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Cindy Mediavilla and Kelsey Knox Publish “The Women Who Made Early Disneyland”

UCLA alumnae and information professionals expand the conversation on women’s contributions to the park’s design, entertainment, and visitor experience.

When Cindy Mediavilla (’77, MLIS; ’00, Ph.D.) attended a Disneyana conference held in 2015, she was surprised to learn about Ruth Shellhorn, a prominent post-war landscape architect in Southern California, whose most enduring achievement was probably her least known: creating the outdoor environment that in 1955 became the original Disneyland park in Anaheim, California. This inspired Mediavilla, a retired public librarian and historian, to write an article about this unsung figure in the creation of Disneyland, and she contacted one of her former UCLA students, Kelsey Knox (’14, MLIS) to join her in the project. 

However, Knox and Mediavilla – both lifelong Disney fans – found that as they researched Shellhorn and her work, there were countless women who were instrumental in building and operating what generations have known as, “the happiest place on earth.” Their resulting book, “The Women Who Made Early Disneyland: Artists, Entertainers, and Guest Relations,” was published last month by Lexington Books.

Knox serves her undergraduate alma mater as the university archivist for UC Santa Cruz, where she achieved her bachelor’s degree in American Studies and now works to preserve both its official and unofficial histories, teaching new generations of students that archives are accessible. Mediavilla’s accolades include induction into the California Library Hall of Fame in 2022; writing numerous books for the American Library Association on professional topics; and serving in leadership roles for the California Library Association, including as its president.

Mediavilla and Knox share their collective challenges and triumphs of writing “The Women Who Made Early Disneyland,” and expanding the conversation about female contributions to “the park,” both onstage and behind the scenes.

What inspired you to write “The Women Who Made Early Disneyland”?

Cindy Mediavilla: I’m a member of more than one Disney club. One of the groups that I belong to is Disneyana, the oldest existing fan club. I attended their convention, and someone was talking about a woman named Ruth Shellhorn, who was hired by Walt to do the landscape architecture of Disneyland. She got it done in three months, which is mindboggling. But the thing that sparked my interest was the speaker said [Ruth’s] papers [and] diaries are in UCLA’s Special Collections. 

I thought, “Oh, maybe there’s an article here.” I brought Kelsey in because when I was starting out as a researcher for publication, Virginia Walter, who was one of my professors at UCLA, invited me to write with her.  I wanted to pay that forward, that if Kelsey really wants to write on her own, this would be as a good start. 

I didn’t get around to looking at the diaries until early March 2020, and of course, two weeks later, everything shut down because of COVID. By then, I had read some of [Shellhorn’s] diaries and was hooked. I thought, “Well, while we’re all shut down for COVID, I’m going to start poking around on the Internet to find out more about Ruth and talk to people about her.” But in that research, I started seeing the names of other women who had contributed to the early success of Disneyland. 

We started collecting names and doing whatever research we could, while libraries and archives were closed for two years. Some of these women lived well into their 90s, and they had podcasts and even video, so that was almost better than me interviewing them. I said to Kelsey, “I think there’s actually a book here – sort of a collective biography of a lot of different women. We just need to figure out who they are.” And that’s how it started. In all the official histories, hardly any women are mentioned who contributed to the history of Disneyland, so that was a further impetus to do a book. 

What surprised you about the interest level in this topic?

Kelsey Knox: There’s always excitement when you hear about someone new in the Disney realm that hasn’t really been talked about all that much. I was looking on Etsy a while back for something Mary Blair-related. This shirt popped up and it said, “Mary and Alice and Harriet and Leota,” and I [thought], someone else knows who Harriet (Burns, Imagineer) and Leota (Toombs-Thomas, Disney Imagineer) are, and they’re they’re putting them in there with Alice (Davis, Disney costumer) and Mary (Blair, artist and animator) and that was so cool. That was one of those moments where I was like, “Oh, people care about this [and] want to read this history.” There just haven’t been these deep dives.

Many of these women are absolutely fascinating and came from [unusual] backgrounds. Dorothea Redmond is talked about in the watercolor artist community, but not necessarily [for] what she did with Disney. Renié Conley, one of the women I wrote about, was a sought-after costume designer in the golden age of Hollywood [and] won an Academy Award for the work she did on “Cleopatra,” but nobody had written about the fact that she designed a lot of the costumes for the cast members in the first year of the park, and even has a window on Main Street. Tiny Kline was 71 when she became the “Tinker Bell” that would fly off the top of the Matterhorn. She had been a circus aerialist when she was much younger, and then retired and was living in Southern California until she started this.  

How did you tell the story of women’s contributions to early Disneyland?

Mediavilla: There are three categories. There are the designers, artists, and the Imagineers, many of [whom] came from animation. The second group are entertainers in the park, [including] women like Miriam Nelson, who choreographed the opening day ceremonies. The last group we called “guest relations,” and those included Bonita Granville Wrather, whose husband [was approached by] Walt to build the Disneyland Hotel. Bonita had been a child actress and worked with her husband, [building] the hotel. She also brought glam to [it], and through her contacts, she brought all these celebrities [in].

When Disneyland opened, Walt didn’t have money to run all the concessions and restaurants, so they leased that out, including a space in Frontierland called Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen. One of the first – and only – Black people working at the parks was Alyene Lewis, a greeter at Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen –  a very controversial character, but hugely beloved, we have a chapter on her [as] guest relations. She would meet with Walt in the mornings, and he would pick her brain about what she was hearing from people [waiting] in line, about what they were interested in.  

What were some of the challenges – and unexpected triumphs – of this project?

Knox: We figured if all else failed, we’d write a book and shop it around and find someone who would be interested in publishing it. We’d compiled lists of potential publishers [and talked] to other Disney historians and people that Cindy had met at conferences. Then, we presented at [a conference of] the Pop Culture Association, and within a week or two, got an email from Lexington. On the one hand, it added pressure, because we had [deadlines], but on the other hand, we had someone who wanted to publish it and championed it from the get-go, which was a good feeling. It was a smoother process than either of us imagined it would be, down to when we turned the manuscript in and got comments from our reviewer within two weeks, which Cindy [said] doesn’t ever happen.  

Mediavilla: We did not have any access to the archives at Disney. For one thing, it was still [during] COVID, and even if we would have had been allowed to use the collection, it was closed. I did talk to a lot of people who knew some of the women we wrote about in the book, so we did get firsthand information from them. 

The last year has been focused on Disney’s 100th anniversary in 2023. How do you feel that “The Women Who Made Early Disneyland” completes the story? 

Mediavilla: I think it rounds off the history. There is a wonderful series of oral histories called “Walt’s People” that I consumed during the pandemic. I really got a sense of what was going on in the company, and women rarely are mentioned – it’s men, men, men. Without them there would not have been Disneyland, but without the women, there wouldn’t have been Disneyland as well.  

What we’re trying to do is write the women back into the history. We have an epilogue talking about [how] in the three years we were doing research and writing, [other] articles and books started coming out, featuring some of the women in our book. I would like to see more women celebrated, as a result of our beginning effort. 

UCLA IS alumnae and lifelong Disney fans Kelsey Knox (’14, MLIS; at left) and Cindy Mediavilla (’77, MLIS; ’00, Ph.D.) researched the unknown histories of “The Women Who Made Early Disneyland,” published in January by Lexington Books. Courtesy of Cindy Mediavilla

How do you hope the book, as a social history of labor, creativity, and gender, will resonate with readers and scholars?

Knox: I think anytime we talk about women’s labor it’s an interesting topic, especially today. A lot of things in the book might surprise people, [like] the way that some of these women approached work. Some [talked] about it more as a passion or an interest rather than a career. Some women like Mary Blair who was a prolific artist, actually took a step back from Disney to raise a family. Being very much a family man, [Walt] was okay with the idea of her living in New York with her family, working on freelance projects, and flying back to California every six to eight months to work on projects for Disney. He had enormous trust in her to balance that life she wanted with her family, but also the job she wanted to do.

We think of that era traditionally [as] women staying home and men going out and doing things. These were all remarkable women who wanted careers and were very good in [them], which is why Walt Disney chose them to work on these projects. 

Mediavilla: I felt strongly that we couldn’t write about the women without writing about Walt’s relationship with the women, so the first two chapters are about him – his personal relationship with women, and how he treated women when the company was new. I think he loved women immensely. There are several quotes where he talks about relying on women’s tastes in film, where they really paid attention, [more than] men. If you could get the women on board, then you had the whole family. He was married, had two daughters, and went home to them every night. He would grouse, “even the dog is a female.” But I think he loved being surrounded by women. 

Every woman in the book has some relationship with Walt, either knew him personally, or admired him from afar. Very few of them had any anything negative to say about him. Most of them loved him, and loved when he would come over and talk to them. He was very inspiring – he would get people to do things. Many people in the book talk about how, “I never knew I could do this. Walt said I could, and so darn it, I went ahead and did it.”

Did your intergenerational perspectives on such a cultural phenomenon as Disneyland, or your fandom of all things Disney, affect the writing of the book?  

Knox: With the writing, we tried to make it one voice. The goal was to not know who necessarily wrote each chapter, and most of that credit goes to Cindy, who went through my chapters and aligned them to make sure [their] voice was reflecting the rest of the book. But, even though we’re both information science professionals, we went through that at different times and are also in two different fields. She’s a librarian, I’m an archivist. We approach research differently. 

I work in archival description, and we talk about reparative description a lot now. [Cindy] was talking about the Aylene Lewis chapter and about another woman who [played] Aunt Jemima, and said she was a former slave.  I [noted], “Oh, we use ‘enslaved person’ now, that’s the proper descriptor.” So, we do have different perspectives sometimes, and we each catch stuff that the other misses, or just isn’t aware of. 

Overall, Cindy and I have so much in common, and we’ve known each other for so long now that I never feel there’s a generational gap between us. Our lives and our interests are very similar. We’ve bonded over a thousand things over the years, like an interest in L.A. history. If anything, the big difference between us is the lived experiences that she had in early Disneyland that I never experienced. 

As an avid Disney fan, was it difficult to write as an impartial scholar about something that had such a huge impact on your life?

Mediavilla: Out of respect–and yes, love–for Disney and the women, I occasionally made editorial decisions on how to include what might be considered the “dark side” of some of the people we wrote about. Rather than including that information in the main narrative, I instead included it in the endnotes, so I recommend reading the endnotes carefully for a full picture of each person.

My relationship with Disneyland is much richer now for having done this research and written the book, much richer. I understand where he was coming from, and what he was trying to accomplish. What this book really did for me is when I walk into the park now, I see it through Walt’s eyes.