Famous Disney Director’s Home Was La Crescenta
Hold onto your hats, Disney-philes! Ben Sharpsteen, director of “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo,” lived during the height of his career right here in La Crescenta in homes on El Sereno and Panorama, one of which is now owned and treasured by the Brines family.
Michael Brines has collected memories and photos from Ben’s granddaughter Gail Sharpsteen, who graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in the ’70s.
Walt Disney recruited Ben Sharpsteen, a budding young animator, to his fledgling studio in 1929 where Ben was impressed with the studio’s quality of animation. The Sharpsteen family moved initially to La Cañada, then to a house on Orange where they must have weathered the New Year’s Flood in 1934. Just before the war, they had a home built on Panorama, but they soon bought property just below that on El Sereno where the Brines live today.
It was during this period that Ben Sharpsteen was becoming a leader at the booming Disney Studios, training incoming animators, and soon moving into directing. After directing a long string of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons, he was a sequence director for Disney’s first feature “Snow White” in 1937. In 1940 and ’41, Ben hit his stride, directing both “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo.” He had directing and production duties in the classic “Fantasia” as well as the later “Cinderella” and “Alice In Wonderland.” Starting in the late ’40s, he produced many of the studio’s forays into live action films. He was behind the many nature films Disney created in this period (such as “The Living Desert”) that set the format for nature documentaries still followed today. He retired in 1962 after collecting 11 Oscars.
During this spectacular career in filmmaking and animation, Ben Sharpsteen was living here in La Crescenta as many Disney employees did. At his property on El Sereno he developed a passion for building with native stone, of which there was an abundance. The Brines property today is generously terraced with rock walls, most of which were built by the great Sharpsteen himself. In fact, a photo Michael Brines treasures today is that of a proud Ben posing, shovel in hand, in front of a rock wall he’s just completed – a wall that still exists.
Ben created an elaborate garage out of stone and wood for his collection of antique autos. This was Ben’s “man cave” where he stored and serviced his old cars. There was a grease pit, which is still there, and workshops. Ben held meetings here of the Horseless Carriage Club of America (pre-1916 autos), which had been founded in L.A. in ’37. Ben’s gigantic stone garage was converted to a home in 1960 for his son’s family, and that is where the Brines live today. It’s a gorgeous rambling structure, an eclectic mix of stone walls and framed rooms that is intriguing and pleasing to the eye. The yard rambles as well, with stonework walls and patios (Ben’s handiwork), plus trellises and outbuildings.
While this elaborate garage development was happening, the Sharpsteens were living on Panorama. They moved in 1950 into a small house they had built on El Sereno next to the big garage. This little house, later subdivided from the garage property, has a fame of its own, separate from Disney.
After the Sharpsteens retired north, it became the longtime residence of Jack Real. Real was an aerospace pioneer, and a top engineer for Lockheed. During his aerospace career he became a confidant of Howard Hughes, and it was during his time at the El Sereno home in La Crescenta that he became arguably Howard Hughes’ “best friend” during his decline into insanity. Hughes visited him here at least once, and it was here that Real spent hours on the phone with Hughes talking about aviation.
It’s interesting to think of the great people who have lived in our valley – who drove on our streets and shopped in our stores. There are many, and Ben Sharpsteen is one of the greatest. For Disney-philes, the top of El Sereno, and Panorama east of Briggs should be hallowed ground.