Shelf Talks #10: Cindy

Cindy's bookshelf

Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Cindy Mediavilla is a retired public librarian/library school lecturer in Culver City, CA and the author (along with Kelsey Knox) of The Women Who Made Early Disneyland: Artists, Entertainers, And Guest Relations (to be released in early 2024). In this interview, Cindy delves into the complexities of Walt Disney's character, highlighting his genius and demanding nature. She also shares her unique perspective as a fan and scholar of Disneyland, emphasizing the park's nostalgic and reassuring qualities while acknowledging its historical significance and constant evolution. She reveals fascinating "easter eggs" and ends by recommending three favorite books about the history of Disney.

OLEG: You sent me two bookshelves, one with a small portion of your King Arthur collection and this second one with part of your Disney trove. I've chosen the Disney books because more questions come to mind from looking at the variety of perspectives on the subject. I really want to ask about the special mystique and exclusivity around imagineering, but before that there were two books that stood out to me in particular: Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot and Who's Afraid of the Song of the South and Other Forbidden Disney Stories by Jim Korkis. Both of these books stand out with their dramatic, almost villainous aire among the much more prevalent celebratory and informational titles. Has your experience of exploring the life of Walt Disney, researching for your own books, and being something of a Disneyland native touched the shadow side of a seemingly wholesome exterior?

CINDY: Wow! What a great question to start with. I'm happy to admit that I unabashedly love Walt Disney. The man was a genius, who inspired others to create brilliant entertainment. But like (I'm guessing) most geniuses, he had a dark side. He was driven by unusually high standards of excellence—good for the brand, but not necessarily good for the employees. Even Walt’s most trusted colleagues mention, in interviews, that he wasn’t always the easiest person to work for or with. In the manuscript I just submitted for the book, The Women Who Made Early Disneyland: Artists, Entertainers, And Guest Relations, co-author Kelsey Knox and I were especially interested in how Walt related to his female employees. And so, even though our book focuses mainly on the various women of early Disneyland, we do start with two chapters about Walt and his personal, as well as work, relationships with women. Contrary to what some others believe, I’m convinced he loved and respected women and, in fact, was successful partially because of the support he got from female family members and colleagues. Nevertheless, he was a man of his times and retained what we would consider outdated notions about women’s roles.

I bought the Eliot book specifically because I wanted to read the more negative opinions about Walt’s relationships with women; but it’s so poorly researched that I couldn't read it and never cited it in our book. Though Walt was known for being very forward-looking, he was also extremely nostalgic about the past, as demonstrated in the Frontierland, New Orleans Square, and Main Street, USA sections of Disneyland. Although the park opened the same year (1955) as Rosa Parks’ protest and the murder of Emmett Till, one of Disneyland’s most popular restaurants was Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen, considered today a true Disney misstep. Because of the controversy surrounding the Kitchen, it was difficult researching the restaurant’s real-life “mammy” hostess, Aunt Jemima, one of the few public-facing women of color working at the park in its early days. Hence, the Korkis book, which I hoped would provide relevant context, but really didn’t. Interestingly, Alyene Lewis, who played Disneyland’s Aunt Jemima, became friends with Walt and was often seen sitting and chatting with him while he ate breakfast at the Kitchen before the park opened. Walt Disney was definitely a man of many contradictions.

OLEG: I know you've been a frequent visitor to Disneyland for a very long time, and a Disney scholar only recently. While those roles certainly overlap, what would you say most engages you about Disneyland and Walt Disney's creations as a fan distinct from a scholar and vice versa?

CINDY: I was born in 1953. My sister in 1955, two months before Disneyland opened. Our parents were relatively young—in their 20s—so they were very interested in Disneyland, too. Plus, in those days, the park was fairly cheap: only a dollar to enter. Tickets were then sold for individual rides as desired. Our family wasn’t poor, but my parents didn’t have much disposable income. In fact, in my entire childhood, we only took one big family vacation—a car trip up and down California when I was 12. Otherwise, our “vacations” were spent either at Disneyland or Palm Springs—two places that are still very dear to me today. So, visiting Disneyland now is all about nostalgia and reliving memories of my family: Mom, Dad, sister Vicki, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s a very happy place for me and also a place where my husband Tim and I make new memories every time we go.

Disneyland is also wonderfully predictable. With life so chaotic and divisive now, it’s always reassuring to return someplace safe that we know so well. I always feel like I’ve come home as soon as we enter the gates and see Mickey’s face smiling from the welcoming bed of flowers. Not being able to go during the pandemic, right when we needed comfort and stability the most, was hard on a lot of fans. I did not cry, like lots of fans did, once we were able to go back, but I was very grateful to finally return to a place so familiar and friendly.

As someone who has, for the past three years, studied Disneyland history and the people who created the park, I also now see the resort in a completely new way. I am still astounded that Walt’s people were able to build the original Disneyland in just a year. How on earth would such a thing be accomplished in such a short time today? It wouldn’t. I also see the various influences that inspired Walt to create his dream park: especially World’s Fairs, which resonate in Walt’s designation of Disneyland’s initial five sectors (Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street, USA). Other fans get upset when new lands, such as STAR WARS: Galaxy’s Edge, are added, but to me Disney is just expanding the World’s Fair concept.

Also, there is so much history in Disneyland. Yes, things are constantly changing, but many of the rides and features that Walt actually imagined are still there. Knowing what went into designing “it’s a small world,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the Haunted Mansion, for instance, really enhances the experience and my appreciation of the men and women who created the attractions. When we were first allowed back into the park after COVID, I slowly walked down Main Street, studying—for the first time—the shop windows and the names painted there, honoring the many people who built Disneyland. Others may seek amusement when they’re at Disneyland. but I look for artifacts of the park’s past. There’s always something new (i.e., old) to discover at Disneyland.

OLEG: Would you be willing to share a Disneyland "easter egg" with the Shelf Talks audience? A name on a Main Street door or a little-known ride fact that is special to you because of a personal experience or something you learned in the course of your research? (I'll be looking for this next time I go to the park, of course)

CINDY: My sentimental favorite Main Street, USA, window is Walt's, located ground-level next to the cinema. It reads: "Open Since '55 - Disneyland Casting Agency - It takes People to Make the Dream a Reality" - Walter Elias Disney, Founder & Director Emeritus. While being named a "Disney Legend" is an honor that started in the 1980s, having a window on Main Street is a much longer tradition that started when the park originally opened in 1955. This was Walt's way of acknowledging many of the people who were instrumental in designing Disneyland--sort of an "opening credits" feature to his main show. Interestingly, Walt didn't get his own window until Disneyland's 50th anniversary in 2005.

My favorite "easter egg" is the storefront porch, also located on Main Street. Today it's a prime spot for watching Disneyland's many parades and is often occupied as soon as the park opens. Originally, however, the porch was the site of the women's Intimate Apparel shop, which featured an early automated character inside, called the Wizard of Bras, who related the history of women's undergarments! Men would sit on the porch while their wives shopped inside. The store, like most of the early shops along Main Street, was leased because WED Enterprises (the Disney offshoot that actually built Disneyland) couldn't afford to run its own concessions in 1955. Not surprisingly, the Intimate Apparel shop lasted only 6 months.

OLEG: That's interesting about the Wizard of Bras, I wonder if there's any relation to a shop with the same name near the Myrtle Blvd exit off of the 210 freeway in Monrovia. I've always been amused by that shop's moniker and was surprised to see it in relation to Disneyland. Not to mention the presence of an intimate apparel shop at a theme park -- not the kind of souvenir one would expect to bring home which, I guess, is why it wasn't so long-lived on Main Street. My next question, though, continues on a path that I think is somewhat intimate to the inventiveness of Disney: Imagineering. In your research on Walt Disney and the early women creators who made Disneyland, among other topics, what do you see as unique to the creative spirit of Walt Disney and the Imagineers and all of their relationship with the business aspects of constantly creating and re-creating the park?

CINDY: The Wizard of Bras in Monrovia was established in 1975, so there’s probably no connection to the Intimate Apparel shop in Disneyland. But it’s possible the owner remembered the automated “wizard” from 1955 and borrowed the name. An interesting question for further research?

From its very beginning, Walt always said “Disneyland will never be completed . . . as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Some historians note that he may have been making excuses because the park was far from ready when it opened in July 1955! Nevertheless, the Disney company frequently uses Walt’s words to justify the creation of new—and/or the renovation or removal of old—attractions. I’m guessing Disneyland will continue to evolve as long as public tastes and sensibilities change. This isn’t always popular with the fans, who don’t want corporate Disney messing with their childhood memories; but I’m grateful that rides, like Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain, are finally being updated.

Walt was all about integrity and “authenticity.” If guests have a pleasurable and authentic experience at Disneyland, then they’ll return—good for Disney’s bottomline, but also an important part of becoming part of the Disney “family.” Walt’s name was on Disney products, so he demanded only the best from his employees. “When [guests] come here [i.e., Disneyland] they’re coming because of an integrity that we’ve established over the years,” he said. “I feel a responsibility to the public.”

From what I can tell, this dedication to integrity was (and still is) very much part of the Imagineer spirit, even long after Walt died in 1966. “There was a feeling among Imagineers . . . that they had a responsibility for an American icon, a global brand,” retired Imagineer Mel Malmberg writes in the excellent Women Of Walt Disney Imagineering: 12 Women Reflect On Their Trailblazing Theme Park Careers (Disney Editions, 2022) (xii). This, despite the fact that the creative and business sides of Disney haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, especially in recent years. The tension between these two factions came to a dramatic head in 2021, when it was announced that Imagineering was being moved to Florida without much, if any, consultation with employees. Walt also moved Imagineering during his time, but only from Burbank to Glendale. He believed in having his creative people close at hand and did listen to their suggestions. By the way, the move to Florida has been permanently postponed.

OLEG: You quoted from Mel Malmberg's book and a few others in your response, and I'm pleased you did because, like an amusement park ride, it brings us back to the beginning: The shelf (though I don't see Women Of Walt Disney Imagineering in the photo you sent). So for my final question, I'd like to know which of the books on this shelf gives you the greatest sense of imaginative flight as a Disney scholar and enthusiast? And which would you recommend for someone just dipping their toes in Disney lore?

CINDY: I’m so glad you didn’t ask me to recommend just one book, because that would have been impossible! So, I’m recommending three, other than the ones I’ve already mentioned:

The very first book I read, that propelled me into studying the early history of Disneyland, was Richard Snow’s Disney’s Land: Walt Disney And The Invention Of The Amusement Park That Changed The World (Scribner, 2019). Not only does Snow describe Walt’s motivations, but also the human dynamics and traumas behind the actual building of the park. He also provides more than just passing mentions of a few of the women we also include in our book: e.g., Dorothy Manes, who ran Children’s Fairyland in Oakland and who Walt convinced to come work for him in Anaheim; Ruth Shellhorn, who was asked to design Disneyland’s landscaping just four months before the park opened; and Miriam Nelson, the park’s opening day choreographer. Snow is a journalist, so the narrative is easy to read and enjoy.

Another book that inspired our research was Mindy Johnson’s landmark Ink And Paint: The Women Of Walt Disney’s Animation (Disney, 2017). Until Mindy came along, very few people knew that it wasn’t just men who created Disney’s famous cartoons. Women actually painted the cels and, eventually, did some of the animation artwork. Several of these women (e.g., Joyce Carlson, Leota Toombs) were ultimately transferred to WED Enterprises, as well, to help build the models and paint audio-animatronic characters for Disneyland.

Finally, in light of the current worker strikes happening throughout Hollywood, I highly recommend my current favorite “Disney history” book, Jake S. Friedman’s The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War Of Animation’s Golden Age (Chicago Review Press, 2022). Few people probably know that Disney animators went on strike for 9 weeks in 1941. It was a contentious battle instigated, in part, by Art Babbitt, one of Walt’s favorite animators who history usually portrays as the villain. But there are no villains here, as Friedman alternates chapters between Babbitt and Walt and how they were swept-up in forces much bigger than themselves. Spoiler alert: Both men lose in the end. An extremely compelling and well-researched read.

OLEG: Thank you very much, Cindy, for the interview! I'm sure the Disney fans out there will appreciate the insights into the park's development and the book recommendations.

Walt Disney's Casting Agency window on Main Street