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Frames of Time...

091_04 - Disney's backlot becomes a black hole...
When Michael Eisner was hired to run the Disney studio in the early 1980s, one of his first acts was to economize.

He did this by firing lots of studio folks and 'outsourcing' the jobs to small companies. He also decided the studio needed to move into the new era of filmmaking. This meant hiring lots and lots of management. To make room for these folks, he kicked the animators out of the animation building and put them into an industrial site in Glendale. The Disney animation building was one of the first structures designed to house animators.

Disney had put a lot of thought into the entire studio. Using the enormous profits from SNOW WHITE, he designed the studio to look like a campus. It was to give the employees a pleasant, relaxing surrounding. He had tunnels installed so that the animation art could be taken from the animation building to the camera building without going outside in the rain. In 1941, he put up special signs and decorations for the movie THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. The film was a behind the scenes look at how animation was done. The studio structures remained virtually unchanged from then through the 1970s.

As Disney began to get into live action tv production, he built several sets. One was the 'office' he would host his weekly TV show from. Another was an early California village for his ZORRO series. In the 1960s, he constructed a full (but small) backlot. One of the buildings was acutally a front built onto the back of the ink and paint building. This mini-backlot was the scene of dozens of feature films and TV shows. Films from THE UGLY DACHSHUND to PETE'S DRAGON to THE NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS were shot there. For PETE'S DRAGON, a section was dug out to create the bay that Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney sang on. For THE NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS they blew up a church and then cleaned it up. Even the animation buildings got into 'the act' during the Kurt Russel Medfield High comedies. The campus atmosphere and buildings stood in for various campus exteriors.

However, Eisner deemed it was more necessary to make room for employees and parking structures. He filled the Zorro set with trailers. Then, within one week, he tore down the entire backlot area and dug this enormous hole. The hole became a new underground parking lot. It happened so quickly that no film historians even had a chance to attempt to save it. The hole got filled in equally quick. This photo, one of the only ones I took and know of, shows the hole with the animation building (left) and Roy O. Disney building (right) in the background. Replacing the previous small parking lot, vollyball court, large wooded area and studio sets would be an enormous parking structure and the famed giant 'seven dwarfs' building.

At the time, Eisner was seen by most of the business world and stockholders as someone who was going to pull the studio out of its troubles. Though he fired dozens of long time employees, cut services, forced Disneyland to remain open every day (thus causing the park's maintenance to flounder), and destroyed large amounts of Disney history, almost all looked the other way. The studio under his guidance was suddenly making money.

Viewed by today's standards, the 'troubles' of the Ron Miller regime seem small. Ron Miller may have produced Disney's THE BLACK HOLE, but Eisner has truly created a black hole at Disney. In fact, considering all the studio has lost in the last two decades, Ron Miller looks pretty good.

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