KTLA and Warner Sunset Studios: History Meets History

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KTLA: West Coast Pioneer
KTLA and Warner Sunset Studios: History Meets History


For the past 45 years KTLA has made its home on a site where one of the major studios of the film industry also achieved historical firsts and made Hollywood a household name.

It was in 1912 that the Warner Features Company was created to distribute films on the open market. The new company was formed by Albert and Harry Warner in New York City. It wasn't until 1914 that the other two brothers, Sam and Jack Warner, opened their own independent film exchanges in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

After producing their first film and earning $130,000 in 1919, Sam and Jack decided to come to Los Angeles and produce their own product for distribution. They rented several small studios in the Los Angeles area and produced several serial films. With the profits from their serials, Sam and Jack bought ten acres of land at Sunset Boulevard and Bronson Avenue from the Beesemyer family for $25,000. They eventually built a large stage with attached shops and offices. Their first productions at the new studio starred a young comedian named Al St. John. They continued their serial production and hired Charlie Chaplin's brother, Sydney, to star in a feature film.

By 1923, the films that were produced by the brothers became highly respected and included such stories as "Main Street" by Sinclair Lewis. In 1924, Warner Bros. signed the famous John Barrymore to star in a series of feature films for the company. Two of them included "Beau Brummel" and "The Sea Beast." The directors working at the studio during this period of time included Chuck Reisner, William Beaudine and Lewis Mileston, among others. It was also around this time that Warner Bros. signed Rin Tin Tin to be the star of "dog" thrillers to be written by the then young Darryl F. Zanuck.

In 1925, on the lot, Warner Bros. inaugurated their own radio station, KFWB. The call letter stood for "Keep Filming Warner Bros." Two radio towers were erected in the front of the studio fronting Sunset Boulevard. Only one of these towers survives today.

Due to the coming of sound, 1926 became the most important year in Warner Bros. and film history. Warners had purchased the Vitaphone system of sound that was invented by Bell Laboratories and was jointly owned by Western Electric and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. The system involved recording onto master record, copies of which were played in the theaters on large turntables in synchronization with the movie. The first film to be tried using this system was "Don Juan" starring John Barrymore. There would be no dialogue, but a sound track of music would accompany the film. This became such a success with audiences all over the country, that the Warner Bros. produced their most ambitious film ever. This one would have dialogue and music and it was entitled "The Jazz Singer," starring Al Jolson. With the coming of sound, the studio on Sunset produced many musical films and dramas including the "Gold Diggers of Broadway" in 1929 which was released with great success.

By 1933, the studio took on a new look due to the fact that the Warner Company had taken over First National Pictures and had moved much of the Sunset Studio's production to Burbank where the First National Studios were located. The Sunset studio remained in use and produced "Public Enemy," starring James Cagney, and "Svengali," starring John Barrymore.

Through the 1930s the studio was used for laboratory and annex space in support of the main studio in Burbank. But by, World War II training films and Warner cartoons were shooting on the lot.

In February of 1954, after ten years of acting as a "rental lot" and annex, the studio was purchased by Paramount Pictures Corporation to act as an annex for Paramount's studio at Van Ness and Melrose Avenues. In February of 1956, Paramount announced its intention of using the studio as their headquarters for its television division.

In 1958, the studio was named Paramount Sunset Studios. The lot was also leased by independent producers, as well as cartoon departments for Warner and Paramount. The more prominent of the producers at this time was Edward Small with his Grand Productions shooting for United Artists. In April of 1958, Paramount's television station, KTLA, began full operations at the studio. Paul Raibourn, president of the company, had total control of the studio operations. In early 1961, an entire set was built on three stages to accommodate the "Gunsmoke" television series. Horses were stabled on another sound stage during filming.

In 1965, cowboy star Gene Autry and Paramount Studios agreed to a deal that included the purchase of the Sunset Studio. The price at that time was $12 million. Autry set up a holding company in 1952 called Golden West Broadcasters. When he purchased KTLA, it to was controlled by GWB.

Between 1965 and 1982, the studio stages were leased to independent producers. Productions during this time included the television pilot "Lassiter," starring Burt Reynolds and "Donny and Marie," a variety show starring the Osmond brother and sister team. Meanwhile, KTLA continued its successful broadcast operation with movies, talk shows and syndicated series, and with its award-winning news operation, featuring people such as Hal Fishman, Clete Roberts, Stan Chambers and Bill Welch.

In October of 1982, Gene Autry announced that he would sell the entire company to private investment group Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts and Company. The terms of the agreement included the acquiring of KTLA and the studio lot.

In May of 1985, Tribune Company purchased KTLA from Golden West Television, Inc., the privately held company that had purchased the studio from Gene Autry in 1982. The purchase did not include the nine sound stage studio/lot which were under lease to Studio Management Services. The sale linked KTLA with other Tribune television stations and Tribune-produced programming.

Three years after purchasing KTLA, Tribune acquired the entire 12 acre studio and lot and began a program of restoration, reconstruction and re-organization of the studio lot. After an exhaustive study of what had to be done, many buildings were improved, remodeled and modernized.

Today, Tribune continues to own and operate KTLA. The station recently consolidated its offices and constructed a new state-of-the art news operation in the Stan Chambers Building on the lot. Production companies continue to lease space on the lot for shows such as "Judge Judy," "Mad TV" and "Win Ben Stein's Money."

One of the few original studio properties remaining in Hollywood, Warner Sunset Studios is unique. It has been in consistent operation and been home to film, radio and television?a one-of-a-kind history that continues to this day.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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