I think the first thing people notice when coming to the Los Feliz, Echo Park, Silverlake area is how “artsy” it is. It started that way. Once known as Edendale, the area was the birthplace of the silent film industry in Southern California. By the twenties is was expanding west into Hollywood, but many of the studios remain to this day.
The industry was so pervasive that chances are if you are thinking of buying a home in the Los Feliz area it was once owned by a famous movie producer, actor, actress, or other motion picture giant. The Los Feliz Improvement Association has an online database where you can look up previous owners of any home you might want to buy in the area.
The Walt Disney Legacy
The biggest legacy left to Los Feliz was that of Walt Disney. All of his homes but one were located in the neighborhood as were his first three studios.
It began in 1923. Walt Disney was unable to keep his Laugh-O-Gram cartoon business in Kansas City going. His brother Roy who was already in Los Angeles recovering from tuberculosis urged him to come west. Their aunt and uncle Charlotte and Robert Disney who were living at 4406 Kingswell Ave offered him a room in their house for $5.00 per week.
Uncle Robert Disney’s House
Walt had given up on cartoons and didn’t intend to continue making them in LA. He came to Los Angeles with the hope of landing a job as a producer in one of the emerging movie studios but was never successful in his attempts. When uncle Robert started nagging Walt about his unemployed status, Roy suggested he get back into the cartoon business he left behind in Kansas City.
Using wooden crates, scrap lumber and a small sum of money borrowed from his uncle, Walt set up a makeshift animation studio in the garage behind the Kingswell house. The Disney Studios were born and he began making cartoon joke reels for movie theatre chains. He also started making what would become the Alice Comedies, a groundbreaking cartoon that was most likely the first to incorporate a living actress into a movie cast of cartoon characters.
The Birth Of The Walt Disney Studio
Walt began working on what he then called Alice’s Wonderland, a silent black and white film combining live action and animation. The movie was never released, but he showed it as portfolio work privately to cartoon distributors.
In 1923 he showed this to Margaret J. Winkler, a distributor from New York who had been distributing Felix the Cat. On October 16, 1923 the Disney brothers signed with her and this date became the formal beginning of the Walt Disney Studio.
The brothers immersed themselves in producing the Alice Comedies in the garage at uncle Robert’s house. They had no staff, so Walt animated all of the first 6 films himself and Roy was the camera man for the live-action sequences. The first episode, Alice’s Day at Sea was released on March 1, 1924.
There is a conflict in the research materials here. According to another account, Walt told Ms. Winkler that making the cartoons required being located in a production center where they could engage trained talent. She reportedly mailed a check to cover the cost of setting up in a studio down the street and production of the Alice Comedies began in the new studio.
The Next Walt Disney Studio
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I’m inclined to go with the second version for the brothers had relocated the studio just down the street at 4651 Kingwell in 1923, the same year they signed with Winkler. The Disney studio operated out of the Kingswell building from 1923 to 1926, first taking up just half of a real estate office that occupied one storefront, then growing to take up space next door too.
The old Disney studio is now a copy shop know as Extra Copy and bears a drawing of Micky Mouse in the window starting it was Disney’s first studio in 1923. The owners are fond of the heritage and state that they feel Walt Disney is still present.
The Alice Comedies formed a solid foundation from which the rest of the Disney empire… and other major motion picture enterprises… grew. By 1924 Disney had built a studio staff that included animators and a camera operator. In 1926 they moved into a much larger studio on Hyperion. This is currently the Gelson’s Market across the street from the Silverlake Trader Joe’s.
Walt got off to a rough start at the Hyperion Studio. It was here they wrapped up the Alice Comedies and Walt introduced a new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. With the popularity of Oswald, Walt asked his distributor Charles Mintz for an increase in budget to help cover the operating costs only to learn that they wanted to decrease Walt’s budget by 20 percent. Walt also learned that he didn’t own the rights to Oswald, Mintz did, and that Mintz had hired away most of Walt’s staff.
Walt and a few loyal artists finished the contract with Mintz while secretly working on a new character – Mickey Mouse. As we know, Mickey proved to be more popular than anything he had done up to that point and may still be his most memorable work.
It was also in the Hyperion studio they worked on Snow White in the thirties. It’s been said that the animators lived in the Snow White Cottages just around the corner at 2906 Griffith Park Blvd.
Walt Disney’s Homes
There are a number of short stops between, but I am listing the major places Walt Disney lived. Walt and his brother moved into a place at 4409 Kingswell Street almost directly across the street from uncle Robert’s house. In 1925 Walt married his ink and paint girl, Lillian, in the home of his uncle’s house on Kingswell. They moved into a small apartment at 4637 Melbourne Ave. just a block up from the studio and then later to a larger apartment on Commonwealth Avenue.
In 1927, Walt and Roy bought matching homes on Lyric avenue in Silver Lake, near the new studio. The small homes were just 1100 square feet, with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen. It was in the garage at Walt’s home on Lyric Avenue that he and his loyal animators worked in secret on the first Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Success and pregnancy prompted the move in 1933 to a much larger house at 4053 Woking Way also in Los Feliz. They lived here for a few years before moving to their final home in Holmby Hills, where he had the train in his backyard.
The Twist of Fate that Brought Disney to the World
I’m often struck with how one seemingly minor choice can affect the outcome of one’s entire life, or that of many. As Los Angeles Magazine pointed out, had Roy not been sent to LA for treatment, had Robert not offered him a home, young Walt is likely to have given up the unsuccessful cartoon business, stayed in the midwest and disappeared into obscurity.
Thank goodness for Uncle Robert and brother Roy.
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