by Jim Denney
Disneyland celebrates its 62nd birthday on Monday, July 17, 2017. Jim Denney, the author of Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There if You Know Where to Look, offers a two-part look at some fascinating Disney-Fresno connections. Here’s Part 1.
(Read Part 2 here)
I was born in 1953, two years before Disneyland opened, so I can’t remember a world without Disneyland. Our family watched the Disneyland TV show every Wednesday night, broadcast in those days over Fresno’s ABC affiliate, KJEO Channel 47.
One weekend in August 1957, we got in our black-and-yellow Dodge and drove to Anaheim. Though I was not yet five years old, I still recall the thrill of staring wide-eyed down Main Street USA toward Sleeping Beauty Castle. It looked exactly as I had seen it on my black-and-white TV at home—only in three dimensions and living color.
I could hardly believe it. Disneyland wasn’t just a TV show, it was a real place and I was there. That day, I soared over Neverland, blasted off to the Moon, and rode a Mississippi riverboat into the misty past. But my very earliest impressions of Disneyland came from my television screen, courtesy of Channel 47.
In 1968, some Fresnans noticed that KJEO-47 had a new owner, a company called Retlaw Enterprises. “Retlaw,” you may notice, is “Walter” spelled backwards. Retlaw Enterprises was a company Walt founded in 1950, though it was originally called Walt Disney Miniature Railroad.
Walt first formed the company to manage his elaborate scale-model live steam railroad, the Carolwood Pacific, that ran on a half-mile of track and trestle in his backyard. He later changed the name and purpose of the corporation, using it to manage his ownership of the Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain Steamboat, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Disneyland Monorail. (Though Walt Disney Productions owned the Park, Walt personally owned those four attractions and leased them to Disneyland.)
Walt passed away in December 1966, but his widow Lillian and daughters Diane and Sharon continued to own Retlaw Enterprises. So in 1968, Walt’s family became the proud owners of their first TV station, KJEO-47 in Fresno — the station that broadcast the first images of Disneyland across the San Joaquin Valley.
The First Boy in Disneyland
Did you know that the first boy to officially set foot in Disneyland was from Fresno?
Disneyland’s recognized birthday is Sunday, July 17, 1955, the day Walt hosted a celebrity-studded grand opening for the TV cameras. But Disneyland didn’t open to the public until the next day—Monday, July 18. That was the day seven-year-old Michael Schwartner of Fresno became a part of Disney history.
The day before the public opening, Michael and his parents, Bill and Mildred Schwartner, jumped into the family Buick and started down Highway 99. Michael’s parents weren’t even thinking about Disneyland. Bill Schwartner was looking forward to a family golfing vacation in Mexico.
But Bill’s son Michael had other plans. He’d been watching the Disneyland TV show faithfully for months. He knew exactly what he wanted. Somewhere around Bakersfield, Michael put his plan into action. “Mom, Dad,” he said, “let’s go to Disneyland tomorrow!” And with the dogged persistence known only to seven-year-olds, he repeated his plea again and again, mile by mile, all the way to Southern California.
The Schwartners stopped to visit Bill’s sister in North Hollywood. There, Michael conspired with his cousins, five-year-old Christine Vess and eleven-year-old Donna Vess, to join him in begging for a day at Disneyland. Michael’s plan worked. Bill Schwartner agreed to take Michael and his cousins to the Park on Monday.
The next morning, the family drove down the recently completed Santa Ana Freeway (now Interstate 5). All the southbound lanes were clogged with traffic. It seemed everyone in the world was headed to Disneyland. The traffic jam got even worse at the Harbor Boulevard exit, because in those days, the street that led to Disneyland was a two-lane country road lined with orange groves.
When the Schwartners pulled into the Disneyland parking lot, they found that thousands had gotten there ahead of them. The Park wouldn’t open until ten, and the morning temperatures were already in the 90s. Michael and his family joined a long line of people waiting to buy admission tickets to Disneyland (one dollar for adults, fifty cents for children).
Michael Schwartner never would have imagined he’d be the first boy in Disneyland—but his five-year-old cousin Christine was his good luck charm. While Michael’s parents waited in line, Michael and Christine chased each other near the turnstiles. Christine tripped, scraped her knee, and started crying.
A Disneyland cast member noticed the commotion, and called for someone with a first aid kit to bandage Christine’s knee. That’s when Disney magic touched Michael and Christine. The cast member who tended to the girl’s skinned knee invited Michael and Christine to enter the gate and meet Walt Disney himself.
From her place in line, Mildred Schwartner was astonished to see Michael and Christine being led through the gate, beyond the fence, and into the Disneyland forecourt. What kind of trouble had they gotten into?
In fact, fate had selected Michael and Christine to experience Disney magic. Walt greeted the two children and spent nearly an hour with them, chatting and having his picture taken with them. Years later, Michael told the Orange County Register, “I was just a kid, but he talked to me like a real person. He asked me if I could wiggle my ears. I said, ‘No, can you?’ He said, ‘Nope, but I can wiggle my nose.’ And he did—mustache and all.”
Shortly before the gates opened at ten, Walt took Michael and Christine to the turnstiles and called Michael’s parents forward. Mildred protested that they hadn’t bought their tickets yet, but Walt beckoned and said, “Come on in!” Then, at Walt’s invitation, the family climbed the steps to the Train Station and boarded the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad for a trip around the Park.
Walt was their tour guide, describing to them each of the lands of Disneyland. He gave them all free passes to the rides, free food and drinks at any Disneyland restaurant, and a free pass to the front of every line. Oh, and Walt gave Michael and Christine one more gift—free Disneyland passes for life.
Now in his late sixties, Michael still lives in Fresno, and still loves going to Disneyland. The excitement of stepping through the turnstile and entering Walt’s Magic Kingdom never gets old. He says, “I feel blessed all the time.”
Karen, the Littlest Mouseketeer
The youngest Mouseketeer, Karen Pendleton, auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club when she was eight years old. She once told an interviewer, “I had no idea what I was auditioning for. I was eight years old and kind of clueless. Jimmy Dodd belonged to my church. The Sunday before the audition, Jimmy came to my Sunday school class and sang ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ Then on Monday, he was one of the people judging the auditions.” Dodd didn’t know Karen went to his church until after she passed her audition.
That’s how Karen Pendleton earned her Mouseketeer ears and became a part of Disney history. Over the four-year run of The Mickey Mouse Club, thirty-six Mouseketeers appeared on the show. Only nine appeared in all four seasons, and Karen was one of them. She was frequently paired with the youngest boy on the show, Cubby O’Brien. Karen’s best friend on the set was fellow Mouseketeer Sharon Baird. Karen and Sharon remain close friends to this day.
Karen’s four years as a Mouseketeer involved singing, dancing, and personal appearances at Disneyland. She was twelve years old at the end of the final season. She told Fresno Bee writer Rick Bentley, “When the show ended, it was the worst time of my life.”
Karen went on to study sociology at Cal State Northridge, and became a high school guidance counselor. She worked for a while at Fresno’s Hoover High. Over the years, she and her fellow Mouseketeers would get together for various events around the country. Each gathering was like a family reunion.
In 1983, a car crash left Karen paralyzed from the waist down. She was divorced and caring for a ten-year-old daughter at the time—and she wasn’t about to let a wheelchair slow her down. She went on to earn a master’s degrees in psychology, and has worked at a women’s shelter and an independent living community center in Fresno.
A couple of years after her accident, Disneyland invited Karen to make a personal appearance at the Park as part of a thirtieth anniversary celebration. Asked if she’d like to keep her wheelchair hidden from the public, Karen said, “Oh no! I want people to see it! I think it’s a good message for people to see the wheelchair, and to know that a disability doesn’t mean you’re unable to do anything else.”
She once took her two grandsons, ages nine and thirteen, to Disneyland. She did all the thrill rides with them, including California Screamin’ (at Disney California Adventure Park) and Space Mountain. Her grandsons told her she was “cool.”
A year ago, on July 30, 2016, Karen celebrated her seventieth birthday with a Mickey Mouse Club reunion at North Fresno’s Sequoia Brewing Company. Fellow Mouseketeers Johnny Crawford (who once had a crush on Karen) and Sharon Baird came to celebrate with her.
As for the adversity she’s experienced over the years, she told an interviewer, “It comes down to your attitude. If you have a good attitude, good things will happen to you. If you walk down the street and you look at somebody and smile, nine times out of ten, no matter what mood they’re in, they’ll smile back. So why not smile?”
That life-affirming philosophy is very Mouseketeerish, and may be an echo of the influence of her Mickey Mouse Club mentors, Walt Disney, and Jimmy Dodd. But then again, it may simply be an example of the spirit we call FresYes!
Jim Denney was born in Fresno and lived most of his life here. He now lives in Southern California. Jim is the author of Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There if You Know Where to Look, a guide to Walt Disney’s theme park legacy. He blogs at WaltsDisneyland.Wordpress.com.
 Joseph Pimentel, “Disneyland’s First Kids,” Orange County Register, June 8, 2017, Orange County Register, http://www.ocregister.com/2015/11/18/video-disneylands-first-kids-these-two-were-the-first-boy-girl-in-the-gate-in-1955/.
 This and several other quotes by Karen Pendleton are from an undated audio interview conducted by Torchy Smith at TalkZone Internet Talk Radio, “Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton,” posted at http://www.talkzone.com/episodes/157/BBTR090816.html, transcribed by Jim Denney.
 Rick Bentley, “Youngest Mouseketeer, Karen Pendleton, Turns 70,” Fresno Bee, August 3, 2016, http://www.fresnobee.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/rick-bentley/article93526837.html.