For most folks, just mention Walt Disney World and they immediately conjure up images of shows, exciting rides, great restaurants, and, of course, Mickey Mouse. And that’s a shame, because Disney is so much more. Almost everything here at the parks has a fascinating back story, be it a building, an innocuous sign, a prop, or even music. Here on Sunset Boulevard there are several “Theater” storefronts and shops with an interesting story all their own. When the then named Disney- MGM Studios opened on May 1st 1989, Sunset Blvd did not yet exist. The first expansion of the park, Sunset Blvd. opened in July of 1994 and contained the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. In keeping with the park’s homage to the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, there are shops along the Boulevard that were inspired by real buildings in California. But the crowning touches for this nostalgic road are several “Movie House” storefronts, again modeled after real theaters in California.
How many times have you gone down Sunset Blvd, on your way to Fantasmic, or to ride Tower of Terror or to catch the Beauty and the Beast Show? Did you really look; I mean REALLY look at some of the beautiful details on the shops and buildings along the way? Let’s take the Beverly Sunset group of shops. First, the Beverly Sunset is the name of an actual theater; the Warner Beverly Hills Theater which was located on 9404 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. This theater was demolished in 1988. The theater front is inspired by that movie house and on its marquee are the names of the three shops. The Sweet Spells candy shop has everything from Goofy’s Candy Company to caramel covered popcorn, chocolate, cotton candy and more. The shop in the middle, Villains in Vogue now sells the newest collectible craze, Vinylmations. They were added about a year ago and are the top sellers in the shop. Also available are comics, Tron merchandise, and Disney Pirate apparel. Unfortunately, the Villains craze has subsided, and like many shops in Walt Disney World, they change merchandise as the guests’ buying habits change. It is interesting to note that on the back wall where the large white Vinylmation sign is, there used to be a movie screen which ran a 15 minute multiple choice quiz on the Disney Villains, keeping the guests amused while they shopped.
The Villains in Vogue building is modeled after the Pasadena Winter Garden Building which was a former Ice Skating rink. It was also the home of Olympic champion, Peggy Fleming. The building closed in 1966 and is now a storage facility. Directly next to Villains is the Scary Apothecary which sells Jack Skellington items. On the top floor of the Apothecary is the Muscle Beach Bodyguard Service and the International Brotherhood of Second Assistant Directors. Again, if you take the time to look at the detail, you will see their motto is… “We are Standing Right Behind You” This storefront takes its appearance from a bar in Pasadena’s Old Town neighborhood called the 35er the oldest cocktail lounge in the city.
Right across the street from the Beverly Sunset stores is the Legends of Hollywood store, selling plush toys, figurines of your favorite characters key rings, and other Disney gift items. This theater “Front” is modeled after the Academy Theater located at 3141 W. Manchester Blvd. in Inglewood, Los Angeles. The building was designed by famous theater architect S. Charles Lee in the Modern Streamline style. It was called the Academy Theater because it was supposed to be the home of the Academy Awards, but this never panned out. The theater showed movies from 1933 until 1975 when it was transformed into a church.
The next historic Theater on the Boulevard is the Carthay Circle Theater. This shop sells Disney-inspired kitchen items. This movie house of the Golden Age of Hollywood was opened in 1926 at 6316 San Vincente Blvd. in Los Angeles. This theater was instrumental in the history of the Disney Company. Walt Disney tried to sell his concept of the Silly Symphonies–cartoons choreographed to music with no central character–to his then distributor Pat Powers. He had a cartoon called The Skeleton Dance centering on dancing skeletons in a graveyard, but Powers declined, believing it would not sell to distributors, being too dark and macabre. Walt, always the go-getter, got a friend to speak to Fred Miller, manager of the theater. Miller, after viewing the short, was impressed and decided to show it. Audience reaction was positive, attracting the attention of critics who also gave it good reviews. That was a major milestone for Walt. It was also the first cartoon programmed at the Carthay. The next chapter in Disney history was played out again at the Carthay, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ premiered there on December 21, 1937, eight years after The Skeleton Dance.
The next historic building, perhaps one of Hollywood’s most famous and well-known, is the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The replica front of this famous building is the entrance to the Studio’s Great Movie Ride, but, since the Disney Company was denied the use of the name Grauman’s, it is simply known in the park as the Chinese Theater. The original theater opened in 1927 on Hollywood Boulevard along the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. Its most celebrated feature are the almost 200 celebrity footprints, handprints and signatures embedded in the concrete in the forecourt of the theater. You will also find “Celebrity Prints” in front of the Great Movie Ride, including those of a very famous Mouse! So you can see that there is more, so much more than meets the eye here at Disney. Not just the Studios, but in all the parks, resorts, water parks, and Downtown Disney. Almost everything at the World has a tale to tell. The area around Sunset Boulevard is just a sample of some of the fantastic stories and history that is part of the Disney landscape. One just has to stop, look, and smell the history!
Bill Iadonisi (NDH#35) Bill is the DDL History Blogger.