In May 1914, Universal Studio officials broke ground for a brand new motion picture plant in the San Fernando Valley. Construction commenced on June 28th and Universal City, off of Lankershim Blvd., officially opened on March 15, 1915. Its inauguration featured bands, speeches, cowboys on horseback, celebrity sightings, food, beverages, and fireworks. The new municipality covered approximately 230 acres and was surrounded by ranch lands. In fact, Universal City used to be a cluster of barley fields belonging to the Taylor Ranch before Carl Laemmle developed it into a film production center.
Universal’s largest stage at that time covered 90,000 square feet. It included a smaller stage that revolved, one that rocked, and others that were removable. Below many of these smaller stages were concrete tanks that could be filled with water to create small watering holes or a lake if needed.
“Universal is turning out every variety of picture. The short one-reeler is the little sister of the big six-reel production. We are better equipped to turn out super-productions, not in spite of, but because of our activities in the other fields. When we turn out a serial out sets depict every corner of the globe. The action, which, of course must be lively, calls for energetic work on the part of the director and the cameraman.
Near the main stage was a second stage that stood 350 by 198 feet. Other buildings that surrounded both stages included a prop making plant, costume house, carpenter shop, a set designers’ building, a special building used for constructing scenery and props made of plastics and papier mache, a saw mill, a prop storage warehouse, laboratories, and rows of dressing rooms.
In 1915, Universal City boasted that it had a population of 1500 people. Because it was factory town, it had its own co-operative city government, fire department, police force, jail, public library, gymnasium (with swimming pools), school, zoo, hospital, interdenominational church, movie theatre, electrical plant, water pump stations, and a large restaurant that could seat up to 600 people. Tourists were allowed to visit the studio and watch films being shot on the lot at a cost of 25 cents per person.
The vast majority of buildings, except for the residential bungalows, were made of reinforced concrete.
Universal subleased adjacent farm lands for growing hay and grain for its stable of horses and cattle. It acquired land along a portion of the Los Angeles River, in back of the lot, to meet the studio’s water needs. Universal called this part of its factory the ranch. It then added corrals, a blacksmith and harness shop, a 50′ by 200′ stage, dressing rooms, restaurant, prop, wardrobe, etc. shops. The studio also built cavalry barracks and a weapons arsenal to store its weaponry. The studio housed electricians and water pump technicians to protect the entire plant from breakdowns.
Rather than build a hotel to court investors and stars, Universal relied heavily on the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to handle its V.I.P. guests.
At that time, Universal Pictures was shooting approximately ten miles of film a week.
In 1920, Carl Laemmle discussed his studio’s business model:
“Universal is turning out every variety of picture. The short one-reeler is the little sister of the big six-reel production. We are better equipped to turn out super-productions, not in spite of, but because of our activities in the other fields. When we turn out a serial, our sets depict every corner of the globe. The action, which, of course must be lively, calls for energetic work on the part of the director and the cameraman. When we turn out a western, the director has the problem of putting his plot over quickly and condensing it to two reels. Pathos, gaiety, surprise must all be registered artistically – but it must be done quickly. When we turn out a comedy, and the comedies of today have discarded the slapstick idea, our director depends on subtle situations to put over the laugh.
“Because of our enormous output, we must have production facilities. Our property rooms could hold the whole works of many big film companies and still have room for more. Our various companies have stars of every variety, extras of all conceivable types, players for every special situation.
“Our directors and cameramen, and we only hire the most experienced, go through a new school when they join our organization. They have to work up from the one-reel pictures. Then they graduate to the serials and from there to the special attraction class. They are learning all the time. When they get in the special attraction class, they have profited by their previous work. As a result, Universal special attraction is not marred by a ‘serial-ish’ tone. The director has learned to do the serial and not to do the ‘serial’ stuff in a big picture. After the special attraction stage, the director and cameraman, if their work has shown them capable of the Universal top-marks, are put on a Jewel production – the finest product of our organization. So, too, with our players – they must pass through all the stages of our work and then only a few of the best are chosen for Jewel casts.
“A Jewel production is the essence of everything that is ‘best’ at Universal City. A Jewel picture is the sum total of all the technical ability, directorial excellence, artistic superiority and perfection in photography of the Universal organization, coupled with its best screen talent. Money, efforts, or time are not figured in their making. A Jewel picture may take five months to make – but never less than three. The most expensive settings, the finest casts, the best directors, and only stars who have earned that title, figure in their production.
“Only the pick of plays and scenarios are selected for Jewel features. Every bit of film, every scene must be perfect. Sometimes certain scenes are retaken 12 times before the desired effect is secured. The titles alone cost more than any ordinary production. A title which is both artistic and unique adds a distinctive touch to an otherwise fine picture and stamps it with the seal of perfection.
“Jewels are never made in haste. They are not turned out by the yard. Because of the great care in their making, Universal can release but a scant half dozen each year. That is why an exhibitor books a Jewel picture by its trademark. It is true, Universal turns out something of everything. We have a variety of both short and long subjects, but we have but one ‘best of all.’ With Universal, the ‘best’ is Jewel, and if I do say it myself – I believe Jewel is the best.”
Imagine calling these guys into a conference room for a power meeting. That’s exactly what happened in 1962 when Universal brought in Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck to discuss their upcoming film projects. Hudson’s project was A Gathering of Eagles, Grant’s was Charade, Brando’s was The Ugly American and Peck’s was To Kill a Mockingbird. The joke at the time was that every female employee working at Universal managed to schedule their break right around the time the conference ended, just to catch a glimpse of the stars leaving the room.
A fire at the Universal backlot in 1967. Damages were approximately $1 million. (Photo: David Hearst Jr. / LAPL 00049868)