Courtesy Carlene ThieA woman gently rubbing crocodile noses. Jimmy Durante schnozzing an Indian tribe. Seahorses strung from a wire. The Andrews Sisters brandishing revolvers. A man with a six-foot octopus on his shoulder. In Mell Kilpatrick's collection of 1950s Disneyland photographs, Orange County's past is more surreal than a soft watch descending a staircase.
Kilpatrick worked 80 hours per week as a photographer for both the Santa Ana Register and the Orange County Coroner's office. In his first collection of photos, published posthumously, Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories (Taschen, 2000), the focus was on high-speed black-and-white night shots of dashboard decapitations and suicides. Now, his granddaughter Carlene Thie (rhymes with "say") has self-published a three-volume collection of Kilpatrick's black-and-white Disneyland photos—from backstage workers in restricted areas to celebrity set-up shots.
When Kilpatrick died in 1962, most of his collection went into storage. "These photos and negatives sat in his darkroom for more than 30 years," Thie says. "That darkroom got so hot it's amazing that none of them were destroyed. One day, my grandmother said, 'Take what you want.' So I did."
On a whim, Thie put one photo—Walt at the opening of the Alice and Wonderland ride—on eBay. The response was more inspiring than a caterpillar's hooka. "I was amazed at how many Disney fanatics there are," she says.
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Members of the National Fantasy Fan Club convinced her that Kilpatrick's photos deserved to be bound. Volume one, Disney Under Construction, rolled off the presses in April.
The collection opens with one of the earliest aerial shots of the Magic Kingdom on record. Dirt berms and a few lonesome structures rise from the soil where 12,000 orange trees once stood. "My grandfather would stand on the wings of an airplane to take the aerial shots," Thie says.
The images document Disneyland deconstructed, the assembled frames reading like surrealistic haiku: "Fantasyland ride tracks." "Castle spires ready to be placed." "Jungle Cruise hippo ready for water." "Moonliner being craned into place." There are photos of painters masking and spraying Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The now-extinct Matterhorn-adjacent submarine ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea undergoes a final inspection. Scaffolding encircles Sleeping Beauty's half-finished castle. Carpenters frame the Main Street clock tower. The hull of the Mark Twain riverboat sits at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro.
With the success of volume one, Thie published another. Volume two—Disney's Early Years—showcases the park's christening. Mammoth TV cameras on forklifts rehearse for opening day, tracking stagecoaches by a freshly cloned Fort Apache. Tribal dancers kick it live at the Indian Village. Pack mules snake up Rainbow Ridge. But the marquee shot from volume two features an archetypal tired dad—shoe off to massage his foot—pulled by a coonskin-capped 6-year-old boy into a future of hyperactive entertainment.
Two volumes of Kilpatrick didn't satiate the Disney fanatics. Three months after she published volume one, Thie released volume three. The emphasis this time was on publicity shots. Donna Reed poses stiffly near a train. A Navajo dignitary blesses the Grand Canyon Diorama. Fess Parker—whose acting career peaked while playing Disney's "King of the Wild Frontier" Davy Crockett—presents the key to Disneyland to Vice President Richard Milhouse Nixon with Pat and the girls in tow. Foreshadowing Eric Clapton's 5 o'clock shadow, Parker, now a Santa Barbara hotelier and vintner, sports facial hair that, for years after, remained a Disneyland sin among mere cast members.
Kilpatrick's photos of Richfield Oil's Autopia, Trans-World Airline's Rocket to the Moon, Bell Telephone's Theater and Frito-Lay's Casa de Fritos certify Disney's role in launching the current era of corporate collusion responsible for Kodak's Academy Award Theater, Suzuki's Heisman Trophy and Edison Field.
These books are de rigueur for hardcore Disney disciples. For us cynics, the three volumes offer a rare view of the development of what is arguably the late 20th century's most venerated tract of land.
To order, call Carlene Thie at 1 (800) 506-7401.
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