Above photo: Jim Denney
Van Eaton Galleries of California, an auction house that specializes in Hollywood memorabilia and animation art, recently announced the sale of Walt Disney’s original map of Disneyland, hand-drawn by Disney artist Herb Ryman. I have told the story of this map in my books How to Be Like Walt (co-written Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams) and Walt’s Disneyland, and the story is worth retelling here.
The auction will take place Sunday, June 25, 2017, at 11:00 am. The exhibition will be held June 2 through 24. Van Eaton will auction off nearly a thousand pieces of Disney and non-Disney animation history. The highlight of the auction will be the first-ever conceptual art of Disneyland (there were earlier maps of a theme park Walt called Mickey Mouse Park, which he had planned for a while to build in Burbank). The Disneyland map is expected to sell for as much as a million dollars.
[Update, Monday, June 26, 2017: The auction was held and the map sold for $708,000. The name of the winning bidder was not disclosed. Mike Van Eaton said, “As we had expected, this extraordinary Disneyland map sold for an outstanding price. After some pretty exciting bidding the map sold for $708,000. We are beyond thrilled that the map will continue to be appreciated and cherished just like it has been for all these years.”]
A redrawn and enhanced version of the original map has appeared in books on Disney history over the years, but the original Herb Ryman map, drawn in 1953, was thought to have been lost. The story of the rediscovery of Walt’s original map begins with a man called Grenade.
The unusual name, says Grenade Curran, is from the Old French. Grenade’s mother was a dancer in Hollywood movies and his father was a newsreel cameraman who sometimes worked as a stand-in for Clark Gable. Grenade grew up around Hollywood stars and studios, appearing in many films and TV shows from the 1940s through the 1960s. He made friends with many Hollywood celebrities, from John Wayne to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Whenever actor Lee Marvin saw Grenade, he’d crouch, pretend to bite the pin off an imaginary hand grenade, and toss it.
Grenade Curran did a little of everything in Hollywood, from dancing to directing to deep-sea diving. His first job on a Disney film was working as a safety diver on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas. He also did voice characterizations for Lady and the Tramp, appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club, and acted in the “Davy Crockett” series for the Disneyland TV Show. Grenade appeared with Art Linkletter in the Dateline: Disney live TV broadcast of Disneyland’s opening day, July 17, 1955. He also drove an Autopia car, with actor Don DeFore seated alongside him, in the very first Main Street Parade on opening day.
During Grenade’s time with Disney, he and Walt became good friends. Walt’s nickname for Grenade was Shrapnel, and Grenade filled many roles, both official and unofficial, in Walt’s organization. He even offered ideas that were incorporated into the design of Disneyland.
One day in 1955, Grenade was admiring the map of Disneyland that stood on an easel in a corner of Walt’s office at the Burbank studio. The 3-foot by 5-foot map was affixed to a three-panel folding poster board. Walt offered the map to him as a memento of their friendship, and Grenade took the map home that day. Grenade Curran kept the map for more than twenty years before selling it in the 1980s to a Disneyana collector named Ron Clark. Van Eaton is selling the map on behalf of Clark.
Here’s the story of the Walt’s map—
Walt had been seriously planning to build Disneyland as far back as 1932. In 1948, after a trip to the Chicago Railroad Fair, Walt decided it was time to get serious about building Disneyland. In the early 1950s, Walt averaged four or five hours of sleep per night while brainstorming ways to finance his Park. In July 1953, Walt hired the Stanford Research Institute to produce a list of possible sites for Disneyland. Top of the list: a sleepy little farming town called Anaheim, thirty-five miles south of Los Angeles. Though Anaheim was in the middle of nowhere, the Santa Ana Freeway was under construction and would soon link L.A. to Anaheim.
On Saturday, September 24, 1953, Walt called artist Herb Ryman into the Burbank studio and told him, in effect, “I’m going to build Disneyland, and you’re going to help me design it.” Over a sleepless forty-eight-hour weekend, Walt stood over Ryman’s shoulder, describing his vision for his magic kingdom. Working at his drawing board, Herb Ryman sketched in all the features of Disneyland that Walt described. Ryman’s initial drawings were made in pencil on tracing paper, then he produced a final drawing in India ink and water colors on vellum, mounted on poster board.
Ryman drew an aerial map that captured Walt’s vision of his Park. It was all there — Main Street, the Train Station and Railroad, the Central Plaza, Frontierland (with the Mark Twain paddle-wheeler), Fantasyland (including the Castle, the Carrousel, and the Pirate Ship), and Tomorrowland (including the Moonliner), and Adventureland (though Ryman placed it in the southwest corner of the Park instead of the southeast). The aerial map Herb Ryman produced under Walt’s direction was a surprisingly accurate representation of Disneyland as it would appear on opening day in 1955. This shows how fully formed Walt’s vision was, long before any plans were drawn up on paper.
The ink on Ryman’s artwork was scarcely dry on Monday, September 26, when Walt’s brother and business partner, Roy Disney, carried the folded Disneyland map aboard a plane bound for New York. There Roy met with executives of NBC and CBS, showing them the artwork and a six-page prospectus on the Disneyland TV show and Park. Those meetings, Roy later said, were “exasperating.” He explained that the Park and the show were a package deal. The network execs said they wanted the show but not the Park. They refused to put up the money Walt needed.
Angry and frustrated, Roy returned to his suite at the Waldorf Astoria to consider his options. He’d been sure that either NBC or CBS would buy in — so sure, in fact, that he hadn’t even made an appointment with third-place network ABC. In desperation, Roy called Leonard Goldenson, who had managed the restructuring of ABC after its merger with United Paramount Theaters. Goldenson came to Roy’s hotel suite, studied the rendering, read the prospectus — then said, “Tell Walt he can have whatever he wants.”
ABC put up $500,000 in cash and co-signed $4.5 million in loans for 34.5 percent ownership of Disneyland, plus the weekly hour-long TV show. Other members of the ownership group included Walt Disney Productions, Western Printing and Lithographing Company (publishers of Little Golden Books), and Walt himself, who owned a 17.2 percent share.
The ownership group had assembled $6 million in capital and loan guarantees — far less than the $17 million that would ultimately be needed. But when Disneyland premiered on ABC on October 27, 1954, months before opening day, Walt’s Park looked like it was already a success. Corporate sponsors quickly lined up to invest. TV enabled Walt to finance his dream.
And the map that Walt gave to the man he called Shrapnel was the linchpin to all of that Disneyland history.
Jim Denney is a writer with more than a 150 books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series for young readers (Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia), the highly regarded 2004 biography of Walt Disney, How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life (written with Pat Williams, co-founder of the Orlando Magic), and Lead Like Walt: Discover Walt Disney’s Magical Approach to Building Successful Organizations (written with Pat Williams).