Happy Days

The Last of The Lot

Just west of La Brea Ave. (and next door to the famous Formosa Cafe) resides “The Lot.” This may be the last name by which this studio site will ever be known (as some of its demolition will begin in late April, 2012).

Also known by the postal address: 1041 N. Formosa Ave. This site began as “Hampton Studios” when Jesse D. Hampton built it between 1917 and 1919, moving there from his studios at the intersection of Fleming St. (now called N. Hoover St.) and W. Sunset Blvd. Although Hampton is not well remembered it produced such stars as H.B. Warner and William Desmond.

1919 was also the year Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith banded together to form United Artists (as a means for retaining control over their own productions and as a distribution company for releasing films from independent producers). Being a distribution company they had no need for a studio lot. Originally it was intended for each of the four founders to produce five films a year. But by 1920-1921 the rising costs of production and increasing length of features (averaging 90 minutes) made this goal impossible.

United Artists was forced to bring in others for support. This meant making features as well as distributing them. Joseph Schenck (who brought star talent with him) was hired as president. He, additionally, built and acquired theatres under the United Artists name. Samuel Goldwyn, Alexander Korda and Howard Hughes were signed as independent producers. And to gain access to production facilities United Artists moved into the Hampton Studio lot (now owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and called “Pickford-Fairbanks Studio” or, informally, “Pickfair Studio”). The property was, for some time, known not only as “Pickford-Fairbanks Studio,” but was sometimes called “Samuel Goldwyn Studio” or “United Artists” because they all leased or rented space on the same lot. A relief of the United Artists logo still exists (for the time being) on the exterior north wall along Santa Monica Blvd.

The expansion of United Artists, into having their own motion picture lot, was financed by Samuel Goldwyn and Joseph Schenck. Pickford and Fairbanks controlled the deed to the land but Goldwyn and Schenck owned the facilities. When Schenck left United Artists, in 1933, to help create Twentieth Century Pictures, Goldwyn took over his share of United Artists. When Fairbanks died in 1939 Pickford assumed his share. The remaining joint owners, Pickford and Goldwyn, argued bitterly over the name and control of the lot. Neither had a majority control. Chaplin was less interested in the running of United Artists and Griffith had dropped out of the company in 1924.

Goldwyn left United Artists in 1940 (and sought to rename the lot “Samuel Goldwyn Studios,” despite protests from Pickford). The endless conflict between them was resolved when the courts, in 1955, ordered the auction of the property. Goldwyn (with help from James Mulvey, president of Samuel Goldwyn, Inc.) outbid Pickford and became the sole owner of the studio which, finally, would officially bear his name. Kevin Brownlow’s book on Pickford tells of how this outcome devastated actress/producer Mary Pickford who, afterward, would come to the studio at 3am, be admitted by the guards, and, sitting in an empty soundstage, would drink wine and cry over her loss. Eventually she became a recluse until her death in 1979.

In 1980 the site became the Warner Hollywood Studios (an annex to the 1928 Warner Bros. studio located in Burbank) where it was used mostly for television production.

Warner Bros. put the studio up for sale when Sony/Columbia moved off of Warner’s Burbank lot (leaving Warner’s with a surplus of production space). BA Studios bought it in 1999, changed the name to “The Lot” and began leasing it as office and production space.

The site’s next owner, CIM Group, got construction approval from the City of West Hollywood, despite battles with The Los Angeles Conservancy, Hollywood Heritage and concerned citizens. All of the historic buildings are to be destroyed starting at the end of April 2012. Much of the studio is expected to be replaced by “low-rise, flexible office space” (although there appear to be plans to create some new studio facilities). The first buildings to go will be the 1927 Pickford Building and the 1932 Goldwyn Building (used for sound editing). Later the Writers Building, Fairbanks Building, Editorial Building and Santa Monica West Building will be razed.

The old buildings are full of old Hollywood tradition. Douglas Fairbanks had a private steam bath and gym where he could exercise, nude, outdoors. Howard Hughes had a secret garage entrance on Santa Monica Blvd. Sam Peckinpah actually lived at the studio, in the Writers Building, during the 1970’s. Harrison Ford is said to have hand built an ornate wooden door, for one of the buildings, when he worked as a carpenter on the lot.

Among the noted films made on this lot were “Robin Hood” (1922), “Tess of the Storm Country” (1922), “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), “Sparrows” (1926), “Whoopee!” (1930), “These Three” (1936), “Stella Dallas” (1937), “Wuthering Heights” (1939), “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), “Ball of Fire” (1941), “The Little Foxes” (1941), “That Hamilton Woman” (1941), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “Song of the South” (1946), “Marty” (1955), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Separate Tables” (1958), “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “West Side Story” (1961). In the sound era the scoring stage was renowned for having the best acoustics in the industry. It was the model which film composer Alfred Newman sought to emulate when creating the Stage 1 scoring facility at Twentieth Century-Fox.

While The Lot, like most studios, looks like a factory and is not very photogenic its impressiveness comes from the people who helped create it. D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin created filmmaking, acting and popular culture as we know it. And their influences spilled over into radio, television and the structure of how entertainment is created. This site is where they practiced their belief that quality motion pictures could be created outside of the rigid confines of the standard studio system.

photographed Mar 26, 2012 West Hollywood, California

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“Samuel Goldwyn Studios,” 1945

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