Disneyland Resort recently kicked off its 100 Years of Wonder celebration (aka Disney100) in honor of the 100th anniversary of the founding of The Walt Disney Company. Although fabled siblings Walter Elias and Roy Oliver did not officially establish the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio until October 16, 1923, the landmark Anaheim theme park’s jubilee got started early and is set to continue throughout the end of the year, with commemorative parades, fireworks, food offerings, merchandise and décor exhibited throughout the vast 500-acre grounds. As former CEO Bob Chapek espoused at last year’s D23 Expo, “Ten decades of creativity, innovation, and determination created The Walt Disney Company you know today — the most enduring and beloved name in entertainment.”
That enduring and beloved name actually originated from quite humble beginnings. Following a failed attempt at launching an animation career in Kansas City, Mo. via the short-lived Laugh-O-Gram Studio, 21-year-old Walt headed to Los Angeles in the summer of 1923 to join his older brother Roy, who was being treated for tuberculosis in Westwood. Tucked in the young entrepreneur’s suitcase was an unfinished live-action/animated short he was in the process of creating titled “Alice’s Wonderland,” inspired by the iconic Lewis Carroll book series.
Upon arriving in the City of Angels, Walt headed to the Los Feliz home of his uncle Robert and aunt Charlotte at 4406 Kingswell Ave., renting a room on the premises and creating a makeshift workshop in the property’s detached one-car garage, where he fashioned an animation stand out of plywood boxes and scrap lumber. (The garage, which is considered by some fans to be Disney’s first official West Coast studio, has since been relocated to the Stanley Ranch Museum in Garden Grove, just a few miles south of Disneyland.)
Walt promptly got to work attempting to sell his “Alice” short. After a frustrating succession of rejections, New York-based film distributor Margaret Winkler finally bit, tapping the animator to finish the film and create five more featuring the character. Roy was immediately brought in to handle the business side of the deal and the contract was signed on October 16, 1923. And thus, Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was officially born. To house their new production company, the duo leased out the rear portion of Holly-Vermont Realty, a small brokerage office sandwiched between a handful of storefronts in a nondescript two-story building just three blocks from their uncle’s residence at 4651 Kingswell Ave. (The space is currently home to a skateboard/tattoo shop eponymously named Kingswell). The 2719 Hyperion website details, “The initial rent for the location was $10/month. Walt and Roy and newly hired ink and paint girl Kathleen Dollard comprised the entire staff of the operation.”
The following January, Walt welcomed his future wife, artist/secretary Lillian Bounds, into the fold. It didn’t take long for a romance to blossom, with the couple’s first kiss taking place at the Kingswell building. The couple’s daughter Diane Disney Miller later recounted, “It was very sweet . . . she was taking dictation from him, and he leaned across the desk and kissed her. I find that very romantic.”
By February 1924, the company’s staff had grown to seven. As such, larger offices were needed, so Walt and his team moved one storefront over to 4649 Kingswell, leasing the entire space for $35 a month. It is that spot that is recognized by most as Disney’s first Hollywood studio, though the particular unit that the brothers occupied seems to be a source of confusion.
The vast majority of online sources identify the Kingswell building’s corner space, numbered 4647, which is currently inhabited by a print shop named Extra Copy, as the former studio site, asserting that the complex’s numbering was changed at some point following the brothers’ departure. But in poring through old construction permits, it does not appear that information is accurate. Dave Smith, chief archivist and famed founder of the Walt Disney Archives, even said as much in a 1995 letter to Extra Copy’s then-owner Ben Chaaban, writing, “The Disney Studio was in fact located at 4649 Kingswell. In 1923, there were three stores in a row, beginning at the alley. First 4647, then the Disney location, then 4651, the Holly-Vermont Realty office.”
A 1922 building permit backs up that assertion, though it shows there actually being four storefronts at the time numbered 4647, 4649, 4651 and 4653, with 4647 abutting the alley running between Kingswell and Melbourne Aves. A further perusal of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety website shows that the 4651 and 4649 spaces seem to have been combined in 1988, with their front façades altered. As part of the consolidation, the 4649 address was dropped, with the mingled units instead utilizing 4651. Otherwise, the building’s numbering remains the same as it was during the Disneys’ tenure.
Historic photographs also affirm that the brothers’ studio was not situated on a corner, but in between two storefronts, with several images showing Walt, Roy and their employees posing in front of a middle unit with Holly-Vermont Realty clearly visible to the west and a space with a striped awning evident to the east. As such, it is apparent that the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was located next door to Extra Copy in the spot denoted with a red square above. That storefront is now part of the Kingswell skate shop.
Walt Disney Studio Hyperion, Hollywood Silver Lake District, worked in 1925-1941
The Disneys continued to operate out of the space for the next two years, producing over two dozen short films on the premises. By 1925, the brothers had experienced such success they were able to purchase a vacant lot just one and a half miles away at 2719 Hyperion Ave. and build a proper studio of their own. They departed the Kingswell site and moved into the new facility (pictured above) in January 1926, renaming the company Walt Disney Studios in the process. Just two years later, “Steamboat Willie” was released, introducing Mickey Mouse to the world. The rest is very well-documented history.
Sadly, the Hyperion property, which the brothers occupied through 1940 before relocating to the much larger Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, was demolished in 1966. A Gelson’s grocery store now stands in its place, with nothing besides a small historical marker left behind to signify its colossal impact on the history of cinema.
The current occupants of the Kingswell building are far better stewards of Walt’s past, with the tattoo shop offering “Christ Air Mickey” inkings depicting “the character executing a skateboarding maneuver called the ‘Christ Air,’” as reported by the Los Angeles Times, and Extra Copy exhibiting all manner of Disneyana amongst its four walls. While the brothers never actually occupied the latter, signage denoting the location as Disney’s first studio is proudly displayed, though the dates listed are incorrect, as Dave Smith pointed out to the Times back in 2001.
For whatever reason, the House of Mouse has not been keen on acknowledging the Kingswell building’s place in the company’s history. When Chaaban wrote to Smith in 1995 with the idea of creating some sort of themed exhibit on the premises, he was met with the response, “Our public displays will remain at Disneyland, where they can be viewed by millions of people each year. We have not tried to promote any of the many Disney historic sites around Los Angeles.”
But Linda Dishman, president of the L.A. Conservancy, thinks the structure is worthy of appreciation, telling the paper, “These are the not obvious landmarks, but it doesn’t mean they are any less important. For the preservation community, it is important to make sure all stories get told. Certainly, the creation of a company like Disney is very much an L.A. story.”
Indeed, though much of the building has changed, with the original façade and 4649 address number lost to the ages, that famous Disney magic certainly seems to live on at the site, a little bit of pixie dusting left behind for fans everywhere to appreciate.