The Little Disney Garage Nobody Wanted

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

About 10 minutes from Disneyland, is a piece of Disney history that nobody wanted. It is a tiny one car garage that for several decades was considered Walt Disney’s first studio.

Disney University in its training manuals identified the garage as Walt’s first studio. In fact one Disney University presentation for new cast members showed a picture of the garage with the caption “The First Disney Studio.”

Later, the Disney Company decided that since the official start of the studio was the production of the “Alice Comedies,” it was then determined that the real estate office where Alice’s Day at Sea”was made was the beginning of the Disney Studios. The garage became just an odd footnote and was forgotten for many years.

For some historical background, here is a letter from Dave Smith, Disney Archivist, from March 1982:

“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 Pantages 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 Art of Walt Disney (Abrams, 1973), page 36, and its brief significance is detailed in the text.”

When he arrived in Los Angeles, Walt Disney tried unsuccessfully to break into live-action films, even sneaking into the studios. There were no animation studios in Los Angeles. The center of the animation industry in those days was in New York.

Walt’s Uncle Robert nagged Walt about his nephew’s unemployment and his lack of prospects especially since Walt was staying with Uncle Robert at the time. Finally, Walt decided to once again try animation although he had told his older brother, Roy, “No, it’s too late. I should have started six years ago. I don’t see how I can top those New York boys now.”

In later years, Walt said, “I just couldn’t get anywhere. Before I knew it I was back with my cartoons.”

Walt rigged up a cartoon stand in Uncle Robert’s garage, using dry-goods boxes and spare lumber. He made a cold call to Alexander Pantages, who operated a chain of theaters in Los Angeles and who agreed to take a look at a sample reel after hearing Walt’s enthusiastic description of a reel of joke cartoons commenting on local situations.

Because of the crude equipment at his disposal including a used motion picture camera that was converted to shoot single frames, Walt had to keep it simple so he decided to use stick figures against simple backgrounds with the gags coming from the balloons over the characters’ heads. He was very inspired by newspaper comics of the time.

However, when Walt got the contract for the Alice Comedies that project was forgotten and instead, he went down the street to the Hollywood-Vermont real estate office at 4651 Kingswell and told them he needed a space but could only pay $10 a month. The only place at that price was a room at the back of the real estate office.

Walt bought a used camera for $200 and the Disney Brothers Studio was in business. Bringing out young actress Virginia Davis, Walt produced the first installment in the Alice Comedies series and he was on his way to an amazing animated future. By February 1924, just a few short months later, Disney had outgrown the small space and moved into the adjoining store at 4649 Kingswell that the brothers rented for $35 a month.

An homage to that first Disney Brothers Studio exists at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in the Echo Park area. Near Peevy’s soft drink stand is a doorway with the Holly-Vermont real estate logo and there is a sign in the window indicating a space for rent.

In 1981, an animation fan named Paul Maher was looking at slides of historical landmarks when he saw a picture of Uncle Robert’s garage and was told that it was Walt Disney’s first studio and that it was nearby.

At 6 a.m. the next day, Maher found the famous garage.

“There were weeds and garbage around the old California home," he said. "The garbage made it even more fascinating and I had to creep around to the back to find the garage. Like so many fans, I just had to go up and touch it.”

Robert Disney had long since passed away and the house was currently undergoing construction. Maher found out from a workman that the small one-car garage was planned to be demolished. Maher located the owner of the property who had no knowledge of the Disney history of the property. She had bought the house as a source of income and was renovating it for that purpose.

She agreed to sell the garage to Maher for $6400, the cost of building a new garage, but he also had to agree to rent the house. Maher lived in the home for about a year but ran into financial problems and had to move out.

He put the garage up for auction on March 19, 1982 with a minimum bid of $10,000. Neither the Disney Company nor the Disney family were interested in obtaining the garage and no one else submitted a bid.

At the auction was Art Adler, a Disney employee who was at the time the senior contract administrator for the Purchasing Department at Disneyland.

“I couldn’t believe it," Adler said. "I started imagining what was going to happen to it—if it was going to be vandalized, destroyed or just cut up in pieces and stuffed into little bottles for souvenirs.”

Ironically, 12 years later Adler did indeed package slivers of the garage in small glass vials and sold them. They were pieces of wood that broke off or fell off when the contractor removed the garage.

Adler and another fan, Larry Clardy, began walking up to strangers asking if they would like to combine their resources and make a bid. Within an hour, they had eight people and $8,500 to offer Maher who accepted it. The eight strangers formed a group called “Friends of Walt Disney” and began looking for a permanent home for the garage. The group eventually grew to 18 members and included singer Bobby Sherman who had constructed a replica of Disneyland’s Main Street in his backyard.

Adler obtained a letter of authenticity for the old garage from Dave Smith that I quoted from earlier in this article. The garage was placed into storage and there was media coverage about how this group had saved Walt’s first studio.

The Smithsonian was interested in the historical structure but could not guarantee it would be displayed or if it was displayed, how long it would be avaialble or whether it would ever be displayed again.

After several similar attempts with other organizations including the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History to the William S. Hart Ranch to Burbank Parks and Recreation, Adler contacted the Garden Grove Historical Society, a private non profit organization that receives no government funding. The property features the Stanley House.

This house was built in 1891, and is now a museum for displays on early life of Garden Grove. In 1970, Agnes Stanley donated two acres to the Garden Grove Historical Society and the property is now known as the Stanley Ranch Museum and some of Garden Grove's oldest homes and business buildings have been moved to this location.

The Stanley House is the focus home at the museum. Also included at the site are homes dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Garden Grove's first post office, opened in 1877; the Electric Shoe Shop/Barber Shop; and Garden Grove's No. 1 fire engine, a 1926 American La France, are part of the exhibits. One of the most popular attractions, of course, is the Walt Disney Studio Garage which was relocated to the former ranch site in 1984.

Even though the ranch is now surrounded by development it doesn't take too much imagination to picture what the city looked like 100 years ago. Near the ranch you can also find Garden Grove's Historic Main Street which consists of buildings that date back to 100 years ago. The Stanley Ranch Museum is located at :

12174 Euclid St,
Garden Grove, CA
(714) 530-8871

Admission is free.

The official dedication of the garage on October 20, 1984 featured local officials, costumed Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters from Disneyland, more than 100 Disney fans as well as an Official First Day Cover issue commemorating the dedication that was cancelled by the Garden Grove U.S. Post Office. There was punch, food, speeches as well as Adler donating some of his Disney memorbilia collection for display inside the garage. Among those attending the dedication was animator and Imagineer Bill Justice who said, “This is a good place for it. Otherwise it might not be appreciated.”

The Garden Grove Historical Society provided a new concrete slab for the garage, replaced all the wood that had fallen off when the structure was dismantled, gave the outside only a new coat of primer (for weather protection) as well as signed an agreement that if the Society ever ceased to exist, the garage would return to the care of the Friends of Walt Disney. The inside of the garage remained as untouched as it was originally.

The “Friends of Walt Disney” consisted of (in the order that each became a partner) Arthur “Buddy” Adler, Robert Richard and Lawdra Colley, Larry Clardy, Jay Stewart, Kay Armour, Marian N. Gibbons, Paul Maher, Larry and Irene Oppen, James and Patricia Korecky, Philip and Billie Hofstee, Robert Russell, Lorraine and Linda Colley, William E. Howard, John Michael and Gloria P. White, Susan Heyer, Steve Granich, Bobby Sherman, and Valerie Philbrick.

On the official “Deed of Gift,” the garage is described as “Walt Disney’s First Studio in California is a one story, two door, one window, all wooden structure approximately 12 feet wide by 18 feet long by 10 feet feet high with lap boards and a slightly pitched roof.”

Adler was also the person who wrote to Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) to create a National Day of Recognition for Walt Disney on his birthday, December 5. House Bill No. 377 signed by President Ronald Reagan designated December 5, 1986 as “Walt Disney Recognition Day.”

I think it is fitting to give Art Adler the final word: “[The Disney Company] consider Walt’s first studio to be the one down the street from his uncle’s house but that doesn’t matter. He may not have done a lot of work here, but this is where he started—and that’s what counts. It is important that this garage be preserved so children can look at the humble beginnings of a man who would later create an empire that brought happiness and joy to children all over the world. It’s a way to tell kids that you can start from nothing and, in a relatively short time, achieve great things. I’ve been a fan of Walt Disney since I was a kid. Heck, I’m still a kid, only a little older and a little grayer. I’m just tickled to death about this whole thing.”