Monday, April 12, 2010

Walt Disney's Los Angeles 1923-1931: A Bicycle Ride to Kingswell

At roughly the same time Mickey Mouse premiered at the Colony Theatre on November 18, 1928, Elsie Robinson gave birth to William Arthur Robinson in Los Angeles, California.  He wasn't even a day old when his father, newspaperman Chester Robinson, bestowed upon him the nickname "Buddy."  Buddy and his parents lived in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, just east of Hollywood.
On his fifth birthday in 1933, Buddy and his father rode the Red Car over to Glendale where the Alexander Theatre was located.  It was there that Buddy saw his first Mickey Mouse cartoon.
On the way home, they got off the Red Car early and walked down a street past a few vacant lots and turned a corner onto Hyperion Avenue.  At the corner was a gas station, and next to it on the left was a series of large buildings.

Buddy remembers, "My Dad lifted me up to sit on his shoulders and then he pointed to a large sign perched on top of one of the buildings.  There on the sign was Mickey Mouse, happily waving down to my father and me as we stood looking up from the sidewalk.  It was silly, but we both happily waved back."  Buddy and his father were standing in front of the Walt Disney Studios, located at 2719 Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.

2719 Hyperion.  It is a simple address that has evolved into a near-iconic term for Disney historians, journalists and enthusiasts.  And we would like to as modestly as possible think that we have contributed to that evolution over the course of the last four years of 2719  The history of the Hyperion Avenue studios is generally well-documented; in fact, two well-known Disney historians are each currently writing books that focus on that very subject.  So in discussing 2719 Hyperion, we thought we would approach it more in a geographical context.  This is because the area immediately surrounding the Hyperion Avenue location is nearly as rich in Disney history as the studio itself.  These neighborhoods  encompass an area of approximately two square miles just east of Hollywood.

We are going to navigate this geography by means of young Buddy Robinson, who we just introduced a few moments ago.  In the interests of full disclosure, Buddy Robinson is a wholly fictional entity.  We have created Buddy as a way to lift this exploration above the level of a dry dissertation and hopefully create a more entertaining, but still informative presentation.

As we explore the area surrounding 2719 Hyperion, as a point of reference, we are going to use this 1939 street map of Los Angeles, that was produced and distributed by the Standard Oil Company of California.  The Walt Disney Studios was closely affiliated with Standard Oil during this time period.  In 1939, Disney produced a series of four-page Travel Tykes comic book premiums available at Standard Service Stations.  The studio also produced a commercial cartoon short entitled The Standard Parade that tied into this promotion.  Just to note, within the 2719 Hyperion Archives there is a series of posts that feature Travel Tykes newspaper ads that were featured in the Los Angeles Times during the spring of 1939.

We are going to follow Buddy Robinson as he spends a Saturday afternoon during the spring of 1939 traversing his neighborhood.  But before we do that, we are going to briefly jump back in time to that day in 1933 when Buddy and his father visited the Alexander Theatre in Glendale.
The Alexander Theatre is especially significant to early Disney history.  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.  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."
But now let us return to the spring of 1939.  Buddy Robinson is leaving his house located at 4410 Clarissa Avenue in Los Feliz.  Buddy's home was located about ¾ of a mile from the Hyperion studio as the crow flies; traveling by street routes added an additional ¼ mile to the journey.  Buddy's Aunt Connie (his mother's sister) who lived with his family would frequently walk that distance on a daily basis; she was employed as an ink and paint girl at the Disney Studio.
Buddy travels a couple of blocks west of his home to Hillhurst Avenue where he turns south; a block later he turns west onto Franklin Avenue where he travels two more blocks to Vermont Avenue and a business district that includes stores, restaurants, and the Los Feliz Theatre.

He might stop in and pick up some candy at either the Los Feliz Mart or the Holly Mont Market; and he'll probably run into the Owl Drug Company and buy a comic book or two if he has enough money.  He checks to see what's playing at the Los Feliz Theatre and decides that the double bill of St. Louis Blues and Girl Downstairs is not to his liking. 

Shortly after they were married in 1925, Walt and Lillian Disney lived briefly in an apartment located a half block away from these shops at 4637 Melbourne Avenue.

Les Clark, one of Disney's legendary "Nine Old Men" met Walt Disney for the first time at a small restaurant near the intersection of Vermont and Kingswell.  Clark told Disney historian Don Peri, "It was a malt shop, confectionary store, and they served lunch and other meals."  He remembered, "I met Walt in the summer of 1925.  He used to come in and have lunch almost every day.  When I graduated from high school, I got in touch with him and asked him for a job."

Veteran Warner Bros. animator Friz Freleng remembered renting a room in a house on Vermont Avenue when he briefly worked for Disney in 1927.  Freleng noted that Roy Disney would pick him up and drive him to the studio every morning, but added, "But after work we had to walk home, because he didn't care when we got home, but he did care when we got to work!" 
Buddy rides his bike one block south of Melbourne Avenue and turns east onto Kingswell Avenue.  Here he will pass one of the most significant places in Disney history.
Near the corner of Vermont and Kingswell is the location where Roy Disney and Walt Disney established the Disney Brothers Studio on October 8, 1923.  The fledgling studio shared space with a real estate office at 4651 Kingswell Avenue.

The initial rent for the location was $10/month.  The studio opened for business on October 16, 1923, the day after Walt accepted New York distributor Margaret Winkler's offer to distribute the new Alice Comedies series.  Walt and Roy, and newly hired ink and paint girl Kathleen Dollard comprised the entire staff of the operation.  On January 14, 1924, the future Mrs. Walt Disney, Lillian Bounds was added to the staff as a cel painter.  Walt and Lillian's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, remembered her mother speaking of the couple's first kiss, that likely happened at Kingswell Avenue.  ". . . it was very sweet . . . she was taking dictation from him, and he leaned across the desk and kissed her.  I find that very romantic.  I don't think I've ever told anyone other than family about that, simply because no one seemed interested."

In February of 1924, the studio moved into larger quarters directly next door at 4649 Kingswell where they were able to display the Disney Brothers name on a storefront window. 

Here is a view of how this area looks today.

A copy store now occupies the location that was once briefly, the Disney Brothers Studio.

As Buddy heads further east on Kingswell, he comes to the home of Robert Disney, uncle to the Disney brothers. 
It was here, at 4406 Kingswell Avenue, where Walt first lived upon arriving in southern California in late summer of 1923.  Robert Disney had moved to Los Angeles the prior year and earned a living working in real estate.  For a brief time, Walt worked out of his uncle's garage.

It was from this location that October 16, 1923 that Walt wrote the family of Virginia Davis in Kansas City, requesting that they come to Hollywood so Virginia could star in the new series of Alice Comedies.
Walt also had printed stationary that used the 4406 Kingswell address.  He used a piece of that stationary for a subsequent letter to Mrs. Davis on October 24, 1923.

For a little over a year, Walt and Roy lived together in a rented room across the street at 4409 Kingswell, the residence of Charles and Nettie Schneider, and then later at an apartment at an unknown address.  As roommates, the two proved quite incompatible; so much so that a frustrated Roy sent for his Kansas City sweetheart, Edna Francis.  The two were married at Uncle Robert's home on April 11, 1925.

End of Part One

Walt Disney's Los Angeles: 1923-1931 is adapted from a presentation made April 10, 2010 at the first 2719 Hyperion Sweatbox.

Buddy Robinson's bicycle ride through Los Feliz and Silver Lake continues tomorrow here at 2719 Hyperion. 


David said...

Just a great post as always Jeff. I look forward to seeing the next one in the series.



Gator Chris said...

Great stuff.

And it was quite a treat to hear the 2719 Hyperion team pitch it live in The Sweatbox.

Thanks for pulling this together.

"See 'Ya Real Soon"

- Chris

Scott Mumford said...

Fascinating stuff. My Mom worked at Disney from the mid-50's to the early '00's, so this stuff almost feels like family history!

I wonder if the small restaurant at Vermont & Kingswell is now the Figaro Cafe?

Gitta Pierro said...

I found several comic broadsides, really, in size, of the "Standard Oil Company of California presents 'Walt Disney's Little People Travel Tykes Weekly." One is about Seeing the Great Salt Lakes. They are well preserved, found them in an old trunk. So, wondering about them I searched Google and was directed here. Thanks for the fun and informative article.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to inquire if anyone has photos of across the street from the Disney studios. I am looking for pictures of the Hub Mart for a historical research project.