Tom Nabbe Is Tom Sawyer

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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One of the joys of writing this column is hearing from some of the Disney Legends who share information to help fill in gaps in Disney history. Disney Legend Bob Gurr seems to have enjoyed my recent questioning of Walt's discovering the monorail running over a secluded road in Germany ("The Monorail Myth: The Rest of the Story," November 5, 2008) but I was pleased that he has more information to add to that story.

Gurr wrote:

"Very thorough story. It's probably true that the earlier Alweg test monorail track was located on the factory side of the road, since it was a smaller scale design. Very streamlined but without any passenger space, this design was built with steeply banked turns, which turned out to be impractical. It was however, probably the source of publicity originating in 1952.

"The later full size test track did indeed cross over the road to the opposite open field, where I rode on it. Broggie and I also rode on the swinging Wuppertal Monorail that Lilliian did not like. Walt told me he'd seen this large monorail and immediately got Broggie and Fowler to go see it. When Broggie returned from the Brussels Fair, he had a ton of information, but nothing about monorails. Walt brought the Alweg photos to Broggie and I, and Broggie left right away for Germany. I did my first monorail drawing on October 20, 1958."

There were indeed two Alweg test tracks as I discovered through further research. Alweg had this scale model version set up to run on a banked oval track in 1952. There's a drawing of this track in Popular Mechanics magazine from about the same time. And then, in 1957 (or maybe even as late as 1958), Alweg finally finished the full-sized commuter monorail that Walt eventually saw.

That Wuppertal Monorail that made Lilly Disney ill and that Broggie and Gurr also rode is still there if any Disney fans would like to take a ride.

Whenever Gurr writes to me, I am always gracious to thank him but I also urge him to write a book about his time at Disney and beyond. King Kong at Universal Studios Hollywood was the work of Gurr, for instance. This time, Gurr told me to be patient when I pressed him to get his memories in print.

Unfortunately, my patience has not paid off with other Disney employees, like Ron Heminger who started at Disneyland in the summers working in the Indian Village and worked his way up into Disney management. Heminger told me some great stories before he took the Walt Disney World buyout package several years ago. He also swore me to secrecy to not share those great stories because he was going to write them all in his own book. He had notes, boxes filled with photos, 8mm home movies, memorabilia, documents and much more. Heminger is out in a trailer somewhere out West and none of us have heard from him or the status of that book for many years.

Another person I have encouraged to write a book is Disney Legend Tom Nabbe.

"I like to say I am the youngest employee with the most longevity with the Walt Disney Company," claimed Nabbe with a smile when I talked with him.

Nabbe was born in Santa Barbara, California, in June 1943. He started his Disney career on July 19, 1955 when, as a 12-year-old boy, he began selling the Disneyland News at Disneyland. In 1956, he became "Tom Sawyer" on Tom Sawyer Island in Frontierland.

When he turned 18, Nabbe became a ride operator and then served in the Marine Corps. In 1969, he met his wife, Janice, who was working at a concession stand in Disneyland.

Nabbe rejoined the Disney Company at that same time and trained for a management role. He opened the monorails in Walt Disney World in 1971. He went on to many other roles at the Walt Disney Company, including helping open Disneyland Paris, but his longest position was managing the warehouse and the distribution of merchandise to the various stores on property at Walt Disney World.

When Nabbe retired from his job as manager of Distribution Services at Walt Disney World, he was the last working member of Club 55, a group of original Disneyland Cast Members named for Disneyland's inaugural year and for their chief qualification of membership, a paycheck from Walt Disney dated 1955.

He was made a Disney Legend in 2005. I've had a chance to hear Nabbe speak many times and I've even written before about the history of Tom Sawyer Island ("Farewell to Tom Sawyer's Island," May 23, 2007), but thought MousePlanet readers might also like to hear some of these stories that I hope he will one day put in a book.

Wade Sampson: So you watched Disneyland being built day by day?

Tom Nabbe: They were building the Santa Ana Freeway and building the overpass over the freeway for Harbor Boulevard. I could ride my bicycle on the top of the overpass and then see over the berm and watch them build Disneyland. I sort of watched Disneyland come out of the ground and at this time, I was still in elementary school, just getting ready to go to junior high school so I was about 12 years old.

WS: How did you get your first job at Disneyland?

TN: When I was selling newspapers at the employee gate when Disneyland was being built, the only people who really worked for Disneyland Incorporated were the Administration group, the ride and attraction people and the maintenance people. All the restaurants, all the retail locations and everything else were manned and staffed by what they called there "lessees" and what we called at Walt Disney World "participants," The lessee that had the newspaper shop on Main Street that was called Castle News was Ray Amendt. [Actually, the strollers and newspaper concessions were leased to brothers Joe and Ray Amendt.] He asked me if I wanted to sell newspapers for the opening of Disneyland. I told him 'Sure.' I was very interested. He said, 'You can find me outside of the gate every morning. We'll get you set up with newspapers.'

WS: So did you begin selling Disneyland News newspapers on that first day?

TN: No, but that is an interesting story. Disneyland opened July 17, 1955. My mother was pretty much an autograph hound and we'd go up to Hollywood to all the openings and press events up there. She had her autograph book with her on Disneyland's opening day. Disneyland's opening was a big thing for my mother. She was over collecting autographs of all the celebrities that were invited to the opening. I was back around the corner, staring through the fence at the Autopia cars. I wanted to drive one of those Autopia cars.

WS: How did you get into the park that day?

TN: Danny Thomas exited the park. My mother asked him for his autograph and he was more than happy to give it to her. He said, 'Have you been in the park?' and she said, 'No.' He said, 'I have an extra ticket.' So, he gave her a ticket and she said, 'Oh, I have a son. I have a son and he wants to go, too.' So he gave her another ticket, two tickets. I have mine at home and framed along with my original hire status. I went as an invited guest of Danny Thomas to the opening of Disneyland, July 17, 1955.

WS: And then you got the job selling the Disneyland News newspaper a day after the park officially opened to the public?

TN: Yes. July 19. I would wear cut off Levi jeans and a gingham shirt. That was my costume. I went early and found Ray early in the morning. The deal was that if I sold 100 papers outside the gate, I could go inside and sell the papers inside on Main Street. I did that all of the summer of 1955. I got to go in the park every day I sold papers. Only two or three of us did that.

WS: How would you describe the Disneyland News?

TN: It was a pre-guide book type of thing done on a turn-of-the-century press so it was the size of a regular newspaper. The lessees all advertised in it. It was published on a monthly basis, not a weekly basis, and covered the ongoing events happening at Disneyland. It sold for 10 cents a copy and I got to keep 3 cents out of the 10.

WS: The following year, you were working as Tom Sawyer on Tom Sawyer Island in Frontierland. How did you make that transition?

TN: During the winter, somebody indicated to me that Walt was going to build Tom Sawyer Island. And I looked just like Tom Sawyer. At that time, I had fire red hair and had freckles. Walt was in the park quite frequently in the early days especially. He'd come in and visit and walk around the park. Sometimes, he'd have two days worth of growth of beard. He didn't look like the guy you saw on television. He pretty much blended into the background.

WS: So you talked to him about being Tom Sawyer?

TN: I found Walt and told him I looked just like Tom Sawyer and he should hire me to be Tom Sawyer on the island. He didn't hire me on the spot like I had hoped. But the key thing is he didn't say 'no.' So that left the door open. He said that he'd think about it. Anytime I could find Walt in the park, I would ask him if he were still thinking about it. He finally said, 'You know, I could put a mannequin...or was it, a dummy?...I could put a mannequin, I think it was, that wouldn't be leaving every five minutes for a hot dog and a coke.' But even when he said that, he was still thinking about using me.

WS: How did you finally find out that he wanted you as Tom Sawyer?

TN: I was in the Penny Arcade on Main Street, and it must have been about May of 1956, and I was playing the pinball machine with all my hard-earned money from selling newspapers. Dick Nunis came up to me ... Dick was the supervisor of Frontierland at that time frame ... and he said, 'Tom, come with me.' I don't know if you know Dick Nunis but when he said, 'Come with me,' you went. There was no argument. None.

WS: That sounds a little scary.

TN: We went over to the edge of the Rivers of America. There was Walt and Bill Morgan Evans, who was the landscape architect for Disneyland. They were coming off the island and Walt said, 'Do you still want to be Tom Sawyer?' I told him, 'Absolutely!' He said, 'Well, get a work permit and a social security number. As soon as you've got that, we'll put you to work.' I went down immediately and got the social security card and that was no problem.

WS: Did they publicize that you were Tom Sawyer?

TN: A gentleman by the name of Eddie Meck was manager of publicity for the park. Anytime he needed a kid for a shot, he'd come find me and I'd be in these publicity shots for Disneyland. He gave me the opportunity to go out to newspapers and radio stations and hand out the invitations to the opening of Tom Sawyer Island dressed as Tom Sawyer. Unfortunately, that opening was all scheduled around the winners of the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher contest from Hannibal, Mo. So all the pictures from the opening of Tom Sawyer's Island is the kid who was the winner of the Tom Sawyer contest from Missouri. But from that point forward, I was the one and only Tom Sawyer.

WS: Was that your official job title?

TN: They gave me a title as 'guest aide.' That was my occupational title. I started working in Entertainment but they didn't know what to do with me so they gave me over to Operations. One of my conditions of employment was that Walt had said I had to maintain at least a 'C' average in school. If I didn't maintain a 'C' average, I couldn't keep my job. Dick Nunis reviewed my report card on a quarterly basis. I had to bring in my report card to stay employed. I think Walt even looked at the report card now and then. I worked all the summers through junior high and high school.

WS: You were in a lot of publicity as Tom Sawyer.

TN: I was in Parade magazine (April 7, 1957) and they called me the 'luckiest boy in the world.' Then, dressed as Tom Sawyer, I was in the June 1958 Saturday Evening Post sitting on a fence rail with Walt.

WS: What was it like playing Tom Sawyer? Did you just interact with the guests?

TN: I was a smart ass during this time. My boss used to complain that all I did was talk to the guests. But they had stocked the Rivers of America will blue gill and catfish and we had 25 fishing poles on each of the two piers so a total of 50 fishing poles. I had to ensure the fishing poles were put out each morning and had hooks and sinkers and corks on them. And worms. I had to make sure worms were out in the cans and available for people to bait their hooks and if they didn't want to bait their hooks, I had to bait the hooks for them. And I would pose for pictures with them. When you get down to it, I really looked more like Huck Finn who had the fire red hair and freckles and some guests thought I was Huck Finn. Tom Sawyer didn't have red hair. Anyway, I had a boss who felt the worm guy was shorting us on worms. We were supposed to get 350 worms in a flat. So that was my first inventory experience. They came packed in rabbit manure which was the shipping container and growth medium for these worms. I had to transfer them to potting soil. I had to inventory the flats in the process. We got more than our fair share of worms and my boss was happy that he was getting his dollar value.

WS: Did the guests get to keep the fish?

TN: The first program was 'catch and clean.' And I had to do the cleaning. That lasted a very short period of time because the dead fish would turn up in rather strange places in the park. If all of that lasted more than a month, I'd be surprised. We went into a 'catch and release' program. So I went through and de-barbed all the hooks and then the percentage of the fish caught dropped drastically. Eventually, the fishing just stopped all together.

WS: What happened after you did Tom Sawyer?

TN: I worked through junior high and high school as Tom Sawyer. When I was 17 or so, they didn't know what to do with me. I was a little too old to be Tom Sawyer but not old enough to be a ride operator. When I turned 18, I became a ride operator. Very little training. I had already operated the rafts and things early in the morning when guests weren't in the park. So I stepped into that role. Like just about everyone else, I worked on the Jungle Cruise. At that time, the Jungle Cruise had the largest amount of manpower and as soon as you had any seniority whatsoever, you got off the Jungle Cruise.

WS: And then you went into the Marines. Tom, thanks for sharing your memories with us.