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'Imagineers' Seek to Blend Fantasy and Reality

August 06, 1987|GREG BRAXTON | Times Staff Writer

Concocting a Disney-style scheme to combine shopping, work and entertainment on 40 acres of vacant land in downtown Burbank can have its ups and downs.

Consider the methods of Joe Rohde and Rick Rothschild, who spent more than an hour recently riding the glass-enclosed exterior elevator of the Burbank Holiday Inn, trying to survey the proposed site for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot.

Rohde, 32, and Rothschild, 36, are "imagineers" for the division of Walt Disney Co. that develops story lines, plans and builds rides, special effects and other projects for the Burbank-based organization. The pair are working on developing specific plans and attractions for the Backlot, a $150-million to $300-million shopping center, entertainment and office complex that Disney wants to build on the 40-acre site in downtown Burbank.

Coming up with such designs is one of the many tasks of the Disney imagineers, a group of modern-day dream weavers whose work requires vision and unconventional methods. Backed by the substantial financial and engineering resources of Disney Co., they are encouraged to concoct the kinds of ideas that, at first, had some Burbank officials skeptical and wary.

Some of the preliminary concepts Rohde and Rothschild presented included a mammoth man-made ocean, roving street characters, restaurants overlooking waterfalls, performing robots and teen clubs with floating cars.

"I know, I know, it sounds crazy," Rohde told the Burbank City Council and a packed audience in council chambers in May. "But it works."

The ideas caused many city officials to celebrate. It was the kind of place that would put Burbank on the map, they believed.

Others were not so certain. But the council, including its more cautious, critical members, last month voted to give Disney an exclusive option for developing the land.

Rohde assured the skeptics that the center would be convenient for pedestrians and would not interfere with the "normal practice" of life in Burbank.

"All the crazy stuff will be in the middle," he said. The shops and other conveniences for local residents would be on the perimeter of the center.

The proposed Disney Backlot is similar to other projects the company has been developing for years in hopes of putting them in cities such as Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia.

New Vehicle

"We've been looking for a new type of entertainment vehicle to present to the American public," Disney Chairman Michael Eisner said.

Rohde and Rothschild are both veteran imagineers who have worked as designers and artists on many Disney projects, including some at Disneyland and the EPCOT center in Florida.

"The major focus in developing something like this are the cities," Rothschild said in an interview. "We were to stress the importance of retail. This is not a theme park. This is something that should have immediate local value."

After gathering a compatible group of Disney colleagues, Rohde and Rothschild analyzed the property, the location and nearby communities to develop a theme or story line for the project.

Inspected Site

They rode the Burbank Holiday Inn elevator to get an aerial view of the property and also inspected it close-up.

"We walked around the site, we put a map on the wall, we learned everything about it," Rohde said.

"Many developers assemble their concepts in an opportunistic way, on what they think will make the most money," Rohde said. "They're profit-oriented. But we use mythology to unify the logic, and that gives a story sense of why things are together."

Said Rothschild: "In this case, we were close to Hollywood, and all the major studios are in Burbank, so the movie idea started to click. From that grew the concept of a revitalized studio back lot, where great movies of the past were filmed."

Under the back-lot concept, anything goes, Rothschild said. "That way, we could incorporate the variety of themes, make streets interchangeable," he said.

"We thought, 'This could be a canyon in the mountains where gold was found, and some shacks sprung up around it, and those shacks became a town, and they started filming movies there, and it became a set.' "

'Add a Twist'

After formation of a main theme, Rohde said, the next step is the "wedding of weird, creative ideas to rational necessities. We bring in elements that add to the story, but add a little twist on how we see reality. It functions like the real world, but it's fantasy, movies."

For example, to accommodate parking, they devised a six-story structure that would be covered by a waterfall and a man-made ocean.

That type of mixture of fantasy and reality will dominate the retail part of the center, which is expected to be a third of the project.

"You'll walk down a street and see a building with a French chateau facade," he said. "You'll be able to walk under the door of this facade, and there will be a space. Then there will be a store."

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