In case you haven’t seen Al’s latest piece, it’s a series of screen captures from a Disneyland promotional piece done in 1955. Al’s focused this week’s captures on Main Street, USA.
Here, in brilliant TECHNICOLOR, you can see the way Main Street used to be—the way Walt Disney wanted Main Street to be.
Main Street, USA’s significance—not only to Disneyland, but its connection to Walt Disney himself—cannot be overstated. While some misguided fans suggest Fantasyland may have been Disney’s “favorite,” there’s little evidence to back this notion up. Circumstantially speaking, however, it was Main Street that Walt was most emotionally tied to. He could have built his apartment anywhere—the Castle would have seemed a logical place—but instead he chose the firehouse on Main Street. Why Main Street?
You all know the story—Walt Disney spent four of his youthful years in Marceline, Missouri—a division point on the famed Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Marceline’s “Main Street” (actually, it was called Kansas Ave.) paralleled the Santa Fe’s main line to Chicago, which barrelled straight through the heart of town. Disney grew up a few blocks from Kansas Ave. and the Santa Fe tracks, and could hear the lonesome wailing whistles of the trains on warm summer evenings as he lay in bed, dreaming of life beyond the prairies.
Kansas Ave. was not paved—it was a dirt street, muddy in winter, dry and dusty in summer. The horse traffic rendered it a massive equine latrine. Tall, crooked telephone poles carrying dozens of wires lined the street. And while most of the buildings were two-story and brick, many with awnings, there were spaces between buildings, and even some single story structures. This was Walt Disney’s “Main Street.” But it’s allure never left him.
After visiting Greenfield Village with Ward Kimball in 1948, Disney drafted his first memo describing the Park. A Main Street was it’s primary focus. Seventeen of the 23 paragraphs of that memo are devoted to describing what would become Main Street. There is no mention of a “fantasyland” (although a carnival section—with midway games—was included).
The Main Street that Disney approved was designed by several Imagineers, chief among them Harper Goff. The buildings they designed were composites of styles, with brick, wood, and “cast iron” facades. The overall scale of the buildings was reduced to make the place seem intimate, approachable even. The colors were chosen for their warmth and inviting feel.
Details abounded. Main Street used to have an intersection “mid-town.” East and West Center Streets branched off the main thoroughfare. North and South Main Streets originated here. There were appropriately dressed “white wings” (custodial crew), roof lines that featured distinctive wrought-iron “widow walks,” and even a lamp lighter who would light the gas lamps along the street at dusk. The shops were meant to evoke the past, and several were almost like small museums, like the Upjohn pharmacy. Horse drawn surreys meandered up and down the lane, while a horse-drawn fire wagon patrolled with guests aboard. Guests with only dim recollections of their own hometown “main streets” instantly felt at home.
Sure, Main Street USA was a romanticized notion of Kansas Ave. The street was paved; there were no spaces between the buildings, not electric lines to clutter the skyline. But for all its nods to idealism and necessity (like a paved street), it also attempted to portray realism, in its architecture, color scheme and plethora of details.
Today, those details—the details we all claim make Disneyland so special—are falling by the wayside. Building roof lines are destroyed to hide lighting standards; wood benches gave way to the PVC kind. The gas lamps glow constantly, day and night. The original color scheme was abandoned in favor or cute pink and purple pastels--presumably colors chosen to heighten one's willingness to spend money, not to make one feel welcome and at home.
So really, Main Street USA—Walt’s purposely-anointed “welcome center” to his dream, is in shambles. Sure, it’s not falling apart—but its “intent,” and very much of its character, is gone. It deserves our attention—it deserves Disney’s attention. More than any other land, Main Street was “Walt’s Land.” Walking it is to relive the early 1900s through his eyes.
The rehabilitation of Main Street can begin simply. Return a structure to its original color here; replace a plastic bench with an authentic wooden one there. Refresh the abandoned surreys and fire wagon. Return the roof lines to their once-lacy Walt look. Larger "fixes," like returning Center Street, can come later.
If any land deserves to be lovingly restored to its opening-day appearance, it’s Main Street. There can be no greater tribute to Walt Disney than this.