I had the chili. The commissary at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank still serves the chili that Walt Disney used to wolf down between trips to WED and the screening room. According to Bob Thomas’ biography — still the best of the batch, by the by, Neil Gabler’s overrated book be damned — Walt used to travel with cans of Hormel and Dennison’s in his suitcase, and he’d mix them. That’s what the studio chili tasted like: it was very salty, no-nonsense stuff. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they were, in fact, mixing the ingredients of two industrial cans in the kitchen.
The chili was just a small highlight of my walking tour of the studio last week, given by a friend of mine who is now owed a huge, huge favor. We poked around the ABC building, the interior of which should look familiar to anyone who watched “Alias.” We passed by the oft-photographed signpost at the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive. (Alas, I didn’t take a photo of it, or of much else; I didn’t want to call attention to my friend, and I didn’t want to look like a rube.)
We peeked inside the Disney Archives, which is more quiet and dignified than you’d think. I peered through glass at the “Feed the Birds” snow globe from “Mary Poppins,” eyeballed the personal film cameras used by Walt on his South American jaunt, admired the artistry of the Wardrobe from the Studio’s “Narnia” adaptation (I like the cabinet more than the film, truth be told), studied shelves full of out-of-print books and decades-old merchandise, and stood this close to the Multiplane Camera. The freaking Multiplane Camera, people. The camera that shot “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” That Multiplane Camera.
(The archives also contained the bedknob and “Isle of Nabumbu” comic from “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” the magic rings from the many permutations of “The Shaggy Dog,” the U-shaped laser guns from “The Black Hole” and a bunch of reference volumes that I would have killed to study. These things weren’t quite as important to me as the other items, but I wanted to mention them at least parenthetically. So I have.)
The studio itself is a strange place, not at all what you’d expect of a film production facility. Most studios are indiscernible from self-storage facilities; they are essentially great plots of warehouses, from which pour out electric carts and key grips and Kelsey Grammer. Disney’s lot has more in common with a modern-day software campus — its pathways are shaded by tall trees and buffeted by green grass, and even the relatively new administrative buildings, created by Michael Graves, match the pedestrian scale of the studio buildings erected in 1939. (The lone exception to this rule, the monolithic, Venturi/Brown-designed Frank G. Wells Building, stands out like a sore thumb. My friend tells me that it’s the most disliked building on the lot.)
There are two other things I can’t imagine on any other modern studio lot. One is a kind of “wall of fame,” Disney Legends Plaza, filled with iron-cast hand prints of Disney’s legendary creative stars — animators, writers, producers, executives, actors, Imagineers. (Angela Lansbury’s strong handprints indicate that she could probably snap your neck like a twig.) And the studio has meticulously-preserved bungalows from the Studio’s original location on Hyperion Avenue. Disney doesn’t offer tours of its lot, which has allowed its buildings to exist more or less in a pristine state, unmolested by tourists or a merchandising division that needs more boutique space.
It was such an overwhelming experience that I’m only now beginning to get a grip on it. I felt like Robert Benchley. Funny thing is, the screening room that Bencheley was trying to find in “The Reluctant Dragon” is mere feet from the main gate, and clearly marked by a sign. He must have been distracted by the chili smell coming from the commissary.