Six decades ago Disneyland was brand new!
The Disney Corporation had invested heavily in its construction and they were rumored to be overextended. The senior management team was constantly trying new ways to attract guests to the park and increase revenues. That big pile of debt had to be repaid!
Fortunately, Disney Studios had several very popular television series in production during those early years and the stars of those shows made regular appearances at the park.
The Mickey Mouse Club was a huge hit with children in the 1950’s and the Mouseketeers were frequent performers at Disneyland!
Mouseketeer Annette Funicello even appeared and signed autographs with David Stollery and Tim Considine who starred in the popular Spin & Marty series.
Zorro was another hit television show produced by the Disney Studios. Guy Williams portrayed the hero Don Diego de la Vega. Williams would don the Zorro costume and thrill guests as he rode and duelled his way through Frontierland.
Another popular series of the era was Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen. They also made a number of guest appearances at Disneyland. Fess Parker is pictured below, riding with Walt Disney.
But the wackiest ploy to attract guests had to be the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Races held on Main Street, USA from 1957 to 1964.
One of Disney’s partner companies in the early days was the Quaker Oats Company which opened Aunt Jemima’s Old South Kitchen in Frontierland on August 17, 1955.
Somehow Disney and Quaker Oats concocted the wacky idea of pancake races in the park! Housewives from across the Golden State competed in local and regional pancake races and the regional winners met on Shrove Tuesday for the state championship at Disneyland.
Disney Archivist Rebecca Cline wrote about the races in an article for Disney Magazine in the Spring of 2004. She described the event like this:
“Rose Pitman is running as fast as she can down Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. Her hair tucked underneath a scarf, she is wearing saddle shoes and an apron wrapped around her plaid skirt. She is also carrying a nine-inch skillet in her right hand. Looking out for the thick ribbons stretching eight feet overhead across the race path, she deftly avoids the streetcar tracks beneath her feet. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches out for the other five women who are trying to beat her to the finish line. As Pitman nears the first ribbon, she springs a couple of feet off the ground, and with a practiced snap of the wrist, flips the pancake lying in her skillet up over the ribbon, then catches it on the way down.”
“On she runs toward another ribbon. Again she flips the pancake up, turning it end over end until it comes down in her pan. After snapping her pancake over a third ribbon, she races toward the finish line. The crowd roars its encouragement; Pitman is a mere few feet ahead of her nearest challenger. She leans into the ribbon and it breaks free, floating across her body. It is Tuesday, March 5, 1957; Rose Pitman of Visalia, California, has just placed first in the finals of the California State Pancake Races sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company and Disneyland.”
“Along with the $100 presented by Aunt Jemima (a woman named Palmere Jackson played the character), Pitman wins a number of prizes, including a plaque signed by Walt Disney, an enormous Disneyland food basket with items like Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour and Swift canned meats, an Aunt Jemima cigarette lighter, an umbrella, and a fish knife in a sheath.”
Those crazy races were run each year, on Shrove Tuesday, from 1957 until 1964. The 2004 Disney Magazine article has plenty of additional information on the origins of pancake races and the Disney races in particular. Click on the two images below if you would like to read the article in detail.
With the crowded conditions in Disney Parks these days I doubt that they would ever consider reinstating the Pancake Races . . . but if they do, I’m pretty sure I would make the trip west to witness the spectacle!