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The Time Nat Winecoff Invented Disneyland

Nat Winecoff (second from right) helped Walt realize his dream (Photo: Walt Disney Family Museum). L to r: Dick Irvine, C. V. Wood, Jr., Walt Disney, Nat Winecoff, Bill Cottrell
Walt Disney's creative vision and dogged determination made Disneyland a reality. The park embodies his dreams and ideals, but the hard fact is that he needed a lot of help to coax his ideas into tangible reality. Many assume that Walt turned to his world-class staff of artists to develop his park, but they formed the reserves. In fact, Walt formed a cadre of white men mostly in their forties from outside the studio to invent Disneyland.

September 1952 was a pivotal time at the Disney lot, five months before the release of Peter Pan. Walt had built himself a party house farther from the studio, was distracted by his backyard train and other hobbies, and had begun spending weeks at a time in Europe. He returned from his fourth summer in Europe to find that his brother, Roy, had apparently foiled Walt's plan for a Mickey Mouse Park on studio property in Burbank with a whisper campaign among city politicians and money men.

Walt was as restless as his brother Roy was conservative. They were feuding and each knew the other well. Roy was sure Walt would drop his park idea at the first sign of opposition and he was right—Walt gave up on the Burbank park six months after sketches had been front page news in the local paper. Roy's weakness was his hesitancy to innovate. In 1952, that meant television and new movie formats like 3D and widescreen.

The official history ignores the rift between the Disney brothers because they later patched things up and a family squabble isn't good for business. When the studio's fiscal year ended on October 1 and Walt's R&D budget was capped at $10,000, it was war. Roy signed everyone's paycheck at the studio, but Walt had his loyalists. Story man Bill Cottrell was Walt's confidant and, because he had married Lillian's sister, he was Walt's brother-in-law as well.

Walt decided that the future was television; let Roy stick to animated features. CBS was building a complex next to the Farmer's Market to be called Television City. NBC, the other national network, was about to move in around the corner—between Warner Bros. and the Disney lot. Walt Disney would become a television mogul and would build his park as part of a television studio, not his animation studio. Enter Nat Winecoff.

Nathan Winecoff was two months younger than Walt. Born in Poland, Nathan's family moved to Los Angeles in 1923, the same year Walt came out alone from Kansas City. Young Nat saw some success as a blues singer and Nat Winecoff's Boys sang on the radio as Mickey Mouse appeared in theaters. By the war, Nat managed a Paramount Studios music subsidiary and found success writing songs like "Heaven Is a Moment in Your Arms."

If he was going to part ways with Roy, Walt needed a businessman to manage things and handle investors. Walt's new personal attorney, Loyd Wright (no relation to architect Frank Lloyd Wright), worked with Winecoff and Cottrell to incorporate Walt Disney, Inc. The new company would produce a Zorro television show in the fall of 1954 and General Foods was attached as a potential sponsor. Cottrell left the story department at Walt Disney Productions to become the Zorro writer and Nat (sometimes Nate) signed on as Vice President and General Manager.

Walt was working with studio artists Ken Anderson, Wathel Rogers, and technician Roger Broggie on other personal projects at the time, but Winecoff was charged with laying the groundwork for Walt's television studio. Crazy ideas that Walt had developed on the side had been adopted by Roy for the studio, so everything was intertwingled. Harper Goff, for example, had been on Walt's personal payroll but given office space at the studio, and now he was a studio employee developing two live-action films in parallel.

Winecoff and Cottrell made plans for Zorro and beyond. Walt found them space in a building that had been moved from the original Disney studio on Hyperion Avenue. It was "a ramshackle, wallboard thing, very temporary, hot in the summer and cold in the winter," recalled an early employee. In those days, television shows were controlled by their sponsors—advertisers bought shows and paid networks to air them—so Winecoff courted sponsors.

Winecoff (right) in late 1954.
In the first few months of 1953, as Peter Pan was released to enthusiastic reviews, despite messing with the James Barrie classic—no clapping to revive Tinker Bell, and what had been a spot of light now a sexy minx wearing close to nothing—Winecoff planned Walt's television land. He got architect Chuck Luckman to propose concept after concept, apparently on spec. Luckman and his partner, Bill Pereira, had designed CBS' Television City. Walt wanted only the best.

The official history credits Walt's friend, Los Angeles architect Welton Becket, with the idea of replacing Luckman and Pereira with Hollywood art directors, but one suspects that Nat Winecoff was involved as well. Walt's description of what he wanted seemed more like a movie studio backlot than the austere, International Style buildings of Television City. Soon, Nat was talking with Miracle on 34th Street art director Richard Irvine about Zorro and what would come next.

Winecoff shepherded Walt's nascent project throughout 1953, helping Irvine hire two more 20th Century-Fox art directors while entreating networks and sponsors alike. Walt was angry that General Foods insisted on a Zorro pilot (allegedly), so Winecoff tried to find alternatives. Robert Kintner, president of third-place network ABC, was interested. In November 1953, Winecoff presented Disneyland to a group of amusement park owners in Chicago and gathered their feedback.

Nat Winecoff (left) personified Disneyland for potential partners, sponsors, and investors. Note the 45 records on his tie. (Photo: Disney History Institute)
By early 1954, Winecoff's baby looked a lot more like what was built, but financing for it was elusive. When the deal was finalized at the end of March, Winecoff stepped aside and a young outsider was given the title Vice President and General Manager.

Regardless of his title, Winecoff worked tirelessly throughout 1954 to further develop the park. He is credited with recognizing the importance of freeway adjacency and it seems as if Anaheim was largely his idea, too. His talent was respecting the entertainment side—writing and recording songs, for example—as well as the business of getting records made and having them bought by consumers. The Disneyland concept of balancing Show and Control may well have originated with Nat Winecoff. One newspaper story called him the "talent scout" who found Native Americans for the park. He was considered Walt's executive assistant.  He was peripatetic.

Bible Storyland, c1960, Cucamonga, California (KPCC 2012 Offramp blog
Nat Winecoff committed the unforgivable sin of competing with Disneyland while Walt was still alive, and his punishment was to be all but excised from the official history of the place. Nat worked with investors who wanted to duplicate Disneyland's success, placing him on Walt's does-not-exist list. In 1959, Nat opened the Apacheland Movie Ranch in Arizona, and in 1960, Nat Winecoff Enterprises partnered with yo-yo magnate Donald Duncan to create plans for Bible Storyland east of Los Angeles. Bruce Bushman signed on, among others. It was designed but never built, along with Bozo World, Irish Village, Old Indiana (later designed and built by others) and unnamed projects in Brownsville, Texas and Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Winecoff passed away at home in Glendale in January 1983, just shy of his 81st birthday. He is buried (as is Walt) at Forest Lawn Glendale, next to his wife "Cookie," who died in 1966. Although he was in the newspapers quite a bit over the years, I have yet to find an obituary for him.

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