A Salute to Club 55
"A lot of people didn't believe in what we were doing... my brother had the worries of getting this money and fighting the bankers and things... but we ran out of money... a lot of people don't realize that we had some very serious problems here, keeping this going... getting it started... But at this time, ten years after opening, I want to join my brother in saying 'Thanks to you people who have been here with us, and have been part of making this thing come across'...
"But I want to leave you with this thought... that it's just been sort of a dress rehearsal, and we're just getting started. So if any of you start resting on your laurels, just forget it."
Walt Disney speaking at the Tencennial Celebration for cast members at the Disneyland Hotel Magnolia Room, July 17,1965
In 1965, Walt Disney hosted a celebration for Disneyland cast members during the Tencennial Celebration, acknowledging the challenges of early Disneyland and recognizing some of the cast that were part of the show in 1955. He joked about Wally Boag and Bill Evans.
Some of those in the room would eventually become members of the very exclusive "Club 55."
In order to belong to Disneyland's Club 55, you had to have started working at Disneyland in 1955, or in the case of some members, even earlier during the planning and construction phase.
On July 17, 1970, the 15th anniversary service awards ceremony known as the Castle Awards Banquet was held. A bronze replica of Sleeping Beauty's Castle along with a castle pin that had a small pendant hanging beneath it that said "Charter" was given to those original cast members who were still active. Shortly afterwards, 200 cast members were notified that Disney University Founder Van France was organizing a special group known as "Club 55."
John Catone designed a club logo that he copied from the logo for the special VIP restaurant at Disneyland, "Club 33." He just changed the numbers from "33" to "55." In 1995, Bob Penfield changed the logo to an image of the castle with "Club 55" above it so that the logo would be more unique.
Each year a special reunion was held of both active and retired cast members who were worked at the park in 1955. The parties were held in a variety of locations from the Balboa Bay Club to Turnip Rose Restaurants to the Queen Mary to Catalina island. Starting in 1985, only active cast members were invited. The last dinner party was held in 1996 when Ray VanDeWarker and Bob Penfield were the only ones still working at Disneyland.
In August 1997, the last person from Disneyland's opening day staff still working at Disneyland retired. For his more than 42 years of service, Bob Penfield was given a window on Main Street that says: "Club 55 School of Golf, Bob Penfield, Instructor."
There are a little over two dozen members of "Club 55" who still survive, including Ron Dominguez, Dick Nunis, Tom Nabbe, and Wally Boag.
Club 55 should not be confused with the Disneyland Resort Alumni Club (DRAC). Begun informally and founded by Van France, along with Dick Nunis in 1983, the Club offers a chance for former cast members no manner when or how long they worked at Disneyland to keep in touch, share memories, reconnect with old friends and make new memories through a variety of special events including reunions and travel opportunities.
Sometimes bad days at Disneyland made great memories and even better stories. I think one of the best ways to celebrate Disneyland's birthday is to let some of the Club 55 members share their memories of those early days. Their names may not be as familiar as some others and I regret I can't include even more in this column but it is important to remember that it took a lot of people doing a lot of different things to make Walt's dream a reality.
"Early in 1953, I was working at the Studio, and heard rumors of plans for a big amusement park. I immediately asked for a transfer, which turned out to be a 'no-no' of Studio policy. But I found out there was an attraction to be called 'Autopia'. Working nights and weekends for about eight months, I made a little car in my garage... fiberglass body and all. When I was finished, I hauled it to the Studio. Walt drove it but didn't think much of the design. Nevertheless, it made an impression on him, and eventually I was transferred to the payroll department of Disneyland, Inc. I was Manager of Accounting... first when Disneyland was operated from the Studio, and then when we came down to Anaheim. Later, plans were made to establish Holidayland... an early adventure in group sales. I was Manager of that new venture. I remember the first picnic... only too well. We served beer then and there was only one small restroom for the ladies and one for the men. The wait for the ladies room was an hour long. I'll never forget the look of disbelief, shock and dismay on Walt's face as he came up to survey the incredible sight... the longest queue line in the park, the ladies' rest room!"
"I came on June 23, 1955 to work for George Mills Sr., owner of the Mills Construction Company. We had a lot to do to get the place ready on time. I didn't think we were going to make it. We were working around the clock. On opening day, it was my day off, so I just stayed home and rested. That first year was rough work, especially shoveling on all that mud. In 1958, I transferred to the Indian Village to help Hank Dains put up tepees in the Village. We also put up the tepees on Tom Sawyer's Island. I remember seeing the opening of the Monorail. There was a ribbon stretched across it and I was standing right there holding a pair of shears. They were a great, big pair, especially made for the ceremony. I was trying to hang onto the shears so that nothing could happen to them, but Walt's granddaughter got to playing around with them and loosened them up. Well, everything was on television... and when the time came to cut the ribbon, the shears were of out kilter and wouldn't work. So Walt pulled out a pocket knife and cut it himself!"
"Walt Disney took the special ceremonial scissors that I had fashioned for him out of walnut and snipped the ribbon. But they didn't work! Thereupon Walt produced a pocket knife, cut the ribbon, and the new monorail was officially open. I was watching all this on television as I was on vacation, and I was afraid to come back! In July of 1955, I came to Disneyland and my first job was helping to build the lumber storage building. I would get down on my hands and knees in the rain and mud to work on the foundations. On opening day, John Yarber and I got a call that the gate had fallen off the Mule Pack Ride, and that we were to go and fix it. We had not the slightest idea where the Mule Pack Ride was. I had many little chats with Walt, but I particularly remember one time when I suggested building an animated Holy Land. He said, 'I'm a religious man, but here, at Disneyland, we have no religious confinements.' When we opened up Mr. Lincoln, Roy was standing at the exit, watching people come out... and looking at their faces. Some of the people had tears in their eyes. Roy said to me, 'Earl, this is going to catch on... it's going to be a great show!' "
"We moved to Anaheim in 1931 and when I was 16, I bought my own tractor with money I saved from working in the orchards. I worked my tractor taking care of the groves until Walt Disney moved in... then I came over and worked here. I started with the McNeil Construction Company and the job was supposed to be for just half a day. It got stretched out a little, didn't it? When I started to work here, Main Street was nothing but two by fours, stakes and chalk marks. I was hired to drive a truck hauling paint all over the place, but I also hauled Walt Disney everywhere, as well as the paint. He rode with me a lot and he became a real, nice friend of mine. Walt was there every day, and he always treated a man like a man. I was on the job 24 hours per day for the last two months before opening. I slept a little in the truck and only went home on Sunday. Opening day was my day off, and I guess that I must have slept all day."
"I was living in Whittier and while watching television, I saw them building this place. I wrote to Walt Disney and told him what I could do. He wrote back and said, 'Take this letter to Fred Newcomb at the park'. So I came over with the letter, talked to Fred and he put me to work. Opening day the movie star kids were, to put it mildly, unruly! I started on the steam trains as a conductor. We had a great crew, with Jim Cashen, who was the fireman, and Harley Elgin was the engineer. One day Roy Disney jumped aboard and I didn't know him until he showed his pass. He was smoking a big cigar! I first met Walt when I was working the Midget Autopia and he came over and asked me how I liked the little cars. Another time, when I was in Fantasyland, Walt stopped and talked about 'water animation' being the cheapest thing to build and operate in the park. He pointed over past the pirate ship to the skull with its several water falls as a good example."
"I was going to go to Arabia to work with the railroad and while I was waiting to hear from them, I took a drive over towards Anaheim with my mother. I saw a formation of what was to be the train station. So I made out an application, was interviewed by Chuck Whelan, and started work the same day. I started with Jim D'Arcy in Food... all food was Lessee, and I was typing memos and menus and trying not to mix up the two. The phone never stopped ringing with everybody trying to get a food lease in the park. The railroad tracks went right by the office window and as the train passed by, it would blow its whistle with a tremendous noise... scared the wits out of me. On opening day, bedlam! Nobody knew their way around the park... took an hour to get from Personnel to my job. Then we turned our offices over to the Press and I went out to watch the celebrities. I remember that Hawaiian Abe was in front of the Bazaar in Adventureland, making palm frond hats for Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher."
"I went to work in the Round House on July 18, 1955 as a Junior Engineer. I was a glorified helper, polishing the engine and sweeping the floors. I had never seen engines so dirty. Two or three weeks later, they put me on the engines as a fireman. Walt and I were fellow steam train engineers. Walt liked to run the trains, but he drove a little too fast. At the beginning, Walt dressed like a construction worker. One time he looked at my eight dollar work shoes and asked me where I bought them. He said that his old Marine shoes were wearing out and he needed a new pair of work shoes. One time Walt committed a 'no-no' and blew the whistle in the tunnel. It made an awful noise and Walter Pidgeon turned to him and said, 'Please don't do that!'"
"I read about Disneyland in the newspapers. My first day was on the Autopia. There were wooden planks for curbing, backed up with sand bags. Autopia was a two-lane highway, with three cars abreast. The next day I was in a space suit, doing promotions with the guests... one day 13,000 pictures were taken! As a space man, I was also used a crowd 'mover'. I would go right past a long waiting line, the people following me like they followed the Pied Piper. At a small line, I would stop to start some business there. There was pure oxygen in the space suit at first. Sometimes a kid would turn the tap in the boots and drain the oxygen to the head. I would feel like I was on Cloud Nine. Walt was a down to earth person. He would always take time to talk. I remember him for what he was. Once I saw him riding around the park on a white horse."
"When I came to Disneyland I was still in the Marine Corps. There were so many Marines employed at Disneyland that if the country had an alert, it would have depleted the park! I was the first foreman of the new Submarine attraction and I remember that we had mermaids in those days. One day when I was on the dock, I got a call from a Sub that a fellow was swimming out to mermaid rock. Then there was the time that Jimmy Durante came up to take a Sub ride. As he boarded, he said, 'Is this ride safe?... Can anything go wrong?' I replied that it was perfectly safe and that everything would be fine. Well, the boat came off the rail, and when he was rescued some time later, he turned to me and said, 'Cap, what the hell happened?' Walt was so down to earth... nothing pretentious... he would always take time to talk. One time, back in '56, I was picking Roy Disney up in one of the park's old station wagons and it wouldn't run. Roy said, 'Well, that figures!'"
"I remember the first day we had paying guests in the park and Walt was over at the Fire Station looking out the window. And I heard him say, 'Paying guests. I love you'... and threw them a great big kiss!"
"I remember I was working on the Canal Boats one day when Walt came by. Right away he noticed that the old whale was not spouting water and he wanted to know why. I told him that the wind was blowing water all over the Casey Jr. Railroad tracks, and we had shut it off. Walt replied, 'I spent a lot of money on that spouting whale and I want it going!"
"I was working on the loading dock of the Casey Jones Jr. RR when in came the train with Majorie Main riding in the Wild Animal cage. She was wearing one of her great big fancy hats and as she got out of the cage, she knocked her hat off onto to the dock. As I bent over to pick up her hat my Casey Jr. overalls spilt from top to bottom. I had to stand with my back to the wall until quitting time! Walt would come around two or three times a week and talk to me in Spanish. He spoke the language pretty well. He was a remarkable, wonderful man... but very humble."
"Well, I first went to work at the Richfield Exhibit. It was an animated show consisting of a diorama of Long Beach with a professor giving a speech. He was describing how water was being pumped into the oil fields to prevent the depleted land from sinking. The Moon Ride was quite a mess! You would push the button and nothing would run... or it would run backwards or upside down! I remember the opening of 'America the Beautiful' with its thirteen screens. We had thirteen men up there, behind the screens, trying to keep it working. The film would break and pile up all over the place! I used to fight gophers in Nature's Wonderland. At that time, the sound speakers were hidden in false rocks and the gophers would fill the speakers in with earth. They sent me into combat with the critters. I remember how, during the course of a season, the ants would eat the real fur off of the animated birds and animals."
"Opening Day? It was wonderful! I was loading jungle boats and Bob Cummings microphone wire kept getting wrapped around my neck! I was supposed to be working on the Mark Twain but they didn't have my uniform by opening day. Well, the Mark Twain had too many operators and the jungle didn't have enough, so I went to the jungle for a year. There were no microphones on the boats then and you shouted yourself hoarse with a megaphone. I didn't like to give the spiel so they sent me to the shooting galleries for ten years. I made Walt Disney pay on the shooting gallery. Yep. Sure did. That's the rules... no different for him than anyone else! Walt wanted things perfect. He had an open mind and asked advice of the operators saying, 'How can you improve?' He loved kids.
Of all the Club 55 members' memories (and I could only share a small portion here), the one thing that stood out for all of them was how down to earth and nice Walt and Roy Disney were. They all remembered Walt being there at Disneyland as a physical presence and not only talking to them and asking their opinions but quietly listening to them. No matter what the challenges, it was clear that Walt and Roy genuinely cared about them as people first and employees second. That may be the true secret of how Disneyland survived those early, difficult years.
I always like to give Walt the last word when I can, so here is a Walt quote you may not have seen from the early years of Disneyland. I think it really is the basic philosophy behind Walt's dream of Disneyland:
"To keep an operation like Disneyland going you have to pour it in there. It's what I call 'keeping the show on the road.' You have to keep throwing it in; you can't sit back and let it ride. Not just new attractions but keeping it staffed properly... you know, never letting your personnel get sloppy... never let them be unfriendly. That's been our policy all our lives. My brother and I have done that, and that is what has built our organization. We're not out to make a fast dollar with gimmicks. We're interested in doing things that are fun... in bringing pleasure and especially laughter to people. I think what I want Disneyland to be most of all is a happy place... a place where adults and children can experience together some of the wonder of life, of adventure, and feel better because of it."