Robbins Barstow and the Disneyland Dream on Film

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

“For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,” said Robbins Barstow at the end of his home movie visit to Disneyland in 1956.

Robbins Wolcott Barstow Jr. was born on October 24, 1919, in Woodstock, Vt.

His family moved to Hartford, Conn., in 1930 and, at the age of 10, he got a hand-cranked Kodak 16mm projector. Barstow purchased reels of short films of cartoons, comedies and more and would charge neighborhood kids 5 cents to watch them being projected onto a sheet hung in his family’s basement. A next door neighbor took some home movies of Barstow and his brothers doing some stunts and when he saw the film, it spurred him into getting his own movie camera.

He started making movies by the age of 12. According to him, these were “family chronicles, travelogues, and other documentaries." In 1936, he filmed Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, a 12-minute fiction short starring himself (as Tarzan), as well as his two younger brothers and three neighbor girls. He filmed it in the Connecticut woods in one day without a script and it has been downloaded more than 150,000 times since it was first posted on the Internet.

Barstow eventually married, raised a family of three, and worked for 34 years as director of professional development for the Connecticut Educational Association, a state teacher’s union. He may be best known, however, for his long-standing interest in saving the whales: He was one of the founders of the Cetacean Society, International.

However, through all this, he continued to make films. In more than seven decades, he made more than 100 films with such expertise that it blurred the boundary between home movies and independent films.

Barstow wrote, “All my life I have had two primary aims in my movie and video making: create meaningful records of people, places, and events; and to share these ‘moving images’ with other people. I edited my films to make them meaningful, and I projected them to limited, on-the-spot audiences, in homes or auditoriums, to share them.”

For Disney fans, Barstow is important because of a 30-minute 16mm film he made in July 1956. Disneyland Dream was born of a nationwide contest. In 1956, the 3M Company offered free trips to Disneyland to the 25 families who best expressed why they loved Scotch Tape.

Celebrating the first re-release of the Disney feature film Song of the South, Br’er Rabbit was prominent on the ad announcing: “Win one of my 25 free Family Trips to Disneyland” and in teeny, tiny type “or if you prefer, to New York City”. (I wonder how many winners chose New York City over Disneyland?)

“You’ll fly to Los Angeles with three members of your family via luxurious TWA Constellation, stay at the exclusive Hampton-Sheraton Hotel. At Disneyland….see all the wonders of Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Fantasyland. On a Tanner-Gray Line Bus Tour, you’ll visit a real movie studio, network TV shows, homes of Hollywood stars. You’ll enjoy a whole week of thrills with regular expenses paid—plus $250 cash for meals and anything else you like.” (That was about $60 per person or less than $10 dollars a day for those of you like me who are challenged by math.)

All you had to do was complete the following statement in 25 words or less “I like ‘SCOTCH’ brand cellophane tape because…” include a tab from a roll of Scotch cellophane tape and send to an address in Minneapolis before May 21, 1956. The contest was open to residents of “all 48 states.” Probably fairly rare today are the rolls of tape itself decorated with a Br’er Rabbit card announcing the contest. In those days, a roll of Scotch tape cost 25 cents, so I wonder if that was the reason for 25 trips. However, there was only one winner per family, although people could enter as many times as they wished.

Scotch was very generous with offering 25 trips. There were other contests that same year, including one by Monsanto offering five one-week all-expense-paid trips to Disneyland via TWA for completing the fourth line of a jingle about plastic toys. There was also a 1956 National Milk Jingle contest with the top prize being a trip to Disneyland via TWA.

Barstow, his wife, Meg, and their three children: Mary, 11; David, 8; and Dan, 4 each entered the contest. Barstow filmed them composing their very creative submissions around the dining-room table. He even filmed the postman carrying those entries away.

Before long, a prize was awarded to little Dan for his winning entry: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.” Disney history expert Jeff Pepper tracked down the names of three other families who also won a trip in mid-July 1956: 7-year old Mike Magruder of Beaumont, Texas; 8-year old Kenneth Haydis of Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Mrs. George Ripley of Clarion, Iowa.

You can view the entire film of the Bartows at Disneyland (link).

If you really like it, the film can be ordered from Amazon and that DVD also includes a 20-minute Special Feature on The Making of Disneyland Dream with family recollections nearly 53 years later (link)

Barstow said, in an interview:

“I first showed the home-edited version of Disneyland Dream to a gathering of neighborhood families and friends, projected on a sheet attached to the side of our house in Wethersfield, with my 16mm movie projector set up in our backyard, on Labor Day weekend, 1956, with me providing on-the-spot narration as the film went along. It proved to be an immediate favorite and became very popular. Over the years, I received dozens of requests to show it to community groups, PTAs, schools, church and other social groups, extending throughout the state, as well as to relatives and at family gatherings.

“Finally, in 1995, after nearly 40 years, I had the film transferred to VHS Video, for wider distribution, and I recorded the narration on tape. I was then able to have it broadcast over our local Wethersfield Public Access Community Television Channel. When I heard that the Library of Congress was interested in adding home movies to their collections, I sent Dr. James H. Billington, the distinguished Librarian of Congress, a copy of Disneyland Dream, along with a dozen other home movies which I had produced with our family over a period of some 70 years.”

Barstow’s film gives a good approximation of what the Disneyland experience was like for an average tourist one year after that fabled theme park opened.

The film shares many of the limitations of home movies. Barstow did not have the luxury of pre-planning many of his shots, especially when the family got to California. He filmed without the advantage of tripods or dollies. He had to use only existing light. He filmed his many trips in 16mm until 1985 when he eventually switched to video.

However, the narrative storyline is clear and solid and has a definite point of view. This is not simply “raw footage” that is not inter-connected. There is also a great deal of appropriate humor (especially in the exaggerated reactions to winning that utilizes some charming simple special effects) as well as surprisingly high production values. It is also delightful how well the family budgeted for their trip, adjusting things so the entire five members of the family could all go on accommodations meant for only four.

At the end of the film, he says that they are “one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true” and they are “forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this possible for us.”

In 2008, Disneyland Dream (1956) was named to the National Film Registry (NFR) of the Library of Congress. The NFR now comprises more than 500 films earmarked for preservation because of their cultural or artistic significance.

Disney films in the NFR include such historical treasures as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Fantasia and Steamboat Willie among others. “Disneyland Dream” is one of the very few amateur works on the list of NFR films. One of the others is the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

From the Library of Congress’s press release: “The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel, were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a ‘Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape’ contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration (“The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut”), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place.”

Soon after the NFR honor, Barstow received an e-mail from comedian Steve Martin. As reported by Susan Dunne in The Hartford Courant, Martin recognized himself in the film: “At age 11 I worked at Disneyland. I sold guidebooks at the park from 1956 to about 1958. I am as positive as one can be that I appear about 20:20 into your film, low in the frame, dressed in a top hat, vest, and striped pink shirt, moving from left to right, holding a guidebook out for sale.”

Barstow, a huge advocate of people preserving their home movies as social documents for future generations, once emphasized: “Home movies provide insights into other people’s lives. Moving images go beyond still photographs. They provide active ‘slices of life,’ which bring back recollections for elders and revelations for youngsters.”

Barstow died of congestive heart failure at the age of 91 on November 7, 2010, but, thanks to his philosophy, he produced a wonderful time capsule of Walt’s original Disneyland for all of us to enjoy. It is also a reminder to all of us that our photos and home movies of the Disney theme parks deserve to be preserved for generations of Disney fans yet unborn.

Fortunately, there are some Internet sites that have aggressively located and posted old family photos of visits to Disneyland through garage/estate sales, eBay items and more. Often these are the only image of something from the early days of the park that has been saved for all of us to enjoy. I wish the Disney Company was a fraction as diligent as these folks in finding and sharing these gems.

I highly recommend the following sites that I love visiting: Stuff from the Parks (link), Gorillas Don’t Blog (link), and Daveland (link). The Pickle Barrel (link) has sadly not posted in over a year but you can have fun looking through the previously archived posts.

Two more formal sites devoted to attractions and areas that have disappeared from Walt Disney World and Disneyland have some great historical photos, as well: Widen Your World (link) and the highly regarded Yesterland (link), run by my good friend Werner Weiss, who I know, from personal experience, adheres to the very highest standards of scholarship when it comes to posting information.

I hope this column will inspire readers to rummage through their own family photos, as well as the photos and home movies of their relatives and then share those moments with the rest of us. Amateur photographers have been responsible for saving some incredible Disney memories over the years from the Mickey Mouse Club Circus to Zorro in Frontierland to the Fritos Kid to so many more that the Disney Company never took the time, effort or expense to document.