How Disney Imagineers Recreated '20s and '30s L.A. in 21st-Century Anaheim

The Carthay Circle Theater at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim (left) was inspired by the now-demoshed original theater in Los Angeles (right). | Photos courtesy Disney (left) and Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection (right)

Usually, when historic landmarks fall to the wrecking ball, they are lost forever, preserved only in our memory—and in our region's archives. But soon memory will once again take physical form when several historic landmarks from L.A.'s past reappear thirty miles to the south, at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim.

The eleven-year-old theme park is in the midst of a multi-year, $1.1 billion renovation that has placed its entrance plaza behind construction walls. When it reopens later this year, the plaza—renamed Buena Vista Street—will resemble Los Angeles of the 1920s and 1930s, when a budding animator named Walt Disney arrived in town and began building his media and entertainment empire.

Turnstiles have been styled to resemble the façade of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, while a replica of the Carthay Circle Theater will stand at the opposite end of the plaza. Trolleys modeled after the Pacific Electric's fabled red cars will whisk park visitors to other sections of the park, and the Disneyland Monorail will glide over the tourists below on a replica of the iconic Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. On the street itself, retail shops will evoke the architecture of the period.

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Recreating prewar Los Angeles required meticulous research. A team of Walt Disney Imagineering architects, designers, and other creative types pored over archival photos and videos from libraries and private collections—resources that were particularly helpful in reconstructing the Carthay Circle Theater, demolished in 1969, and Pan-Pacific Auditorium, destroyed by fire in 1989. The last Pacific Electric red car rolled down the streets of Los Angeles in 1961, but vintage photos—like those preserved at the Metro Transportation Library and Archive—helped the Imagineers faithfully reproduce the cars' paint scheme and design flourishes in the Red Car Trolley ride vehicles.

A Pacific Electric Hollywood car travels down the median of Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Imagineers also found inspiration in field trips to neighborhoods where the city's period architecture has been preserved, according to Coulter Winn, Walt Disney Imagineering principal concept architect for Buena Vista Street. Winn and other members of the team visited downtown Los Angeles, Old Town Pasadena, Westwood, and Wilshire Boulevard near Beverly Hills, in addition to the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge that links Atwater Village to Silver Lake.

"The team was looking for scale references, details, finishes and storefronts," Winn said.

Ultimately, the Imagineers were trying to create an idealized representation of prewar Los Angeles, not an exact replica. The shop facades fronting the street represent an amalgam of details culled from the team's research, and the Imagineers molded the three structures with real-world counterparts to fit the needs of storytelling.

"Everything was reinterpreted to give Buena Vista Street its own unique nostalgic scale," said Winn. "All were meant to reflect the optimism of the times and the diverse background of the population."

At the front gate, the Streamline Moderne façade of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium greets park visitors. A forerunner to today's Los Angeles Convention Center, the Fairfax district auditorium opened in 1935 as a temporary exhibition hall but would serve for decades as one of the city's most versatile facilities, hosting rock concerts, political meetings, and sporting events. Elvis Presley played there to a star-studded audience in 1957, and the auditorium hosted games for the UCLA and USC men's basketball teams. Countless Southern Californians walked under the auditorium's distinctive towers, meant to resemble airplane fins, on their way to see the Ice Capades or Harlem Globetrotters. But the opening of two facilities with more updated amenities—the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena in 1959 and the L.A. Convention Center in 1971—spelled doom for the auditorium. It closed in 1972, and, after aborted attempts to renovate the facility, an unknown arsonist burned the wooden structure to the ground in 1989.

Streamline Moderne facade of the Pan-Pan Pacific Auditorium. 1955 photograph by Dick Whittington, courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Interior of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, set up for a musical concert. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

An ice skating event inside the Pan-Pacific Auditorium. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

When Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke inside the Pan-Pacific Auditorium on October 10, 1952, 20,000 fans and supporters waited outside to see him. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Past the ticket gates, Buena Vista Street begins. The first half of the street, according to Winn, "has more of a mom-and-pop feeling with living quarters above small retail shops, like Silverlake or Atwater Village," The second half "has more of a feeling of early Wilshire Blvd. or early Westwood." The Elias & Co. shop at the street's end, for example, evokes the look of the Bullocks Wilshire department store, built in 1929 in the Art Deco style.

1940 postcard of Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile district. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Circa 1936 view of the Bullocks Wilshire department store. Photo by Richard Stagg, courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Dividing the street's two halves is the elevated track of the Disneyland Monorail. Originally styled after the Golden Gate Bridge, the track will soon resemble a more local span: L.A.'s Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. Built between 1927 and 1929 out of steel-reinforced concrete, the viaduct dates from the same period that Walt Disney and his brother Roy opened the Walt Disney Studios just a half-mile away at 2725 Hyperion Avenue in Silver Llake. The Disney brothers' studio is gone, but the bridge still stands today, carrying Hyperion Avenue and Glendale Boulevard over the Los Angeles River into Atwater Village.

1931 postcard of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Circa 1930 view of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

1927 artist's drawing of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

1936 aerial view of the Disney Studios on Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake. Today, the site is home to a Gelson's supermarket. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

At its end, Buena Vista Street opens into a town square, circled by Red Car Trolley tracks and framed by the octagonal tower of the Carthay Circle Theater. Opened in 1926, the theater once rivaled Grauman's Chinese Theater as a movie palace and hosted countless premieres, including the 1937 world opening of Walt Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and the 1939 debut of Gone with the Wind. The rise of multiplexes in the 1960s would mean the end of the Carthay, though. After decades of glory, the theater closed unceremoniously in 1969. "In today's economy the Carthay was simply not economically feasible," Los Angeles Times columnist Matt Weinstock remarked at the time.

Circa 1940 postcard of the Carthay Circle Theater. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Artist's conception of the original Carthay Circle Theater. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

1937 premiere of 'The Life of Emile Zola' at the Carthay Circle Theater. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

1926 interior view showing the Carthay Circle Theater's proscenium arch. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Artist's rendering of the Carthay Circle Theater in the Disney California Adventure theme park in Anaheim. Courtesy of the Disneyland Resort. Used with permission.

Disney has not yet announced an opening date for Buena Vista Street, but the theme-park-version of prewar Los Angeles is expected to open by summer 2012. Although these replicas may be simulacra, removed from the original structures' urban context and repurposed as an entertainment experience, their reappearance at a theme park speaks to the enduring attraction of Southern California history.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

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It would've been better to have not torn down the Cathay in the first place, to rebuild the Pan Pacific after the fire, and to not have to spend $50 a head to see Silverlake as a nice pedestrian neighborhood.

But where's the profit in that, right?

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Bravo Disney - what a great idea and tribute to LA's Deco past! In response to Jenni X - both the areas where Cathay Circle and Pan Pacific were located were so densely populated that it would not have been practical to restore, bring them up to current fire code, etc. At least this will give us the impression of what it must have been like back in the day. I can't wait to see it!

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Fantastic article, Mr Masters. I too am really impressed with what Disney is doing.