Sunday, February 08, 2009

Disney's Hollywood: The Alexander Theatre

The city of Glendale, California has numerous contemporary connections to the Walt Disney Company. Disney Consumer Products, the Disney Stores and most famously, Walt Disney Imagineering, all have operations based out of this Los Angeles suburb. But in the Hyperion years of the Walt Disney Studios, Glendale often played host to the efforts of those early animation pioneers. It happened by way of a movie theater that has become well known as one of southern California's more legendary picture palaces: the Alexander Theatre as it was called prior to 1940, the Alex Theatre as it exists since then and still today.

The Alexander Theatre in 1940.

The Alexander Theatre regularly hosted preview screenings of major studio films during Hollywood's golden age. Throughout the 1930s, newspaper listings for the Alexander would frequently feature the notation, "Major Studio Preview Tonight." Famous Hollywood stars and studio executives were often sighted in or around the Alexander, and on the nights of advertised previews, the theater would become a magnet for movie fans and autograph hounds.

As it was located just a few miles from 2719 Hyperion Avenue, Walt Disney used the Alexander Theatre numerous times throughout the years to run preview screenings of many of his cartoon short subjects. In their book Silly Symphonies, authors Russell Merit and J.B. Kaufman document preview screenings of Disney cartoons there as early as 1931 with the shorts Egyptian Melodies and The Clock Store.

Disney Legend and veteran animator Ward Kimball once observed, "We always previewed our pictures in Glendale at the Alexander, and they let us know when they'd run The Wise Little Hen or Orphans' Benefit and we'd all go out. We had passes and we would sit in the audience and listen, and Walt would walk outside and have an impromptu discussion."

In his book Walt Disney and Other Assorted Characters, studio veteran Jack Kinney noted,"When a picture was finished, it was usually previewed at the Alexander Theater in Glendale to get audience reaction. After the show, the boys and girls would gather in the lobby and discuss the various scenes with Walt." According to Kinney, the Alexander even played a part in Walt Disney's swan song as a director:

"Walt moved into his own music room and started making The Golden Touch, the King Midas story. This was a very hush-hush operation, with just two animators, who were sworn to secrecy. The entire studio awaited this epic, and finally it was finished and previewed at the Alexander Theater in Glendale. All personnel turned out to see what Walt had wrought. He had wrought a bomb! The Golden Touch laid a great big golden egg. That picture was the last Walt ever directed. We knew better than to discuss it, ever."

Clarence Nash, the legendary voice artist of Donald Duck, remembered a nervous trip to the Alexander in 1934 to preview the Mickey Mouse cartoon Orphans' Benefit. "We drove over to the Alexander Theater, here in Glendale, for the preview. I was more nervous about that picture than I was about The Wise Little Hen," Nash recalled. "I was with a group of Disney people, and my wife was with me, too. I was just like an average audience; I got a big kick out of it and completely forgot that I had anything to do with it."

The Alex Theater shortly after refurbishment with new marquee.

The Alexander Theatre opened in 1925 and in its early years showcased both motion pictures and vaudeville shows. It was designed in a Greco-Egyptian style by architects Charles R. Selkirk and Arthur G. Lindley, and was similar in many ways to Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in nearby Hollywood. In 1940, noted theatre architect S. Charles Lee created a new and elaborate exterior marquee, distinguished by a 100 foot tall art deco neon spire crowned with a large starburst. In its newly refurbished state it was rechristened as the Alex Theatre. The theater was purchased by the City of Glendale in the early 1990s and underwent a $6 million restoration. Since 1994, it has served as one of southern California's premiere performing arts venues.


Anonymous said...

Great photo and commentary regarding the Disney links of the old Alexander. I’ve been to the Alex only a couple of times. Once was years ago for a re-release of Cinderella. A Glendale landmark.