When my beloved GreGra, my dad’s mom, asked me if I wanted to go to Disneyland, I shouted, “Yes!”
As a 10-year-old, I had watched episodes about Disneyland on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights at 6:00 p.m. for years. My dad, a free-lance cartoonist, had visited Disneyland when he went to the yearly convention of editorial cartoonists two years earlier. He had even met Walt Disney!
What’s more, he had met an employee at Disney Studios. Mr. Reddy offered to give GreGra and me a personalized tour of the studios during our stay. Maybe we would catch a glimpse of Walt himself.
In June 1963, we boarded our train at Union Station in Chicago. GreGra, the 68-year-old widow of a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad engineer accountant, reassured me that I had “oceans of room” in my cramped blue suitcase. Our family said our goodbyes inside our cozy Pullman compartment. Unfortunately, the train’s sudden jolt frightened my two younger sisters, ages 11 months and four years, into thinking that they would not be able to get off the train before we left the station.
My excitement built as our train left the Midwestern plains. I planned my Disneyland strategy in the Dome Car while marveling at the Rocky Mountains and Nevada’s desert beauty. After arriving in Los Angeles, we headed directly to the Disneyland Hotel where our fantasy would begin.
GreGra and I hopped on the monorail that afternoon and spent the next three days riding virtually every Disneyland ride, including my favorite, the Matterhorn. Disneyland was much bigger than I expected. I was surprised that GreGra kept up with me, ride for ride (except for rides that went around in circles). We even stayed up late enough to watch Tinkerbell and “Fantasy in the Sky” fireworks. I was tired but happy when I left Disneyland for the last time, and I vowed to return with my parents and sisters soon.
GreGra and I saw the new film, Bye Bye Birdie, at the Hawaii Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Both of us were big Dick Van Dyke fans and loved musicals, so we were thrilled to see him sing and dance in the role of Albert Peterson in living color…in Hollywood!
We saved the tour of Disney Studios for the last day of our trip. Mr. Reddy gave us a fascinating tour of sound stages as well as animation and sound studios. We were walking outside between studio buildings when we spotted a tan, lanky man sitting at a table under some trees. I realized that it was Dick Van Dyke. My mind raced. What was he doing here??? I just had seen him on the big screen in Bye Bye Birdie the previous day, and now he was just footsteps away.
Still in shock, I whispered my discovery to GreGra. My bold grandmother opened her pocketbook, whipped out a blank piece of paper and pen, and commanded, “Ask for his autograph!” I asked Mr. Reddy if it was OK. Mr. Reddy quickly explained that Dick Van Dyke was making a film called Mary Poppins and was on a break between takes. He spoke to Dick Van Dyke, who sauntered over to my star-struck grandmother and me. He was much taller than I imagined, his eyes were a deep blue, and he was quite tan which contrasted with his white teeth. He smiled broadly and asked me my first name. Luckily, I remembered it! He proceeded to write three lines, “To Diane, All my best, Dick Van Dyke.” He hoped that we would enjoy the rest of our trip.
With stars in our eyes, GreGra and I didn’t remember much of the rest of the tour.
The two-day train ride home was a happy blur for GreGra and me. Disneyland and Hollywood were expected trip highlights, but getting Dick Van Dyke’s autograph was the nicest surprise of all, thanks to a loving grandmother.
Fast forward 53 years to 2016: my sister (who was 11 months old in 1963) sent a text that Dick Van Dyke would be giving a Q & A session at the historic Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, IL in June. Did I want to join her and her friend in the audience? Tickets were going fast for this event, which was raising funds for The Center for Early Childhood Creativity and Innovation (CECCI) at the Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago. I was attending a wedding in Chicagoland a few days later, so I replied, “Yes!”
The entertaining show included a Q & A session moderated by Dick’s much-younger wife, Arlene. Dick not only told stories about his TV show and his many beloved films, but he also gave tips on how to stay fit and young at heart. A bonus was a performance by the Vantastix, Dick’s barbershop quartet. Who knew that 90-year-old Dick could still sing and dance better than many folks half of his age? He even sang the theme song to the Dick Van Dyke Show. My ticket included a pre-autographed copy of Dick’s book, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business.
Who would have guessed that I would get Dick Van Dyke’s autograph not once, but twice?
[Photo source: Wikipedia]
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects.