Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Office For Rent

Disney fans and historians know that 1923 plays a significant role in the Walt Disney Company. It’s the year that a young Walt Disney relocated from Kansas City to Los Angeles to pursue dreams of animation and filmmaking. His Laugh-O-Gram venture ended in bankruptcy, and it seemed that a fresh start - a blank canvas - in Los Angeles was the ideal way to reboot his dream. Older brother Roy was already in southern California so the prospect of family made the decision easier. The legend goes that Walt arrived to Los Angeles that summer with all his worldly possessions in a cardboard suitcase, $40 in his pocket, and ambitious dreams. The initial working space was borrowed from their Uncle Robert, whose garage at 4406 Kingswell Avenue can perhaps be claimed as the origin of The Walt Disney Company, where Walt cobbled together an animation camera rig.

The young entrepreneurs needed office space but were tight on funds and couldn’t venture far. The solution was nearby on Kingswell. They rented a room from the Holly-Vermont Realty office for $10 a month. On October 16, 2013 Walt and Roy signed a contract with film distributor Margaret Winkler to create a series of films known as the Alice Comedies and the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was born. They soon outgrew the realty office room and relocated to another address on Kingswell. Within two years, they were expanding again to the Silver Lake region of Los Angeles. The Walt Disney Studio, as it was then called, made its home at 2719 Hyperion Avenue. For the next twelve years, Walt’s animators at this seminal location created Oswald, Mickey, Donald Duck and the beginning of the Silly Symphonies and the groundbreaking animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The profits from Snow White were plowed back into the company when Walt and Roy created from scratch a working studio to fill their every need. This facility, in Burbank, has been the home of the Walt Disney Company since 1940, where Disney has created animation, live-action and television classics. The genesis of the Disney theme parks took root in Burbank as well.

With so much of the classic Disney products coming from Burbank and the now-gone studio at Hyperion, it’s easy to forget the company’s humble roots on Kingswell Avenue. However, Disney fans on both coasts can find a subtle tribute to those early years.

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in the Echo Lake section, there’s a service door on the backside of Keystone Clothiers. It’s used only by Cast Members, but Imagineers took the extra step to dress it up for the region and to reflect Disney history.

(image courtesy Google Maps)

The door label reads Holly-Vermont Realty, Hollywood, Beverly Hills. It honors the realty company that gave Walt and Roy their first office space. The name, no doubt, was picked to identify the locale. Hollywood is a central component of the Los Angeles ethos, and Vermont Avenue runs perpendicular to Kingswell.

A similar tribute can be found on the Buena Vista Street expansion of Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. The texture of this new area is hip-deep with Disney history references and includes a sly tribute to the Holly-Vermont Realty company. Next time you’re there, look for a Hollymont Property Associates sign, a subtle variation of its DHS cousin.

(image courtesy of The Walt Disney Company)

Today, the site on Kingswell Avenue still stands and is a nondescript copy shop. Its owner is aware of the Disney history and has a sign in the window of Mickey’s famous side profile and the label indicates that it’s the home of the Disney studio, 1923 - 1931. The copy shop owner has reason to be proud of the building’s history but nonetheless has taken liberty with the dates.

(image courtesy Google Maps)

Inside, the owner has photos and newspaper clippings that commemorate Walt and Roy’s new venture, including a photo of a prodigious Ub Iwerks crafting the early Mickey Mouse shorts. Ub was a Kansas City business partner of Walt and joined him again in Los Angeles. Although Mickey didn’t come into existence until 1928 when they worked at Hyperion, Ub worked with Walt on Kingswell on the Alice Comedies. Ub went on to become a visual effects wizard for the Disney company with camera optics.

This story has a fascinating sidebar. It seems that the most interesting American success stories involve startups that began in a garage. Our beloved Spaceship Earth at Epcot briefly plays on this theme when discussing the personal tech revolution - “The solution comes in of all places, a garage in California. Young people with a passion for shaping the future put the power of the computer in everyone's hands.” Cadillac recently featured a promotion highlighting famous garages in history, which included the simple, detached unit owned by Uncle Robert. Robert’s ranch house is still there on Kingswell, but the garage has been relocated to the Garden Grove (California) Historical Society, where Disney fans can experience it first-hand.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An Incredibly talented team

I had the recent pleasure of attending the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Pixar in Concert at our nearby outdoor amphitheater, Wolf Trap. It was a beautiful evening for a engaging performance. Highlights from each Pixar film were presented on a large screen while the orchestra majestically performed highlights from each film’s score. The music of Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Michael Giacchino and Patrick Doyle filled the summer night.

While enjoying scenes from every Pixar treasure, I realized again that Lasseter and company create many layers of hidden secrets. Sure, A113 and the Pizza Planet truck quickly come to mind. And Pixar’s clever habit of cross-pollinating its films with references to future releases is worth mentioning - think of Jessie The Cowgirl’s cameo in Boo’s bedroom in Monsters, Inc. However, it’s the more esoteric entries that I find fascinating. In that vein, let’s examine a few that can be found in The Incredibles.

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have signs on windows, crates or posters that typically carry a deeper meaning or message. Similarly, two very brief scenes at the end of the film showcase members of the Pixar team that helped bring Bob Parr and his family to life.

As the Omnidroid is wreaking havoc on Metroville, the Incredibles and Frozone band together to fight back. In one tense sequence, Helen Parr rescues Violet and Dash from the crushing orb. In the background, a building is emblazoned with the name IMAGIRE CO.

This is a quick tribute to Bryn Imagire, an art director for Pixar. The film’s credits list her as art director: shading. Extra credit goes all around for having a very Pixar-esque name. Her additional Pixar credits include UP, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story Two.

In another brief scene, Violet and Dash are seen in front of another Metroville building that bears the name LOZANO RECORDS. 

(images courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Not only is this a peak into a bygone era when music came in the form of vinyl platters, but it’s a quick tribute to Pixar Art Director Albert Lozano. In addition to The Incredibles, Lozano has worked on Monsters University, UP, Cars and Finding Nemo.

There are probably other hidden tributes to Pixar’s vast team of artisans in The Incredibles, but these are two that I caught on a recent viewing.

Stay tuned to Hidden Disney - I’ll be featuring other Pixar personalities who have tributes on screen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fencing In The Imagination

One sign of a Disney park attraction (never a ride) is the overwhelming attention to detail. You won’t find simple lines for attractions. Instead, you have elaborate queues. The interior queue for the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is stacked with details worthy of your attention as you meander closer to the limo. The excitement within the G-Force recording studio makes the time spent outside in the bland (but covered) queue worth the wait. The studio also serves as a museum of sorts, featuring gold records, vintage guitars, poster and album artwork among the artifacts. The pre-show features a mockup of a recording studio with the band members from Aerosmith winding down their session. Their manager (who is channeling her best Bobbi Flekman) whisks them away to a performance for which they’re late. Steven Tyler, ever so courteous, arranges for a stretch — no, make that a super-stretch — limo, parked out back in the alley, to take us to the show.

This is where it gets fun. The indoor attraction has the luxury of utilizing a small and dimly lit space to reconstruct a faux alley, complete with a parking garage next to it, cheap apartments and a gritty, utilitarian fence separating the guests from the road. There are bills plastered along the wall advertising the Ska Review, about as diametrically opposed to Aerosmith as you can get, musically. 

Signs at Disney parks always have some meaning, if only to help elaborate on a theme, project a pun or offer a hidden layer of Disney goodness. Several signs here are worth noting. Two fall into the bad pun department: First up is an overhead sign by the parking garage entrance that reads Lock 'n Roll Parking Systems. A smaller sign on the wall is an advertisement for Sam Andreas & Son, Earthquake Busters, specializing in structural retrofitting, an obvious nod to the earthquake-prone antics of Los Angeles.

The best sign, albeit small and nondescript, is for the Buena Vista Fence Company and is attached to the chain-link fence: 

The phone number isn’t for a fence company, but instead for a different organization that’s near and dear to our hearts. It’s the number to the front desk of 1401 Flower Street in Glendale, California, home to Walt Disney Imagineering (minus the local area code, of course).

Walt created what was then known as WED Enterprises (for Walter Elias Disney) in 1952 as his ‘personal playground’ to develop Disneyland and its attractions. Buena Vista further adds a layer of Disney history, which references Buena Vista Street in Burbank that runs along the western edge of the Disney Studios. It’s also the name of the distribution arm that Disney established in 1953 for its films. Finally, it references Lake Buena Vista at Walt Disney World.

There you have it. A subtle tribute to Imagineering which, among other things, developed one seriously intense coaster. Keep your eye out for this sign the next time you’re there. Oh, and don’t forget Chris’ black Les Paul. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The details that are underfoot

There are no accidental props or artifacts at Walt Disney World’s theme parks. All items and signage serve to enhance or extend the overall story in a given area. Think of the elaborate scenery in the external queue and eventually inside the show building for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, for example.

The smaller the item, the better, I say. The reward is finding the minor, esoteric details that Disney designers and Imagineers have concocted. Sometimes, they’re simply underfoot, waiting to be discovered.

Utility holes, in their most basic state, exist to allow access to the necessary underlying infrastructure that any municipality needs, including theme parks. Given their, well, utilitarian nature, they are typically of the no-frills variety. Not at Walt Disney World.

Around the property, you can find the old-school “Globe D” icon embedded in the center of utility lids. My favorite moderate resort, Port Orleans French Quarter, has lids that read “City of Port Orleans,” adding depth to the overall theming of the resort.

In this regard, I was thrilled to find another small nugget on a utility hole cover at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, near the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. The cover I found had a basic grid of raised squares, to allow for traction with the multitude of footsteps that fall upon it. There in the center in a square pattern is a four letter acronym RCID and a water wave icon, combined to make a larger central square. What, exactly, is RCID? And why is it important?

RCID is shorthand for the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and its roots trace back to Walt himself. As the Walt Disney Company was determining how to make Walt’s dream of an experimental prototype community of tomorrow a reality, it knew it needed land, and lots of it. Further, it would need an autonomous agency to aid and assist with the development of the property. Disney petitioned the Florida State legislature to create an Improvement District that “could act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government. The new legislation said that landowners within the Reedy Creek Improvement District, primarily Walt Disney World, would be solely responsible for paying the cost of providing typical municipal services like power, water, roads, fire protection etc.”* The legislation was passed, and the newly minted Improvement District was named for a nearby existing waterway, Reedy Creek.

Orange County and Osceola County sheriffs have legal jurisdiction at Walt Disney World, but the environmental and municipal issues are handled by RCID. The logo on a utility hole cover is perfectly natural.

RCID also provides fire protection at Walt Disney World. It’s why the fire houses on property sport the RCFD — Reedy Creek Fire Department — logo. 

For an in-depth review of development of Disney’s Florida property, including the Reedy Creek Improvement District, turn to Chad Emerson’s fascinating and detailed book, Project Future.