Oct. 16, 1917: An architect’s rendering of Chaplin’s studios in The Times
Ninety-five years ago, comedian Charlie Chaplin constructed the first beautiful studio lot in Hollywood, the first to offer style to filmmaking. What had been merely an industry housed in utilitarian structures soon blossomed into one that featured elegance in its buildings.
Filmmaking was exploding around Los Angeles in the 1910s as filmmakers moved west for the sunlight, varied landscape and freedom from patents. Early studios were merely converted buildings; Nestor Film Co. converted the former Blondeau Tavern into a working studio in 1911 and in late December 1913, Lasky Feature Play Co. rented a little barn at Selma Avenue and Vine Street as their filmmaking site.
Soon, film companies began building their own plants, mostly plain, functional buildings. Actor/comedian Charlie Chaplin decided to join the building boom in 1917 and constructed his own studio in Hollywood. His would evoke class and beauty.
The Oct. 16, 1917, Los Angeles Times reported that Chaplin would construct his own studio where “the plant will be at once a workshop and a home for the movie idol….” Chaplin and his brother Syd acquired the R. S. McClellan estate at Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue as the site for their facility. The estate, constructed in 1914, consisted of five acres of lemon and orange trees and the “sightly ten-room colonial house set in the midst of lawn and gardens.” This house would become their home, while the lower acreage would house the studio.
Architects Meyer and Holler’s plans, featured in the paper, presented a picturesque little English Tudor village of buildings lining La Brea Avenue, to be constructed by Milwaukee Building Co. for approximately $100,000. Meyer and Holler were recognized as one of the top architectural teams in Los Angeles, designing Ince and Goldwyn Studios, and later designing Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, the Montmartre Cafe and the Hollywood Athletic Club.
Per the newspaper, obstructionists originally mistakenly believed the studio would be erected adjacent to and behind Hollywood High School, disrupting students from learning. Businessmen spoke out to the City Council supporting construction. Banker Marco H. Hellman and other businessmen spoke out forcefully in favor of the project, noting the importance of the film industry in providing jobs to Los Angeles. He also stated, “Mr. Chaplin has done more in the way of advertising Los Angeles than probably any other man.” The council voted 8 to 1 in favor of construction proceeding.
The Jan. 20, 1918, Times noted that the new lot opened for business on Tuesday, Jan. 15. Writer Grace Kingsley described the special tour a happy and jolly Chaplin himself gave her of the new facility. Chaplin told her, “See, here’s a lemon orchard back of the stage. Think lemons must be my lucky fruit – can’t escape ‘em – had a lemon orchard back of us at Essanay and one at the Lone Star – hope they keep the lemons in the orchards, though.” Chaplin stated that “the fellow that couldn’t be happy here would be the fellow that would write a want ad in heaven.”
Kingsley found the comedian charming, especially in his description of his uniform of baggy old clothes as his “salary.” She understood the exacting nature of his work. “Charlie’s comedy seems entirely spontaneous – that’s its wonderful charm. But beneath it all he has the mathematics of merriment, the logarithms of laughter, at his finger’s ends.”
Chaplin spent many happy years making films at 1416 N. La Brea Ave., before being denied reentry to the United States in 1952. The studio stayed busy, however, appearing in the film Hollywood Story in 1951, and acting as the home for many filmmakers. Stanley Kramer employed the location in 1954, American International in 1960, Red Skelton in 1962, and A & M Records in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, Henson Productions occupies the site, and a giant Kermit the Frog adorns the roof, clad in oversized clothes and bowler hat, an homage to the Little Tramp.