier ones. We spent a lot of time with Rosemarie and her friends. Romeo, who liked to live up to his name, found his own comely distraction. Rosemarie’s shop and the Frontierland rides closed around dusk, but I usually had to wait around for one of the other guys to get off, so we often roamed the park until it closed. One of Rosemarie’s friends worked in a shop that sold western stuff. One item was a pellet pistol, which looked like a German Luger. It was powered by a regular cap pistol, but if you put several caps together it packed a wallop. When her store was empty we shot pellets into the base of a rustic cabinet with enough force to embed them in the wood.
Because we worked most of the time, our social lives revolved around Disneyland, with a few memorable exceptions. Knott’s Berry Farm was not far from Disneyland, and we visited a few times. It could not compare to our park, as we had come to think of Disneyland. One of Rosemarie’s friends had a party at her house. Another time my cousin, who lived in Los Angeles, took us to see Mort Sahl, at the time a sophisticated social and political comedian. I stole some of his lines that have served me well over the years.
A memorable evening was a party in the hills high above Los Angeles. One of our fellow cowboys was a friendly, smart guy named Jack Schlatter. We hit it off because he was interested in writing. Jack had a brother who was in show business, in television or something. Jack was proud of him. He arranged to take us to a party at his brother’s house.
At night, the smog that covered the Los Angeles basin disappeared and the view from Jack’s brother’s house was magical—the lights of the city thinned as they mounted the hillsides, sparkling like jewels in the dark. The house was built on a hill, and it had a swimming pool set below the main floor. Rosemarie had brought a swimsuit and, while the rest of us sipped drinks, she swam alone in the lighted pool, a graceful figure, capless hair flowing, scissoring in a cerulean bathing suit that she knew how to wear.
August drifted toward the ides of September. We had fulfilled our promise to Ron Dominguez. The work in Frontierland had become routine, actually a bit boring, but that routine was shattered just a day or so before we were scheduled to hit the trail home. We were lounging around the loading area waiting for the mules and stage to return when we heard an ominous sound—galloping horses. Our work area was shielded from the Painted Desert by a faux mountain, but within seconds the four-pony team came racing around into the U-shaped stage coach stop. They were dragging their rig, but the stage coach was not attached.
The ponies could not make the sharp turn and they piled up in a screaming mess of beasts, harnesses and rigging, which had been attached to the carriage. Sensing something unusual, some cowboys went to the aid of the struggling ponies, while others bolted onto the track and around the mountain, afraid of what we would find. We found it fast, and I was the first on the scene. The sight was right out of a Western movie. The stage coach was on its side, in a shallow gully just off the trail, wheels still spinning in the air. People were sprawled or staggering around it, covered in dust.
I got there in time to help a dazed older woman to her feet. She was wearing a dress and was covered in dirt from her hair to her toes.
“Young man,” she croaked through a mouthful of dirt, “does this happen often?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “First time this afternoon.”
Nah, I probably didn’t say that, but I’ve told the story that way over the decades, so I tend to believe it. It is consistent with my lifelong tendency to attempt to defuse tense situations with a bit of levity. Fortunately, although the wreck looked scary, there were no serious injuries to the passengers. I think a broken arm was the worst.
In retrospect, that ride was an accident waiting to happen. The stage coaches were top heavy, and the ponies that pulled it were skittish, as horse people say. Live animals were not accident proof. Our Frontierland rides shut down the next day. I hung around, doing nothing, and learned what had happened. It was an imperfect storm of events, and it could have been much worse. There was a point where the mule train crossed the stagecoach trail, over a narrow trestle built to resemble the natural bridges found in the great American desert. The mule train was crossing that bridge when the stage coach passed under it. The ponies, which were allowed to trot at that point, got moving a little too fast. The stage coach rocked. That spooked one of the mules crossing above it. The mule actually tried to mount the low wall of the bridge. It got half over it, with a kid on its back, and only the fact that it was lashed to the rest of train prevented a disaster.
The old timer (a real cowboy) leading the train heroically scrambled back, over mules and kids, grabbed the mule hung up on the wall, and pulled his legs back on the path. The commotion above, however, panicked the ponies pulling the stage and they took off. At the first curve the stage flipped.
Disneyland had become a little too realistic. We were off to Philadelphia a few days later, and I had assumed that was the end of live animal rides in the park. But Disneyland’s PR folks recently advised that the stage coach rides lasted two more years, and the mule train continued into the 1970s. It was, however, one of the lessons learned in California that was not repeated in Florida.
The other lesson is even more obvious. Work took me to Los Angeles just a few years later. I went out to Disneyland and was amazed at the changes. The groves on the roads leading to Anaheim were sprouting houses like spring tulips. The park, which seemed isolated in 1957, was now surrounded by development, including hotels that crowded it. Walt Disney had thought he selected a rural location that could expand if his idea caught on. The expansion came, but it wasn’t the expansion he planned. It was the early 1960s, and Disney was already eyeing Florida. This time the company bought true isolation. Disneyland was only 160 acres. You could walk from one end to the other in ten minutes. In the Orlando area, Disney quietly assembled 30,000 acres.
Because of its size, Disney World faced a problem it did not have in California. At Disneyland, dressing rooms and storage facilities were tucked between and behind various buildings, hardly noticeable to anyone but staff. But with Disney World’s sprawling attractions, underground tunnels and facilities were required. There are costume storage areas, which seem to take up square blocks.
In the course of confirming my memory of distant events, I looked up some of the people I knew at Disneyland. It turns out Jack Schlatter’s show business brother, at whose hillside home we partied, is George Schlatter, who became one of television’s best-known producers. He was the man who discovered Rowan and Martin and created “Laugh-In” and numerous high-profile productions. He is still active at age 84.
As for his brother Jack, my co-worker, locating him became a story in itself. I Googled the name and found an obituary for a Jack Schlatter who had died in 2014 in Colorado after his own very interesting career. He was an honored teacher in California, wrote an admired book, Gifts by the Side of the Road, and contributed to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. He was also an award-winning speaker. His background fit. Exactly the right age, from the same college, and had been a teacher in Orange County, where Disneyland is located. And he was George Schlatter’s brother. Photographs on the internet, taken years after our brief acquaintance, showed a man who resembled the Jack I knew, but with little hair and a bit more girth. There seemed to be little doubt that this was the same Jack from Disneyland—until I contacted his brother, who did not know if his brother had worked at Disneyland in college.
It took some months but finally through a Facebook page I found a man who had known Jack well for many years. He had been a student when Jack taught high school in the Anaheim area, and Jack, who never married, had moved to Colorado after retiring as a teacher to be near his former student’s family. The student was with Jack when he died. And yes, Jack had talked about working college summers at Disneyland.
There was still one problem: George Schlatter said that in 1957 he did not live in the hillside house where we partied. I checked twice with his assistant to be sure. And yet Mitch Sukalski, who remembered details I did not—such as Jack’s college (Pepperdine)—also recalled that the function was at the house of Jack’s show business brother. Oh well, what’s a story without a bit of mystery?
As for my La Salle buddies, Romeo Boyd actually lived for a time in South Florida. I heard he was here but could not find him—until one night in the early 1990s he showed up at a La Salle alumni party. The reason he could not be located was because he had switched his name back to the original Italian Berceli, or something close to that. His immigrant father had changed it to Boyd. It turned out Romeo was actually dating the divorced mother of one of my son’s friends. Unfortunately, shortly after we reunited, he developed bone cancer, went to New York for treatment and died there.
Fellow cowboy Mitch Sukalski took his military training more seriously than I did. He was on active duty for 11 years, served in Germany, later took flight training and was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He retired with the rank of major, then worked in defense-related aviation and lives in Chesterfield, Missouri.
As for Rosemarie, my summer diversion, I gave her a parting present—a model I built of a German Panther tank that I bought in a hobby store in Monrovia. Anyone who doesn’t find such a gift terribly Romeo-ish has no appreciation for the charms of German engineering. We kept in contact with occasional letters, until one came about a year later announcing she was expecting a baby and was either married, or getting married, to a man who worked in radio. Somehow, that did not seem like a planned event in her young life. That was the last I heard from her.
When the three of us got back to Philadelphia that September, our Disneyland experience had preceded us. We enjoyed a brief minor celebrity telling stories of our days working at a place everybody had heard of, but that seemed very far away and romantic. Speaking of romance, I brought the girl of infrequent letters a present from Disneyland—a pair of earrings made from the shin bone of a calf. If she ever wore them, history has taken no note of it.