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Why For returns!

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Why For returns!

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First up, Ari S. writes in to ask:

Jim --

There's this weird old house on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills. You may have seen pictures of it in LA history books. It looks like something straight out of a Disney animated feature from the 1930s.

That's actually why I'm writing today. A friend of mine swears that this house was actually designed by a lead animator on "Snow White." But I don't know if I can buy that story.

So I was wondering: Do you know anything about the Spadena House at 516 Walden Drive? Was it really built by somebody who worked on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"?

Ari S.

Dear Ari S.

You're talking about the "Witch's House," aren't you? Arguably the most famous of Los Angeles' Storybook houses.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Man, I've looking for an excuse to visit this place for years. So -- using your e-mail as an incentive, Ari -- Nancy and I made a special trip out to the Spadena House while we were in LA last month. In fact, the photos that I'm using to illustrate this "Why For" answer were actually taken at the "Witch's House" the Saturday before last.

Anyway ... To answer your question, Ari ... Your friend's wrong. Yes, a story has circulated around Hollywood for decades now about how the Spadena House was reportedly designed by the art director of "Snow White." How all the work that this guy did on Walt Disney's first full length animated feature supposedly inspired him to create a home that looked like the Seven Dwarfs could live there.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

The only problem with this Tinseltown tale is that the times and dates involved here don't really jib. By that I mean: Yes, a studio art director named Harry Oliver did design and build the "Witch's House." But the fact of the matter is that Oliver built the Spadena House (which was originally used as office space & dressing rooms at the long-since-defunct Willat Studios in Culver City) back in 1921. Whereas Walt didn't begin working on "Snow White" 'til late 1934 / early 1935.

So you see what I'm saying here, Ari? The details of your friend's story just don't add up. Mind you, if someone wanted to try & sell me on the idea that the "Witch's House" somehow influenced that look of Disney's "Snow White" ... Well, that I might believe.

After all, the Spadena House is a wonder. Or -- rather -- it will be a wonder again. Once the multi-million dollar restoration job that the "Witch's House" 's current owner -- Beverly Hills realtor Michael Libow -- is having done to this Walden Drive home is finally complete.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

As you can see by the above photo, no expense is being spared in Libow's effort to restore this stylized structure to its former glory. Michael's even going so far as to authorize the use of real wooden shingles to replace all of those that have fallen out of the house's roof over the past 70 years. Which is a decision that you just know Libow's insurance company can't be all that crazy about.

Anywho ... The way I hear it, this restoration should finally be complete sometime over the next six months. So tell you what: The next time Nancy and I are out in LA, we'll swing on by 516 Walden Drive and see if we can't get some more pictures of the "Witch's House." Just so JHM readers can see what this Storybook house looks like when all the work is finally complete.

Speaking of Storybook houses: If you'd like to learn more about this unique aspect of Los Angeles' architectural history, then I suggest you check out John Robert Marlow's storybookers.com. Which (admittedly) is a kind of work-in-progress. But -- that said -- this website still has a great selection of photos of some of LA's more famous Storybook homes.

Next up, Robert P. writes in to ask about an aborted Feature Animation Florida project:

Jim --

Thanks for all the images from SIGGRAPH this week. It really gives me some hope to see that Disney Feature Animation has so many good looking projects in the works right now. That maybe the studio really has finally turned a corner and is on the way back to greatness.

But still I wonder about all those films that Disney almost made. Like the one I heard about while I was vacationing in Orlando a few years back. It was supposed to be this backwoods fantasy. A hillbilly version Romeo & Juliet. Based on what that tour guide at Disney/MGM told us about the picture (I remember that the film's cast was supposed to feature Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Hal Holbrook. And that the movie's music was supposed to be done by Ricky Skaggs), this project sounded like it could have been a hell of a lot of fun.

For the life of me, I can't remember what this movie was supposed to be called. But I still wish Disney had finished making it so that I could have seen this.

Do you know anything about this movie? It was supposed to be made at that animation studio at Disney/MGM.


Robert P.

Dear Robert P. --

The movie that you're talking about was first called "My Peoples," then "Angel and her No Good Sister," then "A Few Good Ghosts." Production of this 2D / CG hybrid was officially shut down on November 14, 2003. When David Stainton, president of Disney Feature Animation, quietly slipped into town and suddenly announced to staffers who work ed at the Florida animation studio that the Disney-MGM operation would soon be shutting down.

Now some people will tell you that the real reason that WDFAF was closed was "A Few Good Ghosts" had significant story problems. That this film just wasn't ready to move into full-blown production. But I've seen a few clips from the work-in-progress version of the picture & looked at a few storyboards. And you know -- based on what I saw of that picture -- I think that "Ghosts" could have been a really fun flick. This project had a genuinely quirky charm and a style all its own.

And the film's music ... That (to my way of thinking, anyway) was one of the real losses of "A Few Good Ghosts" 's cancellation. Grammy Award winner Ricky Skaggs wrote three songs for the film. Marty Stuart also contributed several tunes to the movie's score, including one that Stuart collaborated on with Skaggs. Plus Ricky worked with Hank Williams III on a Hank Williams song that was to have been featured prominently in the picture.

So we're talking about a Disney animation feature with a decidedly bluegrass score. Which -- given "A Few Good Ghosts" setting and storyline -- only seems logical.

Now normally when production of a Disney animated film is cancelled, all of the material that was prepared for that picture goes straight into the vault. Never to be seen or heard again. But when it came to "A Few Good Ghosts," something unusual happened.

For some reason, rather than lock this stuff away forever, Walt Disney Feature Animation actually agreed to give Rick Skaggs back two songs that he'd prepared for "Ghosts" : Two instrumentals called "Appalachian Joy" and "Monroe Dancin.' "  Skaggs then included these two cuts on his latest album, "Brand New Strings." Which was released to stores back on September of 2004.

So even though production of this WDFAF film didn't actually go forward, a little bit of "A Few Good Ghosts" still lives on. At least as instrumentals on the new Ricky Skaggs album. So if you still want to get a sense of what "Ghosts" was going to be like, Robert P., I suggest you pick up a copy of "Brand New Strings."

Next up, William writes in to ask:

Do you know why the Tree House Villas at Walt Disney World have never reopened? They were "temporarily" closed after 9/11 and they have never reopened. When taking the boat launch from Port Orleans to Downtown Disney, the Tree House Villas are still visible. The only problem is they still have trees and tree branches on top of them from the hurricanes of last year. It looks like nothing has been done to repair them or even clean up the downed trees. I would really like to know why this resort remains abandoned and neglected.

You know, I'm not actually sure about this one, William. So why don't we turn to JHM resident WDW hotel expert -- Scott Liljenquist of Mouseketrips.com -- and see what he has to say about what's going with the Treehouse Villas at Disney World? Scott?

That's an interesting question, William, and one that we get asked quite often. Apparently there is still plenty of interest in the Treehouse Villas if the number of inquiries we get is any indication.

First a little history for those who might not be familiar with the Treehouse Villas. Disney announced plans in 1973 for a permanent residential area to be constructed on Walt Disney World property. To be called Lake Buena Vista, it was to have included townhomes, single family homes, apartments, condos, a shopping area, and recreation facilities. The 60 Treehouse Villas were built in 1975 as a part of this project, which was renamed the Village Resort in 1985 when the original residential concept was abandoned.

The Treehouse Villas are two-story, octagonal-shaped structures that feature 3 bedrooms, a living room area, full kitchen, dining area, and two bathrooms. Located right on the bank of the Sassagoula River, each Treehouse Villa is a free-standing structure and is surrounded by trees and wooded areas. The second floor is cantilevered and makes for a very interesting architectural design.

The entire Village Resort and along with the Treehouse Villas were absorbed in 1996 into the Villas at the Disney Institute, Michael Eisner's "Education on Vacation" concept. You can see the villas at the north eastern end of the property in an original property map below.

All of the Treehouse Villas were closed in 2001 after 9/11, with an undetermined future as a reopening date was never set. Although given a valiant effort, Disney in late 2002 finally determined that the "educational vacation" was just not appealing to visitors and closed the Disney Institute permanently. The Disney Institute land was to be turned over to the Disney Vacation Club for construction of Saratoga Springs, a new vacation ownership property which opened its first phase in 2004.

The Treehouses, however, remain closed. Why For? The Treehouse Villas, as they currently exist, don't fit architecturally in the theme of Saratoga Springs and would require extensive renovation in order to make them inhabitable again. In addition, the freestanding construction of each unit dramatically increases maintenance and housekeeping costs.

Disney would ultimately like to tear down the Treehouses and replace them with another phase of Saratoga Springs, but they can't. The Warren S. Henderson Wetlands Protection Act of 1984 prohibits most new construction in any area designated as wetlands. The Treehouse Villas property, located as it is on the shore of the river, falls under this Wetlands Protection Act, which means that new construction on the scale desired by Disney would not be allowed.

However, because the Treehouses existed before the passage of the act, they are "grandfathered" in and may remain as they are currently constructed. They can be maintained under strict guidelines, and can be improved or renovated under even more strict guidelines, and therein lies the problem for Disney. Do they renovate and reopen the Treehouses as an ill-fitting and maintenance intensive part of Saratoga Springs, do they tear down the Treehouses and not re-use the land, or do they just leave the Treehouses as-is until a better plan can be devised?

As anyone who has taken the Sassagoula River Cruise or the water taxi from Port Orleans to Downtown Disney knows, option number 3 seems to be the choice for now. The Treehouse Villas are still visible from the boat, and most captains will gladly discuss the history and future of the Treehouses if asked.

Most of the Treehouses are empty, although some are used for storage. Disney, in an attempt to maintain a good image for the property, has connected lighting in the Treehouses to timers so that lights are on at night to prevent the appearance of abandonment.

This strategy was working well until last fall. As most of you know, the area was pounded by three powerful hurricanes. The Treehouse Villas suffered severe damage from water and fallen trees, most of which was clearly visible from the water taxis.

Disney wanted to clean up the damage with the same speed and efficiency with which the rest of the hurricane damage on property was handled. However, a long, intensive governmental permitting process had to be commenced in order to fix the damage within the confines of the Wetlands Protection Act. Permission was finally given earlier this summer for Disney to repair the storm damage. The fallen trees have been removed, the damaged roofs have been repaired, and a couple of the decks that were destroyed have been rebuilt.

So what's the future of the Treehouse Villas? Disney has begun the long permitting process required to renovate the property. Current speculation has Disney renovating the Treehouses from the inside out and reopening them at a future date as a part of Saratoga Springs.

Our guess is that, assuming the necessary permits can be secured, that the Treehouses will reopen when they can be accessed from Saratoga Springs without having to travel through any of the current construction areas.

We hope they do. The Treehouse Villas are a unique experience at Walt Disney World, and were a fun place to stay. As they existed previously they were a fairly reasonably priced lodging that would accommodate up to 6 people. They were secluded and private, and the wooded, rustic setting was a welcome change.

Okay. Now let's toss this week's "Why For" back to Mr. Hill. Jim?

Thank you, Scott. It's always a pleasure to hear from the guys over at Mouseketrips.

Okay. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Answering your questions about what actually goes on at the Mouse House.

For our final "Why For" question for this week ... Chris B. writes in to say:

Hey Jim,

Any scuttle on the possibility of Tinkerbell actually talking in the new fairy movie supposedly in development?
That would sure open up a can of worms in the Disneyana world, wouldn't it?

Love the site. Read it every day after I check my e-mail.

Chris --

You know, late last month, I actually caught a glimpse of Tink as she'll be seen in the "Tinker Bell" movie. In that promo reel that WDFA was showing in their booth at SIGGRAPH. The footage flew by in the blip of an eye. But -- for the tenth of a second there -- it clearly showed an animator at DisneyToon Studios working with an image of a CG version of Tinker Bell on their monitor.

Oh, did I forget to mention that? That the "Tinker Bell" movie that DisneyToon Studios currently has in production will be computer animated?

Now before all of you Disney purists out there start to work yourselves up into a frenzy about how " ... Walt would have never allowed this," how this project is " ... a total betrayal of what the Walt Disney Company used to stand for," etc. ... Let me start by saying this is not the same CG Tink that you see at the end of "Soarin' " or at the beginning of ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney" television program. This computer animated version of Tinker Bell is several generations ahead of that one. And -- to be honest -- it looks pretty good.

Secondly, this "Tinker Bell" movie ... It's kind of a departure from the Tink we've known to date. The cute little pixie who was Peter Pan's sidekick. As it turns out, this diminutive blonde actually has a life outside of work. She has friends. More to the point, Tinker Bell can talk. At least to other fairies.

You want a hint of what's about to come? Go over to Amazon.com now and place an order for Gail Carson Levine's "Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg." This Disney Press title isn't actually due to hit store shelves 'til September 20th. But it speaks volumes about what the Walt Disney Company plans to do with Tinker Bell. Particularly when the corporation gets started with rolling out all of its "Disney Fairies" stuff next year.

Speaking of which, Chris ... That "Tinker Bell" movie. It's actually the first of four films that will feature Ms. Bell and her new pals. The first is the stand alone feature, which will then be followed by a trilogy. Yes, a three part epic adventure from DisneyToon Studios. It's perhaps the most ambitious project that that division of the Walt Disney Company has ever attempted. Though -- given that DisneyToon will be farming all of this CG out to outside companies to produce -- it'll be interesting to see how good the finished product turns out to be.

And -- speaking of finished -- I guess that about wraps it up for this week's "Why For." You folks have a great weekend, okay? And we'll pick up where we left off on Monday, alright?

Talk to you later,




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