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Disney Lens : Summer Job Turned Into 37-Year Career for Photographer Renie Bardeau

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking pictures at Disneyland was just supposed to be a summer job for Renie Bardeau--a way to earn money between semesters at college.

That was 37 summers ago.

“One year became five and five became 10, then 10 became 35,” said Bardeau, who, after snapping some 1 million pictures, is nearing retirement as Disneyland’s chief photographer. “To this day, I love the work. It’s a photographer’s dream to work here.”

United States presidents, royalty and a host of foreign dignitaries have passed through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and Bardeau had a front-row seat for it all, snapping pictures for press packets, Disney archives and in-house newsletters.

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He has mingled with Hollywood stars, famous athletes--and, of course, Mickey Mouse, whom he has photographed more than 100,000 times. (Bardeau has seen subtle changes in the famous mouse over time: “He has a bigger tummy to make him look more like the cartoon and his ears are a little smaller.”)

And Bardeau, 62, has ridden every ride at Disneyland, many of of them while sitting backward to get specific angles for photos used to publicize a coming attraction.

“He has probably shot every nook and cranny at Disneyland,” said Bardeau’s supervisor, Tom Brocato. “What he brings to the job is more than 35 years’ worth of history that you can’t get out of a book.”

But what a book he could make, from his very first assignment in 1959, to photograph Walt Disney and then-Vice President Richard Nixon at the opening of Tomorrowland, to Elizabeth Taylor’s star-studded 1992 birthday bash, to the more mundane jobs like shooting Sleeping Beauty’s castle over and over again to record the slightest permutations for publicity shots.

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Among his fondest memories of the rich and famous was the time actor James Garner insisted that Bardeau eat lunch with him and his family after an event years ago.

But Bardeau has found athletes to be the friendliest and most down to earth.

He has talked football with Joe Montana and baseball with former Dodger Orel Hershiser, when the athletes were feted with parades down Main Street after winning the Super Bowl and World Series, respectively.

Olympic athletes fresh off gold medal victories have also visited the park, including Janet Evans, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. Bardeau struck up a friendship with 1976 Olympian John Naber.

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“We became good friends and he still drops me a line,” Bardeau said of Naber, a swimmer who won four gold medals.

Although accustomed to photographing the famous, Bardeau’s work never made him famous. That’s because his name doesn’t appear on the thousands of photographs sent out to the media. It was the theme park’s policy from early on to have photographs credited to Disneyland and later simply to Disney.

“They did that so there would be no jealousy or animosity among the crew,” he said. “It was just easier that way. If one person shoots a great photo, we all did it.”

But one photo that Bardeau doesn’t mind taking credit for is the last one of Walt Disney at Disneyland shortly before his death in 1966.

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“He was a genius,” Bardeau said. “He was real easy to talk to. He loved the park and loved to talk to you about the park, asking you what you thought about it.”

Bardeau once complained to Disney that the trees along Main Street had grown too large and obstructed the view of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. The trees were eventually replaced with smaller ones.

Whenever the appearance of the theme park changes, even in the most subtle of ways, Bardeau has to update the photo archives.

“An editor in Des Moines called and asked for a photo of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle for a story on summer travel. Everything we had, had the Sky Buckets [an attraction removed last year] so the pictures had to be redone,” Bardeau said.

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Bardeau first picked up a camera at the age of 12 when he earned a Boy Scouts merit badge in photography. His was hooked. His natural talent with the camera became apparent while he was in high school, snapping photos for the campus newspaper and yearbook.

“I just always had a knack for it,” he said.

Times have changed since Bardeau landed a job as one of four staff photographers at Disneyland.

He had just finished serving five years in the Navy, where he was an aviation photographer aboard the aircraft carrier Midway during the close of the Korean War.

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Nervously holding an old-fashioned twin-lens reflex camera, Bardeau showed up for work in 1959 for his first assignment: photographing Walt Disney and Nixon.

“I was a little awed but you have to get the shot,” Bardeau recalled. “It’s a pressure job and we have deadlines.”

At the time, Bardeau was still a student at the University of Arizona and only landed in the photography department at Disneyland because there weren’t any internships available where he had wanted to work, the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

“I wanted to get into advertising,” Bardeau said recently. “I loved photography as a hobby. Eventually, my hobby became a vocation.”

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In 1975, he became chief photographer and now uses the services of more than a dozen freelancers to help carry the load.

The modern 35-mm cameras now used at Disneyland are also a far cry from the cumbersome cameras Bardeau had to lug around the park in the past.

Bardeau remembers long hours in the darkroom developing film and making black and white prints. Now, film is developed by off-site contractors and pictures are scanned in by computer, then transmitted internationally.

Working at what Disney dubs “The Happiest Place On Earth” isn’t always happy, Bardeau admits. Whenever there have been accidents or deaths at the park, Bardeau has been dispatched to the scene to record the incident for the theme park’s legal files.

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“I cover whatever needs to be covered,” he said. “Those are confidential, for Disney’s own records. Thank goodness there aren’t too many of those.”

Mostly, he said, the job has been fun, kept him young and supports his family, which includes a 34-year-old daughter and a 32-year-old son. He is also a grandfather of two and was married for the second time in 1994, to Marlene Bardeau. The couple have a home in Glendale, Ariz., where Marlene lives full-time. Renie has continued to live in Anaheim but will join his wife in Arizona when he retires. He would only say his retirement will be in the coming months.

“This job really is an art and taxes your creative juices,” he said. “How many ways can you photograph the Matterhorn and make it interesting? There is a way. I’m always looking for a different angle.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Profile: Renie Bardeau

Age: 62

Hometown: Tucson

Resides: Anaheim

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Family: Wife, Marlene, since 1994; two children from previous marriage; two grandchildren

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business, University of Arizona

Military service: U.S. Navy, 1953-58

Career: Began working summers in Disneyland photography department in 1959; became full-time employee in 1964 and chief photographer in 1975

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On shooting the same place: “How many different ways can you photograph the Matterhorn and make it interesting? There is a way. I’m always looking for a different angle.”

Source: Renie Bardeau; Researched by GREG HERNANDEZ / Los Angeles Times


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