The Disneylandia Story Part One

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

As we celebrate Disneyland’s 55th anniversary year, some stories reference Walt’s early plans for a Disney entertainment venue including a little Mickey Mouse Park that would have occupied a mere 16 acres near the Disney Studio in Burbank across the street from Riverside Drive. Of course, there is also usually the brief mention of Disneylandia, Walt’s concept of a series of small dioramas that would travel from town to town via train cars.

But what was Walt really thinking when he came up with the concept for Disneylandia? In retrospect, it seems like too small a dream for the famous innovator and just a short-lived and casual detour on the road to Disneyland. Actually, the story of Disneylandia and why Walt stopped work on it is pretty amazing—including Walt’s fascination with miniatures.

Walt’s mind started focusing on the magic of a perfect miniature world when he saw the famous Thorne exhibit of miniatures at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, Calif., in 1939. As a child, Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago loved dollhouses and their diminutive furnishings and accessories. Marrying into wealth at the age of 19, she commissioned cabinetmakers, using her own drawings, to create more than two-dozen furnished rooms to the scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. The rooms were exhibited in the 1933-1934 Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition, the 1939 San Francisco's Golden Gate International Exposition, and in the 1940 New York World's Fair.

Over the decades, she commissioned architects to create historically accurate interior recreations of Europe’s castles, museums and historic homes. She donated many of these mini-masterpieces to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they can still be viewed today.

Needless to say, these tiny environments captured Walt’s imagination completely. By 1947, Walt had been actively collecting miniatures for his own personal collection. Everything from furniture, figurines, coaches and boats to farm machinery, even minute liquor bottles and crates started to fill his shelves.

When Walt’s family moved into their new Holmby Hills home in 1949, Walt merged his love of trains with his love of miniature making to build a small-scale railroad, the “Carolwood Pacific” that steamed around the backyard of his home on Carolwood Drive. He was especially proud of the bright yellow caboose that he labored over, with its diminutive oil lamps, brass doorknobs and actual working spring latches.

Walt painstakingly crafted a pint-sized potbellied stove for the caboose as well.

“I had a pattern made up, and it turned out so cute with the grate, shaker and door, and all the little working parts, I became intrigued with the idea,” Walt wrote. “I had a few made up: one was bronze, another black, and I even made a gold one! Then we made more and started painting them in motifs that fitted the period at the turn-of-the-century.”

Each of these 5 1/2-inch tall stoves had a different design, and eventually about 100 were made. Walt gave some to friends, and even sent some to an antique gift shop in New York. At first, Walt was incensed that the dealer was charging only $15 for them and wrote her asking that she “keep them on display for a while longer and see what you can really get for them.” When the dealer boosted the price to $25, a stove sold at that price almost immediately. Walt wrote, “The thing that pleases me is that you sold a stove for $25.”

To add to Walt’s delight, Mrs. Thorne herself purchased two of the stoves to add to her renowned collection, the same collection that had inspired Walt’s hobby. Walt made no special effort to market them or make a profit. He was just curious to see if there was any interest and by 1957, the supply was depleted.

“It has been fun making them and others appreciate them, too, so all in all, I feel well repaid,” Walt said.

Actor Richard Todd, who performed in several of Walt’s British live-action films, recalled visiting Walt’s home and seeing “cabinets full of the objects he loved: tiny things, miniatures of all sorts in china, wood or metal. He gave me a tiny potbellied stove that he had made himself, a beautiful little thing about six inches high, painted in white, green and gold.”

According to Disney historian Jeff Kurtti, Walt may also have been inspired by the famous Fairy Castle dollhouse of movie star Colleen Moore. By 1935, more than 1,700 individuals had contributed to her approximately 8-foot by 8-foot Fairy Castle that contained more than 2,000 miniatures. In 1935, there was a national tour of the castle to raise money for children’s charities. Today, that castle can be seen at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Walt avidly scoured miniature shops during his travels in Europe in 1949, bringing home countless tiny objects of glass, wood, china and metal. He attended miniature shows in New York and New England to purchase items and browsed and ordered through catalogs, newspaper advertisements and hobbyist magazines.

In a letter to a friend in 1951, Walt wrote: “My hobby is a life saver. When I work with these small objects, I become so absorbed that the cares of the studio fade away…at least for a time.”

When Walt’s collection was inventoried in the mid-1960s, the listing was more than 1,000 items, including paintings and books like the Holy Bible, Tennyson’s Poetical Works, A Miniature History of England and 18 volumes of the plays of William Shakespeare. There were musical instruments like three banjos, a mandolin, a guitar and an organ, crafted by conductor Frederick Stark, a set of dueling pistols were near a leather case inscribed “The Colt Story in Miniature” that had 14 six-shooters. Eleven classic cars, including a 1915 Model T Ford, 1903 Cadillac, a 1904 Rambler, and a 1911 Rolls Royce were in the collection. Walt also displayed a model battleship and steamboat.

However, just collecting these tiny treasures was not enough for Walt. He wanted to create an entire tiny world. However, it wasn’t to be static like the memorable Thorne collection, but would feature movement.

In the early 1950s, he asked animator Ken Anderson to draw 24 scenes of life in an old Western town in the style of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Walt was not only fond of Rockwell’s interpretation of traditional hometown American scenes, but the fact that there was just the right wink of gentle humor in them, as well.

“He told me to make drawings that are like Norman Rockwell. ‘Make them big but make them with a sense of humor. People should chuckle when they see them,’” Anderson said.

The scale for the scenes would be the same as for Walt’s beloved Carolwood Pacific caboose that he kept protectively in his workshop barn at his home, while the rest of his train was sheltered in the track tunnel when not in use.

Walt told Anderson: "I'm tired of having everybody else around here do the drawing and the painting. I'm going to do something creative myself. I'm going to put you on my personal payroll, and I want you to draw 24 scenes of life in an old Western town. Then I'll carve the figures and make the scenes in miniature. When we get enough of them made, we'll send them out as a traveling exhibit. We'll get an office here at the studio and you and I will be the only ones who'll have keys."

Anderson was given a room on the third floor of the Animation building at the Disney Studio and was paid not by the Studio, but out of Walt’s own pocket.

“Walt said, ‘I’m going to take you off payroll, I am going to pay you out of my own pocket.," Anderson said with a laugh. "He paid me for about a year and then I was put back on the studio payroll. In the beginning, three weeks went by and he had forgotten to pay me. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then he realized he hadn’t paid me and he paid me more than I could ever save in my life.”

Walt and Ken would sometimes go to downtown Los Angeles searching for materials. Sometimes Walt would disappear for a day or two and then return to Ken’s room with, as Ken remembered, “a whole sack full” of various items for this Lilliputian version of his memories of life in Marceline, Mo., and Kansas City, Mo.

Walt immediately put advertisements in newspapers and hobby magazines seeking vintage miniatures of all kinds for his tableaus. Fearing prices would soar if people say the Disney name, Walt asked his two secretaries at the time, Kathryn Gordon and Dolores Voght, to use their names in the advertisements rather than announcing that Disney was looking for these items.

Several newspapers and hobby magazines carried the ad: "WANTED: Anything in miniatures to a scale of 1 ½" to the foot or under. Up to and including early 1900s. Give full description and price. Private collector. K. Gordon [and her address]."

Walt was constantly having miniatures sent to him on approval then returning them for shoddy craftsmanship or lack of detail. By the time, he had finished work on the first diorama for Disneylandia, Walt had spent more than $24,000 on miniatures for all the proposed scenes.

Besides pixie-sized furniture, Walt collected miniscule tableware, including delicate Limoges and Havilland tea services' small Toby jugs; sky-blue Wedgewood pitchers, as well as washing bowls of Willowware; Bennington crocks and jars. Sparkling wine and perfume bottles, drinking glasses smaller than thimbles, several sets of silverware fit for fairy queens, silver tea services and a candelabra as delicate as a cobweb completed the collection.

Anderson was busy drawing sketches, including a blacksmith reading a newspaper, a minister in a pulpit, a group of gossiping women on a street corner, the interior of a general store and many more vignettes of turn-of-the-century life.

Walt spent countless hours in the red barn in his backyard at home carefully constructing the first of his tiny tableaus. His long, slender fingers, that had served him well as an artist, easily facilitated working with such small objects. The first scene, titled “Granny Kincaid’s Cabin” was based on a set from his live-action feature, So Dear to My Heart (1949). It was not an exact duplicate of the actual film set but evoked the same general feeling and time period. To build the chimney, Walt picked up pebbles at his vacation home, the Smoke Tree Ranch, in Palm Springs. To bend wood into the contour of chairs, he borrowed the pressure cooker from the family kitchen.

Inside the cabin, a hand-braided rag rug warmed a floor of planks, not much larger than matchsticks. A china washbowl and pitcher, guitar with strings thin as cat whiskers and a small family Bible sat on the table. A tiny flintlock rifle hung on the wall, and a spinning wheel with flax sat in the corner. In the bedroom, beyond the living room, was a feather bed four poster with crazy quilt. The kitchen was equipped with a wood-burning stove and tiny pots and utensils.

The scene looked as if Granny herself had just stepped briefly outside. Granny would not be seen, however. Viewers would simply hear an approximately two-minute recording of her voice describing the cozy scene, for Walt had recorded a narration by actress Beulah Bondi, the famous character actress who played the part of Granny in So Dear to My Heart. Granny Kincaid’s Cabin scene was roughly eight feet long, and included rugs, plank floor, stone fireplace, lace curtains, dishes and even an outhouse with a potty.

“The interior of Granny’s cabin was completely dressed up with miniatures. Walt made the rocking chairs and the rest himself. He then said, ‘Let’s make up a cross section. Let’s have Grandmother rocking, Bible in hand, with a diorama behind her depicting the outdoors. Granny would say, ‘Oh hello there, I’m just reading my Bible.’ She’d chat for a while, then return to her reading’,” revealed Imagineer Wathel Rogers although the figure of Granny was never constructed.

In January 1951, Walt contacted a specialist in display cases about an appropriate way of showcasing these scenes. He wrote to the expert that “it always take a lot of time to work the bugs out of mechanical contraptions and this one must be absolutely right before I can go ahead with the others” but he expected to have a “pretty good show worked up by next Christmas”.

In March 1951, Walt asked Harry Tytle to handle the logistics of the Disneylandia touring show. According to Tytle’s diary for March 1, “Walt called me today and asked how I would like to handle the project [of sending a miniature collection on tour] and when I showed enthusiasm for it, it was indicated it was mine. However, at the time we do not know how it will be set up. He strongly suggested that, where possible, we give the project a break in costs (this means, accounting-wise, we were to jockey the costs). We talked of the various talent within the studio that could be used, and how the project would go on tour. Packing boxes, etc. will have to be made; dresses, clothing, etc.”

Walt got Tytle into making miniatures, as well. “I made him a few workable smoking briar pipes, less than a half-inch long, complete with bent, bakelite drilled stems,” Tytle recalled. “Walt had accumulated quite a collection of various miniatures on his world travels. Walt’s collection was extensive.”

At one point, it was considered calling the show “Walt Disney’s America” but the term Disneylandia seems to have been the official title. Walt described it as a series of “visual juke boxes with the record playing mechanism being replaced by a miniature stage setting.”

His original idea was to have the exhibit tour the country in railroad cars where schoolchildren would go and visit and place a quarter in a coin box to activate the scene’s lighting and sound. At one point, Walt talked about an electric eye triggering the action.

“When I went back on the Studio payroll to work on some animated feature, Walt hired to take my place a guy named Harper Goff and some others,” Anderson recalled.

As Harper Goff described it: “Walt envisioned a big long train which would go all over America. In each city, people would come and go through the railroad cars. They would start at the back of the train, and all the cars would have these little animated things that you could watch. This is what caused Walt to choose the size he did for the displays. He said he didn’t want to build specially wide cars and he wanted to make sure he had an aisle (in each railroad car) with enough room…This idea called for a 21-car train on a siding with public access.”

Why a traveling show? As Goff told an interviewer, “[Walt] didn’t want poor people to have to come clear across the country and stay in a hotel. He wanted to go to the people. He wanted to have something here [in Burbank] permanently, but he also wanted to put a show on the road. Some of the Burbank City Council sneered at us. They didn’t want to bring a carnival to Burbank. They didn’t want the kind of people that followed carnivals.”

However, unexpected challenges also arose almost immediately about mounting Disneylandia, as will be discovered next time in the concluding part of this story.