The Walt Disney Company started production in the rear of a small office occupied by Holly-Vermont Realty in Los Angeles. The first films were a series of animated shorts collectively called The Alice Comedies.
Disney Bros. Studio moved next door to a larger facility.
Disney made a deposit on a lot at 2719 Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. Construction began on the new studio shortly afterwards. The studio consisted of “one big room for the artists, a cubby hole apiece for Walt and his business manager-brother, Roy, and one or two other offices for the business force” (from Valley Progress, 1939).
Mickey Mouse “born” and appears in Steamboat Willie. Closely followed by Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck and the rest of the Disney gang.
Walt Disney Productions formed. The company consisted of 25 employees and 1600 square feet of space. By the start of 1930 there were 40, and by the end of that year there were 66. Each increase in staff meant an extension to an existing building, or the construction of a new one.
Total personnel jumps to 106.
Three Little Pigs released. The studio had grown to 20,000 square feet, with 150 employees. More land adjacent to the existing lot was bought. Through the next three years, the studio building activities and personnel numbers continued to grow.
When work on Snow White became intense, there were 300 people on the payroll.
At the start of the year, Walt leased two apartment houses next door to the studio to accommodate the growing numbers. A move seemed inevitable! By the summer, there were 600 employees.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released to critical acclaim and worldwide success.
1938 – August 31
With the profits from the film, Walt Disney put a deposit on 51 acres of land in Burbank, between Riverside and Alameda, to expand the studios.
The process of designing a state-of-the-art animation studio began, with Walt’s usual attention to detail. A number of innovations were incorporated, including underground tunnels to link the buildings so that weather didn’t interrupt the flow of work, and the placing of all utilities underground.
By the winter of 1938, numbers had grown to almost 900. Walt Disney bought the former polo field of the Black Fox Military Academy for $100,000 for the new studios.
1939 – February
Ground is broken for the new Animation Building.
1939 – December 24
Disney staff began the move from the Hyperion studio to Burbank to accommodate the over 1000 employees.
Stage 1 at Burbank is opened along with the rest of the lot. It was first used for filming the live action sequences of Fantasia.
June 20 – The Reluctant Dragon released, featuring live action segments that gave tours of the new studio so the curious general public could see behind the scenes.
The Three Caballeros was the first usage of the Burbank studio back lot before any sets were built there – a beach was created where an animated Donald Duck interacted with some bathing beauties.
As live action work increased, Stage 2 was built in conjunction with Jack Webb, who used it for the filming of the television series Dragnet. It’s one of the largest sound stages in Los Angeles at approximately 31,000 square feet.
Use of process (visual effects) work increases. The Process Lab, adjacent to Inking and Painting, worked extensively with matte paintings and miniatures.
Stage 3 built for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, complete with a water tank which still exists to this day, under the stage floor.
Disneyland in Anaheim opens it’s gates to the public, with ABC television network as a partial investor.
The Mickey Mouse Club premiered on ABC. The daily shows were filmed on Stage 2.
The first outdoor set on the Disney Studios back lot was an early California town for the Zorro TV series. After Zorro finished production, the set was redressed to be a European town square.
Stage 4 completed. It was first used for Darby O’Gill and the Little People. A complete Irish town was built on the backlot for the movie.
The backlot Western Street was built for the Elfego Baca and Texas John Slaughter television shows.
Disney purchases the 700 acre Golden Oak Ranch which had been used for a few years for segments of the Mickey Mouse Club.
Four buildings on the Residential Street were constructed for The Absent-Minded Professor.
Downtown Business District backlot sets were constructed for The Ugly Dachshund and Follow Me, Boys films. Another house was added to the residential street for That Darn Cat (for Elsa Lanchester’s character).
Monkeys, Go Home! (1967) featured the redressed Zorro set as a European town. Bedknobs and Broomsticks also featured the Zorro town set.
Disney Archives is founded by Dave Smith. The archives are now based in the Frank G.Wells building.
The town of Passamaquoddy was built next to the Western street sets for Pete’s Dragon (1977), including the lagoon.
Western street built at Golden Oak Ranch for Roots: The Next Generations. The street has been used ever since.
The downtown business street sets (1965) were demolished to make way for a new town set for Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Stage A is converted into a dubbing stage and theater.
Stage 4 (1958) completed 30 years of service, and was divided into two television stages (creating Stages 4 and 5).
Western street is demolished to make way for the Property Warehouse.
The Team Disney building is completed in a neo-Classical style complete with gigantic pillars in the shape of the Seven Dwarfs – Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Grumpy and Dopey.
Architect: Michael Graves.
Residential street removed and Stages 6 & 7 are constructed in it’s place.
Zorro Parking Structure is constructed on what was originally the Zorro town set. As the fashion for shooting on location increased, and film equipment became more portable, the need for extensive (and expensive) backlots became reduced. The Disney company had grown, and now needed more office space for staff.
Frank G.Wells Building completed, named after the former Disney leader who died in a helicopter crash in 1994. The five story office building adjacent to the main Alameda gate contrasts with the low structures on the rest of the studio lot. It’s the home of Walt Disney Television Animation. Additional amenities include a 112-seat screening room, a conference center and the studio’s mail room facility. The building has a usable area of 240,518 square feet with three underground parking levels, accommodating 600 parking spaces. The construction was completed in two phases: phase I in August 1997 and phase II in July 1998.
Architect: Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.
Stage C renovated and updated to feature fully digital state-of-the-art film sound effects recording equipment.
The Team Disney building is dedicated “Team Disney: The Michael D Eisner Building” paying tribute to Eisner’s 21 years of leadership at Disney.
- The Lost Treasures: Disney Studios Backlot on The Apple Dumpling Gang DVD
- Article from “Valley Progress”, October 1939