Right now, there's a San Fernando Valley art gallery packed with items to astound the biggest Disneyland fans. Van Eaton Galleries, which focuses on animation art and collectibles, came into a serious collection of memorabilia from the Happiest Place on Earth. Its cabinets are packed with toys and ashtrays and other assorted souvenirs. There's an employee badge from 1955, marked by a number (1212) instead of a name, and a bottle of pixie dust sold at an old Main Street apothecary. On the walls are posters from ride openings and other park events. Did you know that Louis Armstrong played at Disneyland? Pre-sale tickets were only $4.95.
On Feb. 28 and March 1, all these items and more go up for auction. For the next couple weeks, though, the public can stop by the Ventura Boulevard art gallery to check out the finds. The impressive array of art and ephemera, owned by an anonymous collector, spans decades and includes a few odds and ends from Disney World, but the primary focus is the early decades of Disneyland's life. Some of the pieces, such as Tomorrowland concept art, predate the 1955 opening. Even if you aren't particularly hard-core about the amusement park, checking out the now-retro souvenirs, animatronic items and cast member costumes is an exciting experience that may lend a new understanding to Disneyland history.
On Friday, Mike Van Eaton guided a tour of the two-room exhibition. The items are, more or less, organized in a way that corresponds with a Disneyland map. Main Street items are grouped together, not far from the front door. Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion artifacts sit next to each other. There's a postcard machine that was made specifically to sell the art of Mark Davis, who did the concept work for Pirates of the Caribbean. These are things that your average park-hopper might not know exists.
“Everything at Disneyland was designed by artists,” Van Eaton says. “Even the popcorn boxes.” And, yes, there is a popcorn box in this collection that dates back to the year of the park's inception. The pieces of attractions do as well. There's a panel from the back of one of the Main Street horse-drawn trolleys. “How do you get that?” Van Eaton asks, before answering his own question with an “I don't know.”
There are often stories behind the pieces on display. A few of the cast member costumes were worn by Betty Taylor, who spent 30 years performing at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon. Some of the signs indicate sponsorships that Disneyland had worked out in its early years.
When Disneyland pops up into conversation, it's easy to make the immediate connection to high ticket prices, long lines and, now, measles. But the park still holds a special place in a lot of folks' minds, and that can be attributed to Walt Disney's attention to detail and the legacy of high-concept entertainment that he left. Reminders of that pop out of every corner of the gallery. The Enchanted Tiki Room collection is spectacular. There's an animatronic female bird that sang in the show's chorus and an oversized “flower boat,” among other items. The posters and signage, particularly those that date back to the 1950s and '60s, are a stylish reminder of how much Disneyland contributed to mid-20th-century graphic design.
Then there is the Monorail. When the attraction opened in 1959, there was nothing like it in this part of the world. This collection features a red panel from the original Monorail and a yellow panel from a train that came into use in 1961. Bob Gurr, the imagineer who designed the attraction, was on hand to discuss it. When the red Monorail went into service in 1959, Richard Nixon, then vice president of the United States, cut the opening ribbon. “You might visualize Walt's fingerprints from leaning on there,” Gurr says. “We'll never know.”
Gurr was part of many Disneyland — and later Disney World — projects. In addition to the Monorail, he designed several versions of Autopia cars. He worked on the Matterhorn track and the Submarine ride and did various projects for the New York World's Fair, including It's a Small World and Carousel of Progress. He's an imagineering master and says that, in his time with Disney, he never had a project that was a major challenge. “Walt had a sense of when is too far, too far,” he says. In other words, for as whimsical as Disney's ideas were, they were still projects that people like Gurr could handle.
“The Disneyland Story” collection reveals parts of the process that Disney and his team had developed. Van Eaton points to a small, pot-bellied stove in a display case. It was made by Walt Disney himself. Van Eaton explains that Disney had built a train in his backyard and, as part of that project, he made a miniature, pot-bellied stove for the caboose. Because he liked making and painting the stove, he created a few more and sent a few of those to a New York shop owner who specialized in miniatures. “I've only seen two others,” says Van Eaton, “and they're both at the [Walt Disney Family] Museum up in San Francisco.”
Inside this chunk of Disneyland history is a little something for everyone who ever stood awestruck at the park gates. “That's really important to this collection,” says Van Eaton. “It has an appeal that crosses many generations.”
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