Sunday, August 4, 2019

Review: David Koenig's The 55ers: The Pioneers Who Settled Disneyland

The 55ers Cover
I've only reviewed one book previously on this blog (Chris Strodder's The Disneyland Encyclopedia, in 2008). That shouldn't indicate, of course, that I haven't found many worthwhile Disneyland books published in the last decade (Todd James Pierce's Three Years in Wonderland being one of the best).

But David Koenig's forthcoming The 55ers: The Pioneers Who Settled Disneyland (available everywhere September 2019) is right in line with the Disneyland research work I am doing. With so few people doing research on the Disneyland Cast, I am perhaps best-positioned to review the book, which I received this week because I pledged to the Kickstarter campaign earlier this year.

If you're familiar with books on Disneyland, you very likely already know David's name. His first book, 25 years ago, was Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland. He wrote follow-ups in a similar vein (Mouse Under Glass, More Mouse Tales), about Walt Disney World (Realityland), and most recently The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits & Lawyers Transformed the Magic. David was instrumental in bringing to publication the memoirs of two early Disneyland Cast Members: Club 55er Bob Penfield's The Last Original Disneylander and Bob D'Arcy's A Walk in the Park: Reflections from Disneyland's First Host. Additionally, since 2000 David has had an online column about rumors and news about the Disneyland Cast, first on MousePlanet and now on MiceChat.

If there is one person with a reputation for writing the stories of the Cast, it's David. I felt that while his earlier books on Disneyland sometimes relied heavily on Cast Member stories in a way that wasn't easy for an outsider to verify, both The People v. Disneyland and The 55ers are better cited.

So what is the aim of The 55ers? In the Introduction, David explains that when he was first interviewing Cast Members about Disneyland, he was so focused on their Park stories that he wouldn't bother to ask about their non-Disneyland life experiences. But as he continued these conversations, with particular prodding from Disney University founder Van France, he came to understand the importance of the people. As he put it, "I continued interviewing cast members, but now with an eye toward who they were, rather than just the tales they could tell me." Disneyland would have been a very different place if different people worked there in 1955. The 55ers is "[David's] attempt to pay tribute to all of these brave adventurers."

The 55ers profiles 743 first-year employees(!) and names another 325. For most of you, this is an astonishing number of profiles of people you have never heard of. The book is as much about the people as it is about Disneyland, so you'll read stories of wartime service, Midwestern couples relocating to Southern California and both ending up at Disneyland, and post-Disneyland stories (including all those who followed C. V. Wood on his endeavors). I think David has produced a beautiful tribute to the Disneyland pioneers. If you collect books on Disneyland history, your shelf is now impoverished without this book. You will find information you didn't know, and see unique photographs of things you have never seen. This is not in any way a rehash of the 1975 Club 55 book (the only comparable work.)

In his Acknowledgments, David gives special thanks to Bob Penfield, the last to retire of the first to be hired. An early idea for The 55ers was that some profiles could be sprinkled throughout Bob's own memoir. Bob has always been the one who cared the most about the Club 55 legacy. I owe thanks to Bob, too. I first met him as a teenager in July 1997 at his Main Street window dedication ceremony, awarded to him upon his retirement. I was wearing my "Ask Me About My Disneyland Website" button and he did. (He asked that I only print nice things.) He helped me and Kevin Yee out with our trivia books and answered some detailed questions when I first began work on the thesaurus. He put me in touch with early Cast Member Earl Archer, whose collection of Cast publications has been integral to my research. Thank you, Bob!

Bob Penfield's Main Street window dedication ceremony

How does one put together a book like this? Talk to a lot of people over a long period of time, to start. He's been doing research in this vein for 30 years. He also reviewed early directories and Cast publications over a long period of time. Unfortunately, the book does not include a comprehensive index of all the sources he consulted, but just the "most relied-upon of the tens of thousands of records," as well as the people he interviewed, the families he interviewed, and interviews conducted by others which he was able to use. The book also includes a Personnel Index to all of the 55ers he names or profiles. David laments that he was "unable to find names for a great many of the 800-some people who worked for lessees in 1955." This is an area where I can't use my thesaurus to identify omissions, as I only group work history by decade. Brad Abbott has done in-depth research on the lessees, and hopefully his book on that subject can fill in some gaps David has identified.

As somebody steeped in the terminology of Disneyland at various points in its history, I've found David's use of nomenclature to be spot on in both official and unofficial terms. That's often my first clue that somebody knows what they're talking about.

The book is organized along two parallel tracks. As David describes each division, department, and location, telling the history and weaving in anecdotes from those he's interviewed, he also uses extensive sidebars to profile or name the people who worked in those places. By displaying this information together, the book constantly reminds you of the importance of the people. I don't know that David considers this a Disneyland reference work, but I definitely do. If you wouldn't want to buy a Disneyland reference work, please don't let my categorization dissuade you—$55 is a bargain for the amount of information he's compiled and published as a very attractive, photo-filled hardbound book.

The amount of information in each biographical entry can be uneven and doesn't necessarily track with their length of service to the Park. I found an example of this in the Finance section. Jim Quigley, a Club 55 member who retired in 1994, received only half as long an entry as Denis Scallen. David describes Scallen's time at Disneyland as brief, before describing a number of activities he pursued as a charlatan in later years. The example also shows how much it is about the people and their stories beyond Disneyland.

Biography is tough. Before we realized that, Kevin and I had planned for one series of our encyclopedia series to be a Pantheon. Which is why it's all the more remarkable that for nearly everyone he's profiled, David has found their full names, their dates of birth, their dates of death (as applicable to a large majority of the 55ers), and details of their lives. Although I have gone through Cast publications and directories meticulously, I am very often seeing new middle or maiden names, and nicknames that have helped me consolidate a few terms into one person. There is no central place he could have found this information, which demonstrates the incredible amount of work he put into it.

If I had a "wish list" item that could have been incorporated into the book, it would have been the employment dates with Disneyland listed like the birth and death dates, so you could see who was only there a short time and who stayed. But in addition to being perhaps an impossible thing to find for so many people, David's focus clearly is 1955 and what happened that year. In that sense, it doesn't matter as much if somebody built a career at Disneyland; what matters is what they were doing the opening year. The book does include in the profiles separation and retirement dates (when known).

I haven't been fact checking every statement I've seen in the book, but everything shows it to be very well researched. All of the new information I'm finding matches up with what I've already recorded and additionally fleshes it out. For example, I already knew that Costumer Ed Carnegie lose his Ticket Seller wife Sally in 1960. I didn't know that she had been killed in a car accident while driving to Yuma, Arizona. Additionally, while I had a Sally Carnegie in the thesaurus, I hadn't realized that she was also the person who I had in the thesaurus as Sally Wray (from references to her in the directories and the Disneylander).

So far, I've already had some amount of information on 80% of the people in The 55ers. Usually the book has a fuller name than I do, such as Dorothy Mae Donaldson Humphries instead of Dorothy M. Humphries. Occasionally I've found that I have a part of a name he doesn't, and I've tracked those to a May 28, 1956 telephone directory I don't think he used. It's understandable that it wouldn't have been a starting place for his research, but does have a tiny amount more detail in a few cases. (He mentions using November and December directories, which I don't have. Hey David, let's trade!)

What it all boils down to is that if you combine The 55ers with Three Years in Wonderland, Jim Korkis' The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion, Marcy Carricker Smothers' Eat Like Walt, and Jason's Disneyland Almanac, and you have an astonishing level of detail about 1955 Disneyland that was unavailable even ten years ago. Kudos to David for the exceptional book he was able to put together, which would have been difficult 30 years ago, let alone today.