By Rebecca Cline, Director, Walt Disney Archives
When The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank opened in 1940, employees were struck by the admirable lawns and pedestrian thoroughfares which were ideal for walks, picnicking, or leading to the nearby studio restaurant, or “Commissary” as it is called, which featured relaxing outdoor patios or air-conditioned indoor seating areas. The Commissary itself opened 80 years ago today. Please enjoy the following excerpt from the book “The Walt Disney Studios: A Lot to Remember” (by Steven Clark and Rebecca Cline, Disney Editions, 2019):
The Commissary was both convenient for employees and practical given rigorous production schedules. “Our restaurant was designed on the basis of feeding the maximum of people in the shortest length of time, and give them food that would keep them from going off the lot,” explained architect Frank Crowhurst. The facility was divided into two parts: “…a restaurant for those who want to linger over their dinner, and a coffee shop where they can be served quickly and where they can turn them over three times an hour.” Both areas, of course, offered high food quality and service at an affordable price. After all, given the lack of lunch options in the Burbank area in the 1940s and the distance to the nearest restaurants, Walt ensured that the studio commissary was subsidized, operating at either break-even or a slight loss, so that his staff would remain on campus and productive.
Before the Commissary opened on March 21, 1940, a temporary restaurant was located on the soundstage, offering “Fine Food at Popular Prices,” according to the January 12, 1940, Bulletin. The article continued:
A complete restaurant, even flowers on the tables, has been laid out in the Live Action Stage on the Burbank lot and is being operated by the Brittingham Commissary. This has been done for the comfort and convenience of the employees and everyone is invited to take advantage of its excellent facilities.
This restaurant came into being over last weekend, with carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians working night and day to complete the setup for Monday’s lunch.
The Brittingham Commissary is to be complimented on the fine food and service. Both a cafeteria and dining room have been installed. A full-course luncheon in the dining room may be had for 60¢ — the same luncheon is 50¢ in the cafeteria. Sandwiches and salads are offered at popular prices, pies and desserts are 10¢ and coffee is a nickel.
In order to provide the best possible facilities and insure that only the highest quality food is served, the studio pays a flat rate of 80¢ for each person served, regardless of the amount of the check.
The “Cartoon Special,” on the menu daily, is a particular feature. This consists of an entrée, rolls and butter, coffee, milk, or buttermilk, and is offered at 35¢ in the cafeteria, and 40¢ in the dining room.
The temporary location was a fine offering, but once the permanent commissary opened, it was an instant hit.
The Commissary became a vital place to dine and to see and be seen. Most Disneyites would frequent the restaurant, including Walt himself. According to Katherine Beaumont, the voice of Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan, “Walt was a person who was quite visible. Most studio heads, I had learned, you know…they’re in an office somewhere. But, Walt would come down to the cafeteria and go through the line at lunchtime, with his tray, and find a place to sit just as everybody else was doing at lunch. He would visit with people.”
Years later, during one of her visits with Walt in June 1963, renowned Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper joined Walt at the Commissary, noting, “Disney employees were standing under the trees talking, or sitting on the many benches that are scattered over his campus. Some were playing ball. Walt said, ‘I used to have a baseball field and a putting green, but had to take them out and make parking spaces.’”
Hopper continued, “A small boy was playing ping pong. A little boy with a yellow necktie and yellow socks was playing around outside the entrance to the dining room. Walt said, ‘Hello, Matthew. How are you?’ and as he passed patted him on the head. The little boy glowed.” Of course, Hopper’s visit was during the production of Mary Poppins, and the little boy on his lunch break was Matthew Garber, who played young Michael Banks. Moments later, as Hopper recounts, “Julie Andrews came by in a pert little hat with a daisy sticking up in front. Walt said, ‘I’m gonna give you that when the picture’s done,’” referring to Mary Poppins’ signature hat. Julie replied, “’I want it so badly and didn’t want to ask.’”
As Walt and Hopper left the Commissary, she noted, “In the serve yourself cafeteria is a big case that holds the Oscar with the seven little Oscars Walt got for Snow White; the Legion of Honor from France; the Irving Thalberg Awards and right beside the Legion of Honor are two Mickey Mouse watches – one for a boy, one for a girl. On the girl’s watch is a sign: ‘The 5,000,000th watch.’ On the boy’s, ‘The 25,000,000th watch.’ On his way out [of the Commissary, Walt] stopped to weigh [himself]. You get a fortune with this. He weighed 191 – was upset. His fortune read: ‘You have great self control and can take great abuse.’”