One of the first film studios constructed for use solely by a female performer, the Mabel Normand Studio still stands strong at the triangle intersection of Fountain Avenue, Bates Avenue, and Effie Street in East Hollywood, more than 100 years old. Although 4319 Effie St. was originally constructed as the Mabel Normand Studio, it soon evolved into a headquarters for various facets of entertainment production, an excellent example of how vintage structures can be adaptively reused for similar purposes. Mimicking the studio’s very triangular site, many of the building’s inhabitants possess connections with others.
Gaining recognition first as a gorgeous model for such illustrators as Charles Dana Gibson, vivacious Mabel Normand set the world on fire with her charismatic personality and doe eyed beauty as one of the first female superstar film comediennes and directors. First working as an extra in Kalem and later Biograph Film Company shorts, Normand found more success in a series of comic films as “Betty” before returning to Biograph.
This time, Normand struck gold at her old company after pairing with frenetic Canadian comedian Mack Sennett. Their obvious chemistry and mischievous nature cemented their stardom, helping spark Sennett’s formation of Keystone Comedies and her reputation as slapstick queen “Madcap Mabel.” Sennett and Normand’s collegial bond evolved into that of close friends and lovers, with the beautiful Mabel serving as Sennett’s muse.
Normand’s creativity and initiative expanded at Keystone, with the actress soon writing as well as directing her own films, a major component of the Fun Factory’s success. The daring young woman performed her own stunts and stood her ground against such comic heavyweights and co-stars as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle,” giving as good as she got.
In 1915, Normand and Sennett’s romance seemed to grow more serious, and the couple supposedly became engaged. Happiness later gave way to tragedy, however, as Normand discovered Sennett cheating, breaking off their engagement at a time when she began experiencing health issues, perhaps in relation to the breakup.
Stories diverge at this point regarding the construction of the studio and Normand’s career direction, perfect for the make-believe world of film production. Perhaps as penance, Sennett purchased the Effie Street site as a gift to Normand, with Brent Walker stating in his book “Mack Sennett’s fun Factory” that Sennett announced the formation of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. on May 1, 1916. Later stories also claimed that Sennett appointed his assistant business manager Harry Kerr as business manager at the Normand plant, and that production would be under Sennett’s supervision. In fact, a ramshackle wooden barn-like structure arose at the site, a cavernous barn perfect for the invention of dreams.
But another strong story exists for the studio’s creation. The March 29, 1916 Los Angeles Times announced that Normand had departed her exclusive contract with the Sennett company and instead signed a contract with Triangle allowing her the opportunity to work with its three major directors – D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Sennett and make five-reel comedy-dramas, after a strenuous illness forced her to take a break from work. This three year contract would pay her $1,500 a week, or $78,000 per year, affording Normand the opportunity to fulfill her “yearning for dramatic film roles” and to form her own company, the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. Film Fun magazine said she would immediately begin work on her “comedy-drama pictures, under the direction of Thomas Ince” at the brand new facility on its own four-acre tract. She told Motion Picture magazine that everything had been designed to her specifications with many feminine touches.
Construction proceeded on the gigantic shell of a building as Normand hired a full-time staff to assist her in film production. The April 22, 1916 issue of Southwest Contractor stated the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. had pulled permits for the construction of a 20 by 30 foot carpentry shop at the site, and Motion Picture News announced in May that it possessed a 60 by 100 foot stage and 10 dressing rooms, with offices, scene docks, and property rooms to be constructed. Over the next several months, directors and actors would come and go as pre-production work commenced on a comedic feature later known as Mickey, an ultimately tumultuous production delayed by Normand’s health issues, casting indecisions, and creative differences.
Ending her employment totally with Sennett and Triangle, Normand moved on to Goldwyn in 1917 as Mickey’s production and completion dragged on interminably. The studio was now up for grabs, an opportunity for wily producer Thomas Ince to set up William S. Hart with his own studio.
After signing a lucrative new deal with Paramount’s Artcraft brand to produce eight to ten pictures a year, Ince began production at the Famous Players Lasky lot at Selma and Vine realizing the need for more space in order to finish all his required product. Ince leased the former Selig Edendale Studio on Glendale Boulevard and then leased the Normand Studio in July 1917, with Motion Picture News stating that he renamed it the William S. Hart Studio in October after a remodeling. Trades on July 25 reported that Hart and Ince incorporated William S. Hart Productions, Inc. for $1 million in Delaware
Hart employed the Bates Avenue studio to produce interiors for his gripping films, mostly westerns. Publicity noted that Hart maintained no standing sets or backdrops, building each new set as realistically as possible and using them only once before they were disassembled in order to reuse wood. The set for his second Artcraft film, a prison set, was supposedly the largest set ever constructed on the West Coast at the time.
By 1923, Hart moved his film operations, putting the studio now under the address 1215 Bates Ave. on the market. From this point forward, companies with a tangential interest in filmmaking but helping theatrical companies concoct fantasies enthralling audiences would occupy the site, drawn to the studio by its high ceilings and empty space.
The Edwin H. Flagg Scenic Studio replaced Hart’s company at the location. Incorporated by Flagg for $50,000 in 1909, the company produced sets, backdrops, and screen curtains for stage productions up and down the West Coast as well as devising prologues. In addition, Flagg designed and his company exclusively developed scenics for all Pantages circuit theaters in 1913. Flagg’s company actually created the Hawaiian prologue that preceded screenings of Normand’s “Mickey” at the Los Angeles’ Kinema Theatre. From 1923 to 1927, Flagg and staff devised designs for such upscale theaters as the Criterion, Mason, and California in downtown Los Angeles. The company even featured Flagg in one of its advertisements underscoring his importance in the theatrical world.
Flagg died September 20, 1927, after suffering for three months from poisoning after an operation to remove cancerous growths in his abdomen, shutting down his company. Friend and colleague Charles F. Thompson and his self-named company replaced the Flagg Studio at the site, carrying on Flagg’s work conceiving and producing scenic backdrops and curtains for theatrical presentations. Thompson entered the same scenic field in 1894, incorporating in 1909 with Flagg as actual owner but operating under Thompson’s own name. Thompson would later open similar branches in Chicago and New York which he owned.
Los Angeles Scenic Studios, which created backdrops for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics among other entertainment clients, operated the location until February 14, 1940, when props, sets, furniture, tools, and machines were auctioned off to settle debts. By 1941, Scenic Productions Inc. operated in the updated facility, also producing scenic backdrops for the Civic Light Opera, theaters, and other shows as well as models, curtains, and scenery. Curran Scenic Studio is listed as owner by 1946, designing and producing huge, elaborate backgrounds for live shows as well as film and television productions, advertising their wares in issues of Production Design magazine. Bates Lighting Co. owned the studio in 1971.
Updated in 2013 by the current owner, the studio now operates under the name Mack Sennett Studios, who never shot a frame of film at the location. Well maintained and operated, the studio still serves the entertainment industry 106 years after completion. Echoes of the blossoming early silent film field still reverberate in the giant, active space.