Jack Lindquist, Disneyland’s first president, died on Sunday February 28 at age 89.
Lindquist was a thoroughly Mid Century man, at the helm of a physical representation of much of the zeitgeist of the times, he promoted and later ran a place that made popular cinematic genres into live experiences. He was the Barker in Chief for a venue that promoted a vanguard American future and celebrated its realized Manifest Destiny.
Lindquist, by nature of his age was somewhat blithe to many sociological changes in the country through the park’s first decades, which may have been to his and Disneyland’s advantage. A Frank Sinatra guy in the age of Led Zeppelin. That ability to stay comfortably behind the times helped define an essential element of the Disney parks’ personality: reassurance.
Before his Disney career, he was an ad man. The TV and radio director for the small Mays and Company Advertising. Rep-ing client Kelvinator Appliance, he got to see the park during its construction. He said, “I fell in love with the place.” He came to work at the fledgling park later just a month after its opening.
He was an ebullient cherub, with a constant gleam in his eye, bad teeth, and a bit of Barnum on his breath. At about five feet tall and with a similar circumference, he was in every way the antithesis of what we now think of as the persona of a Disney executive. He worked directly with Walt Disney for a time. He was a bit star struck, but he observed the bosses’ well known insistence on a first name basis environment. Except, Walt thought that Lindquist’s first name was Bob. When it was pointed out to Disney by a third party, he said, “he looks like a Bob to me.”
But his appearance and lack of recognition belied his mastery of advertising and a promotion. Most of his campaigns, now in the first class promotion playbook, were being made up of whole cloth at the time. Disney Dollars, The Magic Kingdom Club involving Southern California workplaces, Grad Nites, and the, “I’m Going To Disneyland” championship sports campaign were all created under his tutelage.
He functioned as the Master of Fun on junkets involving Anaheim city officials, cementing a friendly, some say too cozy, relationship with the city. (Apparently there was some drinking and lots of card playing on these trips.) He was also very active in Republican politics locally and nationally. He had a friendly association with H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin two associates from the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Haldeman and Chapin became White House aides and later both served prison time for their involvement in the Watergate Scandal that felled a U.S. President.
Returning to Lindquist’s Mad Man/Ad Man expertise, Disney had been known as a company that was loathe to buy television advertising. When you have a Sunday night TV show that often finishes in the top 10, you might think it unnecessary. But using carefully targeted ads for Walt Disney World and precisely measuring the results, he proved that ads brought scads of patrons from the places the spots had been shown. This changed Disney advertising practices forevermore.
When Micheal Eisner and Frank Wells entered the Walt Disney Company in 1984, they generally eschewed most of the local management of the U.S. Parks. But Lindquist seemed to be a favorite. Previously, the park properties had functioned with no rank higher that a vice president reporting to Burbank. That structure may have been a holdover from the long past days when Walt Disney functioned as the top man, without title. The new administration elevated Lindquist to the position of President of Disneyland in 1990.
After his installment, he found that long lead times in developing ambitious new attractions would leave him without a major draw for the coming summer of 1992. In short order he put together a hybrid group of Imagineers and Disneyland hands to put together a live show to run for four years on the Rivers of America section of the park. The result was Fantasmic. An American Son et lumière. The show still runs at Disneyland Park and has been exported to other Disney parks.
In spite of this success, and the fact that he was not a designer or Imagineer, he is most certainly most responsible for creating another singular area, at Disneyland. But the creation of that special spot was a painful process.
During the 1980s, the park relied on themed promotions to draw locals in the non summer months, Blast to the Park, State Fair, and Circus Fantasy among them. With the promotions came outsized icons at the park hub, in the shadow of the park’s central symbol, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. A giant juke box, a car elevator to dispense giveaway Chevy Geo cars, and even a motorcycle cage called the Globe of Death. Park purists complained.
It fell to Lindquist who was certainly aware of, if not directly involved in these ungainly curations, to devise an elegant solution to the scenic and thematic intrusions. The answer was the Partners statue. An untouchable element. Functionally a sacred spot. A must see, a must photo, a must selfie… for now and ever after.
In his memoir, In Service To The Mouse Lindquist related a story about a Christmas Eve walk he took in Disneyland.
Lindquist says he observed a family walking down Main Street U.S.A. The little girl in the family turned to her mother and said, “Mom, this really was better than having Santa Claus.” When Lindquist told this story, he deducted that the parents had told the children that if they went to Disneyland, Santa could not bring presents.
This story seems like an ad man’s dream. Using emotion to gain acceptance. And whether or not it happened, it is faithful to Lindquist’s feelings about Disneyland and to much of the public’s relationship to the park.
He said “this one brief moment proved to be my most meaningful memory at the park because it symbolized what we mean to people. We are not a cure for cancer, we are not going to save the world, but if we can make people happy for a few hours, or for a day, then we are doing something worthwhile.”