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Monday, October 29, 2012

Disneyland and the 1953 Halloween Festival

Anaheim Halloween Parade - October 30, 1948
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 Disneyland and the 1953 Halloween Festival
by Todd James Pierce

Back in the early 1950s, the city of Anaheim was dishing up a little fame for itself by entering the world of creative, outdoor fantasy—only that world had nothing to do with Walt Disney.   You see, as Anaheim transformed itself from a pre-war agricultural economy to a post-war suburban economy, the Chamber of Commerce used the local Halloween festival to bring nationwide notoriety to their sleepy little town.  As the spirits seethed up each October, the Camber wanted the existing Anaheim Halloween Festival to expand out into the largest Halloween festival in the nation, specifically with the grandest nighttime parade.

So from the perspective of business, what was the point of all this effort?  The Chamber would invite executives from large companies—such as Ford and General Electric—to judge contests at the festival, such as best parade float.  The purpose, though, was to expose executives to the city of Anaheim—its hard-working citizens, its inexpensive land, its favorable utility and tax rates—with the idea that some would consider Anaheim as a western expansion city for their business interests.

Now here’s where things get interesting.  In 1953, the Chamber understood that the Disney company was looking for a location for a new amusement park and thought if they included a Disney rep in with the parade judges that Disney just might consider Anaheim as a location for this new park.  Nothing of course was said directly to Disney as the Chamber felt it was better for the Disney people to arrive at this conclusion on their own, once they discovered the affordable land and utility rates in Anaheim.  The City simply asked Disney to participate in the parade—with three floats—and to send a Disney representative down to the city as a festival judge.

At this very same time, Walt Disney and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) were searching for the ideal location for Disneyland.  Already, SRI had narrowed the site selection region to inexpensive farmland along the proposed route of the I-5 freeways, most likely in the Santa Ana / Norwalk area, when Anaheim contacted them about the Halloween parade.  The request for floats wasn’t unusual, as Disney had provided small floats for other community parades.  And I suspect that the Anaheim float design was simply modified from earlier Disney parade floats, with perhaps the fixed characters being stored onsite at the studio.  Walt decided to send Nat Winecoff to Anaheim as the Disney representative, with PR man Joe Reddy likely handling all the issues regarding the floats.  Walt thought this was an unbelievable bit of luck as Winecoff could casually ask about the expansion of utility services to outlying sections of Anaheim and also how unincorporated areas in the county might be annexed into the city.  (At this point, one of the largest problems for Disney was figuring out how to lay all of the water, sewer and utility lines out to that farm land to service a massive amusement park—especially as most of the considered farmland presently used water wells and septic tanks.)

I’ve talked to people from both Disney who worked on this effort as well as from Anaheim, and here’s the Amazing thing: both Disney and Anaheim thought they were playing the other side for information and access.  Anaheim was courting Disney for the park—but never laid down these cards.  And Disney was quietly trying to figure out if Anaheim would annex in outlying farmland (to keep utilities at the low city rate) if Disney decided to build there.

Anaheim Halloween Festival - October 30, 1948
Up on the blog today are a series of Anaheim Halloween Festival photos from—um—1948.  Sadly, DHI doesn’t own any photos of the 1953 parade.  Actually I've never seen photos of the 1953 nighttime spectacular, let alone the Disney floats in this parade, so if you have some, please, please send scans my way.  The Anaheim Historical Society does have a couple amazing photos of the children's daytime Halloween parade in 1953 on their web page, also a pretty cool nighttime pic from 1957 I suspect that photos of the nighttime parade are fairly scarce.  If you look at the crowd gathered on the street in 1948, no one appears to be holding a camera--most likely because nighttime photos just didn't develop well.  The few images we have come from medium format negatives, which required a more sophisticated and costly camera than the average family owned.

But even here, in 1948, you can easily see that the Halloween Festival is beginning to transform the town, with impressive floats and a significant crowd.  And so with this, the Festival—and of course the season of Halloween—was already beginning to prepare Anaheim for the arrival of Disney.

If you’re interested in Disney’s involvement with the Anaheim Halloween Festival, Jason Schultz has an absolutely excellent article about it over on his blog. 

That’s it for this time.  See you in TWO weeks—as my regular spot will be dark next Monday.  But I have it on good word that Jeremy Marx is going to bring the good stuff to DHI with some amazing images once November lays open its doors.

See you then.  -- TJP

Anaheim Halloween Festival - October 30, 1948


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