Disney's Hollywood Sports Garden - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I shared how the Hollywood Sports Garden project began and developed. Today, I tell the rest of the story and why it was never built.

On February 9, 1939, Walt Disney signed the papers to incorporate the Garden that clearly stated that Walt Disney would have "no personal liability" for the Garden or the lease itself. Later that same day, Walt Disney, as president of the Garden, signed a 50-year lease on the Hancock Park property in Los Angeles. Hancock would countersign the lease on February 13 finalizing the arrangement.

Walt and sports promoter Zach Farmer planned to sell 750 lifetime private memberships in the club, which, at $1,000 apiece, would raise $750,000 that would be roughly half the money necessary to develop the land and build the sports complex. Beyond this, stock would be offered to the public at $100 a share. A temporary office was set up at 9026 Sunset Boulevard to handle correspondence, inquiries and establish a mailing list. Reportedly, Walt funded and provided staffing for this location himself.

Initial major funding for the project would be provided by a few wealthy oilmen such as Louis Lohman and Emmet Jones who had recently moved to California and were actively looking for more investment opportunities. The plan was then to secure a bank loan to complete construction.

In terms of sports, the venue could present both collegiate and professional basketball, boxing and wrestling, bicycle races, hockey, track and field events, even horse shows. In terms of entertainment, the Garden could host ice ballet, rodeo, circuses, and other traveling shows.

In terms of public recreation, the Garden could offer ice skating, roller skating, dancing and billiards. It was planned that toward the back of the property, they could erect a separate building that would house 42 bowling lanes, enough to ensure "the Southland of its first A.B.C pin classic."

The most unusual event would be indoor skiing. The sheer size of the arena with a 125 foot clearance would allow it to be used for indoor ski meets, with man-made slopes and plywood ramps just like had been done at the Philadelphia Stadium. Blowers would drop a snow storm during the meet.

The Garden could offer ice skating, roller skating, dancing and billiards; professional sports like basketball and boxing; and even rodeos and circuses.

When Walt took a trip to Philadelphia in early 1939 to coordinate with conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra about the music for his in-production animated feature Fantasia, he made a special side trip to visit the Philadelphia Arena especially since it had been so inspirational for Farmer. Apparently, Walt was very enthusiastic at what he saw and was assured that indoor skiing was a real possibility.

It was also planned for the facility to be rented out to trade shows like auto shows at a cost of a $1,000 a day. Walt was interested in having equestrian events and Farmer assured him there would be no problems and the venue would attract many prestigious horse shows.

Plans were discussed for radio rights to sporting events as well as filming the events for sale to newsreel companies. Walt envisioned that the facilities might also be rented out to motion picture companies for "location" shooting and that rentals from extensive "business frontage" would take care of the costs for the venue within a few years.

Many of these ideas, like Walt's first plans for Disneyland in 1953, were just to toss out as many things as possible to excite people, realizing that most of them would never become a reality. However, some of even the wildest suggestions might actually develop especially if there was perceived interest from the public or perhaps a sponsor.

Those already involved in the project were encouraged to hold luncheons or dinners for their friends to get them to invest. Primarily it was the personal funds of the board that was paying expenses as the project began.

A big presentation was held in the Colonial Room at the Ambassador Hotel on Wednesday, March 29. A big glossy promotional sales publication was mailed out to invited guests in early March that featured architectural drawings for the arena and a floor plan for the private club as well as illustrations of what individual areas might look like when it was built.

The brochure indicated that the structure would hold fewer people than originally announced, but would still be fitted with "18,000 permanent seats" and have a maximum capacity of 30,000 guests. The brochure suggested that, with sufficient funding, the Garden might open "for the winter sports season."

The sales brochure, one page of which was headlined "A dream becomes a reality" painted a magnificent vision:

"Fabulous land of sunshine and carefree living, Southern California long has been known as 'America's playground', sports mecca for all people. Small wonder, then, that this is the setting chosen for the largest covered stadium ever to be built…Hollywood Sports Garden, seating 30,000 and destined to be western headquarters for sports and entertainment.

"Featuring a thirty-four acre site in beautiful Hancock Park, this magnificent structure will glorify the whole world of sports. Here, under one roof will be facilities for every type of competition, show and major civic enterprise, all of which have long demanded a project of this character and magnitude.

"Hollywood Sports Garden will be the most complete and sensible sports center in the world. Larger than Madison Square Gardens or the Chicago Stadium, it also will accommodate the ultra-exclusive Hollywood Sports Club, occupying two floors of the building.

"Until today, there has been no one place where champions of the world could be properly honored, where every form of sport could be staged in championship style, where the tremendous crowds of enthusiastic fans could be accommodated in luxurious comfort.

"Today, there is Hollywood Sports Garden – dramatic fulfillment of a long-felt need, a tribute to famous sportsmen who live and play in Southern California!

"The Hollywood Sports Garden was planned only after exhaustive research and study of the major stadia in the country, and as a result it incorporates the best features of each in its facilities and construction.

"The Arena itself represents the ultimate in mechanical perfection and fore-thought: air cooling, perfect acoustics, chair having both arms and backs, unobstructed view of the stage from any point in the house.

"Championship equipment includes a fifth-of-a-mile indoor track, basketball and badminton courts, ice and field hockey rinks, bicycle track, boxing and wrestling ring, indoor football and polo fields, and floor space ample to take care of rodeos, circuses, shows, expositions, conventions or other large scale productions.

"This Arena will be the scene of from four to six championship boxing and wrestling matches each year. It will be western headquarters for many national league teams…indoor polo, basketball, bowling, ice hockey, and other popular favorites.

"Here magnificent ice ballets can be staged properly and effectively; ski jumps can be erected for special events. Rodeos, circuses and other spectacles will draw throngs to the Garden and add still more variety to its entertainment program.

"The exceptionally fine acoustics of the Arena mean that even opera and concerts can be given on specially constructed stages, enabling maximum crowds to enjoy these dramatic events. Hollywood Sports Garden will dominate the local entertainment field, with a continuous schedule covering well-varied activities.

"A spacious dining hall and ballroom sumptuously decorated in the modern manner will be the setting for the nation's leading orchestras and favorite talent for the appreciative and discriminating Club members and their guests."

Unusually, the brochure made a special appeal to women:

"The feminine contingent looks with decided favor upon the Hollywood Sports Garden and its affiliate Sports Club. A sports center where a woman may 'feel at home' is a decided novelty in a world where men are usually favored. At the Garden, women can witness all the finest and most thrilling events, and still be utterly comfortable as they join their friends in the exclusive 'Gold Circle' reserved for Club members. No jostling crowds or disturbances mar the evening's pleasure.

"Private dining rooms, the magnificent ballroom, the dainty powder room and the cleverly complete bars are sure to win the admiration of discriminating women who can appreciate the forethought and effort that will make the Hollywood Sports Garden and Club unique in the world of sport. Every detail of service, or design, and of completeness will appeal to their good taste."

On March 10, Walt sent out telegrams personally inviting many prominent film executives and celebrities to the dinner presentation at the Ambassador Hotel at the end of the month. "Will you be our guest for dinner?" the message began. "We are inviting several of our mutual friends for discussion of Hollywood Sports Garden, which should be of vital interest to everyone in the picture business. Please phone your acceptance."

Invitations were sent to roughly 200 people, including such A-list celebrities as Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Lloyd, Bob Hope, Henry Fonda, and George Burns. Four days later, Walt asked one of his sales staff to personally follow up with a few key individuals who had yet to respond.

On March 16, Walt sent a group of follow-up letters to key individuals at MGM Studios. Walt reminded each of them that, for this project, he was "anxious to have a representative group of sports loving motion picture people as members and stockholders".

The Hollywood Sports Garden sales office received calls from many people declining to attend, primarily due to conflicts with the production or promotion of films they were involved in, yet slowly the sales team began to fill the tables at the Ambassador hotel for the dinner presentation.

Walt believed that "a few weeks of concentrated effort…will put this thing over with a bang" and get all the funding necessary after this big dinner event.

The event would be filled with Hollywood celebrities and a few other wealthy men who'd made their money with oil and land so understood the possibilities. The presentation would consist of two important speakers: Zack Farmer, who was acknowledged as an expert on sports developments in Southern California, and Walt Disney, whose reputation and success in new ventures was unparalleled.

Large signs had been placed on the Hancock property announcing that the Hollywood Sports Garden was coming soon. However, no attempt had been made to gather community support under the assumption that everyone would immediately see the project as beneficial.

Even the sales brochure promised that the indoor venue would be thoroughly soundproofed so that "events staged in the Arena will never disturb the surrounding community".

However, the majority of the community was not eager for the new venue, worried that people leaving the events would surely be drunk or in high spirits and would clog the streets late at night and fill it with honking horns and shouting.

It was also imagined that the venue would attract a criminal element to the area that was common with sporting events. As the days progressed so did the increasing fears including potential damage to the surrounding property and perhaps even lowering property values because it would make the area undesirable for living.

The residents approached county officials and finally arranged a special hearing on the matter with the Regional Planning Commission. They intended to loudly protest the development and ironically the meeting would take place on the very same day as Walt's event at the Ambassador Hotel.

At Walt's presentation, he had a prepared and typed speech but as he often did at such things, he would veer off in a warm, friendly manner often including humorous asides. He was very appealing as a public speaker.

"I have lived [in Los Angeles] since 1923," he started. "I have seen the town grow into a city. I have seen theatrical enterprises nose-dive, while sporting ventures have grown by leaps and bounds."

He then offered a short history of sports in Los Angeles, referencing the somewhat recent 1932 Olympics and its great success both financially and popularly. He did this to lead into the speech by Farmer.

Walt and Farmer were hoping to sell club memberships and stock and believed that the brochure and the event would help raise tens of thousands of dollars. They seemed completely oblivious to the Regional Planning Commission meeting held earlier that afternoon. No representative from the Hollywood Sports Garden attended that 2 p.m. meeting where over 300 local residents attended and complained long and vocally about "the new amusement arena".

One business owner, R.P. McReynolds, drafted a letter urging the Commission to recommend that the empty land be zoned primarily for high-density luxury residences that would "exclude new amusement monstrosities".

"We were under the impression when we came here that the so-called Hancock Park and Gilmore properties, comprising Gilmore Island, were to be improved with high-priced apartment-houses and hotels….We are opposed to the [sports center] and request every legal effort will be made to abate what we feel is a public nuisance."

The letter was supported by a petition signed by many prominent businessmen in Gilmore Island.

A major problem was that even though Gilmore Island was surrounded by the City of Los Angeles, it was not technically part of the city. It was an unincorporated area of the county. So the Regional Planning Commission could not make a final decision, only a recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors.

After the lengthy meeting, the president of the Commission stated they would take the issue "under advisement" and then make a recommendation to the County Board. Before making that recommendation, they would confer with the City of Los Angeles.

Walt's dinner presentation apparently went well and during the two days following the event, Walt corresponded with the attendees to follow-up and even with those who were unable to attend.

By the second week of April, Walt Disney and the planning team understood that the zoning issues were far more serious than they had initially expected and now posed a threat to their project. On April 12, the planning commission made their recommendation: "that the unincorporated territory [Gilmore Island]…be zoned partly for general commercial uses and partly for single-family residences." This recommendation would exclude any large entertainment complex, such as Hollywood Sports Garden, from future construction. The matter was then turned over to the County Board of Supervisors, whose action was necessary to rezone the Hancock property.

The County Board seemed to agree after a meeting on April 24 where dozens of residents and business owners pleaded their case. An attorney for the group stated: "We want to keep the high character of this district by making it impossible for the two owners of this property to introduce amusement enterprises such as the contemplated sports center."

Walt was more than just disappointed. He was devastated. It had never occurred to him that others might not find such a venue beneficial to their community. Walt and his team tried to determine if there was any possible solution to the situation.

On April 25, Walt arranged a meeting with his planning team at the Biltmore Hotel to see if they could downsize the project and still sell stock. However he was met with a team that was not only near desperation but feared that even worse news was probably coming. Except for Walt, they all felt that it was a dead project and no longer viable. A few of the oil men who had invested like McCallen submitted their formal resignations the next morning.

Some local supporters argued that "the proposed $1,000,000 Hollywood Sports Garden" was a necessary recreational facility to fulfill the needs of "the county-wide community life." It would also increase the tax base for the area and with the high level of the people involved would improve the moral atmosphere of Gilmore Island.

However, they were too few compared to those who were incensed. At a May 17 Supervisors' meeting at the County Hall of Records, opponents packed the place to overflowing and complained about unwanted crowds and crime and that there was an insufficient police force and emergency services to handle the situation.

The County Supervisors decided to zone Gilmore Island in such a way as to exclude any new large amusement project.

Walt still continued to explore possibilities during the spring. He and Farmer investigated a new site about five miles from Hancock Park in Crenshaw. It was far from the Pan Pacific and Gilmore Stadium but Farmer believed that government officials there would support the construction of the project including the private club.

By the summer of 1939, Walt finally admitted that the project was dead and that the desire for lavish arenas and private clubs may have long passed. However, the experience did prepare him for a future large scale amusement project where he would need to raise funds, manage a second business from the motion picture studio and work with the local government and residents to garner public support. So all of this experience helped lead to the creation of Disneyland.