Friday, April 12, 2013

2719 Hyperion Avenue – Foundation of an Empire--Part One

On Saturday, March 23, I attended a presentation at the Walt Disney Family Museum titled: 2719 Hyperion Avenue – Foundation of an Empire. The Walt Disney Studio 1925-1939. Historian David Lesjak provided an amazing look into the history of the studio in which some of animation’s greatest creations were born.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

On July 6, 1925, Walt and Roy Disney put a $400 down payment on Lot 21 at 2719 Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. The $600 balance was paid just a few weeks later on August 1. On January 15, 1926, the Disney brothers acquired their first building permit, which listed the value of the construction work as $1,500. When the Disneys purchased this lot, the only other businesses on the block were a Shell gas station and the JW Klein organ factory. It was quite a sparsely developed area.

1925 - before Disney moved in
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

The early property consisted of: The Walt Disney Studio, a stage for the Alice Comedies, a car shed, and horseshoe pits. According to artist Wilfred Jackson, Ub Iwerks was the studio’s premier horseshoe thrower.

After Disney moved in - early layout of the studio
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

This photo was taken in 1933 and NOT at Hyperion, but it's still Ub horeshoein' away!
Photo courtesy of

After showing us a rendering of the layout, David then showed us a fun photo of the boys clowning around. He followed that up by showing us how the studio’s interior was broken up. A partition ran down the center of the workspace from the front to the building to the back: animators on one side, ink and paint on the other. Roy’s office was on the right of the main entrance, Walt’s, the left. At some point in 1928, there was a little reorganization: one section became devoted to Mickey Mouse cartoons, and the other was devoted to the Silly Symphony series. Then he showed us a photo of the first standalone building's exterior. The Film Daily Cavalcade magazine referred to the studio as: “…a neat little green and white studio on two or three acres of weeds…[consisting] of one big room for the artists, [and] a cubby hole apiece for Walt and Roy.”

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

It was around this point in the presentation that we discovered an amazing talent members of David's research group possessed. They could take an old photo of a young animator, and based on even a partially finished drawing, discern which project he was working on at the time. Hence, they were also able to determine the rough date of the photo. The ability to identify films from the few visible lines on some of those cells was astounding, and the audience reacted favorably each time David presented an example.

How cool is this?
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

We got to see a photo of Walt’s first camera that he purchased at Peterson’s Camera Exchange in Los Angeles for $300. David then started talking about Walt’s unceremonious split with Universal distributor Charles Mintz. The split occurred not long after the film The Jazz Singer premiered, which wowed audiences everywhere with its fully synchronized dialogue. Walt knew that he needed to utilize this new technology for his future star and studio savior, Mickey Mouse. In talking about that first experiment with sound, Walt recalled, “The boys worked from a music and sound-effects score. After several false starts, sound and action got off with the gun. The mouth organist played the tune, the rest of us in the sound department bammed tin pans and blew slide whistles on the beat. The synchronization was pretty close.” Walt and his boys knew they were on to something. Walt’s creative partner Ub Iwerks commented, “I have never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equaled it.”

The October 2, 1928 edition of The Film Daily (a leading source of news on the film industry) boasted the headline: Disney Makes Sound Cartoon. Studio employee Bill Garity, perhaps best known for his pioneering efforts in sound and camera techniques, remarked years later, "We've done things...most of them Walt's ideas, that looked impossible at first." The end of 1928 was certainly an exciting time at the burgeoning studio. David shared a New York Times review of Steamboat Willie, of which they wrote, “an ingenious piece of work with a good deal of fun. It growls, whines, squeaks and makes various other sounds that add to its mirthful quality."

Bill Garity
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

The next photo Dave shared was that of the Powers’ Cinephone truck, which was basically one half of the Disney recording fleet. The cramped quarters at the studio meant the Disney Film Recording Corporation had to be stationed in a small office at the Tec Art Studio in Los Angeles. The corporation began doing business approximately April 1929. This division of the studio began operations before it was incorporated on December 16, 1929, and was liquidated December 5, 1935.

Half of the Disney recording fleet
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

In August of 1929, Disney’s first Silly Symphony premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater. The Skeleton Dance was an instant hit, although the road to its creation was a little bumpy. Walt had tapped his friend from Kansas City, Carl Stalling, to do the short’s music. Walt and Stalling didn’t always see eye to eye, though. Walt believed the music should follow the action on screen, and Stalling felt music comes first, and the action second. They were able to work smoothly when it came time to think of a name, however. “For a name or title for the series, I suggested not using the word ‘music’ or ‘musical,’ as it sounded too commonplace,” Stalling recalled. “But to use the word ‘Symphony’ together with a humorous word. At the next gag meeting, I don't know who suggested it, but Walt asked me, ‘Carl, how would Silly Symphony sound to you?’ I said, ‘Perfect!’”

The December 7, 1929 edition of Motion Picture News featured a Disney ad that showed many things for the last time. Out of "Produced by Walt Disney," "drawn by Ub Iwerks," "recorded on Powers Cinephone," and "booked through Powers’ Celebrity Productions," only Walt's name would remain past that point. Ub would leave Disney to start his own studio the following month. Disney would eventually switch to the RCA Photophone system for sound recording, and Columbia would begin distribution of all of Disney’s cartoons within two months.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

David wasn't done by a long shot at this point, so please check back soon for Part Two of this recap, where he delves into the 1930s and the huge changes that befell the studio.


  1. Thanks for the great write-up Keith.

    1. My pleasure. Thanks for the awesome presentation, David!