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You Must Remember This: The advent of Disneyland was the beginning of the decline of the citrus industry

By NANCY GARDNER

I was looking at the photos in Corona del Mar, My Kind of Town, and noticed that many were attributed to William Porcella. It took me a moment, and then: “Oh, you mean Billy Porcella.” There are some people destined for the diminutive of their names, and Billy was one of those. A Little Corona regular, he wasn’t exactly obnoxious, but when an exasperated cry went up more often than not it was, “Billy!” He was never going to become William on a personal basis.

Billy lived with his parents and sister in the last house on the path to Little Corona, CdM side. A pie-shaped lot, it had a lovely curved front of windows to maximize the view. When it was eventually sold, it was understood that the original house would be torn down and replaced with something much larger, but the agreement was that the large pines in the front yard had to be preserved, and they remain there today. The house was originally built by Mrs. Porcella’s father, E. A. Silzle, who lived there with his wife for many years before turning it over to their daughter. Silzle was the owner of E. A. Silzle Corp. of Anaheim, a citrus packing company associated with Sunkist.

It is hard for newcomers to realize the transformation that has taken place in Orange County, one that has essentially erased its agricultural roots. When I was young, the hills were dotted with cattle, not houses. To get to Santa Ana you drove through bean fields. Once out of the immediate coastal zone, there were acres and acres of citrus groves. Anaheim was a vital center of citrus packing and canning. The E. A. Silzle Corp. was part of all that activity, working hand in glove with Sunkist and others to make California citrus ubiquitous.

Ironically, Silzle may have inadvertently contributed to the ultimate demise of the industry in Anaheim. There is some speculation here, but that is what historians (I am using the label very lightly) do. They take established facts and develop theories from those facts, so here we go:

Fact 1: By the very early ‘50s, Walt Disney had a theme park in mind. He wanted to put it next to the Disney studios in Burbank, but no properties of appropriate size were available.

Fact 2: In 1953, Silzle contacted Disney and asked him if he would put some of his Disney characters in the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Halloween Parade. After studying the proposal, Disney came back with a different one. Instead of contributing a few characters, he would essentially take over the parade. Each float would represent a Disney film.

Fact 3: Disney bought 160 acres of citrus in Anaheim for his park.

Fact 4: Silzle was invited to the very exclusive press preview for the opening of Disneyland.

Theory: Silzle was responsible for Disneyland being where it is.

In support of this theory, Walt Disney lived and worked in Los Angeles. If Silzle hadn’t asked him to help with the parade, there was little reason for him to visit since Anaheim was hardly more than citrus groves and packing plants – nothing to attract Disney except for the parade project. Once Disney got to Anaheim, he saw all that space with nothing but trees – perfect for his park. Finally, there is the fact that Silzle was invited to the press preview. There was no apparent reason for someone in a business so removed from Disney’s to be invited to this exclusive event UNLESS Disney wanted to thank Silzle for his role in finding the right park location.

Conclusion (We historians move very quickly from theory to conclusion): No Silzle, no Disneyland in Anaheim.

Knowing this will be very helpful to our mayors and councilmembers. As one of their roles, they occasionally go to events with elected officials from different cities and states, all wanting to brag about local individuals and activities. After being bored with someone else’s bragging, I suggest this response for our representative: “How nice. Little known fact: A Newport resident was responsible for Disneyland.” I would also suggest scooting off after that to avoid awkward questions.

The advent of Disneyland was the beginning of the decline of the citrus industry, and it looked like all traces of that industry would be erased, but fortunately one of the plants was saved and transformed into the Anaheim Packing District. And while people go there primarily for the amazing food establishments, hopefully while they’re there they will also be reminded of why we are called Orange County.

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to “Stu News Newport.”

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