Issue: Winter 2011-2012

Birth of the Disney Legend: The Seeds for Disneyland Grew From Los Feliz Roots

It was in the eastern part of Hollywood--Los Feliz--where animation mogul Walt Disney's empire began.  Walt Disney, one of filmdom's most important innovators, was born in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois and raised in a small town in Missouri.  He had a very early interest in art selling drawings to neighbors for extra money.  Pursuing a career in art and photography was interrupted in 1918.  At only 16, we wanted to join the war effort but could only enlist in the American Red Cross serving in France driving an ambulance he decorated with cartoon drawings.  After studying animation at the Kansas City Art Institute, he started his own company which created the popular but financially unsuccessful "Alice Comedies," a series about a little girl who travels to a world filled with animated characters, and went bankrupt.  With only his suitcase and $20, he headed west.  He was 22 years old and settled in the Los Feliz area to be close to its burgeoning entertainment industry.

He moved into a modest Craftsman style home owned by his uncle Robert Disney on Kingswell Avenue between Hillhurst and Vermont Avenues in the heart of what would become Los Feliz Village.  The first thing he did was construct a stand in his uncle's garage for his newly purchased animation camera.   His brother Roy joined him soon after to become his business partner.

Disney's Craftsman house on Kingswell Ave.

Within a few months in October 1923, he had sealed a contract for the "Alice Comedies" with a New York distributor.  Walt and Roy rented some additional space on Kingswell Avenue and were in production.  Their outdoor shooting location was a rented vacant lot at the nearby corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Rodney Drive.  The fledgling company grew and additional space was rented in a nearby Kingswell garage.  This was the birth of the Disney Brothers Studio and beginning of the Walt Disney Company. 

In July 1925, Walt married one of his first employees, Lillian Bounds, in Lewiston, Idaho.  He and Lillian rented a kitchenette apartment nearby on Melbourne Avenue, and two years later an even larger unit on Commonwealth Avenue.  Their union would be blessed with two daughters, Diane and Sharon.

The contract for the first year called for one Alice Comedy a month, but this was soon amended to one every three weeks.  In full production, the Kingswell locations became too limiting, so the Disneys began construction of their own studio on a large lot at the northeast corner of Griffith Park Boulevard and Hyperion Avenue in 1925.  They moved into the new facility early in 1926. 

The Disney Studios at Hyperion and Griffith Park Aves.

Fifty-six "Alice Comedies" were produced there until 1927, followed by the "Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit" series of 26 animated silent shorts from 1927 to 1928.   

Disney moved his family closer to the new Hyperion studio.  He and his brother Roy built matching pre-fabricated ready-cut English Tudor homes side-by-side on Lyric Avenue at St. George Avenue for $7,000 each.  It was in their garage that the cells for Mickey Mouse were painted due to a labor dispute at the new Hyperion studio.  Walt and Lillian lived there until 1933.

The birth of Mickey Mouse took the world by storm when Disney produced the first cartoon to use synchronized sound, "Steamboat Willie" in 1928.  The Disney studio at the Hyperion location was again in need of expansion.  By 1933, the plant had grown from 1,600 to 20,000 square feet of floor space.

In 1929, Disney began production of a new series, "Silly Symphonies."  This led to the first color cartoon, "Flowers and Trees" (1932), which was also the first animated short to win an Oscar.  Their next major success was "Three Little Pigs" (1933). 

Using the profits from his animation successes, Walt built his "dream house," a Tudor residence characterized as an enlarged "Hansel and Gretel cottage" on Woking Way.  He and Lillian resided at the house overlooking their Hyperion studio with their two daughters until 1949.

The studio consisted of a series of Spanish-style buildings customized to accommodate the various departments, and employed hundreds of men and women.  His first full length animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" (1937), brought additional Oscars for Walt. As many as 570 artists created over 250,000 drawings for "Snow White."

Animators in front of the Hyperion Studios

The studio gave birth to a series of historic innovations:  new sound and color technologies were developed along with new camera techniques, and storyboards with pencil tests used to bring the animation to life.  The Disneys were also among the first to invest in training classes for their employees.

Nevertheless, by 1938, it was apparent that the Hyperion studio would no longer be sufficient for the expanded production needs of the thriving company. So, with profits from "Snow White," the Disney brothers purchased 51 acres in Burbank and relocated the company late in 1939.

For years a neon sign embellished with Mickey Mouse sat on the Hyperion Studio rooftop.  The neon sign sadly did not survive the move to Burbank.   Today, there is a Gelson's Market on the Hyperion site and there is no trace of the former historic animated movie operation.  A sidewalk lamppost in front of the supermarket displays a plaque that acknowledges the former Walt Disney Studio as a point of Historical Interest, Monument Number 163, by LA's Cultural Heritage Board.

While Los Feliz was the site of the first Disney Studio years and first major success in animation, the innovations did not stop with the move to Burbank.  Disney was one of the first in the film industry to recognize the potential of television.  His "Disneyland" (1954) and "Mickey Mouse Club" (1955) series were enormous successes, and led to the 1955 creation of his theme park, Disneyland (originally planned for a Los Angeles river location in Los Feliz).  The studio then began to produce hugely popular mixed live-action and animation films.  "Mary Poppins" (1964) is considered to be his highest achievement in this genre.

Over the next 30 years, the success of Disney's full-length animated and standard features as well as his theme park made the name a household word.  By the time of his death in 1966, the avuncular All-American Walt Disney, whose roots stemmed from Los Feliz, had become an international American icon.

Walt and Mickey