Walt Disney's Burbank office suite restored to historic glory

Stepping into Suite 3H at the original Animation building at the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank is like slipping back in time a half century to take a peek at Walt’s office as it was in 1966, the year of the entertainment company founder’s death.

Disney used the third-floor office from 1940, when the animation building opened, until his death from lung cancer. It was closed up for a few years before archivist Dave Smith inventoried it, then it was used by his successors at the helm of the studio until the early 1990s. The suite was then occupied by producers including, most-recently, “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry.

After Cherry moved out, Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger gave the go-ahead for “what we’ve been dreaming of for years,” said Becky Cline, Walt Disney archives director — a return to the way the office was in the late 1960s.

Using old photos as a guide, archivists faithfully restored the space this year as part of the studio’s 75th anniversary in Burbank, using original items cataloged by Smith, or accurate reproductions of the few items lost to time or too sensitive to display.

The five-room office suite includes a secretary’s office with a cabinet holding Disney’s many awards — such as a reproduction of the special Oscar he won for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with a normal-sized statuette and seven smaller ones — as well as Walt’s working office, his formal office and a private area where he relaxed after a long day’s work.

In the formal office, Disney would host large meetings with his staff and visitors. It features items from his miniatures collection and photos of his daughters, as well as their bronzed baby shoes and Norman Rockwell drawings of them behind his desk. In the opposite corner is a piano where composers would play their scores for upcoming films when pitching them.

Some evenings, Cline said, Disney would have a drink with composer Richard Sherman — who, along with his brother Robert, wrote scores to films like “The Jungle Book” and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Disney would simply say, “play it,” and Sherman knew what that meant. He’d then play “Feed the Birds” from “Mary Poppins,” Disney’s favorite tune.

On a wall in the working office, where Disney would often pore over scripts at a low desk, a master plan for Disneyland highlights recently completed and forthcoming attractions (as of 1966), such as “It’s a Small World” and “New Tomorrowland.”

The suite, which opened earlier this month, will be a permanent exhibit of the archives. It will be open to Disney employees, cast members and studio visitors. In 2016, it will be added to a tour of the lot and archives offered to “gold members” of Disney’s D23 fan club.

Departing the working office, guests pass through a closet where some of Disney’s personal effects are on display, into the private area where Cline said Disney would relax and sometimes get massages to relieve pain in his back so he could drive home.

Bob Gurr, who worked for Disney from 1954 to 1981, designed many of the ride vehicles for Disneyland attractions, including the Haunted Mansion, the monorail, the Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. He said Disney was unpretentious and did not take a limo home, preferring to drive his own convertible.

The archives has only one photo of the space, and not much is known about how it looked in Disney’s day, Cline said. It will be used to host rotating exhibits, the first dedicated to Kem Weber, the architect who designed the Burbank lot and the studio’s furniture.

The first opportunity fan club members will have to see the exhibit will be Jan. 29, as part of a $250 “behind-the-scenes experience” that will conclude with a three-course meal at the Tam O’Shanter restaurant, referred to as the “studio commissary” when the company was located on Hyperion Avenue, according to a company announcement.

Additional 2 1/2-hour tours of the lot are slated for April 9, June 25 and Nov. 19, said Jeffrey Epstein, a Disney spokesman. He said the company began hosting the tours in 2009 to give fan club members an “insider look” at the Mickey Mouse company and they are always popular. Gold memberships are $80; tour prices are not yet set, he said, but are expected to be less than $100.

Cline said Disney was a man of fairly humble tastes and the office is not ostentatious. It does have its Mid-Century extravagances, though, such as a kitchen hidden behind wood paneling that slides away at the touch of the button. Displayed in the cupboards are some of Disney’s favorite foods: Hormel Chili, Spam and V8 juice.

Another period detail which was not omitted, and pointedly so, Cline said, are the several ashtrays throughout the suite, each furnished with a matchbook featuring Mickey Mouse. She said Disney was a longtime cigarette smoker, as were many of the studio employees at the time.

Gurr said Disney preferred the Sweet Caporal brand, “which was like smoking rope.”

The ashtrays are not only an authentic detail — like tarnished brass brads in a receptacle on the desk next to the “Sight Savers” eyeglass tissues, Dow Corning’s first consumer product — but they’re also subtle reminder of the health effects of smoking, Cline said. Disney died of lung cancer at the age of 65.

“We could have had him another 25 years possibly,” Cline said. “We lost this wonderful man because of [smoking].”

Copyright © 2017, Burbank Leader
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