In 1959 the first Disney theme park, which had opened to great fanfare in 1955, was already an international sensation. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev toured the U.S. that year and was in California, he asked if he could visit Disneyland—and was denied. ‘Why not?” he complained in a speech. “What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?’ ”
No, but Disneyland did upgrade its entertainment arsenal that year, and when it did it invited another politician, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, to come celebrate the park’s new attractions. Disneyland was debuting the Matterhorn, the Submarine Voyage, and also the monorail that would become a Disney theme park signature (and also the basis for a beloved episode of The Simpsons).
Nixon came with his wife and daughters, and he stood side by side with Walt Disney for the monorail’s ribbon-cutting ceremony—though Nixon handed the giant ceremonial scissors to his daughters to cut the actual ribbon.
Nixon and Walt Disney then sat next to each other in the front row of a grandstand and watched a parade that celebrated all things Disney. While Nixon was the star guest that day, other notables included television host Art Linkletter, Broadway composer Meredith Willson, and an up-and-coming actor named Clint Eastwood.
The photos that Ralph Crane shot that day focus understandably on the parade, the park, the Vice President and Walt Disney. But his picture of Nixon and Eastwood together can’t help but jump out in this photoset, not only because they are each in their own way major figures, but because Disneyland is not the most obvious place to find either of them individually, let alone as a pair. Nixon would gain infamy as the only U.S. President ever resign, after the details of the Watergate scandal came to light. Eastwood would make his name as the gun-wielding star of Sergio Leone’s westerns and his signature Dirty Harry movies before becoming an Oscar-winning director.
This meeting at Disneyland caught both men in a period of transition. Nixon was about to launch his first run for President—he would lose to John F. Kennedy in 1960 before winning the office in 1968. For Eastwood, meanwhile, 1959 was the year his star first began to rise, playing Rowdy Yates in television show Rawhide. His first leading movie role, in A Fistful of Dollars, was still five years away.
And there they were, at Disneyland. In Ralph Crane’s photo Eastwood slyly smiles at the camera. Perhaps his look simply reflects the glee of a young star enjoying his new orbit. But he also looks like a guy who knows there are bigger things ahead.