Site of the First Official Walt Disney Studio, 1926 – 1940
Animation School for the Walt Disney Studios from 1935 – 1940
2725 Hyperion Avenue – map
There are two different parts to the city’s Historic-Cultural Monument No. 163. The first, declared back in the 1976, is for the site of the first official Walt Disney Studio. Just three years ago, though, the landmark was amended to include more area, adding the site of the studio’s animation school to the designation.
Twenty-two-year-old Walt Disney moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles in the summer of 1923. His older brother, Roy, was already out here, having most recently spent time in Sawtelle’s Veteran’s Hospital with a relapse of tuberculosis. Walt settled with his uncle, Robert Disney, in the Kinsgwell Avenue cottage pictured above, in Los Feliz (Roy Disney would get married in this home on April 7, 1925).
Working in his uncle’s garage, Walt built an animation stand for a camera he had bought and rejiggered, then made a demo reel to pitch (unsuccessfully) to theater-owner Alexander Pantages. (That garage still stands, by the way – but not in Los Feliz. Saved from demolition in 1984, it was later moved to the Stanley Ranch Museum in Garden Grove. And, no, I didn’t go see it, but the typically dynamite You Are Here picture of it is here.)
October 1923 was a big month for Walt and Roy Disney. For ten dollars a month, they set up their first cartoon shop in the back of the offices of the Holly-Vermont Realty Company at 4651 Kingswell, just a few blocks down the street from Uncle Robert’s. Then, a New York distributor offered Walt a contract for a series of live-action/animation Alice comedy shorts. The Disney Bros. cartoon studio was born. Here’s 4651 Kingswell on 7/19/2008:
In January 1924, the guys rented a vacant lot at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Rodney Drive just a few blocks away from their heaquarters to handle the outdoor shooting for the live-action parts of their Alice shorts. A month later, having run out of space for the cartoon half of the business (they were up to seven employees), they moved the animation studio from 4651 Kingswell to 4649 next door. A month before this, Walt and Roy had rented a room across Uncle Robert’s in a boarding house at 4409 Kingswell. What 4409 looks like these days:
The Alices brought in good business, and, on July 6, 1925 (one week before Walt married Lillian Bounds), the brothers put a $400 deposit down on a lot at Hyperion Avenue in Los Feliz. While monument No. 163 is designated as 2725 Hyperion, every good Mousehead knows the studio’s address was 2719 Hyperion.)
When the studio moved into its new home after the first of the year, Walt told Roy he was changing the name of the operation from Disney Bros. to Walt Disney Studio.
In describing the Hyperion site, in The Art of Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms, Christopher Finch wrote, "A single-story building was erected there and this formed the nucleus of the plant which was to serve as their base for the next fifteen years (it was almost constantly being expanded)."
Neal Gabler, in Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination, described the new space as “not a particularly prepossessing place, situated among wild oats and abutting a pipe organ factory and a gas station.” The building was “the size of a grocery store” (prophetic), “into which the Disneys poured about $3,000 for renovations.”
More from Finch:
In 1929 and 1930, additions were made to the front, rear, and one side of the original building on Hyperion Avenue. In the spring on 1931, a two-story animators’ building and a sound stage were built (Disney moved his office to the second floor of the new building). From 1929 to 1933, the Studio grew from 1,600 square feet of floor space to 20,000 square feet.The Hyperion studio was the home to lots of history over the next fourteen years. Disney’s first success there was the creation of Oswald the Rabbit in 1927. The following year, when Walt lost the rights to the character, the studio released the first cartoon to star Mickey Mouse. (As history’s first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” may have been the first Mickey short released, but it was actually the third animated.)
I’m not going to count the number of short cartoons produced here, but it includes “Three Little Pigs”, “Ferdinand the Bull”, and “Ugly Duckling” (three of Hyperion’s eight Oscar-winners), tons of Silly Symphonies, and the debuts of Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. Theatrically, Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio at Hyperion, along with good chunks of Fantasia and Bambi.
Besides the studio’s innovations with sound and color during this time (Walt wisely inked a two-year exclusive deal with Technicolor in the early 1930s), another big technological development for Disney’s was the construction of the studio’s four-level, twelve-feet-tall, multiplane camera for “The Old Mill” short in 1937. You can still see the contraption in the Frank G. Wells Building on the Disney lot in Burbank.
1937 multiplane camera.
On August 31, 1938, the studio made a deposit on land in Burbank with construction beginning shortly after. Moving started a year later and was finished the following spring. Most of the Hyperion buildings were demolished, but a few were moved to the new Burbank location. Here are two.
The first is a 1935 bungalow that’s the original home to the Disney Publicity and Comic Strip Department. Having housed a variety of support services in Burbank, the building today is home to the Silverlake and Hyperion meeting rooms.
Then there’s the Shorts Building, constructed from the original Animation Buildings at Hyperion. In Los Feliz, the building housed the creative and animation staffs for the Disney shorts as well as the animated features Snow White. Walt and Roy also had their original offices in this building.
The William T. Thompson Co., makers of vitamin products, bought the old Hyperion Avenue lot for a reported $75,000 in 1941. Today, the property is home to a big ol’ supermarket. (I remember the time when this grocery store was a Mayfair; those were the days.)
In 2005, someone pointed out how the studio, starting in 1935 with the start of heavy Snow White production, began to spill out and around the Hyperion lot. Therefore, Los Angeles City Council approved the recommendation to amend the boundaries of HCM No. 163 to include 2660-64 North Hyperion Avenue, 2646-64 North Griffith Park Boulevard, and 3027-33 Angus Street. This is when the designation was altered to include the Animation School portion.
Yeah, one thing about Walt – he was rabid about improving the skills of his artists. Sometimes, beginning in the twenties, he’d carpool his staff down to Chouinard for art lessons. After animator Art Babbitt began inviting co-workers to his home for evening drawing classes, Walt went and hired away Chouinard’s twenty-nine-year-old instructor Don Graham, and then teacher Phil Dike, to hold classes on the lot, at first in the old sound studio.
In 1934/1935, the school kicked into overdrive as Walt was demanding training for the hundreds of animators who would taking part in the production of the studio’s first feature film, Snow White. While the training program had been overseen by artist Ben Sharpsteen, by the time the Snow White intensity began across the street from the main Hyperion lot, a man name George Drake was in charge. By this time, the classes had become mandatory.
Today, the only hints you’ll find of the site’s history are a metal sign on the curb near the studio’s old entrance and a pretty nifty vintage picture inside the Gelson’s.
The black and white shot at the top of the post is from the city’s Department of City Planning website.
“Manufacturers Buy Old Disney Studios” The Los Angeles Times May 11, 1941 p. E3
Finch, Christopher The Art of Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms Harry N. Abrams 1995 New York
Gabler, Neal Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination Alfred A. Knopf 2006 New York
Up next: Glendale-Hyperion Bridge