An aerial view of First National Studios in Burbank, Motion Picture News, 1926.
First National Studios, now known as Warner Bros. Studios, celebrates its 90th birthday on June 15, 2016. Basic construction was completed on the original studio that day in 1926, just 72 days after commencing on March 28, creating the second major motion picture lot in the San Fernando Valley.
First National actually was conceived April 25, 1917 by prominent Los Angeles resident Thomas Tally and J. D. Williams as a circuit of independent film exhibitors under the name First National Exhibitors Circuit, Inc. Because of problems resulting from the high cost of renting films, block booking, inferior quality of prints, and dealing with exhibitors, the group soon decided to purchase films on their own directly from stars and directors.
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First National Studios billed its lot as “The Open Doorway to the Stars,” Motion Picture News, 1926.
Over the next several years, it fought off the machinations of Adolph Zukor, who attempted to force it out of business. First National underwent several name changes and reorganizations before forming their own production organization and acquiring the old United Studios off of Melrose Avenue in Hollywood in 1922. By 1926, they required more space to continue their busy production plans.
Studio executive Richard A. Rowland and others examined property all over the Los Angeles County area before settling on Burbank. They considered Hollywood the epicenter of motion picture production, but as such, land was prohibitively expensive. They wanted to buy a large piece of property in close proximity to Hollywood, with room to spare in order to grow.
As Rowland recounted in a special advertising section of the September 11, 1926 Motion Pictures News dedicated to the opening of the new studio, he called it “a perfect setting for a studio” once he saw it. This location offered First National so much: reasonable prices, gorgeous views of the surrounding area, access to the Los Angeles River, the widening of Cahuenga Pass for increased traffic, and of course, a site only three miles from Hollywood.
First National Studios, Motion Picture News, 1926.
They decided to purchase 48 acres of alfalfa fields from farmer Stephen A. Martin located along Dark Canyon Road and Olive Avenue and adjacent to Lakeside Golf Course, along with a 40 acre hog farm. This land was part of the original Rancho Providencia purchased by Dr. David Burbank in 1866 and later subdivided into farms by real estate developers. His original ranch house, which still stood, was included in the purchase price, and stood as a memorial to Burbank’s farming past. This property, only ten minutes from Hollywood, offered First National a clean slate to create a brand new state-of-the art studio.
Rowland stated in the September 11 issue, “In laying out the plant at Burbank the effort was made to build a model studio – one that would take advantage of everything which our own experience indicated was necessary.”
At the same time, Famous Players Lasky overflowed its studio space at its Vine Street lot. Film production for the conglomerate began out of a small barn at the intersection of Selma and Vine Street, growing into a massive two block studio plant. Famous Players agreed to purchase First National’s original studio at Gower and Melrose, the former United Studio lot, and move in upon First National completing its move to Burbank.
One of the filming stages at First National Studios, Motion Picture News, 1926.
Moving Picture World stated on February 13 that the studio hoped to finish construction by June 1, less than 100 days after beginning to build. They called the soon to be constructed buildings as a boon both to Toluca Lake and to Burbank, adding much needed tax revenue.
Work began in earnest March 28 for the rush job of completing the studio in three months’ time under the supervision of C. P. Butler, construction superintendent and with Austin Company handling construction. First National executives decided to keep three eight-hour shifts working around the clock in order to finish construction in record time, in order to start a new schedule of pictures as they completed a previous schedule at the old United Studio lot. General Manager M. C. Levee employed what they called “high pressure construction” to achieve these ends.
Motion Picture News reported in their May 1 issue that First National would spend approximately $1.5 million to build their new facility, up-to-date in every day. Romantic Spanish architecture hearkening back to old mission days would highlight construction. Rowland stated, “We aim to keep the old Spanish background throughout, but within the exterior walls, everything that is modern and complete for the making of motion pictures will be installed.”
The administration building of First National, Motion Picture News, 1926.
Six of the largest film stages ever constructed would cover 155 x 250 feet, approximately 35,000 square feet. Many special features would be included.. A telephone switchboard with twenty trunk lines serving over 250 interoffice desks would be installed. Trackless trains would transport materials and staff by electricity across the lot. Stars would receive their own elaborate dressing rooms in one building, while two large buildings with 125 rooms could service 2000 extras and supporting players. The Directors building would include five room suites in each director’s office, and a building just for screenwriters would also be constructed.
Elegant landscaping, large pool, emergency hospital, cafe, executive cafe, mill, projection building, theatre, portrait gallery, stills department, property/wardrobe department, automobile department, and garage would fill out the space. The city of Burbank appropriated $150,000 for construction of a studio water system before construction began.
At the same time as construction raced along, executives organized the move of equipment, furniture, and people from the old United Studio lot, beginning the moving process on June 8 as most construction was wrapping up.
Variety stated in their July 14 issue that construction work began March 28 and completed June 15, 1926, with 10 days of work lost to heavy rains and 10 days lost when a bridge washed out and prevented supplies from reaching the site. Besides the amenities listed earlier, other special items included a school house for stars’ children, a school house for working children, tennis courts, and a nine hole golf course.
The Los Angeles Times features First National Studios’ new location, Oct. 3, 1926.
Production work began almost immediately after June 15, with “The Masked Woman” the first to roll camera around on June 25, 1926. Actress Colleen Moore officially flipped a switch turning on the massive electric generator in early July.
Upon completion, First National hosted what they called an “informal opening” Saturday, August 14, 1926 for members of the press and industry people, in order to garner huge publicity regarding the lavish production facility.
First National widely praised their brand new studio, creating an elaborate four page brochure illustrated with glamorous images of the new lot. Called “First National Productions – Greatest Studio on Earth,” it listed pertinent facts about the speedy construction, such as the fact that the 75 acres included 48 acres with sets and buildings. Six paved streets 50 feet wide and four smaller streets served the six “mammoth stages,” a two-story property/wardrobe building, one star suite dressing room building along with two oversize dressing room buildings holding 2,000 people, 27 permanent buildings, and an electrical power plant capable of supplying a city of 15,000 people with twelve generators providing 33,000 volts of electricity. A fire sprinkler system would make it one of the safest studios in town. They called it “the first complete studio to be built from the ground up.” Construction costs totaled around $2 million.
In 1928, the First National Studios was acquired by the rapidly expanding Warner Bros. Studios, through the acquisition of the Stanley Company. They decided to consolidate production on one lot, moving from their Sunset Boulevard and old Vitagraph studio facilities in Hollywood. Warner Bros. combined the names in advertising and production for several years, before gradually fading out the First National moniker.
Still sitting proudly along the Los Angeles River, First National still proudly serves the entertainment industry, as Warner Bros. still employs many of its original structures in the creation of many film and television productions. Though technology advances rapidly every day, adaptive reuse allows these elegant Spanish buildings to add beauty and value in the production of popular entertainment.