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Mell Kilpatrick's picture books cast a nostalgic eye back on Disneyland's past


By Jim Hill


For seemingly months now, my good friend, Jeff Lange, has been hawking me about Carlene Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" series. Almost every time that I've seen Jeff over the past year, these three soft-cover books -- featuring photographs that Thie's grandfather, Mell Kilpatrick, took while he was a staff photographer at the "Santa Ana Register" -- have come up in conversation.

"You've got to get these books, Jim," says Jeff. "They've got all of these killer images of Disneyland from the mid-1950s. Lots of construction shots of the park and its attractions. They'd make a great addition to your Disneyana library."

So -- while I was out in Southern California last week -- I dropped by the "Off the Page" shop in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot section of Disney's California Adventure theme park. And what to my wandering eye should appear on that store's shelves but copies of all three of Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" 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."

So -- following Lange's advice -- I purchased copies of all three books. Then after slipping from "Off the Page" into the lobby area of DCA's "Disney Animation" exhibit, I plopped myself down on the couch and perused Kilpatrick's pictures.

I'll say this much. My pal, Jeff, was right. Mell Kilpatrick's black and white photographs of Disneyland's early days really are exquisite. Based on the images that you'll find in this trio of books, it would appear that Mell had free access to the place from late 1954 right up until Kilpatrick's death in 1962.

Among the amazing images that you'll find in "A Photographer's Life with Disneyland Under Construction":

Beautiful aerial shots of the theme park rising up out of that Anaheim orange grove.
A photograph of the still-under-construction Sleeping Beauty Castle take from high atop the now-long-gone Snow Mountain.
Pictures that Kilpatrick took of Tomorrowland & Fantasyland after scaling the bare steel of the still-being-constructed Matterhorn.

In Volume 2 - "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" - you'll get to see crystal clear photos of long-gone pieces of Disneyland's original Tomorrowland. Images like:

The interior of the Circarama theater, filled with people, while a scenic travelogue plays overhead.
An aerial shot of the theme park that actually shows the notoriously balky Phantom Boats in operation.
TL's Court of Flags entrance area with the Goodyear blimp flying high overhead.

And in the third book in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series - "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Lens" - you got to see rarities like:

Disneyland's Christmas decorations from the 1955 holiday season.
Photos of the infamous parade that signaled the start of the "Mickey Mouse Club Circus."
Fess Parker giving the then-Vice President Richard Nixon the key to Disneyland during the VP's first official visit to the theme park.

Plus dozens of other wonderful photographs. All sure to thrill hundreds of Disneyland fans.

Mind you, Ms. Thie's "Disneyland Under Construction" books aren't perfect. To be honest, there is some repetition of material between the first three volumes in the series. (EX: Both "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction" and "Disney's Early Years Through the Eyes of a Photographer" run the exact same picture of a KABC-TV camera crew shooting images of cowboys arriving in DL's Frontierland. Only one book says that this photo was taken on Disneyland's opening day, while the other book says that this photograph was taken during rehearsals for the park's opening day festivities. So which caption is right?)

Plus some of the books' captions get fairly obvious things wrong. Like identifying I-5 (the California state highway that runs right alongside Disneyland) as Route 101. Or repeatedly calling Catfish Cove on Tom Sawyer's Island "Cat Foot Cove." (This mistake on Carlene's part is truly kind of bizarre given that her own grandmother, Katherine Kilpatrick, actually worked on Tom Sawyer's Island. There's even a photograph of Katherine working on the island in "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction." Carlene's grandmother / Mell's wife in the fishing shack on Tom Sawyer's Island. A structure that is just feet away from -- you guessed it! -- Catfish Cove.)

And then there are the mistakes/goof-ups/whatevers in the "Disneyland Under Construction" books that just don't make any sense. At least to me. Like those side-by-side photographs of Wally Boag and the Andrew Sisters in "Disney Years Through a Photographer's Lens." One caption on one page reads "Wally Boag and guests at the Rivers of America 'Your Happy Holiday Radio Show,'" while the caption under the photograph on the facing page reads "Wally Boag and Andrew Sisters." It's obvious that both of these pictures were taken on the very same day in the very same location, virtually seconds apart. So why doesn't Carlene identify Patty, Maxine and Laverne in both photographs?

But then again, maybe I'm being too hard on Ms. Thie. After all, "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" are clearly just a homegrown effort. Carlene's company -- Ape Pen Publishing -- initially just produced a thousand copies of each book. Now that the original editions of all three volumes have been snatched up by Disneyana fans, she's published a second edition of the "Disneyland Under Construction" series. A set of which I just purchased at DCA's "Off the Page" shop.

And let's be honest here, folks. The real reason that you'd be picking up these "Disneyland Under Construction" books wouldn't be because you wanted to read Carlene's captions. But rather, because you wanted to see all of the great pictures that Mell Kilpatrick took during Disneyland's first few years of operation.

No doubt, the captions will radically improve with the next volume of Thie's series, "Disneyland: The Beginning." This book -- which is slated to make its debut July 20th at the National Fantasy Fan Club's annual convention in Garden Grove, CA -- is supposed to feature a foreword written by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller. Not to mention write-ups by Walt Disney Imagineering veterans like Alice Davis, Sam McKim, Harriet Burns, Bob Gurr, Blaine Gibson and Rolly Crump. As well as even more vintage Disneyland photographs from Mell Kilpatrick's archives. Including the first ever color pictures published in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series.

Given the WDI vets that will be contributing to this upcoming Ape Pen Publishing title, something tells me that -- in five weeks or so -- I'll be snatching up a copy of Carlene Thie's "Disneyland: The Beginning" as well.

Okay. So let's review: There's some minor repetition of images between the "Disneyland Under Construction" books as well as some botched captions. But -- barring these minor quibbles -- Carlene Thie's ""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" are still well worth picking up.

All three volumes of the "Disneyland Under Construction" series that are currently on the market can be purchased at DCA's "Off the Page" shop. Or -- if you'd prefer to do your shopping through the Web -- both the LaughingPlace Store and MousePlanet's MouseShoppe have copies of the series for sale. Or -- if you'd prefer to help out -- you can order a copy of "A Photographer's Life with Disney Under Construction" and/or "Disney Years Seen Through a Photographer's Eyes" by clicking on the appropriate link.

Also, if you'd like to pre-order a copy of the next volume in the "Disneyland Under Construction" series, "Disneyland: The Beginning," you can visit Ape Pen Publishing's home page.

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