Disneyland's First Flying Tinker Bellsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The popular Disney weekly television show opened each week with Tinker Bell soaring through air and introducing audiences to the four lands of Disneyland. She became so closely associated with the new theme park that one of the most frequently asked questions of Disneyland cast members was "Where is Tinker Bell?"
Walt came up with an answer to that problem in the summer of 1961 by having a real life Tinker Bell fly over Sleeping Beauty Castle during the nightly fireworks display.
That first Tinker bell was Tiny Kline (1961-1963). Her name was actually Helen Deutsch before marriage. Tiny Kline came to America as a Hungarian immigrant at the age of 14 as part of a dance troupe. Upon arriving in America, she lived in the Clara de Hirsch Home, a boarding house and industrial school in New York City for Jewish immigrant working girls.
It was a place where young women could learn proper conduct in preparation for becoming domestic servants or needle workers. Kline rejected the plan of becoming a seamstress to instead become a popular burlesque dancer.
She caught the attention of a well-known Wild West trick rider Otto Kline whom she married shortly thereafter. Five weeks after the wedding, he fell off of his horse and died, leaving Kline to begin her own career in the circus.
Starting at the bottom as a virtually nude, painted "statue girl," she worked her way up to "Roman rider" which meant she stood atop a charging steed in the chariot races at the end of the show and eventually became the queen of the aerial iron jaw act.
In 1932, as a publicity stunt for her appearance at the RKO Palace Theater in New York City, Kline slid 1,134 feet across New York's Times Square at a height of 600 feet, hanging by her teeth. She was arrested for the stunt.
In 1933, Tiny Kline spent the summer season working at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey dangling in a variety of ways from ropes beneath an offshore zeppelin balloon which was tethered to the end of the pier. She continued to perform in multiple venues including the Ringling Circus for the next twenty five years.
However, most people know her name today because of her work at Disneyland.
Strapped into a harness, Kline was part of the Disneyland Comes to the Hollywood Bowl event held on August 1, 1958 that featured a medley of songs from Disney motion pictures conducted by Paul Smith.
Walt attended the show (along with his wife Lillian and his brother Roy and his wife Edna) and was quite taken with Kline's performance as a flying Tinker Bell as she "flew" from the top of the amphitheater dome over the audience and finally landing on the stage floor.
Roughly three short years later in the summer of 1961, he asked her to repeat the feat at Disneyland since she had demonstrated she could handle it. That has always been the assumption since even the Disney Archives have been unable to locate any paperwork regarding her initial hiring.
Kline, at age 70, became the very first Tinker Bell at Disneyland. Suspended 146 feet up in the air, she glided down a long 784 foot long cable from the Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty's castle at roughly thirty miles per hour to signal the beginning of the fireworks. The entire trip took approximately thirty seconds.
Tiny Kline, in her dressing room, prepares to appear as Tinker Bell.
She was barely four feet, ten inches tall and weighed 98 pounds. Today, the standard for a flying Disneyland Tinker Bell is a height between four foot eleven and five foot two and a weight between 95-115 pounds.
The Cast Member needs to be light enough for the harness and cables to hold, but heavy enough to have the momentum to sail down the cable wearing a rig that can weight up to seventy pounds.
Disney Legend Bob Matheison told me in an interview 2015: "The first woman to do a flying Tinker Bell at Disneyland was Tiny Kline, who was a grandmother in her 70s and had worked in the circus doing an Iron Jaw act. That is where she grabbed this ball with her mouth and twirled and slid down the cable and such.
"However, since she grabbed the thing with her mouth, she was always looking up, not down. So sometimes when she looked down off the Matterhorn she froze up for a moment and we had to give her a little push.
"At the other end were these two big guys with mattresses, padding and the like and even though she was this tiny little thing, she built up so much momentum that she would knock these guys over. Then she had to rush to wardrobe to change and run to catch the last bus leaving for Los Angeles, which was at 10:30 p.m. so we would all be there shouting and cheer her along as she ran on these tiny legs to catch the bus."
Disney Legend Bill "Sully" Sullivan told me in my interview with him in 2007:
"She was a funny little old lady. We used to escort her up to the top of the Matterhorn and dispatch her. She was seventy some years old and we were young whippersnappers and she'd bolt up the hill inside the mountain so quick that it was tough for us to catch up with her.
"Originally, she wanted to do that Tinker Bell gig by her teeth. She was an old circus performer and that's the way she did her act then. She didn't want to look down.
"She'd hit two mattresses. We had big old football players at the catch tower and she'd hit that thing just as fast as she could and BAM, she'd knock these guys over and she'd smile and go, 'Thank you, boys!'
"She loved to hit those mattresses as hard as she could. She took the bus in each night and had to run to catch the last bus going back to Los Angeles after the performance."
Kline once said, "Every night when the searchlights come up to pick out Tinker Bell up here on the mountain, I'm young again."
Kline performed for three summers despite battling stomach cancer. She died on July 5, 1964 at age 73 and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Her simple gravestone says "Tiny Helen Kline. Our Tinker Bell."
Tiny Kline performed as Tinker Bell from 1961-1963 before her death in 1964 at age 73.
Disney songwriter Richard Sherman remembered one night at Disneyland in 1962 after the fireworks encountering Walt Disney walking through the park. He stopped Walt to tell him that his favorite experience was the fireworks display with Tinker Bell.
Sherman remembered, "Walt wiped a tear from his eye and said, 'Yep, it gets me every time'."
With the death of Kline, nineteen year old French trapeze artist Mimi Zerbini (1964) took over for one summer. She was also a circus family veteran. Mindy Johnson who wrote the book Tinker Bell: An Evolution interviewed Zerbini but couldn't include it in the book.
Zerbini told Johnson: "I was asked if I'd like to work for Disney as Tinker Bell. I was just 19 years old and never away from home. It was very exciting. Every night, rain or shine, we went. It would be windy, but we never called it off. It was quite a ride."
Zerbini trained as a trapeze artist from the age of five. She was born into a long line of circus performers. Her father was a lion trainer and they traveled in a variety of different circuses throughout Europe and the United States. In 1960, they were in France and her father was running his own circus. In 1961, they came to America and settled in Florida.
As Zerbini recalled, "The costume was sequined to reflect the light and even though I'm a blonde, I had a little cap for Tinker Bell's hair. The harness was heavy because it also hooked on my back to the cable, so that was hard. Lela, my wardrobe lady, would dress me up and put me into the harness, then lock it to make sure it was good and set.
"They had to roll me around the park and I had this big robe to protect my wings. Then we had to climb those 234 steps from the bottom of the Matterhorn to my tiny perch at the top. My wand would light up and halfway through the wire, I turn my light on my wand and that gives the signal to light-up the fireworks…so yes, I really did set off the fireworks!"
In 1965, Judy Kaye (1965-1982) began a career of more than a decade of flying across the night sky at Disneyland. Kaye stood five foot, one and seven-eighth inches tall. She was born into a circus family and paid her first visit to a circus arena when she was barely three weeks old.
In 1997, she said, "I love doing Tink because of the flying. I'm partially a ham anyway. I enjoy my work…I wouldn't otherwise do it. In show business I can put forth what I've been observing and learning all my life. I like satisfying people. Show people stay young. Tiny Kline was a classic example of that."
She became an aerialist "since I was old enough to walk…Balance and natural strength have always been easy for me. I guess I'm half monkey!" Kaye announced in 1977.
Her father, Terrell Jacobs, worked with lions and tigers for the Ringling Brothers Circus. Her mother, Dolly, was a dancer and an aerialist who eventually became grounded due to a series of falls and eventually turned to working with animals as well.
Judy Kaye performed as Tinker Bell from 1965-1982, when flights were temporarily halted for construction of New Fantasyland.
When Walt Disney began making films featuring live animals, many of the animal stars were owned and trained by Judy's mother. Walt even included the animals in the old Disneyland Mouseketeer Circus (that only ran from November 1955 to January 1956).
Kaye remembered that in those days they had a young Indian elephant owned by her mom. Walt walked up to the baby pachyderm and exclaimed: "That's Dumbo!" Judy's mom corrected Walt, "But her name's Dolly."
"From now on," proclaimed Walt, "she's Dumbo."
When not performing as Tinker Bell, Judy still trained and worked with animals as well as designing and making circus costumes. Her husband, Paul V. Kaye, had his own circus that toured internationally.
Judy and her husband also were co-partners in a talent agency and booked some of the talent that toured the U.S. and Europe as part of the "Disney On Parade" show.
A mid-Seventies issue of the cast member magazine Backstage described Kaye's nightly routine as Tinker Bell. (Remember that at the highest point, she is on a wire about 150 feet in the air while most high wire acts in the circus are done no more than 50 feet above the ground.)
"Shortly before 9 p.m. each night during the summer, Judy steps through the doors of the Entertainment Office above America Sings, dressed in her street clothes, with her long dark hair tucked neatly up on top of her head. She's whisked into a nearby office with a Wardrobe Hostess and minutes later Tink herself emerges, ready for another flight.
"A scarf securely covering her blond curls and a coat tossed over her sparkling costume, she moves discreetly through the crowds with the launching half of her crew out to the Matterhorn. Deftly reaching the top via a series of stairs, elevators, more stairs and ladders, Tink and her team now begin the crucial pre-flight preparation.
"She's helped into her harness (a bulky contraption somewhat resembling a parachute set-up), her wings are attached, she's hooked up to the cable, the wire is given a last-minute test, the launcher takes her by the ankles and positions her for the impending take-off, and they wait for the go-signal.
"In the meantime, three other team members are waiting high atop the catching tower behind the Fantasyland break area, ready for Tink's arrival.
"And all this time, the Main Street Electrical Parade is winding its way through the Park. Once the last float has disappeared, guests are alerted by the 'Voice of Disneyland' to look into the skies over Sleeping Beauty's Castle where Tinker Bell will soon light the night with Fantasy in the Sky.
"Back up on the mountain, another recorded click-track tape counts off the moments remaining before take-off. 'Tinker Bell, you have 45 seconds…35 seconds…25 seconds…15 seconds…10 seconds…5-4-3-2-1-- Go Tinker Bell!'
"And down on the ground, thousands of eyes gaze up to see the glittering pixie breeze gracefully through the dark skies, turning on fiery color with the mere touch of her magic wand.
"Approximately 30 seconds from the time she leaves the mountain top, she 'lands' at the tower, sometimes coming in easily, sometimes rapidly and packing a real whollop, depending on a number of factors such as weather and speed of flight.
"At this end, the other half of her crew 'catches' her in a large, padded body mitt, calls the mountain to let them know she made it and how, unhooks her from the cable, de-wings her, and she's down and off in a waiting van, back to the Entertainment Office where she becomes Judy Kaye once again."
Gina Rock (1983-2005) became Tinker Bell on May 31, 1983 and continued until she officially retired March 28, 2005. Tinker Bell did not fly during 1982 because construction was taking place on the New Fantasyland that opened in 1983. The landing tower in the castle had been taken down.
Author Joshua Shaffer interviewed Rock, who is working on a book about her career. Her substitute was her ex-sister-in-law Patty Rock who started working in 1985 and later filled the position half the time in 1995.
Rock told Shaffer:
"I was always interested in gymnastics and took ballet for eight years. I was discovered by Bob Yerkes (stunt man in Back To The Future I & III; Honey, I Shrunk The Kids; Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and as Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi) at a gymnastics practice during my senior year in high school.
"Bob started training me before I left for Texas to join the circus as an aerialist. I eventually went on to join Ringling Brothers and Circus Circus. I had also traveled to Taiwan, as a flying trapeze performer with an act that was hired by Judy Kaye's ex-husband, Paul Kaye Circus. Judy was Tinker Bell in the park at that time.
"I remembered seeing Tinker Bell fly over the castle at Disneyland when I was at the resort for Grad Night. I stated to my date: 'Oh, I would love that job!' I asked Paul how Judy got the job at Disneyland. He said he didn't remember how she acquired the job seven years before, but that she was going to try and do it again after the Fantasyland makeover. So I was given the heads up about the Tinker Bell spot by Judy's husband.
"After almost ten years of circus performing, I returned to San Fernando Valley. Fantasyland was just refurbished, so in 1983 I visited the Park and visited Card Corner to inquire about the position if they were going to hire a new Tink. As luck would have it, they said they were going to put her back in six months. Talk about perfect timing!
"I auditioned and acquired the job. My first flight from the castle was in 1983 when I was 28 years old, and found out two weeks later that I was pregnant with my first child (Jennifer). A few years later I was pregnant with my second child (Austin) and flew that summer as well, barely three months along.
"To be Tink, I was escorted through the park and up the inside of the Matterhorn where I was tied to the cable 160 feet in the air. At a specific time during the fireworks, I would take off and zip across the castle and crash into a giant mattress at the end. Cast members would come from all over the park just to watch me crash into that mattress.
Gina Rock took over Tinker Bell's flights after completion of New Fantasyland and flew from 1983-2005.
"After I was detached from my harness, I would be taken back out of the park. The Tink crew would ready the equipment and then carry it across the park to the mountain, prepare the rigging, strap me in, and send me off. Trusting your crew was of the utmost importance.
"I was only Tinker Bell for about twenty seconds a night. My mother used to joke and say I only worked twelve minutes a year. At the time I wanted to raise my children myself. I didn't want them being raised by a babysitter or a nanny.
"So, in 1986, I created my own talent agency called World Wide Acts. At one point I booked thirty performers for a corporate event when Aladdin came out with Robin Williams in 1992. I also booked special entertainers for the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye media event.
"Basically, I did some booking for large media and corporate events and brought on jugglers, stilt walkers, contortionists, fire eaters, balancing acts, sword swallowers, as well as aerial circus performers. Besides Disney, I booked and promoted many other events.
"In 2005, Disney upgraded the Tinker Bell portion of the show which was called Remember… Dreams Come True, narrated by Julie Andrews. Tinker Bell was now going to be flying back and forth, up and down.
"At the end of 2004, I think around September, Disney began casting auditions and had me train other aerialists for the new flight sequence, and that's when I decided I had had a fabulous run. I was ready to retire. I wanted to pursue other interests. So, after 21 years of flight and at the age of 50, I decided to hang up my wings. I officially retired as Tink on March 28, 2005."
The Disneyland set-up is now quite different from the one at Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World where it is a straight cable from the top of Cinderella Castle to Tomorrowland.
Disneyland now has a moving trolley to move the character up and down independent of the zip line itself. In addition, the character now wears a huge, oversized head.
Disneyland claims that it helps the guests see Tinker Bell's face but others have pointed out it has been used so that a small male can perform the role as what is jokingly referred to as a "Tinker Bill".
At Disneyland, other characters have utilized the system including Mary Poppins and Dumbo. For the 40th anniversary celebration of Disneyland and to promote the recently opened Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction, even Indiana Jones used the cable to escape from bad guys.
Tinker Bell's first Florida flight was July 3, 1985 as part of a special Fourth of July version of the fireworks show enjoyed by more than 60,000 guests for Tink's inaugural flight. It was so popular that later in a re-imagining of the fireworks show "Fantasy in the Sky," Imagineers incorporated guests' favorite pixie to fly nightly and it has continued ever since for decades.
Disney Legend Bob Matheison told me in an interview 2015: "The first girl out in Florida to do Tinker Bell was actually a receptionist at MO7 during the day and earned extra by flying across the sky at night. I forget her name, but I can remember what she looked like. It was tough to find someone to do that because it doesn't look as high looking up as it does looking down."
Today, multiple performers are trained for Tinker Bell's famous flight so that the parks do not rely on just one person. Part of the audition process is being lifted by a crane over a hundred feet into the air.
For park guests there is something truly magical about seeing a real person "flying" through the night sky to signal the beginning of the fireworks.