ANIMATION ANECDOTES
August 20, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

Whatever Happened to Walt’s Garage Studio?

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.”

Left to Right: Ub Iwerks, Rollin Hamilton and Walt Disney in front of the Kingswell Ave. studio

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.

Paul Maher shows off Mickey and Minnie Mouse puppets in front of Walt Disney’s original studio, an old garage in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 1981. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

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
714-530-8871
gardengrovehistsoc@att.net

The Disney Garage moved to Garden Grove in the 1980s.

Memorabilia inside the Disney Garage at the Stanley Ranch in Garden Grove.

12 Comments

  • Very interesting but I don’t see how Robert Samuel Disney, born in 1861 according to most sources, could be considered Elias Disney’s older brother, as Elias Disney was born in 1859.

    • You are correct. It was my mistake. Thanks.

  • That’s a very heartwarming story with a happy ending. Congratulations to Paul Maher, Buddy Adler and the Garden Grove Historical Society for preserving this early piece of Disney history.

    And — Bobby Sherman! For those who wonder whatever happened to him: While guest starring in an episode of the TV series “Emergency!” he made friends with some of the paramedics who were working as consultants on the show, and they inspired him to change careers. He became an emergency medical technician and later joined the L.A. Police Reserve, training officers in CPR and first aid techniques. I found out about this after the Northridge earthquake of 1994, when he was in charge of the city’s emergency operations. He’s a good guy and a real hero, and I’m delighted to learn that he had a hand in ‘rescuing’ Walt Disney’s old garage studio!

    I hope for equal success in the drive to restore the even earlier Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City, but I’m not altogether sanguine about that. I know that Kansas City has done precious little to preserve or even acknowledge its jazz heritage, as doing so would tend to highlight its own sordid history of civic corruption and organised crime.

  • Wow, he’s got a Simplex E-7 projector and a Motiograph SH-7500 soundhead.

  • Kind of a nice little epilogue to Mark Evanier’s Paul Maher blog anecdote concerning this piece of history.

  • Wait a second — this doesn’t add up.

    Assuming that Uncle Robert lent Walt the money on the same day that Walt rented the room at the realty office, eight percent interest on a $500 loan compounded continuously over a period of 96 days only amounts to $10.63. The $28.66 in interest that Walt actually paid indicates a rate of 21.5%, which is downright usurious.

    No wonder Uncle Robert’s lawn mower was still in perfect working order after all those years. The old tightwad probably tinkered with it endlessly to avoid having to spend good money on a new one. What an ‘Uncle Scrooge’!

    • I got the amount from Roy Disney’s own account books that I got to see MANY years ago and took a few notes like the cost of making STEAMBOAT WILLIE.

      • I’m sure Roy’s figures are scrupulously accurate, but Uncle Robert strikes me as the type who wouldn’t hesitate to squeeze an extra dollar for himself out of any deal he made, especially if he was in a position to dictate terms. It turns out the interest rate was even higher than I calculated: according to the Walt Disney Family Museum website, Walt and Roy borrowed $200 in mid-November, another $150 ten days later, and then two loans totaling $150 in December. (I’m not going to do the math; I’ve already proved my point.) Still, he came through for Walt at a critical juncture, and Elias certainly seems to have thought the world of him.

        The Museum website also says that “Uncle Robert even appeared as an extra in at least one of the Alice Comedies.” Does anyone know which one(s)?

  • Adler’s book is a little misleading, but the basic facts are correct. It really makes Paul Maher out to be a gold digger, and he was, but he did the whole thing out of a love and respect for Walt Disney. I was there for the whole process except the rededication in Garden Grove. I even have time lapse movies I took of the garage being dismantled and moved. I showed Super 8mm Disney films inside the garage at a party commemorating the 15th anniversary of Walt’s death, attended by many Disney legends. I also showed the time lapse movies for the garage investors at Bobby Sherman’s house. Good times.

  • Gentleman I found this post for the garage and followed it to read this article I’m attempting to research the charcoal artworks of David G Hall who was an illustrator for Walt Disney in 1939 from what I understand. I have these artworks from David Hall and I would really like to find out the value of them or someone who would be interested in purchasing them I would love to sell them for enough to perhaps lunch and invention design or take my mom to Missouri to visit her brother and salvage whatever’s left in the house of my grandma’s that burned down, finding someone to buy these may not happen immediately but I would like them to go to the right place and not get lost in the shuffle of Internet advertisement for sale ads… These works are unframed but have the charcoal originals and the matting for the frame picture.. thank you gentlemen very much for your possible archival rescue of these David G Hall hand drawn artworks.. I currently live in Las Vegas Nevada and at one time I was friends with David Ronald Powell who was a engineering pioneer. 45prevostcoach Gmail. Barry

    • Heritage Auctions is probably your best bet

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