Echo Park Memories at Disney Hollywood Studios

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my dad would sometimes take my brothers and I out fishing to different locations and a couple of times we went to Echo Park to do so. So when I came to Disney's Hollywood Studios with my dad for the first time, it brought back many fond memories to see the area re-created.

I always enjoyed Disney's Hollywood Studios because it seemed like a more intimate theme park and because of all the references to movies from the 1940s. Unfortunately, much of that charm has been removed over the years in addition to removing specific references to Roger Rabbit and the Rocketeer; unfortunately that included actual items from those films.

At one time, former CEO Michael Eisner wanted to remove the classic movie star sketches in the Brown Derby restaurant and replace them with drawings of more contemporary performers like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially with the opening of Planet Hollywood on Pleasure Island.

Eisner felt that most guests would be unfamiliar with the vintage performers from old movies that were displayed on the walls. (By the way, the black framed sketches are copies of the original while the gold framed caricatures are originals from the iconic restaurant.)

He wasn't necessarily wrong, especially these days when some classic movie stations consider films from the 1980s as "old movies," but it would have certainly destroyed the immersive theming that the Imagineers were trying to establish for the area.

Recently, I have been remembering what the Echo Park Lake area at Disney's Hollywood Studios was like in its first few years when streetmosphere performers roamed the street and there were no Star Wars references at all. It is hard for me to believe it was over thirty years ago that the park first opened.

A postcard shows a picture of Echo Lake in California.

The legendary real Echo Park area was called Edendale before the construction of the park itself. It has been referred to as a "suburb of Los Angeles" and is located approximately northwest of Downtown Los Angeles and southeast of Hollywood.

Echo Park Lake was declared City of Los Angeles Cultural Historic Monument No. 836 on March 1, 2006.

A wonderful homage to this historical location in its Golden Age exists at the Disney Hollywood Studios as a tribute to the earliest days of movie making in Los Angeles. On the first maps for the theme park, it was referred to as both "Lakeside Circle" and "Echo Park".

The original Echo Park was built under the supervision of Joseph Tomlinson, who was Superintendent of Parks for the city of Los Angeles. While overseeing the construction work, Mr. Tomlinson thought he heard clearly his workers talking but he knew they were across the park from him.

The park had an echo (that disappeared once the landscaping was finished) and so that is how the name was chosen. The park was dedicated and opened to the public in 1895.

In the 1920s, Spanish style courtyards and apartments sprung up (mixing in with the other architectural styles like Craftsman and Victorian) in the nearby neighborhood, and over the years an ethnic diversity occupied the buildings that remained pretty much untouched for the next few decades.

Before the development of Hollywood as the motion picture capital, most of the Los Angeles film industry was centered in the Echo Park area including Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios located on Keystone Street (now part of Glendale Boulevard).

Sennett was known for his outstanding silent movie comedies including those starring the frantic and inept Keystone Kops, as well as early Charlie Chaplin outings, and often used the park as the perfect setting for some of those wacky comedies.

That's why the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular is located in the area using the existing landscaping to film a movie just as was done for historic Hollywood movies. In fact, a close look at the posted menu on the food and beverage cart will reveal it is placed over the call sheet for the shooting of the nearby film.

At Disney Hollywood Studios, the Keystone Clothiers building stands at the entranceway to the Echo Park area as a clever reference to early filmmaker Sennett. It was inspired by a building on the southeast corner of Cahuenga Avenue in the 6300 block of Hollywood Boulevard and now known as the Julian Medical Building.

Near the street sign that says "Keystone Street" that intersects with "Echo Park Drive" is Peevy's Polar Pipeline featuring frozen Coca-Cola Concoctions, as well as regular soft drinks and assorted simple frozen desserts like ice cream. This location was originally Lakeside News, a newsstand that sold a variety of magazines including some from the 1940s.

The architectural inspiration for the façade of the location was a fire station on Pasadena Avenue in Lincoln Heights, built in 1940 but still in operation today.

The Lakeside News location was reformatted in 1991 and named "Peevy's" to reference the mechanic character Ambrose "Peevy" Peabody from the Touchstone Pictures film The Rocketeer (1991), who was very inventive. The film was set in 1938 Los Angeles so it fits in quite well with Disney Hollywood Studios' theme of Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s.

The location was then filled with wonderful details directly referencing the film including vintage welding tanks and red tool tray tables.

A close examination of the menu revealed that it was printed on a faded blueprint schematic for the famous Rocketeer jet pack. To the left was an actual rocket pack from the movie and above it was a helmet from the film (actually a stunt helmet from the film because it was wider, making it easier for a stunt man to remove in the air during a dangerous maneuver).

In addition, there used to be a poster for "Bigelow's Air Circus" for October 15, 1938. This is the same date of the newspaper which tells the story of the Rocketeer's first flight with a headline and photo about the Rocketeer. Of course, when the location opened it didn't serve alcohol as it does today.

Peevey's Polar Pipeline is right next door to the Holly-Vermont Realty Office.

To the right side of this refreshment establishment is a door with the logo for the Holly-Vermont Realty Office. This was Walt Disney's first studio in Hollywood in 1923. When he signed the contract to produce the first cartoon Alice Comedies series, he went to this office looking to rent an inexpensive space for the new Disney Brothers Studio. He told them he only needed a space big enough to "swing a cat in".

The owners rented him a room in their building for ten dollars a month from October 1923 to February 1924 when Walt moved to a larger space down the block on Kingswell Avenue as money started to come in for the series. The sign in the upper window listing space for rent suggests that Walt has already moved out to bigger and better things.

Nearby is a fake door supposedly housing the following businesses including dental offices on the second floor:

  • 101 Glamour Salon
  • 201 Howie Pullum, DDS
  • 204 Ruth Canal, DDS
  • 210 Les Payne, DDS

Further down across from the Hollywood and Dine restaurant are another set of fake businesses located in the Keystone Clothiers building:

  • Doorway for SIGHTS AND SOUNDS:
  • Ewell M. Pressem, Master Thespian
  • Singer B. Flatt, Voice Coach
  • Bill Moore, Account Executive
  • We've Finished Some of Hollywood's Finest
  • Checks not accepted

In upper window: "Allen Smythee Productions. John Tuttle or Allen Smythee." Both are names used by the movie industry when an actor or a director is unhappy with a movie project and they do not want their names attached to the movie but still want to be paid.

The Art Deco Hollywood and Vine, the "Cafeteria to the Stars," is modeled after a cafeteria that once stood at 1725 North Vine, near Hollywood Boulevard. Before the dawn of fast food, these cafeterias (like Clifton's Cafeteria) provided actors (and Walt and Roy Disney as well) with inexpensive and varied choices.

Along the side wall is a beautiful 42 foot by 8 foot mural depicting some of the highlights of the Hollywood area including the Disney Studios and the Carthay Circle Theater.

During this time period, it was not unusual for the bottom floor of a building to showcase a business and the upper floor to provide housing for the owner or apartment or business space to rent.

The "No Actors" sign in the upper window was authentic because landlords didn't want to rent to actors because they were unreliable, might skip out of paying rent, would have low morals and hold wild parties.

When Disney Hollywood Studios opened in 1989, a little further down by the Valiant office was a clever sign the same size and lettering that stated "No Toons".

This sign was a double gag not just because toons were as bad as actors were in terms of responsibility but because it was near Eddie Valiant's office, who harbored a grudge because a toon killed his brother. It was later removed and never replaced when character meals started being held inside.

Eddie Valiant, the famous detective, from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1989) that was set in 1947 Hollywood, is apparently renting office space for his detective agency on the second floor and the window is so labeled.

Next to his name on the window was a distinctive silhouette of Roger Rabbit who had excitedly burst through the blinds as he did in the film. Over the years, the silhouette was not maintained so now it no longer resembles Roger from the feature film but seems to be an unidentified blob.

However, this was only part of the joke. If a guest were able to follow the direction Roger was heading, they would have ended up backstage where the former Disney Feature Animation Florida studio was located.

On the side of that building was a similar black silhouette of Roger who was apparently rushing to work and had to crash into the building. Disney Feature Animation Florida was the studio that produced some of the Roger Rabbit theatrical short animated cartoons at the time.

The '50s Prime Time Cafe features a plethora of "kitchen tables" for dining.

Tucked between the '50s Prime Time Cafe and Hollywood & Vine Cafeteria of the Stars are the Echo Lake Apartments. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Echo Lake area was the swanky neighborhood home to many rising stars of the silver screen.

The gate leading up to the apartments is locked but a look at the names on the mailboxes reveals an often overlooked tribute to several Imagineers who worked on the park.

  • Apartment 101: Kate Polk; John Olson (Designer and Field Art Director)
  • Apartment 103: Joe Kilankowski (Senior Architect)
  • Apartment 104: John Roberdeau Drury (former Design Director)
  • Apartment 105: T. Kirk (This is not actor Tommy Kirk but Design Director Tim Kirk. Tim Kirk started with Walt Disney Imagineering in 1980. For Disney-MGM Studios, he was a production set designer and art director for the Great Movie Ride and contributed to Muppet*Vision 3-D and the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.)
  • Apartment 201: Steve Beyer (Senior Concept Designer)
  • Apartment 203: Barbara Dietzel (contributed to the Prime Time Cafe)
  • Apartment 204: Tami Empero; Kate Zovich (interior designers on the Prime Time Café along with Barbara Dietzel)
  • Apartment 205: Mr and Mrs D. Yanchar (Dave Yanchar worked at WDI on Tokyo Disneyland projects as well)

The '50s Prime Time Café is a tribute to mom, meatloaf and Formica with a television set at every table and serving "relatives" reminding guests to eat their vegetables and keep elbows off the table while mom is cooking in the kitchen.

The restaurant is meant to suggest the 1950s with families in a stylish kitchenette with small dining areas.

Guests eat their meal while television sets (with the Disney logo) built by Imagineering to resemble classic vintage TV sets play clips on a loop from 1950s situation comedies like Father Knows Best, Topper, Donna Reed, Make Room for Daddy, I Married Joan, Dennis the Menace, Annette Funicello with the Mickey Mouse Club gang and Leave It To Beaver. Prime Time refers to a block of time, usually the early evening hours, when the viewing audience is the largest.

The restaurant is decorated with kitschy décor that include tchotchkes and knickknacks from the time period, just as mom or grandmother would place in their kitchens, from copper jello molds to ceramic figures.

Gertie the Dinosaur is an example of programmatic architecture, better known as "California Crazy." That type of architecture usually identified a creatively designed building that showcased what was being sold inside like the Darkroom on Hollywood Boulevard resembling a camera because it originally sold cameras and film or a structure in the shape of a gigantic hot dog in a bun that sold hot dogs.

What does a dinosaur have to do with ice cream? In the 1940s, it was believed that it was the Ice Age that killed the dinosaurs. The outside signage emphasizes this belief since it states it is the "ice cream of extinction" (rather than "distinction").

Gertie's back is covered with snow and she is so cold that steam comes out of her nostrils. Guests unaware of the character have often mistakenly thought it was a fire breathing dragon with smoke curling out of its mouth.

A little further away near the concrete stairs, there are imprints of Gertie's heavy feet in the pathway that have cracked the pavement. When the park opened in 1989, those prints were continued in a horticultural pattern in the nearby flower bed leading to Gertie.

Gertie was the first true example of "character" or "personality" animation that became the foundation of Disney animation. In the days before cels, artist Winsor McCay (famed for his Sunday comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland") had to draw thousands of individual drawings by himself on rice paper (so it was thin enough that he could see the previous drawing) in black ink.

He produced the short film for his vaudeville act where on stage he interacted with the animated Gertie on the screen by his side. The film was an inspiration for both Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

Dinosaur Gertie, an homage to Winsor McCay's animated Gertie the Dinosaur, sells Ice Cream of Extinction.

On one edge of Echo Lake is Min and Bill's Dockside Diner. It was named after a 1930 MGM film starring Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler who are both caricatured in a circle by the entrance. Dressler won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the character in the film Min and Bill.

She was a dockside innkeeper who had an ongoing tumultuous relationship with a drunken fisherman who lived at the inn. The name of the tramp steamer, "S.S. Down the Hatch", is not only a reference to the hatches on the ship but also to Bill's drinking.

The boat was designed by Ray Wallace, who had been designing boats for the Disney Company since 1957. He was also the one responsible for the Columbia sailing ship at Disneyland.

The insignias over the S.S. Down the Hatch alternate between flags and pennants. The flags represent letters and the pennants represent numbers. The flags spell out: D-O-C-K-S-I-D-E-D-I-N-E-R. No one seems to remember what the numbers were supposed to represent, yet another example of how much theme park history has been lost.

This building is another example of the architectural style called "California Crazy," since it originally served some seafood treats. This "building" is supposed to represent a cargo ship. If you look around, you can see freight ready to be loaded aboard.

Since this is Hollywood, those crates referenced various feature films including Gone With the Wind, It's A Wonderful Life, Casablanca and The Producers.

Over the years, the crates by the Dockside Diner have been at various times either blank or labeled somewhat differently (previous references have included The Wizard of Oz and Lawrence of Arabia). Because of the weather conditions, the crates were sometimes replaced.

While some references are fairly obvious like the Rosebud Sled Company shipping to Charles Foster Kane from the film Citizen Kane, others are more obscure. The zip code for Kane's Xanadu Compound in Florida is actually the date the film Citizen Kane was released. There were no zip codes in the 1940s.

There are so many more secrets and stories waiting to be discovered in this quiet and beautiful section of Disney Hollywood Studios for the curious Disney fan willing to spend some time reliving the Hollywood of the past, including the relatively (compared to the age of the rest of the area) recent additions like the Indiana Jones "Do Not Pull the Rope"

To the left of the entrance to the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular show is some sort of excavation site over an ancient well. There is a large wooden sign next to it declaring: "Warning! Do NOT Pull Rope!" The word "Not" has a line going through it.

Of course, the rope is within easy reach of the guests and the temptation is to see what might happen. Pulling on the rope sometimes elicits no response and other times an echoey voice from down in the well yelling, "Hey, what's going on up there?" or the lengthy scream of someone falling to the bottom.

According to the Imagineers, that person is the very British Dr. Dunfor Pullit, an archeologist who is supported by the rope beneath the sarcophagus stone.

Repeated pulling on the rope can generate some different responses:

  • "Leave off the rope old chap, be a good fellow. I have a frightfully valuable artifact down here. Oh no [crash.] I HAD a terribly valuable artifact down here."
  • "I say, leave off the rope old chap, be a jolly good sport. I say! Uh oh... oh no... blimey [fall, thud]"
  • "I say quit mucking about up there. Oh blast! Not again [fall, crash]."
  • "Blast it all, you don't want to pull the rope. [crash] Oh dear."
  • "Careful while I translate this…. Let's see, um, 'twenty years of,' ah, 'sorrow to the,' ah, 'destroyer of this vessel!' [crash.]"

Are there any that I missed? Of course, there is a similar well in the interior queue for Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

I think it is important to understand what we see in a Disney theme park and why it is there. I also think it is important to take a moment or two and just enjoy such an area without rushing off to an attraction or a restaurant reservation.