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.