DESTINATION SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Trauma and glory: Bawled out by Uncle Walt himself
Sunday, May 1, 2005
Walt Disney yelled at me. It happened at Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth, at least when you're not getting yelled at by the fellow who built it. a
Actually, Disney yelled at me a couple of times, and he frowned at me once. In the great man's defense, I had it coming, although kindly Uncle Walt turned out to be as avuncular as Grumpy the dwarf.
As a kid growing up in L.A., I forked over much of my allowance and my childhood to the Disney cartel. Our family kept Walt's place solvent in its early years. We were there on Opening Day in 1955 and we were there on the day the Matterhorn bobsled ride opened in 1959. At the queasy age of 7, I was one of the first people to upchuck on it.
That was about the time Disney and I began our tempestuous personal relationship.
The first time Disney yelled at me, my big sister and I had practically brought the Autopia ride to a standstill. It was in the late 1950s. My sister was behind the wheel of our little car as we cruised the concrete roadway through Tomorrowland.
My big sister was not about to let me drive the car, because she was tall enough for her head to clear the sign at the entrance. That meant she was big enough to drive, and I wasn't, and she wasn't about to let me forget it. So I had to sit beside her and suffer the indignity of being a passenger as we putt- putted along at 2 miles an hour.
And then suddenly, off through the bushes, there he was. Walt Disney in the flesh. He was standing with another fellow, and the two of them were reviewing a large set of plans for what must have been the yet-unbuilt (and now, alas, scuttled) submarine ride.
"It's Walt Disney!'' my sister squealed, louder than the three little pigs. She took her foot off the gas, the cardinal sin on the Autopia ride, as the roadway is only a single lane wide and, if you stop, every other car behind yours has to stop, too.
But she didn't care. She undid her safety belt, got out of the little car and walked over to where Disney was standing. I followed her.
It was Disney, all right. The great Disney, the fellow who came into our living rooms every week bearing cartoons, the pre-pubescent Annette and the post-pubescent Davy Crockett.
We were actually standing face to face with Walt Disney, in Disneyland. The happiest place on Earth. My sister was trembling. It was a little like coming face to face with Sandy Koufax, or the Romper Room lady or the burning bush.
My sister looked up at the crinkly, mustached visage of Disney and began stammering how great his TV show was, and how great his amusement park was, but his face was turning red and, even though this was in the days before color TV, something didn't look right to me. And then came the explosion, louder than the sound of the blanks that the Jungle Cruise captain fired at the fake hippos.
"What are you doing out of your car?'' Disney bellowed, and he pointed in horror at the growing backup of stalled Autopia cars behind our abandoned vehicle. "Get back in your car right now!''
We ran back to the little car, a lot faster than 2 miles an hour, too. My sister gunned it back to the loading dock.
Somehow, my psyche survived that trauma. A few years later, in 1961, I was back at the park with my big brother. We happened to be there on the day that Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India, was visiting the park, too.
I had just gotten a new camera and was taking pictures of everything, including all the poor souls trapped inside the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck costumes. In Frontierland, there was a throng of people near the old mine train ride. I plunged into the middle of the mob, expecting to come upon a giant costumed Goofy or some such, and suddenly found myself standing directly in front of an antique car. In the front seat were Disney and Nehru. Disney was driving, or trying to.
I started snapping pictures, not realizing that I was blocking the forward progress of Disney and his esteemed guest, the leader of the world's largest democracy. Disney leaned forward and glared at me the way he had glared at me during the Autopia fiasco. He looked less like Grumpy than Cruella De Vil.
"Get out of the way!'' Disney shouted.
A security guard lifted me up and set me to one side, and Disney and Nehru drove past without running me over, which they certainly would have been entitled to do.
And then a year or so later, I bumped into Disney yet again. I was walking down Main Street holding what was left of a double-decker chocolate ice cream cone, my foodstuff of choice. Disney, who had just emerged from his secret apartment above the firehouse, was walking toward me. It was time to make amends for my past transgressions. I stuck out my hand.
Disney shook his head and frowned. He pointed at my fingers, which were covered with smeared ice cream. He walked on without a word.
Three encounters with Disney, on his own turf. Three catastrophes. No wonder things failed to work out and I wound up in the newspaper racket.
My father drove me home that day and consoled me as best he could. He reminded me of how the two of us had been at Disneyland on Opening Day on July 17, 1955. He had carried me around on his shoulders, and he said his feet kept getting stuck in the newly poured asphalt.
I was too young to remember much of that day, but I do seem to recall that we had spent a very, very long time driving to a place with a merry-go- round, and that there were closer merry-go-rounds to be had. My father went on and on about how Disney had not installed enough drinking fountains at his new park. My father thought it was a plot to sell soda.
Hard to believe anyone could think kindly Uncle Walt was seeking to turn a buck off the place. If my old man had met Disney, he would have gotten to the bottom of it. And the two of them would have been evenly matched. My old man could give someone a piece of his mind every bit as dynamically as the great Disney.
Steve Rubenstein is a reporter for The Chronicle. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.