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Destiny interviews Art Linkletter about Disneyland's first day
Disneyland opened on July 17th, 1955, to an enormous crowd of invited guests and party-crashers - and countless television viewers.

Art Linkletter was personally selected by Walt Disney to host the live television coverage of the opening day's events.  A TV and radio personality for over 60 years and author of over 20 books, Linkletter was the host of "House Party" on CBS radio and TV for 25 years, and continues to produce and appear in "Kids Say the Darndest Things" on CBS.  He is also very active in various business ventures.  And on July 17th of this year, he will be celebrating his 88th birthday.

Recently MousePlanet chatted with Mr. Linkletter about the experience of hosting Disneyland's televised opening on July 17th, 1955.


MousePlanet:  You probably knew Walt Disney fairly well before you were asked to host the opening of Disneyland.

Art Linkletter:  I was a very close personal friend of Walt Disney.  We've traveled around the world together and our families socialized together.

MousePlanet:  Weren't you neighbors?

Art Linkletter:  Yes, we lived a few blocks from each other.

MousePlanet:  In Holmby Hills?

Art Linkletter:  Yes.

MousePlanet:  So you probably saw his trains he had there...

Art Linkletter:  I was there and saw the trains, and I was astounded to learn that he did most of the work there.  He was a mechanic, he was an artist, and he was a craftsman.  He was more than just a dreamer.

When it came time to announce that he was going to make Disneyland - before, in fact, he announced his plans, he took me for a ride out there with the Stanford Research people.  They were hired by him a year beforehand to find which part of Los Angeles would be growing, and in the next 50 years would be the place that would be central to most of the travel and recreation.

So they came down to show him the place, and he called me up and I rode out with him in the car.  And we went and went and went and went and went, down through the orange groves.  And finally we came to the place where it was going to be, and I couldn't believe my eyes - because it was so far from downtown Los Angeles.  And it was so small - the communities in those days were so straggly.

And I thought, "my gosh, to put up a bunch of merry-go-rounds out in the middle of a cow pasture is ridiculous!"  But I didn't say anything!

MousePlanet:  Of course not!

Art Linkletter:  ...And I also didn't buy any real estate!

MousePlanet:  Oh, man.

Art Linkletter:  So, anyway, I went on - and I began to realize how great it was, because I'd go down to see them building, and I'd talk to Walt.  And then came the time when he came to me and he said, "Art, this is a difficult moment for me, because I would like to ask you to be the Master of Ceremonies of the opening, and work with me, but I don't know how to approach you!"  I said, "What do you mean?"  He said, "Well, you don't have an agent!  Why don't you have an agent like everybody else I talk to?"  And I said, "Well, Walt, you know me - I'm my own business man, I've always done it, never had an agent, and I make my own deals."

"Well," he said, "let me begin by telling you, as you know, we've had cost overruns, I've had to borrow money against my studio - I can't really afford to pay you what you're worth."  And I said, "Walt, how about scale?"  He said "Scale?  A couple hundred bucks?"  I said, "Yeah!  This is a big community event - it's a national event - in fact it's a world event.  And I'd like to be a part of it.  And we're good friends."

And I said, " On the other hand, I'm a businessman, and there's something you can do for me.  I'd like to have the photographic concessions for 10 years.  All film and all cameras sold at Disneyland, and I'll pay your regular concession fee that you would get from anybody who has it."  He said, "It's a deal!"  And that's how I got the job.

MousePlanet:  Wow.

Art Linkletter:  Then he said "Art, suggest a couple more people.  We need three or four of us to cover the whole grounds, jumping back and forth from one venue to the other."  And so picked two of my very good friends that I thought were very good talkers and ad-libbers, and one of them was Bob Cummings, a wonderful comedian but a marvelous speaker - and Ronald Reagan.

MousePlanet:  The name is familiar...

Art Linkletter:  We don't know whatever happened to him.  The four of us showed up with no rehearsal of course, we had kind of a rough working script - and it was all live.  And I was perched in various places overlooking various parts of the park, and they were around and we'd hop and jump over.

On one occasion, Walt was going from one place to another, and he was going up an alley shortcut, and there was a guard there.  He said, "You can't go through here."  And Walt said to him, "Do you know who I am?"  And the guard said "Yes Mr. Disney, I do, but I have my orders - nobody can go through here."  And Walt said, "Well, I'M going to go through here.  If you get in the way, you know what's going to happen to you!"  And he walked right by.

I was in another place (in front of the Mr. Toad ride) and they left the microphone under a pile of lumber.  They said, "When you get there, the mike will be there."  And there's a long distance camera shot from a rooftop.  I got there and I couldn't find the mike!  I only had about 3 or 4 minutes before it was going to switch to me, and I'm scrambling around looking under trash barrels and everything else - I eventually found it.

And then of course the opening was done on a very hot day, and a lot of the tar that had just been freshly laid was sticky, and the ladies got their high heels caught in it!  And some parts weren't quite finished.  And after it was all over, some of the reviews were kind of cruel.  They said the park wasn't ready, and it wouldn't be a success. Ha ha!

MousePlanet:  Well, everyone there refers to the opening day as "Black Sunday."  Aside from the small mishaps that one could see, were they still really scrambling to get things finished in time?

Art Linkletter:  Sure, some of them were.  Of course I was just there skimming the surface, going from place to place, and I had a lot of stars to work with. We had people like Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis (Jr.), and Danny Thomas, and the others were all out there, and it was exciting.  I had been doing the opening of World's Fairs for many years before that.  I did San Diego in '36, Dallas Texas in '38, San Francisco in '39 - and a lot of special events.

I was an ad-libber, so - chaos is made for me.  Rehearsals are NOT made for me.  I hate the ordinary memorization and the rehearsals and the shooting of the same scene 24 times from different angles.  I love the catch-as-catch-can, people who don't even know they're on the air, or people I select who are wandering around wondering what to do next and I try to get something out of them.  That's my business.  So this was made to order.

And afterwards, we had a party and celebrated.  And as the years have gone by, of course, it's been played many times.  And I just love to hear me saying to Ronald Reagan, "Hey Ron, can you run down to the corner there and get that thing for me?" And now he's been the president of the United States. (Laughs)

MousePlanet:  You said at the beginning of the broadcast that 29 TV cameras were there - which seems like more than one TV studio would have had at the time.

Art Linkletter:  Well, ABC was a partner - and ABC had a lot of cameras!  And since we didn't have any chance to rehearse, and we didn't have time to move cameras around because the park was so big, we just had to have that many.

There were times, of course, when there were a few little boo-boos made when somebody didn't show up someplace, and we had to do something else, but we covered it pretty well.  I remember one time standing at the big steamboat with Irene Dunn...

MousePlanet:  ...At the Mark Twain.  She seemed a little out of it.  Did she really call you "Walt"?

Art Linkletter:  Yes.  (Laughs)  Yeah.  And there were other times when we weren't sure when we said "Take it away, Walt!" whether Walt would be there, or whether he'd take it away!

There was another time when I was on a balcony on Main Street, overlooking the parade that was coming through.  They had arranged a monitor for me to look at, so I would know what the cameras were looking at, because they were somewhere else covering the parade from another angle.  But by the time that the show was on in the late afternoon, the sun was shinning right into the monitor - so I couldn't see what the camera was covering!  So I'd say something like "now here comes Mickey Mouse," and they'd be on a band!  And the director of course realized pretty soon that I couldn't follow the cameras, so the cameras had better follow me!  So as I would talk about something, they would search it out.

So those were some of the things that went on at what was really a highlight of my life of sixty seven years of broadcasting.

MousePlanet:  How often have you gotten out to the park since then?

Art Linkletter:  I had a Gold Pass in the early days!  I haven't been out there now for a couple years.  Having a family of eleven great grandchildren, and nine grandchildren, I get out there every year or so.

MousePlanet:  It's sure changed a lot since it opened.

Art Linkletter:  Yes, it's changed a good deal.  And a few years later, Walt Disney had a birthday party at his home, and he took me aside.  And he said, "Art, I have a little confidential thing I want to tell you - it can go no further."  He said, "We've been offered an opportunity to go to Florida and build another Disneyland."

And I said, "Walt, you know, I was secretly very pessimistic about what was going to happen to the first one.  I would have advised you not to have done it.  Of course it's a success.  But now," I said, "on the second one, I can give you better advice.  And that advice is, be SURE not to do it!"  He said, "WHAT?  You don't think I should do it?"

I said, "I'll tell you why.  Disneyland is the only thing of it's kind in the entire world.  It's unique.  It's like the Grand Canyon, of the Pyramids of Egypt."  I said, "No, as soon as there's a second Disneyland, then there isn't only one - it's not unique anymore."  He said, "Art, you're right about that.  BUT - we learned SO much about the fallacy of putting together a huge show in the middle of territory we didn't own.  And everybody came in with hotels, and restaurants, and surrounded us - because we only had a few acres, comparatively.

In Florida," Walt said, "I can get ten thousand acres.  I can control the roads, the highways, the entranceways, the hotels - and it's going to be a Kingdom!  We're going to have it done where all the people who are in the International exhibits will be living on the grounds - and it will be like a permanent World's Fair of the artisans and the craftsmen of the world who live on the grounds and make it work."

Well, it never worked out that way after Walt's death, because monetarily and otherwise, it was too difficult.  But they do have that beautiful place down there in Florida with all of the foreign exhibits around it.  But they don't really live there.

MousePlanet:  It was never the community of the future he wanted it to be.

Art Linkletter:  No.  It wasn't that.  But I went with him to Florida, and I floated around in a balloon with the Governor of Florida secretly.  We looked down at the site.  Secrecy, in a big real-estate deal like that, is the most important thing in the world. And we managed to keep it secret.

And I was there for the ceremonies there, but not the opening - and I did other things.  And I feel like I'm a part of the Disney family.

MousePlanet:  Absolutely!  How do you think he would feel about the new park they're putting in, right across from Disneyland?

Art Linkletter:  I don't think that he would have done it, but I think it's in the nature of the people running it now, who want to grow.  And there's only one way to grow, and that's to keep changing and moving.  You cannot sit on your laurels in any field today.  In the computer field, as we now know, a guy like (Bill) Gates could be out of business in three years if he didn't keep moving.  That's what makes life so fascinating today.

And I'm - at 88 - busy now in many kinds of businesses.  Including Solar Renewal - I'm the on the Board of Directors of a big company and we're going to change the whole world of heating and electricity with a new solar invention.  Nice to have a patent on the sun!  And we practically have it.

MousePlanet:  Art, we appreciate the time you've taken to chat.  Thank you.

Art Linkletter:  It's been a delight to talk to you and recall some of these memories.

Art Linkletter

Art Linkletter
Publicity photo courtesy of Keppler Associates Inc.

Biography

Art Linkletter dominated radio and television for decades. He is best known for his many years as the genial host of Art Linkletter's House Party, which was heard on CBS radio and then seen on CBS television five days a week, 52 weeks a year for 25 years. The show won four Emmy nominations and one Emmy award for best daytime show on television. Television viewers also might recognize Mr. Linkletter from People Are Funny, which aired on NBC prime-time television weekly for 19 years, won three Emmy nominations and consistently was ranked in the top 10.

Mr. Linkletter starred in numerous television specials, including Inside Beverly Hills, Christmas in Holy Land, Two Yankees in Mexico and A Kid's Eye View of Washington. He also starred in two major motion pictures and many TV dramas. Since 1950, Mr. Linkletter has authored 17 books. His most famous is Kids Say the Darndest Things, which is one of the top 15 bestsellers in American publishing history and was number-one on the non-fiction lists for two straight years.

Additionally, Mr. Linkletter is active in several businesses and each year he travels an average of 250,000 miles and makes over 100 personal appearances.

He has been awarded ten honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities for his humanitarian work and his interest in youth. Mr. Linkletter has been named Speaker of the Year, Salesman of the Year and Grandfather of the Year. His national charity work has been recognized with such citations as Chairman of National Easter Seal Week, National Heart Week, National Cancer Week, the National Arthritis Foundation, the Foster Parents Plan and Goodwill Industries. Mr. Linkletter also has worked closely with the YMCA and Boy Scout Leadership.

Appointed to the President's National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention and the Presidential Commission to Improve Reading in the U.S., Mr. Linkletter also served as President of the National Coordinating Council on Drug Abuse Education and Information, Inc. He is also active in many senior citizens' organizations, and is a member of the AARP. He serves as president of the UCLA Center of Aging, and as Chairman of the Board of the French Foundation for Alzheimers Research. He also serves on the board of the directors of CAPP CARE and Harrell International.

Today, Mr. Linkletter's chief interest is his work fighting drug abuse. He writes, speaks and broadcasts from coast to coast in an attempt to educate people about the drug epidemic threatening our nation.

Originally planning to be a college professor, Mr. Linkletter earned a B.A. in English and Psychology from San Diego State College. However, during his senior year of school, a CBS affiliate offered him a radio announcer position. That was the start of his 45-year career in show business.

 

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