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Carlene Thie, Keeping her grandfather Mell Kilpatrick Legacy of Disneyland alive


Carlene Thie

 Keeping her grandfather's legacy alive through his classic Disney photos

By Chuck Schmidt | 




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.





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