Friday, June 19, 2015

Walt Disney's Los Angeles: 1923-1931

Editor's Note: We will be exploring Los Angeles today as part of our Californy er Bust road trip.  Part of the day, we will be navigating by way of our 2010 Walt Disney"s Los Angeles posts that traveled historically through the area of the original 2719 Hyperion Disney Studio. We have combined those two original posts into one feature now presented here.  Check back again for a photo diary of today's travels.
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.
Buddy suddenly remembers that he wants to check what's playing at the Vista Theatre, so he points his bicycle south off Kingswell onto Hillhurst Avenue.  He travels the four blocks to the corner of Hillhurst and Hollywood Boulevard where the Vista is located.
He decides that the double bill of Tailspin and The Three Musketeers is to his liking and quickly exchanges a dime for a ticket and a few hours of vintage Hollywood escapism.
It is important to remember that at this time, the movie industry was a growing and pervasive presence in the Los Feliz and Silver Lake neighborhoods, and of course in Hollywood just to the west.  Data from the 1930 U.S. Census indicates that a large number of individuals then living in these areas were associated with work within the motion picture industry.

Across the street from the Vista Theatre was one of Hollywood's then well known poverty row studios.  Monogram Studios produced such B-movie fare as Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong series, The East End Kids and The Bowery Boys and was home to numerous western matinee idols such as a young John Wayne, Tex Ritter, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones and Johnny Mack Brown.

Walt and Lillian Disney lived for a brief time very near to this location.  The couple rented an apartment at 1307 North Commonwealth Avenue sometime during the mid-1920s.  There is no trace left of the house or building they resided in and in fact the entire 1300 and 1400 blocks of North Commonwealth Avenue no longer exist.  North Commonwealth would have intersected Sunset Drive very close to where the Monogram Studios came into being in 1931.

Today, the entire area, including the original Monogram Studio building, is part of the KCET Studios complex.  KCET is the PBS affiliate for the Los Angeles area.
After watching  movies and filling up on popcorn and Coca-Cola, Buddy pedals his bicycle north on Talmadge Street and eventually passes the former Vitagraph Studios that was sold to Warner Bros. in 1925.
Built in 1912, Vitagraph was one of the earliest of the Hollywood studios and enjoyed the presence of such film pioneers as Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith.  ABC Television acquired the property in 1949.  Disney assumed ownership of the complex when it acquired ABC in 1996.  During the time Walt was active in the Los Feliz/Silver Lake area, the studio would have been referred to as the Warner Bros. Vitagraph or the Warner Bros. Annex.  It was located just a block away from Robert Disney's home.
A few blocks north, Buddy turns right on Franklin Avenue and pedals across the Shakespeare Bridge, a well known Los Feliz landmark.
 Just after crossing the bridge, he turns left on St. George Street.  At the intersection of St. George and Lyric Avenue, he passes two small adjacent houses that were once the homes of the Disney brothers.
Walt and Lillian resided at 2495 Lyric Avenue while Roy and his wife Edna lived next door at 2491.  Both couples moved into the small homes in 1927.

The houses were built from modified prefabricated kits manufactured by the Pacific Ready Cut Homes company.  Michael Barrier noted in his book The Animated Man, construction on the two homes began in August of 1926 and was completed by the following December.  The cost of the land and the two kit houses was estimated by Roy Disney to be approximately $16,000.

In the summer of 1932, Walt and Lillian moved into their second home, a house they had built at 4053 Woking Way in the Los Feliz Hills.  Though not on Buddy's bicycle route, the house was approximately one mile from the Hyperion Avenue studios.

Walt and Lillian lived at this location until their move to Holmby Hills in the late 1940s.  This was the home where the Disney's raised daughters Diane and Sharon.  It was also well known for its swimming pool that was perched precariously on a high hillside.  Roy O. Disney once said, "He hung this swimming pool up on the corner of this darn thing.  It's a granite hill and we were taking bets to see if it would stand."

In 1939, Walt appeared in magazine advertisements for DeSota that featured photographs taken at the Woking Way estate.

Roy and Edna Disney moved out of their Lyric Avenue home in 1934 and relocated to 4365 Forman Avenue in North Hollywood, not far from where he and Walt would build the Burbank studio at the end of that decade.  Roy would ultimately live in two other homes in that same North Hollywood/Burbank area prior to his death in 1971.

Buddy rides his bike a short distance further down St. George where he passes John Marshall High School.

John Marshall High School was opened in 1930 and its tall central tower can often be seen looming in the distance in photos of the Hyperion studio.  It has long been a favorite location of Hollywood filmmakers.  Movies such as Raiders of the Lost ArkGrease and more recently, Transformers have used the school as a backdrop.

Studio veteran Jack Kinney noted in his biography that he and number of other studio employees lived in apartments on Griffith Park Boulevard just a few blocks away from John Marshall.  He also remembered that he and other members of the story department would sneak out of the studio to watch football games at the high school.  Kinney remembered, "We were too cheap to pay twenty-five cents for a ticket in the grandstands, and we soon discovered that by climbing up an ivy-covered bank we had a first-class, close-up view of the action on the field through a chain-link fence."  According to Kinney, the school's disgruntled principal ultimately turned on sprinklers to discourage the freeloading Disney employees.

Directly across from John Marshall, Buddy turns down Evans Street where after one very long extended block he arrives at Hyperion Avenue.  He turns left on Hyperion Avenue.  He quickly drops off some overdue books at the Hyperion Branch Station of the Los Angeles Public Library, located at 2619 Hyperion Avenue.
After leaving the library, he continues one block up Hyperion Avenue to where it intersects with Griffith Park Boulevard.  He has reached the location of the Walt Disney Studios.

We have arrived at 2719 Hyperion Avenue.

During the studios' earliest of years, the area surrounding 2719 Hyperion was a generally quiet, empty place.  Animation director Ben Sharpsteen remembered visiting for the first time in 1929:

"I walked through what was mainly a residential development, a section of town which had been laid out with streets and curbs, but which had very few homes at the time.  It was late March and the grass and weeds were very tall and they were growing up through the sidewalk in places.  It was not a street that was very much used at the time.  I thought this was a very strange neighborhood for a cartoon studio, but I finally came to a main intersection as directed and I found the number on a small building next to a service station on the corner.  Sure enough, the sign over the door read 'Walt Disney Studios.'"

In the decade that followed, the Hyperion studio grew, in what many observers described as an almost "organic" expansion.  Existing buildings were expanded and extended; nearby buildings were absorbed and additional facilities emerged on the opposite side of Hyperion Avenue.

The Disney Annex was added to the studio sometime around 1936. During the late 1930s, it was in this place that aspiring artists were typically given tryout periods to prove their talent and skills, working mainly as in-betweeners under the watchful and often harsh supervision of studio manager George Drake. Part of the training process also involved art classes taught by Don Graham.

In less than one year following Buddy's travels on that Saturday afternoon in May 1939, the Hyperion studio would be gone.  By early 1940, Walt Disney and his entire operation relocated to a sprawling new studio complex in Burbank.  Buddy's Aunt Connie did not follow the company to Burbank but instead was married later in 1940 and moved to Pasadena with her new husband.  Decades later, a supermarket would occupy the location, and the address, 2719 Hyperion, would cease to exist.
Buddy turns his bike around.  It is getting late and he needs to get home for dinner.  He pauses for a moment and looks up at the large sign on the top one of the studio buildings.  He fondly remembers his birthday in 1933 when his father brought him to this place.  He scans the surrounding street and confirms that he is alone except for the occasional passing cars.  He shyly lifts his hand and waves.  And from the sign that rises high above the address that is 2719 Hyperion Avenue, Mickey Mouse waves back.