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The REAL History of 6 Hollywood Icons Brought to Life in Disney Parks

5. Ivy Substation

Mission Revival architecture was a style that arose in the late 1800s, drawing inspiration from California's Spanish missions. Typically, this style is marked by "simple" aesthetics: tiled roofs, thick arches springing from piers, exterior arcades, bell towers, and – most identifiably – curved, Baroque gables.

THE REAL PLACE: One prominent example is the Ivy Substation in Culver City, built to house power equipment needed for the Pacific Electric Railway – the electric-powered "Red Car" trolleys that criss-crossed Los Angeles. The large Ivy Substation was filled with rotary mechanical rectifiers that converted alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) to power the lines – the beginnings of the electrical age. 

The Ivy Substation was closed in 1953, and remained empty, even as it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. In the 1990s, the building was revitalized by the Culver City Redevelopment Agency and the City of Los Angeles, and today it's the headquarters of and a 99-seat theater for the experimental theater non-profit, the Actors' Gang.

Image: Disney


IN THE PARKS: The recreation of the Ivy Substantion at Disney's Hollywood Studios has seen far more uses than the real Substation did, and in a much shorter lifetime.

When the park opened, the large Mission Revival building on Hollywood Blvd. was appropriately called "Pacific Electric Pictures," offering guests the chance to "star in your own home video version of a Hollywood spectacular." About a year later, it recieved one of Disney's famous IP overlays, becoming "Calling Dick Tracy." Guests could still take part in making their own home video, but now it would be a mystery tied to Touchstone's 1990 film Dick Tracy starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Madonna.

When Dick Tracy flopped at the box office, the space quickly re-opened in January 1991 as a gift shop called Legends of Hollywood... but then closed two months later. When it re-opened in May, it was called L.A. Cinema Storage – a clever (if chaotic) "warehouse" of souvenirs. The cluttered interior of the cavernous building was overwhelming, but Cinema Storage remained as one of the park's key retailers until 2014. That's when the building underwent its biggest transformation yet.

Image: Disney

Today, the building based on a substation that powered the Red Car Trolley is... the Trolley Car Café – the park's Starbucks. It's always interesting to see how Disney adapts each parks' Starbucks location to make sense in context, and Trolley Car Café does so beautifully with the "vintage" Starbucks logo and neon sign feeling just right along Hollywood Blvd. Now the interior is bright, open, and nods to the Ivy Substation with electrical supply rigs.

Image: Disney

Of course, even though Disney's Hollywood Studios now has a trolley cafe in an old substation (and even though you'll see metal tracks down Sunset Blvd.), the park doesn't really have an electric trolley ride. But Disney California Adventure does! The Red Car Trolley can be found "tooting" it way up Buena Vista Street and then down Hollywood Blvd. 

6. Grauman's Chinese Theater

American showman Sid Grauman will forever be remembered as the founder of two of the most recognizable movie palaces in the world: the Egyptian Theater and the Chinese Theater. The latter, in particular, is almost certainly the most iconic movie theater on the planet. The Chinese Theater – located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. – is an architectural wonder. Costing $2.1 million when it opened in 1926 (about $30 million today), the theater is a gorgeous combination of Chinese accents atop subtle art deco shapes.

The idea was to give viewers a sense of China, which most Americans knew practically nothing about in the 1920s. That's why the theater's architectural style is sometimes called "Exotic Revival." Two gigantic coral red columns topped by wrought iron masks hold aloft the signature copper roof (which, like the Statue of Liberty, has oxidized to a cool blue patina over the last century). The design features a Chinese dragon across the façade, with two authentic Ming Dynasty Heaven Dogs guard the main entrance.

Perhaps the theater's most well-known feature, though, is the Forecourt created by 40-foot tall curved walls. There, nearly 200 celebrity handprints are embedded in concrete blocks that make up the plaza. Like the Carthay, the Chinese Theater is known for its premieres (which continue unto today - it's still a first-run movie theater). Famous premieres include 1933's King Kong, 1939's Wizard of Oz, 1977's Star Wars (an event so legendary, Disney opted to return there for The Force Awakens premiere, passing over their own El Capitan Theater).

Image: Disney

IN THE PARKS: Like the Carthay Circle Theater, Disney's full-scale recreation of the Chinese Theater stands prominently in the center of one of its parks. In fact, the Chinese Theater's legendary glow at the far end of Hollywood Studios' Hollywood Blvd. makes it as obvious and anchoring a park icon as Cinderella Castle at the end of Main Street! The Chinese Theater recreation is accurate down to the lobby, and when the park opened in 1989, it even contained the undeniable "thesis" attraction of the park – the Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride, touring guests through some of the most iconic scenes in cinema history in an epic, 20-minute dark ride. 

Image: Disney

Curiously, though, the Chinese Theater was never the official icon of Disney's Hollywood Studios. It was outbid at opening by the Earffel Tower – a "studo" style water tower meant to emphasize the "working studio" aspect of the park. Even when the studio folded and the water tower was torn down, the Chinese Theater didn't become the icon. Instead, in one of the most absurd Disney Parks decisions ever, a giant hat was set in front of it. Since the hat's removal, the Hollywood Tower Hotel has stood in as a de facto icon on marketing and merchandising.  Maybe that'll change once the new Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway ride opens inside the theater.

History relived

Image: Disney

One of the things that's so spectacular about Disney Imagineering is their attention to detail; their commitment to getting the background so right, it fades functionally from view. No one would insist that Hollywood Blvd. at Disney's Hollywood Studios or Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure really recreate famous Southern Californian features to serve as facades for restrooms, snack stands, or attractions...

And yet, those with an eye for history will find the Wilshire Bowl building, Academy Theater, Municipal Light Water and Power building, J.J. Newberry building, the Bullocks Wilshire building, and dozens more brought (back) to life. Our friend Werner Weiss at Yesterland brilliantly captured (in his inimitable style) the real stories behind those dozens of recreations between Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure. Be sure to make the jump there to find the details you never ever knew you missed.

But even if our look today only captured the BIG buildings and obvious recreations, take a moment next time you step into Disney's Hollywood-themed spaces to consider the co-mingling architecture and atmospheres that made the real Tinseltown such a land of splendor and awe for Walt Disney and others who stepped into the movie town at the height of its Golden Age...

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