Mell Kilpatrick and the Invention of the Dash Camera
By Jim Linderman
The mounted dashboard camera, as we all know from “America’s most horrible ruckus” on the flat screen, is de rigueur today for every cop car. Sideswipes, weaving drunks, runaway crackheads…we see them all through the electronic eye of the police car windshield. But did you know the apparatus was invented by a Weegee like ambulance chaser named Mell Kilpatrick who took accident photos for Los Angeles Newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s?
Mell Kilpatrick was a self-taught master photographer with Weegee skill and fortitude. In fact, the precious few times his name is mentioned, Weegee’s often follows. Living in Orange County when it was literally a county of oranges, Mell was attracted to photography young and certainly had the right eye. In the only photo I’ve found of him, he is posing as if squinting into a lens finder. Like a Weegee in sunshine, he traveled light…camera, flash, tripod and a trench coat when the road was slick. But he also had a camera mounted on his dashboard pointing through the windshield and I am sure these photos were shot with it. Like a hard-boiled P.O, whenever California blood was spilled, he was there. Crime, Crash, Insurance Fraud…he squinted through them all in black and white. A James Ellroy with a speed graphic camera and a police-band radio. He is probably best known for the iconic photo “It’s lucky when you live in America” which depicts a car overturned in a field after having crashed through a billboard advertising a mountain fresh brand of beer. These photos of Mell’s skid marks, so to speak, are mild compared to the gruesome carnage shown in his work (and which should be shown to every driver using their cellphone)
In an extraordinary article which draws comparisons with the car crash silkscreens of Andy Warhol and the car crash fetishists of J. G. Ballard, writer Nathan Callahan attributes Kilpatrick’s vision to those he saw while working as a projectionist at the Laguna and Balboa Theaters in the late 1940?s, where he watched film noir masterpieces while waiting to change the reels. He learned well and got used to the dark. All these photos have his identification stamp or notes, but only one provides the time: 5 am.
Kilpatrick’s negative collection, well organized and labeled, sat for 35 years until being turned up by photography collector and dealer Jennifer Dumas. She compiled them into a coffee table book “Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories” in 2000 published by Taschen, linked below.
Remarkably, there was another side to Mell. As Orange County turned into Disneyland (literally) Mell turned his camera to the construction. Soon he was loaning his darkroom to other Disney photographers, and Uncle Walt himself granted him full access to the construction site. Mell’s granddaughter has published no less than five books of his early Disneyland photographs. As Callahan reports, she “sold the most gruesome ones…they brought a bad vibe to the house.”
Forensic Photography would seem to be a growth industry, what with all the teenage texting going on at 75 MPH. It was probably a good gig for Mell…even if most of them seem to have been taken at 5:00 AM.
Original Accident Scene Photograph by Mell Kilpatrick circa 1952 Collection Jim Linderman Original Article and more photographs by Kilpatrick are on the Dull Tool Dim Bulb Blog
New books and magazine offer different peeks at Disneyland's past
By Jim Hill
Given the continuing uproar over Disneyland's "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" ride (After I posted that piece about this much maligned attraction at JHM last week, I received a record number of hate e-mails. So it's pretty clear that that column really struck a nerve with at least some of you folks), it's obvious that quite a number of you long for the good old days.
You know, back when the Anaheim theme park was new? When Disneyland was still considered the crown jewel of the Disney Corporation? Which meant that the park was always kept in pristine condition.
Well, if you'd like to be reminded of what "The Happiest Place on Earth" was really like 'way back then, then you might want to pick up a copy of Carlene Thie's "Disneyland ... The Beginning" (Ape Pen Publishing, July 2003). For -- inside this book's covers -- you'll find another wide selection of Mell Kilpatrick's great photographs of the park. Which will give you an idea for what Disneyland was really like back in the early days (1954 - 1961).
Now -- of course - a lot of you are (no doubt) probably already familiar with Thie's earlier books: "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction," "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" and "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Lens." If not ... well, I reviewed all three of Carlene's previous Disneyland photo collection books for JimHillMedia.com a month or so back. You can read that mostly positive story.
Anyway ... as I said in that review, Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" books have gotten better and better as each new volume has been added to the series. But with "Disneyland ... The Beginning," Carlene's publishing project takes a real step-up in quality. Why for? Well, this time around, Thie has supplemented her grandfather's killer photographs with some truly fun essays from Disney Company vets.
So, who's contributed stories and memories to "Disneyland ... The Beginning?" Would you believe Walt's own daughter, Diane Disney Miller? Diane contributes a foreword to the book where she recalls that her father told Miller to stay away from Disneyland on the park's official opening day. Why for? Because Walt was sure that the Anaheim theme park would "be a mess" on July 18th.
Carlene also persuaded veteran Imagineers like Sam McKim, Bob Gurr, Harriet Burns, Rolly Crump and Alice Davis to contribute essays to the book. Harriet has some particularly funny stories to pass along in "Disneyland ... The Beginning." Burns recalled that -- on the day before Disneyland opened -- "We took props down to Anaheim and found construction rubble and rolls of wire everywhere. Everyone said 'No way can they open tomorrow.'" But -- 24 hours later -- "... everything looked perfect. As the landscapers planted all night."
Fold in an additional essay by Art Linkletter ... plus (for the first time ever in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series) color photographs of the park ... and perhaps you'll see why picking up a copy of Carlene Thie's "Disneyland ... The Beginning" might be a smart move for all you Disneyana bibliophiles out there.
On the other hand, if you're one of those folks who believes that Disneyland was at its best in the early 1970s, then you might want to chase down a copy of Firoozeh Dumas's "Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America" (Villard Books, June 2003). For this charming collection of essays offers a unique look at the park circa 1972.
You see, Firoozeh wasn't your typical Disneyland tourist. Her family moved from Abadan, Iran to Whittier, California in the early 1970s. And her father, Kazem (an engineer for the National Iranian Oil Company) just loved America. Particularly the country's theme parks.
Which is why -- every weekend -- the Dumas family would pile into the car and head off to Marine World or Knotts Berry Farms. But -- of all the theme parks in Southern California -- Kazem's absolute favorite was Disneyland.
Why for? Well, to quote Firoozeh:
"My father believed that Walt Disney was a genius, a man whose vision allowed everyone, regardless of age, to relive the wonderment of childhood. Ask my father what he considers to be man's greatest creation in the twentieth century and he won't say computers, the Concorde, or knee replacement surgery. For him, 'Pirates of the Caribbean' represented the pinnacle of man's creative achievement. No matter how many times my father goes on that ride, he remains as impressed as a Disneyland virgin. 'Did you see that pirate leg hanging over the bridge? Could somebody remind me that it wasn't real? And the battle between the ships, geez, was I the only one ready to duck and cover? What kind of a man would think of creating something like this? A genius, that's who.' I doubt that even Walt Disney's mother felt as much pride in her son as my father did."
Firoozeh's family went back to Disneyland so often that her father began acting as sort of a defacto tour guide / theme park authority for all of his Iranian colleagues. Given the number of times that the Dumases went back to the Anaheim theme park, the author began to grow a bit bored with Disneyland ... which is why she gave her family the slip one day and ...
No! It won't be fair to spoil the fun of the rest of that story. Or any of the other wonderfully witty essays that you'll find in "Funny in Farsi." Let's just say that Firoozeh Dumas' memoir of growing up in U.S. just before the hostage crisis came along and changed forever how most Americans viewed Iranians is a real eye opener. A funny, wise if somewhat bittersweet tale that I think you'll really enjoy reading.
I should probably point out here -- even though Firoozeh appears with Mickey Mouse on the front cover of her memoir -- Disneyland and Disney-related stories actually take up a relatively small portion of "Funny in Farsi." Mind you, this book is still very much worth reading. It's just not as chock full of Disney stories as its cover might imply.
However, what IS absolutely chock full of Disneyland and Disney-related info is the latest issue of "The 'E' Ticket" magazine. Leon and Jack Janzen have done it again, gang. I would have thought -- given that this is Issue No. 40 of their fine fanzine -- that these guys would have finally begun to run out of great behind-the-scene stories to tell about "The Happiest Place on Earth." But the Janzens must someone be related to the Energizer Bunny. For they just keep going and going and going ...
Now -- just to be fair -- I should say that this issue of "The 'E' Ticket" DOES touch on subject matter that Leon and Jack have previously covered in Issue 14 of their amazing magazine. Namely Tomorrowland's old "Adventure Thru Inner Space" attraction. But this story about the Mighty Microscope isn't a rerun. But -- rather -- an all-new article that features color photographs as well as never-before-seen concept art. So I seriously doubt that Leon & Jack are going to hear any complaints from Disneyana fans.
Also included in this issue is a great interview with Art Linkletter (who reveals here that he actually tried to talk Walt out of building Disney World. Arguing that there is only one Niagara Falls, one Pyramids ... so there should be only one Disneyland) as well as an article about Disney collector extraordinaire Richard Kraft. (Wait 'til you see what this guy has in his Disneyana collection. A really-for-real Frontierland canoe. A "Dumbo the Flying Elephant" car. A WDW Skyway bucket. A "Mr. Toad" car. As well as an authentic Disneyland keelboat.)
All this -- plus a rather touching tribute to late Imagineer David Mumford -- makes the Fall 2003 issue of "The 'E' Ticket" a magazine that every serious Disneyana fan should have a copy of. Pick this issue up today by ordering a copy through the Janzen's website. Or -- better yet -- by subscribing to this fine periodical. You can find out how to do that at "The 'E' Ticket" website.
Oh, before I forget, if you'd like to get a copy of "Disneyland ... The Beginning," you can order one directly from Ape Pen Publishing or by calling the publisher directly at 1-951-818-3694. (If I'm remembering correctly, the LaughingPlace.com store also has several copies currently available for purchase. So -- if you'd like to do some comparison shopping on this Mel Kilpatrick / Carlene Thie book -- you can do so at their site.)
Carlene Thie has made it her business to
preserve precious Disney Memories
By Chuck Schmidt
Carlene Thie considers herself blessed.
“God has really blessed me a lot,” she says with a contented sigh. “I’ve met a lot of really nice people.”
Most of those “really nice people” have one common denominator: The term “Disney legend” is always used as a prefix to their names. They are some of the most beloved castmembers to have ever worn Disney name badges.
Carlene Thie considers them good friends. The feeling is mutual.
Over the years, she’s developed special friendships with them all — Bob Gurr, X Atencio, Wally Boag, Blaine Gibson, Rolly Crump, Alice Davis, Harriet Burns, to name a few.
She keeps her most precious memories of these legendary Disney castmembers in a special autograph book.
“I have this book and every time I meet one of the Disney legends, I have them sign it,” she says proudly. “One time I asked Blaine Gibson for his autograph and he says, ‘Can I keep the book and send it back to you?’ Of course, I said yes.
“He actually drew a head of me with him carving it like he would have done a bust of somebody out of clay. I thought that was so cool. I felt so honored.”
She’s even unwittingly asked for an autograph from a legend, even though she already had his signature in her book.
“I had Wally (Boag) sign it one time, I think it was at the Golden Horseshoe,” Carlene said. “But this shows you how sharp these guys are. Years later, I saw Wally again and I said, ‘Wally, could you sign this please?’
Disney legend X Atencio shows Carlene Thie his honorary Haunted Mansion tombstone.Ape Pen Publishing
“And Wally says, ‘I’ve already signed this book, Carlene.’ Sure enough, he had!”
Ever since the day her grandmother turned over the thousands of photos her grandfather had taken of Disneyland, Carlene Thie has been on a mission of sorts: To preserve all those fantastic Disney memories. It’s an honor and a privilege, she believes, a calling she does not take lightly.
“I’ve always wanted to keep the legacy alive,” she said. “And I feel I have.”
She’s done it by writing five books on Disneyland, all beautifully illustrated with her grandfather’s photographs. “I was the first person to create such history books,” she said proudly.
And through her publishing company, Ape Pen, she’s also had a hand in putting together a number of special events, all celebrating Disneyland’s rich history. She’s also been the driving force behind several DVDs dealing with Disneyland and the men and women who played such an important role in its creation.
Key to that history, of course, are the thousands of photos taken by her grandfather.
When Carlene’s grandfather — celebrated Orange County, Calif., news photographer Mell Kilpatrick, who was given the task of taking photos of Disneyland during and after construction — died in 1962, he left a treasure trove of photos behind in his darkroom. After his death, Carlene’s grandmother Kathryn locked the door to the darkroom and those photos and negatives sat, undisturbed, for decades.
During that time, Carlene and her family moved around, from Maryland to Colorado to Idaho.
When her family moved back to California when she was 16, she made it a point to visit her grandmother’s as often as possible. Then came what can best be described as a turning point in her life.
Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle under construction in early 1955.Mell Kilpatrick/Ape Pen Publishing
“A little prior to when my grandma passed, she said I could have everything in my grandfather’s darkroom, all the photos,” Carlene remembers. Of significance was that fact that “my grandfather had the foresight to have a written contract to retain the rights to the images he took,” Carlene said.
She wouldn’t come to realize the magnitude of what was behind that locked darkroom door until she began the painstaking task of actually going through the dozens of boxes.
“So many negatives,” she said. “Boxes and boxes of negatives of everything, from Disneyland to car crashes. You kind of saw Disneyland mixed in there, but you really didn’t know what it was.”
Thankfully, her grandfather had a filing system.
“Each box had a slip attached to it. There would be like: The Mark Twain or Walt and Engine No. 2. Eight to 15 pictures of each ... There were photos of the Andrews Sisters, Fess Parker. There would be tons of them, but you really didn’t know what exactly you were looking at.
“It was overwhelming, dealing with so much. You didn’t really grasp the whole thing as a kid. When you looked at it, it was mostly car crash photos. Some of them were pretty gruesome. There would be pictures of people with decapitated heads.
“I still haven’t gone through them all,” she adds. “I’m still finding photos of Disneyland mixed in with all the car crash photos. There’s probably 3,000 car crashes. And it’s not just car crashes. There’s photos of Anaheim that I haven’t even touched. A lot of shots of orange groves.
“It’s actually quite interesting to see how much it’s changed.”
Disneyland, of course, altered Anaheim’s landscape forever. And on opening day, July 17, 1955, Mell Kilpatrick and a select group of photographers were on hand to record the historic occasion.
“History buff that he was, Mell saved every piece of memorabilia from that day, including the official Disneyland opening day press kit,” Carlene said. That press kit, like all of his photos, sat fallow in Kilpatrick’s darkroom for decades ... until the day Carlene came across it while wading through the boxes.
“When I first found the press kit, it was in several pieces in different boxes, scattered around,” she said. The press kit told a fascinating story, including facts about the park on opening day, details about the attractions, the park’s operating hours and all of the park’s sponsors.
The Puffin Bake Shop on Main Street USA in Disneyland. The posters on the wall list coming attractions America the Beautiful, the Sunkist Citrus House and a Walt Disney Art of Animation exhibit, a precursor to the Art of Animation Resort which opened last year in Walt Disney World.Mell Kilpatrick/Ape Pen Publishing
In 2005, as Disneyland neared its 50 anniversary celebration, several Disney executives contacted Carlene in hopes of taking a look at her collection of vintage photos.
“They wanted a variety of different photos to use for the anniversary,” she said. “They came to the house and I showed them a lot of different photos.” Then, she bowled them over. “I said, ‘Guys, you want to see something? Look what I found.’ It was the 1955 press kit for Disneyland.
“And they said, ‘Do you know what you have here? There is no 1955 Disneyland press kit. The company doesn’t even have one.’”
Of course, she let them use it ... and even came up with a clever way to present it to the members of the press and guests on hand for the anniversary coverage.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if the Post Office will allow you do this, but why not stick copies of the press kit in an envelope with ‘Lost in the Mail’ on it? And that’s actually how they sent out copies of that original press kit to all of the guests and members of the press.”
On the day of the 50th anniversary, many of the Disney oldtimers on hand took nostalgic trips down memory lane, remembering in vivid detail the significance of that special day and the general chaos famously associated with the event.
Mell Kilpatrick was there on July 17, 1955, laboring from dawn ‘til dusk in the broiling heat with his trusty weegee camera strapped around his neck.
So, too, was a gentleman who would have an enormous influence on Disney parks in general and Carlene Thie’s career in particular.
Keeping her grandfather's legacy alive through his classic Disney photos
By Chuck Schmidt | firstname.lastname@example.org
She’s never worked a day for the Walt Disney Company, but make no mistake — Carlene Thie is Disney royalty.
Carlene’s Disney roots run deep, much like California’s legendary sequoias, back to the mid-1950s, when her grandfather began a years-long working relationship with Walt Disney himself. And her Disney pedigree has continued right up until today, thanks to her dedication to keeping her grandfather’s legacy alive.
When the acreage between Katella Avenue, Ball Street, Harbor Boulevard and West Street in Anaheim was in the process of being transformed from lush orange groves into Disneyland, the world’s first theme park, Walt invited one of southern California’s most well-known news photographers to record the development of his Magic Kingdom.
That photographer was Mell Kilpatrick, who captured just about every phase of the project with his trusty “weegee” camera, even though photographing destruction, not construction, was his forte.
Kilpatrick “worked relentlessly to capture on film Walt Disney’s dream,” explains his granddaughter Carlene. “He climbed atop scaffolding, crawled into tunnels, even hung out of a light plane 5,000 feet above Disneyland to snap the perfect shot.”
Kilpatrick was a well-known figure in and around Anaheim during the 1950s. His weegee camera — a cumbersome, box-shaped device with a large flash bulb attached to the side — was more known for taking photos of deadly fires, gory crime scenes and horrific car accidents as chief photographer for the Santa Ana Register than it was for snapping shots of a more sedate, if hectic construction site.
But when Walt invited Kilpatrick to take photos of Disneyland — literally from the time the orange trees were leveled in 1954 to opening day about a year later — he was more than willing to lend his photographic expertise, becoming the park’s the main chronicler in the process.
But when Walt invited Kilpatrick to take photos of Disneyland — literally from the time the orange trees were leveled in 1954 to opening day about a year later — he was more than willing to lend his photographic expertise, becoming the park’s the main chronicler in the process.
Thus began a relationship between Disney and the Kilpatrick family that has lasted for decades and is still going strong today, thanks in large part to Carlene Thie and her Ape Pen Publishing Company.
Carlene has written five books about Disneyland, featuring hundreds of vintage, never-before-seen photos of the park snapped by her grandfather.
Indeed, the five works — “Disneyland ... the Beginning,” “Disneyland Under Construction,” “Disneyland’s Early Years,” “Disneyland Seen Through a Photographer’s Lens” and “Homecoming: Destination Disneyland” — were the first outside, self-published books to be sold in Disneyland’s souvenir shops.
She also assisted legendary ride designer Bob Gurr with his seminal masterpiece, “Design: Just for Fun.” And she’s produced a number of informative DVDs, including “Meet Bob Gurr” and a Disneyland 50th anniversary work.
When you talk to any Disney executive, they’ll tell you emphatically that The Story is the most important element of anything Disney does. The story of Carlene Thie’s family is as fascinating as it is steeped in Disney history.
It began in 1948 when Mell Kilpatrick became a news photographer for the Santa Ana Register. He was so good at what he did that he was named the paper’s chief photographer. His specialty: The life and times — both good and bad — of Orange County, Calif.
“He covered Orange County in every possible manner — by air, on foot, by car ... even by boat,” Carlene said. “He even attached a small camera to the dashboard of his car that was pointing out the front windshield.”
As the Register’s chief photographer, he took pictures of everything documenting the Santa Ana-Anaheim area. Little League games, airplane shows, car crashes, crime scenes. He was one of those nose-for-the-news guys who would often show up at the scene of a crime, fire or accident before the police.
He took so many photos that he needed a suitable place to store them. That place turned out to be the darkroom in his home.
“His darkroom was a little office which actually had two parts,” Carlene said. “The first part was bookshelves with a desk on either side, and the very back part was the darkroom.”
In the darkroom were boxes — actually, boxes atop boxes atop more boxes — of all the photos he had taken for the Register.
“When I was a kid, we’d go in the darkroom and say, ‘Oh cool,’ but my grandmother would always tell us to leave. Grandma wanted to keep that as his little shrine because that was his darkroom with his little office in there.
“She didn’t let us in very often and if we did, we kind of snuck in until we were told to get out.”
Kilpatrick’s reputation as an ace photographer in and around Anaheim obviously caught Walt Disney’s attention, which led to the plum assignment of taking photos of Disneyland under construction amid the noise, dust, heavy equipment and hot sun.
Mell’s relationship with Disney was further cemented when he generously allowed Disney’s staff photographers access to his personal darkroom since there wasn’t yet a place for them to develop their photos at Disneyland.
[Interestingly, some of the photos Mell snapped during this time included Curtis Sissel — his son-in-law and Carlene’s dad — a skilled craftsman who worked on Sleeping Beauty Castle and many of the buildings located on Main Street USA.
And Mell’s wife, Kathryn Kilpatrick, was a castmember at Disneyland for 18 years. She held a number of positions, including working on Tom Sawyer’s Island, in the model shop, at the Bait Shack in Frontierland and in several shops on Main Street.]
“Walt often called Mell to photograph special days during construction, as well as granting him unlimited access to Disneyland,” Carlene said. “Along with dozens of the nation’s photographers, Mell was invited to Disneyland’s press premiere on July 17, 1955, as well as Disneyland’s golden opening day, July 18, 1955. “History buff that he was, Mell saved every piece of memorabilia from that day, including the official Disneyland press kit.”
After the park opened, Mell was on hand to document a number of Disneyland special events, including that memorable day in 1959 when the monorail, Matterhorn Mountain and the submarine voyage all debuted.
It was Mell who snapped those classic photos of then-Vice President Richard Nixon trying to cut the ribbon to officially get the monorail off and rolling. [Of historical significance: The man at the controls of the monorail as it pulled into the station for the ceremonies was none other than Bob Gurr, who not only designed the monorail, Matterhorn Mountain and the submarines, but was called on to serve as the monorail pilot during that eventful day.]
Mell continued to photograph the now-flourishing park for a few more years, but in 1962, at the age of 60, he died of a heart attack.
Following his death, his beloved darkroom — with all those boxes of death, destruction and Disneyland negatives — was locked and left undisturbed for 30 years, gathering dust but never too far from the thoughts of his widow, Kathryn.
After those 30 years passed, though, granddaughter Carlene Thie came into the picture.
Next time: More on Carlene Thie and her legendary friends.
The End of the Road
The tortured metal & mangled limbs.
Mell Kilpatrick's car-crash photography takes a dark journey beyond the American highway.
By Brad Zellar
The captions assigned to Mell Kilpatrick's photographs in Car Crashes and Other Sad Stories (Taschen) are terse and terrible, models of emotional shorthand: Girl hit and killed. Man run over by a truck. Placentia Ave--decapitation. They are both ridiculously to-the-point, and pointless. Often enough they offer nothing but orientation--the names of streets, intersections, highways--beneath photographs that are nothing if not disorienting.
Mell Kilpatrick was a Southern California beat photographer in the Forties,Fifties, and Sixties a hard-boiled archetype of the camera ghoul, wired with an almost creepy singleness of purpose. Armed with a police-band radio and a Speed Graphic camera--much like his more famous East Coast contemporary, Weegee--Kilpatrick prowled the night streets and highways of Orange County in search of the sternest of images, calamitous still lifers snatched from scenes of all manner of tragedy. His peculiar specialty--his niche--was car crashes, and out of the booming car culture of postwar America he built the most accidental of careers, becoming in the process a sort of living embodiment of Vaughn, the kink protagonist of J.G. Ballard's novel of auto eroticism, Crash.
Kilpatrick was a late starter: He had worked as a movie projectionist in California and was in his 40s when he started haunting accident scenes, taking photographs initially for insurance companies and the highway patrol. He eventually landed a staff photographer's job at the Santa Ana Register, and he worked in relative anonymity throughout his lifetime, snapping hundreds of photographs in the grim aftermath of murders, suicides, and traffic accidents. After his death in 1962, his negatives lay undiscovered in his darkroom for 35 years before being unearthed by his grand daughter Carlene Thie.
As an accumulated body of work, Mell Kilpatrick's photographs are certainly shocking; these are images, after all, intended to be diffused by the gauzy, heavily grained filter of newsprint, digested one at a time in the cropped context of a news story, or buried in the exhibit files of law-enforcement agencies and insurance companies. Gathered together in a glossy monograph they are initially startling in their banality. Confronted with image after image of incredible wreckage--impossibly tangled and fractured automobiles and dead bodies, the Rorschach patterns of black blood pooled and splattered--one struggles with an appropriately human response. Initial revulsion gives way to dull fascination. Often you don't know what it is exactly you are looking at, so complex is the mutation of metal, so dense the wreckage, so crowded the frame.
You find yourself leaning closer, suddenly startled by a clenched fist protruding from the confusion of twisted steel and upholstery. That dirty object resting in the gravel alongside the railroad tracks is plainly a bare, severed foot, but it does not seem plausible. The blunt caption of another photograph tells you what you again do not want to believe: that indeterminate heap splayed across the front seat and apparently wearing a jacket is in fact a decapitated human being. There are bodies--often barely recognizable as such--pinned beneath automobiles and trains, burst through windshields, curled up on the floorboards or sprawled in ditches.
The images are often desolate of anything but tragic aftermath. You have the weird sense of Kilpatrick, alone along a dark highway with the wreckage and the dead bodies--the damp giggle of insects roaring from the ditches and fields around him--exploring these private tragedies with his camera, somehow granted this most solitary and creepy of dispensations. In other photos you see police officers and ambulance attendants, poking in the clutter or excavating bodies, onlookers huddled around, blank-faced. Their mute, almost placid expressions reflect your own numb, helpless response: anesthetized wonder at its deepest remove.
Like Weegee, Kilpatrick also had an odd knack for capturing scenes where an incidental detail or backdrop lends ironic commentary to the photo's subject. In one photograph a car, its doors sprung wide open, is smashed up against a stop sign at a railroad crossing; a gasoline billboard across the intersection fills the background with the message Next Time Go Farther. In another photo Mell Kilpatrick shoots an upside-down car through the gaping hole in a billboard through which it has crashed; the billboard is emblazoned with a beer bottle and the slogan, It's Lucky When You Live In America. There is an astonishing picture of a hot rod--the name The Wanderer airbrushed across its fat fender--wrapped around a tree in Laguna Canyon.
Finally, what is most disconcerting about these images is their awful silence. Stripped of all color, animation, and sound--absent even the strobing of emergency lights and the squawk of police radios--the pictures leave you with only the terrible freeze-frame chiaroscuro of a nightmare. These are photographs that almost demand a soundtrack--something dark and fragmented. Something, at any rate, so that you do not have to listen to yourself wheezing with astonishment over every agonizing page. Kilpatrick's photographs bring the viewer face to face with the most helpless rubber-necking impulses of human nature. You look--you have to look, you want to see--but your head instinctively throws up emotional barricades and activates sophisticated filters. Although there is certainly a powerful object lesson in every one of these photographs, after dozens of pages of car-crash photos it is impossible not to recognize how utterly prosaic tragedy is, how dreadfully commonplace. And that, finally, is the most terrifying revelation of these photographs.
Break down the etymology of autopsy and you get "to see with one's own eyes." The images in are definitely powerful autopsy photos, postmortems, and though it's likely that Mell Kilpatrick never imagined them as such, we might as well admit that they are art. Because virtually every one of these photographs offers a nagging variant of the dark truth we spend our lives trying to keep at shadow's length, and the dumb little profundities and commonsense rules of the road that are tattooed in every human heart: This is it. Life is fleeting. Love someone. Don't drink and drive. Buckle up. Call it mortality's ultimate mixed message: Hurry up. Slow down.
DISNEYLAND; Rising up from the Steam
By Carlene Thie
Keith Murdoch, the City Manager of Anaheim in 1955, tells the story of how in October of 1953 Anaheim was being considered as the location for a new theme park called “Disneyland.” The Stanford Research Institute (SRI), was hired by Disney to find a location for the proposed and set the criteria for the new Park. SRI determined the Park site would need to be approximately 160 acres and easily accessible from a freeway and Anaheim was the perfect match. With an abundance of land and a major highway running alongside (Interstate 5 which at that time was Interstate 101), Anaheim was the main focus of Walt Disney. After finding and abandoning a number of locations, a perfect site was found. Perfect until they ran into a ‘snag’, and Keith was the man to help untangle it.
When looking at the big map of Anaheim that was on his office wall, Keith noticed the chosen location for Disneyland had a road, Cerritos Street, which ran all the way from Harbor Boulevard, clear to the ocean - straight through the middle of the proposed Park. City streets had been closed for beneficial purposes, but the Disneyland property was still on unincorporated land. Keith started going through the law books and checking out the codes to find out how to close a street in an unincorporated territory. It might be some what of a challenge, yet it was possible.
Keith and Arnie Moeller, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce manager, went to Burbank to deliver the news to Walt Disney. Walt asking if closing the street was possible, and Keith reassured him it was. A deal was struck with Murdoch and Walt with only a handshake to close the deal.
When the Disneyland project was announced to the public May 1, 1954, the Parks site was in unincorporated county land. Since the City would take control by opening day, an agreement was made which would have building inspecting done by city inspectors with oversight by the County during the transition. The County Road Commissioner helped in developing plan for the street to be widened with Disneyland paying its share of the cost. The State highway Division was persuaded to rush designs and construction of an interchange of I-101 and Harbor Boulevard. The metropolitan Water District pipeline began construction, as well as Southern California Edison speeding the extension of their utilities to meet the opening day deadline. Only with all the agencies working together would there be any chance of the project being completed on time.
These were just some of the many hurdles that would need solutions as creative as those found on the drawing board of the newly christened Imagineers for the design of Walt’s Park.
Every day, history was being made and, luckily, captured on film. Considerable amounts by Walt Disney’s staff, and even more by my grandfather, Mell Kilpatrick. And, much like the planning and construction of Disneyland, these came into being through luck, mutual cooperation, and handshakes.
Mell was working for the Orange County Register - then called the Santa Register. Having already established a rapport with the local community Mell was the perfect guy to get the perfect angle. While Disney had all the machinery at hand to build castles and rivers, one thing Walt didn’t have was a place for his staff to develop their photographs. As luck would have it, Mell was on the spot and granted Walt’s staff unlimited access his darkroom. Having done this, a friendship-business relationship began to develop. Walt then opened the castle drawbridge and gave Mell unlimited access to the park, during construction and throughout the early years of Disneyland a privilege not granted to others outside the parks own photographers.
Mell Kilpatrick covered the park from the first spade of dirt being shoveled, to the uprooting of the orange trees, all the way to the completion of the park. He was there for the infamous opening day, known as Black Sunday. Mell had a unique eye for photography, and reported the news in a timely fashion. His skills and know how helped him to continue his coverage, of the park while writing about the inside world of Disneyland.
Of the many Disneyland articles written by Mell, one in particularly caught my eye. Published in the July 15th, 1955 Santa Ana Register - two days before the official opening of the Park under the title: ‘All Employees Schooled’
Pictured are a few of the 1100 employees who attended orientation classes before assuming their duties at Walt Disney’s magic kingdom. The importance of good manners and good grooming, along with correct handling of jobs under discussion is stressed.
The accompanying photograph captures a Disneyland employee’s orientation class. Sitting in the front row is my father, Curtis Sissel, who was not only part of this orientation class, but also worked on the construction of the Sleeping Beauty Castle and other Disneyland buildings.
What’s equally amazing is the story of who Mell was before he became a photographer. Mells original desire was to become a musician so he and wife moved to Southern California when he landed a job at the Dianna Ballroom. He played the coronet there till late 1947. Then he moved onto becoming a projectionist due to periodontal disease that ended his musical career.
While Mell continued to work at theaters threading reels of film, he picked up another type of film and began shooting photographs of accidents for the Insurance Companies. In that same year, Mell started contributing his photographic work at the Santa Register. By November of 1948, at the age of forty six, Mell began his new career as a news photographer at the Register. With no known experience of being a journalist, the ex-musician became one of the best well known cameramen in Orange County and the first Chief Photographer of the Register. He would go on to documenting everything from car accidents to crime scenes. From highway 101 taking form to one of Orange County’s defining monuments … Disneyland.
Back in 1954 when Disneyland project was announced, the Santa Ana Registers had a circulation of about 30,000 to 40,000. Average pay was $1.25 per hour, making it where you had to turn in at least 80 hours per week to make a living. So it was part of the norm for photographers to freelance and then sell their images to outside sources.
Not only were pay scales unbelievably different 50 years ago, so was photography. Mell’s basic photo outfit consisted of 2 cameras, electronic flash, light meter, Tripod, and a gadget bag. Mell had no PhotoShop and digital darkroom. He developed his prints by hand; standing over a row of printing trays, the hot water causing steam to rise up and swirl around him. Wearing a blue technician’s jacket, much like the ones you see doctors wearing today, Mell would make a print by putting it in the main developer and hurry it along by rubbing hot water and then some straight developer on the photo paper. When he was in the dark room he was all business - he was the boss. At least till noon, then it was off to the Santa Ana Elks Club where he would tend bar.
Mell’s work is well known even today, and can still be seen in the Disneyland Park. While his images are some of the most visible in the Park, not being one of Walt’s employees meant little, if any, official Disney recognition. Still, it is a great reminder of how one person can make such a hugh impact on so many lives, even at the age of forty six. It was in Mell’s darkroom that the first images of Disneyland were developed, and the dream of a man started to be captured on film.
In 1962 a heart attack claimed his life and his prized darkroom would be sealed till the 1990’s. Leaving the photos and negatives of Disneyland to sit on the shelves collecting dust, locked away, and forgotten…
With Mell’s photographs being re-discover and back in the publics eye once again, his photographic vision can be seen. It was in Mell’s darkroom that the first images of Disneyland were developed; one man’s vision and another man’s dream, literally rising up out of the steam, captured on film.
Done; The Disney Way ...
Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom Event
The Ape Pen Publishing event at the Disneyland Hotel. The event, "The Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom" was to feature the talents and stories of many Disney Legends Finest
About five or six months ago I received an e-mail from the 1313 Club & Ape Pen Publishing Informing me of an event to take place at the Disneyland Hotel. The event, "The Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom" was to feature the talents and stories of current and former employees and imagineers as they worked for Walt over the years. The 1313 Club and Ape Pen are both are created and run by Carlene Thie, Carlene's family has been involved with Disneyland from the beginning since Walt Disney first broke ground for the original Disneyland park. Her Grandfather Mell Kilpatrick, was a freelance photographer who took photos of the first nine years of the parks construction and operation. Carlene's father, Blaine Sissel, was also part of the construction crew who helped in building the park, working on Sleeping Beauty's Castle and many other buildings there. Even her Grandmother worked at the park for nearly two decades in the bait shack on Tom Sawyers Island, the Model Department, and other locations in the park.
I give you this background because this little lady has "Disney Blood" flowing through her veins even if she is not a direct descendent of the Disney family. I know this because of the hard work and sweat she puts herself through to put on some great shows. By seeing, meeting and talking to these past & present employees at these events, it has given me a glimpse of what it was really like to work for Walt and his incredible company, sometimes great, and sometimes not. I have been to two of her shows, the first was a tribute to the Golden Horseshoe review, it was fantastic and very entertaining. I even got to meet Wally Boag the head comic entertainer at the Horseshoe for years, as well as other Disney fans and employees at the park.
I had such a great time at the previous show, I decided to make plans to attend the Mechanized event inviting one of my film students as well as a pal that creates all my robots and weird props that I need from time to time to produce the short films we produce. Appropriate dress was stressed, asking us guests to wear semi-formal attire. Once I read this, my hand almost veered from buying the tickets, thinking, what, I can't wear my normal, ratty black t-shirt with the Panavision logo on the back! How is anyone going to know I am a filmmaker! Once I calmed down, and thought about it a bit, I realized it might be fun to dress up and go to an event like this. Hey remember it was not that long ago that my parents and yours, dressed up to the nine's just to attend a movie back in the day.
So, after donning my Black Blazer, my Tan pants, Blue shirt, Red Mickey Mouse tie, Red Artist Beanie, and Big Round Black Glasses, off we went to the show.
Upon arriving at the Disney Hotel I started to get excited, it was a blast being dressed up at the hotel, everyone was starring, probably at my silly French hat, but hell I didn't care. I was kind of going for a Ward Kimball look, (He was one of Walt's nine old men) they say "one of the wilder ones" he was an amazing animator, and train enthusiast. He was the one that inspired Walt to build the train in his back yard, and that led to bigger and better trains at the park.
Ok I am getting side tracked (no pun intended) . As we waited in line to gain entry into the Grand Ballroom at the hotel, people started showing up in their semi-formals. Man we were all looking good! I saw Carline going down the line looking for her guest speakers, she was all work as usual, but flashed a friendly smile when you caught her eye. I was standing in line with the fellow who produces and hosts "Window to the Magic" I only knew this because of his black polo shirt logo, he had flown in from somewhere far away and did not have time to change, he looked a bit frazzled but happy to be there.
As the line moved, I also met a nice fellow that flew in from Texas for the show, wow here I thought my driving two hours to the gig was far! We checked in and headed toward the entryway. Upon entering the lobby of the ball room we knew immediately it was going to be one enchanting night. To my left were two restored "People Mover Cars" on a track. Big bright and yellow, these cars really brought back some great memories as a kid in the park.
About 5 foot in front of the cars, was the original Ride Operator Panel , a man standing next to us said "hey guys go head and operate it" well it did not take long before we were pushing all the buttons , we were making the roofs of the car go up and down and more. Weeee this was too good to be true!
As we walked through the exhibit, all around us were unique artifacts, like Original Disney Art and many Disney related props and one of kind pieces up for a silent auction, there was an original car from Mr. Toads Wild ride, a working Wally's head that you could operate from the film "Wally". Just when I thought it was over, we stepped into the next exhibit room and there, all over the room, were animatronics of all kinds. A crawling spider, a working robot, Scully from Monsters inc, and cool props from rides and more.
I past the first wet bar, and got myself a nice diet coke, with a diet coke chaser, man I was livin'! I noticed Bob Gurr was right in front of me, Bob was the imagineer who designed the Monorail, Autopia, the Double-Decker bus and Antique cars that roam main street. He was also responsible for more than 100 other Disney attractions around the globe. We talked for awhile, he told me his latest passion was making short films! Wow, I said that's what I teach, he seemed very interested. I gave him my card hoping he would call to set up a talk for my film kids someday, but you know how those things go.
At the very end of the room I heard some live music, as I turned the corner there was a band playing music from the Haunted House and other choice original material. Man this show was so cool! My friends and I were very glad to be here, again Carlene outdid herself.
The doors opened to the main ballroom, the salads were already on the tables. We found our table, number six, pretty close to the front. Everyone sat down and started to munch. I was sitting next to a gentleman who had flown in from Florida for the event, while here he wanted to visit our Disneyland for the first time. Seth was his name, he told me he liked our park better. He was also a contributing writer for the Orlando Weekly, as he sat there, he went through three pens as he wrote on two full legal pads about the show and its guests. Wow, I started to think, man I should be doing that, then I came to my senses, I wanted to enjoy the show, then write about it.
I realize I am writing quite a lot in this month's article, I guess it's because the show ran from 3:300 to 11:30 pm so the fun never ended. Neal Patrick Harris ( Doogie Howser fame) was the main host of the show as well as Brian Sommer voice over talent for many projects. I admit I was never a fan of Brian Sommer, it would really get old hearing him on a now defunct Disney internet site always saying in the his Disney Park voice "Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls, so many times I wanted to reach out and strangle him. That being said, I had to change my mind quickly because he was professional, funny and only said that line one time. He really was a great host when he was questioning the guest speakers. One thing I liked was, he let them talk as much as they wanted and never interrupted them.
Man I could go on and on, but the night was filled with magic, Bob Gurr came out in a mock Monorail that moved about 3-inches and hour to get across the stage, it was so funny we were all on the floor laughing hysterically. Retired Imagineers where there lined up across the stage sitting and sharing the mic about unheard funny story's of Walt and how many rides and films came about. They also talked about the hurtles they had to overcome, and working with ideas and themes that had never been built before. Carlene had great film footage of the park being built in the 50's that had never been seen taken by her Grandfather.
Oh what a night! The food was great, the coffee amazing, and show was out of this world. I kept looking around the room to see how many people had left during the break. I was glad to see most all of us stayed to hear Carlines fabulous guests talk about their heyday working at the studio and the parks. As Alice Davis and Xavier Atencio were interviewed, we were all on the edge of our seats with smiles like we 10 years old listening to Mark Twain tell a story in person. Most all of the guests had many years working for Walt and the company, they were all adorable and had stories of building Mr. Lincoln and more, just too many memories to mention here. Kathryn Beaumont was the voice of Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan, she was on stage still looking fabulous, telling us her Disney life story. We were visited by R2 and C3P0 moving all around the stage delivering great lines and cracking us up to no end.
There was the train guys, Michael Broggie, Rodger Broggie Jr. Telling us tales of building the Disney railroad and just a host of others that made the evening "a one of a kind event". Carlene and her club put on the greatest show ever for us Disney types and it is something my pals and I will never forget. Unfortunately she told me it was the last one.