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Khrushchev and Disneyland

For those of us who grew up as children during the Cold War, Khrushchev was the "boogeyman." Nikita Khrushchev served as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, following the death of Joseph Stalin, and chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964. Khrushchev's party colleagues removed him from power in 1964, replacing him with Leonid Brezhnev.


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Khrushchev was removed from power partly because conservatives in the Communist Party found his flamboyant and dramatic gestures embarrassing on the world stage. Supposedly, Khrushchev pulled off his own shoe to pound it on a desk to make a point at the United Nations. He threatened America that "we will bury you" in a time when nuclear war was a very real possibility.

Other than the total destruction of capitalism and the triumph of communism, what did Khrushchev want? He wanted to go to Disneyland.

Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union and a fiery opponent of American capitalism, arrived in the United States on September 16, 1959 for an extended 11-day visit to the United States, finishing with a long summit meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his trip, he visited several American cities including New York and San Francisco.

The Russian leader had indicated a desire to see Hollywood and a visit was arranged. Khrushchev had also apparently indicated he and his family wanted to visit Disneyland during his time in Los Angeles. He was not informed until his plane was flying to LAX that while his wife and children might be able to go to Disneyland that other plans had been arranged for him.

Major General Nikolai S. Zakharov of the Soviet Security Police had come to Los Angeles three weeks before Khrushchev's visit to review security arrangements with Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker.

Parker was adamant that his department could not guarantee security because the motorcade would have to travel more than 30 miles to get to Disneyland and in addition, Anaheim was part of Orange County and therefore outside his jurisdiction so that he could not assure the necessary protection.

Other Los Angeles police escorts to Disneyland had been provided for former President Harry Truman and other visiting Soviet dignitaries. Kings and queens, princes and princesses, presidents, heads of state and a host of other dignitaries had already visited Disneyland over the first few years without incident.

Parker was probably aware that there were heated feelings about Khrushchev's visit to the Los Angeles area. Even before the Soviet leader arrived, there was a huge anti-Soviet rally held at the Rose Bowl and Eisenhower had to personally urge calm. When Khrushchev did arrive in Los Angeles, his motorcade was bombarded with tomatoes on the ride from the airport to the 20th Century Fox studios.

Parker firmly advocated dropping a Disneyland visit from the schedule altogether. However, since the Khrushchevs had indicated a desire to see the theme park, there were two different alternate security plans prepared. One plan was devised if just Mrs. Khrushchev and her children decided to visit and another in case Mr. Khrushchev decided at the last minute to come along.

On September 19, Khrushchev and his wife arrived in Los Angeles. The day began with a tour to a soundstage at Twentieth Century Fox Studios where the movie Can Can was being filmed.

At the studio, Khrushchev saw the cast members perform a musical number from the film. Frank Sinatra was an unofficial master of ceremonies for the visit, and the Soviet premier lunched with dozens of Hollywood celebrities from Marilyn Monroe to Shirley MacLaine to Maurice Chevalier before his arranged housing tour later than afternoon.

Supposedly, at lunch, comedian Bob Hope was seated near to Mrs. Khrushchev and, in trying to make polite conversation, told her something along the lines of "You should really try to go to Disneyland. It's wonderful."

Hollywood columnist James Bacon remembered, "Mrs. Khrushchev was lamenting to Frank [Sinatra] that their trip to Disneyland and been nixed because of security reasons. 'It's the only place I really wanted to see here,' she told Sinatra in accented but good English. Frank told her: 'Why Disneyland is the safest place in the world. I'll take you there myself if you want to go.' David Niven who was sitting nearby chimed in and said the same thing." (Actually, one report from that luncheon recalls Sinatra leaning over to Niven and saying, "Tell the old broad that you and I will take her there this afternoon if she wants to go that badly.")

At that point, Mrs. Khrushchev wrote a note in Russian and had it delivered to her husband on the podium. In the note, she wrote about how disappointed she was that the Khrushchevs, for security reasons, would not be allowed to visit Disneyland. Khrushchev reportedly confirmed this with the Secret Service near him.

The New York Times (September 22, 1959) reported that the Moscow newspaper, Izvestia, wrote that Khrushchev felt during the trip like he was under arrest because of the strict security measures. The newspaper also informed the Soviet citizens that the real reason Mr. Khrushchev was not allowed to go to Disneyland was that it was a Saturday, a day on which tens of thousands of ordinary American citizens and their children would have filled the park and that U.S. authorities did not want them interacting with the Soviet premier.

Khrushchev's son-in-law, who was a writer for the newspaper, later wrote a 700-page book about Khrushchev's trip titled Litsom k litsu s Amerikoi (Face to Face with America).

Still fuming from an earlier comment by Twentieth Century Fox President (and strong anti-communist) Spyros P. Skouras who tried to goad the Soviet premier with a reference to a previous speech about burying American capitalism, Khrushchev's famous temper probably got the better of him and he stood up and in a voice shaking with emotion, took the opportunity to complain about the level of security that prevented him from visiting Disneyland.

"We have come to this town where lives the cream of American art. And just imagine. I, a premier, a Soviet representative, when I came here to this city, I was given a plan. A program of what I was to be shown and whom I was to meet here.

"But just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. I asked 'Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?' I do not know.

"And just listen—just listen to what I was told—to what reason I was told. We, which means the American authorities, cannot guarantee your security if you go there.

"What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken over the place that can destroy me? Then what must I do? Commit suicide?

"This is the situation I am in. Your guest. For me, this situation is inconceivable. I can not find words to explain this to my people."

The State Department later said that Mrs. Khrushchev and her daughters were free to attend Disneyland but that Mrs. Khrushchev decided "at the last minute" to remain with her husband instead. Supposedly, Mr. Khrushchev had said that if Disneyland wasn't safe for him to visit, then it wasn't safe for his family to do so.

Imagineer Marty Sklar remembered that everyone was waiting at Disneyland in case any of the Khrushchev's decided to come.

"We were all set. We were ready. We had, I would guess, over 100 Highway Patrol motorcycle cops and Anaheim police. So we invited them all in [to the park] and fed them all."

Walt Disney was eager for the Khrushchevs to visit, especially because of the worldwide publicity it would generate for Disneyland that was barely four years old. Walt had no sympathy for communists, but his wife was interested in meeting Mr. Khrushchev.

Later, after lunch at 20th Century Fox, an apologetic Khrushchev supposedly told some of the performers in Can Can that the studio commissary had been too hot and probably put him in an ill humor. He later denounced in the press the can can dance he had seen in rehearsal as "decadent."

Instead of visiting Disneyland, Khrushchev was driven behind a large police escort through shopping centers, housing developments and the UCLA campus. Sirens howled. Helicopters hovered overhead. Shouting people lined the streets.

Khrushchev was told he could stop anywhere to get out and visit but the Russian leader chose not to stop anywhere and reportedly, in a petulant mood, hardly looked out the window of his closed limousine.

"Putting me in a closed car and stewing me in the sun is not the right way to guarantee my safety. This [not being allowed to go to Disneyland] development causes me bitter regret. I thought I could come here as a free man," said the Soviet premier.

Ironically, four Russian newsmen who were reporting on Khrushchev's trip did slip away to visit Disneyland and spent four hours enjoying the experience. They told American reporters they believed that Khrushchev and his family would have really enjoyed Disneyland.

The newspaper reports focused on Khrushchev's outburst at not being allowed to visit Disneyland instead of the prepared speech he gave later that evening. Soon, even political cartoons were commenting on the tantrum.

The following morning, many people saw Khrushchev's train leave from the Glendale train station and then pass through the San Fernando Valley on its way to Santa Barbara and San Francisco. The Soviet leader continued his trip through California without further incident and returned to Washington for his meeting with Eisenhower.

Author Herman Wouk (The Winds of War) commented at the time: "I don't blame Khrushchev for jumping up and down in rage over missing Disneyland. There are few things more worth seeing in the United States, or indeed anywhere else in the world."

Later, that year, Hope used the incident as a springboard for a gag when he was entertaining troops in Alaska during one of his Christmas tours when he joked: "Here we are in America's 49th state, Alaska. That's halfway between Khrushchev and Disneyland."

Walt apparently got a kick out of the whole situation and the publicity it generated. Years later, he talked with Bill Walsh about creating a live-action comedy screenplay about the incident. Disney Legend Walsh had a very successful career at the studio including writing and producing many top films including Mary Poppins.

Walsh teamed with another top storyman, Don DaGradi, to write Khrushchev at Disneyland. The screenplay dealt with an excited Khrushchev coming to America to visit Disneyland under the guise of meeting with the president of the United States to resolve Cold War issues. When Khrushchev discovers that due to safety concerns, he won't be able to visit the Happiest Place on Earth, he comes up with a wacky scheme in the Los Angeles-area hotel where he staying.

He disguises himself and slips by both Russian security and the U.S. Secret Service to sneak out to go to Disneyland. However, the security officers are soon in hot pursuit.

This would have been only the second theatrical film up to that time to use Disneyland as a setting. The first film was 40 Pounds of Trouble with Tony Curtis. It was released in 1962 from Universal. Curtis played a Lake Tahoe casino manager who inherits a 5-year-old girl who was abandoned by her debt-ridden father. The film was based on the Damon Runyon story that inspired previous films like Little Miss Marker (1934) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). Curtis ends up taking the girl and his love interest (played by Suzanne Pleshette) to Disneyland where a detective hired by his ex-wife ends up chasing Curtis throughout the Happiest Place on Earth. It was the first feature film to be shot at Disneyland and the park segment lasts about 20 minutes.

Actor Peter Ustinov was to play the part of Khrushchev. At the time, he was filming his first Disney live-action film, Blackbeard's Ghost with producer Walsh and director Robert Stevenson who were also both connected to the Khrushchev at Disneyland project. In fact, the last Disney live-action film Walt saw in production was Blackbeard's Ghost and on his final visit to the set before he returned to St. Joseph's hospital for the last time, Walt joked with Ustinov and Stevenson about the upcoming film project.

An excited Ustinov told Walt that he intended to shave his head to look more like Khrushchev and that his mother resembled Khrushchev.

Walt quipped, "I didn't know your mother was bald."

The Disney Studio wasn't as confident about the project as Walt. When Walt died in late 1966, the script was shelved and gathers dust in the files.

Walt talked about the incident in the September 25, 1963 interview with Fletcher Markle for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's show Telescope:

Fletcher Markle: In my knowledge, there's only been one adult who has been refused permission to the park.

Walt Disney: No. We didn't refuse him permission. No, we were all set. You see, we work according to what the State Department wants to do when they come in and they have guests. Khrushchev was a guest of the government. So, I mean we were ready to receive Khrushchev. But it so happened that the security problem here in Los Angeles...because, actually, Disneyland is in another county, you see ... and the chief of police, we can't blame him. He had quite a chore there to carry out. He just was a little worried about somebody maybe walking in Disneyland with a shopping bag and what they might have in it. You'd never be able to know, you know.

FM: Exactly.

WD: But we were ready for him. The press was ready. Both the State Department security and the Soviet security had come and cased Disneyland and they were all set. And I was all ready. In fact, we've had a lot of dignitaries down there and he was one that Mrs. Disney wanted to go down and meet. So, she was disappointed he didn't come.

(Both Fletcher and Walt laugh loudly.)

FM: It's certainly not ever an empty place so I can understand the security men's concern.

WD: I had...we had different shots, places where we'd take pictures with Khrushchev and I had one that was my favorite. We'd lined up in front of my eight submarines, you see, and I thought, well, it'd be nice. I'd be pointing to Mr. Khrushchev and saying, 'Well, now, Mr. Khrushchev, here's my Disneyland submarine fleet.'

(Both Fletcher and Walt laugh again.)

WD: It's the eighth-largest submarine fleet in the world.



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(Send an email to Wade Sampson)

Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.