In this week’s blogisode we are going to take another little trip off the reservation. This time, unlike last, I think the story is going to be a lot more fun. As I was writing it, I didn’t realize how much I had to say, so this one is rather verbose.
As I had said in my original posting, this whole process started as the result of a trip to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. That was our second trip to the Studio, the first being the attendance of the Prince and the Frog Premier last November. This second trip was for the Roy E. Disney Tribute in May, where we got to witness the rededication of the Feature Animations Building to the ROY E. DISNEY ANIMATION BUILDING, and attend a screening of Roy’s True Life Fantasy (the only one ever made) Perri, and Fantasia 2000, one of Samantha’s favorites. We got to eat in the Studio Commissary, where I had the opportunity to sample the famous Walt’s Chili. No disrespect to the culinary staff at the commissary, but, it tasted like Hormel’s Chili for a can. Not bad, but nothing to rave over. It was, though, Walt’s favorite, so there may have been just a bit more enjoyment then one might expect. On this trip I discovered that my oldest daughter is braver than even I knew. During the intermission, she marched herself done to the front of the theater and asked Don Hahn for his autograph, which he most graciously obliged. It was on the drive home from this event, it’s amazing what runs through your mind on a 6 hour drive with no one to talk to, that I realized just know much there was for me to still learn about Disney.
Well, this weekend was another step in that learning process, a lot of fun, and thank you Disney for the creation of D23. On Saturday, Sam and I made a low attitude, high speed run down to Burbank to partake in one of D23’s Walt Disney Studio Tours. Getting tickets to a studio tour is an experience unto itself, as these tours are very popular among the Disney faithful, err maybe fanatic would be better choice. You need to park yourself out at the D23 website about 5 minutes before tickets go on sale, and start clicking on the link as soon as it appears, a feat which I have been unable to complete before now. Well on this particular day I lucked out because all five tours being offered for August 14th were waitlisted within about 10 minutes, but I managed to get in early enough to get two tickets for the 1:00 PM Tour.
So, at 3:00 AM Saturday morning Sam and I are in car headed south on 101, Sam sleeping contently in the co-pilot’s seat, awaking occasionally to my prodding to, “please refill Dad’s coffee cup.” Yes I know, I5 is faster, but I hated I5. It is nothing but mile and mile of mile and miles of nothing, and even traveling 101 we could have been in Burbank hours earlier then our 1:00 PM tour time. But there is a method to my madness, my grandparents and a cousin reside permanently of Camarillo at the Conejo Mountain Cemetary. Since I am the only member of the family to travel south with any regularity, I have taken on myself to stop in with flower and to make sure their gravesites are being well maintain. Besides I have some friends in Burbank, and arrived with enough time that we were able to stop and have breakfast with them and visit for awhile. It’s always a pleasure to sit and talk with the ‘tods’, both being ex-Disney employees and very knowledgeable about most things Hollywood. After taking caring of family in Camarillo, another 40 minutes drive to Burbank, and a couple hours visit with the ‘tods’ at the landmark Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank (or it might be Toluca Lake, I’m not sure where the city boundaries run), we arrive at the Walt Disney Studios Buena Vista Street gate.
On arrival, we are ushered to the Hyperion Bungalow, a building we are to discover later is one of two buildings moved to this lot from the original Disney Brothers Studios on Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. Here we are checked in and ask to wait in the shade of the room to our right. There are two rooms to this bungalow, and imagine my amazement to find out they are named the Hyperion Room and the Silver Lake Room. I wonder why these names? :smile: At about quarter to 1 a lovely young lady named Laura comes in a lets us know that we will be gathering outside in just a few minutes to start our tour. About 10 minutes later she has us gather in a shady shot on the lawn to begin the tour. As she is describing how the tour is going to work, she tells us to ask questions at any time and if she doesn’t know the answer, she’ll find it. To this a cute little blond pipes up and says, “or you can just ask him.” There is my daughter Sam pointing right at me, the little smart alec.
The first stop on our journey of discovery, a topiary of Mickey Mouse sitting just off the patio seating for the Commissary. For those who may not know, the commissary is the equivalent of the cafeteria in most other company, albeit probably much fancier fare the most companies. Laura explains that the Mickey topiary was a gift to the studio for Mickey 60th (as I recall) birthday from Walt Disney World in Florida, probably the topiary capital of the world. Michael Eisner, then the head of the Walt Disney Company, thought that Walt Disney Studios should become the west coast capital for topiaries, however a problem should arose. After a few weeks Mickey started browning and dying off because as it turns out, topiaries are much better suited to the humid environment of Florida and not the drier southern California weather. Well, the home of Mickey Mouse well couldn’t have his likeness perishing on the property, so all efforts were made to assure plant Mickey’s survival. A fairly expensive misting system was devised to water Mickey from the inside, and you can often see Mickey dipping water early in the morning after his drink. And thus ended all thought of Walt Disney Studios becoming the topiary capital of the west coast.
Next on our stop is the street sign at the corner of Mickey Ave and Dopey Drive. This sign post claims to point the direction to Animation, Multiplane, and Ink & Paint on Mickey Ave, and Inbetween, Special EFX, and Layout Dept on Dopey Drive. Not so quick, none of these places are located in the directions this sign post claims. The sign was place there during the filming of the behind the scene part of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ as a joke to confuse the actor filming these scenes. I recently obtained DVD copy of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ and now have even more reason to watch it. All these years later, the sign remains along with evidence that this corner was where Pluto took his breaks. Pointing over our shoulders to back patio and trellis of the commissary, double for Medfield College in the ‘Absent Minded Professor’ and ‘The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes’ with several shots being filmed down the street toward the Animation Building and Theater, the theater being the same theater where Sam and I first saw ‘Princess and the Frog’. The theater is designed with a sound board which gives it the acoustic appearance of being about 2/3 full. This allows sound editors to achieve the best possible sound for the movie we all go and watch.
As we stop outside the entrances to the Animation Building, Laura explains that this is not the current animation building, that is now cross the street on Riverside Drive, the Animation Build here is now used to provide space for some of the production companies that work with Disney, and that Marty Sklar kept his office in there before he retired last year. The Animation Build is build with the Main Hall running north and south with 8 sections built off the main hall. These sections contain the offices for the animators, their assistants and inbetweeners. These sections are built so that each animator has a window to allow natural light into his work area. I say his because at the time only men were animators. Interesting fact, all the north facing windows are sans awning because northern light is considered perfect light for animation. All the other window have adjustable shade awnings which can be control from inside the offices to achieve perfect lighting. Another interest anecdote from Laura was how the animators who worked on the third floor where Walt’s office was on the north end of the building would listen for the tell tale cough that would indicate the Walt was still at work and in his office. If they were leaving for the evening and really needed to go and they heard that cough, they exit down the hall to the southern staircase instead of the northern one to avoid being waylaid by Walt with additional ideas and work for the evening. While not visible from the grounds outside, there is a fourth floor to the building. The 4th floor was called the penthouse, where such perks as small dining room, a health club and masseuse, and an open deck that looked over the lot. The penthouse was a perk for Walt’s top animators and business executives.
One last tidbit about the Animation Building, some believe that the Magic Kingdom is where the utildor was first used. Not familiar with the term, well in case you didn’t know, the Magic Kingdom is actually built about fourteen feet about ground. Below that is a complex of utility corridors (utilidors) where all cast member move around the park. Well the real original utilidor is located below the Animation Building leading to the Ink & Paint Department. As it turns out, it is better to keep animation cels out of the weather while in transport from the animators to Ink & Paint. Apparently one of the uses for old cels was run and jump on cel to see how far one could slide on the slippery cement utilidor floor, and one story was told of animators helping a young Roy Patrick Disney (Roy O’s grandson, Roy E’s son) use the cels as a slide in this utilidor. The building that housed the Ink & Paint Department also contained the Layout and Camera Departments. These two buildings connected by the utilidor where laid out in such a way that the animation process could easily move from the animators, to the Ink & Paint girls, to layout out and setup, to the camera in kind of a U shaped flow.
As I said earlier, there were two buildings move over from the Hyperion lot. That second build was the Shorts building. This is where most of the short animation cartoons were produced, and also where a majority of ‘Snow White’ was animated. As we walked through this building we were greeted by Gus the football kicking donkey. I don’t know, but he looked a little stiff to me. We walked around the back lot area where the sound stages are located. Laura told us about some of the current production being done, and since none of the stages were open we were unable to see inside. We did get some tidbit like the 20,000 gallon tank under the floor of Stage 3 where ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ was filmed, and the mound of dirt under a sub floor in Stage 4, one of the largest sound stages in the world, if I heard correctly. Laura told us a story about how they were having a really hard time filming the squid fight sequence in ’20,000 League’ where control wiring for the squid kept showing thru among other problems. When Walt came in and learned for the problems, he suggested changing the fight scene from day to night, and viola problem solved. It was at this point that I got an opportunity to demonstrate my Disney prowess and relay a story I’d learn during a session and the Walt Disney Family Museum. The story was one told by Lee Topes, the surviving production crew member from ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ about the studio browning out all of Burbank one morning early in the production. All the special lighting need for filming the special effect required several large DC generators. Early one morning Lee went out and started flipping the switches to turn on all the generator at once, and the electrical draw was too much for the Burbank electrical grid to handle all at once. After that, the generators were turned on in a very controlled and careful sequence to assure that this brown out never happened again. As we transited the back lot, Laura explained where certain facades where located, where the lagoon was where scenes from “Lt. Robinson Caruso” were filmed, and where the business street façade, which is still used, was as we walked by. As we were coming back around to the campus part of the lot, we stopped at a brick façade building which turned out to be the back of the Ink & Paint Department. Laura note that the stairs on our right lead to a small deck on top for the Ink & Paint girls, which was nowhere near as elaborate as the penthouse on the building next door.
Next we went into the Frank G. Wells building. This is the build which houses the Archives and Dave Smith, and was named for the former President & COO of the company during the early half of Michal Eisner’s tenure as Chairman of the Board & CEO. We got the opportunity to meet with Dave Smith, the Founder and Director of Walt Disney Archives. Dave Smith is probably the primary individual responsible for saving the Disney history, along with much of Hollywood, for, before him, not much attention was paid by any of the studios to the preservation of their history. After the Walt Disney Archives were created in 1970, many other studio approached Dave for advice on how they too could accomplish what he had done for Disney. Laura, earlier in the tour, told us of Dave being given a key to every door on the lot when he started with Disney, and being told go anywhere you want to explore for historical treasures. Can you imagine that ‘Treasure Hunt?’ Laura relayed a story of Dave one day entering the janitor’s closet in the animation and finding a very significant artifact. Upon ask the janitor where he had obtained the item, he was told he, the janitor, had found it lying around somewhere and just put it in his little closet here. Dave thanked the janitor for his contribution to the Archive. That artifact was the snow global Julie Andrew was holding while singing ‘Feed the Birds’ in “Mary Poppins.” WOW!!! During our stay with Dave, he showed us some other special artifact from the Archive. We were treated to a view of the Postcard announcing Opening Day, along with a glue-on parking pass for the event. We got to see the first ever ticket brought for entrance into Disneyland on July 18th 1955. The first day the Park was actually open to the public. That first ticket was purchase by, none other than, Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older Brother and business partner. Dave even brought out one the 32 Oscar awarded to Walt Disney over the years. The Oscar is a deceptively heavy little statue.
Now on to Legends Plaza: When the company started the Legends program in 1987, Fred MacMurray was the first and singular inductee. The last class of inductees was honored at the D23 Expo last year, and having been there, I can tell you that it was a blast. The plaza is open in the center, with two hallways of two columns on either side. Well, not really columns, as they are square in order to make hanging the Legends plaques easier, at least that’s my guess. Inductees entering posthumously receive plaques with their names on them. Living inductees place their hands in cement and sign their plaques, much like the ceremonies that take place Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Even to the point that at the Walt Disney Studio, they originally placed these concrete slabs on the sidewalk outside the studio theater. Even now, you can see the sidewalk in front of the theater marked off in a very precise grid of squares matching the size of the plaques. After discovering that the plaques were beginning to wear with the weather and traffic over them, Legends Plaza was built. I was able to find some of my favorite legends like Julie Andrews and The Sherman Brothers. Luckily for me, all three are on the same pillar right next to each other. Ward Kimball, ever the comic, has six fingers on each hand, and I found one of my all time favorite legends and comedic heros, inducted last year at the D23 Expo, Robin Williams. In the center of the Plaza, at one end is the Blaine Gibson “Partners” statue of Walt and Mickey. You can find that statue in the Hub at Disneyland and The Magic kingdom, and a miniature version of it sitting on my desk at work. Off on the right side about half way done is a copy of the statue that sits in the square in Main Street U.S.A. at The Magic Kingdom – Roy O. Disney sitting on a park bench with Minnie Mouse. Roy is one of the unsung heroes of the Disney Story and I’ll be writing more about that as we proceed. At the opposite end of the plaza from the “Partners” statue is a statue sized version of Disney Legends award that is given to each year’s group of inductees. I copied the following from the Disney Legends website to make sure I got it right:
- The Disney Legends award has three distinct elements that characterize the contributions made by each talented recipient.
- The Spiral ... stands for imagination, the power of an idea.
- The Hand ... holds the gifts of skill, discipline and craftsmanship.
- The Wand and the Star ... represent magic: the spark that is ignited when imagination and skill combine to create a new dream.
As we exited Legends Plaza, we were ushered into the Rotunda of the Team Disney building. This build is visible from the front gate of the studio, may have seen it in pictures. The very top dormer of the top floor is being held up by Dopey, and the next floor down, by all the rest of the dwarves. It was in the rotunda where Laura made, for me, one of the more profound statements of the tour. As I wrote earlier, I think Roy O. Disney is one of the unsung Heroes of the Disney story, and Laura talked briefly of Roy’s real importance in the success of the company. She, like me, believes that, while Walt was undoubtedly the creative force behind the Walt Disney Company’s success, it was Roy’s business genius that made sure the company had the resources to allow Walt’s creative genius to flourish. If you’d like to find out more, the first link one my books list is a good place to start.
I could probably go now for many more paragraphs about the tour and studio, and have probably gone on now for too many. So in an effort not to bore you, I am going to close this blogisode for now with this final thought on our tour – AWESOME, Absolutely AWESOME!
Should also probably note that there is a studio down the street that is just as AWESOME, and which I have had the opportunity to receive a personal tour. Thanks Deb!
Your comments or questions are always welcome. If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org