The Mama Melrose Storyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Some Disney fans don’t even know there is a restaurant almost hidden at the back of the Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park. Perhaps people don’t immediately think of Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano, because it doesn’t seem to make logical sense that an Italian restaurant operates in such a seemingly out-of-the-way location at the park.
Clearly, it makes sense that an Italian restaurant would be in the Italy pavilion at World Showcase at Epcot. It even makes sense that the Italian-themed Tony’s Town Square Restaurant would be on Main Street at the Magic Kingdom, since it is based on the Italian character who owned a restaurant in the animated feature Lady and the Tramp, which took place at the turn of the century.
When I worked at the Disney Institute in the late 1990s, and was an instructor for the eight-hour “Backstage Magic” tour for guests, the group would always stop at the restaurant for lunch. Everyone enjoyed the meal and the atmosphere of the restaurant was welcoming.
However, the one question that always kept coming up from the guests, for which I did not have a sufficient answer, was “Who is Mama Melrose?” She was obviously the original owner of this family-run restaurant, but even six years after its opening in September 1991, no one working at the restaurant was able to tell me the backstory of the place. Once again, this was a case that when people stop telling the story, the story dies.
Actually, Mama Melrose’s story began even before the park opened and, just like in a Hollywood movie from the 1940s, she was called in at the last minute to fill in for a superstar who was unable to appear for the big premiere.
In 1989, Disney Legend and iconic puppeteer Jim Henson was in final negotiations with the Disney Company to sell the rights to his famous Muppets characters, as well as become a creative consultant, especially on a Muppet Studios area at the new Disney-MGM Studios.
Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3-D attraction was just the beginning of a massive Muppet Studios area that would have included a Great Muppet Movie Ride, live shows, parades and more. Everything would have been themed to the Muppets who inhabited that backlot section. Everything would have subtly parodied the concept of classic Hollywood in the rest of the park.
In particular, there would have been a restaurant that was inspired by the famous memorabilia-filled eateries like Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe. Called The Great Gonzo's Pizza Pandemonium Parlor, the restaurant would have been operated by Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat. Things would constantly be going horribly (and amusingly) wrong both offstage and in the dining area itself.
Gonzo and Camilla the chicken would get temporarily lost and stuck in the ducts over the guests’ tables where the guests could hear their conversation as they frantically tried to find their way out. Gonzo and Rizzo had hired the Swedish Chef to run the kitchen and guests could watch him making the meals for the diners on little television monitors overhead that would also show clips of the Muppets from their television shows and movies. Guests would have seen the food fighting back unexpectedly on the monitor, including armed bandit lobsters refusing to be boiled.
The walls would have been decorated with Muppet memorabilia (both real and created) just like a famous Hollywood restaurant. The place would also be interactive where at any moment the kitchen doors might explode open in a cloud of chicken feathers and rants from the chef. Rizzo and his friends (with the help of the serving staff) would deliver meals to the tables on a small model railroad train with flat cars that ran throughout the restaurant.
With the passing of Henson in early 1990, and the unsigned contract causing on-going disagreements between the Henson family and the Disney Company, the sit-down restaurant was never built.
In place of the Muppet restaurant, but utilizing some elements that had already been designed, Disney Imagineers conceived of a different Italian restaurant in the same location.
One of the suggestions was to name the restaurant Funicello’s (or Annette’s) to honor Disney Legend Annette Funicello. The restaurant would have been decorated with record albums and movie posters from her performing career. It was felt that this was a good choice because it would “theme” in with the park’s concept of movie celebrities and since Annette was of Italian heritage it would be a good fit.
In addition, Annette had maintained a very good relationship with the Disney Company and several members of the Funicello family still work for the Disney Company today.
Unfortunately, one of the things that killed that proposal was that a top executive at the park, who no longer works for the Disney Company, had never heard of the popular singer-actress and felt that other Disney guests would be equally clueless.
In Disneyland Paris’ Disney Village is Annette’s Diner, a table service restaurant that is a tribute to Annette Funicello. It is modeled after a traditional 1950s-style diner with a menu including hamburgers and hot dogs, but no Italian offerings like pizza or spaghetti. Since it is themed to rock 'n' roll with waitresses on roller skates, like the classic drive-in diners of that time period, it has nothing in common with the previous proposal for the Disney-MGM Studios of an Italian restaurant in a warehouse.
It was decided to continue to pursue the idea of an Italian restaurant with Hollywood memorabilia, and so was born Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano. To aid in the illusion that Mama Melrose was an actual person, a Disney entertainer was pulled out of her regular role to dress up as Mama and pose with the restaurant's chef. That publicity photo was used to promote the restaurant during its first year of operation.
At the time, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was enamoured with the idea that everything at a Disney theme park would have a backstory, so the restaurant had to have a story to explain why it was there.
According to the official storyline developed by the Disney Imagineers, a young girl in a small Sicilian village in Italy fell in love with the magic of Hollywood movies while she worked in her father's restaurant. Her father loved her dearly and shared with her all his special secret recipes that made his restaurant such a favorite spot. At the age of 16, she sailed for America and found a movie career as “a stand-in for actresses with names like Gina, Sophia and Anna.”
While she waited with the other extras between scenes, she cooked up Italian dishes with a little California flavor. She was so big-hearted that she shared some of these meals with her starving actor friends who were more than grateful.
Realizing that her dreams of stardom were not coming true, she opened her own Italian restaurant with the encouragement of her many friends on the backlot. The restaurant provided meals for a variety of Hollywood types from performers to the film crew to even producers and directors. Her flamboyant approach to life reminded the Hollywood studio moguls of the town's eccentric Melrose Avenue, so they nicknamed her "Mama Melrose."
It was a name that was so descriptive of her that it stuck and even today, no one can recall what her actual name might have been.
The restaurant became the location “where Italy meets California in the heart of the Backlot.” It was housed in a warehouse that was used for storing film equipment, with an exterior façade that was used by motion pictures studios for shooting films based in New York City’s Little Italy.
Mama and her friends converted the massive interior with what little funds they had into a family restaurant, but that is why the interior still has industrial-looking light fixtures, high ceilings with clearly visible air ducts, brick walls covered with graffiti, and worn floor boards in places from the moving of heavy equipment.
To make the huge space appear more inviting, Mama decorated with whatever she had available: Hollywood memorabilia that she gathered during her years in the film business and numerous items from Italy to remember and honor her family back home. Over the years, those items multiplied as friends in the film business and relatives from home continued to send her things to display.
That is the reason that the interior is such a mishmash of everything from Italian paintings to Hollywood film posters to records of famous Italian singers to pennants of California sports teams to license plates to cooking utensils. It suggests the home of a mother who accumulated many knick knacks as physical reminders of so many memories. Mama wanted to commemorate both her Italian heritage and her love of her new home of Hollywood.
It became a popular hangout for Hollywood celebrities,especially because of its nearness to where films were being made, and many of their photos dotted the lobby’s walls.
In actuality, these were autograph portrait cards produced by the Disney Company for the “Star Today” program that was offered during roughly the first year the Disney-MGM Studios were open. (Today, those pictures have been rematted to block out the Disney-MGM logo that was prominent on the lower part of the card.)
The concept behind the “Star Today” program was to reinforce the idea that theme park guests had come to Hollywood and were in the midst of a real working film studio. Almost every day, a celebrity would make an appearance at the theme park. That appearance often included a motorcade parade down Hollywood Boulevard with the star in the back seat of a vintage automobile waving to the crowd gathered on the sidewalks.
I clearly remember standing with several others on the sidewalk outside of the Celebrity 5 & 10 building loudly yelling “Beam me up, Scotty!” to a much too gracious James Doohan who played the role of Scotty in the original Star Trek series. He must have heard people yell that phrase to him constantly for decades but he still smiled and waved.
Sometimes a handprint ceremony might be included for an addition to the forecourt of the Chinese Theater. More often was a “Star Conversation” at the Theater of the Stars (located where the entrance to Sunset Boulevard is today) where the star of the day would talk and then answer questions from the audience. The autograph portrait cards were printed so that some lucky guests had the opportunity for the celebrity to sign the big white blank beneath their black and white headshot.
While some of these stars were only there for one day, some were booked for several days in a row. The very first "Star Today" on May 1, 1989, was the always delightfully charming original Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.
In order to fill so many slots, the celebrities ranged from A-list to D-list and covered areas from movies to television to music. The program was officially discontinued after about a year and a half because it became more and more difficult (and expensive) to get recognizable celebrities to participate.
However, a mini-museum to some of those who received the honor still exists at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano and sometimes confuses current guests as to why such an eclectic mix of personalities (some of whom are almost completely forgotten by today’s audiences) was chosen to be displayed. Someone (according to the Imagineering storyline) has even stolen the old “Melrose Avenue” street sign as a gift for Mama to display as a reference to her famous nickname.
Perhaps knowing this story will help enhance the experience for some Disney fans dining at this restaurant. Obviously, this information isn’t vital for understanding or appreciating the meal. In fact, it is doubtful if any of the cast members currently working at this location have even ever heard of this story.
However, it was just another little touch of story by Disney Imagineering to bring some of the glamour and the allure of old Hollywood to what was then Disney’s newest theme park.