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By Harry McCracken

Storyteller. Dreamer. Businessman. Model-train enthusiast. Republican. Walter Elias Disney was all these and more. But if, before his death, you’d broken into the great man’s house in the middle of the night, shaken him out of his slumber, and asked him his occupation, there is no doubt what he would have answered: “Restauanteur.” Pose the same question to Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, Paul Terry, Fred Quimby, or any of an interminable list of other animation greats, and you’d have gotten precisely the same response.
If you’re only familiar with these legends’ work as animated film motion picture screen cartoonists, this may startle you. You won’t find chapters on their contributions to American cuisine in
Of Mice and Magic, Disney Animation: the Illusion of Life, or The Great Cartoon Directors. In fact. you may not even know that every one of the great cartoon studios plunged into the restaurant business between 1935 and 1950. If this article does anything to publicize this shamefully-overlooked aspect of our animated heritage, I’ll consider my job done.

As usual in the cartoon biz, it was Walt Disney who blazed the trail. Walt’s, the restaurant he opened in 1935 on Hollywood Boulevard (next door to Graubstein’s Peruvian Theater) was, as far as anyone knows, the first eating establishment to be operated by an animation studio. (Felix’s Dinette, the legendary Felix the Cat-inspired Manhattan diner of the 1920s, was an unauthorized spinoff that earned the eternal ire of Pat Sullivan, not to mention Otto Messmer’s surly contempt.)

“Your Change, Madame!”
Walt Disney himself could often be found working the cash register at Walt’s in the early days. Here, he concludes a transaction with an aged patron who appears to admire the cut of his jib.

Little if anything is known about what inspired Disney to enter the food trade. The Disney Archives, when contacted for this article, denied possessing any records on the matter and, indeed, questioned the restaurant’s very existence. But we do know something about Disney’s eating habits in the mid-1930s. Bob Thomas, in
Walt Disney: an American Original, writes that Disney ate a grilled cheese sandwich nearly every day for lunch, and snacked on fresh fruit from time to time. He enjoyed a full breakfast most mornings (omelets, or the occasional poached egg) and devised a special pancake recipe of his own creation, folding a quarter-cup of maple syrup into the batter. He was known to frequent Los Angeles steakhouses, and sent fruitcakes to employees and friends.

With this proven track record as an eater, it was probably only a matter of time before Disney entered the restaurant field. Walt’s was initially a small, lunchcounter-style operation, with eight stools, two tables, and limited outdoor patio seating. Although few early photographs survive, a 1936 newspaper article reported that the restaurant was festooned with murals of Disney characters and was famous for its sparkling tile floors and immaculate kitchen. A projector played Mickey Mouse cartoons in a continuous loop, with a two-cent earphone charge. Disney himself manned the counter while artists, waylaid from other projects, did the cooking. The fare was simple but hearty: grilled cheese sandwiches, fresh fruit, omelets, poached eggs, pancakes prepared with maple-syrup batter, steak, and fruitcake. It was an immediate smash.

Although evidence suggests that Disney had originally expected his clientele to consist mainly of workingmen who required a quick lunch or an early dinner, Walt’s quickly became a fashionable watering hole for Hollywood’s top stars. Mary Pickford was so smitten with Walt’s that she ate every meal there for weeks at a time and became combative at closing time. W.C. Fields, Janet Gaynor, Pola Negri, and a young Bob Hope were all regulars, as was Shirley Temple, who often tap-danced down the counter to provide entertainment. And it was at Walt’s that Cary Grant and Edward Everett Horton became engaged in an altercation over Hedy Lamarr that remains one of Tinseltown’s most legendary fistfights.

  Fine Dining at its Finest
The only photo of Walt’s exterior known to survive; circa 1936. Housed in the former location of a self-serve drycleaner, the restaurant boasted innovative design features including double-decker stools, an automated condiment facility capable of dispensing a thousand gallons of mustard an hour, and the first pay toilets in North America.

Success quickly led to expansion. A ninth stool was added in January, 1936, and a tenth in April. In June, the original restaurant was razed and replaced by a vastly more elaborate three-story establishment that sat almost 725 and offered live entertainment, a billiard room, and a rooftop biergarden that became an institution in its own right. Newspaper advertisements of the time indicate that Walt’s also expanded its menu around the same time. Turkey with giblet gravy was first offered in the summer of 1936, and a full bar was installed at the same time. A variety of pies were introduced in the fall, and the restaurant began experimenting with succotash in December. Although the menu grew only gradually, Walt’s eventually became famous for its wealth of offerings. By 1940, it offered nearly five flavors of ice cream alone.

Not surprisingly given his animated cartoons’ popularity with children, Disney also catered to the “kid trade.” A gift shop sold Disney toys, clothing, and school supplies. Monthly personal appearances by “Mickey Mouse” (actually Disney’s wife Lillian in a costume that Walt fashioned himself from chicken wire, paper mache, and fabric scraps) were popular events. Screenings of cartoons at the restaurant were so successful that the studio began producing food-themed animated shorts that were presented exclusively at Walt’s. (The 1940 film
Mr. Mouse Eats Some Pie is the only example known to survive.) There is reason to think that Disney originally began work on full-length animated features with the expectation that they would be shown only at Walt’s — a transcript of an early story conference for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs reveals that the little mens’ names were to have been Tasty, Toothsome, Yummy, Pungent, Crunchy, Bellyful, and Succulent.

Walt’s “Gals”
For years, the carhop staff at Walt’s consisted exclusively of the younger sisters of his greatest animators — a team he fondly called his “nine old women.” In this 1940 portrait, Disney (center) poses with five crewmembers. Counterclockwise, from right: Francesca Thomas, Olive Johnston, Lesley Clark, Marcia Davis, and Wardette Kimball. The majorette outfits were not uniforms; people just dressed like that in those days.

Throughout this period, Walt’s was staffed primarily by employees from the Disney cartoon studio. Animation legends such as Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, and Bill “William” Tytla doubled as short order cooks, while Art Babbitt and Donald Duck voice artist Clarence Nash, among others, moonlighted as pastry chefs.

The arrangement worked well at first. Disney worked tirelessly to maintain the restaurant’s high quality, shutting down production on both Dumbo and Bambi for six months in 1940 so that employees could focus their attention on culinary matters. But perhaps the grueling schedule (Walt’s was open twenty-four hours a day) was too demanding. Or it might have been because Disney paid no additional wages for restaurant work and charged employees a 10% surcharge for meals they consumed on the premises. Whatever the reason, discontent began to brew, and soon a union was formed.

Ironically, few cartoon fans today recall that the famous Disney strike of 1941 was primarily over restaurant working conditions. Walt Disney might have sidestepped the strike altogether had he simply acquiesced to the union leaders’ demand that he cease requiring restaurant staffers to sew their own uniforms using used cels and surplus paint.

After unionization, Walt’s continued to operate profitably, but it was never quite the same. When, in 1951, the city annexed the land it was on to make room for a municipal parking lot, Disney didn’t squawk. By then, he was already busy formulating plans for Disneyland, anyhow.

Still, it is clear that Walt Disney remained a restaurant operator at heart. Examine the blueprints for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) that Disney commissioned shortly before his death in 1966, and you’ll see space reserved for a monolithic, space-age restaurant, smack-dab in the middle of the development. Its name? Walt’s of course. Disney died before he could realize this dream, but the very thought is enough to make the stomachs of cartoon fans everywhere rumble in regretful unison.

Smörgäsbörd Bürbänk Style
“MMMM!Them’s good (smack) eats! That might well have been your exclamation after tasting the majority of the items on Walt’s famously diverse menu, exemplified by this 1946 example. Disney insisted on frequently taste-testing the restaurant’s creations for quality control, a compulsion that was in part responsible for his weight ballooning to nearly 300 pounds in the mid-1940s. (Click here to see the menu -- which is, appropriately enough, a big download. Then use your browser's Back button to return to the article.)

On to part two