Disney's Hollywood Sports Garden - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney was so prolific that he had many unrealized dreams. One of them was a live entertainment venue to be built using the profits from his successful animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Even though he was working simultaneously on feature projects like Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia, producing a full slate of theatrical animated shorts and more, he still somehow found time to devote a lot of time to a project called the Hollywood Sports Garden.

It would have been both an entertainment and sports venue. It was called the Hollywood Sports Garden to reference the famous east coast Madison Square Garden venue and to capitalize on the glamour of the word "Hollywood" rather than "Los Angeles".

In addition, it was the intention for the area to actually look like a literal garden. The 1939 elaborate sales brochure for the project stated that the "facade, flanked by majestic pillars, will contribute to the quiet and picturesque dignity of the development. Curved driveways are planned to enhance the beauty of the entrances…Illuminated fountains, flowers, and shrubs will contribute to the general 'garden' effect. Our aim is to have an ensemble which will be a credit to our community."

In December 1938, Pacific Electric Magazine published a picture and short announcement of the proposed building to be built near the corner of Fairfax Ave and Third Street. That is the same corner the Farmer's Market and The Grove now occupy. At the time it was where the Gilmore baseball stadium was located.

Thanks to the exhaustive research work of historian Todd James Pierce, some of which I used as reference for this article, one of Walt's first forgotten attempts at an entertainment venue that would set the foundation for Walt's later Denver Celebrity Sports Center in 1961 has been uncovered and documented.

The seven-acre Celebrity Sports Center was a family-oriented entertainment business in metropolitan Denver.

What was the Denver Celebrity Sports Center? It was a Walt venue that actually got built and operated for many years yet many Disney fans are completely unaware of its existence.

It had many similarities with the proposed Hollywood Sports Garden, so I think it is valuable to spend some time discussing it because it gives some insight into what the Hollywood Sports Garden might have been.

The seven-acre Celebrity Sports Center was a family-oriented entertainment business in metropolitan Denver, Colorado that operated beginning in 1960 with huge investments from Walt Disney, his brother Roy and some celebrities like Jack Benny and Bing Crosby who had also been involved as investors in the Hollywood Sports Garden.

Denver had been chosen because it had one of the fastest growing populations in the United States and lack of nearby indoor competition during foul weather. The center was actually located on Colorado Boulevard in the city of Glendale within Denver.

According to Walt Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller, it was her father's lawyer, Lloyd Wright, Sr., who first approached him with the idea for the bowling alley project. Walt was intrigued and decided to invest in the new venture.

In addition to attracting other famous celebrity investors to the project, Walt convinced his daughter Diane and her husband, Ron, Walt's brother Roy O., and his nephew Roy E. and his wife all to put money into the Celebrity. They signed a 99-year lease on the property in May 1959 and construction began less than six months later.

The project, initially begun as "Celebrity Lanes" as a huge bowling alley to take advantage of the nationwide obsession with bowling at the time, was meant to be a cross between a recreation center and an indoor amusement park to provide families, and in particular children and teens, with amusements year-round. The center was designed by the architectural firm of Powers, Daly, DeRoss of Long Beach, California.

Both Walt and Roy attended the groundbreaking ceremonies on December 7, 1959, along with other celebrities. The location featured an outdoor marquee reminiscent of the one at Disneyland. Walt told the Denver Post newspaper that he, "hailed the project as a 'new dimension to family participation in sports and recreation' but acknowledged that the business needed to 'make a little money' in order to succeed."

Jack Benny joked to reporters that, given the fortune he knew Walt Disney had made from a mouse that he himself was "not going to miss an opportunity like this to turn a buck."

Among other things the venue featured an Olympic-sized nine lane pool (164 feet by 75 feet with 500,000 gallons of filtered water and a floating snack patio along with spectator stands), 80 lanes of bowling (with over $1.25 million of bowling equipment and seating for at least 2,000 people at the major bowling tournaments the owners expected), a shooting gallery, Krazy (bumper) Kars, up to 300 arcade games, the longest known to exist slot-car tracks located in the basement underneath the arcade, midway-style games (like Skee-Ball), and eight tables for billiards.

In addition, it included several restaurants (like a themed English Pub and the Celebrity Room and Lounge, which was a dark-paneled dining room plating up high-end meals), a cocktail lounge, a barber shop and beauty salon as well as "parking for 700 automobiles."

An accompanying $1.25 million Aqua Bowl Motel across Colorado Boulevard from the Celebrity was proposed but never built. Plans were also made for installing all the equipment necessary for coast-to-coast television broadcasts of sporting events at the Celebrity.

Initially it cost over $3 million but almost immediately Walt kept making additions so the cost rose to over $6 million by 1961 or roughly over $50 million today.

Walt and Roy Disney bought out their colleagues' shares like television personality Art Linkletter who had become disappointed in the management and the lack of immediate success by September 1962, and continued to experiment with the formula for the business. One of the company's first moves was to rename it "Celebrity Sports Center," a reflection of the "expanded facilities" the restaurants and pool provided.

Walt referred to it as "An open-air playground in keeping with the demands of Denver's cosmopolitan and thoroughly discriminating population."

Eventually, the complex was used as a training ground for Disney executives who were going to be assigned later to Walt Disney World for them to learn operations, food and beverage, guest service and other functions that would be necessary. The only experience they did not gain at Celebrity was in hotel management.

A number of notable Disney executives had their first managerial experience at Celebrity, including Bob Allen, who was credited with making Celebrity a financial success, as well as David Jaskiewicz, Ralph Kent and others.

Because of Walt's involvement and playfulness, Disney executive Bill Sullivan told me that since the pool was so huge, occasionally a costumed Goofy would ride on his water skis around behind a motorboat. This was something that would be duplicated on the Seven Seas Lagoon at Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971.

Management offered Red Cross training in the pool and swimming lessons for children of all ages. Upon graduation from each level of a swimming class the kids got a colorful ribbon with a Disney character on it.

The Disney connection was clearly evident at Celebrity, as the occasional visits by costumed characters Mickey Mouse or Goofy and the pictures of Disney characters filling the walls.

Employees at Celebrity were expected to follow the same rules as Disneyland cast members. Celebrity staff watched a training film starring Walt Disney, in which he explained his expectations. Management continued to use this film even after his death, for as long as the Walt Disney Company owned Celebrity

Walt himself was a frequent visitor whether for anniversary celebrations (like for the second anniversary of the center and to dedicate the new Stouffer's Restaurant along with Vernon Stouffer, Hayley Mills, Annette Funicello, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto), dedications, or simple inspection tours. A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News wrote that "although Celebrity Center is a small part of the Disney enterprises it received a large share of his attention."

When he arrived on one of his visits, Walt usually stopped first to take a look at the books to make sure things were going well financially. Then, he would walk through the "complex of bowling alleys, recreation rooms, restaurants asking questions about everything." On these visits, afterwards, he found time for some occasional bowling.

As Disney executive Allen said in 1966, "practically everything at the center . . . bears the mark of Disney's personal touch."

The Celebrity Sports Center was meant to be an initial foray into a chain of nationwide similar indoor recreation centers that could operate year-round despite the outside weather. It was a concept Walt would later revisit with his St. Louis Riverfront Square proposal in 1964.

While it was not as wildly successful as hoped, it was still profitable enough for the Walt Disney Company to continue operating it even after Walt's death in 1966. However, in 1971, the company shifted focus to Walt Disney World and expanding the Florida project.

In 1979 the Walt Disney Company sold the Celebrity Sports Center to bankers Neil Griffin of Texas and Bob Leavitt of Denver, and Denver real estate investors Russell and Dirck Writer. They felt that better management and some structural and attraction improvements would only make the location more profitable. All Disney references were removed. Three years later they changed the name to Celebrity Fun Center.

They continued to make additions including three massive water slides and the Village Inn Pancake House restaurant but in June 1994, despite bringing in an average of a million visitors each year, the business' profitability had dropped and it was closed. It was completely demolished in 1995.

Why Walt got involved with this project is probably because of his experience on the Hollywood Sports Garden that was also intended to be a sports and entertainment center but with a little more "elitish" approach.

By early November of 1938, Walt Disney and his friend, the popular singer Bing Crosby, met in Los Angeles with famous sports promoter Zack Farmer. Farmer had conceived, built and for ten years managed the Los Angeles Coliseum and was responsible for staging the 1932 Olympics that was a huge financial success for the City of Los Angeles.

He was also the manager of the San Diego Exposition and along with other civic projects was well known to the sports community especially Pacific Coast College athletics.

Farmer wanted to build a massive sports and entertainment center in Hollywood. He promoted it as "the Madison Square Garden of the West" and it would have been open to the public but there would also be a section that would be a private club for wealthy or celebrity members that had some special privileges.

As the sales brochure described:

"Membership in the Hollywood Sports Club will be limited to a selected group of professional, business and social leaders who will be offered the opportunity to become life members of the Club and to enjoy, without dues or assessments, the unique privileges attached thereto.

"Briefly the rights and privileges of each life membership are: exclusive use of luxurious club rooms, finest sports equipment, dining rooms and bar which will occupy two floors; preferred 'Gold Circle' reservation privileges at any event held in the Arena; profit-sharing plan whereby part of the net profits accruing from operation will revert annually to life members; no dues, no assessment, no liability; special privileges to women; protected privacy in which to enjoy your favorite games, to rest, or to entertain your friends.

"The Club boasts three separate dining rooms where a famous chef will create special dishes. Service will be perfect and unobtrusive. Private dining rooms for individual entertaining are sure to prove popular."

However, while Farmer had this idea, he needed some investment partners to make this dream a reality and he had spent the previous months pitching the idea to some potential prospects.

At the time, Walt had a great deal of money because of the overwhelming success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the future looked like it would be filled with similar or greater accomplishments. The idea that the United States might get involved in a World War cutting off sources of income was not even considered as something that might actually happen. Walt was intrigued by the idea of this sports and entertainment center and possibilities that Farmer hadn't presented like using the venue as a showcase for traveling circuses among other ideas.

He also felt the private club section might serve the same function as the previous Riviera Polo Club that offered social opportunities for wealthy celebrities when he had played the sport. He missed that social interaction with his peers in an exclusive environment.

Disney Studio lawyer Gunther Lessing was brought in to examine the situation and worked with Walt, Farmer and Crosby to work out the details for creating a company to build the Hollywood Sports Garden as it was dubbed. Walt would serve as the president of the company with Crosby as the chairman of the board.

They would raise money by pre-selling private memberships to the inner "Gold Club", memberships offered primarily to prominent men at various Hollywood studios. In Walt's own words, he wanted the club to be filled with "sports-loving motion picture people," more or less matching the same social network framework that he had experienced at the Riviera Polo Club.

By early December, Walt, Crosby and Farmer met with Allan Hancock, a wealthy oilman and landowner, to inquire about a lease on 34 acres at the edge of Hancock Park.

The land was a few blocks from the Pan Pacific Auditorium, a venue capable of seating an indoor audience of 6,000 and also a few blocks from Gilmore Stadium, an outdoor stadium that could seat 18,000. This entire area was sometimes referred to as the "Gilmore Island" section of Los Angeles and there were plans to build a new baseball stadium there as well.

If it had been built, the Hollywood Sports Garden would have been the centerpiece and the entire district might have served as an ideal location for a second Los Angeles Olympics, a possibility that Walt alluded to when he was promoting the project.

Work started on December 5. Crosby's brother Everett was made the project manager and the Disney Studio came up with some concept art. Several press meetings were held to announce the project and try to build recognition and support.

The Hollywood Sports Garden would cost a $1.5 million to build and at one press event it was touted as hosting "virtually every type of sport—from ice hockey to jai lai," as well as "rodeos, circuses, expositions, and conventions."

One reporter wrote: "What has [Walt] fascinated, though, is the very exclusive Gold Circle, which will occupy two floors. Advance drawings of the dream look like a mammoth nightclub, M-G-M style, for a super-colossal picture. Besides dining and dancing, members of the private club will have access to sun decks, steam baths, and private living quarters."

The club would include a "completely equipped" gymnasium for the exercise needs of its members much like the Penthouse Club that Walt would build on an upper floor of his later Burbank Disney Studio for his top staff.

The Ogden Standard-Examiner newspaper called the complex a "dream arena" with maximum seating of 41,000 though actual plans showed that maximum seating would be only 30,000. The Sandusky Star-Journal newspaper stated that the Garden would open with "a champion boxing match already promised by Mike Jacobs, New York promoter."

The LA Times proclaimed it the "world's largest roofed stadium…which surpasses by many thousands the [seating] accommodations at Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium." Several reporters commented on the fact that Walt seemed particularly fascinated by the moveable "elastic walls" that would section off the open floor into a series of smaller rooms or intimate theaters.

Even though no lease had been signed (just a handshake deal) and no formal contracts to establish this new organization, Everett told the press that "construction on the project will begin within 90 days and it is expected that the edifice will be completed by late next summer."

In December 1938, Walt Disney explained, "I went into it as a form of diversion." But it was clear that for Walt it was more than just a diversion but an attempt to expand his entertainment empire and he was actively and aggressively involved in fund raising.

Bing Crosby, on the other hand, just lent his name and credibility to the project and didn't get involved with anything else when it came to planning. He became one of the richest men in Hollywood with his investments in real estate, mines, oil wells, cattle ranches, race horses, music publishing, baseball teams, businesses (like Minute Maid Orange Juice) and television. For him, it was just another good investment, not the vision that Walt had.

The architectural office of Walker and Eisen prepared "various drawings showing different views of the proposed structure," which then could be used to solicit investment. These same drawings were also submitted to college and professional sports organizations to establish future partnerships and show them the possibilities for staging events.

Richard Bailey was hired as secretary and treasurer and completed applications so the proposed corporation could sell stock and memberships in the private club. He also prepared advertisements, created an investors brochure, organized board meetings, and worked to finalize the lease with Hancock.

An oilman from Huntington Beach, M.M. McCallen served as vice president and made connections between the project and local investors outside of the studio system. By mid-January, fourteen men, primary film celebrities like Jack Benny and Gary Cooper were established as directors for the private club. Actor George Raft took the position of a vice president.

Farmer was officially hired as consultant on the project. With experts, he checked the "condition of the soil," reviewed zoning regulations, and examined access to the site by highway and railroad. To save money, architects believed they could sink the arena 38 feet below street level, thereby allowing the earth itself to partially support the lower portion of the building.

Unfortunately, Farmer did not feel the need to reach out to the local residents and businesses to build support for the project. He also failed to work with the owners of the Pan Pacific Theater and the Gilmore Stadium in the belief they would just naturally go along with the plans. This lack of outreach would later spell disaster for the project.

Next Time in Part Two: How this project continued to expand and the failure to engage the residents and local businesses became an unexpected issue. Extensive quotations from the sales brochure and advertising to try to show what the final project would have looked like if it had been built.