Old Hollywood Lots Disappearing : Preservationists Hope to Rewrite Ending at Studios
When word got out that a Hollywood studio where Harold Lloyd, Lucille Ball and Francis Ford Coppola once plied their talents had been nominated as a historic-cultural monument, the entertainment industry saw it as an ominous sign.
Suddenly it seemed as though old concrete barns and other nondescript structures still being used for creating movies, television shows and commercials could be frozen in time, even if experts agreed that they had no architectural distinction.
For Hollywood Center Studios, the nomination posed an infuriating dilemma. The owners wanted to replace some seismically unsafe buildings made of hollow clay tile that were hastily and cheaply erected in the 1920s. But they could be prevented from doing so if the studio became a landmark.
What might have been a commonplace skirmish between a property owner and a neighborhood organization has turned into a far more significant conflict between the studios and historic preservationists.
Both sides say the future character of Hollywood itself could well be at stake, even though only one other studio has been directly involved so far. Paramount owns the Western Costume Co. building directly to its east on Melrose Avenue and may want to tear it down.
Surprisingly, no one has yet attempted to inventory remaining historic film studios, and until recently they received scant attention even from local preservation groups. The city of Los Angeles has conferred cultural-historical monument status 418 times since 1962, yet such designation has rarely been sought for a movie studio.
But now officials of two preservation groups, Hollywood Heritage Inc. and the Los Angeles Conservancy, want to retain the flavor of the movies’ Golden Age by trying to prevent further destruction of the remaining barns and bungalows that give Los Angeles, especially Hollywood, a unique look.
The studio owners, citing recent renovation efforts at lots like Paramount’s, say that they also want to maintain continuity with the past. But they contend that Hollywood is really preserved on celluloid and videotape, not in old edifices.
More Flexibility Asked
What is needed, the studios say, is more flexibility, not less, to accommodate the ever-changing technological demands of their high-pressure industry. Otherwise, they say, exasperated film makers will be more tempted than ever to take their productions elsewhere.
“Imagine if the Ford Motor Co. was told it had to keep the building where the Model T was produced,” said Thomas McGovern, vice president of Raleigh Studios on Melrose Avenue. “How would they put out the Ford Taurus or the Probe?”
To preservationists like Hillary Gitelman, executive director of Hollywood Heritage, a nonprofit organization with about 300 members, the studios have a significance that extends beyond the business enterprises that occupy them--associations and memories worth preserving for future generations.
“These are the industrial sites around which Hollywood grew and developed,” she said. ". . . They’re really important to the world in terms of the myths that were created here and the cultural impact of those creations.”
Only one year after the Model T Ford was introduced in 1908, Los Angeles’ first movie studio was established on the site of a vacant downtown Chinese laundry. By 1915 there were 60 film studios in the area, according to historian Marc Wanamaker.
Today, about 17 facilities dating from 1940 or earlier remain. Yet KTLA-TV, the neo-Colonial building on Sunset Boulevard where “The Jazz Singer” was made in 1927, and KCET-TV, the oldest continually used studio in the country, are the only active studios officially recognized as landmarks. Spanish-style brick structures from the ‘20s still stand on KCET’s lot, also on Sunset Boulevard.
Preservation has not exactly been a watchword of the film industry. No one stopped 20th Century Fox 30 years ago when it began dismantling its back lot to make way for Century City or interfered with Universal Studios when, a few years later, it started replacing historic buildings with office towers.
As recently as 1987, the owners of Culver Studios on West Washington Boulevard in Culver City demolished two glass-enclosed sound stages from the silent screen era after first trying to find a new home for them. “I couldn’t give them away,” said Bob Sirchia, vice president for operations. “There was zero interest in them.”
It was only when Hollywood Center Studios protested its nomination as a monument that Hollywood Heritage began to recognize the value of the old studios. “It had never come up before,” Gitelman said, noting that it usually takes a threatened demolition to mobilize preservationists.
Of the cities where historic studios are located, only Los Angeles currently has an ordinance that can specifically be used for their preservation, although West Hollywood is expected to follow shortly. Hearings are being held on a proposed ordinance that could affect the future of Warners Hollywood Studios on Sunset Boulevard, which dates back to 1918.
Culver City Situation
No such ordinance exists in Culver City, home of Lorimar (formerly the site of MGM-UA) and Culver Studios, where David O. Selznick made “A Star Is Born” and much of “Gone With the Wind.” Lorimar has the last remaining glass-enclosed sound stage and uses it to make sets.
In Los Angeles, the roster of monuments includes two former studios, the Tudor-style Charlie Chaplin facilities on La Brea Avenue (now the home of A&M; Records) and Mack Sennett’s on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park (now owned by a storage company). But in 1981, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission rejected monument status for an abandoned studio on Santa Monica Boulevard and Van Ness Street, where Mickey Rooney got his first major role.
Ironically, perhaps, the preservation controversy erupted only a few years after the studios themselves decided that sprucing up their lots, even at considerable cost, was good for business. Many lots had been neglected, especially during the 1960s and early ‘70s, when the movie industry was in a slump.
So little thought was given to design back then that at Paramount, for example, a dressing room building from the 1920s was expanded in piecemeal fashion whenever a star demanded more space. Interior detailing everywhere was stripped for a more streamlined effect, according to Ann Mullaney, executive director of design development.
Former Paramount executives were so oblivious to their surroundings that it took 16 years after the studio bought the adjoining Desilu lot in 1967 for the defunct television studio’s logo to be removed from the water tower.
But once the decades of indifference ended and more picturesque surroundings became available, producers began lining up to secure offices on these lots and soak up the ambiance, according to studio managers.
Over the last six years, major renovation has occurred at three historic Hollywood studios, including the two that are now the focus of preservationists’ attention and Raleigh Studios, a rental lot where “The Girl From Yesterday,” starring Mary Pickford, was made in 1914.
Paramount, the last major film studio still located in Hollywood, won an award last year from the Los Angeles Conservancy for its preservation efforts. Architects have worked from original blueprints to painstakingly restore the original buildings, and grass was planted over parking lots to re-create the park-like setting of 1926.
Since Paramount purchased Western Costume Co. last year, it has been widely assumed that the studio would replace the 76-year-old building. This speculation intensified after the historic collection itself was sold earlier this month to three investors, including novelist Sidney Sheldon. Although Paramount’s Mullaney said the Western Costume building does not appear suitable for conversion to offices, studio officials say they have not yet decided what to do with it. They are clearly nervous that preservationists might seek to have the building declared a cultural-historical monument.
As with Western Costume, it is Hollywood Center Studio’s role in the development of the film industry, not its architecture, that has drawn the preservationists’ attention.
Surprise for New Owners
Not long after Francis Ford Coppola went bankrupt and was forced to sell his Zoetrope Studios in 1984, the new owners of the renamed Hollywood Center Studios discovered that a private citizen had nominated their lot on Las Palmas Avenue as a monument.
Under the Los Angeles law, such status can be conferred not only on buildings with architectural significance but also on “historic structures or sites in which the broad cultural, political, economic or social history of the nation, state or community is reflected or exemplified. . . .”
If the owner objects to the designation, demolition or substantial alteration can be delayed for 360 days while a buyer is sought. But the Cultural Heritage Commission cannot dictate how a site is to be used or force private enterprises such as studios to open their doors to the public.
Although the ordinance theoretically controls only major structural changes, the studios say that once a building is flagged as a landmark, every proposed alteration is subject to frustrating delays and red tape.
For instance, had Paramount Studios been a monument, said Christine Essel, vice president for planning and development, it would have been impossible to secure the permits necessary to get Stage 29 ready in six weeks for live broadcasts of “The Arsenio Hall Show,” as the producers demanded.
Once headquarters to silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd, Hollywood Center Studios, which first opened in 1919, was also the site where Howard Hughes produced and directed “Hell’s Angels,” giving Jean Harlow her first starring role.
In the 1950s, “I Love Lucy,” “The Ozzie and Harriet Show” and “The Burns and Allen Show” were made there. George Burns still maintains an office there.
It was not until Hollywood Center Studios was denied a permit to demolish some two-story gray buildings, which the city itself had pronounced seismically unsafe, that the new management realized the significance of the cultural-historical nomination, according to Albert J. Tenzer, vice president and chief financial officer.
Outraged, Tenzer invited Thomas Hines, a UCLA professor of architecture and urban planning, to inspect the buildings. Hines saw no harm in tearing them down, although he urged that a bas relief be saved.
“They (preservationists) deal in what I would call the ‘Indian burial ground syndrome,’ ” Tenzer said. “You can’t touch anything because the ghosts that surround and permeate the hallowed grounds are not to be disturbed.”
The impasse at Hollywood Center Studios, now a rental lot, led City Councilman Michael Woo to create a task force to try to resolve the dispute between studios and preservationists, perhaps by developing new legislation specifically tailored to the studios’ needs.
Optimistic about the prospects for resolution, Woo said, “The preservationists are showing themselves not to be purists, in terms of being absolutist about their positions.”
Woo fashioned a special compromise for Hollywood Center Studios that will give the facility partial designation, thereby allowing the unsafe buildings to be torn down. The agreement also allows interiors changes to be made without interference from the Cultural Heritage Commission.
Planning Unit Formed
The studios, which recently formed a Studio Planning Council to address preservation and other government-related issues, say more flexibility is needed if producers are to be kept from abandoning Hollywood for other states that are eagerly trying to lure their business.
“You can’t freeze something and keep it economic,” said Robert Bertram Burke, a lawyer who has represented Paramount and Hollywood Center Studios. “It’s like shooting somebody and formaldehyding them so you can keep them looking like they did when they were 30.”
Yet although California loses about $3 billion as a result of “runaway production,” there are signs that the state is beginning to recapture some of the production work it has lost over the last few years. Last year, 55% of all feature films were shot in California, a 2% increase over the previous year, according to Michael Walbrecht, spokesman for the California Film Commission.
Meanwhile, preservationists say, it is important to consider the future, when maintaining old buildings sitting on valuable real estate may not be as fashionable. “We want to protect these resources for our children,” Gitelman said.