Yesterland Jack and Bonita Wrather
Legendary, And Now Disney Legends
Jack Wrather

Jack and Bonita Wrather

Last year, I wrote that one name was conspicuously absent from the Disney Legends roster. The name was John Devereaux Wrather, Jr. (1918-1984)—or Jack Wrather as he was usually called—who created the Disneyland Hotel in 1955 and enhanced it over a course of three decades.

I should have written that another name was also conspicuously absent. Wrather’s wife of 37 years, Bonita Granville Wrather (1923-1988), was deeply involved in the Disneyland Hotel and even assumed the chairmanship of Wrather Corporation after her husband’s death.

I called the article “Jack Wrather: Legendary, But Not a Legend.”

As you can see at the top of this page, this article now has a new name. This month, Disney’s D23 website announced the names of 12 men and women who will be honored as the Disney Legends in a ceremony at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena Friday, August 19, 2011, as part of he D23 Expo.

The new honorees include Jack and Bonita Wrather. For all the reasons I wrote about in the article, this recognition of Jack and Bonita is well-deserved. The article remains exactly as I originally posted it on August 6, 2010.

It’s great to see Jim Henson on the list too. When Henson passed away at age 53 in 1990, he was in the process of selling his company to The Walt Disney Company and had already begun several projects with Disney. The deal fell apart after his death. His heirs collaborated with DIsney over the years, with memorable results such as the theme park attraction Muppet*Vision 3D (1991) and the movie The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Disney finally acquired the Muppets in 2004. None of this would have been possible without Jim Henson’s brilliant creative work during his lifetime and the wonderful characters he created—which are now part of Disney.

I’m also glad to see Ray Watson honored. My respect for Watson comes from things he did as the head of the Irvine Company, especially how Upper Newport Bay became a protected wildlife refuge under his leadership. But Watson played a very important role at Disney as Chairman at a critical time when the company was in danger of being broken up before the arrival of Eisner and Wells. He served on Disney’s Board of Directors for over 30 years. Watson will turn 85 this year.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, June 24, 2011

Jack Wrather

Walt Disney and Jack Wrather

Jack Wrather: Legendary, But Not a Legend

Originally published August 6, 2010

Possibly more than any other American corporation, The Walt Disney Company respects its heritage and remembers those who made the company what it is today. Through a formal program called Disney Legends, 236 men and women have been honored—so far. They are “individuals whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic.”

Actor Fred MacMurray became the first Disney Legend in 1987. Beginning in 1989, around 10 or 12 additional Disney Legends joined the elite group each year—actors, animators, broadcasters, entertainers, family members, Imagineers, leaders, merchandisers, movie people, musicians, publishers, technical innovators, television people, voice actors, writers, and others. The roster includes the Nine Old Men and the Golden Girls.

A committee carefully chooses new inductees. Sometimes the recognition goes to someone who is living. In other cases, the recognition means a great deal to surviving family, surviving co-workers, and those who have followed in the Legend’s footsteps.

Each year, some new inductees are better known than others. Even the most ardent Disney history buff might not immediately recognize some of the names—perhaps making the recognition all-the-more important. Then there are names that are surprising because one would have assumed they were already Disney Legends.

Which brings us to Jack Wrather.

Jack Wrather

Jack Wrather reveals the architect’s plans for the Disneyland Hotel.

The year was 1954. Walt Disney wanted a hotel at Disneyland, but it was beyond his financial resources. Scraping together the money to build the park was hard enough. There was no money for a hotel. A licensee would need to build and operate it.

A hotel at Disneyland was by no means a “sure thing.” If the experts were right, and Disneyland was Walt’s Folly, then a hotel next to the park would wind up as empty, unwanted rooms surrounded by the orange groves of Anaheim.

Walt Disney had an amazing knack for picking the right people. Showman, risk-taker and innovator Walt Disney looked to showman, risk-taker and innovator Jack Wrather—although not necessarily as his first choice.

Here’s how Jack Wrather explained it in an Orange County Register article by Forest Kimler on September 11, 1978:

“It was 1954 when I got a call that Walt was putting in something very special out there in Anaheim and I was asked if I would be interested in building a hotel next to it.

“I had heard a little bit about the Disneyland plan but when they told me where it was going to built, all I could exclaim was ‘Anaheim! Oh, God! Anaheim!’

“Then I asked them why they didn’t call Hilton or Sheraton, since I wasn’t in the hotel business. They said they had called them but Hilton or Sheraton never heard of Anaheim and weren’t interested.”

What about the other big hotel chains? Why wasn’t the Disneyland Hotel built by Marriott or Hyatt or Holiday Inn?

Those hotel companies didn’t exit in 1954. In the mid-1950s, the hotel business was much less of a chain business than today. Hilton, Sheraton, and Statler were around, primarily with big-city hotels. There were cooperatives of independent motels, such as Best Western. The Holiday Inn chain didn’t start until 1957. There was exactly one Hyatt—the Hyatt House motel at Los Angeles Airport. Marriott was a small company that operated some restaurants in the Washington, DC area; the first Marriott hotel would not open until 1957 (the Quality Courts Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Arlington, Virginia).

Jack Wrather and Walt Disney had something else in common: television shows on ABC, the network that owned part of Disneyland Inc. Jack Wrather had acquired the Lone Ranger television series in 1954.

Wrather won the right to build the Disneyland Hotel, beating out five or six other contenders. We may never know who else was interested in building a Disneyland-branded hotel, but that doesn’t matter.

Walt believed in Jack, and Jack believed in Walt.

Jack Wrather

Groundbreaking for the Disneyland Hotel

Where did Jack Wrather come from? Don Ballard, author of the excellent book Disneyland Hotel: The Early Years 1954-1988, summed up Wrather’s life leading up to 1954:

John (Jack) Devereaux Wrather, Jr. was born in Amarillo, Texas on May 24, 1918. He attended the University of Texas, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1939. On July 31, 1941, he married Mollie O’Daniel, the daughter of then Texas Governor Wilbert Lee (Pappy) O’Daniel. The marriage ended in divorce in 1945. The marriage produced two children, Jack D. III and Molly.

After college, Jack worked at various jobs in the oil industry where he made his first fortune. When his father fell ill in 1940, Jack took control of the family’s oil interests.

In 1942, Wrather entered the United States Marine Corps. During 1944-1945, Jack saw action in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines. For his service, he received three combat stars.

In 1946, Jack relocated to California, convinced that the entertainment industry would experience huge growth in the post-war era and would be a profitable investment. There he met and married actress Bonita Granville in 1947, famous motion picture child star in the 1930s and 1940s. Their marriage would produce two more children, Linda and Christopher.

Jack began to diversify his financial holdings and entered into the motion picture business. Jack entered into television in 1951 by forming Wrather Television Productions. He met and formed a partnership with Maria Helen Alvarez of San Diego, and formed Wrather-Alvarez Broadcasting, Inc.

By the time Disney tapped him, Wrather was a movie producer, television producer, broadcast station owner, and—despite Wrather’s comment to the Register that he “wasn’t in the hotel business”—the operator of two small resorts: the Twin Lakes Lodge in Las Vegas and the L’Horizon Hotel in Palm Springs.

Jack Wrather

Disneyland Hotel brochures from the 1950s

Jack Wrather opened the 104-room Disneyland Hotel on October 5, 1955. On opening night, just seven rooms were ready for the public; an eighth served as the hotel’s office and lobby.

Jack Wrather wasn’t just a guy whose company opened a hotel that licensed the Disneyland name over 55 years ago. For almost 30 years, until his death in 1984, Wrather continued to enlarge and improve the resort.

Wrather’s vision was to make the Disneyland Hotel far more than a place to sleep. It became a destination in its own right.

In his introduction to the book Disneyland Hotel: The Early Years 1954-1988, Christopher Wrather, Jack and Bonita’s youngest son, described how his father viewed the Disneyland Hotel and what he accomplished:

Jack had more fun with the Disneyland Hotel than with any other investment. The Disneyland Hotel presaged many future developments in the way Americans entertain themselves. My Dad understood that the landscape of entertainment was changing, calling his era the “age of frantic relaxation.”

Originally conceived as lodging for the main event, Disneyland, the Hotel was designed by architects experienced in the movie business and soon was helping to pioneer new forms of dining as entertainment, shopping as entertainment, and the use of a waterfront setting which anticipated the later emergence of waterfront festival shopping centers that became so popular in many urban renewals.

Jack Wrather

Disneyland Hotel in 1956

Together, the Disneyland Park and Hotel were the forerunner of today’s Disney destination resorts in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong. There are now dozens of “magical” Disney-branded resort hotels. It’s a big part of the Parks & Resorts business. Every time a guest checks into a Disney resort hotel worldwide, they owe a small debt of gratitude to Jack Wrather.

The Walt Disney Company acquired Wrather Corporation in 1988 to gain ownership of the Disneyland Hotel. So the former Wrather Corporation’s Disneyland Hotel is one of the components of today’s Walt Disney Company—just like Disneyland Inc., WED Enterprises, Walt Disney Productions, ABC, and Pixar.

Jack Wrather's Disneyland Inc. ID card

Jack Wrather’s Disneyland Inc. ID card in 1955

So why isn’t Jack Wrather already an official Disney Legend?

Is it because Jack Wrather was an outside vendor—not really a Disney employee, despite his Disneyland Inc. employee identification card? That might be a valid reason if The Walt Disney Company had not acquired Wrather Corporation in 1988 or the Disneyland Hotel no longer existed and was just footnote in Disneyland’s history—even though the Disneyland Hotel set the stage for all Disney-branded hotels that followed.

However, with the Disneyland Hotel now owned by Disney and still an integral and vital part of the Disneyland Resort, the heritage of the Disneyland Hotel is irrefutably part of Disney’s heritage.

Jack Wrather

Publicity photo for today’s Disney-owned Disneyland Hotel

One precedent for a Disney Legend who was not a Disney employee is Harrison “Buzz” Price, the research guru who helped to identify optimum locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, is an official Disney Legend. Other Disney Legends made their greatest contributions when they worked for WED Enterprises, back when it was a separate company from Walt Disney Productions. But their contributions are clearly part of the heritage of today’s Disney—just like Jack Wrather’s contributions.

There was business friction between Wrather Corporation and The Walt Disney Company in the years leading up the 1988 acquisition of the former by the latter. But that’s just business—and it should not distract from Jack Wrather’s brilliant achievements in developing the Disneyland Hotel from 1954 until his death in 1984.

Jack Wrather

Transforming the Disneyland Hotel again (May 2010 photo)

Jack Wrather was a pioneer, visionary, and risk taker, with parallels to Walt Disney. Wrather “invented” the Disneyland Hotel and set the stage for all the Disney resorts that followed in Florida, California, France, Japan, and Hong Kong.

Maybe the next time you read about Jack Wrather, the writer will be able to refer to him as “Disney Legend Jack Wrather.”

 

Other Yesterland articles about the Disneyland Hotel:


 

Acknowledgment... and news about a new book (updated June 24, 2011)

Thank you to Don Ballard, author of Disneyland Hotel: The Early Years 1954-1988, for his help with this article.

book cover

Disneyland Hotel: The Early Years 1954-1988

 

I strongly recommend his book. The fascinating story of the hotel is accompanied by great photos. Unfortunately, the book from 2005 is now rare and usually only sold at inflated collector’s prices.

There’s good news for people who missed the original book. Don Ballard has continued his research—discovering rare photographs, gaining access to significant documents, and interviewing more people with firsthand knowledge.

So instead of simply reprinting the old book, Don is working on a series of new books. The first one is Disneyland Hotel 1954-1959: The Little Motel in the Middle of the Orange Grove, to be released in August 2011. (Jack Wrather was fond of referring to his original Disneyland Hotel as “the little motel in the middle of the orange grove.”)

book cover

Disneyland Hotel 1954-1959: The Little Motel in the Middle of the Orange Grove

 

Be sure to visit Don’s website and blog about the history of the Disneyland Hotel:

 

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© 2010-2012 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated June 8, 2012.

Historical photos of Jack Wrather and the Disneyland Hotel courtesy of the Wrather family and/or the Wrather Archives at Loyola Marymount University, courtesy of Chris Wrather and the family of Jack Wrather, with thanks to Don Ballard; some images originally copyright Wrather Corporation, which was acquired by The Walt Disney Company.
 
Publicity photo of the Disneyland Hotel: © The Walt Disney Company.
Photo of the Disneyland Hotel towers during 2010 renovation: Werner Weiss, May 2010.