The small town where Walt Disney found magic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I've never been to the tiny town of Marceline, in northern Missouri, but the moment I set foot on Kansas Avenue, I'm hit with a dizzying sense of familiarity.

The street is lined with two-story brick buildings, some fronted with candy-striped awnings. American flags wave from cast-iron street lamps. There's a movie theater and a corner cafe serving fried chicken and ice cream sundaes.

The only thing missing is a costumed mouse.

It's said that Marceline, childhood home of Walt Disney, helped inspire Main Street U.S.A., the nostalgic avenue leading theme-park guests into Disneyland and its counterparts in Orlando, Paris and Tokyo.

The resemblance is faint -- Marceline's stores don't have the elaborate gingerbread finishing you'll find in the parks, and there's rarely a crowd -- but still, it's there. And there's no denying Walt Disney's connection to Marceline -- and Marceline's love for Walt Disney.

"To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since," Disney wrote. "I'm glad I'm a small-town boy, and I'm glad Marceline was my town."

Just three years ago, the town launched a fall festival honoring cartooning in general and Walt in particular.

I'm visiting for the festival, but the night before the big parade, Kansas Avenue is deserted. I'm the only customer at Susie's Place, a cafe in a building where Walt Disney's younger sister Ruth once spilled a plate of food that their father, Elias, was not pleased he still had to pay for. Black-and-white pictures of the Disney family hang on the wall. And the homemade fried chicken and crinkly fries look as if they could have come from a nostalgia-themed Disneyland restaurant.

A half-block away, the Uptown Theatre, where the Disney Co. sent The Great Locomotive Chase for its premiere in 1955, is showing Uptown Girls.

Disney lived in Marceline for only five years, from ages 5 to 10. His father wanted to take the family away from what he considered the dangerous influences of Chicago and settled on a town where one of his brothers lived.

"We are the place Walt found the magic," says Kaye Malins, who lives in the Disneys' former home.

Although the family was poor and lived in what was then a crowded farmhouse, the young Walt thought he was in heaven. It was here where he saw his first movie and put on his first show -- but his mother made him return the money when neighborhood children complained that the content, a cat and dog dressed in costume, lacked entertainment value.

The boy also studied the antics of farm animals that later became the inspiration for an animation empire.

Hometown boy

Visitors come to Marceline (mar-sell-LEAN) to pay tribute.

"They're arriving on Disney hallowed land," said Richard Switzer, a financial services adviser whose wife has taught at Walt Disney Elementary School for 23 years. "It really is a pilgrimage for some."

The school's lobby has a case displaying Walt's school desk, complete with the "WD" initials he carved on the top.

The gymnasium-lunchroom is decorated with Disney characters painted by the late Bob Moore, one of the company's leading animators. He later designed the Walt Disney postage stamp, which was released at Marceline's post office in 1968. (Just last year, Congress unanimously voted to rename the post office for Disney.)

Although the Disney presence is unmistakable here, in many places, he's almost forgotten. A recent Disney company survey indicated that most children don't know that Walt was a real person.

But in Marceline, Walt -- as everyone calls him -- lives on. He is still the friendly man with a mustache who welcomed millions of children to his television show during the 1950s and 1960s. At Marceline's only motel, a framed picture of Disney perches like a shrine on the counter in front of a Mickey Mouse telephone.

The Disney story is well told in the town's museum, the former Santa Fe railroad depot. Marceline is still on the main line between Chicago and Kansas City. More than 70 trains pass through town each day, their horns blaring. But none stops here. Disney's lifelong fascination with trains is linked to the line.

The museum displays Disney artifacts and papers. Disney's familiar flourishing signature, still the company logo, jumps out from correspondence with family members.

Separate rooms explain the Disney connection to Marceline and Disney's interest in maintaining it. He donated a theme-park ride to the town. The Midget Autotopia, once an attraction at Disneyland, ran for several years in a Marceline park until maintenance became too difficult and expensive. The museum displays a lemon-yellow car, its motor long silent. Disney also gave playground equipment to the town and dedicated a swimming pool at the Walt Disney recreational complex.

But Disney had much bigger plans for Marceline.

He had hoped to develop his hometown into a theme park devoted to rural American life. During a visit in 1956, he formed a silent partnership to start the so-called Marceline Project.

Disney's grand idea

Rush Johnson, now 77 and president of the Disney museum, said the idea was hatched over a scotch in his basement. Disney was in town for the pool dedication, and he stayed at Johnson's home, one of the few then in town with air conditioning.

"He envisioned a working farm," Johnson said. It would be a place to teach children what an acre was and where their food came from.

The first order of business was to buy the old Disney home. Johnson was given that job. "Walt said, 'You can buy it cheaper than I can.' "

Over the years, Johnson and Disney were in frequent contact. Eventually they amassed seven properties, covering 75 acres. "It would have worked," Johnson said, recalling Disney's promise that when he invited the viewers of his television show to visit his hometown, they would come.

But the idea died shortly after Disney's death in 1966.

Johnson moved into the Disney home and expanded it carefully, leaving the farmhouse in its original shape by building an addition around it. The whole thing could be removed some day, if history or tourism requires.

Johnson's daughter, who now lives there, has developed part of the property into a free park devoted to Disney. Its two attractions are a tree and a barn.

The young Walt used to sit under a cottonwood and muse. He said he practiced "belly botany" there, examining bugs and plants. The Dreaming Tree, as it became known, has been struck by lightning and looks to be in its final years.

Recently a group called American Forests collected seeds and is selling saplings in its Historic Tree catalog along with descendants of trees associated with Andrew Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Johnny Appleseed, among many others.

The barn is a replica of the original barn that stood on the property. Disney loved it so much that he had a copy built in California to use as his office. He called it the "Happy Place." In 2001, to honor Disney's 100th birthday, Marceline erected its own replica. Both buildings were purposely constructed with a swayed roof, the way Disney remembered it.

Inside, hundreds of fans have scribbled tributes in pen on walls and beams. "Walt, thanks for the magic & fun," reads one signed by Chris Linn in 2002.

I stopped by before the morning parade on festival day and met two couples who became friends though a club of Disney memorabilia collectors.

Yvonne Anderson, of Arvada, Colo., built a wing of her house to hold her collectibles. She said she's drawn to Marceline because it is so closely linked to Disney. "If you love Disney," she says, "you've got to separate the corporate Disney from Walt Disney. There is no corporate Disney here."

A fun place

That may be true, but there's no shortage of Disney memorabilia for sale in Marceline. Like its theme-park counterpart, the town's main street will assist any visitor interested in taking home a souvenir.

The Treasure & Trash store has Disney-themed magnets, postcards, key chains, coffee cups, tote bags, aprons and plush animals. And then there are older pieces. One collectible windup train topped with a character that vaguely resembles Pluto is marked $1,500.

"Price is negotiable," the clerk says.

A Ludwig Von Drake cup seems practically reasonable at a mere $75.

Across the street at the 3D antiques store, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive as well. Bags of dirt from the main street go for $1 a pop.

But visitors don't seem to mind the commercialism.

Amy Berger, 29, who drove three hours from Independence, Mo., with her mother, was tickled with her find: a Fantasia teapot for $40.

"That was pretty cheap," she said after posing for a picture with a human-sized plush Minnie Mouse, who was seated in front of the Marceline museum. But even more than the shopping, she said, she was taken with Marceline itself.

"It's happy here."

With the amplified sounds of Zip a Dee Doo Dah echoing across the park, and hundreds of smiling faces walking the street on this festival day, I could only agree.

Earlier in the day, children took turns at a "barnyard circus." Some practiced milking cows, actually wood cutouts with rubber gloves as udders. Nearby, the cry of a squealing piglet indicated the greased-pig-catching contest was in full swing.

But all activity stopped for the parade. Marching bands, beauty queens and Shriners made their way down the main street. Then when they got to the end, they turned around and retraced their steps, parading a second time by the still-eager crowd.

But the next morning, Marceline had returned to normal. I drive the main street one last time and pause by the parking lot leading to the Dreaming Tree. I haven't seen another car since leaving my motel.

I can't help but compare this town with other ones in central Florida and California -- once out-of-the-way places surrounded by orange groves.

And as I steer toward the highway to drive two hours to the Kansas City airport, it strikes me: Perhaps Walt's dream of preserving small-town America has come true after all.

When you go

Getting there: Marceline is about 130 miles from Kansas City International Airport; several airlines offer connecting service from BWI.

Where to stay: Lodging is limited. There's a B&B; above the Uptown Theatre (660-376-2525; www.uptown-marceline. com) and a motel on the outskirts of town, the Lamplighter (660-376-3517).

* Other lodging is in Brookfield, eight miles away, or

Macon, 30 miles away.

Festival: Marceline's Toon Fest is the third Saturday in September -- this year Sept. 18. Contact: 660-376-9258. Guest speaker will be Pete Doctor of Pixar Animation.

What to see:

* The Walt Disney's Hometown Museum has a wealth of Disney material and a small gift shop. Staff members can direct you to other Disney sites in town. Open Tuesday through Sunday, April through October. Admission: $5.

* The Dreaming Tree and the replica of the Disney family barn are just north of town on Broadway, off Missouri Highway 5.

There's a small parking area with a path leading to the sites. Be respectful; this is private property.

* See the cartoon paintings during classroom hours at Walt Disney Elementary School, 420 E. California.

Dream trees: For $75, you can buy a 2-year-old descendant of the Dreaming Tree, the cottonwood under which a young Walt Disney once mused. The sapling and other pedigreed trees are sold through American Forests' Historic Tree Nursery. Contact: 800-320-8733; www.historictrees.org.

For more information, contact the Marceline Chamber of Commerce: 660-376-9258; www.marceline.com.

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