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


Mell Kilpatrick's picture books cast a nostalgic eye back on Disneyland's past by Jim Hill

For seemingly months now, my good friend, Jeff Lange, has been hawking me about Carlene Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" series. Almost every time that I've seen Jeff over the past year, these three soft-cover books -- featuring photographs that Thie's grandfather, Mell Kilpatrick, took while he was a staff photographer at the "Santa Ana Register" -- have come up in conversation.

"You've got to get these books, Jim," says Jeff. "They've got all of these killer images of Disneyland from the mid-1950s. Lots of construction shots of the park and its attractions. They'd make a great addition to your Disneyana library."

So -- while I was out in Southern California last week -- I dropped by the "Off the Page" shop in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot section of Disney's California Adventure theme park. And what to my wandering eye should appear on that store's shelves but copies of all three of Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" books: "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction," "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" and "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Lens."

So -- following Lange's advice -- I purchased copies of all three books. Then after slipping from "Off the Page" into the lobby area of DCA's "Disney Animation" exhibit, I plopped myself down on the couch and perused Kilpatrick's pictures.

I'll say this much. My pal, Jeff, was right. Mell Kilpatrick's black and white photographs of Disneyland's early days really are exquisite. Based on the images that you'll find in this trio of books, it would appear that Mell had free access to the place from late 1954 right up until Kilpatrick's death in 1962.

Among the amazing images that you'll find in "A Photographer's Life with Disneyland Under Construction":

Beautiful aerial shots of the theme park rising up out of that Anaheim orange grove.
A photograph of the still-under-construction Sleeping Beauty Castle take from high atop the now-long-gone Snow Mountain.
Pictures that Kilpatrick took of Tomorrowland & Fantasyland after scaling the bare steel of the still-being-constructed Matterhorn.

In Volume 2 - "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" - you'll get to see crystal clear photos of long-gone pieces of Disneyland's original Tomorrowland. Images like:

The interior of the Circarama theater, filled with people, while a scenic travelogue plays overhead.
An aerial shot of the theme park that actually shows the notoriously balky Phantom Boats in operation.
TL's Court of Flags entrance area with the Goodyear blimp flying high overhead.

And in the third book in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series - "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Lens" - you got to see rarities like:

Disneyland's Christmas decorations from the 1955 holiday season.
Photos of the infamous parade that signaled the start of the "Mickey Mouse Club Circus."
Fess Parker giving the then-Vice President Richard Nixon the key to Disneyland during the VP's first official visit to the theme park.

Plus dozens of other wonderful photographs. All sure to thrill hundreds of Disneyland fans.

Mind you, Ms. Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" books aren't perfect. To be honest, there is some repetition of material between the first three volumes in the series. (EX: Both "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction" and "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" run the exact same picture of a KABC-TV camera crew shooting images of cowboys arriving in DL's Frontierland. Only one book says that this photo was taken on Disneyland's opening day, while the other book says that this photograph was taken during rehearsals for the park's opening day festivities. So which caption is right?)

Plus some of the books' captions get fairly obvious things wrong. Like identifying I-5 (the California state highway that runs right alongside Disneyland) as Route 101. Or repeatedly calling Catfish Cove on Tom Sawyer's Island "Cat Foot Cove." (This mistake on Carlene's part is truly kind of bizarre given that her own grandmother, Katherine Kilpatrick, actually worked on Tom Sawyer's Island. There's even a photograph of Katherine working on the island in "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction." Carlene's grandmother / Mell's wife in the fishing shack on Tom Sawyer's Island. A structure that is just feet away from -- you guessed it! -- Catfish Cove.)

And then there are the mistakes/goof-ups/whatevers in the "Disneyland Under Construction" books that just don't make any sense. At least to me. Like those side-by-side photographs of Wally Boag and the Andrew Sisters in "Disney Years Through a Photographer's Lens." One caption on one page reads "Wally Boag and guests at the Rivers of America 'Your Happy Holiday Radio Show,'" while the caption under the photograph on the facing page reads "Wally Boag and Andrew Sisters." It's obvious that both of these pictures were taken on the very same day in the very same location, virtually seconds apart. So why doesn't Carlene identify Patty, Maxine and Laverne in both photographs?

But then again, maybe I'm being too hard on Ms. Thie. After all, "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction," "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" and "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Lens" are clearly just a homegrown effort. Carlene's company -- Ape Pen Publishing -- initially just produced a thousand copies of each book. Now that the original editions of all three volumes have been snatched up by Disneyana fans, she's published a second edition of the "Disneyland Under Construction" series. A set of which I just purchased at DCA's "Off the Page" shop.

And let's be honest here, folks. The real reason that you'd be picking up these "Disneyland Under Construction" books wouldn't be because you wanted to read Carlene's captions. But rather, because you wanted to see all of the great pictures that Mell Kilpatrick took during Disneyland's first few years of operation.

No doubt, the captions will radically improve with the next volume of Thie's series, "Disneyland: The Beginning." This book -- which is slated to make its debut July 20th at the National Fantasy Fan Club's annual convention in Garden Grove, CA -- is supposed to feature a foreword written by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller. Not to mention write-ups by Walt Disney Imagineering veterans like Alice Davis, Sam McKim, Harriet Burns, Bob Gurr, Blaine Gibson and Rolly Crump. As well as even more vintage Disneyland photographs from Mell Kilpatrick's archives. Including the first ever color pictures published in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series.

Given the WDI vets that will be contributing to this upcoming Ape Pen Publishing title, something tells me that -- in five weeks or so -- I'll be snatching up a copy of Carlene Thie's "Disneyland: The Beginning" as well.

Okay. So let's review: There's some minor repetition of images between the "Disneyland Under Construction" books as well as some botched captions. But -- barring these minor quibbles -- Carlene Thie's ""A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction," "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" and "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Lens" are still well worth picking up.

All three volumes of the "Disneyland Under Construction" series that are currently on the market can be purchased at DCA's "Off the Page" shop. Or -- if you'd prefer to do your shopping through the Web -- both the LaughingPlace Store and MousePlanet's MouseShoppe have copies of the series for sale. Or -- if you'd prefer to help out JimHillMedia.com -- you can order a copy of "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction" and/or "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Eyes" by clicking on the appropriate link.

Also, if you'd like to pre-order a copy of the next volume in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series, "Disneyland: The Beginning," you can visit Ape Pen Publishing's home page.

Mell Kilpatrick

Disneyland Historical Pass

(Article Coming Soon)

One-of-a-kind pages from Bob Gurr's “Design Just for Fun” Available through Ape Pen PublishingBob_Gurr_Design_Just_For_Fun_Book.htmlBob_Gurr_Design_Just_For_Fun_Book.htmlBob_Gurr_Design_Just_For_Fun_Book.htmlBob_Gurr_Design_Just_For_Fun_Book.htmlshapeimage_9_link_0shapeimage_9_link_1shapeimage_9_link_2shapeimage_9_link_3

More Articles On Mell Kilpatrick / Ape Pen Publishing/ / Carlene Thie

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 Diana 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