Return Ernie 'Gunny' Napper's voice to the Disneyland Flag retreat

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Disneyland replaces Marine Ernie ‘Gunny’ Napper’s voice with a recording at Flag Retreat Ceremony.

By DENNIS MCCARTHY | dmccarthynews@gmail.com |
PUBLISHED: March 15, 2018 at 2:38 pm | UPDATED: March 15, 2018 at 7:41 pm
There’s some anger festering in The Happiest Place on Earth, and you just know Walt Disney wouldn’t have liked it.

Ernie “Gunny” Napper, 68, has been a part of the flag retreat at Disneyland since 1992. Photo by Sandra Cortez
The voice of Marine Corps Sgt. Ernie “Gunny” Napper, one of Disneyland’s most popular, inspiring figures to veterans and their families attending the nightly Flag Retreat Ceremony on Main Street, has been silenced in favor of a pre-recorded message thanking veterans for their service.

No longer is he allowed to look veterans in the eye and repeat the words he’s spoken for the last quarter century with so much passion, followed by a crisp salute to honor them.

“To all who stand here today and have served our nation, on behalf of Disney Resorts and our grateful nation, thank you for your faithful service to America,” the 68-year-old Marine who served 21 years as a gunnery sergeant from Vietnam to the Gulf War, would say.

Now, as of about three weeks ago, a similar statement comes out of a faceless loud speaker so more people on Main Street can hear it.

“They’re sterilizing a very personal, powerful part of that ceremony where Gunny connects with the veterans,” says Susan Emslie, a self-proclaimed first-generation Disney kid who was in the park the first week it opened in 1955.

“It breaks his heart to know he has to stand there silent now.”

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In a one-sentence statement from Disney Resorts, a spokesperson said, “For a more consistent guest experience, and to ensure all guests can hear the remarks at the Flag Ceremony, a new, pre-recorded message thanks those who have served.”


To fully understand why this change so rankles those who know Ernie and what he means to this solemn, nightly ceremony, you have to go back to 1992 when he retired from the Marine Corps and started working at Disneyland as a security officer on the swing shift from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Ernie “Gunny” Napper, 68, has been a part of the flag retreat at Disneyland since 1992. Photo by Sandra Cortez
Walt Disney had already been gone 26 years, and there were many nights in those early years when Ernie thought the Flag Retreat Ceremony might go with him.

“Hardly anyone was there when we took down the flag for the night,” he said, in a 2013 Veteran’s Day column I wrote about him. “It didn’t seem important to anybody, but it was important to me. And I know it was important to Mr. Disney, too.”

RELATED STORY: Retired Marine Ernie ‘Gunny’ Napper’s flag retreat at Disneyland resonates with readers

What would the boss, as Ernie called him, think as he looked out his old apartment window on Main Street to see only a handful of people standing around a boom box playing the National Anthem? He wouldn’t have liked it, not at all.

But how do you get paying customers off the rides and out of the shows to spend 20 minutes watching a flag come down a pole? That’s not why parents take their kids to Disneyland.

That’s when Ernie got an idea that would have made Walt Disney proud. The Marine-Corps-sergeant-turned-security-officer took charge.

He went and talked to all the VIP’s — Mickey and Minnie, Cinderella and Snow White, Donald Duck and Alice in Wonderland — asking them to please stop by the flagpole at sunset, and bring the kids and their families with them.

Ernie “Gunny” Napper, 68, has been a part of the flag retreat at Disneyland since 1992. Photo by Sandra Cortez
Well, you know what happened next. The Flag Retreat Ceremony became an E ticket. From Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Frontierland, kids began lining up behind their favorite Pied Piper at sunset, and marching to the Main Street flagpole with their parents and grandparents in tow.

Ernie had breathed new life into a ceremony Disney himself started in 1955 when he opened the gates to his dream and let the world in.

After that, every night before he went home around midnight, Ernie would stop by the flagpole and look up at the only window on Main Street that never goes dark.

“Good crowd again tonight, boss,” he’d say. “See you tomorrow.”

Ernie’s reputation grew. Marine Corps officials came from Washington D.C. to personally meet and honor him. Disney officials awarded him the highest honor a cast member can achieve – the Walt Disney Legacy Award for consistently inspiring others.

The families of veterans began showing up every night at the flagpole to shake his hand and have a picture taken with him. Often, they bring a photo of a loved one killed or wounded in combat.

Ernie takes a long look at the young face in the photo, and slowly raises his right arm to give him a crisp salute filled with honor and respect. Not a night goes by that tears are not shed at that flagpole.

He won’t lie. It does hurt having to stand there silent now, having his voice replaced by a recording. But he’s a soldier. He knows how to take orders.

Still.

“A recording doesn’t speak with passion from the heart,” Ernie says.

No, you get the feeling the boss wouldn’t have liked this, not at all.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Friday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

 

 



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