Legendary Disney Imagineer, Bob Gurr, has set the Wheel of Years spinning once again. Wherever the red arrow points is where today’s story will start. Let’s see what Bob has in store
The Wheel of Years has stopped at 1937, and off we go. Our family had moved in 1934 from living at grandmother’s big home in the Los Feliz area of Hollywood to nearby Glendale California. We located on Davis Avenue just across the railroad tracks from the Grand Central Air Terminal.
Note: Los Feliz is the community where Walt Disney lived on Woking Way, just one block up from grandmother’s home. The southern section of Davis Avenue was later re-named WEDway. See, this connection stuff is everywhere.
I loved Davis Avenue – the sky was filled with airplanes circling to land, and I could hear the big steam trains from the nearby tracks, but could see them only when riding in our family’s 1931 Chevrolet sedan. I knew the airport was over the tracks. Oh how I wanted to see the place. I’d graduated from nursery school in summer 1937 and started kindergarten at Thomas Jefferson Grammar School a few blocks away. For a while, I was walked to and from school with my mother, but later on I was trusted to go by myself when I reached first grade.
She’d trust me to walk 1/2 block to the local Mr. Todd’s drugstore to browse the comic books – one featured a mouse, another a totally crazy duck. I liked the cowboy ones better. When given some coins to buy comics, I bought a cap pistol and coiled ammo instead. When my dad found out, he made all further purchases in a deal with Mr. Todd to “watch out for me”. OK, I’ll do something else.
One day, faking my time, supposedly on drugstore visits, I got across busy San Fernando Road, crossed the tracks and entered the airline passenger terminal. Oh gee! A great big black and chrome radial aircraft engine was the center display in the lobby. Lots of well dressed people were coming and going for travel on the big propeller driven airliners. I was so close to an airplane for the first time – but I’d better hurry home so as to not get caught that far from home.
Another time I was able to sneak under a hole in the fence outside the hanger where the big planes were kept. I got all the way into one before a mechanic dragged me out and sent me away. I had seen enough to know that I had found what I wanted to do when I grew up. At some point I was drawing airplane cartoons with crayons on my closet walls until caught again doing something bad. But it turned out OK, I was given lots of paper and crayons so I could draw everything I wanted. I even made up crazy airplanes, and cars too.
My parents finally understood my airplane passion and would occasionally drive me to the Grand Central Air Terminal and to the bigger United Air Terminal way out in Burbank. I was then allowed to go right up to where the passengers and planes were at the gate. Oh boy how I loved the noise, smoke and smell of the big round engines starting up and moving out to the runway. The take off! Oh thrill thrill. One great looking plane, a DC3, after landing,would arrive at the gate sporting two orange flags outside the cockpit windows – the American Airlines Flagship.
Grand Central Air Terminal opened in 1930 as the airline capital of Los Angeles, remaining so the until a big new air terminal was built in the mid 1930s west of Los Angeles, eventually becoming the now famous LAX. The first transcontinental airline flight was from Glendale to New York City in 1930, American Airlines Ford Trimotor – Captain Charles Lindbergh.
In 1939 we moved again, this time to North Hollywood. War clouds were gathering, Army Air Corps biplanes were filling the skies above Grand Central, while bombers and fighters were being manufactured at the former United (Lockheed) Air Terminal to help England fight off the German Nazi attacks on their Isles. Soon came Pearl Harbor and WWII was in full swing. Both these airports stayed busy 24 hours a day with manufacturing and training all the way to the war’s end in August 1945.
When WWII ended, Grand Central became the hub of private aviation for Hollywood’s wealthy sportsmen, like Howard Hughes and Robert Cummings, who kept their luxury classic airplanes there. Part of the old American Airlines hangers became Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute where I planned to learn aircraft design after graduation from high school in summer 1949 (but I switched to car design instead).
Grand Central Airport closed in 1958 to become the Grand Central Industrial Park. In August 1961 WED Enterprises leased a small building at 800 Sonora Avenue to house all the WED folks who’d been squirreled away at the Walt Disney Productions Studios in Burbank since 1952. My office was at 800, then later moved to the adjacent new MAPO building, WED’s manufacturing center. Those old American Airlines hangers then became another MAPO factory called Airway. Many of my ride vehicles were built there – the same place where Howard Hughes built his famous H1 world record setting racing plane.
In my last year at Disney, before being fired in August 1981, my office was located in the old passenger terminal building where decades earlier I first encountered aviation close up. I loved being around that wonderful old place with it’s modern airliners and wealthy travelers. What a wonderful time of life, spanning age 6 thru 50 – living thru so many eras centered around the same place.
Over the years, WED became WDI and expanded extensively throughout the industrial park. By 2013, the WDI activities had become centered in a beautiful facility, now called the Creative Campus. When you drive down Grand Central Avenue today thru the Campus, you’re on the runway of the old Grand Central Air Terminal. Yes indeed, from the original LAX to Disney’s WDI Creative Campus in 83 years.
Amazing how it all comes together, isn’t it folks? Soon, the wheel of years will be set spinning once again, but until it does, I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts below.
UPDATED (March 7th, 2013 – EDITORS NOTE) :
Bob read through the comments on this article and wanted to address reader, DisWEDway, on his question about whether Bob had ever participated in the races at Grand Central. He did indeed. Here are some photos of Bob as an official at the Grand Central Sports Car Race around 1958: