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

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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:


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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."

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28 Comments

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

  1. You’ve been one lucky guy Bob. Thanks for sharing your story and imagination with us.

  2. Wonderful memories Bob. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley as well, I recall fondly trips to Burbank and Glendale as much of my life ended up revolving around that area. Between going to school at Art Center, having dozens of friends in Glendale, my parents owning an old apartment building in Burbank and eventually working in a couple of places VERY close to WDI, I too have fond feelings for the quirky nature of the place. Burbank in general holds SO MUCH aviation history hidden barely below the surface, and is still my favorite place to fly in and out of. Thanks for the spin of the wheel to locales I have a real connection with.

  3. What a delightful column. It’s sad to see the Grand Central Terminal fall into such a disrepair and anonymity. Thanks for sharing your childhood joys and adventures. I remember a little girl who was just a adventurous as you were. I don’t think either of you has changed that much!

  4. I love these stories. It is interesting to read what helped lead you to become YOU! lol Please keep these stories coming, I really look forward to these!

  5. Great story Bob. I always look forward to reading your articles. Thanks for sharing your stories.

  6. Bob, you are a fabulous storyteller! Thank you for sharing your memories with us (and I LOVE your book!). I always smile when I see there’s a new Bob Gurr article.

  7. Another wonderful spin through your memories! I’m especially enjoying the early memories that help shape the man you have become. Can’t wait to hear more stories SOON!

  8. I did not realize that Grand Central was the old runway. I worked in the 1048 Grand Central building when WED electronic engineering was there and remember seeing 2 layers of asphalt in the parking lot. It makes sense now that I was seeing the old runway underneath. I visited WED mechanical engineering a couple of times when it was in the Grand Central building. I remember the interior looked pretty much the same as when it was an active terminal.

    • The Terminal building has great period tiled bathrooms and fixtures I remember when going inside there. Hope they will stay on the restoration as well as outside wall sconces and tile now removed.

  9. How long before Heimbuch starts transcribing an autobiography for Bob Gurr?

  10. Another wonderful trip down memory lane with master-storyteller Bob Gurr. His amazing recollections never cease to entertain, inform, amuse, and enlighten. A true Disney Legend and a genuinely sweet guy. Keep those columns coming…

  11. Another great Bob Gurr story. Thanks for sharing and keep ‘em coming!

  12. Here’s to learning more about how life’s lessons become apart of one’s work ethics … how I <3 reading Bob Gurr's trips down memory lane (thank you for sharing, Sir) :-)

    C J