Renie Bardeau: The Man Who Shot Walt Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I’ve always loved photography, and even took a class in high school back in the days when you had to learn to develop your own black and white film, and use the tools of the darkroom to create the magic you wanted.
I think that love came from my dad who would take the family to Disneyland and other locations and try to cajole us into standing in front of things while we grumbled that we wanted to go on a ride. However, when the Kodak slides returned weeks later, we sat in awe on the floor as the carousel projector clicked to light up each new image, sparking many happy memories.
Dad was limited by the cameras and the film of the day to how many pictures he could take. We also had to wait weeks to get back the developed photos to see if there were any mistakes—like blurred images or chopped off heads. I was usually the guilty party responsible for taking those kinds of pictures, but I gradually learned.
I recently walked around Disney Hollywood Studios with my friend Werner Weiss, and was fascinated at how many pictures he could take in just one hour with his digital camera. However, even with the multitude of photos he was taking, he took his time to get just the right shot.
If you love Disney theme park photography, I would recommend checking out Tim Devine’s site. For the past two years, I have been a guest speaker at his Pixelmania event at the Walt Disney World Resort where he gathers some amateur theme park photographers together.
One Disney photographer who has always amazed me is Renie Bardeau, who produced two of my favorite Walt photos. I will bet that even if you don’t recognize his name, you probably have at least one copy hundreds of photos he took during his career working at Disney.
Bardeau was born (1934) and raised in Tucson, Ariz., and went to school there. He started college at the University of Arizona, but when the Korean War broke out, he enlisted in the Navy.
It was in the Navy that his career in photography began as he became a Petty Officer with a specialty as aviation photographer’s mate. After the war, he returned to the University of Arizona and finished his degree in marketing. During those years, he also married and fathered two children and, today, has three grandchildren.
His high school photography teacher knew the chief photographer at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newpaper. The 25-year-old Bardeau went to Los Angeles to apply for a summer job for 1959, but the position had just been filled.
However, the photographer sent Bardeau to see Charlie Nichols, who was then Disneyland’s chief photographer. Bardeau had never heard about Disneyland and knew nothing about the place but he needed a job.
After a one-minute interview, Nichols hired him.
The Disney Stories
Bardeau worked mostly in the darkroom his first summer since the publicity photos were processed at Disneyland.
“For many years, my fingernails were brown from the chemicals,” he recalled. (When newspapers switched to color, it was no longer cost effective to process at the park and outside labs were used.)
One day he went out with camera in hand to Frontierland to shoot the mule ride. There he first met Walt Disney in person who shook his hand and welcomed him to the park.
“Walt had a firm grip and a twinkle in his eye,” Bardeau remembered.
His first assignment that summer was to take publicity photos of the opening of the new attractions for Tomorrowland, especially the Monorail, with Walt Disney and the Nixon family.
"To this day," Bardeau said, "that picture is still being used."
In those early days, Bardeau took black and white photos using four-by-five Press cameras with film holders.
“You had to reach into a big bag with your film, stick the holder in (the camera), pull out the slide, shoot your picture, stick the slide back in, change the flash bulb, turn the slide around, put it back in—fast. You had to do it fast or the moment of the picture would be gone,” Bardeau told me in 2005.
Bardeau worked that summer, and then returned to Arizona for another year of college, often working winters in Tucson as a photographer. His summer job at Disneyland continued until 1963 when he graduated. He assumed he would work at Disneyland until he found some other job in the advertising field.
"One year became five and five became 10, then 10 became 20 and so on," Bardeau said. (It was a familiar story for many of the people that began working at Disneyland like Disneyland Band Leader Vessey Walker and Golden Horseshoe star Wally Boag.)
As those years passed by, Bardeau spent less time in the darkroom and more time in the park. He would receive three or four assignments a day, photographing celebrities or new rides or fireworks.
United States presidents, politicians, award-winning performers, famous athletes, royalty, and a host of foreign dignitaries have visited Disneyland and Renie was there snapping pictures for press packets, Disney archives and in-house newsletters. Bardeau claims that he found athletes to be the friendliest and most down to earth.
When he did not have an official assignment, he instead roamed Disneyland, shooting guests, workers, parades, and attractions and all those moments recorded in newspapers, magazines, souvenir guides, and advertising.
When Charlie Nichols retired in 1968, Bardeau replaced him as chief photographer.
Bardeau has ridden every ride at Disneyland since 1959, many of of them while sitting backward to get specific angles for photos used to publicize a coming attraction.
Sometimes Bardeau had to create his own magic in those days before digital photography allowed some creativity.
“Many mornings the ‘June Gloom’ was with us and we had gray skies. Nowadays, you can supplement the picture—take out the sky and put in a beautiful blue sky," Bardeau said. "But that’s not true journalism. That’s cheating—it’s not what was there.”
However, with a twinkle in his eye and a slight smile, he did confess that he often had to resort to some of his own ingenuity.
The one time he felt he cheated was when he needed a shot of Tinker Bell over Sleeping Beauty Castle with the fireworks exploding behind her. In those days, for safety reasons, Tinker Bell took her flight before the fireworks were set off. So Renie took a picture of Tinker Bell in a studio, against a black background. In the darkroom, he reduced the size of the image.
“A little glue…and pfttt…Tinker Bell and the fireworks in the same shot,” he laughed.
Other shots didn’t require trickery so much as cleverness. Fireworks light up the sky behind Sleeping Beauty Castle in dozens of his photos, but only because he exposed the same frame several times, capturing one burst after another. For the picture to be effective, he needed several bursts. First, he took a picture of the castle. Then he would cover the lens and uncover it to expose the film again when a burst went off. He repeated the process several times. The layers gave him the effect he wanted.
That beautifully timed shot of the monorail soaring over a submarine in the lagoon was rigged, each vehicle stopped as Bardeau took one photo after another. Later, Bardeau had fun with one of his young employees who stood patiently by the lagoon to capture the same shot, with Bardeau swearing that the two vehicles would eventually line up.
Of course, Bardeau took shots of the celebrities who visited Disneyland and has hundreds of funny stories. When he was shooting photos of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat enjoying the Golden Horseshoe Revue, he was there when Sadat asked to see the six shooter that Wally Boag was using during the show. He was fascinated with it. Always happy to oblige, Wally pulled it out of its holster and “about 14 Secret Service agent bodyguards snapped into action,” Bardeau said with a laugh.
After a few tense moments, things calmed down and everyone had a good laugh.
Bardeau’s favorite celebrity story is when after taking some photos, actor James Garner insisted that Bardeau join him and his family for lunch in the park. Politely, Bardeau declined but Garner was persistent, asking who he had to call to clear things so Bardeau could join them. Bardeau had to blushingly confess that he was the boss and accepted the invitation.
Bardeau is responsible for one of the most beloved and iconic photos of Walt at Disneyland, now entitled “Footsteps.” It was what Bardeau referred to as a “grab shot,” a photographer’s term where something unplanned happens and there is only seconds to react to capture it on film.
On an early Saturday morning in 1964 before Disneyland opened to the public, Bardeau and Charlie Nichols were wandering the empty Disneyland with cameras slung around their necks. They were returning from an early morning photo shoot.
At the same time, they both spotted Walt inspecting the premises as he often did. He was walking through the arched gateway of the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Walt, hands shoved in pockets, was in mid-stride, head turned to his right, dwarfed by the castle looming over him. Both Bardeau and Nichols “grabbed” for the shot but it was Bardeau’s that has become the one that Disney fans treasure today.
Bardeau was also responsible for the final professional photo taken of Walt Disney in Disneyland. As Renie recalled, it was at the end of August 1966 (Walt died a little more than three months later) and Walt had been shooting a commercial for Kodak. Walt was in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle sitting in the front seat of Disneyland Fire Department “Engine No. 1” vehicle with a costumed Mickey Mouse (Paul Castle).
Near the end of the shoot, Bardeau and Nichols were called to take some photos: Nichols shot in black and white and Bardeau in color.
“There is a little story of when I was shooting that particular picture. It was shot on a Rolleiflex, and there are 12 pictures on a roll. I had shot 11 pictures of Walt at different angles…watching for his smile, watching to make sure Mickey was looking the right way, making sure the spires weren't hanging out of Mickey's ears. Anyway, I had shot 11 pictures, and I had said, 'Thank you, Walt, that's it.' He asks me if I was sure, and I told him I was. He then told me that at the studio we treat film like paper clips. You shoot, shoot, shoot all the film you need because if it's not in the can, you will never have it. So he asked me to shoot one more…. So, I shot one more, and he said, 'That's fine, thank you, Renie,' and he walked away,” said Bardeau with a smile, as he retold one of his favorite stories that he has shared many times to those interested in asking.
Those multiple shots also explain why you might see occasional variations, especially in the position of Mickey’s upraised hand. A blow up of that photo is at the entrance to the “One Man’s Dream” attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios. Bardeau's wife, Marlene, arranged to have it emblazoned on blinds in her husband's den.
Bardeau was responsible for the photo of Walt and Lillian together during the debut of one of Disneyland’s Christmas parades. Walt and Lillian were sitting on top of the bleachers (Walt’s favorite place according to Bardeau) and Bardeau spotted them waving to the crowd and snapped it. He sent a copy of the picture to Walt who returned it with the inscription, “To Renie, lots of luck, Walt Disney.”
One of Bardeau’s favorite Walt stories took place on a Saturday morning at Disneyland about 30 minutes before opening. Before starting his day and before the park opened, he went to the Hills Brothers Coffee shop on Main Street to read the morning newspaper and have a cup of coffee. Because the park wasn’t open, the place was empty but he still picked a table toward the rear so that the other tables would be neat and clean for the incoming guests.
As he was reading his newspaper, Walt came in and looked around and then asked Bardeau if he could join him. Bardeau immediately invited Walt to sit down. A waitress appeared and was so nervous to see Walt that she was physically shaking. She asked “Mr. Disney” what he wanted.
Walt reminded her that he was just “Walt.” According to Bardeau, Walt did say to the waitress at that time, “There are only two misters in Disneyland. Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Toad. Call me Walt."
She returned with a cup of coffee for Walt but was still shaking. Walt talked to Bardeau about the weather, the expected attendance and the park itself, asking for Bardeau’s opinion on several things. Just before the park opened, Walt excused himself and slipped backstage. Walt was usually mobbed when guests spotted him in the park.
Bardeau After Disney
Divorced from his wife, Bardeau reunited with his high school sweetheart, Marlene, and they were married. After Renie retired in 1998 (after 39 years, six months and two weeks, although Renie always just said “40 years”), he returned to Arizona but eventually relocated to Glendale, Calif. He was very active in the University of Arizona Hispanic Alumni Association, which raises funds to help deserving high school students with scholarships to the University of Arizona.
At his retirement party, his friends at Disneyland put together a special thick, heavy photo album edged in silver featuring many of the memorable shots taken by Renie over the years. There is a shot of Vice President Richard Nixon in the front cabin of the monorail with Walt standing nearby. There is a shot of Robert F. Kennedy riding the Matterhorn Bobsleds just days before his assassination.
Bardeau received a window on Disneyland’s Main Street above the photography store in March 1999. The inscription reads: “Kingdom Photo Services—Renie Bardeau Photographer, Archivist.” The reason for the archivist designation is that Bardeau said that although the photos he took were used for publicity purposes, Walt told him that the top priority was for the historical record of Disneyland.
Bardeau is not a Disney Legend but was inducted as an NFFC-Disneyana Fan Club Legend in 2005.
Even though he snapped more than 1 million published photos, ranging from Bob Hope golfing with the Disney characters to Elizabeth Taylor's star-studded 1992 birthday bash in the park, to famous foreign heads of state—like Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Prince Rainier of Monaco—enjoying the magic of Disney, he is almost totally unknown even to Disney fans because his name does not appear on any of the iconic photos that were sent out to the media. It was Disneyland’s policy that the photographs be credited to Disneyland (or later just to Disney).
I would suggest that now is the time that someone should think of putting together a book of Bardeau’s Disneyland photos (especially focusing on Walt) with appropriate commentary. All of the photos have stories behind them, stories that could have happened nowhere else but Disneyland.
Of course, many of those photos do not feature celebrities but then even Walt knew that when guests came to Disneyland, the park itself was the star. Bardeau certainly understood that magic as he documented attractions and people coming and going over nearly four decades. I am very thankful he did and that he did it with such skill and love. He is an inspiration to all of us who still take photos at Disney theme parks.