Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Came First--The Chicken or the Movie Star?

When Carl Laemmle decided to move his production company westward, he chose a site in the San Fernando Valley, just ten miles outside of Los Angeles.  In March 1914, he paid $165,000 for the land and broke ground the following October.  A new city was founded for one sole purpose—to make movies.

On March 15, 1915, in front of a large crowd, the American flag was raised and 48-year-old Laemmle officiated at the opening of Universal City.  Laura Oakley, Universal's first police chief, gave Laemmle a key to the city.  Within these city limits was a main street that ran for six miles and included all sorts of building styles:  English colonial, French provincial, Japanese teahouses and Italian villas.  In addition to the police department, there was a fire brigade, a bus system and a school attended by child stars, as well as employees’ children.   Two restaurants that served 1,000 customers a day also opened.  There were also blacksmith, tailor and leather shops, along with garages, mills and apothecaries.
Throughout the next 20 years, there was also talent.  Harold Lloyd was an extra.  Lon Chaney and Rudolph Valentino got their start at Universal along with Bette Davis.  Directors such as Allen Dwan and Erich Von Stroheim worked for Laemmle.  Universal also claimed William Powell, ZaSu Pitts, Buck Jones and Boris Karloff.  And then there were the chickens!  As proud as he was of his talented crew, Laemmle was even prouder of his white chickens.  The Universal chickens lived in a clean, whitewashed hatchery where they laid their eggs—which Laemmle then sold to his employees. 

Despite Universal’s success with many major features such as Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), the studio suffered financially.  Faced with debt in March 1935, Laemmle was forced to sell his studio to a group of financiers for five and a half million dollars.  The new owners requested an audit and found two dead men on the payroll, employees who only came to work to collect their paychecks and some who came to work, but had no job.  The audit also revealed 70 relatives on the payroll, as well as some who actually lived on the lot.  They were all evicted and the last family members to leave were Laemmle’s widowed sister-in-law and her daughter; they had been living at the studio in a three-bedroom house with furniture taken from the prop department.
There’s one more thing you should know about Carl Laemmle:  he realized how curious people were about the making of moving pictures and was the first to allow the public inside a studio.  It was a great bargain at the time—just 25 cents.  If the paying visitor was lucky, he or she even got cast as an extra for no added charge.  So the next time you visit Universal Studios, silently thank Carl Laemmle.  He’d be pleased to know that you remembered him.

No comments:

Post a Comment