Universal City at 96


Today marks 96 years at Universal Studios



© Dickens Archives © Universal Archives Collection



By Allan R. Ellenberger


As of today, Universal Studios has spent 96 years at its present location in the San Fernando Valley. In mid-1912, Carl Laemmle, a pioneer independent producer, made his early Universal pictures at a small studio on Sunset and Gower in Hollywood. In 1915, upon the advice of Isadore Bernstein, then his studio manager, a former chicken farm in the valley was purchased.


Immediately, a farming community began its transformation into a choice residential section and the motion-picture studio, previously more of a factory, became a veritable world unto itself. Universal City was incorporated as a city with its own post office and governmental recognition.


On March 15, 1915, special trains from New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Seattle brought thousands of visitors and hundreds of industrial leaders, actors, directors and exhibitors to Los Angeles and then out the sandy road across the Cahuenga Pass to Universal City for the “official opening.”


Laemmle began the festivities and opened the big white gate with a golden key at 10 a.m., and he and Bernstein, headed the procession of 100 guests. Once inside the gate, gaily-clad Universal girls pelted the party with flowers, and a big caravan of mounted cowboys and Indians saluted with pistol shots and bands played, and Pat Powers, treasurer of Universal, hoisted a huge American flag, followed by a display of daylight fireworks.


Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford drove down from the San Francisco’s World Fair to dedicate the immense 500-foot open stage at the new studio, arriving late because their car broke down. Notable among scenes presided over by different directors were a beautiful interior designed by Charles Giblyn, where Cleo Madison entertained the crowds, and a set showing the interior of a hunting lodge in Africa, where Henry McRae calmly stroked two live leopards. Other sets included a bit of Moorish architecture and a snow scene.





MacRae then filmed a spectacular scene for The Torrent (1915), a two-reeler with Marie Walcamp, and thousands stood spellbound as a large reservoir in the hills behind the studio unloosed a flood of water which washed away a street of cottages built down the middle of the valley for the big climax scene of the production. Another thriller which had a tragic ending was the repetition of an airplane bombing which was staged by Frank A. Stites, who, after completing the stunt, found his plane on fire and, to avoid falling into the crowd, heroically crashed his plane against the back lot hills and was instantly killed.


Out at the end of the ranch there were motion picture scenes being filmed, and there were amusing sideshows, and the big zoo, with its wild animals. Bands played, candy and soda booths did business and wild Arabs rode elephants down the road.


The ball that evening was attended by 2,000 people and was held in the large inside studio, which was handsomely decorated with flags and flowers. “Daddy” Manley, the oldest motion picture actor at that time, 88 years old, and “Mother” Benson, led the grand march, which was reviewed by Laemmle and Bernstein.


Among the celebrities who participated in filming scenes marking the opening of Universal City were J. Warren Kerrigan, Louise Lovely, Marie Walcamp, Grace Cunard, Francis Ford, King Baggot, Arthur Johnson, Harry Carey, Wallace Reid, Dorothy Davenport, Henrietta Crossman, Helen Ware, Priscilla Dean, Dorothy Phillips, Frank Keenan, Hobart Bosworth, Alice Howell, Julia Dean, Digby Bell, Lon Chaney, Jean Hersholt, William Stowell, Betty Compson and many bit players who later became stars.


Visitors recalled that after the completion of the opening ceremonies at midnight on March 15, Laemmle and MacRae were stopped on their return to Hollywood when eight coyotes came out of the hills and blocked the narrow road before their car.





Within fifteen years, more than 1,000 feature films and many short subjects, not to mention sixty serial thrillers were produced at Universal City. At one time, in 1917, there were forty-two directors working with an equal number of productions simultaneously, an all-time record for film production.


In addition to almost fifty contract players, Universal City, in its first three years at this location, had sixty full-blooded Native Americans and the largest zoo in the West. The average film shipments from Universal City in 1915 and 1916 were 45,000 feet a week, a tremendous output, considering that features were one and two-reelers.



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6 Responses to “Universal City at 96”

  1. David Markland says:

    Not sure about Alfred Sykes…. there was a pilot named Frank Stites who fell from his plane at the event after the updraft of an exploding bomb caused him to lose control. He landed at the feet of the crowd, killed instantly (the LA Times gruesomely reported that his spine was driven into his skull).
    Of course, the rumor now is that the ghost of Stites haunts the Universal backlot… so much so that some employees dressed a mannequin in his honor that can be seen while taking the studio tour.

  2. Mary mallory says:

    Hollywood Heritage has this exact poster at the Barn.

  3. Maggie-beth says:

    fascinating article. Thanks, Allan.

  4. Maggie-beth says:

    PS – I worked on a couple of shows that were filmed there, and I SWEAR that the 2-level Phantom of the Opera stage is haunted on the downstairs level. They made the old Battlestar Gallactica there and used both levels. It was really creepy down there…

  5. Scatter says:

    Great article Allan!! 96 years, millions of feet of film, and an indelible imprint on my psyche from years of misspent youth (or so they tell me) immersed in the Universal classics.

    We MonsterKids owe so much to this studio for decades past of thrills, chills, and joy!

  6. “As of today, Universal Studios has spent 96 years at its present location in the San Fernando Valley. In mid-1912, Carl Laemmle, a pioneer independent producer, made his early Universal pictures at a small studio on Sunset and Gower in Hollywood”
    As of Today Universal Studios has spent 100 years in the San Fernando Valley.
    In 1912, Universal had two operations on the west coast.
    Universal “Oak Crest” ranch in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood
    The 1912,a court battle between the NewYork Film company and Universal. over owership of the Bison Motion Picture Plants caused Laemmle to purchase Providencia Ranch land and lease surrounding valley areas to
    began production of Universal Bison Brand Westerns.

    Reference: Moving Picture World March 10, 1917

    Aug. 1912 – William H. Swanson, then treasurer of the company,
    leased 1,299 acres at the end of San Fernando Valley,
    adjoining Griffith Park, and now known as the old ranch
    The old Universal “Oak Crest” Ranch was in operation from 1912 to 1914. The plant was the first location of Universal City in the valley.
    “Scrapit” was Laemmle words with the purchase of the new (Taylor) Ranch in the valley.

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