Laemmle Gave Tourists a View of Reel Life
Tourist attractions often open for business in cities -- but 90 years ago, a city of sorts grew up around one.
Carl Laemmle had been making movies in Los Angeles for nearly a year when he realized that he could make as much money showing people how movies are made as he could showing the movies themselves. So on March 15, 1915, he welcomed 10,000 movie fans to an unofficial municipality within the L.A. city limits: Universal City.
A crowd of men in waistcoats and women in bonnets jostled to catch a glimpse of the film stages, daredevil stunt pilots, silent-film idols and movie cameras Laemmle (pronounced Lem-Lee) had brought to a dusty ranch in the hills of what is now North Hollywood.
“See how slapstick comedies are made. See your favorite screen stars do their work. See how we make the people laugh or cry or sit on the edge of their chairs the world over!” cried a poster touting Universal’s opening. “C’mon out! Aw, c’mon!”
Universal Pictures’ founder was a German immigrant who opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago in 1906. He moved to New York City, where he soon joined with half a dozen small motion picture companies to create the movie company he called Universal Pictures.
In 1912, he briefly operated three small studios in Hollywood but decided to consolidate them and look for more space. To do so, said Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker, “Laemmle leased ranchland in the San Fernando Valley in 1912, where he filmed the western ‘At Old Fort Dearborn.’ ” (Wanamaker will be showing slides and lecturing on Universal City’s 90-year history at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hollywood Heritage Museum, Lasky-Demille barn, 2100 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood).
The next year, Laemmle bought the 230-acre ranch for $165,000, calling it Universal City. If it was a city, it was a haphazard one: With the help of nearly 300 movie hands and actors, he erected makeshift buildings, set up cameras and began churning out hundreds of one- and two-reel silent westerns.
Other studio chiefs laughed, calling the place “Laemmle’s Folly” and jeering that it was so far out of town that Laemmle could film scenery for free anywhere he wanted.
“Laemmle worried that maybe he had made a mistake,” Wanamaker said. “But today, Universal City is the nation’s oldest film studio located on its original site.”
Beyond the cameras, Laemmle began laying the groundwork for his “city” by building streets, bungalows, sets and viewing stands so the public could observe the magic of moviemaking.
He also ginned up publicity for what the press was calling “the oddest city in the world” by holding elections in 1913 in the virtually unpopulated area. He created public offices such as mayor, assessor, judge, tax collector and a three-member Board of Censors.
The “voters” -- all 588 of them -- were his cast and crew and local folks. Many of them were also his relatives; so many Laemmle family members worked for him that he was widely known as “Uncle Carl.”
Part of the publicity boomlet was the fact that the “election” chose one of Universal’s biggest stars, opera diva Laura Oakley, to be police chief.
Oakley’s contralto voice had earned her roles in operas in San Francisco in 1890, when she was only 12. “I had long arms and big feet ... and a voice strong enough to call a broken automobile into the garage from the country,” Oakley said in an undated interview.
Laemmle hired her in 1913 and cast her in “The Black Box” series in 1915. Her fame soared after her “election” when Los Angeles’ real police chief and future mayor, Charlie Sebastian, pinned LAPD “Special Policeman” Badge 99 to her bosom. Her uniform and badge are at Los Angeles County’s Museum of Natural History.
The city may not have been real, but Oakley’s job turned out to be. She and her four-man mounted force patrolled the Los Angeles River, which flowed through the middle of the property, and handled reports of wife-beating, petty theft, and drunk and disorderly conduct.
In the meantime, Laemmle added a zoo -- then a post office, a soda fountain and other trappings of a real town. He figured that every visitor admitted for 25 cents -- which included a box lunch -- would generate free advertising by word of mouth.
Laemmle went on an eight-day whistle-stop tour from Chicago to Los Angeles the week before Universal City’s grand opening. His promoters even sold the grand (and technically impossible) lie that Laemmle had persuaded the secretary of the Navy to send a battleship up the Los Angeles River to fire a salvo on opening day. Easterners, they hoped, would believe anything about California.
On opening day, Oakley presented Laemmle with a gold key to his city, and he led a parade down Carl Laemmle Boulevard. “It was more than just a publicity stunt,” Wanamaker said. “It was a big party.”
Then, to the cheers of 10,000 spectators, the state-of-the-art movie studio opened with a Wild West shootout. The actors were washed away, along with flimsy wooden set-houses, when the water tower “burst,” sending a controlled flood down the street.
Although a filmmaker can control almost everything that goes into the camera, he cannot control reality. To kick off a second day of celebrations, pilot Frank A. Stites, 33, was to perform daredevil stunts. One involved dropping a dummy bomb on a fake airplane. As Stites began the maneuver, a downdraft caught his biplane, hurling it downward. Angelenos watched in horror as Stites leaped out without a parachute and fell 60 feet to his death. His plane crashed into the Cahuenga hillside.
Laemmle canceled the rest of the festivities and sent the crowd home. But he soon reopened, and the tourists returned.
After World War I, Laemmle brought even more kin over from war-torn Europe, increasing the payroll to 70. His cheerful nepotism was immortalized in humorist Ogden Nash’s couplet:
Uncle Carl Laemmle
Has a very large faemmle.
“It was a different place back then, when I lived with my grandmother in a bungalow on the grounds,” Carla Laemmle, 95, a former actress and dancer and a niece of Carl Laemmle, said in a recent interview. As a young ballet student, she had a cameo as a ballerina in the Lon Chaney classic “Phantom of the Opera.” Her first speaking part was as a young witch inside a carriage in a scene that opens the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic “Dracula.”
Carla Laemmle arrived here from Chicago with her grandmother in 1921 and grew up with a zoo in her backyard. The studio orangutan, Jiggs, had “a little friendship going on” with her, blowing kisses through his cage. A camel named Houdini would often get untethered “and travel up from the back lot to the entrance of the studios, where he grazed on the front lawn.”
Carl Laemmle was forced to end studio tours in the 1920s when talkies came along and “quiet on the set” became an absolute. He sold his sprawling entertainment empire in 1936. Before his death in 1939, at age 72, he helped bring more than 200 German refugees to Los Angeles.
A nephew, Max, founded the local Laemmle Theatres chain.
Universal City didn’t welcome tourists again until July 4, 1964. Next came hotels, an amphitheater, a movie complex and an urban theme park called Universal CityWalk -- a faux city street and popular destination for tourists and locals.