SAMLAND: How the Court of Angels Got Its Name

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Disney, Features, Samland

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Published on October 24, 2013 at 5:00 am with 24 Comments

One of the best things about Samland are the readers. You folks are great. I recently posted an article about the Court of Angels that used to be in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. One of my readers, Peggy Matthews Rose, contacted me with a very personal take on the courtyard. I could not help but share this wonderful story. So…

How the Court of Angels Got Its Name

By Peggy Matthews Rose

A year or maybe two afterwards, my role with Disneyland’s operations communications team took me to an offsite warehouse to see what Park Enhancement had in mind for “plussing” the Christmas decorations that year. It would be the first year of holiday overlay extending beyond the Main Street area and we wanted to know all about it.

In one corner was a bevy of gold and white heavenly gorgeousness—what appeared to be an actual host of angels. “This will go in New Orleans Square, in the Court of Angels area,” said the designer who was giving us the tour. “I understand it was inspired by the lady whose plaque is on the wall.”

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He said “lady” but my mind heard: Sally. Had she really been gone so long that people had forgotten her? Few people I’ve ever met are more unforgettable.

You couldn’t be in her presence without smiling, without a sense, however brief, that you’d been coated in an actual layer of pixie dust. Fair skinned with a bouncy blonde shoulder-length bob and a smile as big as the Disneyland Main Entrance, Sally had that rare ability to make you feel you were the most important person she’d met all day—whether you were the company president or the Cast Member who’d come in to pick up the trash. Her Disney instincts couldn’t have been sharper. She was a truly rare executive who understood that her medium was simply an element in a much larger and timeless message.

Sally genuinely loved being around people and doing the simple things in life. She told me once that after playing with her kids, singing in her church choir and playing the guitar were her favorite activities.

Born in Bethesda, Maryland, she’d been living and working as a retail executive in Indiana when the opportunity came to move Disney-ward in the mid-1990s. She quickly became Director of Store Operations at Disneyland.

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Although she worked with merchandise, the particular tools of Sally’s trade were the people rather than the products—and that’s where she excelled. She’d arrived on the scene during a time of growing pains, when long-time managers were suddenly being challenged by newcomers—managers who’d come from “outside the berm.” When she saw that getting them to work together was a little rough, Sally knew just what she was looking at: a classic Toy Story-style Buzz and Woody conflict. Her challenge, as she saw it, was getting the Woodys to shake hands with the Buzzes, and keeping the Buzzes from launching on the “old timers.”

Right about this time, I’d re-hired into Disneyland and was working in Store Operations, after several years with The Disney Stores. Sally was looking for someone to edit her centerpiece Pixie Dust Press newsletter, and my background as a former Disneyland Line editor fit the bill. In that role, I had a front row seat for everything Sally was doing, and it was magic in action.

It was the spring of 1996. Although pregnant with her third child, Sally never let it slow her down, even to the point of planning a Toy Story-themed offsite retreat for her staff. Her idea to get the Buzzes and Woodys playing together on the same stage and liking it came off flawlessly. Everything seemed new and full of great  promise.

But just like in every great story, there was this glitch. Shortly after baby Sam was born, the lingering cough Sally’d had for months was discovered to be a mass in her lungs—and the pregnancy had accelerated its growth.

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For the next year, Sally was in and out of the office, in and out of the hospital. She lost her hair, but she never lost her smile. There were valiant efforts and a massive outpouring of love from her staff and cast—including a platelet harvesting drive at the City of Hope and teams taking turns making meals for her family. By Thanksgiving 1997, she was home and cancer free. Sally was coming back!

On the morning of December 9, we learned that Sally had succumbed in the night to a virus, having no immune system left to fight it.

Corporate life can often seem cold, shallow, and unfeeling, but on that day—and for the next several weeks—there was a shared outpouring of grief such as I’d never experienced. I can only guess that it must have been similar, at least in our little corner of the kingdom, to the moment when the Disney Company learned that Walt was gone. We all did our best to put on a “happiest place on earth” face for our guests, but our collective hearts were broken. Over and over, we heard people say that Sally was now singing with the angels in heaven.

Much to their credit, the company brought in grief counselors, gave people time to mourn, and reached out in some amazing ways to Sally’s family and friends. And that wasn’t all.

Sally hadn’t been there long enough to be considered a legend or to earn a window on Main Street. What could we do to keep her from being forgotten, to honor her place in our lives and in Disneyland’s legacy? There had to be a way.

Six months later, the plaque that has since been seen by millions was mounted along the stairway leading up to Club 33’s backdoor in New Orleans Square. On a morning in July of 1998, just before Park opening, Disneyland executive Cynthia Harriss, a longtime friend of Sally’s, hosted an unveiling ceremony at the French Market—and all Sally’s family from Indiana had been flown in to celebrate with us.

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Always a popular photo spot, the place I remember calling the Royal Courtyard in my earlier Disneyland years would quickly become known by the other sign that was hung that day—the stained glass artwork signifying it as the Court des Anges, where daily vocal instruction is now delivered by a true Disney angel—Mademoiselle Sally McWhirter.

While I can’t say with official Imagineer certainty that this was the first day the courtyard was called Court des Anges, it’s the day I clearly recall it taking on meaning. What will happen to Sally’s plaque, or the Court des Anges sign, as a result of the projected remodeling of Club 33 out into the courtyard area is not known at this writing, but at least Sally’s story has now been told.

If you’ve visited the Court des Anges, had your picture taken there, enjoyed its peaceful retreat from the crowds, or ever wondered about that sign on the wall—maybe now you’ll have a face to put to the plaque. Sally was an amazing woman with true Disney spirit. In the few years that were given her, she did her best to be like Walt.

 

On Being Like Walt

I first started working at Disneyland one year after Walt died, so I remember the feeling that hung in the air for many years after—that Walt was looking down on us and saying, “Go on—you can do it!”

So when I met Sally, there was this sense of hope that another Walt-like spirit had come along. Over the years, I’d given up on a writing career, figuring I’d never learn to use a computer. But because Sally had faith in me, I not only learned to use a computer but within just a few years I was writing and editing books—books that are actually published! And there are many others with similar stories to tell, just like all those legends whose lives went places they’d never have imagined, all because Walt believed in them.

Here are a few comments from people whose lives Sally touched:

“On many occasions we met in the hallway or she would call me into her office as I passed by. Our conversations were not specific about work but about life in general. I loved Sally’s spirit and zest for life. I loved that when you were engaged in a conversation, she was really involved. Sally was the kind of person you looked forward to seeing.”

“I barely met her and yet she left a strong and positive impression on me.”

“I have been blessed to know Sally for many years and the special qualities that she so beautifully exemplified of love, kindness, generosity, fairness and concern for others have always been a part of her make up.”

“Sally was one of the most inspirational managers I have known . . . Many times I have thought how exciting it would be to work for her.”

“Sally did not know me, but I certainly knew her. She was a light that entered the room.”

“I only recently got to know Sally by way of shared experience, but the fraternity of cancer patients can quickly create a very strong bond …. Her unique spirit has touched me and I am honored to call Sally my friend.”

Perhaps best of all were the words in a letter to the merchandise team from their vice president, who concluded: “Sally has given each of us a unique gift. It is now our turn to give the gifts Sally has given to us to those whom we encounter. Sally is with us all. Listen for her spirit and look for her messages. She is a special bond we all share—we can bond together to nurture her spirit and touch the thousands who come to see us everyday.”

I call that being like Walt, and Sally was.

About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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24 Comments

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  1. Absolutely wonderful and inspiring article. Thank you.

  2. Not awake enough to write anything other than “all of the above.” Every time I hear “Sally” from Nightmare Before Xmas I will think of COA and a woman who was “like Walt” and knew all about the preciousness of souvenirs…

  3. [...] TO ADD: Check out this link that tells the story of Sally, the inspiration behind the music instructor plaque along the stairs, and how the courtyard got its [...]