Welcome to Samland. This week I have decided to reach over to the bookshelf and extract an excerpt from Walt and the Promise of Progress City. Toward the end of his life, Walt Disney was spending most of his time on three projects; E.P.C.O.T., Mineral King, and CalArts. Only CalArts was realized.

Another aspect of Walt’s desire to build a community was his interest in art education. By its very nature, animation is a collaborative art form. Like everything else, he wanted to control the environment to produce the best possible result.

One of Walt Disney’s goals as the head of his own studio was to elevate the art of animation to a whole new level. He always wanted to show “those New York boys” and the others in Hollywood that he could do it better. This meant he needed to improve the skills of his artists. Very early, he became a big advocate of continuing art education for his team. By constantly improving the skills of his staff, Walt could achieve the quality that he demanded.

Art training for the Disney staff began in animator Art Babbitt’s living room. Babbitt invited other animators over to his house and charged a small fee to cover the cost of the model. The classes were so popular that it was standing-room only. Walt discovered the classes and invited Babbitt to move his classes to Walt’s Hyperion studio. Once Walt gave his stamp of approval, the classes became an integral part of life at the studio.


As the Studio continued to grow, Walt needed to find a better solution. He began to drive some of his artists to the Chouinard Art Institute, which had opened in downtown Los Angeles near MacArthur Park in 1921. Chouinard was so highly regarded that Walt even sent his daughter Diane there to study. Walt also brought one of the Chouinard instructors, Don Graham, to the Studio to teach classes that focused on the study and analysis of movement. The quality that Walt was seeking was not to duplicate reality but to use it as a basis for a convincing two-dimensional fantasy. This intellectual interest would later evolve into the three-dimensional environments he would create at Disneyland.

Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard
Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard

In the late 1930s, Walt made a deal with Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard: he would pay her back in the future if she allowed his artists to train at her school. The founder, Nelbert Chouinard, had said, “Talent is more valuable than tuition.” By 1941, Walt was paying as much as $100,000 a year on training. When Walt’s Studio became a success, he paid her back in full.

Mrs. Chouinard suffered a stroke in the early 1950s and was unable to take care of the school. Walt and Roy helped out by lending management resources. What the brothers discovered was that the school had been a victim of embezzlement to the tune of $75,000. Walt had a vision about a new way to teach the arts. His experience had taught him that everything was interrelated and that a multidisciplinary approach is the best way to achieve greatness. The curriculum would blend dance, art, music, film, and theater into a well-rounded experience.

Buzz Price

In 1957, Walt directed Buzz Price to find a location for a community that combined an arts school, galleries, a theater, an international street with restaurants and shops, and a residential district called City of the Arts or City of the Seven Arts. The school would embrace the latest technologies, including a television broadcast studio and a Hall of Design with the latest in industrial prototypes. By 1958, Walt had revealed his vision for this new form of arts-based community to his staff at WED Enterprises. He even offered to partner with architect William Pereira. Walt hoped that he would be creating an environment that would be the American Bauhaus.

Animation legend Chuck Jones worked for Walt for 4 months between jobs at Warner Brothers. In Inside the Dream, Katherine and Richard Greene quote Jones as saying, “Walt thought that a great art college would be one where people from the various branches would be able to observe other people at work. He said it would be a great thing if an animator could happen by a musician playing a fiddle. He could stand there and watch the musician for a while—study his positions, the way he puts the handkerchief over his shoulder and so on—and sketch him playing. And the musician could learn whatever it is the animator it trying to find out about musical instruments.”

In 1961, Walt and Roy facilitated the merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, which was founded in 1883 and run by Lulu May Von Hagen. Walt hand-picked the Board of Trustees, which included Buzz Price, Marc and Alice Davis, animator Chuck Jones, and Millard Sheets. Walt intended that the new college be modeled after the California Institute of Technology (better known as Caltech) in Pasadena, California. Caltech is considered one of the finest crossover institutions in the world for engineering and science; Walt wanted a similarly interdisciplinary art school, which he called CalArts, short for the California Institute of the Arts. According to Buzz Price, the objective for Walt’s art college would be “to create an inter-disciplinary professional art school where artists could be broadened by exposure to and study of different art forms—art, music, dance, theater, film, animation, and creative writing.The school would be designed to offer students the opportunity of being taught by professionals, leading to employability. Employability was a unique new objective in the field of art education.”

Cal Arts today.
Cal Arts today.

While most art schools focused on theory, CalArts would be similar to Columbia College Chicago, which stressed the practical application of the arts. This is the difference between Columbia College and its more famous neighbor, the Art Institute of Chicago. CalArts would become the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the United States created specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts. Today, the school offers degree programs in art, design, music, dance, film, video, and theater. Urban planner Marsha V. Rood, FAICP, said, “Creativity is where diverse skills, diversity of population and a place to engage overlap.” That was the type of environment that Walt had envisioned for his campus. Not only would students learn, they could also earn a living. An art gallery and performance spaces were included in the plan as a way to reduce the tuition costs. Each discipline would work with the other to carry out the artistic vision. It is easy to see how CalArts was meant to parallel Walt’s animation studio at the height of its creativity in the 1930s. Walt was looking for that intimate camaraderie and spirit of adventure that existed in the early days.

Walt said, “Togetherness, for me, means teamwork. In my business of motion pictures and television entertainment, many minds and skillful hands must collaborate…. The work seeks to comprehend the spiritual and material needs and yearnings of gregarious humanity. It makes us reflect how completely dependent we are upon one another in our social and commercial life. The more diversified our labors and interests have become in the modern world, the more surely we need to integrate our efforts to justify our individual selves and our civilization.” He wanted the school to become a center of creativity to encourage famous artists to take up residency for limited periods and to teach courses. In Inside the Dream, animator Marc Davis recalled a conversation when Walt told him, “I’d kind of like to give a class at CalArts, too.” Then he looked at Davis and added, “Oh, not drawing. I’m a pretty goddamn good storyman, you know.”


To show their commitment to the CalArts project, the Disney brothers set aside 38 acres at the Studio’s Golden Oak Ranch. Roy stepped up the contributions from the Studio; Walt’s foundation gave another $1 million. The federal government loaned the school $4 million, and Walt was able to raise an additional $2 million from private donors. The brothers also looked at a 12-acre site next to the Hollywood Bowl. In the end, they selected a site in nearby Valencia due to seismic concerns at the Golden Oak Ranch. Although Walt died before ground broke for the project, he was so committed to the vision that he left fully half of his estate to CalArts. During the groundbreaking in 1969, animator Bob Clampett could be seen mugging behind Lillian Disney as she turned over the first shovel full of dirt. Dick Irvine was instrumental in raising funds for scholarships and student loans. Price said that CalArts turned out very much the way Walt wanted it to be.

The school campus was designed by architects Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey and opened in 1971. Ladd said, “I will build a building where everything interrelates. Six schools are going to be jacked around and communicating with each other.” The main building housed a variety of functions: theater, art gallery, library, photo lab, ceramic and sculpture work room, practice and rehearsal rooms, and printing and lithography shops.

William Pereira, architect and Walt’s friend, consulted on the project. About the same time, Pereira created the master plan for the University of California Irvine (UCI) campus, which features a large central park encircled by a one-mile pedestrian ring road. The buildings face onto the open space. The roadways radiate out from the central park. The plan is based on a radial circulation system just like Disneyland.

As we learned in the final segment of Magic Highways USA, anything is possible if there is the will. Why else would a man who rarely spent time in school want to build one? Why else would an animator want to build a model city (and actually did build a model of it)? Walt wanted to spark the imagination of others and give them the tools to work together to make things better than the sum of their parts.

A bit more: Walt’s concept for an art college is similar to Margaret Mead’s view of the benefits of “the city as a center where, any day in any year, there may be a fresh encounter with a new talent, a keen mind or a gifted specialist—this is essential to the life of a country. To play this role in our lives a city must have a soul—a university, a great art or music school, a cathedral or a great mosque or temple, a great laboratory or scientific center, as well as the libraries and museums and galleries that bring past and present together. A city must be a place where groups of women and men are seeking and developing the highest things they know.”


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Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.