Through the Viewfinder Lecture Series: Christina Rice on Film Studio Photos before 1930 from the Los Angeles Public Library

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was better weather yesterday than the previous couple of days, though still hot, when the Homestead hosted the second of three lectures in this year’s “Through the Viewfinder” series.  The talk was by Los Angeles Public Library photo collection librarian Christina Rice and covered images in the collection highlighting Los Angeles-area film studios before 1930.

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Christina Rice, librarian of the photo collection at the Los Angeles Public Library, starts off her entertaining presentation “A Visit to the Early Film Studios, 1909-1930” for about 50 visitors at the second of three offerings in the Homestead’s “Through the Viewfinder” series.

She began, naturally, at the start of the industry in the region, with the establishment in 1909 of the Selig studio in what was then called Edendale, an area near Silver Lake, northwest of downtown.  Over the next few years, a host of studios operated along Alessandro Street, now Glendale Avenue where the 2 Freeway terminates.  Christina used library photos, Sanborn maps (fire insurance company maps with great detail of a given area), and current maps and images to show how the area has changed.

Notably, a granddaughter of William and Nicolasa Workman, Josephine M. Workman, who was living downtown, answered an advertisement in 1909 seeking ethnic-looking people to appear in early movies.  She wound up working for several studios in the Edendale area and became a major star as the “Indian maiden” Princess Mona Darkfeather.  A recent post here concerned a recent Homestead acquisition of a fan photo and letter, the latter being on the stationery of her production company which was located on Alessandro Street in Edendale.

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A great early image of the Selig Polyscope Studio at the beginning of the local film industry in 1909.

That area, however, didn’t have the space the studios required as the film industry exploded during the first years of the 1910s, so less developed areas were sought out.  These included Hollywood, which was briefly its own city before being annexed to Los Angeles in 1910; Culver City, where there was plenty of space for larger facilities; and Burbank/Universal City, where expansive locations were also available.

With the great variety of photographs and the other sources, Christina deftly traced the growth of the industry, talking about studios obscure (Inceville at what is now Pacific Palisades or Al Christie, anyone?) and famous (MGM, Universal, Warner Brothers).  She interspersed interesting details and facts about the expansion of the industry and, especially, what happened to the studios over time.

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A view of film legend Charlie Chaplin’s Hollywood studio, now owned by the Jim Henson production company.

As an example, she observed that the well-known studio of comedic great Charlie Chaplin, built in an English Tudor style reflecting his heritage, became the long-time home of A&M Records before being purchased by the production company of Muppet master Jim Henson.  The firm still owns the facility and she stated that those driving by can spot a statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as Chaplin.  Immediately, an audience member called up a photo of the statue on his phone for those around him to see.

She also pointed out that the Culver City studio of Thomas Ince, which was owned briefly by Cecil B. DeMille, was then under the ownership of David O. Selznick.  Selznick used the administration building as the site of the plantation house, Tara, for the famed 1939 classic, Gone With The Wind, and set ablaze abandoned backlot structures to recreate the burning of Atlanta for the film.

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Christina supplemented the fantastic photos with our sources, such as heavily detailed and useful Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which show locations of structures in given areas.  Here is a view of a map showing the Mack Sennett studio in Edendale (Silver Lake) northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Details like that, along with her general approach, and use of photos and other media ensured that Christina’s well-paced presentation kept the audience of about 50 in rapt attention.  In fact, one person immediately came up to me afterward and asked that we bring her back to continue the story.  Even though the Homestead’s time period ends at 1930, that’s definitely something to consider, because Christina did a great job.

Afterward, about a dozen of the audience members joined me for a tour of Workman House and La Casa Nueva.  During the Q&A, I mentioned Princess Mona Darkfeather’s career in early film based out of Edendale.  When we got to La Casa Nueva, I reminded the guests about Christina’s mention of Inceville and the Ince Studios, noting that the director and studio head’s Beverly Hills home, Dias Doradas (Golden Days), was designed by architect Roy Seldon Price and received quite a bit of attention upon its 1924 completion.

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The wide-open spaces of the southwest San Fernando Valley near Universal City, Burbank and Studio City were tapped for larger studio facilities like those of Universal and Warner Brothers.

That project caught the eye of the Temple family, already about two years into the construction of La Casa Nueva.  So, they hired Price, who worked on the project for another three years, making all kinds of significant changes, usually major improvements.  As the Temples joked, the architect’s invoices matched his last name, but he did transform the structure.  It was too bad that, as with Ince, who died shortly after his home was finished, the Temples did not long enjoy their new home.

Despite the hot weather, the group had a great time, including a 90-year woman who needed neither cane nor walker and more than kept up with everyone else during the visit.  She did note, however, that her half century of dancing definitely contributed to her remarkable mobility!

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A bucolic scene in the backlot at Universal Studios–a world (and about a century) away from today’s very busy and heavily urbanized Universal City.

We have one more presentation in the “Through the Viewfinder” series, this being a review of photographs in the Homestead’s collection that show the transformation of greater Los Angeles from 1870 to 1930.  That talk will be on Sunday, 4 November at 2 p.m. with reservations available after 21 September, so we hope to see you there.

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