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Disney’s Hollywood Hills Campus That Never Was

What’s that up in the hills across from the Hollywood Bowl?

CalArts Hollywood Hills drawing
CalArts would have been in the Cahuenga Pass

In 1964, Walt Disney imagined an enchanting 26-acre campus for CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), “an acropolis crowning the hills above Hollywood” just north of Whitley Heights. The site, “the very heart of the cultural community,” was chosen for its central location: adjacent to the Hollywood Bowl and the planned Los Angeles County Hollywood Museum on Highland Avenue, and within easy reach of downtown’s music center, art museum, and galleries via the 101 freeway.

Before ground could be broken, Disney’s team surveyed the area over Pilgrimage Theatre, taking aerial photos and creating a model campus incorporating classrooms, studios, and dorms to accommodate as many as 2,000 students and their teachers.

Walt Disney CalArts Hollywood model
Walt Disney shows the CalArts model to founding trustee Lulu May von Hagen (Smithsonian)

To finance his “hub of the art world,” Disney produced The CalArts Story, a 15-minute promotional film narrated by Sebastian Cabot, which was first shown to a select audience: civic and industry leaders in attendance for the Mary Poppins premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which doubled as a CalArts gala).

The idea for CalArts came about in 1961, in the wake of the collapse of two longtime LA institutes, the Conservatory of Music and Chouinard Art School. Merging the pair, Walt and and his brother Roy planned to establish a university solely devoted to the arts, aiming to do for the creative field what CalTech had already done for science. Modeled after the Renaissance, emphasis was put on pupils learning from professional working artists “gifted with the power to create.” Enrollment would be quality over quantity, based on “top grade” artistic talent potential, with scholarships awarded to assist the deserving.

“Our idea is to create a school that will avoid the bigness and the specialization of a university,” Disney explained to the Associated Press. “Students would be exposed to a cross-pollinization [sic] in all the arts without having to take a number of academic subjects. They will get a bachelor of fine arts, and if they want a bachelor of arts they can go to a university and finish the requirements. The ideal thing would be for a student to go into the school interested in art and come out as a talented musician…”

Walt Disney CalArts Hollywood Bowl
Disney points out Hollywood Bowl to von Hagen (Smithsonian)

“CalArts of Tomorrow” was dedicated to the future. According to its philosophy, “the well-trained artist is a decidedly useful member of society”—and they improve it greatly, in all industries, from construction and infrastructure to automobile manufacturing and fashion. “Each creation becomes more satisfying when aesthetics and inspiration have been combined in its making,” noted Cabot in The CalArts Story.

And it was Disney’s goal to integrate his trained artists with the community: CalArts would be the anchor of Seven Arts City, “a wonderland of exhibits and entertainments, theatres and shops and restaurants, studios and galleries.” Described as the American version of the German Bauhaus, Seven Arts City was imagined as a learn-work community where CalArts students could sell their creations to the public at art-themed shops—music, books, glassware, pottery, photography. The complex would also feature a hall of design, TV broadcast hub, mall, international street, and avenue of model homes—with a fountain at the center.

Disney eventually abandoned the idea of Seven Arts City, but forged ahead with CalArts: development of the Hollywood Hills campus was set for fall 1965. But by that time, following the nixed LA County Hollywood Museum project, he had already moved on to greener pastures: the Golden Oak Ranch in Placerita Canyon, 30 miles north of Hollywood.

After further setbacks, including Disney’s 1966 death, CalArts’ own campus finally opened in 1971 in Santa Clarita. Today, the institute offers undergraduate (bachelor’s) and graduate degrees (master’s, doctorate) through its six schools: Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater.


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