I have always been a huge fan of Walt's original Disneyland. There is still so much that has not been documented about that magical time because, like most start-up businesses, everyone was too busy doing things and putting out fires to sit down and write anything down.While we are talking about Walt's original Disneyland, here is a special treat, an interview with someone who started working at Disneyland on July 17,1955 at the age of 13.
I never thought I would be able to find another balloon boy to interview.
I am extremely thankful that I got a chance to recently interview Andrew B. Beard.
Beard had just turned 13 when Disneyland opened in July 1955. He started selling copies of the Disneyland News at the front of the park and then later got a job selling balloons. He stopped working at Disneyland in 1959 and didn't return until one visit in the mid-1970s.
Jim Korkis: When did you start working at Disneyland?
Andrew B. Beard: On the day Disneyland first opened, it was for certain celebrities and invited guests of Walt Disney only. I began working that day selling Disneyland newspapers. I do not remember how I landed that job at the age of 13 , but I was required to wear a 1930s style newspaper boy cap and pants that were just a little long for me.
Why this sort of outfit I have no idea. I was probably told the reason, but I don't remember. I believe the newspapers sold for ten cents each. Unfortunately, there were not many people at all interested in buying them. I wish, now, that I had kept a copy for posterity sake.
No matter how hard I tried to sell the papers, I sold only a dozen or so on that day. It was still an extremely exciting day for me, though, being inside the park on opening day, seeing lots of movie stars and asking some of them if they would like to buy a Disneyland newspaper.
I do remember seeing Jack Webb, Fess Parker, Bob Cummings, Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan. There were others; but, I can't remember all of the names. I returned to the park the following day which was open to the general public. I didn't have much luck that day either. But, I continued to try to sell the papers for a few weeks or so and finally gave it up.
I was very young, but I thought nothing of it except for the wonderful opportunity to have a job and especially to be involved with Disneyland. My parents encouraged me to take the job. I only sold papers for a few weeks at most as I recall.
I know there were other boys selling them but I really don't have much memory about that at all. I also do not remember the compensation arrangement—it certainly couldn't have been much at all. After that experience, I didn't work at Disneyland until I landed the balloon job.
JK: So how did you get a job selling balloons?
AB: During that time period, my older sister, Cecilia, was dating a guy by the name of Tom Cashin. Tom was a few years older than I and was working at Disneyland selling popcorn from one of those old time red popcorn wagons that one would see throughout the park. I asked Tom if he could get me a job selling popcorn or maybe ice cream bars… both the popcorn and ice cream concessions were owned by the same company—United Paramount Theaters(UPT).
Anyway, he said I was too young. UPT had a policy whereby all employees had to be a minimum of 18 years old. However, Tom said he knew this woman named Helen Smith who managed the balloon concession at Disneyland. I do not remember how Tom knew of Helen. She was the sister-in-law of Nat Lewis who operated the balloon franchise at Disneyland for about two decades or so.
I asked Tom if he would talk with Helen and put in a good word for me. After a few months of me constantly bugging Tom to talk with Helen, he finally did. He told me that I should give her a call. When I called Helen, she said that there were no openings but that I could come in and talk with her. So I did.
The balloon operation was located in Fantasyland. It was a fairly large single room situated behind the Mad Hatter counter. The Mad Hatter counter was a small stand that sold various styles of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland hats with custom lettering as well as other Disneyland memorabilia. The room was directly connected to but separated by a wall, to the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
As I entered the balloon room to meet with Helen, I could clearly hear the loud sound track of the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. To myself, I was thinking "Wow! This constant loud noise would drive be absolutely nuts!"
JK: What was Helen like?
AB: Helen was Lewis' sister-in-law. Nat had married her sister.
Helen lived in Long Beach and Nat Lived in Encino. So it was a long commute for both of them-- probably one reason that Nat wasn't there much. I remember that Helen drove this old crappy brown Hudson Hornet. Nat, on the other hand, drove this absolutely beautiful green Lincoln convertible with a continental kit on the trunk. My friend that I spoke to said he actually spent a night at Nat's home. It was located on top of a big hill and had a very large swimming pool.
Helen would give me a ride home sometimes after the park closed which was far out of her way home. But it shows you how Helen cared for us. She had two children between the ages of 8-10. Barbara or Nat would fill in on the days that Helen couldn't make it to work.
That first meeting as I made my way to the back of the room, Helen was seated behind a large metal desk. She appeared to me to be in her mid-40s. She was around 5-foot-2 inches tall, a little heavy set around the middle, and had skinny legs, and had short, dishwater blonde hair. I noticed while I was talking with her that she chain smoked one cigarette after another. But, we had a good conversation and I could tell that she liked me.
JK: So you got the job?
AB: Helen said that she would talk with the owner of the balloon concession, Nat Lewis, to see if he would agree to hire me. A few weeks later, she called me and asked if I were still interested in the job. I, of course, was absolutely elated and jumped at the opportunity. By the way, all of us who worked in the balloon room eventually became used to the Mr. Toad sound track noise and it was as if we didn't hear it at all unless someone mentioned it.
Nat Lewis was a smaller man. My memory says he was probably 5-foot-4 inches tall and slender built. I believed him to be in his mid- to late- 60s. He was always well dressed wearing a nice suit with a bow tie. Nat was very gruff and abrupt in his demeanor. His name was spelled "Nat" but pronounced "Nate."
Jim, a good way to picture what Nat looked like is to visualize a thin Peter Lorrie. Nat had those same droopy eye lids and could have played as Peter's double, if he would have gained the weight.
JK: What was the training like?
AB: I never attended any Disneyland training classes. All of my training, as little as it was, came from Helen Smith and Nat Lewis.
There were usually two to three boys working in the balloon room filling balloons with helium gas. The first thing that I had to learn was how to fill the balloons with helium and properly tie the balloons so they wouldn't slowly deflate. Helen showed me how to do what I remember was called a "spin" tie.
We really didn't receive much training to be a balloon boy. I think that Nat expected Helen to show us how he wanted us to sell balloons, but Helen really never did that. The only training that I recall was how to fill and tie the balloons. If I were training someone today on the balloon business, I would first require that they spend a month or so in the balloon room filling and tying the balloons.
The trainee would also run freshly filled balloons to the balloon sellers throughout the day. They would also bring back the partially deflated and popped balloons. After the employee becomes efficient at that task, then I would spend time with him at his selling post.
I would give him tips on how to get the tourists to purchase balloons. I would also, determine which of my employees was the top seller and then assign him the best selling post in the park. This was almost always the park entrance/exit points on Main Street.
JK: Did you enjoy the work?
AB: I had always wanted to be a ride operator. However, because of my young age, that wasn't possible.
After a short while I became pretty good at doing balloons. Nat did not come to work on a daily basis. He usually came about once a week or so. The balloon boys, including myself, didn't like it very much when he did show up. He would spend his time in the balloon room criticizing us for one thing or another.
After about a month or so I was allowed to sell balloons. The balloons sold for $0.25 each plus $0.01 sales tax.
JK: It would seem to me to make more sense and easier to make change if the balloons were $0.24 and $0.01 sales tax.
AB: The price of the balloons was in fact $0.25 plus $0.01 sales tax. If people would ask how much the balloons were selling for we were instructed to never say $0.26, but always $0.25 plus $0.01 sales tax. We all wore change aprons and had a certain amount of change given to us that we would have to account for at the end of the day.
And believe me, Jim, if you knew Nat he would NEVER give up the $0.01 per balloon just to make it easier for the boys to make change. And, think about it, $0.01 per balloon times the number of balloons that were sold during that price set may have been a substantial amount of money.
JK: Where was the best place to sell balloons?
AB: The best spot to sell balloons was at the Disneyland entry and exit gates located at the start of Main Street. Balloons were sold at both the entry gates and the exit gates just inside the park. The worst place to sell balloons was the Tomorrowland location, close to the Matterhorn. For some unknown reason, people just didn't want to buy balloons at that spot.
As a side note, there were only four selling locations: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and two at the main gates. We weren't allowed to go up and down the Main Street areas carrying a bunch of balloons. Park officials were adamant that the balloons would frighten the horses pulling the carts.
There wasn't any easy way to get from the balloon room in Fantasyland to the locations via employees only areas. But we had to use the employees only areas behind fences as the only way we would carry our big bunches of balloons to get them to the Main Gate.
The various balloon costumes were a sort of clown outfit for Fantasyland, dark pants and a white shirt with the Disneyland emblem for Tomorrowland and a black and white striped shirt, black vest and a black top hat (or sometimes a flat rimmed straw hat.)
JK: Did Lewis give you any special training in selling the balloons?
AB: One day when I was selling balloons next to the large carousel located in Fantasyland, Nat suddenly appeared out of the crowd and grabbed away the bundle of balloons I was holding. He immediately gave me a short but loud lecture on how to "yell and sell" balloons. He was very clear that he did not like me to just stand in one spot and wait for people to come up and ask to buy a balloon. As I said, Nat was gruff and abrupt.
But let's face it, he had a business to run, and had to make sure that a bunch of young teens didn't try and take advantage of him. (And I think we would have.)
Next year, will be Disneyland's 60th birthday and I am sure there will several books devoted to the Happiest Place on Earth, including a 600-page epic from Mississippi University Press by Todd James Pierce titled Three Years in Wonderland: A Genius, A Conman and the Creation of Disneyland. I highly recommend this book, and Pierce has done outstanding original research.
I have been waiting for this books for years, since I first sat down and talked with Pierce about early Disneyland, Freedomland and C.V. Wood (the conman).
I also recommend Jason Schultz's site devoted to Disneyland nomenclature. Schultz is one of those people who does a lot of great research but rarely gets the recognition that he deserves. I hope I live long enough to see his Disneyland Thesaurus.
On my Disneyland book reference shelf, is a copy of his Disneyland Almanac, done in collaboration with Kevin Yee, another of my favorite Disney writers.
The unique book is quite literally a daily history of Disneyland in terms of operating hours, weather, attendance, celebrity visitors and much, much more. It is an amazing reference book but, believe it or not, I even have fun just sitting down flipping through the pages trying to find connections about what was happening and why.
Next to that book on my shelf is the The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Major Event in the Original Magic Kingdom by Chris Strodder. I have both the original 2008 and the updated 2012 edition on my book shelf. It is an amazing reference book and I often use it to jog my memory or check on something. I have heard some grumbles about the book but, for me, there is nothing else like it out there. I wish there were a Walt Disney World edition. If you are interested in the historical Disneyland, this book should be on your shelf as well.
And, of course, a top-selling book that really needs no additional recommendation from me is the recently released The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream by Sam Gennawey.
Gennawey is a good friend and I got to see the preliminary manuscript before publication. It blew me away because it was a biography of Disneyland through a unique perspective and it covers all those Disneyland years immediately after Walt Disney passed away that every other book seems to minimize or bypass completely.
As good as the original manuscript was, Gennawey continued to edit and expand and the final book is a true delight (even with the teeny tiny type that was a little challenging on these old eyes).
I eagerly await his forthcoming new book that covers a subject that no one else has ever written about but will be enjoyed by theme park fans on both coasts.
Oh, and if you are in the Disneyland Resort area and are a Disney cast member, a Disney diversity group is flying me out to do a special presentation on the connections between Asian-Pacific heritage and Disney. (Last year's speaker was Willie Ito.) The presentation will be held 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday May 21 at the Sequoia Ballroom of the Grand Californian Hotel. Contact Jeff L. Chang if you are eligible to attend and are interested.
I used to do this type of presentation for Walt Disney World cast members in the month of May. This time, I will be talking about some of the connections in Walt's original Disneyland. I will only be in town for barely two days at most and hope to visit Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in what little spare time I can find.
Next Week: Andy shares why you should not try to pick up young girls while wearing your Disneyland costume, memories of Trinidad the White Wing who helped him pass his Spanish class, playing a Wurlitzer organ on Main Street and many, many other recollections of early Disneyland.