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Disneyland Article
Growing Up In Disneyland
Ron DeFoe
Don DeFore's Silver Banjo Barbecue Restaurant in Frontierland

Disneyland fans who have enjoyed the park numerous times might say they too "grew up in Disneyland." But my family's story is a bit different. Our Mom loved to quote us kids saying, "gee, do we have to go to Disneyland again? Such was the case in the early years of the Park when Dad owned a restaurant in Frontierland. A few stories below are just a part of my brother Dave's and my presentation on Saturday, August 15th at this year's D23 Expo (second floor, "Walt Disney Archives Stage").

Our saga begins with some background on my father - film and TV actor, Don DeFore. If you're neither a senior citizen nor an entertainment historian you're wondering: who was Don DeFore. Well, to start, dad was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame for his role as "Thorny" on the first five years of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet TV show. He is perhaps best known for his role as Mr. Baxter or "Mr. B" in the 1960s TV sitcom, Hazel, with costar Shirley Booth as Hazel.

DeFore was also president of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences (Los Angeles chapter) from 1954 to 1955. A major accomplishment in that role was selling the first nationally televised Emmy Awards to NBC which aired live March 7, 1955. Nominees and recipients of Emmy Awards would gain much more exposure for their TV productions now that television would bring the Awards show into millions of homes. One person, in particular, was most grateful to gain more exposure for his successful TV productions: Walt Disney.

That live national telecast switched back and forth between the New York and Los Angeles chapters (this was before satellite broadcasts) and was a resounding success. Kudos came to Dad and others (including Bud Coulson, the Academy's PR man) responsible for pulling it off. One such compliment came by phone to Dad from Walt Disney who wanted to meet the man who was able to pull this off and invite him for a personal tour of Disney Studios in Burbank. Dad accepted enthusiastically and asked if he could bring Bud Coulson along. The tour included Walt showing them a number of sound stages with some amazing contraptions which Walt explained as being part of his next adventure: Disneyland.

The next couple things to emanate from that personal tour was Walt hiring Bud Coulson to be part of Disneyland's creation and then later inviting our family to be in the Disneyland Opening Day Parade. For those that have a copy of that live national TV broadcast on July 17, 1955, check out the Autopia cars riding up Main Street. The occupants are the entire Don DeFore family including wife, Marion, daughters Penny and Dawn, and sons David and Ronnie. One of the mysteries we pose to attendees of our presentations is: why, in publicity stills are we in different seating positions than those shown in the DVD film. Was there a rehearsal run-through, or was there one for the media and one for the public? We've been waiting for someone to explain that mystery.

The following year, the Casa de Fritos restaurant in Frontierland made a deal to move to a larger space closer to the Frontierland entrance, thus leaving their old space vacant. Disney was anxious to fill that space. Enter Bud Coulson again, who had been named Lessee Liaison. Bud remembered reading an article about Dad working as a chef in his college dormitory. Bud called his long-time friend and asked if he'd be interested in "donning" his chef's hat once again and becoming part of Disneyland. Dad, always open to new adventures, didn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative. There was one hitch: having never operated a restaurant he had to take a restaurant management course. So, along with his brother Verne, who had agreed to manage the concession, they took a course at UCLA extension and got the professor to use his Disneyland restaurant lease as a class project. Dad got a "B" in the class - for barbecue, thus the beginnings of Don DeFore's Silver Banjo Barbecue in Frontierland.

The "Banjo" opened August, 1957 when I was seven years old, and until 1961 we kids spent much of our life growing up in the Park, commuting from a second home we bought in Anaheim. We could borrow my Dad's employee pass which enabled us to not only ride for free (these were the days of the ticket books) but we would get to stay on the ride as long as we liked. But what will kids do in the Park after boredom sets in? That's when the fun began. The best was bringing a friend to show-off the behind-the-scenes stuff like sneaking in back of the Jungle Cruise ride amongst the animatronic animals, waiting for a boat, then jumping up and down scratching our underarms like a couple of monkeys. We knew we had to hightail it out quickly as the security guards became familiar with the DeFore kids' antics. Management was also familiar with the DeFore kids. In fact, when they had a new attraction they would sometimes phone the "Banjo" to get some of us to come test it out, like the Flying Saucer ride in Tomorrowland. We were called over to test what were the prototypes - round pieces of plywood with rubber skirts riding on air. They even had to add a couple boxes of nails to get the weight distribution right! I guess there were just a lot fewer lawyers back then!

We had fun using all the employee entrances behind the restaurants and attractions just because we could. If attendees wondered why it was raining on a clear day it was because they just passed under the sky ride and guess who was up there with an empty Disney cup! When it got really hot we knew one of the few places in the park with great air conditioning - the Mickey Mouse Theater in Fantasyland. On one very hot day I remember sitting through at least a dozen replays of "Pecos Bill" with my sister, just for the cool air.

Winter time brought more tolerable weather but, in those days, smaller crowds. In fact, my Dad always said the "Banjo" would do much better if he could close during the winter. That time of year would also bring the Christmas parade and one of my most memorable experiences. Back then the parade would wend its way through all the lands and, in each, a celebrity would MC from an elevated position. Dad was the MC for Frontierland and did his narration from atop the Golden Horseshoe. One year, just before it began, Dad got a call from Walt asking if he brought his kids. He replied, "of course, they're here every year." Walt: "send a couple to the main gate - my grandchildren haven't arrived and I can't ride in the carriage without kids." So, on my wall are photos of my sister and me riding with Walt Disney waving to the crowd, pretending we were his grandchildren.

I remember other occasions being with Walt when he would come to sit in front of the restaurant and sketch Tom Sawyer's Island, the Mark Twain, or the Columbia. My Uncle Verne had once told us this was Walt's favorite spot in the Park I just wish I had asked to keep one of those sketches!

There were many times I couldn't bring a friend so I became very interested in the Magic Shops - especially the one in Fantasyland that had funnier employees willing to teach me tricks. It wasn't until years later when, as Associate Director of the Steve Allen Show, I was able to connect the dots on yet another interesting experience while meeting guest celebrities in the "green room" before each show. One such guest was Steve Martin (you historians surely know where this is headed). So as we were chatting, the dots were connected and we both had a "wow" moment remembering each other at the Magic Shop. Indeed, It's A Small World.

There are too many fun memories to share in a short article so I'll conclude with the most fun of all. My brother, David, and I had always kidded about putting up a commemorative plaque on the "Banjo" fa├žade that still stands to this day. In 1998 the plaque idea was brought from fantasy to reality. A brass plaque was made and it was decided to put it up during the 1999 Disneyana Show and Sale. We went to the show with our 80 year-old mother with plaque in a bag and all giddy like little kids. Many of the vendors were fascinated to meet the "Silver Banjo" family including David Mumford - a senior Imagineering executive who was there signing his latest book, Disneyland The Nickel Tour. David was so excited to meet us and quickly turned to the two pages he had written about the "Banjo" and said he so much enjoyed interviewing our Dad for the piece.

The family had agreed that the surreptitious placement of the plaque should never be told to anyone. Well, everyone, except David Mumford who was so obviously into the Park history I was compelled to leak our upcoming mischievous act. His love of Disneyland history would hopefully outweigh his responsibilities as a company official. Sure enough, as I opened the bag and told him what the plan was he was laughing ear-to-ear. He promised he would not tell anyone and assured us that "MUM'S the word."

It took quite a while in front of the old restaurant for the "coast to clear." But finally I pressed the plaque with its double-sided tape against the once front door to the "Banjo." We all were beaming with pride as we stood back and stared at a dream come true. At last the "Banjo" was properly commemorated. Finally it was time to go, and as we were walking away I still had a bit of fear that somebody might have seen what we did: deface Disneyland property! At that moment I heard somebody yelling, "wait, stop!" And I thought that was it: busted by Disneyland Security. But as the hand pulled my shoulder around, fear quickly turned to delight to find David Mumford and about a dozen of his friends. "I just had to come over for this momentous event!" he said.

We all had a great laugh and took pictures of the gang in front of the plaque. Later, a friend that was a Disneyland train consultant, Downs Prior, would call me every couple weeks to let me know the plaque was still there. As if that weren't enough humor, he called me about six months later and reminded me how meticulous they are with maintaining the Park - "with a maintenance manual six feet thick." He said through his continuous laughter, "there's now a page in the manual on "how to maintain the Don DeFore Silver Banjo commemorative plaque!" His final call to me, however, months later was to tell me the plaque was no longer there. Not to worry - ten years later another plaque was placed, this time with Gorilla Glue and that's a story for a different time.

We look forward to meeting you for our presentation at D23 2015, Saturday, August 15.

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