I’ll admit it—I’m one lucky guy. I get to make a living telling stories.
What makes me even more fortunate is that, for the most part, these aren’t my stories. They’re on loan, shared with me and in turn with you by the hundreds and hundreds of cast members who have kindly opened up to me over the years.
What makes me triply lucky is the niche we’re in—Disney—has an inexhaustible amount of wonderful content. I’d estimate more than 250,000 people have worked at Disneyland since 1955 and every single one of them has great stories about the place. I still delight in meeting new cast members (and even more so old ones!) and hearing their own tales, first-hand. A particularly good anecdote practically sets off fireworks in my head—yup, I smile, that’s a keeper that one day will entertain tens of thousands of readers in some future book.
Sometimes I hit the jackpot. There was Larry Holmes, a ride operator from 1971 to 1983, who arrived at our meeting with a detailed, numbered list of dozens of incredible tales I’d never heard before, most of which made their way into Mouse Tales, from the Gumby Alert to the Matterhorn Potluck Gone Wild. Paul Castle, the park’s longtime Mickey, a rascally, bawdy character and the most free-speaking “pageant helper” I’ve ever met, was jaw-dropping fun. Van France, founder of the University of Disneyland and the Disneyland Alumni Club, was a storyteller par excellence, who became a great friend and mentor, possibly the only person I’ve ever interviewed who genuinely seemed more interested in me than in my writings.
But there have only been two folks, best as I can recall, whom I advised that their lives were already a book, so they should write their own. One was Bob Gurr, who I know had been considering the idea for years but finally succumbed to my and Carlene Thie’s browbeating and created the magnificent Design: Just for Fun.
The other is Bob Penfield. Bob was the last original 55er to retire from Disneyland, starting on Opening Day on the Carrousel and finishing up in Facilities supervision 42 years later. During that time, “Penn” wasn’t one of the big names. He didn’t regularly hang out with Walt. He wasn’t made a Disney Legend (though, due to his longevity, he does have his own Window on Main Street). But during his career, Bob somehow seemed to find himself with a front row seat to everything interesting that happened at the park.
Bob had two advantages, both of which made him a perfect chronicler of Disneyland lore. First, Bob knew (and remembers) everyone. Friendly, outgoing, a little gossipy, Bob stayed in touch with co-workers, even if they transferred to another position or left the company. For a while, he was also the Disney Recreation Committee correspondent for the old Backstage Disneyland employee magazine, keeping the crew up to date on all the extracurricular activities. And, in retirement, he became the “glue” of Club 55, keeping track of the other surviving originals.
Second, Bob is by nature intensely curious about everything—and a little sneaky. So he spent his 42 years at Disneyland constantly exploring. He’s gone through every attic, tunnel, basement, and back closet, into the manholes, and up to the top of the castle and the mountains. (In fact, for Disneyland’s first year, he and castmate Bob Allen used to eat their sack lunches people-watching from the upper porch of Sleeping Beauty Castle, until the Skyway was built and their hiding place was outed.)
He insists no one knows every inch of Disneyland better than he does. “I’m not braggin’, it’s just a fact,” he’ll say.
So I’d always hoped Bob would share his story and his secrets. But Bob’s a modest guy—and a voracious reader who wasn’t interested in rehashing familiar facts. He figured if he was going to tell the inside story of Disneyland, he’d need help. He was determined to involve others and their memories. In the late 1990s, about the time Bob was preparing to retire, he began interviewing other old-timers who’d left before him. He’d travel to Florida to tape-record several transplants and also mailed his tape recorder to others who lived in parts of the country he couldn’t travel to.
Finally, about three years ago, he started committing his own memories to paper. After countless fits and starts, I’m thrilled to announce his book is finally done and is out this week (the paperback is available through Amazon, the hardcover direct from the publisher). The Last Original Disneylander is both Bob’s story and that of the other pioneers who helped create Walt’s greatest dream. There are hundreds of stories and secrets in this book even I didn’t know—how Bob and his buddy Ray VanDeWarker, on a dare, started what would become the annual cast member canoe races; what it’s like in the Main Street Cinema’s projection booth; what Disneyland’s first paper name tags looked like; what character is named after Bob on Pirates of the Caribbean; and—most shockingly—the truth about the 40th anniversary Time Capsule, which is supposed to be buried in the forecourt of Sleeping Beauty Castle… but is it?
I’d encourage all Disneyland fans to check out Bob’s new book. And if you’d like to meet him and hear some of his tales first-hand, attend next month’s MiceChat anniversary party!
Mark your calendar – MiceChat Anniversary is January 27th through 29th. For information about the David Koenig and Bob Penfield event, please CLICK HERE to be notified when event info becomes available.