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A Dream Comes True

by larrydachslager on June 26th, 2014

When I first started this blog, many advisors warned me that it would be a challenge to keep it up because I’d run out of material. Not so. I have plenty of material to post about. What I did run out of was time.  Between classes and my tutoring job, my blog simply got away from me.  However, I’m happy to report that, thanks to  my formal film studies and having co-written two children’s books with my friend Dylan Siegman, I’ve gained the confidence and hopefully readied my abilities to the point where I can finally write the non-fiction Disney book I’ve wanted to write for decades.  More about that in later entries…

For now, appropriately enough, I am finally posting the long-awaited entry about my visit to the Disney Archives.  You may recall from our last episode that I was visiting Mt. Rushmore when a former student, Jonathon, a.k.a. “Sparky” Reckles informed me via Facebook message that he was doing an internship at the Disney Studio and invited me to stop by if I was ever in California.  It is important to note that access to the Disney Studios or Archives is not available to the general public. I messaged back, “I’ll be right over!!!”  The following morning, I got in my car, waved farewell to George, Abe, Tom, and Teddy, and headed for California.

Before I continue, I must point out that my love for the Disney product is selective. I’m not one of these people who covets just anything with the Disney name on it. For example, my appreciation for the more recent Disney films is spotty. I like Beauty and the Beast, the Toy Story films, and a few others, but my real passion and fascination has always been for the  old-school, hand-drawn animation, Disneyland, and the live-action films the studio produced up through the 70s.

Disney Studio

I arrived at the Disney Studios (and took the above photo) on July 8, 2009 – a day I will never forget. As a long-time Disney fanatic, I had already taken many a virtual tour via years’ worth of reading and countless documentaries on the subject. The Walt Disney Studio in Burbank was built in 1940, shortly after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Reluctant Dragon poster

For decades prior to visiting the studio in person, my primary point of reference was a 1941 film called The Reluctant Dragon. As we all know, Walt Disney was a master at mixing entertainment with self-promotion. He did this for decades on his weekly television show. The Reluctant Dragon is a part animated, part live-action piece in which humorist Robert Benchley takes an entertaining behind-the-scenes tour of the then-new Disney Studio. For Disney fans, The Reluctant Dragon is a banquet of cool stuff! Though some of the studio staff are played by actors (including Alan Ladd), and the technical information being imparted is fictional (let’s face it – Disney “documentaries” are hardly known for their historical or scientific accuracy), the movie offers a generous look at the layout of the studio, some of the real animators and voice artists, and the awesome “toys” including the multiplane camera, which was used for giving two-dimensional drawings the illusion of depth. Also of interest in The Reluctant Dragon are many references, in the form of drawings, clips, and models, to animated projects that were still in development at the time, including Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi and Peter Pan.  

Anyway… back to my tour. When I pulled up to the front gate, the guard asked many questions and took my driver’s license for a background check.  She then gave me a visitor’s badge (which I still have) and told me where to park.  I listened politely as she told me where Sparky’s building was even though I already knew how to get there. Early in The Reluctant Dragon, Robert Benchley comes across an amusing street sign. As I walked toward Sparky’s building to meet him, I encountered the same sign that Benchley does in the film. It was the first of several times during the day I became emotional. For a Disney fan, it’s an iconic landmark. Assuming that photos were not allowed, I snuck this one:

Disney Studio Sign

I met Sparky and we headed for the Archive building where he introduced me to Archive Director Becky Cline who led us around. Much to my astonishment, Becky told me that picture taking was allowed, so through my overwhelmed and somewhat tear-dimmed eyes, I clicked while I listened. As I mentioned, the Archives are not open to the public, so many of the items I saw were displayed rather unceremoniously. Legendary costumes such as that worn by Guy Williams on the Zorro TV show were hanging draped in plastic and plainly labeled. The helmet Dean Jones wore in  The Love Bug was kept in a drawer of a metal cabinet. You may remember the mystical painting seen in 1959’s The Shaggy Dog:

Shaggy Dog

That very painting was casually leaning up against a wall inches away from me, so I grabbed a photo.

Shaggy Dog  painting

We then went into what Becky called the “Reading Room,” a small area with bookshelves, chairs, and tables. This is where historians come to conduct research for Disney-related projects. Unlike the main office, the artifacts in the Reading Room were formally displayed, either in cases or high on shelves. Becky told me what each of the items was, but she didn’t need to. I recognized all of them on sight.  There were props from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a film I hold very dear.

Bedknobs props

There were props from the Disney TV show including a zoetrope and the toy bird that gave Walt Disney the idea for audio animatronic figures first seen in Disneyland’s Tiki Room.

Disney toys

The Disney animators used three-dimensional reference models so they could draw the characters from different angles. Here are two from Pinocchio:

Disney machettes

The first movie I ever saw in my life was Mary Poppins, and it remains one of my favorites. In the “Feed The Birds” scene, Julie Andrews holds up a snow globe, custom made for the film.

Poppins snowglobe

Naturally, I was thrilled to see it “in person.” It no longer contains water, so as you can see from the bottom, the birds haven’t been fed in a long time.

Disney Poppins snowglobe

Becky then showed us the famous Multiplane Camera, responsible for so many breathtaking moments of animation in the pre-computer days of Disney.

Disney multiplane


At that point, Becky had to leave us.  Sparky and I then ate lunch in the Studio Commissary (which contains a Panda Express!) and visited the on-site Disney Store where I took full advantage of Sparky’s employee discount. During lunch, Sparky introduced me to Dave Smith who founded the Disney Archives and was, at the time, the Chief Archivist. I knew Mr. Smith from having read his books about Disney history and had seen him in numerous documentaries, usually accompanied by Leonard Maltin.

Sparky had to go back to his job. He worked in the P. R. department and gave me some wonderful souvenir “swag.”  He said I was welcome to wander around on my own, which I did for an hour or two before reluctantly returning to my car.  Much of the studio remains unchanged from the way it looked during the “golden age.” The recent film Saving Mr. Banks was shot at the studio because it required very little alteration. The original structures with the art deco lettering still remain, so I entered the famed Animation Building where so many legendary animators painstakingly created Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, and so many moments and images treasured for so many years by so many people.

Disney Animation building

My sincere hope is that, through my current book project, I will be able to visit the Disney Archives again, but this time, as an author and researcher. But even if that dream doesn’t come to fruition, I’ll always have July 8, 2009.  Thank you, Sparky!

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