The Very Early History of Universal Studios Hollywood

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Samland

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Published on March 07, 2013 at 4:03 am with 11 Comments

Motion pictures can be an intoxicating and addictive drug for some people. Like a moth to a light, they are drawn into an all consuming passion that can never really be completely satisfied. Carl Laemmle, an immigrant from Bavaria, Germany, was one such person.

Laemmle came to America in 1884 and opened a five and dime store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Years later, his life’s direction would change when he visited a local nickelodeon. The magical, flickering images sparked his imagination and stoked his ambitions. By 1906, he opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago in a vacant building on Milwaukee Avenue. He painted the facade white and the venue became known as The White Front Theater. It was an immediate success.

Carl Laemmle, and his birthplace in Bavaria, Germany.

The good times would not last long. In 1909, the New York based Motion Pictures Patents Company (MPPC) tried to impose a two-dollar license fee upon independent operators like Laemmle. The MPPC was led by inventor Thomas Edison and they wanted to control the infant industry. The MPPC included the major players of the day including Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, American Pathe, Kodak, and others. Edison claimed the fee was necessary to protect the patents that he held. Not one to be pushed around, Laemmle started his own movie company and named it Independent Moving Pictures (IMP). His sense of humor and his true feelings about the MPPC were on display when he adopted a playful impish demon as the logo for the studio.

 

Laemmle’s first movie studio was in Fort Lee, New Jersey. With the MPPC breathing down his neck, he looked to endless California sunshine like other independent producers as a way to escape. On May 20, 1912, Laemmle bought the Nestor Company studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. There were two stages. The largest was 300 feet in length and 70 feet in width. The second stage was 50 feet in length and 100 feet in width. Along with the studio, Laemmle took control of El Providence Rancho/Oak Crest Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. When Laemmle saw the ranch property for the first time, his car got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out by Jumbo, an elephant that was working on a film at the time. On June 8, he formed the Universal Film Manufacturing Company and not long after, on December 3, he opened up the ranch to the public. He was the first movie producer to do so.

 

The the United States Supreme Court ruled against the MPPC in 1912 and once again in 1915. The Court stated that the MPPC was in violation of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. By 1917, the MPPC would cease to exist. It was too late. The creative center of the industry had moved to Hollywood.

 

The corner of Hollywood and Highland, 1907

In an attempt to generate some publicity, Laemmle renamed the Oak Crest Ranch Universal City on July 10, 1913. In August, he allowed fifty Chimallo Indians along with 100 horses from the Isleta reservation near Albuquerque, New Mexico, to move in permanently at Universal City then he began to attract visitors with bus excursions to the ranch from downtown Los Angeles in September.

The budding movie mogul’s ambitions were insatiable. In March 1914, Laemmle bought a 230-acre chicken farm known as the Taylor Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, ten miles outside of Los Angeles along the El Camino Real.  Just across the street was the site where the treaty was signed by Mexican General Andree Pico and Colonel Fremont of the US Army, whereby California was ceded to the United States. Laemmle paid $165,000 for the land and by October ground was broken and reportedly another $1 million was invested in studio facilities. The Ogden (City) Standard described the site, “It occupies a comparatively level plateau, forming the front of a basin something over a mile in diameter, entirely surrounded by mountains. From the center of the city one obtains a view of a greater diversity of scenery than is possible in any other place in America.” Perfect for a movie studio. In May, the formal groundbreaking took place, construction started on June 18, production began on July 14, and the first employees took their places on October 14. The first film completed at the new Universal City was Damon and Pythias.

Always the showman, Laemmle arranged for a special Santa Fe train to leave Chicago on March 7, 1915, and head toward Universal City, California. The ceremonies were set for March 15. When the train arrived, more than 20,000 people were waiting. Special guests included Buffalo Bill Cody and Madame Schumann-Hence. A studio press release proclaimed, “They are to witness the opening of the first municipality – the first city or community – to be devoted exclusively to the manufacture of motion pictures. The city – this Universal City of which the picture world has talked for months – is the realization of a dream by Carl Laemmle not more than ten years ago.” Miss Laura Oakley, chief of the Universal City Police, handed Laemmle a gold key. Laemmle remarked, “I hope I didn’t make a mistake coming out here.” Just in case, the chicken ranch remained operational.

 

When Universal City opened, there were two outdoor stages with muslin screens strung overhead to diffuse the California sunlight. The largest soundstage was 90,000 square feet. In one corner was a revolving stage. In another corner was a rocking stage. The floor could be removed and underneath were water tanks that could be combined to appear as a lake. The second stage was 350 feet in width by 198 feet in length. Nearby was everything necessary to make movies including eighty dressing rooms, a mill, shops, a forge, green houses, company offices with electric lights and running water. There were two restaurants, one capable of serving 600 people and  the other capable of serving 400 people. The City was served by seven artesian wells, a concrete reservoir, and three pumping stations.

Like any municipality that was incorporated under California law, there was a Police Department, a fire brigade, library, a school, and a hospital. Unlike many other towns, Universal City was home to one of the world’s largest zoos filled with thirty lions, ten leopards, elephants, monkeys, and horses. Everything was connected by an omnibus system traveling on macadamized roads and a specially constructed spur of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The City was also “dry” and the sale or possession of liquor was prohibited.

All of the buildings were designed so that they could be redressed quickly to simulate any type of environment the film required. One day a building may be a Greek temple and the next a Victorian home.

During that first year, 250 pictures were produced at Universal City. The studio was such a smashing success that Laemmle’s rival, Thomas A. Edison, visited on October 27, 1915. Laemmle kept the Oak Crest Ranch property and renamed it Universal Ranch. By 1916, that property was leased out and over the years it would become part of the Hollywood HIlls Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Once again, Laemmle opened the doors of the new Universal City to the public. The Lewiston Evening Journal wrote, “While those who thought the old ranch a place of miracles, many newer and stranger things will be revealed to visitors in this new metropolis.” Laemmle’s view was the practice would stimulate interest in his films. He built grandstands overlooking the stages and charged visitors twenty-five cents to watch movies being made. Since the films were silent, the audience was encouraged to cheer and applaud. There was also a five cent chicken box lunch available. Average attendance was 500 people a day.

Laemmle realized that the number of people witnessing the process was very small but he said, “The few who could take advantage of it acted as an incalculable kind of leaven on the whole.” He believed in word of mouth advertising and he figured that movie fans would write and talk to others about their experiences. In 1919, Universal closed it’s New Jersey facility and dedicated all its resources to California. When sound became a regular part of filmmaking, the grandstands were removed around 1930 and visitors were no longer welcome on the studio lot.

Carl Laemmle passed away on September 24, 1939 but his dream of a city dedicated to the arts would live on.

Did you realize that Universal Studios was open to the public as far back as 1915, forming the early basis of the  Studio Tour and eventual theme park?

——     ——     ——

Hard for me to believe but my upcoming book, THE DISNEYLAND THAT WAS, IS, AND NEVER WILL BE, is already available for pre-order.

THE DISNEYLAND THAT WAS, IS, AND NEVER WILL BE
A Biography of an American Institution
Walt Disney said, “Disneyland is the star. Everything else is in the supporting role.”
The Disneyland that Was, Is, and Never Will Be is the story of how Walt Disney’s greatest creation was conceived, nurtured, and how it grew into a source of joy and inspiration for generations of visitors. Despite his successors battles with the whims of history and their own doubts and egos, Walt’s vision maintained momentum, thrived, and taught future generations how to do it Walt Disney’s way.

 

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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11 Comments

Comments for The Very Early History of Universal Studios Hollywood are now closed.


  1. More. MORE!

  2. More. MORE!!!

  3. Early Universal Studios history is fascinating. I too call for more more more! Thank you Sam.

  4. More please, you’ve got me interested!

  5. My great grandfather remembers that first Halloween Horror Nights back in ’26…
    Their haunted houses were just a series of still pictures on a storyboard.
    Those were long before the “walkies”… :)

  6. What a great article. I am a huge old movie fan and found this so interesting. Please more of these, we love the history.

  7. Awesome, Sam! More, more, MORE!!!!!!!

  8. I’m amazed by 30 Lions in one zoo!

  9. Really a world class article, thanks so much from this film buff. I lived walking distance from the theme park before I left Southern California for the Northwest Wilderness Territory; my love for Laemmle, the family and their contributions to local heritage remains. I heard from older folks that at the time Carl came and all the way through to WWII, Los Angeles and surrounding environs truly were Eden-like with glorious climate and the scent of orange blossoms in the air.

  10. Fascinating!!

  11. WOW ! Awesome Article, Samland … let’s see 500 people watching silent films being made pay .25 cents to get in & pay .5 cents to eat chicken makes for a daily profit of $ 150 (if Universal City / Universal Ranch was filming 7 days a week in the 1915 – 1930? That would be $ 1,050 a week – and that’s more $ then a large chunk of Americans are making right now! – even if you had a Staff of 50 & paid them $ 10 a week, it’s still a profit of $550 a week $ that’s still more then a large chunk of what Americans are earning weekly today!) … Universal Studios wasn’t the 1st Themed Park, but it was certainly the 1st to offer an Entertainment Tour (aka how films were made) …

    C J