Universal City in the Washington Times, Feb. 10, 1915.
In an age where businesses come and go, bought up by larger competitors or going under due to bad financial decisions, finding one in business for decades and at the same location is very rare. Film conglomerate NBC-Universal has operated for over a century at its current Universal City location, the thriving second Universal City for the company, celebrating its Centennial, March 15, 2015.
Founder Carl Laemmle jumped into the film business as a Chicago exhibitor in 1906, quickly turning his Laemmle Film Service into one of the largest film exchanges in the country in 1909. After threats and questions by the Motion Picture Patents Company, Laemmle established his own production company, IMP Corporation (Independent Motion Picture Corporation).
Universal City in Moving Picture World.
On June 8, 1912, “Uncle Carl” Laemmle formed Universal Film Manufacturing Company, when he merged IMP with William Swanson’s Rex Company, Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman’s Bison Life Motion Picture Company, Pat Power’s Picture Plays, Nestor, and Champion, supposedly naming the company Universal after seeing a truck identified with the name, “Universal Pipe Fittings,” per Anthony Slide in his book, “Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry.”
Universal operated out of two Los Angeles area studios: the former Nestor Studios in the old Blondeau Tavern on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, and the Oakcrest Ranch, part of the Providencia Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. They christened the ranch Universal City, because it united production by all the various companies on one general location to shoot scenes, process film, and run film operations. Crops continued to be grown on part of the land, with a Motion Picture Story Magazine article in 1913 noting, “Cucumbers, tomatoes, green peas, asparagus, strawberries, and films are some of the crops of Universal City.” Besides production facilities and location sets, the property contained a small zoo and corral.
As early as September 6, 1913, Motography noted that for the first time in history, sightseers would be permitted to watch filming at Universal City and visit the film factory.
Universal Film Manufacturing Company saw its output explode as its’ conglomeration of production outfits churned out moving pictures. While they loved the varied landscape of their rural Universal City location at what is now Forest Lawn Hollywood, the company required a larger facility for creation, production, and processing of films.
Laemmle came west to scout San Fernando Valley locations on which to construct a larger studio in early 1914, and quickly informed Southern California of his search. He bought a full page advertisement in the February 19, 1914 Los Angeles Times, proclaiming, “We want a ranch of 600 to 1200 acres on which to product moving pictures.” He estimated the company spent $1 million a year in business around the studio, and that other businesses servicing it would also greatly contribute to the economy. Universal offered employment to hundreds, and shopkeepers would make money off of these individuals, so he asked what inducements cities would offer to land their business, not unlike rich sports team owners looking for cities to pay for construction of fancy new sports arenas for their teams.
Universal City in Moving Picture World.
He went on to state, “We are rich. We are prosperous. We are spenders…We have been a boon to Los Angeles…The ranch that we want must have the following features:
- Hills, mountains, a lake, wells, or a spring
- Plenty of wooded land with large trees
- Good road to and from the city
- Five-cent car line to the city
- Electricity and telephone service”
Laemmle claimed that the landlord refused to renew the lease at the current ranch and demanded too exorbitant a purchase price for them to remain at their current ranch location.
Universal quickly purchased a large property for their new West Coast producing facilities, with Motion Picture News reporting on March 7, 1914 that the company had acquired 750 acres of a San Fernando Valley ranch (the Taylor Ranch) for $160,000, “…ideal for the purpose of taking motion pictures. It is located within 200 feet of an electric street railway and a boulevard road leads direct to the property.” Moving Picture World noted that the property was located on the “el Camino Real and adjacent to the Los Angeles River for more than a mile,” with Universal intending to spend $500,000 constructing a studio of fireproof reinforced concrete only 3 1/2 miles to Hollywood. They hired S. Tilden Norton and Frederick Wallach as architects for the facility.
Per early newspapers, the project broke ground in May 1914, with construction beginning June 18 on such facilities as hospital and infirmary, barbershop/manicure room, power plant, water supply, sanitation, and costume building. The cowboys and ranch hands moved to the new property by the end of June 1914 according to Motography, shepherding large herds of cattle, horses, and oxen to the lot. Employees under the supervision of Wallace Kerrigan began razing old buildings at the original ranch to transport to the new location via wagons and trucks, with William Horsley supervising construction at the new Universal City.
By the fall, Moving Picture World noted that construction had fallen behind on Laemmle’s dream of two years, what the trades called the first city constructed solely and specifically for the creation of motion pictures. Each building had been designed for multiple uses, with each facade of a structure supposedly possessing a different type of architecture to provide better filming opportunities, allowing it to stand in for various locations around the world. The property offered great views for location shots, with many different types of bridges and paved and graded streets providing better filming possibilities. The trade stated that Universal City’s zoo was “the largest and finest privately owned menagerie.”
Universal City in Moving Picture World.
Money was no object: the administration building cost $30,000 to construct and the laboratory $25,000, as well as such facilities as a theatre, Indian village, clubhouse, dining hall, kitchen, ballroom, large dressing rooms, wardrobe building, school, shops, two up-to-date hospitals, cafeteria, seven artesian wells with 99% pure water, and thirty bungalows for employees to live on the lot, since they were an independent municipality.
500 people lived on the lot by October, per Richard Koszarski in “An Evening’s Entertainment,” mostly cowboys, Indians, and staff. General Manager Isadore Bernstein employed the city’s permanent population to obtain a third-class ranking for the city, enabling it to acquire its own post office and voting precinct. On December 21, 1914, the first baby was born on the lot, Carl Laemmle Oelze, the son of the head cowboy wrangler and named for Universal’s founder, per the January 2, 1915, Motion Picture News. Production companies began moving to the lot in early December, filming at various locations throughout the ranch.
Pounding rain January 29-31, 1915 brought flooding of the Los Angeles River, normally a meandering stream, causing $130,000 damage to the studio. Employees attempted to deflect the course of surging water four feet deep from the river. Electricity went out, railroad and streetcar lines washed out, and buildings were destroyed. Standing sets were destroyed, including Indian temples constructed for Francis Ford’s “The Master Key.”
Universal began promoting the March 15, 1915, grand opening of Universal City by buying full page ads in magazines and newspapers urging Americans to come see the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the only city constructed to film motion pictures. A February 22, 1915 ad in the New York Evening World described traveling to California on a special train to Universal City and stated, “The town is located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, just a breath from Los Angeles,,,” and including huge stages, a zoo with 87 varieties of animals, a theatre, barracks, Indian village, two restaurants, revolving stage, administration building, 500 dressing rooms, school, two hospitals, drug store, chemist, library, gymnasium, and the Universal Clubhouse. The company also smartly arranged tie-ins with railroad companies to include a Los Angeles side trip to visit the studio at not cost to visitors attending San Francisco’s Panama Pacific Exposition.
Universal City in Motography.
On March 5, 1915, the “Universal Special” pulled out of New York with Laemmle and other executives on board, arriving in Chicago to pick up exhibitors, film production personnel, and guests before departing March 8 for Hollywood, where they would be ensconced at the Hollywood Hotel.
Grand festivities began at 10 am, Monday, March 15, 1915, at the former chicken ranch and barley fields. Chief of police, actress Laura Oakley, presented Laemmle with a gold key valued at $1255 to open Universal City’s gate. The Universal band played “The Star Spangled Banner” as the United States and Universal flags were raised. Universal and city officials like Frederick Griffin of the Los Angeles City Council welcomed visiting guests numbering 20,000, per Motion Picture News. The Governor of California sent his regrets. Universal stars welcomed the visitors in a receiving line, before guests watched filming by various companies on the long open-air stage after reviews by Laemmle and the cowboy cavalry.
That afternoon, a filming stunt went awry. Members of the 101 Bison Company flooded a makeshift Western village with 60,000 gallons of water, sweeping away the town and breaching the visitor area, dampening some of the guests clothes. Aviator Frank Stiles circled overhead.
Universal stars Grace Cunard, Francis Ford, J. W. Kerrigan, Robert Z. Leonard, Herbert Rawlinson, Lon Chaney, and others attended that evening’s grand ball in a large electric studio, with Mr. and Mrs. Laemmle leading the first grand march.
Universal City in Moving Picture World.
Guests inspected the grounds and buildings the second day, before stuntmen put on a grand show after lunch. A full-scale rodeo involving all of Universal’s cowboy and Indian performers followed. Tragedy occurred later that day, when Stiles crashed his biplane after flying over the crowd, plunging into the ground after hitting an air pocket. The pilot jumped from the plane, but died on impact. This effectively ended the celebration.
After the opening extravaganza, Universal City continued its practice of allowing guests to tour the property and watch filming by paying twenty five cents.
A January 1, 1916 article in the Los Angeles Times noted that millions of people around the world viewed films made in Southern California, including 40,000 miles of positive made from 1000 miles of negative at Universal City, which exposed 81,000 feet of film every week. The company employed 2000 people at the location, spending $4000 a day in operating expenses. They noted that Universal City was “the only motion picture municipality in the world.” The company estimated that 80% of films made in California brought in $15 million to state coffers every year, a giant economic engine allowing highly educated workers to earn good paying salaries with which to purchase land, homes, food, clothing, and pay taxes.
Over the years, Universal City has grown in size and attractions, adding an elaborate tour, Universal City Walk, an amusement park, and hotels to accommodate guests and visitors. It remains one of the largest employers in the San Fernando Valley, providing business to many periphery companies as well. While no buildings remain of the 1915 Universal City, Laemmle’s “can-do” spirit lives on at the bustling entertainment plant.