Saturday, October 31, 2009
Halloween: The Holiday That Brought Disneyland to Anaheim
Halloween at Disneyland? That’s only really been celebrated since 2006, right? Sure, Mickey’s Halloween Treat debuted in 1995, and Haunted Mansion Holiday emerged as a combined Halloween/Christmas themed attraction in 2001, but Disney's HalloweenTime celebration begun in 2006 sets the Disney standard for Halloween. Disneyland, however, has a much longer record of celebrating Halloween that extends beyond the gates. (It would almost have to be outside the gates, as Disneyland has been closed on October 31 nine times in its history—including 1955.) In Disneyland’s early years, Anaheim hosted a Halloween extravaganza with a pedigree dating back to 1924, with Disney often lending its support. There is even evidence that Disney’s involvement in the 1953 celebration helped Walt Disney choose Anaheim as the site of Disneyland!
My introduction to the annual Anaheim Halloween Festival came from the October 1957 Disneylander (the monthly publication for Disneylanders published by the Disneyland Recreation Club). The issue described in detail the contributions of Disneyland employees to the 34th Annual Anaheim Halloween Festival (more on that below). Through another Disneylander and a surfeit of archival newspaper articles, I’ve pieced together Disney’s involvement in and support through the years of what is now known as the Anaheim Fall Festival. Below I point out Disneyland’s Halloween activities from 1953 to the present, through when Disneyland first (tentatively) got into the Halloween spirit to the present all-consuming celebration.
Disney first became involved in the Anaheim Halloween Festival in 1953. The tradition extended back to 1924, when a crowd estimated at 20,000 watched grand marshals Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth in the parade (perhaps the most exciting baseball parade in Anaheim until 2002). The tradition included a breakfast in the park, a children’s parade, and a nighttime parade, with tens, then hundreds, of thousands of people coming to Anaheim to witness the largest Halloween celebration around.
A 1953 Los Angeles Times article could not boast with more superlatives: “biggest Halloween party in the nation” … “first in the country to stage a community-wide Halloween celebration to keep youngsters out of mischief” … “biggest night procession in the country.” And yet the most significant part of the 30th annual festival could hardly have been recognized at the time, for how many knew that Disney was shopping around for locations for its Park?
Disney participated by designing floats for the Fairyland division and providing such characters as Snow White, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio. They also provided one of the float judges, but sources conflict over whether this was Joe Reddy (publicity director at the Studios) or Nat Winecoff (on Walt’s personal payroll). The bigger story, however, is what went on behind the scenes. Earne Moeller of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce was angling to increase the prestige of the festival beyond its already lofty reputation. Also recognizing that Anaheim’s future did not lay in agriculture, Moeller also hoped to attract the attention of Los Angeles industry.
At the time Disney received Moeller’s invitation to participate in the 1953 festival, Walt’s men already had Anaheim on their radar as a potential site for the Park. They used the invitation to (they thought) stealthily gain the confidence of Anaheim officials and learn the finer details of city ordinances and building requirements. It is altogether possible, however, that Moeller had advance knowledge of Disney’s search, and extended the Halloween Festival invitation in an effort to bring the planned park to Anaheim. Todd James Pierce will have more details on these wheelings and dealings in his forthcoming book on 1950s Disneyland and its non-Disney offspring. The book’s working title is The Artificial Matterhorn and is one I very much look forward to.
Again in 1954, as construction on The Site continued apace, Disneyland had a strong presence at the annual Anaheim Halloween Festival (theme: “Legends and Fantasies”). One of the five divisions was a “Disneyland” one, and Donald Duck served as the grand marshal for the parade (the first of several times that a Disney character would perform in that capacity).
October 31, 1955. Monday. What are the odds that Disneyland would be closed that first Halloween? Well, one-in-seven. Beginning Monday, September 12, 1955, Disneyland was closed on Mondays in the off-season. (The next year, this was expanded to Mondays and Tuesdays, in an operating schedule that lasted with few variations until February 6, 1985.) Halloween 1955 fell on the eighth day Disneyland was ever closed. Disney’s participation in this year’s Halloween festival was more subdued than in the two previous years (there was no Disneyland division this time), but the Disneyland Circus Wagon did bring home honors as the best Horse Drawn Float (conveniently around for the Park’s forthcoming Mickey Mouse Club Circus). This year Knott’s Berry Farm “Birdcage Theatre” float won the Grand Prize.
I haven’t found too much on the 1956 festival, but Wally Boag did serve as master of ceremonies for the traditional festival breakfast. Wally also served as master of ceremonies for entertainment in the 1961 celebration.
The 34th Annual Anaheim Halloween Festival in 1957 was run by Disneylanders. Myrt Westering (in charge of Swift’s Red Wagon Company at Disneyland, which operated the Market House and Red Wagon Inn) served as festival chairman and was assisted by Tommy Walker (Disneyland’s entertainment impresario). (Walker’s participation leads me to believe this festival would have been the one to see!) Preceding the parade, the Mouseketeers performed at La Palma Stadium—said to be the first time they had performed outside of Disneyland. One of the parade’s five divisions was a Disneyland affair: the “Fairy Tales” division, captained by Bud Coulson (the Park’s lessee liaison in its early years) with assistance from Ron Dominguez (the Disneyland Site native and later Park VP who has a well-deserved reputation for community involvement). The Disneyland Merchants Association (sort of a Chamber of Commerce for Disneyland lessees) entered its own float in Bud’s division, and naturally a Disneylander served as the parade’s queen: Judy Underwood of the Frontier Trading Post. But in a twist rich with irony for the future Halloween drama between the two theme parks, Walter Knott served as grand marshal for this year’s parade.
1958’s festival wasn’t quite the Disneyland show as the previous year’s, but it still featured participation of Disneylanders. Again, the parade featured a division with a theme keyed to Disneyland. This year it was the “Fantasy” division, captained by Rose Wilson from Main Files, with assistance from Larry “Hutch” Hutcheson of Guest Relations. Dee Fisher, Wurlitzer organist, coordinated the Disneyland Halloween costume contest a week before the parade to determine who would ride on the Merchants Association’s float; he also performed in the parade itself. Also participating in the parade were Disneyland icons the Disneyland Band and the Omnibus. Red Wagon folks Tommy Scheid and Charlie Fowler helped with the festival’s annual breakfast.
The 41st Annual Anaheim Halloween Festival in 1964 was again centered on Disneyland, with a “Festival of Fantasy” theme. The parade had divisions one would expect for such a parade—Tomorrow Land, Adventure Land, Frontier Land, Fantasy Land, and the El Bekal Shriners. (Like “Main Street, U.S.A.” “El Bekal Shriners” doesn’t have land in its name, either.) This parade was noteworthy in having the participation of the six finalists for the first Disneyland Ambassador tradition: Venita Wold; Glenellen Cooper; Marcia Miner (who served as the 1967 Ambassador); Ethel Walker; Julie Reihm (who was selected for the position); and Kathy Albright.
Disneyland continued to participate in the parade through the years. In 1965, the Park donated costumes for the Kiddie Parade; that year, the Dapper Dans participated in the parade. In 1970 Disney used the parade to advertise “The Aristocats.” Disney characters continued to serve as grand marshal: Goofy in 1973, Cinderella in 1987, and Mickey in 1978, the same year that Disneyland, Carl Karcher, Herb Leo and others helped to save the parade after the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce had pulled its support.
From time to time, in light of the tremendous success Knott’s Berry Farm had with its Halloween Haunt (begun in 1973), Disney would be asked if Disneyland would ever itself celebrate Halloween in the Park. In 1983, Park spokesman Bob Roth indicated that Disneyland had effectively conceded Halloween for the time being. The time was used as a lead-in for “Mickey’s Month,” an on-and-off celebration begun to celebrate the Mouse after his 50th birthday in 1978. In early 1988, Jack Lindquist (then in Marketing, Disneyland President as of 1990) suggested Disneyland was contemplating some sort of family Halloween event, but come October, Roth was again saying Disneyland didn’t need Halloween: “It’s one of those things we keep putting off till next year (or) we get comfortable with the format.”
With the number of times a Disneyland Halloween celebration was put off, then, it’s curious that the first Halloween event held for Guests was such a debacle. In concert with KIIS-FM and Rick Dees (who was broadcasting live from the Haunted Mansion on Halloween morning), Disneyland in 1994 offered free admission to anybody who showed up at its gates before 8:30 a.m. Free admission? And all you have to do is show up in costume? And the popularity of this event caught anybody by surprise? Gridlock, of course, developed around the Park and backed up the Santa Ana Freeway, keeping many from gaining the free admittance they sought. Community schools weren’t too thrilled with this promotion, either, and the stunt wasn’t repeated. 1994 also marked the first year of the continuing Cast Member exclusive event Little Monsters on Main Street.
The next year Disneyland threw its first themed event for Halloween: Mickey’s Halloween Treat!, held the evenings of October 26, 27, 30 and 31. Envisioned as an event complementary to Knott’s events (rather than in competition), it featured trick-or-treating at fifty locations around the Park, a Kids Costume Cavalcade, and seasonal food items. Starting in 2001, Disney’s ambitions toward owning Halloween accelerated. The Haunted Mansion Holiday premiered that fall, mixing the Park’s only year-round Halloween-like attraction with the very popular world of Tim Burton’s "The Nightmare Before Christmas." The overlay was an immediate smash, repeated every year thereafter. Disney’s HalloweenTime debuted on September 29, 2006 as a promotion that transformed both theme parks with special shows and lavish decorations.
The Anaheim Halloween Festival has fallen on hard times more than once. I already mentioned Disney’s role in saving it in 1978. After declining in popularity, the Festival went on hiatus from 1992 through 1994, returning in 1995 as the Anaheim Fall Festival (the name under which it is still held today). And despite the success of the Disneyland Resort’s HalloweenTime promotion, Disneyland still actively supports this community celebration—even if few now remember, they go way back.