Disney Magic Comes to Tulare County
The summer of 1946 was special for Tulare County and especially Visalia. It was the time that Walt Disney, the already famous animator and filmmaker, brought his talent and crew to the county to use as a backdrop for his new movie called “So Dear to My Heart.”
Although ultimately the film was not a box office hit, Disney himself did get personal satisfaction in making it, later sharing, “‘So Dear’ was especially close to me; why that’s the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri.”
But the movie mogul was not the only one pleased with it. Hundreds of county adults and children used as “extras” were also happy and count their experience as one of their finest memories.
The full-length Technicolor film was directed by Harold Schuster and starred Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey, Luana Patten, Bobby Driscoll and included a new actor named Burl Ives. The story was set in 1903 and was built around the adventures of a little boy and his prize black lamb — all centered in the fictitious Indiana village of Fulton Corners and the Pike County Fairgrounds. The film was called “liveaction,” which meant that live actors were used, with occasional brief animated scenes interspersed throughout.
The village of Fulton Corners was created about five miles east of Porterville along the Tule River. A railroad station, water tank, blacksmith shop, church, stores and homes were built. But the prize was a large older structure moved onto the site from nearby Plano.
It was a stroke of luck for Disney, according to Tulare Advance-Register reporter Redford Dibble, who wrote, “The technician in charge of buildings heard of a deserted village store at Plano, about five miles from Porterville, and went over to look at it. He could hardly believe his good fortune. It seems that an early day Plano merchant had died in 1903 and his sentimental widow had locked up the store and adjoining blacksmith shop just as he left them and declined to dispose of them. Inside was a complete stock of 1903 merchandise — even a 1903 calendar hanging on the wall. In the blacksmith shop were tools and equipment of the same period — a perfect setup for the Disney crew. Hollywood persuasion prevailed and the merchant’s widow let the technicians tote the two buildings, complete, to the location.” Trees, plants and shrubs were added to give the town authenticity.
Even though the village scene was filmed around Porterville, Visalia was selected as film headquarters, with Walt Disney and his top company production staff staying at the Johnson Hotel, located at Main and Church streets. Accommodations for the other hundreds of film crew members became a serious problem. In July 1946, Hazel Dutton, secretary of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, stepped in and appealed to the community for help: “All who have available rooms in homes, trailer camps, motels, auto camps, hotels or apartment houses” should let the chamber know. Eventually, accommodations were found, but were spread throughout the county.
Another challenge was finding a suitable site to shoot the big county fairgrounds scene. The location needed to be heavily wooded, so obvious choices for consideration were Cutler and Mooney Grove parks. Members of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors gave their approval for use of the parks, so Disney officials closely inspected both. Cutler Park was initially selected as it was more isolated from vehicle noise. Eliminating the sounds of nearby motor vehicles, especially their engines, was critical while shooting the film. But, ultimately, Disney producer Elmer A. Tambert selected Mooney Grove. Walt Disney inspected the park and agreed with the decision.
Arrangements were made with the California Highway Patrol to install temporary stop signals near the park on the Visalia-Tulare Highway, now called Mooney Boulevard. As a scene was shot at the park, the director or his assistant would flip a switch activating the signals, which would stop the traffic during the shoot. When filming was finished, traffic would be allowed to proceed.
Visalia and Tulare furnished 500 “extras” for the fair grounds scenes. Each received costumes, some were paid, many rode on buggies, and all were treated to a picnic lunch.
On July 31, shooting began at the north end of Mooney Grove, the location of the Pike County Fair. The area had been transformed into a typical county fair scene complete with tents, banners, midway, judging arena and corrals. Excited children were in their places, with proud parents watching the action.
A Visalia Times-Delta reporter noticed that the children were being carefully watched and reported in his story, “Very much on the job was a motherly and efficient-looking welfare director who came up from Los Angeles to see that the youngsters get the proper care, and that they were not before the cameras longer than the law allows.”
Prize sheep were on scene, brought in from the California Polytechnic Institute at San Luis Obispo, and were augmented by other animals from local school farms and ranches.
For about 10 weeks, the Disney troupe was on location in Tulare County. On Aug. 7, 1946, the set at Mooney Grove was dismantled. On their way out, members of the Disney company donated $2,000 worth of trees and plants still in barrels and cans to the county.
They were gladly accepted by Tulare County Parks Superintendent J. E. Ross, and taken to the nursery at Mooney Grove for future replanting throughout the county park system.
“So Dear to My Heart” was released by RKO Radio Pictures on Jan. 19, 1949. One of the movie’s songs, “Lavender Blue,” sung by Burl Ives, earned an Academy Award nomination. Overall, the reviews were good, and Variety called it “a first-rate job of sentimental storytelling.”
But the best feedback came from locals who were “extras” involved in the making of the film, such as Jo Ann Ledbetter George. She proudly remembers the film that gave her her “two seconds of fame.”