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Visiting the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA

24 March 2010 Stories and Appreciations 40,254 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

I had the chili. The commissary at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank still serves the chili that Walt Disney used to wolf down between trips to the screening room, the Imagineering department and the animators rooms. According to Bob Thomas’ winning 1976 biography of Walt Disney (still the best Disney biography, in my opinion — far better than Neil Gabler’s overrated 2007 book), Walt used to travel with cans of Hormel and Dennison’s in his suitcase, and he’d mix them.

That’s what the studio commissary’s chili tasted like. It was very salty, no-nonsense stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were, in fact, mixing the ingredients of industrial-sized cans of Dennison’s and Hormel in the commissary kitchen.

The chili was just a small highlight of my walking tour of the studio last year, given by a friend of mine who is now owed a huge, huge favor. We poked around the ABC building, the interior of which should look familiar to anyone who watched “Alias.” We passed by the oft-photographed signpost at the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive. (I took that above photo of the signpost, along with photos of nearly everything else.)

We peeked inside the Disney Archives, which is a more quiet and dignified room than you would expect find at a studio that built its name on the shoulders of a four-foot-tall cartoon mouse. I peered through glass at the “Feed the Birds” snow globe from “Mary Poppins,” eyeballed the personal film cameras used by Walt on his South American jaunt, admired the artistry of the Wardrobe from Disney’s “Chronicles of Narnia” adaptation (I like the cabinet more than the film, truth be told), studied shelves full of out-of-print books and decades-old merchandise, and stood this close to the Multiplane Camera that shot “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” Yeah, that Multiplane Camera.

(The archives also contained the bedpost knob and “Isle of Nabumbu” comic from “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” the magic rings from the many permutations of “The Shaggy Dog,” the U-shaped laser guns from “The Black Hole” and a bunch of reference volumes that I would have killed to study. These things weren’t quite as important to me as the other items, but I wanted to mention them at least parenthetically. So I have.)

The studio grounds are a bit odd; they’re not at all like what I’ve seen in other modern film production facilities. To my mind, Hollywood studios are indiscernible from self-storage facilities; they are essentially great plots of warehouses, from which pour out electric carts and key grips and Kelsey Grammer. Disney’s lot has more in common with a modern-day software campus or small college — its pathways are shaded by tall trees and buffeted by green grass, and even the relatively new administrative buildings, created by Michael Graves, match the pedestrian scale of the studio buildings erected in 1939. (The monolithic, Venturi/Brown-designed Frank G. Wells Building is the lone exception to this rule. My friend tells me that it’s the most disliked building on the lot.)

The Studio 11

There are two other things I can’t imagine on any other modern studio lot. One is a kind of “wall of fame,” Disney Legends Plaza, filled with iron-cast hand prints of Disney’s legendary creative stars — its animators, writers, producers, executives, actors and Imagineers. It’s strange, but you feel closer to these legends — some living, many not — once you’ve had a look at their handprints; after all, their hands were the main tools they used to make all of Disney’s works. (Angela Lansbury’s strong handprints indicate that she could probably snap your neck like a twig.) And there are a few beautifully preserved 1920s bungalows from the Disney’s original studio location on Hyperion Avenue. Disney doesn’t offer tours of its lot, which has allowed its buildings to exist more or less in a pristine state, unmolested by tourists or a merchandising division that evicts creative personnel in favor of more boutique space.

While I was walking the lot I felt like humorist Robert Benchley in Disney’s 1940 film “The Reluctant Dragon,” bungling from one bungalow to the next. If you haven’t seen the film, rent it; it’s a terrific behind-the-scenes looks at Walt Disney’s studio at the height of its creative powers – while it was making such classics as “Bambi” and “Fantasia.” Benchley spends the entire film trying to find Walt Disney on the lot, and in the process, he meets the animators, sound engineers, storyboarders and other creative personnel who made Disney’s classic films.

The film’s big joke, one that wouldn’t be obvious to anyone who hasn’t visited the Walt Disney Studios in person, is that the screening room that Benchley was trying to find in “The Reluctant Dragon” is mere feet from the main gate, and clearly marked by a sign. He must have been distracted by the scent of chili on the air.

Geoff Carter

See photos of the Disney Burbank Studios here.


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