Disneyland Primeval

A pre-Eisner photo history of Walts unreal world


A 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.

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.

Disneyland Primeval

Mell Kilpatrick

His career as a news photographer began in 1948 and he eventually became the chief photographer for the Orange County Register - then called Santa Ana Register. Having already established a rapport with the local community Mell was the perfect guy to get the perfect angle. As one of Orange County’s best-known cameramen, he covered Orange County in every possible manner by air, on foot, by car, and even by boat.

At first, he photographed evidence for insurance companies,the corners, as well accidents for the Highway Patrol; even carrying a police badge to access the crime scenes.. They were modern-day memento, black-and-white documents of death.

Mell’s style so was unique,that it captured Walt Disney attention. While Disney had all the machinery at hand to build castles and rivers, one thing Walt didn’t have was a place for his staff to develop their photographs. As luck would have it, Mell was on the spot and granted Walt’s staff unlimited access his darkroom. A local place to develop official Disney photographers photos. The park’s first images were developed in Mell’s Santa Ana darkroom.

Having done this, a friendship-business relationship began to develop. Walt then opened the castle drawbridge and gave Mell unlimited access to the park, during construction and throughout the early years of Disneyland a privilege not granted to others outside the parks only Disney own photographers.

Mell worked relentlessly to capture on film Walt Disney’s dream. He climbed atop scaffolding, crawled into tunnels, even hung out of a light plane 5,000 feet above Disneyland to snap the perfect shot.

Mell Kilpatrick covered the park from the first spade of dirt being shoveled, to the uprooting of the orange trees, all the way to the completion of the park. He was there for the infamous opening day, known as Black Sunday. Mell had a unique eye for photography, and reported the news in a timely fashion. His skills and know how helped him to continue his coverage, of the park while writing about the inside world of Disneyland.

Of the many Disneyland articles written by Mell, one in particularly caught my eye. Published in the July 15th, 1955 Santa Ana Register - two days before the official opening of the Park under the title: ‘All Employees Schooled’

Pictured are a few of the 1100 employees who attended orientation classes before assuming their duties at Walt Disney’s magic kingdom. The importance of good manners and good grooming, along with correct handling of jobs under discussion is stressed. The accompanying photograph captures a Disneyland employee’s orientation class. Sitting in the front row is my father, Curtis Sissel, who was not only part of this orientation class, but also worked on the construction of the Sleeping Beauty Castle and other Disneyland buildings.

What’s equally amazing is the story of who Mell was before he became a photographer. Mells original desire was to become a musician so he and wife moved to Southern California when he landed a job at the Dianna Ballroom. He played the coronet there till late 1947. Then he moved onto becoming a projectionist due to periodontal disease that ended his musical career.

While Mell continued to work at theaters threading reels of film, he picked up another type of film and began shooting photographs of accidents for the Insurance Companies. In that same year, Mell started contributing his photographic work at the Santa Register. By November of 1948, at the age of forty six, Mell began his new career as a news photographer at the Register. With no known experience of being a journalist, the ex-musician became one of the best well known cameramen in Orange County and the first Chief Photographer of the Register. He would go on to documenting everything from car accidents to crime scenes. From highway 101 taking form to one of Orange County’s defining monuments … Disneyland.

Back in 1954 when Disneyland project was announced, the Santa Ana Registers had a circulation of about 30,000 to 40,000. Average pay was $1.25 per hour, making it where you had to turn in at least 80 hours per week to make a living. So it was part of the norm for photographers to freelance and then sell their images to outside sources.

Not only were pay scales unbelievably different 50 years ago, so was photography. Mell’s basic photo outfit consisted of 2 cameras, electronic flash, light meter, Tripod, and a gadget bag. Mell had no PhotoShop and digital darkroom. He developed his prints by hand; standing over a row of printing trays, the hot water causing steam to rise up and swirl around him. Wearing a blue technician’s jacket, much like the ones you see doctors wearing today, Mell would make a print by putting it in the main developer and hurry it along by rubbing hot water and then some straight developer on the photo paper. When he was in the dark room he was all business - he was the boss. At least till noon, then it was off to the Santa Ana Elks Club where he would tend bar.

Mell’s work is well known even today, and can still be seen in the Disneyland Park. While his images are some of the most visible in the Park, not being one of Walt’s employees meant little, if any, official Disney recognition. Still, it is a great reminder of how one person can make such a hugh impact on so many lives, even at the age of forty six. It was in Mell’s darkroom that the first images of Disneyland were developed, and the dream of a man started to be captured on film.

In 1962 a heart attack claimed his life and his prized darkroom would be sealed till the 1990’s. Leaving the photos and negatives of Disneyland to sit on the shelves collecting dust, locked away, and forgotten…

With Mell’s photographs being re-discover and back in the publics eye once again, his photographic vision can be seen. It was in Mell’s darkroom that the first images of Disneyland were developed; one man’s vision and another man’s dream, literally rising up out of the steam, captured on film.

by Carlene Thie

Horrific images from the 40s, 50s & 60s

Anaheim Car Crashes

Mell Kilpatrick

Fifty Years After His Death

1st Chief Photographer for the Orange County Register

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