December 16, 2023
I was given a key to Disneyland.
It no longer gets me in for free. It doesn’t even give me a discount on tickets.
It does make me part of history.
In the fall of 1982 the owners of Walter and Cline architectural mill bought a race horse. They were known gamblers. Bill and John used to lead the craps game in the alley after hours. Their luck at craps convinced them that they could make a fortune gambling on their race horse.
“The best way to make a small fortune on horse racing is to start with a large fortune.”
The owners of the mill lost everything. The mill was closed.
Myself and four of my friends worked at the mill. Everyone got their pink slip on the same day. We were all members of the Local 714 Carpenters-Millwright Union. We all went down to the local. Job interviews were dispatched first come, first served regardless of experience, so we all took a number.
Most of the demolition crew and framers were already hired. There were a hundred or so applicants in line ahead of my mill-man coworkers. The project was in the cabinetmaking and trim phase, so applicants reported to the foreman of the mill. The Mill is where skilled carpenters maintain and build everything, including the 269 boats, all of the wooden sculptures and the cabinetry in the park.
Framing carpenters, dispatched from the union, showed up at the foreman’s office with their tools in a drywall bucket.
The foreman was an old time German woodworker. He would say to them, “I donn zink zo,” and sent them on their way.
It came time for the five of us to interview. Terry was a draftsman and was hired on the spot. Bob was a master carver and was working the same day. Roger was an excellent installer and cabinetmaker. He would be needed for field measurements and installation, when our cabinet work would be put in place. Phil was a fast and efficient cabinetmaker. He was hired too. I was an all around woodworker in whom the foreman found promise. Five in a row, we filled out the requirements of the mill shop.
While we were waiting for the demolition, framing and wall work to complete we each were given tasks in the form of work orders. Bob was given an order to repair damage to the carved head of one of the merry-go-round horses. Some kid really beat up the horse.
Roger went into the park and did field measurements. Terry was located in the offices and began drafting the shop drawings. Phil and I were given maintenance work orders.
Backstage Disneyland was very different from “On Stage.” Backstage there was the hum of machinery, the squawk of walkie talkies, and the electric sound of golf carts. To go “On Stage,” where the guests were, I could commandeer a free golf cart and drive to one of the hidden gates or tunnels into the park. Sometimes I had to reveal myself to the guests. This was OK because I wore a carpenter’s uniform (white pants and shirt) complete with a pork pie hat. Guests would see me as just another cast member.
One of my favorite work orders read, “Repair hinge on fourth coffin from left, third floor of Haunted Mansion.
To get there I walked through the tunnel connecting Bear Country Jamboree with the Blue Bayou restaurant, diverting to the basement of the Haunted Mansion. Guests who rode by saw a graveyard maintenance man working on one of the coffins.
We worked on the Fantasyland project for six months, 12 hours a day, six days a week. One day, Terry was given a rendering of an animation cell from the 1941 Dumbo film. He was given the freedom of designing the organ circus calliope which would be placed next to the Dumbo ride. The design changed dramatically from the animation cell so the vintage calliope would fit inside.
The animation cell and Terry’s drawing were the first glimpse of our contribution to the project. It was to be the centerpiece of the new Fantasyland.
Each of us new guys were paired up with an old timer. My mentor was Jason. He had worked in the mill since Walt Disney ran the place. Since Walt had a mustache, Jason was literally grandfathered in to have facial hair. All of us new hires were required to be clean shaven. Jason was given the work order to build the barley twist columns on the Organ Calliope.
I walked up to Jason. He was staring at the work order and Terry’s shop drawings. He was actually scratching his head.
“We have to make some barley twists,” he said. “They are big… 5’ tall and 2’ diameter.”
“Do we plan on hand carving them the old fashioned way?” I asked.
“That is a lot of work and very time consuming, especially at this scale.”
“Have you ever seen a Sears Router Crafter?”
I had. It was a tool comprising a hand turned lathe, bar track, cable and pulley system and a router. We had an eight foot wide conventional wood lathe at the Disneyland Mill. Jason sketched out an accessory to the lathe that would turn it into a Router Crafter. We mounted a metal bar along the length of the lathe. Next, we made a wooden carriage for the router which allowed the attack angle to be changed by tilting the router relative to the wood. The carriage was mounted to the rod with rollers.
The first step was to find some wide pieces of Jelutong Mahogany in the lumber yard. They were 30″ wide. Perfect. I glued up four sets of planks into blocks whose final size was 30” x 30” x 6’ long. Next, I mounted each of the blocks into the lathe and turned them down to a 25” diameter. I turned 8” of one end down to a circumference equal to the run of the twist. Finally, I mounted the router to its carriage and set the angle square to the turned wood. A cable was attached to the carriage, run down to the pulley and wrapped around the turned diameter at the end of the wood. By hand turning the wood in the lathe the router was dragged across the wood in a spiral path. After this first path, I reset the router carriage, extended the bit and tilted the router. Hand turning the machine again cut deeper into the spiral. After a dozen runs the spiral was complete. Hand sanding finished the job. The barley twists were then moved to the paint shop for painting and gold leaf gilding.
Bob finished the hand carved cabinet appliqués, Roger and Phil finished the cabinets and Roger’s installation crew assembled and put the calliope in place.
Each of us left our initials in the work, hidden from view. We were pleased that our contributions were indelibly marked on a timeless part of Disneyana.
At the end of the Fantasy Land project I received a Key to the Kingdom as an invitation to attend the New Fantasyland Cast Premiere.
The premiere was a free evening at Disneyland and a stride into history.
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