DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.5 – 1937 Grand Central Air Terminal the Original WDI Creative Campus

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disney History

Tagged: , , ,

frontpagepic_bg

Published on March 06, 2013 at 4:03 am with 28 Comments

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:


——-

Meet Bob Gurr at the Hollywood Heritage Barn on March 13th, 2013

Bob will discuss his memorable theme park and movie creations, including Disney’s animatronic Abraham Lincoln, Universal’s King Kong, concepts for the Jurassic Park dinosaurs and robots for the 1998 production of Godzilla. His book, Design: Just For Fun, will be available for purchase.Book your tickets now as this event is sure to sell out at the cost of just $15 per person.
Event information: Evenings at The Barn

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

Browse Archived Articles by

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    I always find it kind of funny how it all comes around again in the end. Too funny that a place that you once snuck into it became where you worked later on.

    Love hearing these stories!

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    You were a very mischievous child Bob. Did you usually get away with it, or did you get yourself into more trouble than you let on?

    Love that your adventures as a kid led you to the very spot where you would later work at WED. That’s much more than coincidence, almost as though you were drawn there by fate.

    Fantastic stuff! Can’t wait for more.

  • hollywood1939

    Funny how that works out! Loved the story! Showed your passion. I wonder how many times you thought of you sneaking in there as a kid when you worked there.

  • DisWedWay

    Bob I wish you could give WDI a little BIG shove to finally restore the terminal building and tower and get a few period planes and cars parked next to it. Kind of like they did with the period cars at the Queen Mary while they managed it. I hope they are collecting all it’s hardware that seems to keep disappearing each time I see it. Were you lucky to have your board up in the tower where some did. I have a few programs when they raced cars in Grand Central and wondered if you were a part of that?

  • RenMan

    If for no other reason, this article is interesting in detailing the history of what later because the campus for WDI. I had no idea that a major airport was there before!

    The runway is only a fifth as long as the ones needed in a modern airport like LAX which must provide for jet aircraft. It’s odd to think of a transcontinental flight originating from such a short runway!

  • http://thedisneyproject.com Keith Gluck

    Diane recently told me that Walt used to “sneak into” Electric Park back in KC, so you’re in good company, Bob. :)

    Thanks for sharing! I always look forward to your articles.

  • mcow1

    Great story, I had no idea there was an airport there before or what a sneak little Bob was. As always, whether I’m reading this column or Bob’s book, or hearing him speak, I am reminded what a great storyteller he is. Keep it ip.

  • elly

    What a delightful read! I love learning a little more Disney history via articles like this, thanks Mr Gurr!

  • justjohn

    Awesome article Bob! My wife and I share your passion for sitting on the fence watching planes. We moved near LGB just for the experience of the generations of military and commercial aircraft that fly in and out! Thanks for the incredible story!

  • MiceChat Staff

    Bob that article was AWESOME! I loved hearing about the mischevious little Gurr-menator crossing the street to go see the airplanes. Just hysterical. It’s a wonder you didn’t get hurt. Thank god you didn’t.

  • LymanHunt

    I just recently visited the old Laugh O Gram building in Kansas City. Its so cool to hear about these locations and the history behind them. Especially from the personal point of view from the legend that you are Bob.

  • davidrusk

    Fasinating! Thank you very much for sharing these memories. What a great childhood. Fired in 1981? Those fools!!

  • JulieMouse

    Thanks for sharing, it’s amazing to think of the circle your life made around that airfield and how important it was for shaping you into the imagineer you became.

    I have to say too that I so identify with your love of living there as a child. The most favorite place I have ever lived was a beautiful condo at the top of Signal Hill, looking straight out to Long Beach Airport. I can understand why seeing the planes would be so inspiring to you, and soooo very glad that it inspired you in the ways it did!!!!

  • SnorkletsMom

    I love Bob Gurr. Imagination, enthusiasm, ingenuity, a great sense of humor…he has it all! And these articles are so fantastic. I am using them as lessons for my kid, they are fantastic jumping-off points for a little Imagineer.

  • yoyoflamingo

    Thanks for sharing! Love the irony of the airfield ending up being the WDI office where you worked!