Today, animation fans watch their favorite animated cartoons (even the classic cartoons of the Golden Age) on high-tech equipment on a huge high definition screen in the comforts of their living room.
However, originally, the only place an audience could see an animated cartoon would be in a local movie theater as part of a program that might include a newsreel, a live-action short, live entertainment, a feature film and more.Animators would often go to the theater not just to see their own cartoons but to study what other studios were producing and how they were solving problems. Seeing Winsor McCay’s revolutionary Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) inspired an entire generation of animation legends as did later animated shorts like the Three Little Pigs (1933).
Besides the personal enjoyment Walt Disney got from going to see animated cartoons, he often previewed his own cartoon shorts at local movie theaters to study the audience’s reaction.
As musician Carl Stalling recalled about the original two week engagement of the iconic Steamboat Willie (1928) at Manhattan’s Colony Theater in New York: “We (Walt and Stalling) sat on almost the last row and heard laughs and snickers all around us. Walt would continue to attend every performance for the entire two weeks.”
Walt preferred sitting in the back of the theater when possible so that he could more accurately gauge the reactions.
Even earlier, the black and white silent cartoon Alice’s Balloon Race, part of Walt’s Alice Comedies series, was sneak previewed at the Bard’s Glen Theater on Colorado Street in Glendale on December 11, 1925 to judge what the audience enjoyed and what it did not.
It officially was released to the general public on February 15, 1926, nearly two months later after adjustments were made.
However, Walt’s favorite location to preview his cartoons was the Alex Theater still located at 216 North Brand Boulevard, Glendale, California 91203.
This movie theater opened in 1925 as the Alexander Theater which it was called until 1939. In 1940, the newly designed exterior had just the name “Alex” on the marquee as the new official name and the theater has been referred to as that name ever since.
The theater was named after Alexander Langley, the son of C.L. Langley, owner of the West Coast chain that included the Raymond Theater in Pasadena.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, it was used as a sneak preview house for major Hollywood films as well as its regular schedule of films. Singer-actor Bing Crosby nervously paced the lobby carpet during a preview screening of Going My Way in 1944 as he worried whether the movie-going public would accept him as a movie priest. They enthusiastically did.
A teenager named Marion Morrison worked at a nearby soda fountain and his pal Bob McCaskey ushered at the Alex, where he let in the future John Wayne for free, in exchange for Morrison’s “on-the-house” sodas.
The Alex Theater was a pivotal location in film history, especially Disney animation history.
In particular, Walt Disney in the 1930s often previewed his animated shorts at the theater that was just a few miles away from his Hyperion studio.
He and his animators would sit in the back of the theater and then go out to the lobby or outside the theater for Walt to give his evaluation. It was sometimes an anxiety inducing experience as Walt would concentrate on what needed to be improved. It was less of a discussion and more of a monolog.
In their highly recommended (and sadly difficult to obtain) book Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series, authors Russell Meritt and J.B. Kaufman were able to document that Disney had preview screenings at the Alex at least as early as 1931 with the Silly Symphonies series including Egyptian Melodies and The Clock Store.
Disney Legend and veteran animator Ward Kimball stated, “We always previewed our pictures in Glendale at the Alexander, and they let us know when they’d run ‘The Wise Little Hen’ or ‘Orphans’ Benefit’ and we’d all go out. We had passes and we would sit in the audience and listen, and Walt would walk outside and have an impromptu discussion.”
Clarence Nash, the performer who supplied the voice of Donald Duck remembered that preview showing of Orphans’ Benefit. He told an interviewer, “We drove over to the Alexander Theater, here in Glendale, for the preview. I was more nervous about that picture than I was about ‘The Wise Little Hen’. I was with a group of Disney people, and my wife was with me, too. I got a big kick out of it and completely forgot that I had anything to do with it.”
Animation director Jack Kinney confirmed that the location was used for previewing the animated shorts in his book, Walt Disney and Other Assorted Characters, where he wrote, “When a picture was finished, it was usually previewed at the Alexander Theater in Glendale to get audience reaction. After the show, the boys and girls would gather in the lobby and discuss the various scenes with Walt.”
Walt’s final animated short directorial effort The Golden Touch (1935) was previewed at the Alexander Theater. The audience reaction was so weak that Walt didn’t hold a discussion session afterwards.
One legendary story was that after a lengthy dissertation in the Alex lobby on what needed to be corrected in an animated short, a smart alecky animator goaded Walt with his question, “Walt, there is still one thing I don’t understand. What makes them move?” According to legend, Walt fired the guy.
For many years, the theater operated like any other movie theater, and growing up in Glendale, I spent many hours of my life in the theater (along with the half dozen other movie theaters that existed on Brand Boulevard) enjoying the latest releases including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) with my parents and then girlfriend.
However, like the other movie theaters on the street, the Alex fell on difficult times but instead of closing like most of the others, it was saved and restored.
In 1992, The Glendale Redevelopment Agency purchased the Alex Theatre to serve as the centerpiece of Glendale’s revitalized Brand Boulevard and embarked on a $6.5 million rehabilitation of the facility.
It is now home to resident companies such as the Alex Film Society, Glendale Pops, Glendale Youth Orchestra, Los Angeles Ballet, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and hosts a variety of music, dance, theatre, comedy, film, and special events each season. For many years The Annie Awards ceremony was held at the Alex. The film society hosts an annual Three Stooges festival in November and at Christmas, a big-screen Greatest Cartoons Ever event co-hosted by Jerry Beck.
The Alex Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
It looks like that Silly Symphonies book is being reprinted by Disney Editions:
You sure it’s the same book? I find it strange Kaufman’s name isn’t mentioned on top.
Really enjoyed this piece! I like your usual format of assorted short pieces – so don’t ever abandon that – but it was great to see a longer treatment. There’s something about a great theatre that I still can’t get from even the best huge-screen home set-up. And all the Disney anecdotes always make me smile.
But being fired for smart-aleckiness? Let’s hope that was a fabricated legend. Sometimes it’s so hard to tell which ones are true, I guess we’ll just have to wait until they un-freeze Walt to get the real story from him.
Were sneak previews truly “sneak” in those days, or did word get out that Disney regularly tested upcoming cartoons at the Alex? With people moving from studio to studio, it’s easy to imagine interested animators and business competitors staking the place out, or paying somebody to tip them when Disney sent a reel. Then, as now, there conceivably could have been a problem with a non-typical industry/fan audience skewing responses.
Did other studios test and revise cartoons? The little I’ve read implies Termite Terrace and MGM mainly waited for feedback from exhibitors, while only Disney would spend money on changes the way the majors did for their features.
The Fox Theater in Riverside, CA was a popular spot for previews for the majors back in the 30’s. It gave them a little slice of what the mid-west might think. I believe GWTW previewed there. The theater still has it’s “Preview” neon signage to this day. Don’t know if Disney previewed anything out there, but I know he took road trips with Lilly to visit the Mission Inn (which is two blocks away) and of course the notorious “Snow White” party took place in Norco ( the Norconian Resort – long gone) just over the hill from where I live.
Here’s the Cinema Treasures entry for the Alex Theatre.