On Friday, Disney will hold an internal party to celebrate Martinez’s tenure – the longest in Disneyland’s history. The Orange County Register plans to cover the event. Check back Friday on the AroundDisney.com blog for full coverage. Find more Disney news on the AroundDisney.com blog.
Some answer politely, not knowing anything about the friendly chef. But many jump up to ask for a picture or a hug.
They know Martinez for who he is – the longest-tenured worker at Disneyland.
NEVER A COOK
Born in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, Martinez moved to Arkansas at around age 9. He grew up with a farmer father and, later, worked on a farm himself. He never did much cooking, but watched his mother in the kitchen.
At age 20, the siblings of his girlfriend, Shirley Ann, wanted her to join them in California. Shirley Ann said she’d go only if longtime boyfriend Martinez would come with her. So Martinez moved to California and, later, he and Shirley Ann got married.
When he landed a job as a busboy at the Fantasy 1 restaurant in Disneyland, Martinez had never been in a restaurant, let alone work in one. The park had only been open about 17 months when he first walked down Main Street U.S.A.
“I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’d never seen so many people in my life,” Martinez said.
From there, he worked in just about every role in several Disneyland restaurants. He got his first job cooking because his boss noticed his speed. “He said, ‘You work fast. We need you to work on the grill,’” Martinez saidhttp://media2.ocregister.com/video/video_article/disneyworker122911.htmlWhen Disneyland took over the operations of the restaurants in the late 1960s, Martinez was put in charge of teaching the “Disney way” dress code to employees, making sure they had the right haircuts, no mustaches, shiny shoes and black socks. The girls could wear no makeup.
Later, he helped train employees from other parks.
Matt Gray, Disneyland’s general manager of food and beverage and Martinez’s boss, said Martinez assisted in training him in 1989 when he began as a Carnation Café manager. Since then, Martinez has helped train Gray’s daughter.
“He’s open and kind, and you get what you see with Oscar,” Gray said. “He takes care of what he needs to take care of; he’s not comfortable in the limelight.
“He’s just one of those people who make you smile.”
It’s hard for Martinez to talk about Walt Disney himself without getting choked up. Martinez never actually talked to Walt Disney. He used to be shy.
But Martinez shares memories.
Martinez would see Disney walking down Main Street U.S.A. before sunrise, writing in a notebook and checking details, such as matching umbrellas and carnations on tables.
Martinez’s wife had regular interactions with Disney when she worked at the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor. Disney insisted that Shirley Ann Martinez make his vanilla milkshakes because she got them right: not too thick, not too runny, just the right amount of syrup.
“He loved that one. He always looked for her,” Martinez said.
Martinez put his own stamp on foods.
He experimented with breakfast potatoes when he served them to top Disney executives. Martinez tried dicing them, adding butter, green and red peppers. Later, he sliced them instead. He goes by taste.
The executives liked his potatoes so much that they wanted them on the menu. Later, they put Oscar’s name on them.
Now, Martinez’s signature potatoes are served daily. And visitors can get an Oscar’s Choice menu item: The Café Scramble.
“He’s very particular about his potatoes, even more so now that his name is on them,” Gray said.
Martinez’s official title is cook and many people call him “chef.” But for the past four years or so, Martinez has worked mostly outside the kitchen.
After taking the bus from his Anaheim home, he arrives at work around 6 a.m. to help set up. Mostly, Martinez serves as an ambassador.
When the park opens he slides on his Mickey Mouse hand gloves and waves to visitors along Main Street. Martinez then talks to diners at the Carnation Café, where he has worked for four decades. Some visitors come just to see Martinez.
“If they find out he is sick and not here, they will cancel their reservations,” said Adam Buth, guest services manager for Carnation Café. “He’s the face.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, one couple posed for pictures with Martinez. Visitor Laura Gay of Elk Grove gave him a hug, saying “We missed you.”
Gay and her family visits Martinez on their yearly trips. “He’s a staple,” Gay said. “He always remembers you. He always makes you feel at home.”
Cindy Atkins, of Fresno, has been to Disneyland 39 times and always stops at the Carnation Café, where she sees Martinez.
“He’s like Mickey Mouse.”
In his personal life, Martinez, 76, mostly spends time with his wife of more than 50 years (he can’t remember exactly how long they’ve been married.) “We go to the mall,” Martinez said.
“Here’s the deal,” he added. “I hate shopping, but she loves it.”
Martinez likes fishing, but his wife doesn’t. He hasn’t been in awhile.
They have a son, granddaughter and great grandson. He tries to keep healthy, and he doesn’t drink or smoke.
A few years ago, Martinez had cancer, but fought it with chemotherapy.
Now, Shirley Ann, 72, is battling cancer. She had breast cancer four years ago and it recently came back.
Martinez isn’t sure how much longer he’ll keep working. The Carnation Café is closing for remodeling in January, so he plans to move to a new bakery nearby. But his wife’s health will determine how long he’ll keep his job.
On Thursday, he is marking 55 years with the company. Disney is throwing a party for him Friday.
Earlier this month, he proudly earned his 55-year pin – the first Disneyland employee to get one.
“I enjoy working. I don’t like being home doing nothing,” Martinez said.
“I’m happy all the time.”
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