A Special Tour through Disney Studios by Tony Piazza
In 1967 we were given a tour of Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The tours were, and still are as far as I know, by special invitation only. Ours came through the head of transportation at Universal Studios, a man nick-named “Frenchie” who was a friend of my father. Visiting the studio was always a dream of mine, and I had hoped to someday work there as an animator. One of my talents was as an artist, and I had won awards for my artwork. I did not end up in this profession however, although as you probably know through my blog site, I did work for ten years in the entertainment business.
Campus-like atmosphere of Disney Studios.
We drove up to the guard at his post at the front gate of the studio. He removed his clipboard and scanned the names on the attached pages. Locating ours, he waved us through and indicated where we should park. The reception area’s interior design was still reflecting the 1940s in which the studio was built. The original studio was on Hyperion Avenue but closed in 1940 and the work transferred to this new studio on Buena Vista Street in Burbank. As I sat on the couch, after we announced our presence to the pretty receptionist at the main desk, I glanced around the surroundings taking in one large wall that was covered by a montage of Disney characters, movies, television shows, and theme park images. Each was placed artistically so they formed a pattern that stood out in a three-dimensional relief. Shortly, a guide introduced himself and we took off with two other men, guests as ourselves to a door that directly opened up to the start of the back lot.
Disney Hyperion Sudios.
The back wall of the administration building was fronted by false store fronts that could be seen in numerous Disney films as downtown “Medville”…any small town U.S.A., complete with a small grass park in its center. This tour didn’t provide trams to take us around. There were no need, the studio was very compact, and within a few paces we were crossing a college campus-like surrounding to the old Animation Building located near the center of the complex. The individual streets we crossed were named after Disney characters, and I was amused in passing signs announcing “Dopey Drive” and “Mickey Avenue.”
Inside the Animation Building we were taken to the individual departments. Each room had a story to tell. Inking displayed the many different colors and categorized formulas that were crossed linked to the character’s complexions and costumes. A system set up to guarantee consistency of color schemes throughout the project’s animation process, or several if they were doing “shorts.” In the background department we were told of a woman who had worked all night detailing the background of Sleeping Beauty’s castle stone by stone, only to drop the illustration board and watch her paint flake off. She left in tears. We were also shown the Xerox mimeograph machines that revolutionized animation, and made 101 Dalmatians possible. However, the most fascinating of all was seeing the multiplane camera that was created in 1937 for the animated short, The Old Mill. It was still in use to create those three dimensional- like effects on their feature animations. Finally we were escorted into an animator’s office and were able to visit and watch him at work. The animator was Ken Anderson and he was working on The Aristocats at the time. His assignment was the old lawyer, and he showed us with simple line drawings how he was applying a routine used by comedian Dick Van Dyke to the movements of his character. The lawyer was old, so he used his cane (Van Dyke style) to uncurl his legs and help him stand. He flipped through a series of these drawings which came instantly and convincingly to life. At his work station, one of the other guests commented on the fact that he did not have a mirror. Mirrors were common tools used by illustrators to capture expression- as the animators themselves usually were the actors. His was missing however, and Mr. Anderson said with a smile that it was in his closet, because the last thing he wanted to see first thing in the morning was his reflection!
Entrance to old Animation Building.
Just as a side note; when Mr. Anderson was asked what animation projects were yet to come, he rattled off a number that eventually hit the screen years later. They planned that far in advance! For example, Robin Hood (animated) and Black Caldron were two that he mentioned back in 1967.
After spending a half hour to forty minutes with the animator we were taken to the theater used for screenings and also utlized by the music department for scoring. The control panels for sound mixing were incredible. The theater was not in use at the time, but aside from the orchestra area you could also see sections were actors could be posted for singing or dubbing.
Animator Ken Anderson
Next we walked along the residential block back lot and I could pick out the homes of the Absent-minded Professor– complete with unattached garage where he discovered flubber, the home of the Shaggy Dog, and Pollyanna. The Zorro plaza came after, and then a wilderness area with stream and covered bridge.
The tour also included some soundstages where shooting was actually taking place. I remember seeing the interior cabin set, and an actor sitting off to the side in his chair. The film was Rascal and the actor who nodded to me as I gazed over in his direction was veteran character actor JACK ELAM.
Actor Jack Elam
It really was a special experience for me which I will never forget. Less than ten years later KARL MALDEN shared a private performance of his reverend character (his sermon speech) from Pollyanna. He did his bit for me in between the shooting of The Streets of San Francisco. It’s funny how things seem to come around in life.
One last item: My father worked with Disney Productions during the filming of the 360 degree America the Beautiful attraction in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. He even got in the film! In the San Francisco segment you would have seen him directing traffic at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.