Sunday, January 25, 2015

Walt Disney's Trains

Exhibit poster

Many people believe Disneyland would not exist if not for Walt Disney’s passion for trains. Some cite the influence of animator Ward Kimball, who owned and ran a full-sized locomotive in his backyard, and Ollie Johnston, one of Disney’s “nine old men,” who introduced Walt to narrow gauge model trains. Walt himself said he always loved trains and insisted, from its earliest conception, that whatever shape Disneyland ultimately took, it had to have a train running around its perimeter.

The Walt Disney FamilyMuseum is currently featuring a temporary exhibit--“All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt’s Trains”--that chronicles Disney’s lifelong interest in all things locomotive. Special programs are also occasionally presented at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit. Yesterday, for instance, was “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad:Building and Running Walt’s Trains,” a highly anticipated program about the trains at Disneyland. This was such a big deal that the Carolwood Foundation, the organization dedicated to preserving Walt’s railroad legacy, offered members the opportunity to take a 12-hour vintage railcar ride, Friday, from L.A. to the Bay, to see the exhibit and attend the presentation. We joined 20 other people, including folks from St. Louis and Orlando, on the trip.

Our train car, the Silver Splendor

Tim and I boarded the train at Union Station well before departure. Our car, the Silver Splendor, was built in 1956 and has a lounge, dining area, and galley downstairs. Upstairs is the glass-enclosed Vista Dome and table seating for about 24 people. We were early enough to claim one of the prime tables at the front of the dome, where, except for meals, we rode the entire trip. Fellow passengers cycled in and out of the dome area, depending on the view. As one member of the group pointed out, everyone was either a Disney employee, a former Disney employee, and/or a Disney fan, so our ears were constantly perked for insider Disney stories being shared around the tables.

Luggage and dining area downstairs

Downstairs hallway

Looking up the stairs to the Vista Dome

Looking down the stairs. Silent auction on the left.
I won a cup full of brass Disneyland conductor buttons!

View north of Santa Barbara. Note the Channel Islands
in the background.

Our car was attached to Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the rail that apparently travels the longest stretch of coastline in the U.S. The weather was absolutely perfect: I don’t remember the last time the Channel Islands were so clear off the Santa Barbara coast. But for me, the best part was getting a rare glimpse of the Vandenberg airbase, the site of countless westcoast rocket launches. Tim and I still remember seeing mysterious contrails streaking across the skies when we were kids. “They must be launching rockets again out of Vandenberg,” my dad would always say, as if this was the most natural thing on earth. What a thrill to actually see one of the base’s still-in-use launch pads.

Launch pad, Vanderberg airbase

California coast

Rounding a bend: looking toward the front of the train

Standing on the back "porch," watching the world
speed by. Yee haw!

We spent the night in Oakland’s Jack London Square and so took BART the next morning to get to San Francisco and the museum. En route, we stopped at the old Ferry Building, which was renovated into a public marketplace over 10 years ago. Lots of tasty temptations—a real destination spot the next time we’re in town. 

Looking up at the Ferry Building roof

At the museum, we went through the special train exhibit, which was wonderful, then waited on line for the program. I kept looking for Disney “legends," who might also be there for the event, but didn’t see anyone other than Carolwood and D23 members. We then entered the theater.

Walt and his narrow-gauge train

Walt's actual train

Three speakers were introduced: Bill Colley and Craig Ludwick, both of whom worked on the Disneyland railroad, and Sean Bautista, president of Hillcrest Shops that rebuild and maintain many Disney-related trains. I, of course, know nothing about the mechanical workings of locomotives, but even I was fascinated by all the talk of preserving steam engines and stripping cars down to the frames. Ludwick’s story about saving the Lilly Belle, the presidential train car Walt named after his wife Lillian, was an especially heart-tugging high point of the program. That is, until a surprise speaker was announced: none other than John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and huge train buff! He told a moving story about buying and refurbishing his mentor Ollie Johnston’s former Porter steam locomotive, the Marie E., as a way to help celebrate Disneyland’s 50th anniversary in 2005. He then showed a short, but highly emotional film of 92-year-old Ollie driving the train around Disneyland—to this day, the only privately-owned train to ever ride around the park. (You can see the film at By the time Lasseter finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. What a wonderful day for Disney and railroad fans alike.

It’s now Sunday and Tim is aboard the Silver Splendor, heading back to L.A., while I spend the night in Sacramento. I have an early meeting here tomorrow morning, so took Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line directly to Sac, instead going home. The ride was scenic enough, but Amtrak is certainly nothing like traveling in a restored 1956 domed Pullman. I miss the Silver Splendor. . .

More photos to come, so please return later in the week . . .

Monday, January 19, 2015

Culver City's Murals

Besides being a premier culinary center, Culver City has also become one of L.A.'s newest art corridors. In particular, we've been noticing lots of murals suddenly popping up, especially along Washington Blvd. on the trendy east end of the city. Some are part of the facade of local businesses; others are public art. They are all interesting and worth a visit.

Here are some of our favorites, though this is by no means a complete list. We'll be adding more as we find more murals to admire, so be sure to come back later. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Irving Place, downtown Culver City: Lucy and Desi 
driving away from Desilu Studios (now Culver Studios,
located a block east). Painted by Francois Bardol in 2000,
this mural remains a favorite even though it is in desperate need
of retouching.

Southeast corner of Lindblade and Sepulveda:
Within walking distance of our house, this new (2014)
mural reminds me of a modern version of "The Lady of Shalott"

Palms Cycle Shop (3770 Motor Ave.): just outside Culver City,
but fabulous nonetheless 

Helms Bakery complex (Washington Blvd.):
"Helms Coach Gone a Rye" (2004), is a 3-D mural 
of an old Helms truck (foreground) 
zooming toward downtown Culver City.

Southeast corner of Higuera and Washington (parking lot)


Southeast corner of Fay and Washington (parking lot)

Northwest corner of Fay and Washington (2014): 
panels 1 & 2 of 4

Panel 3

Panel 4

(same as above)

Alley directly east of Fay (above)

(same as above)

El AlteƱo Bar (8554 Washington Blvd): Front and
parking lot murals (below)

8520 Washington Blvd.

Industry Cafe & Jazz (6039 Washington Blvd): Tim with camera


(more detail)

EK Valley Restaurant (6121 Washington Blvd.)

Northwest corner of La Cienega & Washington: Davis Bros Tires


(more detail)

(and more detail)

(and yet more!)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Noms!

We're such movie geeks that we actually set the alarm 15 minutes early, this morning, so we could watch the Oscar nominations announced live before Tim headed to work. I'm thrilled my favorite film of the year, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was nominated for Best Picture (in addition to a slew of other categories) and was happy to see that two other faves, the brilliant Birdman and amazing Boyhood, were also recognized. Fingers crossed that Michael Keaton wins Best Actor. 

Now we need to catchup on the handful of nominated movies we haven't watched yet. I bet Tim is sorry he didn't see Whiplash with me when he had the chance. You know where you can find us on February 22: glued to our TV set, watching the Academy Awards ceremony and cheering.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Holidays!

With Goofy

Season’s Greetings, Everyone!

What a long, strange year it’s been, filled with much happiness and sorrow, too. We said good-bye to my mom, who passed away in July after suffering a major stroke almost two years before. We miss her dearly. 

My beautiful Mom, in her younger years

We also lost our 14-year-old cat Beanie, who, we’re convinced, died of a broken heart following the sudden death of his brother Cecil last year.

But there’s also good news. We paid-off the house—yay! Can retirement be far behind? (Well, not for another two years, at least.) Plus we got two new kittens, Jack and Bobby, who keep life exciting. Thanks, Karen and Eric!

The boys

Here’s what else happened in 2014:

Lots of (some might say, too much) travel for fun and/or work: trips to Palm Springs (Modernism Week), Tempe, AZ (baseball spring training and visit to the aircraft boneyard in Pima), Las Vegas (American Library Association conference in June—gag!), San Francisco, Sacramento (Cindy’s work), and the central coast. Our biggest—and most fun—trips, though, were a Disney cruise to Alaska (absolutely wonderful) and a weekend getaway to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. No wonder we’re so tired!

Our continuing passions include: mid-century fashion and L.A. architecture, especially renovated movie palaces—we’re now members of the L.A. Historic Theatre Foundation; movies, in general (attended this year’s L.A. FilmFest); the Beatles (participated in two great album-listening parties at the Grammy Museum); and, of course, all things Disney.

Not a lot of plays this year, but did go to several excellent concerts: the Eagles, who reopened the truly fabulous Fabulous Forum in Inglewood; Steely Dan; Neil Young, solo at the Dolby Theatre (absolutely amazing!); and Fleetwood Mac. We also continued our mini-season subscription to the Hollywood Bowl and enjoyed this year’s Grease sing-along

We have much to be grateful for: the continuing love and support of our family, friends and neighbors. We also love our boys, Jack and Bobby, who are a constant joy (when they’re not being monsters!), and are happy for the recent rain that has rejuvenated our gardens. And finally, we are grateful to be employed in jobs that we love.

May your holidays and new year be filled with love and happiness!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Orlando: Destination D

The 1964 New York World’s Fair has always loomed large in my family’s lore. My uncle Manuel and aunt Eva stopped there on their way to Spain in 1965—a trip almost too exotic to imagine, especially since I had never traveled farther east than Palm Springs. My family, wearing our Sunday best, took them to LAX, where, in those days, we could wave good-bye at the gate. It was the first time I had ever been to an airport. I was 11 years old and completely fascinated by the idea of a World’s Fair that I would never see.

Since then, I’ve learned that Walt Disney had a big hand in contributing to the success of the Fair, designing no less than four major, and wildly popular, attractions—Ford’s Magic Skyway; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; the Carousel of Progress  for GE; and Pepsi’s It’s a Small World—all of which became part of Disneyland once the Fair ended. No surprise, then, that I was one of the first members to buy a ticket when D23 announced that it was going to commemorate the Fair’s 50th anniversary at the third Destination D convention, held last weekend in Orlando, FL. It was a wonderful event. Plus, as you can see below, Tim and I got to spend some quality time at two of the Walt Disney World parks.

Souvenir guide to "It's a Small World"

Compared to D23’s every-other-year Expo, which draws thousands and thousands of members and non-members alike, Destination D tends to be an intimate nostalgia-fest for several hundred dedicated Disney fans. The theme of the two-day gathering always relates—subtly or not so—to an historic event and/or new Disney product. Not only did we celebrate the NY Fair’s golden anniversary, we also soon learned that the Fair plays a key role in the upcoming movie Tomorrowland, which was teased in a 10-minute filmclip. Historians, archivists, and long-time employees, such as “Disney legends” Marty Sklar and Bob Gurr, shared memories, photos and artifacts of Disney’s influence on the Fair. And, of course, we saw lots of footage of Walt describing "Mr. Lincoln," etc., on his Wonderful World of Color TV show. Walt was nothing if not brilliant at self-promotion.

Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair video

So here’s some of the more interesting stuff I learned at the convention:

• Walt was all about getting other people to pay for the development of new technology that he then incorporated into Disneyland. He first pitched “Mr. Lincoln” to Coca-Cola, who declined because they couldn’t see how the president related to their product. So Walt eventually connected with Illinois state officials, who loved the idea for their pavilion. Disney’s life-like animatronic Lincoln was quickly acknowledged as the most technologically-advanced marvel at the Fair.

• Pepsi, too, declined Walt’s initial pitch to make “it’s a small world” the centerpiece of its pavilion—that is, until PepsiCo board member Joan Crawford stepped in, leading to the creation of one of the most popular rides in theme park history. Although “small world” was originally designed as a walk-through attraction, Disney’s engineers knew they wouldn’t be able to handle the anticipated 3800 visitors an hour and so decided to transport folks via boat. And that’s how “it’s a small world” became Disneyland’s first flume ride. By the way, it took 48 Global Vanline trucks to transport "small world" to Anaheim once the Fair ended—not so small, after all!

An entire LP of "small world" music (yikes!)

• For the “Magic Skyway” ride, visitors rode actual Ford convertibles through dioramas depicting scenes from world history, starting with the Stone Age. When Ford execs asked Walt what prehistoric creatures had to do with automobiles, he insisted that people would long remember his life-sized dinosaurs, and when they did, they’d remember they saw them while riding in a Ford! Today the dinosaurs are part of Disneyland’s Santa Fe railroad train ride.

Ford video of the Magic Skyway

• Although Walt Disney was already famous as an entertainer and theme park creator, he didn’t gain worldwide renown as a visionary and technological innovator until the 1964 World’s Fair.

In addition to Fair history, the convention also included a segment on Disneyland attractions of yesteryear. Did you know that:

• An exhibit from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was installed in Tomorrowland in 1955. (Does anyone remember this?) Captain Nemo’s peddle-organ is now part of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride.

• Walt originally intended the Main Street opera house, where “Mr. Lincoln” currently resides, to be a TV studio. However, the only broadcasting done there was when the building served as the international HQ of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1963-65. Two years earlier, the opera house briefly hosted the Mother Goose Storyland set from Babes in Toyland, which park visitors could see for an extra 25 cents. (Does anyone remember this?)

Captain Hook’s long-lamented pirate ship, which was dismantled when Fantasyland was renovated in the early ‘80s, has been recreated at Disneyland Paris. I wonder if they serve Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna. . .

Memories of Disneyland days past: a car from the old
Skyway ride—or as my sister and I used to call them,
the "Barf Buckets"

Miniature of one of my all-time favorite rides:
Monsanto's "Adventure Thru Inner Space"