A Virtual Visit to Christmas at Disneyland 1957by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
One thing that I learned is that at a Disney theme park Christmas doesn't end on December 25, but lasts until the New Year and in that spirit I thought I would take a look at a Disneyland Christmas Past.
In 1966, Walt Disney said, "At Disneyland, we do our Christmas planning early – looking forward to it like a lot of happy kids. Every Christmas season, thousands of children and their families line the curbs of Disneyland's Main Street, making it the happiest street in the world."
Disneyland opened July 17, 1955 and had welcomed its 1 millionth visitor on September 8. While money was tight because of the cost of opening the park, Walt insisted that there be some sort of Christmas celebration. A large, live, decorated Christmas tree stood to the left of the entrance of Sleeping Beauty Castle to celebrate the "Disneyland Christmas Festival" which began November 24, 1955. Another Christmas tree adorned the forward deck of the Mark Twain steamboat.
A park flyer stated "thousands of lights and marvelous festive decorations of every conceivable kind" make Disneyland a "glittering fairyland of fun and thrills". On Main Street, garlands were strung between the lamp posts and wreaths hung in all the store windows. The windows of the Emporium featured a mechanical Santa figure that moved while surrounded by dolls. Twelve carolers, costumed in the garb of the time of Charles Dickens, under the direction of Dr. Charles Hirt from USC, wandered throughout the park singing and encouraging guests to sing along as well with familiar carols. Local school bands and youth choral groups also performed usually at the bandstand.
As I mentioned in a previous MousePlanet column, the very first Christmas parade down Main Street was actually to promote the Mickey Mouse Club Circus in December 1955.
"Walter Knott warned us about the weeks before Christmas. He said that the public seemed to forget at that same time each year that there was a Knott's Berry Farm," stated Disney Legend Van France "Well, we didn't want the public to forget Disneyland so Walt came up with an idea for changing that pattern of visitors."
Jack Lindquist, who at the time was Disneyland's advertising manager, recalled, "That first Christmas Eve at the park, I was walking down Main Street just before closing, behind a family. They were neatly dressed, but you could tell they were not well off. The father and ten year old son wore overalls and the mother a cloth coat. They held hands and talked with each other. When they reached the Emporium and were looking in the windows, the little girl looked up at her mother and said, 'You're right, Mommy. This is better than having Santa Claus visit tomorrow'. I knew then that the girl and her brother and probably the parents weren't getting any presents that Christmas. That moment showed me what Disneyland means to people."
That is one of my favorite Disneyland Christmas stories. I got to ask Jack why he didn't do anything and he told me that he was broke because it was Christmas and at the time he didn't have the authority to take the family into the Emporium to treat them to some presents.
This year for the first time since Disneyland opened in 1955, there will was no holiday celebration in the park since it remained closed because of the pandemic. I think for many readers of this column their Christmas wish this year was to be able to spend the holidays in Disneyland.
It was a poor substitute to just shop and eat at Disney Springs and Buena Vista Street.
Back in the good old days when I had more patience, more money and more energy, I would actually spend Christmas Day in Disneyland. As I got older, I was content to merely visit Disneyland several times during the Christmas season to appreciate the decorations and the shows. I would spend the day at home watching the Disneyland Christmas parade on television and enjoying another Disney Christmas tradition. I would pull out my DELL comic books that had a Christmas theme and curl up on the comfy couch in the den during the holiday season and read some Christmas themed stories while I sipped eggnog and munched on Christmas sugar cookies.
In the days before videotape recorders, those of us who were Disney fans could only enjoy the adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and relive the films like Cinderella by getting DELL comic books which featured these stories and anxiously awaiting the Disney television program to showcase some Disney cartoons. At Christmas, it was always a joy to see "From All of Us to All of You" on Walt's weekly television show.
In 1937, Western Publishing took over publishing "Mickey Mouse Magazine." Western started increasing the number of pages reprinting the classic Floyd Gottfredson "Mickey Mouse" comic strips. In 1939, Western decided to more actively compete in the new comic book industry and introduced the DELL "Four Color" series which was a series of one-shot comic books featuring a variety of newspaper strip material.
In 1940, the first all Disney comic book appeared in the "Four Color" series featuring reprints of "Donald Duck" comic strips. By October 1940, Western launched "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories" and by 1942, Western Publisher Eleanor Packer decided that the resource of reprints was quickly running out and it was necessary to create new Disney comic book material.
This decision resulted in the production of the first all new Donald Duck comic book, "Donald Duck Finds Pirate's Gold" by Carl Barks and Jack Hannah in "Four Color No. 9" and a slew of Disney comic books from continuing series to one-shots created by some outstanding craftsmen, including moonlighting animators like Barks and Hannah trying to get a few extra bucks to help pay bills.
For many of us kids we enjoyed the work of Tony Strobl, Al Hubbard, Paul Murry (who had been Fred Moore's assistant), Jack Bradbury and others who produced work for the comic books as much as we enjoyed the work of Carl Barks. Barks was, without question, a genius when it came to recounting the adventures of the duck family (although his storytelling skill and artistic abilities could never make non-duck stories like those with Barney Bear and Benny the Burro memorable) but the concentration on his work has overshadowed the fine craftsmanship of others, many of whom were former Disney Studio artists.
In a special June 1954 ceremony, Walt Disney himself purchased the 2.5 billionth Dell comic for a dime. The 1955 output of Dell comics represented more than 50 percent of all comic books printed that year. "Dell Comics Are Good Comics" was the motto, and the company's attention to quality and good taste allowed it to survive during the comic book witch hunt during the 1950s.
Dell Publishing financed and distributed the books while Western was in charge of producing the material. Western created a ton of Disney comics, story books, coloring books, sticker books, puzzles, games and more from 1940-1962 when it broke with Dell and created its own imprint, Gold Key comics.
It continued producing Disney comics through 1980 and then through 1984 under its Whitman imprint.
Where did Western get the money to make the break? Disney had just bought out Western's investment in Disneyland. In 1954, Western Publishing's $200,000 investment (a considerable amount in 1952 dollars) in Disneyland equaled 13.8% of the total money used to build Disneyland. In exchange, Western got the rights to produce Disneyland press kits, guide maps, brochures, menus, premiums and more, as well as continually updating that material.
It opened a store, the Arcade Bookstore, near the Crystal Arcade at Disneyland's Main Street, where it sold an assortment of Western's books, including not only Disney comic books, but ones featuring Little Lulu, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Lassie, and other licensed characters.
What does all of this have to do with Christmas? Well, starting in 1949, DELL started publishing a once a year annual of over 100 for a quarter (when most comic books only cost a dime) titled "Christmas Parade." Nine issues were published (or actually 10 issues if you also count the DELL GIANT COMIC one shot in 1959 that was also titled "Christmas Parade") and all of them featured Christmas themed stories showcasing a variety of popular Disney characters.
There was only one year when an issue was not published, 1957, when instead of publishing "Christmas Parade," DELL decided to publish a one-shot titled "Walt Disney's Christmas in Disneyland."
The cover was penciled by Tony Strobl and painted by Norm McGary had portraits of Mickey, Donald and the nephews, Scrooge and Chip'n'Dale surrounding a color photo of Disneyland featuring a bright red tree just to the left of the entrance to Sleeping Beauty's Castle. The photo also clearly shows a small red fire hydrant there as well so I wonder if anyone has information about that oddity on the photo since it doesn't relate to the seamless storytelling we have come to expect in the park.
Anyway, the framing story penciled by Strobl and inked by Steve Steere has Santa appearing on Christmas night at the home of a sister and brother, Taffy and Timmie, who have left him a note reading "Dear Santa, Please no toys! What we want for Christmas is a trip to Disneyland! Pretty please! Love, Taffy and Timmie". Since Santa is going to drop off some gifts at Disneyland anyway that night, he decides to take Taffy and Timmie with him. If only it were that easy in real life. My brothers and I had to be especially good to get a trip to Disneyland, especially during the holiday season when the family finances were strapped. When Santa's sleigh flies over Disneyland, the reader can clearly see the Christmas tree in the hub (not Main Street) and the Moonliner spaceship in Tomorrowland labelled "TWA".
These annuals provided a framing story that allowed for various individual stories done by different artists that were themed to areas in Disneyland. As a kid and having actually gone to Disneyland, I found these stories to be a "cheat," since the adventures never really took place in Disneyland, but Adventureland might be the cue for a story taking place in a jungle or Fantasyland might inspire a story of the Disney animated characters from the Seven Dwarfs to Peter Pan to Dumbo.
In this issue, Adventureland is the springboard for a story by Carl Barks of Scrooge, Donald, and the nephews on a jungle adventure during the holidays. Scrooge takes Donald and the nephews to a distant South Seas island to get the black pearls of Tabu Yama at Christmas. Tabu Yama means "Keep away from mountain". The nephews use palm branches to become a Christmas tree and white ash from the volcano provides a white Christmas. They are frustrated that they can't celebrate Christmas in the traditional manner but Scrooge has brought along some unexpected Christmas presents to brighten the season.
In Frontierland, while Santa delivers presents to "friendly-type Indians" living in teepees, a DELL comic book falls out of his sack of Mickey Mouse and Goofy in "The Iron House of Lonesome Gulch" illustrated by Paul Murry and recounting Mickey and Goofy trying to get a payroll to some miners before Christmas so they can celebrate and buy some presents for their children. Naturally, Black Pete robs the payroll but Mickey is falsely accused of staging the robbery.
A ride on the AstroJets in Tomorrowland oddly inspires a Murry illustrated Chip'n'Dale story of Br'er Bear kidnapping Jiminy Cricket to teach him how to be Santa Claus so he can eat all the goodies left out for the jolly fellow. (The "Song of the South" characters must have been very popular with readers since they appear in many of the "Christmas Parade" annuals.)
A trip on the Alpine skyway gives Santa the chance to share with Taffy and Timmie an Al Hubbard illustrated tale of Scamp trying to make Lady and the Tramp proud of him by becoming a "Scamp-Bernard" and in the process rescuing some Saint Bernards in the snowy mountains.
A ride on Casey Junior takes Santa and the children by the house of the Big Bad Wolf and sparks a story of a good deed the Wolf inadvertently did for Santa. Br'er Bear is also in this Murry illustrated story where he runs a second-hand store and it is revealed he has a son and daughter (Billie and Tillie…I am sure Uncle Remus is spinning in his grave…) lost in the snow.
Riding on the pirate ship in the "Peter Pan" attraction causes Santa to remember in an Hubbard illustrated story the time Captain Hook kidnapped Santa to force Peter Pan to catch the crocodile and then leave Neverland forever. Of course, Peter and Tinker Bell outwit the pirate but are too exhausted Christmas morning when the other Lost Boys open the rescued toys. "They must be getting old or something" claims one of the Lost Boys.
Riding on a mine car through the "Snow White" attraction is the introduction to a Murry illustrated story of the Seven Dwarfs trying to help Dopey do a good deed to write about to Santa. All the other dwarfs' good deeds revolved around them helping Dopey throughout the year.
Finally Santa returns Taffy and Timmie to their home and leaves them lots of presents including some puzzles and games that we can play as well including decoding Morty and Ferdie's letter to Santa, a game board of Santa's journey to Li'l Wolf's house, figuring out how Uncle Scrooge's Christmas wish came true but not in the way he expected, identifying the animals in Goofy Claus's Hodgepodge Team (composed of caribou, elk, gazelle, moose and more), how to make some gift tags as taught by Chip'n'Dale and…well, lots more.
These oversized comic books featured not only several great stories but were filled with pages and pages of activities that probably resulted in many issues being cut up and destroyed. After all, they were only comic books that were considered disposable entertainment. Why would anyone want to keep them after reading them a few times?
So on Christmas Day since I will celebrating the holiday this year without what is left of my family, I pulled out this classic comic book to re-read and remember happier holidays when I didn't have to worry about mortgages and insurance payments and utility payments and how my body now creaks and squeaks when I try to get up off the couch. Or wearing a face mask and social distancing.
All I had to worry about in those foolish days of my youth was how to save some money out of my lunch money to buy some new comic books each week and the Christmas holiday wasn't just one or two days but two weeks away from the work of school.
As we enter a new year which I hope will be happier year for us all, I think it does us all good to look back on earlier, simpler times and treasure those things that warmed our hearts. Those memories are the true gifts of Christmas.
On the "Christmas Parade" annuals I also pulled them all out this year and I noticed for the first time one of the back covers had Donald Duck sitting on Santa's lap. Donald had a huge list of "good boys and girls" to receive special presents and Donald is clearly pointing to the name "Jim" that explains why I got some Disney books from St. Nick this year.
One of them was the newly released Disneyland in 3-D book so I can take a virtual time travel trip back to the days when all Taffy and Timmie had to do was simply ask Santa for a trip to Disneyland. If only it were that simple.
I would love to see a couple of thick affordable trade paperbacks reprinting some of these Dell Disney Christmas comic book stories to be able to put on my book shelves rather than carefully handling my old comic books that despite my best care are suffering the ravages of time. Many of those comics were bought second-hand from people at comic book conventions who did not treasure them as much as I did, so are more fragile.
In any case, I will be enjoying these few lingering days of Christmas spirit as I prepare like the rest of us for the unknown of the New Year.