This is the first of a two-part series looking at 100 years of history
BURBANK -- A hundred years can make all the difference.
As Burbank prepares for the year 2000, the city’s agrarian beginnings
are a distant memory, a sharp contrast to today’s robust municipality.
In 1900, Burbank was an unremarkable farming community with a
population of 300 located in a sparsely populated swath of land between
Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
A series of late 19th Century economic disasters -- a busted land
boom, plummeting wages, and a rash of bank failures -- had caused chaos
in the region.
Yet, with the new century came new optimism.
In the 1900s, scores of Burbank farmers harvested cantaloupe and wine
from an area with rich soil and a perpetually sunny climate.
“I understand that those Burbank wines were pretty popular,” said Les
Rosenberg, president of the Burbank Historical Society.
The town had its first brush with a national celebrity in 1904 when
heavyweight boxing champ James Jeffries bought 107 acres for a ranch on
what what is now Victory Boulevard.
Local news began hitting the streets in 1905 when Los Angeles newsman
E.M. McClure and publisher J.F. Boughton launched the “Burbank Review.”
The pair began publishing the “Glendale News” the same year.
As the decade wore on, Los Angeles fought for congressional approval
to build the Owens River Aqueduct, which would irrigate the farmlands of
the Valley. In an annexation bid, Los Angeles offered Burbank and other
communities a plentiful share of that water.
But in 1907 Burbank and Glendale told their western neighbor they
wanted no part of the arrangement and in 1911, by an 81-51 vote,
residents approved cityhood for Burbank. Thomas Story, who owned a
hardware store and livery stable on San Fernando Road, was installed as
the city’s first mayor.
Though ultimately overshadowed by aircraft manufacturing, the trucking
industry joined agriculture as the main industry in Burbank in its early
years. In 1917, the Moreland Truck Company opened on a 24-acre farm at
Alameda Avenue and San Fernando Road.
As the population grew -- hitting 2,913 in the 1920 Census -- other
industries began to move into Burbank.
The label “Media City” wouldn’t come until much later, but the
foundations were laid in 1926 when Warner Bros. absorbed the Olive Avenue
operations of First National Pictures. Only a fringe player in silent
movies, Warner Bros. emerged as one of the most successful studios of the
With an arsenal of hard-nosed stars -- including James Cagney,
Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis -- Warner released gritty pictures like
“The Public Enemy,” “Little Caesar” and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain
Gang” during the 1930s.
That same decade, Burbank picked up a two other major studios from
Hollywood. In 1934, Columbia began buying land for a 40-acre ranch. The
studio, which has since pulled out of Burbank, used the land as a set for
its series of jungle pictures.
More importantly, Disney set up shop on a 51-acre parcel on Buena
Vista Street in 1939. While Disney’s 1940 release “Fantasia” didn’t catch
on with the public, the studio rebounded three years later with “Bambi.”
It was a bit earlier, in the waning years of the 1920s, that Burbank
saw the arrival of the industry that would have the biggest impact on the
city’s economy in the first half of the 20th Century. In 1928, Allan and
Malcolm Loughead moved their aircraft manufacturing company from Santa
Barbara to Burbank.
On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, in 1940, Lockheed bought
Union Air Terminal, Burbank’s regional airport. The airport, previously
known as United Airport, was built in 1930. Constructed for $1.5 million,
the airport served passengers traveling to San Diego and other nearby
“This was the principal airport for Los Angeles,” airport spokesman
Victor Gill said. “It was the only place to catch a plane.”
Though it reached a peek of 1.2 million passengers in 1946, the
airport’s yearly flow dropped to 270,000 the following year when most of
the commercial carriers switched over to the growing Los Angeles Airport.
Lockheed expanded rapidly as Europe became engulfed in World War II and
the orders poured in for combat aircraft. Lockheed sold hundreds of
Hudson bombers to the British Air Ministry.
Fueled by the war effort, Lockheed transformed Burbank into a
“A lot of people went to work,” former Historical Society President
Mary Jane Strickland said. “It changed everything in Burbank.”
Strickland speaks from experience. She was an original “Rosie the
Riveter,” working on the line to help assemble P-38 Lighting fighters.
Like much of the rest of the nation, World War II helped lift Burbank
out of the doldrums of the Great Depression, spurring an era of renewed
growth. In 1943, the city christened a new Art Deco-style City Hall on
Olive Avenue. The distinctive building was added to the National Register
of Historic Places in the mid-1990s.
Also, in 1944, St. Joseph Hospital (now Medical Center) opened its
doors to meet the city’s growing medical needs.
During the 30s and 40s, Burbank experienced a period of unprecedented
growth. Between 1930 and 1950, the population jumped nearly five fold,
from 16,662 to 78,577.
As the city entered the postwar era, growth slowed, corruption
engulfed City Hall and attempts to open a modern shopping center fell
flat. By the late 1960s, with Johnny Carson poking fun at the thrift
shops in “beautiful downtown Burbank,” the city was once again in need of
a economic revival.