The seventeen year old me, stepping onto the school bus headed for Grad Nite at Disneyland could never have imagined that years later (and I won’t tell you how many) I’d get to sit down and talk with the man man who was involved in the conception and marketing of Disneyland’s Grad Nite. But that’s exactly what happened when recently, I got to spend some time with Jack Lindquist, Disneyland’s first advertising manager and later, Disneyland’s first president.
To get to chat with someone who was there at the beginning, who knew Walt Disney, who not only watched Disneyland grow from “Walt’s Folly” into the park it is today, but who also was one of the people making Disneyland into the park we all love and know today ... for someone like me who has a nearly life-long love of Disneyland, it was a rare treat, indeed.
Jack Lindquist is a warm and welcoming guy and it was pure pleasure getting to chat with him. He’s the kind of person who from the get-go, you know you’d like to be able to call “friend.” And working for the Disney Company for 38 years, well, I’m sure you can imagine ... the things Jack has seen and done, the places he has been, the stories he has to tell!
Though you may not get the chance to sit down and talk face to face as I did, the stories are still at your touch. Jack has written a memoir entitled, "In Service To The Mouse." I’ve been lucky enough to read a sampling of chapters and I’m telling you, Dear Readers, you will love this book. We’ll get to the book ordering information in a bit, but first let’s sit down for a chat so I can tell you a few stories Jack Lindquist told me.
Jack was born in Chicago and when he was four, the Lindquist family moved to Los Angeles. He worked as a child actor, appearing notably in episodes of Our Gang. Jack graduated from Hollywood High, spent time in the Air Force, came back to LA and finished up his education, graduating from USC. He soon found himself working as a radio/TV director for a medium sized LA ad agency and in May of 1955, Jack was down in Anaheim for a meeting to set up an ad tie-in with the soon-to-open Disneyland for Kelvinator, which was one of the agency's clients.
Jack Lindquist at the start of his Disney career.
Only problem was, the gentleman Jack came to meet was in another meeting and wouldn’t be free for an hour. At that point in time, Anaheim was way out in the boonies and you couldn’t just leave and come back. So Jack was asked if he wanted to have a look around. He did.
Now try to imagine, if you will, what it was like in 1955. You’re in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from Los Angeles surrounded by orange groves and farmland. There were no theme parks as we know them today, only amusement parks. And your impression of those places is not a positive one. They were dirty and not really somewhere you’d want to take the family and spend a day with the kiddies. You’ve heard that Walt Disney is building this place, a place where the whole family can go. But you really have no basis to even try to imagine what Disney’s park is going to look like.
So you’re Jack Lindquist and you step out onto what was becoming Main Street (Disneyland was about 80% built at that point) and what do you see? “Walt wasn’t building an amusement park,” Jack remembered, “He was building a whole town.” There was a city hall, an opera house ... and a castle! I’m sure your imagination allows you to figure out it was a pretty amazing sight for Jack. And that first step onto Main Street was the very moment Jack “fell in love with the place.”
Main Street at Disneyland under construction.
The ad tie-in deal that Jack was there for that first day worked out. It worked out so well that about a month later Jack received a call from Disneyland. They were looking for someone to come work as an ad manager for the park and wanted to know if Jack knew anyone he could recommend. “Yeah,” he told them, “me.”
Those early days at Disneyland called for a lot of creativity as there were no theme park management guidebooks and no one had ever built something like Disneyland before. They were making it all up as they went along. Jack remembers Disneyland had about 700 employees at the time and they did so well at everything they came up with due to ignorance, “We did things we did because we didn’t know we couldn’t do them.”
In 1957, Jack and Tommy Walker, the Director of Entertainment, decided they wanted to try a New Year's Eve celebration at Disneyland. The problem was they would need to sell advance tickets to insure a successful party. At that point in time, advance ticket sales didn’t exist for any venue. And for a theme park that didn’t allow any alcohol consumption planning a New Year’s Eve party without booze? It was a hard sell to even get the go-ahead from Disneyland, but Jack persevered and soon Disneyland was planning its first New Year’s Eve party.
Jack started out approaching businesses like Desmond’s Clothing Store in Pasadena and Wallach’s Music City in LA about selling advance tickets for Disneyland’s party. “What kind of commission would Disney pay,” the stores wanted to know. “None,” was the answer, but the stores would be mentioned in all the advertising Disneyland presented for the party. It was another tough sell but Jack finally got enough stores to join in to make the project viable. By December 31st, Disneyland had sold 4000 tickets and advance sales from the stores Jack had approached garnered 3500. It doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but back then those advance sales, like the party, itself, turned out to be a success.
The next time, months before, you purchase tickets to that concert you’re dying to attend, give a little thanks to that one little spark of an idea from Jack Lindquist ... because those first advance ticket sales for Disneyland’s New Year’s Eve party paved the way for businesses we know today like Ticketmaster.
As I mentioned above, I was one of the thousands of teens who come every year to Disneyland for Grad Nite. I remembered my Grad Nite fondly and when I asked him how all that started at Disneyland, Jack had a couple of great stories about Grad Nite.
Grad Nite began at Disneyland back in the early 1960s when after a horrific graduation night traffic accident Jack got a call from some parents in the San Gabriel Valley area of LA who wanted a safe place for their teens to celebrate finishing high school. Jack agreed to head out to Alhambra for a meeting to discuss the possibilities. To Jack and the parents, it seemed like something that could work, but to everyone else, not so much. The Sheriff’s department even went so far as to tell Jack they thought, “The kids will burn Disneyland down.”
Now, Jack strikes me as someone who doesn’t take too well to being told he can’t accomplish something, so he went ahead and figured out a way to make the party happen. First thing, there would have to be rules. Proper dress was required. The guys would wear jackets and ties, the gals, dresses. The teens, accompanied by chaperones, would arrive via their school buses at 11 PM and once inside Disneyland, they could not leave Disneyland till the party was over the next morning and they were safely back aboard their school buses. While the teens partied inside Disneyland, the chaperones waited backstage in an area set up for them by Disneyland. And it was strictly enforced that no booze was allowed.
Teenagers are clever creatures though and they found ways to circumvent the rules. Jack remembers walking around the park one night and running into a teen clearly not properly attired for the party. Jack went up to the boy and asked him if he could see anything wrong. The teen knew the jig was up and spilled his guts to Jack, telling him how he lived nearby and snuck into Disneyland to party with everyone. Jack called security and the boy was escorted out of the park. Hours later though, here comes the same kid walking up to Jack. The kid had snuck back in and was now properly dressed, all decked out in jacket and tie. The problem though was he needed to get back home before his dad returned from work to find out that his son had stayed out all night. And now that now he looked “official” he couldn’t get out of Disneyland. Jack listened attentively, smiled, and before he strolled off into the park had only one thing to say to him: "I've never seen you before in my life."
Another Grad Nite, Jack was enjoying the teens dancing at Plaza Gardens. One girl, in particular, seemed to be very popular. She was a pretty thing all dressed in a fancy strapless party frock. But as Jack watched, he noticed each dance was with a completely different guy. Feeling something might be amiss, Jack mentioned to security that they might want to talk to this particular girl. Turns out, the girl had a hot water bottle secreted under her fancy dress. The hot water bottle was filled with vodka and had an attached hose fed up to the top of her dress that functioned like a long straw. This enterprising miss was charging 50-cents for a dance and a sip.
Less-clever teens plotted other ways to sneak alcohol into the party. They’d go to Disneyland earlier in the day and stash bottles of booze in the lockers. Disneyland was hep to that. They swept the lockers and exchanged booze for bottles of soda. Other teens would go so far as to pound stakes into the banks of the Rivers of America, tie one end of a rope around the stake and the other around a liquor bottle and pitch the whole thing into the river so they could come back and fish it out later. Security was hep to that too and liberated all the sunken treasure from the river before the teens could come back to where X marks the spot.
No matter what the teens plotted, Jack and his team made sure Grad Nite was a safe and fun place parents could send their kids to celebrate graduation. And the Grad Nite tradition that Jack and the Disneyland Operations team started continues on to this day.
Jack Lindquist is one of the few to have Main Street windows in both Anaheim (above) and Orlando
(which you'll see in part two of this piece). Now you know where we got the title for this article..
During his years working for Disney, Jack was involved in the creation of Magic Kingdom Club and became its biggest cheerleader. He invented Disney Dollars and some of the great Disneyland promotions under his watch
were Blast To The Past and the Gift Giver Extraordinaire (for Disneyland’s 30th anniversary). What advice would Jack give to the folks running the park now? Jack feels that, “Advice is cheap to give so the giver needs to do so with responsibility,” but first of all, “Read my book. Also, don’t take everything too seriously, don’t replicate what I did but use it as a guide to what you can do.”
I told Jack that, like I’m sure he was for many Americans, Walt Disney was a part of our family. Though we never met him, we felt we knew him because he came into our home each week when we watched him host Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. So I was curious what it was actually like to know and work for Walt Disney and asked Jack how Walt was as a boss. Jack’s description of Walt was much like what I’ve heard so many others say, “He was hands-on. Nothing happened that he didn’t know about, but he gave you the flexibility to try things. Walt was tough but he was fair. He had great ideas and accomplished great things.”
Very few people knew Walt Disney was even ill when he suddenly died in December of 1966. Now I know this is a tough place to end this first half of our interview, Dear Readers. But I’ll leave you here because I have something special for you. Jack Lindquist is allowing us to run a complete chapter from his forthcoming book. The one I’ve chosen for you to read is the one in which Jack remembers December 15th, 1966. I think you’ll find the tale very compelling.
Losing a King
While driving up to the studio for a Walt Disney charity committee meeting and listening to the radio, I heard the news bulletin, ‘Walt Disney died this morning at St. Joseph’s Hospital.” It was December of 1966, and the park had only been open for 11 years.
I didn’t know Walt was dying. Nobody knew but maybe his wife, Lilly, and Roy. They knew he was going to die; they knew he had incurable cancer. But we didn’t know his death was so imminent. Like the entire world, I was shocked. But this was well before cell phones, so I couldn’t call anyone to discuss the news.
When I arrived at the studio, people were weeping. It was like losing a friend, but more than that, it was like losing a king.
I immediately went to Card’s office. Marty also arrived, and Card wanted to know if we should close the park, so we got Dick on the phone. We didn’t have a speakerphone at the time, so the conversation was just relayed back and forth. Dick thought we should keep the park open, and I agreed because “the show must go on.”
Dick wanted the flag lowered to halfstaff in Town Square. There is a dedication plaque in Town Square that says, “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land.” The plaque conveys the sense of being in a different world, a safer, happier world than the world outside. We wanted to create an environment that keeps the real world out. But on that day, we didn’t. It was the right thing to do — to keep the park open. The public was respectful that day because they knew they were visiting a fragile house.
I left the studio at about eleven that morning and returned to Disneyland by noon. The atmosphere around the park was strange. I talked to my people and we carried on with our usual tasks. Everybody was in shock, really. Today, we would have grief counselors at the park, but back then we just continued on. Although people were griefstricken, I felt it was my job to keep people focused on what we had to do — to prepare for the next day and to keep the park working.
Walt’s death hit me more when I went home because I listened to Chet Huntley, who did something like a eulogy to Walt. Then I started to think about what would happen with the company. This was a oneman show as far as we were concerned. We could say how we felt about what Walt was doing, but when he made a decision, no one said, “That’s wrong.” When he made a decision, we went along with it. Walt had created an orderly world in which there wasn’t a lot of politicking — if Walt wanted it a certain way, that’s how it was going to be.
Card was the logical person to take the helm. He thought like Walt did. I was disappointed because Card didn’t stand up and say, “I’m your new leader,” but things weren’t done like that at Disney in those days. That would have been a coup. People probably would have supported Card two days after Walt died, but he wouldn’t step up because, to him, Walt was still the man.
Even Roy O. Disney didn’t try to take over immediately (he took several months off initially) but he postponed retirement long enough to finish Walt Disney World. I think the difference between Roy and Walt was that Roy didn’t have the dreams or the passion. Walt didn’t care what people thought. If he believed in an idea, he was willing to do whatever it took — financially or otherwise — to make it happen. He had a wonderful knack, without knowing it, that what he liked, the public loved.
We were stuck in a paralyzing time in many ways.
When Walt died, there was a universal commitment among all the employees at every level to see that Walt’s legacy would continue. How to do that was the problem. The boss was gone. The one man who encompassed everything that Walt Disney Productions had become — the cartoons, the feature films, the Walt Disney Presents TV Show, the Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crockett, the true Life Adventure films, and Disneyland — was no longer at the helm. How would the company fare in the future without the man with the vision, the creativity, the belief in the product and himself, the leadership, the charisma, the guts to take a chance and make it happen, the credibility within his company, with his peers, and most importantly with the public? How would it fare without its figurehead to lead the way into tomorrow? At the time, no one stood up to take that leadership. Walt had built a strong, talented, professional team in all areas of the business, but there was no named successor to the throne. And in 1966, Disney was not a company where anybody would step forward to take the job. It was not in the corporate DNA. Brilliant, creative people, who knew how to lead, had been followers of a recognized icon in the entertainment world for so long that they were embarrassed and reluctant to step into the role of their recently fallen leader. During this period there was a lot of second guessing as to what we should do.
During the next couple of years, as a little peon in the Disney environment, I got sick and tired of, “This is what Walt would want,” and “Walt wouldn’t do it that way,” because that was so much B.S. It was an easy way out. I got impatient, even with Card, because it was obvious to me that there was only one man at Disney who could take the helm: Card Walker. His whole career was with Disney. He started at Disney right out of UCLA as a 22yearold graduate. He worked in the mailroom and then became a camera operator and worked on Snow White. When he came out of the service, he returned to Disney. In 1955, his title was advertising manager and he had hired me. He had been close to Walt through all of the early days of Snow White, Pinocchio and all of that. He had also been involved in planning and developing the park. Card was eventually named executive vicepresident and COO.
The entire episode evolved into the unanswerable question: “What would Walt have done?” Now, that is not a bad question if it means living up to the ideals, the expectations, the quality of all the things that build and enhance Walt’s legacy. But it is unacceptable if it is used as an excuse to ignore everyday operating problems or fail to give direction for future product, either in films or theme parks. Disneyland particularly was totally Walt’s creation, dream, vision, and biggest gamble.
Walt didn’t have a funeral or memorial service, which is probably how the whole frozen thing got started. There was no acknowledgment at the park except the flags that were flown at halfmast the day he died. I surmise that the family followed Walt’s wishes. I didn’t necessarily feel shortchanged because we had a job to do and we were doing that job. However, in retrospect, all of the employees would have benefited from and been pleased with a memorial service or something of the like.
A month after Walt died, I heard the rumor that he had been frozen. The story was in the papers, but I never believed it. And I’m not sure Walt would have liked those rumors. He may have smiled at the idea, but the reporters didn’t know what they were talking about.
As time went on, I would hear funny tidbits about Walt. When I met Zsa Zsa Gabor at the park, she told me that Walt and Lilly Disney were two of her closest friends. It didn’t add up or mesh to me. She said that she and her husband went to Walt and Lilly’s house for dinner and that they would go to her house for dinner. The four of them never went to any big parties or nightclubs, they were just close friends. The thought of Walt Disney at a dinner table with Zsa Zsa Gabor certainly makes me smile.
There was a strong feeling between the management staff and rank and file employees at Disneyland that they wanted to be included, in no matter how insignificant a way, in paying tribute to the man who so many felt was a personal friend. And it made no difference whether or not they had ever met or seen him in person. He was their leader, their partner in creating the vision and the place they so truly believed in, and were so proud to serve. I’m sure in their grief, the family wanted to respect Walt’s wishes, but it would have been nice if there had been one meaningful event for everyone to attend. In the months following Walt’s death, numerous ideas were put forward, both officially and by individuals and local groups, to name something after Walt. Ideas ran the gamut from renaming Harbor Boulevard to changing the name of the Orange County/Santa Ana/John Wayne Airport, parks in Anaheim, Fullerton, Santa Ana, to even renaming the Santa Ana Freeway to the Walt Disney Freeway. The family and corporate Disney turned down all of these requests. Nothing would be named after Walt – no streets, no parks, no airports, no monuments, no statues. Nothing.
In 1992, Marty Sklar and I met and together decided that maybe now, long after Walt’s passing, the time might be right for a memorial in Disneyland to honor the man who had made the whole thing possible. We took our idea to Blaine Gibson, noted Disney and worldfamous sculptor. We all felt that the memorial shouldn’t just be Walt. It shouldn’t be just a statue that you’d find outside some federal building or courthouse. It needed warmth, it needed to tell a story, it needed a “Disney” touch. Blaine created some preliminary sketches. We selected one and ran the idea by Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. Michael said he would take it to Walt’s family to see if they approved, which they did. Today, the bronze Partners Statue of Mickey and Walt, standing sidebyside holding hands, greets guests in the hub at Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, and the Studio at Paris Disneyland. There is a plaque below the bronze, with a quote from Walt that says, “I think most of all what I want Disneyland to be is a happy place ...Where parents and children can have fun, together.”
It took a long time, but Walt is finally home where he belongs.
© 2010 Jack Lindquist / Used by permission, all rights reserved
The Partners Statue at Disneyland.
Editor's Note: I also had the pleasure of spending some time with Jack Lindquist, and like Sue was impressed by his honesty, sincerity and unabashed love for the happiest place on earth. He's a true Disneylander, someone who really "gets it" when it comes to what makes this particular park so unique and special.
One thing he took special effort to note was that this book is his very own unique and honest account of his career with Disney. There are no Disney photos because to obtain permission to use them could allow the company to request changes in the text. Now mind you, from what we were allowed to preview, this doesn't mean you are going to get an over-the-top tell-all. But what you will have in hand is an honest, fun and amazingly useful collection of stories; a truly independent account of what it took to craft the public image and operational policies of what has become the world's most beloved theme park.
Cover design by Charles Boyer
The website for Jack's book is www.inservicetothemouse.com.
The conclusion of this interview is now available at this link. - Al Lutz