The Story of Walt's Garage

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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This year there was a really delightful Cadillac CTS Sedan television commercial titled “Garages.” Narrated by Neal McDonough, it made the point that many business empires, including Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Mattel, the Wright Brothers…and, even Disney, all started in a garage.

In Walt Disney’s case that garage belonged to his Uncle Robert, who charged him an extra $1 a week to use the interior to set up an animation camera and try to find work in animation.

Robert Disney was already charging his nephew $5 a week for rent. That fee was often paid by charity loans never repaid from Walt’s older brother, Roy O. Disney.

Walt built his own animation stand, which is now housed in an unassuming corner of the California History Hall at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Walt himself donated the stand to the museum in 1938 and claimed he had used it to film Steamboat Willie after he had upgraded it.

I made sure to make another visit there before I relocated to Florida so that the image of it would remain clear in my mind.

The garage is long gone from its original location at 4406 Kingswell Avenue. Thanks to Arthur C. “Buddy” Adler and his organizing a group called “The Friends of Walt Disney” the original garage was saved and donated to Heritage Park in Garden Grove, California, where Disney fans can visit it today.

The television commercial crew did a very good job of recreating the location for its few seconds on camera. They found a similar house in the same Los Feliz neighborhood where Robert Disney lived. In the commercial, the house is at 2223 Nella Vista Avenue about a mile north from the actual home.

The white garage is a pretty good duplicate except for the fact that the doors are on the right side whereas the real structure had doors on the left hand side. Also, the garage sat on the left side of the house, not the right.


Uncle Robert Disney's Garage as it looked when Walt used it as his first studio. Copyright Disney.

I know it is heresy to write this but there are many interesting things off of Disney theme park property that are worth visiting, even just once.

Of course, Disney fans should go visit Walt’s barn at Griffith Park.

When the home of Walt and Lillian Disney was sold after her death to help pay huge estate taxes, the new owners had plans to preserve the house, but discovered that due to structural issues and asbestos, the structure had to be demolished and a new home built in its place. That famous home no longer exists when people make the long drive up Carolwood Drive to see the location.

Fortunately, Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller recognized the importance of the barn in the backyard where Walt operated his famous miniature Carolwood Pacific railroad and began the process of saving it before escrow closed. Diane contacted Michael and Sharon Broggie, founders of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, who began planning what to do with the barn.

It opened in Griffith Park (as a loan to the people of Los Angeles so it still officially belongs to the Disney family) on July 19, 1999.

However, there is another structure sometimes referred to as Walt’s first studio (Uncle Robert’s garage) that is in Garden Grove.

I recently got to assist on the book Walt Disney’s Garage of Dreams by Arthur C. “Buddy” Adler.

I’ve known Adler since 1995 and he was trying to write his version of saving Walt’s garage titled The Garage Nobody Wanted for nearly 30 years.

He was just too emotionally invested in the topic, so I was brought in to provide a new perspective, research assistance, information verification and similar responsibilities.

I wrote about Adler saving the garage previously. Adler loved that article and included a copy of it with the official paperwork regarding the garage that he gave to interested people, the Anaheim public library and the Disney Archives.

Unfortunately, Adler died in late September of a heart attack at the age of 81, just as we were finishing up the final manuscript. He did see the cover, which is very cute, and he did take comfort in the fact that his story would finally be told.

During the process of working on the book, I came across interesting new information about the garage, some of which appears in the history section about the garage.

Officially, the Disney Company does not consider it Walt’s first studio. While he did do some animation in the garage, according to Disney history, the Disney Studios did not start until October 16, 1923 when the contract to produce the Alice Comedies for M.J. Winkler was signed by Walt and Roy.

At that time, the brothers were already working out of the back of a real estate company that was just down the street from Uncle Robert’s house.

Here is a letter from former Disney Archivist Dave Smith to Adler dated March 22, 1982:

Dear Art:

Walt Disney came to Hollywood in July 1923, to try and find a job in the movie industry. When he had no luck, he decided to try cartoons again. He was rooming with his uncle, Robert Disney, at 4406 Kingswell Ave. at the time.

From an interview:

Walt: When things began to look hopeless, I then got my cartoon thing out again. And I built myself a cartoon stand out of plywood boxes and any lumber I could pick up somewhere….
Interviewer: Were you living with your uncle then?
Walt: Yes. And I built it right down there in the garage. He let me use his garage.

While his Alice’s Wonderland “pilot” film was making the rounds of distributors in the East, Walt tried to interest Alex Pantages (who owned several theaters) in a weekly joke reel similar to what he had done for the Newman Theater in Kansas City. He did some preliminary work on a reel, probably in the garage, but word came on the purchase of a series of Alice Comedies, so the Pantages reel was never finished.

Walt moved down the street on October 8, 1923, to 4651 Kingswell, and there in the back of a real estate office set up the first Disney Studio. A contract was signed for the Alice Comedies on October 16, 1923, the official date of the beginning of the Disney Studio.

Walt only lived with his uncle for a few months.

The garage is the one pictured in Christopher Finch’s The Art of Walt Disney (Abrams, 1973), page 36, and its brief significance is detailed in the text.

Sincerely yours,

David R. Smith
Archivist

Despite the official Disney policy, over the decades the Disney Company has identified the garage as the first studio, which is why the icon was used in the television commercial.

On page 17 of the Disneyland Employee booklet called “Your Role in the Disneyland Show” from the 1980s is this statement: “Walt Disney’s new film company had an inauspicious beginning in the corner of an uncle’s not-so-new garage in 1923 (picture far left).”

How did Walt find himself in that tiny garage?

After the bankruptcy of Walt’s Laugh-O-gram animation studio in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt left the city in late July 1923 on the Santa Fe California Limited. He arrived in Los Angeles in early August 1923. He was 21 and had a pasteboard (similar to cardboard) suitcase.


Book cover of Walt Disney's Garage of Dreams that tells the story of the garage and how it was saved. Copyright Theme Park Press.

In an interview later in life, Walt said that in the suitcase was everything he owned. “A two-year-old suit of clothes, a sweater, an extra shirt, a lot of drawing materials” and a reel of the cartoon short Alice’s Wonderland to use as a sample to get some work. He had $40 in his pocket, all the money he had left after purchasing a first class train ticket.

Alice’s Wonderland was a cartoon short with a young live-action girl portrayed by 6-year old Virginia Davis interacting with cartoon animals in a cartoon background.

Walt moved in with his uncle, Robert Samuel Disney. Robert had moved to California after his retirement a few years earlier. Robert was 62 years old and was born in 1861. He was Elias Disney’s younger brother by two and a half years.

Walt’s father, Elias, never seemed to make much of a success at any endeavor he did, from managing a Central Florida hotel to farming in Marceline, Missouri to investing in a jelly factory.

Robert became very successful dabbling in real estate among other investments.

He had owned several-hundred acres of farmland a mile from Marceline, Missouri, which is one of the reasons his older brother Elias decided to move there with his young sons. The locals didn’t care much for Robert who, whenever he showed up to check on his land, behaved in a condescending and authoritative manner, even to his older brother.

He was a physically stout and intimidating man who enjoyed smoking cigars. He was even known to keep a lit one in his mouth when his Vandyke beard was being trimmed.

He was living with his second wife Charlotte, who he had married in 1921 and who has been described as very strict. She was 32 years his junior and five months pregnant with their son, Robert Samuel Disney Jr. She was definitely not as fond or supportive of Walt as had been Robert’s first wife, Margaret, who actively encouraged him to draw by supplying him with material like paper and colored pencils.

The Disneys lived in a comfortable little house at 4406 Kingswell Avenue in the Los Feliz section that was roughly two and a half miles from the heart of Hollywood. On the left side of the house was a small wooden garage.

Robert, ever the businessman, charged his nephew $5 a week rent. Often that rent was paid by Walt’s older brother, Roy O. Disney, who was recuperating from tuberculosis at a veteran’s hospital in nearby Sawtelle and receiving a government pension.

Walt was fed up with animation, feeling that audiences had grown tired of the trick of cartoon figures moving. All the animation studios were in New York. Walt came to California not only to be with his brother, but to try to get a fresh start and get into live action films as a director.

Instead of looking for a regular job each day, Walt bluffed his way onto movie studio lots like Universal, Paramount, MGM and Vitagraph, watching movies being filmed all day. He hoped he could somehow find a job, any job, working at a motion picture studio.

He spent all of August and some of September doing this while increasingly frustrating his Uncle Robert and his brother Roy who felt that there were plenty of non-movie companies that would hire Walt and provide him with a steady income. They both continually nagged at him to find a job anywhere.

Walt followed up with Margaret Winkler in New York, who was distributing Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell and Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat cartoon series for theaters. He had contacted her earlier and hoped she would be interested in taking on his Alice series.

Winkler was 28 and had formed her distribution company in February 1922. She identified herself as “M.J. Winkler” to disguise the fact that she was a woman. In early September, Walt made arrangements for her to view Alice’s Wonderland after she expressed some interest.

Finally admitting that he wasn’t able to break into the motion picture business in any capacity, Walt once again turned to cartooning.

Walt bought an old used camera, that was not in the best of shape, for $200 from a local Los Angeles camera shop. Roy had given Walt $10 to make up some business cards and letterhead paper proclaiming “Walt Disney, Cartoonist” and using Uncle Robert’s address.

He asked Uncle Robert if he could set up his studio in the garage. While Robert was glad that Walt was doing something other than dreaming, he still charged Walt an extra $1 a week to use the garage.

Walt had to tear up dry-goods boxes and find spare lumber to build a very crude set-up. The equipment would not accommodate anything more complicated than the simplest of animation.

Walt went to see Alexander Pantages who owned a theater named after him, the Pantages, in downtown Los Angeles. He pitched the idea of doing a series of short joke reels like the ones he had done for the Newman Laugh-O-grams.

In 1921, at the age of 19, Walt had done a series of short 25-second animated films that focused on topical humor, like ladies’ fashions, street repair service and police corruption. These were produced for Frank Newman who had a chain of three theaters and were part of the weekly newsreel.

He envisioned a similar series covering the topics of the day, but promoting Pantages instead. Just like in a comic strip, when the characters “talked” in this silent cartoon, a balloon filled with written words would appear over their heads. Walt made these every week for a few months.

He was working on this project, doing all the animation himself as stick figures, when he heard back from Winkler who made a firm offer for the Alice series. On October 16, 1923, Walt and Roy signed a contract with M.J. Winkler for six Alice Comedies with an option for two more. Eventually, the Disney Brothers studio produced 57 Alice Comedies.

Realizing he could not operate a full studio out of Uncle Robert’s garage, Walt walked up the street two or three blocks to a local realty office called the Holly-Vermont Realty located at 4651 Kingswell Avenue. The Holly part meant it specialized in Hollywood real estate and Vermont was the street just around the corner.

The owners charged young Walt $10 a month for a small room at the rear of the building.

In February 1924, the Disney Brothers Studio moved next door to a larger location at 4649 Kingswell and had lettering in the front window declaring it to be the Disney Brothers Studio.

That building had become a photocopy shop when the garage was saved in 1982. A sign on one wall declared it to be Walt Disney’s first studio and several Disney photos and artwork pinned up as well.

From that location, the Disney brothers would later move to the famous Hyperion Studio in 1926 and then in 1940 to Burbank.

Diane Disney Miller, along with Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin, interviewed her father about his life for her book The Story of Walt Disney (Henry Holt, 1957).

All Walt’s attempts to break into live-action movies failed, so he decided to once again try animation, even though he felt audiences’ interest in animation was waning and everything that could be done in animation had already been done.

“This period in Hollywood reinforced Father’s natural inclination to be a self-starter,” Diane wrote. “Instead of crying the blues, he thought of the idea of selling joke reels to Alexander Pantages, who owned a string of Pacific Coast movie and vaudeville theaters.

“What he hoped to sell Pantages was basically the same thing he’d sold the Newman Theaters back in Kansas City. He hung around the Pantages office with his idea until he waylaid an assistant, but when he told the assistant about his idea, that assistant said with a bored air, ‘I’m afraid Mr. Pantages wouldn’t be interested’.

“Just then a voice from another office boomed, ‘How do you know I wouldn’t?’ That voice belonged to Mr. Pantages.

“Father says that he can still remember the sick look that came over the assistant’s face. Even more important, he remembers the lesson the incident taught him. It’s this: if you can get to the top man you always have a better chance than you have with the small fry.

“When Pantages came out and introduced himself, Father explained his notion. ‘I think you have a good idea,’ Pantages told him. ‘Make up a sample and if it’s all you describe, you’ve got a deal’.

“So, Father started to run up a joke reel especially for Pantages. He used what he calls ‘my little stick figures’ and combined them with jokes. He’d draw a head, a mouth and eyes; the body that went with these sketchy anatomical details was a simple collection of single lines. ‘The best way I can describe these is to say that they looked like white matchsticks on a black background,’ he told me.

“The device was used, primarily, to save him time, but it served his purpose. His stick figures were made to act as if they were telling each other a joke. Then the joke appeared above them in type. The setting was also simplified—a moon in the sky, a tree under which his stick characters walked. The big thing was to cut details so he could do all the work himself.

“Father still had the sample Alice’s Wonderland reel he’d made in Kansas City and was trying to sell it as a series. Ironically, just about the time Father was ready to audition the sample he’d made for Pantages which would have given him enough money to live on if Pantages had okayed it and had ordered more, a New York distributor made him an offer for his cartoon, Alice’s Wonderland.”

Roy O. Disney married his wife, Edna Francis, at Uncle Robert’s house on April 7, 1925. Home movies were taken and there is a glimpse of the garage in the background.

Robert died on July 28, 1953 at the age of 91, having seen that Walt was not just a lazy, unreliable dreamer but a do-er. He missed seeing one of Walt’s greatest triumphs, Disneyland, by only two years.

For the next 60 years after Walt left it, the little garage remained virtually untouched. In fact, at the 1982 auction it was discovered that the interior had never been repainted and Uncle Robert’s lawnmower was still in a corner and still worked.

For the rest of the story of how the garage was saved and a location was found just two miles (or less than 10 minutes) from Disneyland is a fascinating tale, and it is told for the first time in great detail in the newly released book.

In addition, Adler shares his experiences working at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as getting President Ronald Reagan to sign into law an official “Walt Disney Recognition Day.” Did you ever celebrate that holiday?

While I am sad that Adler never got to see the completed book and the joy that it will bring to so many Disney fans, I am happy I got the opportunity to help him get his story finally in print and that this information will help future researchers.

The Carolwood Barn is open on the third Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Parking is free, and admission is free. Donations to the Los Angeles Live Steamers Museum are accepted. For further information, contact: 818-934-0173 or barn@carolwood.org.

The Stanley Ranch Museum (Heritage Park) is locate at 12174 Euclid Street, Garden Grove, California 92840. For more information, contact: 714-530-8871 or gardengrovehistsoc@att.net.

 

Comments

  1. By fifthrider

    You write all these great articles and books that preserve oft-forgotten Disney history. You pass along the voices of those who aren't here anymore to tell their rich stories. I'm worried about what we're going to do when there's no more Jim Korkis. Please tell me you're training a protege. If not, where do I apply?

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