Another Disneyland Balloon Boy Story - Part Twoby Jim Korkis, staff writer
Last time, I shared part of the story of Andrew Beard who starting working at Disneyland on July 17, 1955 when he was 13 years old. He began selling the Disneyland News at the front of the park, and it was too much work for the young boy. He quit, but shortly afterward was hired by Nat Lewis, who was running the balloon concession at Disneyland. While living in Anaheim, Beard sometimes just walked to work. Lewis proved to be a tough but fair employer and Beard created memories that have lasted him a lifetime.
Jim Korkis:What was the costume like for balloon selling?
AB: The costume for Fantasyland was a very colorful clown outfit. The style of the costume was just OK in my opinion. It really didn't have a Disneyland look to it. It was more of something one would expect to see in a circus environment. I'm sure that Nat took them from one of his various circus balloon concessions.
Nat also had a balloon concession at Pacific Ocean Park (POP) in Santa Monica. I think he probably spent most of his time managing that operation. And now that I think about it, I think that is were he got the clown outfit that we had to wear when we sold in Fantasyland.
JK: What was your work schedule like?
AB: After school, weekends, holidays. I actually did not do well in school. My mother was dying of cancer, so it was sort of an outlet for me to escape from an extremely sad home environment.
I believe during the winter months, I only worked a couple of days during the week but worked pretty much every weekend. During the winter months, if the park attendance was low, balloon sales were very, very slow, and none of us earned much at all.
In fact, during the "winter" months the park was closed, I believe, on Mondays and Tuesdays. The following Wednesdays and Thursdays would be almost empty of attendance.
There were several clas mates that worked at the concession with me. Anaheim High School was the only high school in Anaheim up until the opening of Loara High around 1959. So, there were a lot of friends I knew from school that would come by while I was selling. I really had to refrain from chatting, because it would not be good at all if Helen or Nat came by and witnessed that.
JK: What type of balloons were available for sale?
AB: During my time working for Nat and Helen, we sold two types of balloons. A simple round balloon with an image of Mickey Mouse stenciled on the outside, and a round balloon that had two mouse ears. All of the balloons were made of synthetic rubber, not unlike the balloons sold today. Without a doubt, the balloons with ears were the big sellers. All of the balloons were filled with non-explosive helium gas. On occasions the guys in the balloon room, including yours truly, would inhale the helium to see how goofy we could sound and act.
There weren't any Disneyland character images, except Mickey Mouse, imprinted onto the balloons. I suppose that was a decision made by Disneyland management. During the entire time of my employment with Nat, the subject of changing characters or adding characters never came up. Not even rumors of doing so.
JK: What type of money did you earn selling balloons?
AB: During the winter months, sales could be miserably slow because of the low park attendance. Maybe $2-$3 a day.
However, during the summer months, and especially on weekends, and what Disneyland called "Date Night," balloon sales were crazy and it would easily take three or four boys filling the balloons at a really fast pace to keep the sellers supplied with balloons.
On a "Date Night" event, one might be able to earn up to $60 a day for a long, long day of work. It would have been nice to do that kind of sales every day.
High sales earned a lot of money for the guys selling balloons. I can't remember the compensation amount for selling balloons, but I think it was around $0.06 per balloon sold. (I may be wrong about that—I just don't remember).
I do remember though, that on really good selling days, one could make up to $60 a day or a little more. This was a lot of money to young school kids during the late 1950s. I do not remember what the pay was for the boys in the balloon room. But, it wasn't much. Maybe $0.50 cents or less per hour.
If a balloon should burst, we had to keep the remains, otherwise it would have been considered a balloon sold and we would be charged accordingly. So, at the end of the day, the burst balloons would become part of the sales calculations. The guys selling balloons were on a commission sales basis only.
So "no sales, no pay." I don't remember much about having lunch breaks. If one of the guys selling balloons needed a lunch or restroom break, he would be relieved by someone working in the balloon room.
I really didn't make a lot of money. Again, the Main Gate position was the real hot spot for sales. There were several guys that had seniority over me, and, of course, they would take that location.
In fact, there was an adult man, probably in his 20s that Nat or Helen hired who only would sell at the main gate. I think that he was hired by Nat because of selling skills. He was only employed for a few months. But it tells you how much money could be made selling at the main gate location.
JK: So Helen Smith was the person really running the day-to-day balloon operation in the late 1950s?
AB: Helen Smith came to work pretty much five to seven days a week, as I recall. Her job was to run the daily operation, always insure that the sellers had a fresh bunch of balloons to sell, collect the money earned by the balloon boys, at the end of the day, and make the nightly bank deposits. Helen was a little rough around the edges, and at times could be a little cranky, but she had a heart of gold.
She really cared about her crew of young boys. And yet, she was a no nonsense type of person. If you goofed around and weren't productive in the balloon room or outside selling balloons, she wouldn't hesitate to come down on you. If you kept your chatter in the balloon room down and worked hard, she would usually commend you and even stand up for you if you should get on the bad side of Nat. (This, I promise, was no easy chore for her!)
Also, there was another woman by the name of Barbara that would occasionally come to work with Helen. I would say that Barbara was in her early to mid-30s. She was a fun lady. She liked joking around with the boys in the balloon room and always seemed to have fun with us. I think she was related to Nat or Helen, but I can't be sure of that. Her job was to assist Helen during the day and to fill in for her when she couldn't come to work.
JK: What was your first day at work like selling balloons?
AB: I cannot remember much of my first day at work as a balloon boy. I do remember, though, that it was during an afternoon after my high school classes. I rode to work with my sister's boyfriend Tom. He was a senior at Anaheim High School and I was a freshman.
He owned a car, so it was an easy way for me to get to Disneyland from school, although my family lived only a short 3 miles away from Disneyland. So on non-school days and summers, I always walked from home to the park.
I would walk through the neighborhood houses and orange groves (yes there were actually orange groves back then) to Ball Road. Then I would head up Ball to West Street. I turned right on West and walked about a half a mile to the employees entrance located on the left side of West Street.
Helen and another young boy were in the balloon room filling balloons. Nat was not there. Helen showed me how to fill and properly tie the balloons. She emphasized tying the balloons so they wouldn't leak. She also told me that I needed to develop speed in filling and tying the balloons—It would really hurt daily sales if the guys filling the balloons couldn't keep up with the number of people outside buying balloons.
JK: What was the regular routine like?
AB: During the day, Helen would routinely go out and check on the guys selling balloons at the various locations (Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and the main gate). She would make sure that the boys were standing where they were supposed to be, that the balloon bundle wasn't all knotted up and that the boys had a sufficient number of good looking balloons to sell.
Sometimes, if the weather was hot the balloons would get very cloudy looking and not as appealing as freshly inflated ones. Also, balloon sales always seem to be higher if each boy had a large bundle (maybe 40 or more) rather than just a few shabby looking ones.
JK: What did you do after work?
AB: At certain times after I got off work either in the balloon room filling balloons, or selling them, I would walk by the Wurlitzer House located on the right side of Main Street not far from the main entrance.
The Wurlitzer house demonstrated and sold various styles of the Wurlitzer brand organs. I loved the sound of the organs, so I would set down and try to play different tunes. I had taken accordion lessons for a short period of time when I was 11 or 12 years old, so I could still read simple sheet music.
The manager of the Wurlitzer House was a man named Dee Fisher. Dee had no problems with me sitting and learning how to play. Usually, the place had only a few people or was empty anyway. Dee was a masterful Organ player and would often play the main organ which was connected to the park intercom system.
His music could then be heard throughout Main Street. He also had a partner by the name of Sam—I cannot remember his last name. Sam often times would sit with me on the organ and teach me various playing techniques.
Dee took me to his home on one occasion. He had a very large and beautiful organ installed in one of the rooms of his large mansion home.
JK: What did you think about Disneyland?
AB: My impression of Disneyland has always been very positive. From opening day to my last visit to Disneyland in the early 1970s, the park was kept very clean. All of the buildings and various other structures were always clean and welcoming. I know that Walt Disney did NOT want Disneyland to become just another amusement park. He wanted it to be a special place that everyone would always enjoy—especially the children.
JK: Did you meet any of the characters like Trinidad Ruiz or Aylene ("Aunt Jemima") Lewis?
AB: I did meet and have many conversations with Trinidad, the White Wing sweeper on Main Street. I had never heard the term "white wing." Trinidad was a small, thin man—always wearing a large mustache. He was a wonderfully kind and quiet person. I was taking my first class in Spanish during the time that I met Trinidad. When I would see him pushing his little manure cart around, I would stop and talk with him.
Often he would stop and spend a couple of minutes helping me with my Spanish. He always wore the same impeccably clean white "soldier" uniform with a tall hard white hat that looked to me like the type of hats the British soldiers wore in South Africa during the 19th century. I would usually greet Trinidad by saying "Trabajar duro mi amigo?" He would always reply "No duro boy, no duro."
I never met Aylene Lewis (Aunt Jemima) but I remember seeing her several times in the park. I never met Lucky the Sheriff or Wally Boag. I never met Walt Disney, but I would occasionally see him walking around with his entourage.
JK: Did you ever ride the Phantom Boats that disappeared from the park pretty quickly?
AB: I believe that I rode the Phantom boats once or twice. They weren't all that thrilling to ride, so I didn't pay too much attention to them. The ride that I and most of my friends liked the best was the Tomorrowland Autopia ride. It seemed to be the best ride for the buck for young teens.
JK: What did you enjoy most about working at Disneyland?
AB: I think what I enjoyed most about selling balloons, was the money that could be earned. On days when the park attendance was high, I could earn at times, close to $60 in a single day. That was a lot of money for a teenager during those days.
Secondly, what I liked was just being inside Disneyland and enjoying all that it had to offer on a daily basis.
During the summers, Disneyland came up with the idea of "Date Night." The end of May or early June through the end of August became the season for "Date Night." Fridays and Saturdays were so labeled. The park would be open from 9 a.m. until midnight.
A good friend of mine, Randy Brenneis (who also sold balloons), and I would usually hang around the park after work. If we were working inside the balloon room filling balloons, we wore white shirts with a blue oval circle above the left pocket. Inside the oval circle, the word "Disneyland" was embroidered.
We would keep these shirts on and walk around Disneyland feeling very important. Sometimes, we would get in line for a particular ride and wait our turn. When we reached the beginning of the line, the ride operators would see the Disneyland emblem and let us ride for free.
We knew that if we were ever caught doing that by the park officials, it could cost us our jobs. But, we were just young kids and we took our chance.
Fortunately, nothing ever became of it except for one incident. During "Date Nights," there were usually two or three dance bands playing at certain locations in the park. So, on one night, a friend and I were wearing our Disneyland shirts. Both of us liked to dance and that was a good way to meet pretty young girls.
So we would go from dance band to dance band looking for girls that would be willing to dance with us. This we found to be a lot of fun. I think that our Disneyland shirts enticed the girls, somewhat, to dance with us.
However, as we were having a good time at one of the band locations a plain clothes security officer pulled us over to the side and said that if he ever caught us wearing the Disneyland uniforms again when we were not working, he would have us fired. So, that was the end of that.
JK: Why did you stop working at Disneyland?
AB: I was sort of an adventurous kid and became tired of the balloon gig. The Navy really appealed to me, so I talked my father into signing a consent form and was off to boot camp on the day of my 17th birthday. I have only returned to Disneyland on one occasion.
JK: Thank you so much for your kindness and generosity in sharing these stories.
AB: I really hope this give you some insight to those days. I will never, ever forget the wonderful experiences that I had working at Disneyland and the camaraderie with my friends.