I had an opportunity to visit for one last time this week, on my way to see the studio’s 1989 animated classic, The Little Mermaid, next door at the studio’s El Capitan movie theater (it runs through October 13 to promote a new DVD edition on October 1). My visit was bittersweet as I’ve met and know many of those who have worked there since the small, unique property opened in 2005, including the man who conceived of a soda fountain and store, former Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. It’s been four years since Cook was pushed out by Disney’s Robert Iger, a move which signalled to me Disney’s possible abandonment of wholesome, original and novel motion pictures. The result has been one disaster after another, from John Carter to The Lone Ranger, which are some of the worst movies ever made.
Cook made mistakes, too, but Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store is not one of them. It was a novel idea for the new century, a cross-marketing concept that matches studio founder Walt Disney’s idea of wholesome, enjoyable family entertainment with a touch of nostalgia, like Disneyland. The tiny space – which the studio and its executives never understood or supported – once offered Starbucks coffee, food and snacks, including a spaghetti dish inspired by The Lady and the Tramp, quality ingredients, handmade ice cream and proprietary merchandise from collectible pins to Christmas ornaments and plush characters that were often themed by movies screening next door. Hollywood tourists, families and locals could often pick up a Disney DVD for less than they could on Amazon, share an ice cream sundae and buy a token of their memorable time with Disney in Hollywood.
For example, one might have seen Peter Pan followed by a discussion with animators, producers and some of its cast, including the voice of Wendy Darling (Kathryn Beaumont) and model for Tinker Bell (Margaret Kerry), followed by a well-choreographed routine of acrobatic and modern moves to “Second Star to the Right” and a performance clip of a charming new song for the DVD written by Richard Sherman, who introduced the piece. The Soda Fountain offered a Valentine’s themed three-course candlelight dinner with the movie, too.
The 2006 Little Mermaid panel featured key creators on stage including composer Alan Menken, co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, singer Jodi Benson (who provided Ariel’s voice), Ariel’s lead animation artist Glen Keane and Sherri Stoner, who modeled for Ariel’s movements. As I observed at the time in my column, Musker and Clements talked about Hans Christian Andersen’s story—the mermaid dies in the original—Menken commented on music and Keane gave an interesting take on the development of Ariel’s look and movements and how somebody made a blonde Ariel doll that’s still out there somewhere. They paid tribute to the late Howard Ashman, who produced the movie and co-wrote the songs. Jodi Benson even delivered a surprise rendition of “Part of Your World”, accompanied on piano by Menken, who also composed Beauty and the Beast. When the lights faded for the film, a lone child called out: “Ariel!”
Afterwards, the crowd moved to Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store, where an exclusive Little Mermaid cotton candy ice cream sundae with collector’s pin, plush version of Flounder and remastered soundtrack sold out. The Dumbo evening featured a panel discussion, too, with music historian Miles Kreuger as the panel’s most enthusiastic speaker, putting Dumbo in historical context—Disney had lost European market share when Nazi Germany started a war—and talking about Walt Disney’s involvement, a union strike and a suicide. Guests really got a strong, powerful lesson in what enormous effort goes into making a movie.
That was often the case when Disney used the theater, soda fountain and store to showcase its best work, from an informative panel discussion moderated by John Canemaker, author of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art Of Animation, talking about The Lady and the Tramp with the man who had provided the voice of the beaver, Stan Freberg, who was kind enough to recreate the character using a plastic whistle, Disney songwriter Richard Sherman, restorer Theo Gluck and Disney animator Andreas Deja, who provided a visual tutorial using rare drawings.
After each movie, Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store offered the best counter service on Hollywood Boulevard. As I wrote after my first visit on Christmas Eve in 2005: “The studio store features rare Disney DVDs—including access to the Buena Vista catalog on an in-store kiosk, where DVDs and videos can be bought and shipped—and unique merchandise. With fresh food—the tuna sandwich is made from an employee’s home recipe—seven flavors of ice cream by Bakersfield, Calif.-based Dewar’s, Mickey Mouse peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and gigantic desserts—perfect for kids at the counter—the menu alone makes the destination worth the visit.”
That’s gone now, making way for a generic chocolate shop and store, operated by San Francisco-based chain Ghirardelli, which is scheduled to take over the Disney property in mid-November, and so too are lively, stimulating tutorials, tributes and discussions about Disney films. Closing the store and soda fountain marks the end of an experiment. But it also means the end of a commitment to top caliber moviegoing in Hollywood that made for a unique Disney experience. Shutting down the place dilutes and diminishes Disney’s brand. From now on, we should expect less.