The Spanish Colonial Revival Carthay Circle Theatre, which opened in 1926 on San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles, was one of the most famous movie palaces of its day. It was also a favorite of Walt Disney, who held the red-carpet premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” there on December 21, 1937.
During a recent virtual Carthay Circle Theatre Cocktail Hour hosted by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, Disneyland cast member James Silverman — who, along with his wife, Beth, were among the original bartenders at the Carthay Circle Restaurant & Lounge when it opened in 2012 at Disney California Adventure — revealed some little known facts about both the original theater and the popular Disneyland Resort restaurant.
“Walt created Mickey Mouse in 1928, and what you always hear from historians is that Walt was going to go bankrupt if ‘Snow White’ did not succeed,” Silverman explained. “But Mickey Mouse was nearly 10 years old when ‘Snow White’ premiered […] so it might have started with a mouse, but the financial ball got rolling when a princess arrived.”
The significance of “Snow White” and the Carthay Circle Theatre also inspired the Disney Imagineers tasked with re-imagining the entrance to Disney California Adventure in 2012 — and just as Main Street, U.S.A. represents Walt’s childhood in Marceline, Mo., Buena Vista Street represents the early days of Walt’s career in Los Angeles.
“One of the things that was really important as we began to look at this immersive, new main entrance was to provide an icon or a centerpiece that would culminate your journey as you walk up the street,” said Melissa Barry, who was senior show producer on the project. “One of the things that kept resonating was the significance of the night that ‘Snow White’ premiered, and we realized that the Carthay Circle Theater was this incredible icon. The whole journey of Walt Disney arriving in 1923 and then premiering ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ in 1937 was this incredible story […] of a man with a dream who made that dream come true, so this building — this theater — really embodies that culmination of a dream.”
Silverman explained that the theater stood out as an architectural vision in its heyday, and what made it important was that the auditorium was a cylinder, but he also noted the care and dedication to make it “a temple for movies of its day.” Because of that, Silverman says, Imagineers did their best to recreate everything from the original theater and no detail was overlooked, from the patterns in the carpet, to the style of furniture, to the light fixtures.
Unfortunately, the iconic Carthay Circle Theatre was demolished in 1969 to make way for a generic office building that still stands on the southeast corner of San Vicente Boulevard and McCarthy Vista, but thanks to Walt Disney Imagineering, its legacy lives on through the Carthay Circle Restaurant & Lounge.
“The old [movie] theaters really created memories for people. They remember who they saw a movie with, what day they saw it, what time they saw it — they remember every essence of seeing a film,” Silverman says. “And we do the same thing at […] [Disney] California Adventure.”
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The original Carthay Circle Theatre had a 70-foot drop screen (intended to prevent fires at the time), and artist Frank Tenney Johnson was hired to paint a mural of a family crossing the Sierra Nevadas on the screen. The painting at the bottom of the stairs in Carthay Circle Restaurant & Lounge is a replica of that mural, and Silverman says, “it just so happens that it was a depiction of the infamous Donner Party.” Silverman also notes Imagineers put a little gold plaque that lets guests know it’s the drop cloth (and the Donner Party).
The Carthay Circle Restaurant dining room pays homage to the original theater with the tapestries, the wall sconces, and the types of wood, but it also pays tribute to “Snow White” through the film’s opening backgrounds painted on the ceiling.
The photos on the restaurant’s private dining room walls include a photo of Walt Disney behind a camera that’s believed to be one of the last known images of him without his mustache. There’s also a pair of photos of Walt with Mickey, and Silverman says the significance of these is that they’re the first and last images of Walt with Mickey Mouse.
Silverman says the base of the table in the private dining room represents Snow White’s wishing well. Also, on many of the beveled tables — the curved ones in the main dining room — he says there is an image of the Evil Queen embossed into the wood.
Inside the restaurant is a display case containing original artifacts from the Disney company’s history. According to Silverman, nobody at Carthay can change this display, but he notes the Disney Archives comes in seasonally “like pixies in the night” to switch out the artifacts, so you never know which Disney treasures you’ll see.
Check out this video for a look inside the Carthay Circle Restaurant & Lounge at Disney California Adventure: