The most iconic images of Hollywood in the minds of people around the world aren’t always that sign on the other side of the hill or Mann’s Chinese Theatre. The rounded soundstage roofs of Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank are just as evocative an image. These simple but imposing studio grounds have engaged show business imaginations as a birthplace of movie magic for nearly 100 years.
The nostalgia-fueled new book “Early Warner Bros. Studios” by E.J. Stephens and Marc Wanamaker uses more than 200 vintage photographs to give solid historical context to the rolling grounds south of the 134 freeway we’re so familiar with today. It’s so beloved a location that some people even call it home. Clint Eastwood has had his office for Malpaso Productions on the actual lot for decades.
The “Images of America” series celebrates historic places across the country with exquisitely reproduced archival pictures that tend to evoke a strong emotional response in the reader. Each image in the recently published “Early Warner Bros. Studios” is accompanied by richly detailed captions that answer simple questions but sometimes raise more complex ones.
Many of the photographs concentrate on the Warner family legacy during the first half of the 20th century, when timeless classics like “Casablanca” and “East of Eden” were produced. The rest of this volume traces the rich history behind the scenes at the famous studio from its early homes in Hollywood through its ever-expanding lot near Barham Boulevard and Olive Avenue.
We see the marriage of sound and film in “The Jazz Singer” as well as the birth of “Looney Tunes” and “Merry Melodies” cartoons at the Termite Terrace. Well, we hear about the “laugh factory” that came up with Daffy, Tweety and the like, but evidence is sparse on this particular subject only.
Instead, we get the prickly family history of the actual Warner brothers on full embarrassing display. Jack Warner hated oldest brother Harry. Sam Warner suffered an untimely death. Unfortunately, Sam’s passing happened before he could witness the fruits of his labor to bring “talkies” to the masses.
Split into four sections, the first is by far the most lengthy and fascinating, especially if you’re obsessed with Southern California history. The most captivating images highlight how incredibly fast the geography can change when a studio becomes successful. Warner’s original lot at Sunset and Bronson in Hollywood started with a single barn in 1922. By 1924 the entire block was filled with stages and departments. By 1928, Warner Bros. was becoming so huge they purchased a controlling interest in First National Studios and immediately started using the company’s brand new soundstages in Burbank.
The expansion was just as rapid in their new home. Part Two of the book looks at Burbank in the 1930s, when gangster films ruled the day. Candid pictures of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson give way to more glamorous faces like Clark Gable. For a film Gable did with Marion Davies, Warner Bros. literally “raised the roof” of Stage 7 an additional 35 feet to film intricate dance numbers.
Smaller sections at the end of the book follow the studio through the emergence of television in the 1950s. The selection of pictures is smaller, but the facts behind them are just as fascinating.
But overload sets in. Stories of fires, strikes, streets morphing and connecting all bleed together with little more than a headline mentioning each of these developments. Alluring pictures and anecdotes of Bette Davis, James Dean, Bugs Bunny, “Blazing Saddles,” Al Jolson, and the school where the kids from “The Waltons” went every day gradually melt together into a long, hazy tribute to an endearing studio.
Which brings me to the book’s main flaw. Without a ton of context to the photographs, you end up yearning a bit too much for additional information. So as much as I treasured this book, I’ll still rely on my own favorite memories of the place when I want to know for sure what really happened.
Like, true story, when I had just arrived one day on the Warner lot for an audition, and George Clooney himself rode up on a golf cart. He was giving some friends a tour, but as far as I was concerned, he was there to greet me. This is where reality drifts to fantasy in my memory.
“Hey, Mr. Petrillo,” I imagined him saying that day. “Welcome back. Good to see you, buddy. This is where all the magic happens.”
It’s a fantastic image, but there’s no facts to back up the story. But I guess any book that pays homage with such adoration to Hollywood’s most recognizable studio makes for a welcome sight. “Early Warner Bros. Studios” is a treasure trove of such reverence.
JAMES PETRILLO is an actor and screenwriter from Los Angeles.
What: “Early Warner Bros. Studios” by E.J. Stephens and Marc Wanamaker; published by Arcadia Publishing
Where: Local retailers, online bookstores, https://www.arcadiapublishing.com or call (888) 313-2665.
Book signing: 7 p.m. Sept. 20 during the meeting of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley at the Center for Spiritual Living, 4845 Dunsmore Ave., La Crescenta