Suspended Animation #333
Walt Disney’s uncle Robert, the older brother of Walt’s father Elias, was living with his second wife Charlotte in a comfortable little house at 4406 Kingswell Avenue in the Los Feliz section. On the side of the house was a small wooden garage.
When Walt left Kansas City to move to California in early August 1923, he stayed with his uncle who charged him five dollars a week rent. Walt asked his uncle if he could set up a small animation studio in the garage. Robert charged him an extra dollar a week.
Diane Disney Miller told me when I interviewed her, “Dad got out his cartoon materials, rented a battered camera and built a camera stand of dry-goods boxes and spare lumber he’d found in his Uncle Robert’s garage.”Realizing he could not sustain a full studio out of Uncle Robert’s garage, Walt walked up the street on October 8, 1923, two or three blocks to a local realty office called Holly-Vermont Realty located at 4651 Kingswell Avenue. The owners charged young Walt ten dollars a month for a small room at the rear of the building and it became the first Disney Brothers Studio.
Walt and Roy had to borrow $500 from a very reluctant uncle to get started.
The loan from Robert Disney was repaid in full on January 12, 1924 (with the second check the Disney brothers received from Winkler) along with the eight percent interest that Robert had insisted on for a total of $528.66.
For the next thirty years the little garage remained virtually untouched until Robert’s death in 1953.
When I talked with Disney Archivist Dave Smith who had started the Disney Archives, he explained to me why the Walt Disney Company had not bid on the garage when it later came up for auction or wanted to display it at Disneyland. They did not consider the garage to be Walt’s first studio.
According to Disney history, the Disney Studio did not start until October 16, 1923 when the contract to produce the Alice Comedies for M.J. Winkler was signed by Walt and Roy. At that time, the brothers were already working out of the back of a real estate company.
If not for Paul Maher who wanted to open a Children’s Television Museum, people would not have known that Walt’s garage was still around and in need of saving. In 1978, he started work at Hanna-Barbera animation studios as their archivist and researcher.In 1981, he went to work as a cartoonist and personal assistant to Walter Lantz who created Woody Woodpecker. He helped Lantz and his wife with personal appearances and organizing and cataloging all the material Lantz had in storage.
That same year, Paul Maher was looking at slides of historical landmarks with a friend who was a photographer and historian of early Los Angeles when he saw a picture of Uncle Robert’s garage. At six a.m. the next day, Maher found the famous garage.
“There were weeds and garbage around the old California home,” he later told reporters. “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.”
Maher found out from a workman that the small one-car garage was planned to be demolished. Maher located the owner of the property, an Asian woman 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 $6,400, the cost of building a new garage, but he also had to agree to lease the house. He always said he had to make at least six offers before she finally sold him the garage. In the garage, Maher found Uncle Robert Disney’s old lawnmower and it still worked.
Maher knew that he wouldn’t be able to afford to maintain the lease, but insisted that any renovation of the house be stopped while he stayed there. He wanted to experience the same fireplace that Walt did. The kitchen and the bathroom had already been renovated. He lived in the home for about a year but ran into financial problems and was going to default on the lease.
He needed money desperately and felt putting the garage up for sale would bring a lot of publicity and potential buyers. He set a minimum bid on the garage of $10,000.
It was announced the garage was up for auction on March 19,1982. No one bid and there was no counter offer. The television and radio crews packed up and left since there was no story.
Arthur C. “Buddy” Adler was passionate about saving the location. Right then and there he talked to total strangers still milling around and formed a coalition called the Friends of Walt Disney to each chip in to buy the garage. They came up with $8,500 split among eighteen people including Maher and singer Bobby Sherman.
Purchasing the garage was one thing but the owner was anxious to go on with renovations and get income from her property, so the garage had to be removed fairly quickly.
The very first thing Adler did was to make match marked drawings of the various sections of the garage to remove it from that property and place it in a weatherproof storage warehouse.
He broke the garage down into two side panels, one front and one rear panel, and two front door sections. He removed as many of the roof boards as possible intact, and the work bench panels inside. By and large more than 97% of the garage was saved. The roof panels would require new asphalt shingles.
Museums, local parks and even Disney had no interest. A few places expressed some interest in of having the garage, especially for free, but they didn’t like all the additional expenses like installation, security, insurance, maintenance and more.
To the rescue came the Garden Grove Historical Society, a private non profit organization in Garden Grove near Anaheim. Much like Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, the site features authentic vintage buildings and exhibits.
It provided a space for the garage and a suitable concrete foundation. The outside of the garage was given a coat of white primer paint to protect it against the weather. The interior was left untouched except for displays.
The official dedication of the garage was on October 20, 1984. A yellow ribbon was strung across the doors of the garage and was cut as part of the ceremonies by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Since Adler at the time worked for the Walt Disney Company, he got permission for the characters to appear.
The local United States Post Office in Garden Grove came up with a beautiful First Day Cover envelope commemorating the event for sale. There was a picture of The Famous Old Garage on the left side with the words above it stating, “Dedication Of The First Disney Studio – A Garage Relocated to Heritage Park in Garden Grove, CA”!
The Disney Garage is part of the regular scheduled tours and the special group tours conducted at the museum. It is one of eight buildings currently part of the tour. So there is an opportunity for you to visit Walt’s garage studio from 1923.
The Stanley Ranch Museum
12174 Euclid Street
Garden Grove, California 92840