Rise From The Steam .. Mell Kilpatrick Disneyland Photographer
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.