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A Farewell to Chums : Friendship: After Wednesday, Disneyland’s Club 55 will dwindle to five members--those who began work there in 1955 and never left.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is one of the nation’s most exclusive clubs, yet its members have dropped out in droves.

From 130 or so original members, only three are left on each coast. Wednesday, the club will lose another.

Such is the nature of Club 55. No amount of money or political connections can produce a single new cardholder. It’s all because of a unique entrance qualification: To belong, you must have started working at Disneyland when it opened in 1955--and have stayed with the company ever since.

“I knew when it first started, this is a club that is not going to grow,” said Jack Lindquist, the Disneyland president who was drummed out of Club 55 when he retired last year.

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The next to go is Ronald K. Dominguez, who is retiring Wednesday after having worked his way up from ticket taker to corporate vice president.

“Obviously, you feel bad in leaving people behind, but it’s been such a great 39 years and things can’t go on forever,” said Dominguez, who at 59 has retained a thick crop of black hair. “I’m just proud to have been part of a group that stuck together all these years.”

He cedes his share of Club 55 to the only two members left in Anaheim, a pair of guys who met each other as students at Anaheim High and have stayed buddies ever since. Administrative manager Ray Van De Warker and construction superintendent Bob Penfield say they expect to keep working for another two or three years before they retire.

They are not entirely alone. There are three additional members at Walt Disney World in Florida who meet separately.

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Club 55 is similar to the Last Man clubs that form among war veterans. Characteristically, the sole surviving member of a military division or regiment is supposed to raise a glass to his departed comrades.

While the end, or at least the final retirement, is in sight, Club 55 hasn’t provided for a ceremonial grand finale. “There has never been any thought to it,” Penfield said with a sigh of remorse. “It will probably just be disbanded.”

But what do you expect from a club that has no dues, no officers and only a single meeting--the annual dinner.

Such formalities were cast aside when the group was formed in the early 1970s so that Disneyland’s original “cast members"--as employees are called--could stay in touch with each other to catch up on news and swap stories.

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“We just decided it was about time we pull together the old-timers who started Disneyland,” said Richard Nunis, who, as chairman of Disney’s theme park division, based in Orlando, is the highest-ranking member of Club 55.

So many members and spouses came the first year that they filled a ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel. They had once been among the 600 mostly fresh-faced kids hired to open Disneyland in 1955, a fraction of the 12,000-person work force needed during the park’s peak season these days.

The club has met every year since its founding--usually on July 17, anniversary of that legendary Sunday when the nation’s first true theme park got off to a stumbling start of broken-down rides and television miscues.

As retirements caused their ranks to shrink, club members chose smaller and smaller sites for get-togethers. One year they went to a California Angels baseball game, another they dined in the members-only Club 33 restaurant hidden away in Disneyland’s Frontierland. (That club takes its name from its street address in New Orleans Square.)

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The Disneylanders still spin tales about the good old days--from how women’s high heels sank into the freshly poured asphalt on Main Street on opening day to how Disney was talked out of using live animals instead of robotic ones on the Jungle Cruise.

“The stories tend to get a little embellished,” Lindquist said.

The conversation may get livelier by the year, but the party grows smaller. Two years ago, the club’s ranks had thinned to the point where Lindquist invited the members to dinner at his vacation home on Santa Catalina Island. This year, the five remaining couples joined in an emotional tribute to Dominguez in a Disneyland Hotel gourmet dining room.

“It’s a group of us who have worked together all these years and developed a friendship and a support system that is one of a kind,” Dominguez said.

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For Dominguez, leaving his post at Disneyland is especially difficult. A descendant of some of the Southland’s original Spanish settlers, Dominguez grew up on a family orange grove that was cleared to make way for Disneyland. The family house stood on the present-day site of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Except for 11 months he spent studying business at the University of Arizona, Dominguez said he has never strayed from the family property in 59 years.

He returned from college and was hired for a summer job at the new theme park. The job paid $1.55 an hour. When it came time to quit and return to college, he sought advice from a supervisor.

“He said, ‘Do you want to leave? Sometimes it’s wise to get in on the ground floor of a new business.’ My parents said, ‘It’s up to you,’ and I said, ‘I want to give it a try.’ ”

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Dominguez, like the others who remain at Disneyland, moved through various positions at the park. At one point, he was playing Davy Crockett, dressed in buckskins and a coonskin cap. After about a year, he moved up to a ride supervisor; it was then that he met Penfield and Van De Warker.

Together, the three have watched history unfold around them. Walt Disney, during one of his Sunday strolls at the park, had Van De Warker take him on the Jungle Cruise. “He felt the ending was too blah,” so a headhunter was added to improve it, Van De Warker said.

Penfield said he has shaken hands with famous visitors such as John Wayne and greeted then-Vice President Richard Nixon. Asked about his favorite celebrities over the years, he clicks off such nostalgic names as Jane Powell, Laraine Day and Red Skelton.

There have been less festive days too, such as the afternoon in 1970 when student demonstrators took over Tom Sawyer’s Island and had to be expelled by Anaheim police wearing riot gear.

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“Most of us old-timers felt like we were violated that day,” Van De Warker said.

But there have been so many happy occasions that Penfield said he wants to tape the recollections of former Club 55 members for an oral history project when he retires.

Penfield is the youngest West Coast member at 57, but he is not the likely candidate to be the final member. Nunis predicts that it will be Tom Nabbe, a warehouse supervisor in Florida who, as a “cocky little kid,” talked Walt Disney into hiring him to play Huckleberry Finn at age 11.

Penfield, however, has his own way of memorializing the club, if in name only: The vanity license plate on his van reads CLUB 55.

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