Walt Disney and the 1960 Winter Olympicsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
One thing that is often forgotten is that the Olympic Games spectacle that we have enjoyed all these years started with Walt Disney in 1960.
The VIII Olympic Winter Games took place over February 18-28, 1960 at Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
From 30 nations around the world, more than 700 athletes gathered to compete in various winter sports.
Alexander Cushing, the founder and chairman of the Squaw Valley Ski Corporation, had startled the sports world by having this little obscure ski resort near Lake Tahoe make the bid for the Winter Olympics in 1955. The area had no mayor, just one chair lift, two tow ropes and a 50-room lodge. All of it owned by Cushing, as well as most of the surrounding land.
Once it was announced in spring 1955 that Squaw Valley was to be the location, there was a rush to construct roads, hotels, restaurants, and bridges, as well as the ice arena, the speed-skating track, ski lifts, and the ski-jumping hill.
At the time, it was the largest Winter Olympics ever held and the first Olympic Games to be held in the United States since 1932. It was also the first Winter Games to be nationally televised (on CBS who had paid $50,000 for the broadcast rights) and the first to use “instant replay.”
However, despite the many other historical moments of these Winter Games, for readers of this website, probably the most important "first" was that in 1958, Walt Disney was asked to be chairman of the Pageantry Committee for the event.
Organizing Committee President Prentis Hale flew down to the Disney Studio in Burbank to have lunch with Walt and try to convince him that the event needed the Disney touch.
Walt cheerfully and eagerly accepted. He had been thinking about building a ski resort with a different slant and this would give him some hands-on experience that he could transfer to his innovative concept.
“[Walt] really liked the idea of skiing going all the way back to the 1930s,” said his daughter Diane Disney Miller. “He never skied well and we have funny home movies of him trying. The artists at the studio used some of that as an inspiration for the Goofy animated short How To Ski .”
In addition, Walt was an initial stockholder of the Sugar Bowl Resort near Donner Pass, roughly 46 miles west of Reno, Nevada, built in 1939. In fact, one of the mountains is appropriately named “Mount Disney” (formerly Mount Hemlock) after Walt’s personal check of $2,500 cleared.
At the Olympic games, Walt met Bavarian ski expert Willy Schaeffler, who was later hired by Walt to help scout a location for the proposed Disney ski resort, and Schaeffler confirmed Walt's choice of Mineral King as the best location.
In 1959, Walt sent Ron Miller, Dick Nunis and Tommy Walker to begin the planning, a couple of months before before the festivities. Olympic officials complained about the costs of some of Walt's elaborate plans, but Walt silenced those complaints when he declared, "Either we're going to do it the right way or Disney will pull out."
“This hoopla has little to do with the Olympic Spirit," International Olympic Committee Chancellor Otto Mayer said. He echoed the feelings of many others on the committee that this would turn the event into “another Disneyland.”
Others were concerned the planned nighttime entertainment would distract the athletes and they would be unable to get their needed rest.
Meyer changed his tune after the event. He sent a letter to Disney stating “Every phase of the Squaw Valley Games was handled magnificently. I was particularly impressed by the Opening, Closing and Victory Award Ceremonies [the individual awarding of medals].”
Walt wasn’t just responsible for all the glamour and glitz, like the opening and closing ceremonies, nighttime entertainment for athletes and officials as well as decorating the venue. He was also asked to provide help with tickets, parking, and security (handled by Disney Legend Bill “Sully” Sullivan). As Sully told me, the purpose was not just to do security but to do it in the “Disney way” so it was not heavy-handed but still effective. During his four-decade career with Disney, Sully was often called upon to teach the “Disney way” including to the staff working the New York World’s Fair and Hilton Inn South.
Walt felt comfortable trusting the people he had worked with at Disneyland to handle this important undertaking. He told his people that “nothing is more important than creating lasting goodwill among our visitors, and we shall do everything we can to make their stay a happy one.”
Immediately, Walt brought on Tommy Walker as director of Pagentry. Walker was renowned for his innovative entertainment at Disneyland, including creating the nighttime fireworks show. For the director of High School Choruses, Walt gave the job to Dr. Charles Hirt of USC’s School of Music, who had created the Candlelight Processional for Disneyland and was used to conducting mulitple school choruses.
Walt's long time friend Art Linkletter was the vice president in charge of entertainment for the nighttime shows for the athletes. Linkletter, who had previously hosted the opening of Disneyland in 1955, told interviewer Larry King: "I first got to know Walt very well when he was asked by the president of the Olympic Society to provide entertainment for the athletes and the officials at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. And he called me and he said, 'Would you like to come along and be my master of ceremonies and assistant producer?'
“So I went up and lived with him and his family, brought some of my family. And we presented shows to all of those athletes," he said. "We flew up stars. So we flew up people, we put on the greatest shows and I had more fun, and I started to ski then. I was 50 years of age, by the way."
Linkletter emceed all the shows. They were held each evening at 8:30 p.m. in the long, narrow main dining center at the Olympic Village, with a portable stage quickly installed after the dining finished at 8 p.m. There were nine consecutive evenings of performances. The celebrities performed free of charge. Audiences generally totalled 1,500 composed of athletes, officials and newspaper reporters.
Entertainer Danny Kaye was a huge hit at the opening night performance with the athletes, since he spoke 12 different languages fluently and also knew tunes from all over the world.
At one point, the fire marshall insisted that the room was over capacity and that the aisles must be cleared for safety or he would stop the show. No one moved, and the show went on with Kaye repeating the Fire Marshall’s instructions in different languages throughout the rest of the show, to thunderous laughter.
The Golden Horseshoe Revue troupe from Disneyland was brought up to entertain with the ending being a mock gunfight and saloon fight with three stuntmen. It was so raucous that security was mistakenly called. The show featured Wally Boag, Donald Novis, and Betty Taylor, as well as actors Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon from the Zorro television show.
On successive nights there were performances by Esther Williams; jazz pianist George Shearing; Hollywood costume designer Edith Head; comedian Jerry Colonna; entertainers Red Skelton, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny and Roy Rogers with Dale Evans; and the Sons of the Pioneers (who filled in at the last moment when two other performers cancelled).
Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller was made the pageantry coordinator and one of his responsibilities was handling the traveling arrangements of the performers during the chaotic weather, basically getting them from Reno to the event. He was assisted by Tom Leetch and Jack Bruner.
In addition, Walt made arrangements for 25 feature films selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and 25 programs of short-subjects to be screened three times each in two 100-seat theaters constructed especially for the screenings. Free refreshments were provided.
The films, all from 1957 and 1958, included Separate Tables, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Perri, I Want to Live!, Auntie Mame, Peyton Place, Funny Face, The Defiant Ones, Gigi, White Wilderness, Sayonara, and Teacher’s Pet, among others.
Card Walker was the director of Publicity. Walker went on to become chairman of the Disney Company and later served on the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, and was instrumental in the Disney Studio designing the official mascot (Sam the Eagle created by Bob Moore) for the 1984 Olympic Games. Walker also drew up preliminary plans for the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1984 Games.
It was Walt who thought of the idea of having massive snow statues, reminiscent of the marble ones used in ancient Greece, to commemorate sports champions. He sent Imagineer John Hench to Dartmouth in New Hampshire in February 1959 and Quebec, Canada, to look at how they did similar sculptures for their winter events. Darmouth’s Winter Carnival and Ice Festival assembled snow sculptures that could range in height as high as 40 feet.
The design work for these figures was carried out under the supervision of Hench at the Disney Studios in Burbank, California, with the actual construction being executed by Floats Inc., of Pasadena, California. Structurally, every Squaw Valley statue consisted of a metal frame base almost seven feet high. A logpole in the center of the base was driven into the ground to insure stability. An intricate weaving of wire mesh and straps put "body" into the base. The snow figures were added to the bases shortly before their shipment to the Games.
Hench created 32 of these impressive statues for the event. They were made of thick papier-mache over the wire mesh and covered with weather resistant white stucco so they looked like snow. Twenty cities in California and Nevada paid $2,000 each to sponsor a statue and have their names displayed on the base of the artwork.
They were so sturdy that several still remained in front of the Blyth Arena as late as 1983 when the roof of the building collapsed due to accumulated snow, leaving nothing of the beautiful building but twisted metal that was eventually removed.
Thirty of the sculptures towered 16-feet tall and were placed along the Avenue of the Athletes.
The snow sculptures personified men and women competing in Olympic events, such as skiing, hockey and skating. By the way, the men outnumbered the women represented 21-9. Of the nine female snow statues, four were skiers, three figure skaters, and two speed skaters. Among the men, nine were skiers, seven hockey players, three speed skaters, and two figure skaters.
The remaining two statues, a man and a woman, which stood roughly 24-feet tall were alongside the imposing Tower of Nations (also designed by Hench), as the centerpiece of the presentation area.
The huge ceremonial Tower of Nations measured 79 feet high and 20 feet wide. It was here that the Opening, Victory (awarding of individual medals…another first in one location) and Closing ceremonies were staged during the Games. Aluminum crests of all competing nations were suspended in the grid of the Tower of Nations frame, each 5-feet wide and 6-feet high. The familiar Olympic rings, set above the main frame, denoted the five major continents, linked to symbolize international friendship.
Thirty gleaming aluminum flagpoles were used around the Tower of Nations area for the flags of the competing nations.
Again, it was Walt himself who came up with the concept of the poles for the flags of all nations participating in the games. As with the snow sculptures, these poles were sponsored by civic-minded companies and individuals, some of them from overseas. Having official sponsors was another “first” introduced at this event.
The flagpoles ranged in cost from $500 to $600 each, a considerable sum in those days. After the Games were over, each company received their flagpole that they had sponsored.
One of the poles ended up in front of the commissary at the Disney Studios, while another was sent to the newly opened Walt Disney Elementary School (formerly the Park Elementary School that Walt attended as a child) in Marceline, Missouri. Walt had sponsored both poles. Other poles were sponsored by architect Welton Beckett and Germany’s W. Goebel.
One of the sponsors later donated a flagpole to El Dorado High School in Placerville, California. Yet another is at the first tee of the La Quinta Country Club in La Quinta, California.
Each pole featured a large engraved plaque stating “This Olympic flagpole was used at Squaw Valley, California in the Pageantry ceremonies of the VIII Olympic Winter Games held in February 18-28 1960. Walt Disney (signature), Chairman of Pageantry.”
Disney Legend John Hench was responsible for also redesigning the Olympic Torch that was to be carried by various torchbearers. Though the design was based on the torches for the 1948 and 1956 Olympiads, Hench made it slightly smaller so that it would be easier to carry. The earlier, taller models proved to be difficult to handle and were top heavy.
Hench also added black tape to the top part of the shaft that enabled runners to better pass off and grip the torch. Later torch designs were strongly influenced by Hench’s model which is on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
The Opening Ceremonies have been labelled “The Miracle of Squaw Valley.” They were held outside the bleachers of the Blyth Arena with nearly 6,500 spectators in attendance (because of the weather, many more were unable to get there) and lasted one hour on February 18, 1960.
A heavy snowstorm and freezing winds dampened the dawn. Snow had been falling since 6 a.m., eventually leaving 10 inches of snow on the ground before the ceremonies were to begin. It was a bone chilling 10 degrees F.
The Olympic Organizing Committee wanted to move everything inside to the skating rink. Even CBS advised that it would be better to “play it safe”.
However, as music director Hirt told Walt, that meant that many of the young people who had been practicing so long and so hard in the bands and choirs for so many months would not be able to participate because there was simply no room for them inside. All of them had earned money to pay their own way to the venue. On the other hand, the weather was so bad that Hirt could not see his choir clearly and they could not see him.
Walt was the chairman and it was his call. Over the loudspeaker, Walt told everyone to take their positions.
“The clock ticked down to showtime,” Hirt recalled, “and, at that moment, the sky parted and the sun shone. It was a miracle. My choir was in front of me. I could see them. Clarence (Sawhill, the director of the high school bands assembled) could see his band, and he could see me. And the program went off without a hitch. Then, just at the very close of the final Olympic hymn, the sky covered up again and the blizzard resumed.”
The Opening Ceremony
- Introduction—CBS Television
- Opening of Ceremonies—Announcer Bill Henry (known for his sports and politics reporting)
- The Parade of the Olympians (The entrance of the athletes accompanied by 52 honor high school bands from California and Nevada numbering 1,322 members, the U.S. Marine Corps Band, and a 2,328 voice choir all performing the song “The Parade of the Olympians.”)
- Standard Bearers Take Position—Marine Band, Washington, D.C.
- Welcome—Prentis Hale (president of the Organizing Committee) opening comments and Avery Brundage (president of the International Olympic Federation) who introduces Nixon.
- Declaration—Richard Nixon (vice president of the United States whose motorcade from Reno, Nevada, had been delayed for almost an hour with road problems caused by the heavy snowstorm) officially declares the Games open.
- Olympic Hymn—Combined High School Choirs & Bands. A copy of the original Olympic hymn first performed in Athens in 1896 was located in Japan and translated from Greek into English. The music was re-written and re-orchestrated for this event.
- Olympic Flag Presentation—Harold T. Johnson (California Congressman from this district on behalf of California Govenor Pat Brown) accepting the flag from Renzo Mendari (deputy mayor of Cortina, Italy where the last winter Olympics games were held)
- Salutes (Eight shot salute to indicate it was the eighth Winter Games.)
- Pigeon Release (2,000 homing pigeons representing the doves of peace released from each side of the Olympic flag standards and staged by Tommy Walker. Real doves would have stayed in the area and froze to death. All the Northern California pigeons returned safely home but some of the Southern California pigeons remained in Squaw Valley. “They were too fat to start off with. They’re not as well trained as our birds,” a Northern California pigeon owner told a San Francisco newspaper.)
- These Things Shall Be—Combined High School Choirs & Bands performing this original composition.
- Arrival of the Olympic Flame—Two-time alpine skiing gold medalist Andrea Lawrence (escorted by eight members of the Ski Patrol who swooped down Little Papoose Peak over choppy snow carrying the torch) and U.S. Speed Skater Ken Henry (who took the torch and made a precision smooth circuit of the 400 meter racing course covered with snow and climbed the steps to light the huge Olympic cauldron)
- Conquest—The Marine Band, Washington, D.C. played this composition.
- Lighting of the Olympic Flame (Chimes resounded throughout the valley)
- Olympic Prayer—Karl Malden (Malden was selected because he was at the studio filming Disney’s live-action film Pollyanna). This was controversial having a prayer and had not been done in previous ceremonies. Tommy Walker was quoted as saying that the prayer was optional, but “Walt felt that prayer represents one of the freedoms of America and that we should definitely have it.” Combined Choirs and Bands playing “God of Our Fathers.”
- Olympic Oath—Carol Heiss (Popular U.S. figure skater who later in the Games won the gold medal with first place rankings from all nine judges. This was the first time a woman enjoyed this honor of reciting the oath.)
- "Star Spangled Banner"—Combined Choirs and Bands
- Departure of Athletes (30,000 balloons of many colors were released into the sky, amidst the booming of fireworks which were advertised as the first daytime use of fireworks. In addition there was the aerial unfurling of 100 VIII Olympic Winter Games flags over the crowd.)
As if on cue, as the athletes were finishing departing, within five minutes the snowstorm resumed with even greater fury. In fact, the storm was so heavy that race officials postponed the men’s downhill event scheduled for the next day due to deep snow. Yet, for the one-hour ceremony, the sun shone brightly over the event.
One local commentator said, “It was like the split-second timing of a well-rehearsed stage show.”
In fact, one of the Russian delegation tried to grill a security guard about what chemicals were used to stop the snow for an hour.
United Press International shared the story that during the Opening Ceremonies, the Russian delegation sat impassively through the entire event until Disney unleashed the fireworks at the end and they “excitedly clapped each other on the shoulders and their faces were swathed with grins.”
For the rest of the games, the weather was cold but mostly sunny.
A souvenir 33 1/3 RPM two-sided LP vinyl record was produced by Century Records featuring the entire Opening Ceremonies with written commentary by Paul Zimmerman of the Los Angeles Times.
The Disney Company also produced a (now-hard-to-find) souvenir brochure titled The Pageantry Story published in February 1960.
Life magazine, in its March 7, 1960 issue, declared, “Greatest winter show on earth. The overall impression that Americans and visitors alike took home was that the 1960 Winter Olympics had been the most efficient and enjoyable ever.”
Disney set new pageantry standards for future Olympic games. In the Los Angeles Times, reporter Braven Dyer wrote, "The opening ceremony was the most remarkable thing I ever saw. No matter how much credit you give Walt Disney and his organization, it isn't nearly enough."