Don DeFore's Silver Banjo BBQ
BACKSTORY (August 1957–1961): Actor Don DeFore (“Hazel”) owned The Silver Banjo Barbecue restaurant in Frontierland (next to Aunt Jemima's) in the section called “New Orleans Street.” The Silver Banjo moved into Casa de Fritos’ first location; Casa outgrew the space in 1956 and moved to a different area in Frontierland. Walt called his friend actor Don DeFore and asked him if he’d like to run a restaurant in Frontierland. After some thought, Don said “yes” and he and his younger brother Verne began a 45-hour business management class at UCLA Extension (at night). He showed his business plan to the instructor, and it was used as a class project; even the lease was examined! As son Ron said, "Dad was famous for getting free help!" June 5, 1957 was the date on the graduation certificate (the DeFore's earned a "B") and the restaurant opened shortly thereafter.
The restaurant was cafeteria-style with a cashier at the end of the line and served sandwiches, ribs, chicken, baked beans, cole slaw and french fries. There were a few tables inside with a jukebox nearby, and many more tables outside. Walt Disney used to love to eat at the Silver Banjo restaurant with Don and his family; it was one of his favorite spots in the park—with the view of Tom Sawyer Island, the Columbia, and Dixieland jazz music. The Silver Banjo was the only establishment at Disneyland to display the name of a non-fictional person and the only business ever to be owned by an individual.
This letter from the Orange County Health Department most likely outlines why The Silver Banjo had an early closure in the Spring of 1962, prior to the 5 year lease expiration date in late 1962. The Banjo lease did not have an extension option clause. It also may be the reason why the Frito Company moved Casa de Fritos out to another location…not enough space for their equipment.
Trivia: Judy Garland was Matron of Honor at Don's wedding to Marion Holmes DeFore.
Most photos and information courtesy of Ron DeFore. To find out more about his dad, actor Don DeFore, be sure to check out his website: defore.net.
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As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a batch of images that turned out to include Don DeFore in them. His son Ron was able to explain their context:
These are from a fundraiser my Dad produced for the Village Church in Brentwood circa 1950. It was held at our house and had an old fashioned theme. Here’s another photo from that same event (see first black and white shot below). The local TV station covered the event, which included Eddie Bracken and a number of other celebrities.
The second to last shot shows actor Anthony Caruso, wife Tonia, and son Tonio. He was the only person to unmask Zorro, as well as David DeFore's (Don's son) godfather. I believe the last shot showing Ozzie and Harriet is from the same event.
From 1954-55, Don DeFore served as President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He was instrumental in arranging for the Emmy Awards to be broadcast on national TV for the first time on March 7, 1955, which earned him the respect of Walt Disney. This is what led to the two becoming good friends. That year, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Regular Series for his work on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Here is a publicity blurb that accompanied the photo at left from November 1955:
11/15—NEW YORK: Don DeFore (C), president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, shows Walt Disney (R) and Ed Sullivan the "Emmy" award which will be presented to President Eisenhower for "his distinguished use and encouragement of the television medium." The announcement of the presentation took place at a luncheon at the Hotel Plaza, here 11/15, honoring the 1954 "Emmy" winners from the East Coast.
One of the most important tasks in making the Silver Banjo a success was to find just the right BBQ sauce. The DeFores felt that the sauce from Love’s BBQ in Encino was just such a sauce. At the beginning of the Silver Banjo, Vern drove frequently from Anaheim to Encino to pick up Love’s sauce...five gallons at a time! Although they were making quite a bit from the consistent sale of their sauce, Love’s refused to cut a deal with the DeFores, so Don went to UCLA with a sample of the sauce and had it examined. After many tests in the DeFore kitchen, the recipe at left is what was finally concocted, and from then on, The Silver Banjo Barbecue had its own sauce. The DeFore brothers remember it as tasting similar to KC Masterpiece.
Don was very interested in selling his secret sauce; the bottle was to be in the shape of a banjo, of course! Don actually went so far as to approach Heinz, who asked him to “send the recipe, and we’ll get back to you.” The recipe was trustingly sent, and Heinz’s response was, “Not interested.” Whether the recipe found its way into another Heinz BBQ product is not known.
Years later, David DeFore actually worked at a Love’s BBQ restaurant in Brentwood!
David DeFore was probably the youngest employee at Disneyland. At 12 years of age, he began working at his dad’s restaurant. His cousin Joe (Verne’s son) showed him the ropes, and one of David’s tasks was to clean/wipe off the trays used at the Silver Banjo. Such a tray can be seen at left up close and in action.
David took the trays outside the restaurant and sat on the balcony next to the restaurant, leisurely wiping each tray. His pace continued to decrease until his Uncle saw him; it was the last time he ever sat down! Verne told David that in the restaurant business, there is ALWAYS something to.
“Let me ask you — have you ever seen an old-time, long-neck Dixie banjo? If you have, chances are you’ve never forgotten that distinctive, rhythmic sound, that unique tone and musical styling that smacks of only one thing—true Dixieland. I have never forgotten, and I think I never will.
“It all started back in Cedar Rapids, on a snowy December evening in 1923, right about this time of year. Outside, drifts were 8' high, and inside six and one-half worried kids (Mama was expecting) pressed noses against the frosted windows, awaiting eagerly and not without a wee mite of anxiety, the appearance of a loved and familiar figure, battling his way through the sub-zero weather. Dad was a railroader—ask anybody who knew the Rock Island, the Milwaukee & St. Paul, and Chicago Northwestern, and they’d be pretty sure to know Joe DeFore, engineer. Quite a guy, my Dad. He’d gone into railroading when he was twenty…when it was a “hero” job and they were writing songs about it. And now, at the comfortable age of thirty-eight, high on the ladder of seniority in the East-Iowa division of Chicago Northwestern, he was master of all he surveyed, whether it was in the cab of his “iron horse”, or on this throne…the big Morris chair in the sitting room of the two-story dwelling over on the east side of the River Cedar.
“But now it was snowing hard, dinner was waiting and Dad wasn’t home. And then, suddenly, he emerged out of the murk, through the front door, puffing, stomping and brushing the mounds of white from his cap and shouders. In the excitement of his return, the big odd-shaped package tucked under his arm went almost unnoticed as he placed it by the newel post at the foot of the stairs. But, once fully greeted and thawed, he plunked himself down in his big Morris chair, called for the mysterious package, and the unveiling began. That moment I shall never forget! “What is it!”, we shriekd in unison as we peered at this strange object with a round face like a drum, a long stick attached with keys and strings like a violin, and with the drum-back and edges gleaming silver.
“Then Dad began to pick and strum, a little inexpertly at first, but to us, “Old Longneck” sounded fine as Dad segued from “Wabash Cannon Ball”, into “Down on the Levee”, and “Alabamy Bound”, and we all joined in the chorus. Thuse started an almost nightly tradition in our house in Cedar Rapids, and, as I remember, these little songfestts invariably took place just before or just after the evening meal. other winters came and went, and that old Silver Banjo kept right on strummin’ and gettin’ older along with the rest of us.
“It’s been many a moon since I paddled my own canoe up over those rapids in the Cedar and headed west. And the fingers that once picked and strummed on “old long neck” have long been stilled, but that well-loved and haunting sound of the silver banjo has never left me. And, what’s more, I have ever since associated it with supper time…and good food! A couple years ago, while reminiscing with my younger brother, Verne, about those early childhood supper-time banjo fests, Verne mused; “Did you ever notice what a terrific appetite ya got from listening to that ol’ banjo strummin’?”
“PING. Idea. How about a restaurant called “BANJO”?
“For two weeks, night and day, I worked on the idea and plans; and then, as though my Guardian Angel had been working with me, I heard that there was going to be space available in Disneyland for someone to operate a barbeque restaurant. Negotiations were immediately started, and before long my brother, Verne and I were welcomed into the Disneyland lessee family.
“Oh yes…incidentally, three weeks before we opened, a large package was delivered to our home, and as four children looked on with intrigued and excited faces, they saw me unwrap an old time, long neck banjo. “Who sent you that old thing!” piped the kids as they gazed scornfully at a beat-up old long neck, with silver all dull and tarnished. The note inside read; “Found this in the attic…thought you might find some use for it. Happy memories! Brother Cliff.”
“And you know what? I did find some use for it! It gave me the idea for the name of our restaurant—“THE SILVER BANJO.” And you know what else? Some day I may even learn to play the darned thing!”
Many thanks to Jason Schultz for sending this article to me!
Typically, Disneyland had celebrity Masters of Ceremonies for each land, and Don DeFore often served as the MC for Frontierland. One year, Walt called him frantically from the Main Street entrance just before the parade was to begin. His grandchildren had not yet arrived. “You’ve got to send a couple down to the front gate right away...my grandchildren have not shown up and I can’t go through the parade without kids in my carriage.” So he asked Don if he had brought his children. He said yes, and Walt said to send two of them to the front gate immediately. The rest is history. Hanging in Ron DeFore’s basement museum, right next to the original Silver Banjo Barbecue sign, are two bw photos of Ron, his sister Dawn, and Walt waving to the crowd in the parade.