Disneyland Bacon Bits

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Disneyland Bacon Bits

James Bacon is a reporter and columnist specializing in the entertainment industry. He began as a writer for the Associated Press, and then spent almost 20 years with the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He is still a practicing Hollywood columnist, writing a weekly column for the glossy publication Beverly Hills 213.

This "Dean of Hollywood Columnists" who reported on the Golden Age of Hollywood turned 93 years old on May 12, 2007 and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 6, 2007.

He was transferred in 1948 from the AP Chicago Bureau (where in the past he dined nightly with members of Al Capone's gang) to Hollywood, where he quickly became friends with the famed Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and David Niven, as well as befriending Marilyn Monroe at the beginning of her career.

In 1968, he joined Hearst's Los Angeles Herald-Examiner for which he wrote a Hollywood column for 18 years. He authored two books of memoirs in the 1970's, "Hollywood is a Four Letter Town" and "Made in Hollywood".

During his time in Hollywood, he met and interviewed Walt Disney many times for articles. However, one of his articles on Disneyland has been "lost" for nearly 27 years. On Sunday, June 15, 1980, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner issued a special 16-page advertising supplement to publicize Disneyland's 25th Birthday Summer celebration.

In recognition of James Bacon and his long career as well as to acknowledge Disneyland's upcoming birthday this summer, here is an edited reprint of Bacon's memories of Disneyland that appeared in that supplement.

Remembering Walt

by James Bacon

How crowded was it that hot day of July 17,1955, when Walt Disney first opened the gates at Disneyland?

Well, it was so crowded that I lost an 18-year-old daughter for six hours. Do you know how embarrassing it was to go into the children's Lost and Found department and report a missing daughter who was 18?

But that's the way it was 25 years ago when Walt figured he would have 15,000 people at most making that long trip to Anaheim. The fact that 35,000 showed up to see Walt's new toy made the opening a nightmare for the Disney people but not Walt. He was too busy on ABC-tv showing off his fabulous park to some

90 million tv viewers. Walt was flabbergasted the next day when he saw the adverse media reaction to his opening. Headlines like "Disneyland Premiere is

Disaster" or "Walt's Dream a Nightmare" are hard to take after what Walt went through to get his park built.

"I probably opened it before it was ready," he told me. "I'm making a list of all the complaints, especially the lack of water fountains, and the next time people come back, you'll see everything fixed. I take all this criticism as constructive criticism. And I'll learn from it."

That was Walt.

But what I remember most about that day 25 years later is that wonderful sense of awesome nostalgia I felt when I got my first look at Main Street. I could have sworn I was walking down Main Street in 1920 in Jersey Shore, PA, the town I grew up in. The 20th Century came in a little late to Jersey Shore-we only had one car in town when I started school. What, in effect, he had created was something that struck a nostalgic chord in all of us-even grown up kids from big city streets and ghettos.

I suppose over the years I have been to Disneyland a hundred or more times.

I have gone there with Elizabeth Taylor, the Shah of Iran and the King of

Belgium, to name drop a few. It was part of my job as a Hollywood reporter.

I remember when Walt escorted King Baudoin of Belgium. We all stopped by the then new submarine ride, not yet open to the public. Walt turned to the young king and said, "How about you and I testing this? And here, we'll take Jim along with us. You always need a member of the press along when you pioneer something."

At that a Disney engineer interrupted: "Walt, you can't go down in that submarine. Even we haven't tested it yet. I can't be responsible."

Walt shrugged him of and off we went for the first ride ever in the submarine, just the three of us. Somehow headlines kept flashing through my mind:

"King of Belgium, Walt Disney and Unknown Columnist Lost in Disneyland Underwater Accident."

But we made the trip okay. Walt made the park. He was always over there with his imagination working full blast.

I'll never forget when he opened Tom Sawyer's Island. This time I had a 13-year old daughter with me who did not get lost. She was trying to bait her hook for some fishing off the island.

Out of nowhere came Walt who showed her how to bait a hook. He was having more fun on Tom Sawyer's Island than the hordes of kids.

I remember Frank Sinatra and his three kids were all there that opening day.

A few years later, Sinatra would be the guy responsible for giving Disneyland the greatest publicity it ever got.

That was the famous luncheon at 20th Century Fox for Nikita Khushchev, the premier of Russia. We were all sitting at a table with Mrs. Khrushchev. Her husband was on the dais.

Mrs. Khrushchev was lamenting to Frank that their trip to Disneyland had been nixed because of security reasons.

"It's the only place I really wanted to see here," she told Sinatra in accented but good English.

Frank told her: "Why Disneyland is the safest place in the world. I'll take you there myself if you want to go."

David Niven who was sitting nearby chimed in and said the same thing.

At that point, Mrs. Khrushchev wrote a note in Russian and had it delivered to her husband on the podium. He read it and became infuriated.

"Is this a nation of gangsters? Why can't we go to Disneyland?" he stormed at the audience of movie stars and dignitaries from politics and the corporate world.

The next day, that quote made screaming headlines around the world.

"Khrushchev Irked. Can't Go to Disneyland."

Can you imagine how the crowds jumped at Disneyland after that front page publicity all over the world. It was only weeks after that that airlines wrote their tickets with Disneyland, not Los Angeles International as destination. (Helicopters made the brief jump from LAX to the Disneyland landing pad.)

And you can bet the owners of every amusement park in the world called in their publicity directors and demanded to know why they couldn't get that kind of publicity.

But then the other parks didn't have Sinatra, Khrushchev and Walt Disney going for them.

I once asked Eddie Meck, Disneyland's longtime publicity director, what made Disneyland the greatest man-made tourist attraction of all time. I fully expected him to give me a long spiel. Instead, he said:

"I can give it to you in two words--Walt Disney. We don't even mail a postcard out of here without his okay."

I have never seen it written up but the thing that always struck me about

Disneyland was its cleanliness and the friendliness of its employees.

Even that first chaotic day, the park was filled with bright, smiling young faces sweeping up popcorn and cigarette butts. It has been so ever since.

Walt told me something that was very revealing of the man.

"When my two daughters were little girls, they always wanted to go to amusement parks. I took them wherever they wanted to go. All of these parks had one thing in common-their filthiness. I swore then that someday I was going to build an amusement park and make it clean enough to eat off the pavement."

I remember once going out to Disney Studios in Burbank to do a story on Walt.

This was about 1949 or 1950. As he talked, I thought to myself he sounds like a kid talking about what Santa Claus is going to bring him for Christmas.

Then a few years later, he called me up and said: "I think we're going to build it out in Anaheim."