by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The next installment of “That’s a Wrap” takes us to the front entrance of a relatively new player in the burgeoning local film industry in 1914, Universal Studios.
Carl Laemmle, a diminutive German immigrant, took $3,000 in savings and invested in a Chicago nickolodeon. The gambit proved highly lucrative almost immediately and he moved into distributing movies.
He then turned his attention to fighting what was called the “Edison Trust,” headed by the famed inventor, which virtually monopolized how films were screened in the nation’s theaters. Laemmle formed a competitor in the Independent Moving Pictures Company, which morphed, in 1912, into the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, embracing other small studios that the impresario acquired.
For two years, after Laemmle relocated to the Los Angeles area, he operated his studio at two locations: one in Hollywood and the other at the Oak Crest Ranch on the Rancho Providencia (once owned by Workman and Temple associate, David W. Alexander) at the southeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley. One of the features that was something of a precursor to later developments was that Laemmle opened a public zoo on the ranch, with the animals used for tourism and studio needs, probably taking his cue (!) from William Selig’s studio and zoo at Lincoln Heights. When the ranch proved to be too small for the growing studio, Laemmle acquired a larger tract a couple miles to the west.
Universal City, as the 230-acre property became known, hosted its first film shoot in 1914 and had its official grand-opening in March of the next year. It was the first community of its kind, with some 500 persons living within the self-contained “city.” Laemmle invited guests to visit the studio, a practice that had to be halted when sound productions meant keeping noise in the lot to a minimum, though there would, of course, be later tours of the studio when it became a full-blown tourist attraction.
The studio, which mainly produced low-budget releases, issued such silent classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), starring the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney; Chaney’s acclaimed follow-up, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, and the World War I-themed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a best picture Oscar winner. Laemmle’s son, Carl, Jr., pushed for the studio to create more technologically advanced, lavish productions by then.
By the mid-1930s, financial problems based on the move to more expensive films beset Laemmle, who lost Universal to foreclosure in 1936 and he died at the end of the decade. Universal has had many owners over the years and its theme parks at Universal City and in Orlando, Florida have become major attractions, but the enterprise’s start is reflected in the photo shown here.
The image appears to be an amateur snapshot, albeit with the negative inscribed “ENTRANCE TO / THE / “City of Wonders” as if was taken for studio publicity. Obviously, the sign at the left heralds the fledgling “city” as “Capital of the Film World,” which Laemmle’s competitors no doubt would have disputed.
The Mission Revival facade to what could have been makeshift structures built while the larger studio plan was underway reflects the popular architectural style of the era. A couple of autos, a fashionably-dressed woman striding by the vehicles, and a gaggle of gents congregating by the arched entrance. Inscribed at the upper center edge of the photo is the year “1914.”
Check back for more interesting film-related artifacts in the “That’s a Wrap Series” including some photos of the late 1925 shooting of a Universal picture called “The Beautiful Cheat.”