Peel back the layers of time and it is amazing what one can find. Take Universal Studios Hollywood as an example. Today we know the upper lot as a hodgepodge of unrelated intellectual properties shoved into a confined space. The recent round of construction is an attempt to bring some cohesion to the facility. But this was not the first attempt. Universal City has been subject to more than a dozen master plans since MCA bought the property back in the early 1960s.
One of the earliest plans came shortly after the Studio Entertainment Center was opened in 1965. The question being asked in the executive suites at MCA was ‘what was next’? For Albert Dorskind, the man who started the tour, inspiration came from Disneyland. He asked Buzz Price, the man who found the location for Disneyland, what was the best way to attract repeat local San Fernando Valley residents just like Disneyland. “We find that people – both visitors and residents – want a place somewhere relatively close which provides a whole range of entertainment in a pleasant surrounding,” Albert Dorskind said. “We’re not trying to compete in the class of the Disney operation. We’re offering a handier, smaller alternative.” Dorskind wanted to build a Tivoli Gardens for Los Angeles.
Price was suggesting that Universal could serve the local population best all year long “by applying showmanship principles to activities that satisfy basic, everyday recreational needs – food service, merchandising, entertainment, active play, hobbies – each element will assume added individual attraction that totally produces the primary marketable role – a complete recreation environment.” For Universal, the Studio Entertainment Center meant visitors would stay longer and spend more money.
Dorskind hired the Pasadena architecture firm of Smith and Williams in 1967 to develop concepts for an expanded tourist facility. They were challenged to visualize what Universal City’s visitor facilities could look like by 1970 to 1972.
The design team wanted to create “an urban commercial recreation core totally viable by itself, which in turn imparts an unique selling difference to other urban land uses integrated with and surrounding that core.” If implemented, the development could attract as many as 3.1 million more visitors per year to Universal City. This was above the 1,000,000+ visitors already going on the tour.
Buzz Price told Dorskind that Universal City was well positioned for success. “Large scale recreational attractions that stand alone are economically unstable because of their extremely high initial capital investment and continual rejuvenation costs,” he said. “Pure urban land uses are subject to high competitive risks particularly in a sprawling megalopolis.”
Universal had the opportunity to have both. “A recreationally oriented urban land development preserves the dynamic elements of both land uses while each use tends to cancel out the economic deficiencies of the other,” Price said. “Urban land uses pay the basic development costs for the entire site and at the same time produce a solid attendance base that flattens out the high and low points of the attendance curve experienced by pure recreational attractions.”
Under the Smith and Williams master plan, the Studio Entertainment Center would be divided into sixteen sub-environments or “settings” that represented selected foreign countries and regions of the world. For the visitor, the experience would be similar to walking along the back lot amongst sets dressed for filming. The master plan stated, “The physical environment and activity patterns within a given nationalistic setting be indigenous and authentic, but not necessarily having historical significance.” The architecture was “to be heterogeneous and not restricted to specific style or period.” If more than one country was represented as part of the same set then “each nation will be able to maintain its own distinct identity.” Activities with each set would be a balance of shopping, entertainment, food, and “activity participation and learning.”
Many of the pavilions would be organized around a central lake. Water was the “predominant open space user in the first phase” and would establish “the physical mood of the sub-environments.” Right along the edge of the water would be the Grand Concourse where visitors can watch a water show, model boats, and strolling performers. Just behind was the Medieval Walled Town, which featured a puppet theater and dancing. Like virtually every other environment, specialty shops and restaurants would round out the offerings. Also located behind the concourse was the Formal Gardens where visitors would find horticultural shows, quiets games, and outdoor exhibits. A Shopping Street with more specialty shops, clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, and sidewalk cafes would connect to the Town Square where national festivals could be staged and space for street performers and outdoor dining.
Three distinctly themed areas would rest side by side. The Latin Quarter would feature arts and crafts and a thieves market. Canal Town would have exhibits, shops, antiques, and books. Boat rides, a fishing dock, and a seafood restaurant could be found at Seaside Town. The Theatre District would provide space for film screenings, art studios, and professional theatrical ateliers. One thing missing in Hollywood was a museum dedicate to the craft of making movies. The Recorded Arts Museum would remedy that shortfall. Behind the museum would be the Farm Meadows, with a stream, fishing, a petting zoo, and a winery. Right next door would be Market Plaza with indoor skating and a farmer’s market. The Rural Village would have trail rides and a stable.
The major activity area would be around an expanded Universal Amphitheater. At the time the amphitheater was only used during the day for the Western stunt show and the animal actors show.
There would be the Village Green with room for quiet games, festivals, exhibits, and lawn bowling. Providing a cool spot for San Fernando Valley locals, the Small Islands would have sunning, swimming, and skindiving. The Hillside Village would provide outstanding views of the San Fernando Valley with a nature path, cafe, shops, and craft ateliers.
The proposal did capture a bit of the spirit from Walt Disney’s proposed International Street for Disneyland but with a Universal twist. Remember, this proposal for Universal was well before work was done for the World Showcase at Walt Disney World. Over time, the focus on creating an entertainment center for locals would evolve into CityWalk. But that is another story for another time.
And what do you think of these old plans for an expanded Universal? Would they have been a success if built?
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I hope to see you all again very soon!