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Studio City was LA's original master planned megadevelopment

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Movie mogul Mack Sennett turned the former lettuce ranch into a bedroom community and future home of CBS Studio Center

A group of “Mack Sennett girls” in bathing suits are posed on the beach in Santa Monica. The women were ever-present on his Studio City lot.
“Mack Sennett girls” in bathing suits in Santa Monica in the 1920s. The women were ever-present on his Studio City lot.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The freshly paved streets of the brand-new town of Studio City, until recently part of the rural San Fernando Valley, were jammed with over 7,000 automobiles on March 18, 1928. Children stuck their heads out of backseat windows to get a glimpse of “the world’s largest pie,” 12-feet-long and 10-feet-wide, which was being baked in a large oven in front of the just-opened Mack Sennett Studio.

If looky-loos were lucky, they caught a glimpse of a disheveled, jovial man, surrounded by beautiful young women in bathing suits, overseeing the celebration.

Canadian-born Mack Sennett was one of the giants of silent Hollywood. Since 1912, the larger-than-life actor, director, and producer had been cranking out slapstick comedies at his studio in Edendale, in present-day Silver Lake.

What had started out as a ramshackle stage on the site of a defunct grocery store (actors changed in an old barn) had grown by the mid-1920s into a buzzing, busy movie factory, according to historian Nathan Masters. The studio was famed for its Keystone Kops, pie-in-the face gags, “bathing beauties,” and stars Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and Fatty Arbuckle. But according to Arbuckle biographer Greg Merritt, the biggest personality on the lot was Sennett himself:

Mack Sennett reveled in his persona as the original Beverly Hillbilly. He wore a Panama hat with the crown cut out, believing sunshine on his prematurely gray and perpetually chaotic hair would stave off baldness. He rode on horseback around the lot every morning. For “health” he breakfasted on raw radishes and onions and downed whiskey shots. Stains from the tobacco he chewed colored his ill-fitting suits. He had a gargantuan marble and silver bathtub installed in his office on the top floor of the lot’s tallest building, and while bathing daily, he surveyed his employees down below and gave orders, drafted letters, and held story and business meetings. After each lengthy bath, his flesh was kneaded by a Turkish ex-wrestler.

Despite his comic persona, Sennett was a shrewd businessman, with a particular interest in LA’s booming real estate market.

Once the owner of the site of the Hollywood Sign—where he had planned to build his very own mountaintop lair—he forayed lightly into the market when he helped publicize the Hollywoodland development by supplying the media with pinup pictures of his bathing beauties posing on tractors and construction sites in an effort to lure potential homeowners to the new neighborhood’s real estate office.

But Sennett wanted more.

two women are suspended high above the ground as they ride on the shovel from Western ConstructionCo.'s working steam shovel. 
Sennett gave the media photos of models posed on construction equipment to publicize Hollywoodland.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Around 1926, the “King of Comedy” teamed with a newly formed real estate syndicate which called itself the Central Motion Picture District Incorporated. Created by powerful realtor Harry Merrick, the group included such film industry heavy-hitters as Paramount executives B.P. Schulberg and Milton E. Hoffman, as well as the actor Noah Beery. The syndicate had recently bought 503 acres of lush ranch land in what was then commonly called North Hollywood. The land boasted a particularly charming stretch of the LA River, as well as acres covered in walnut, gum, pepper, and plum trees, and the only pecan orchard in Southern California.

The syndicate's goal for their acreage was ambitious: They wanted to bring all of the currently spread out “motion picture studios into a single district.” In exchange for being the first to build a new studio in the district, Sennett was gifted 20 acres of land on what was once a former lettuce ranch and fruit orchard. It was hoped that other studios, lured by similar incentives and Sennett’s new model studio, would follow his lead.

The corporation presumptively christened their new community “Studio City.” Sennett’s studio would not be the first to move into the Valley—that honor went to Universal, which moved to North Hollywood in 1915. But Studio City was envisioned as more than just a factory town. It would also be a model middle-class bedroom community, with studios to the south of the LA River and leafy neighborhoods to the north. Sennett instantly became the face of the venture, helping get the word out about LA’s new “film capital.” In a 1927 feature in the Los Angeles Times, he touted the syndicate's grand goals:

Executives of a number of the larger picture companies and several widely known Los Angeles businessmen are members of the syndicate, which acquired the land for the studio site and for the surrounding business and residence districts which will be developed as a part of the plan, characterized by Mr. Sennett as one of the most important and far-reaching steps ever taken in the Southern California film industry.

While architect Harold Cass was still drawing up plans for his new $800,000 studio, Sennett put his well-tuned publicity machine to work. Sennett ingenues were sent to pick fruit from the land’s fertile orchards, with cameramen in tow—one final harvest before they were plowed over for the new lot. Cameras were rolling on July 25, 1927, as actress Frances Lee, wearing a bathing suit, ceremonially dug up the first shovel of dirt to begin grading the land.

The next day, the Los Angeles Times reported that hundreds of screen celebrities visited Studio City to see the new site. Gloria Swanson, who had gotten her start in Sennett’s movies and become the biggest star in Hollywood, was even photographed congratulating her old boss on his grand new studio.

Exterior view of the Mack Sennett Studio in Studio City. It was later named Republic, and since 1955, is the CBS Studio Center. Next to it was Harold Lloyds Studio, now part of CBS. It was never used by Lloyd.&
Mack Sennett’s Studio.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Sennett promised that his new “picture plant,” done up in the uber-trendy Spanish-Mission style, would be “the most modern in the motion picture industry.” In what is now an industry norm, plans were drawn up so that both exteriors and interiors on the lot could be used in filming. The Los Angeles Times reported:

Plans for the plant are laid out so as to be susceptible to landscape treatment, a feature new in local studios. All stages will be so constructed that the floors will be in sections and adaptable for all types of scenes, similar to the latest designs of legitimate theater stages. Trusses in the main stage buildings will support the heaviest object used in making pictures. Any automobile truck may be suspended at any point. This stage wiring system will be arranged overhead with connections for plugging in Klieg lights without cluttering up the floors.

As studio construction continued throughout 1927 and early 1928, single-family homes and apartment houses also began to rise across the river, making way for the estimated 3,000 employees who the syndicate said would soon be working in Studio City.

Angelenos steadily bought up lots, lured by the promise of an easy commute into LA on the newly paved Riverside Drive. Craftsman-style homes were particularly popular, and it was considered a point of pride that, because the area was so wooded, trees had to be cut down instead of planted, like in most of Los Angeles. The beauty of Studio City continued to be one of the new community’s selling points:

The residential section of Studio City is separated from the film industrial area by the Los Angeles River, which completely isolates the home section from the center of film activities. New Orleans has its French and American quarters, Canal Street separating the two communities, just as the Los Angeles River divides the home and screen areas at Studio City. Through Studio City the Los Angeles River has been cleared and its banks riveted with concrete. Ivy will be planted to run down the banks, giving the effect of Venice and its canals. Clear cold Aqueduct water flows through the river every day of the year.

By December of 1927, construction of Sennett’s studio was nearing completion. Hundreds of construction workers toiled away on the site daily, building multiple stages, including one with a pool that had portholes for taking underwater footage, according to the Times.

Through the months of construction, Sennett kept the publicity machine rolling, arranging numerous photo ops featuring his contract players visiting the rising studio. While Sennett kept up his end of the bargain, the syndicate continued its attempt to woo other studios out to their new city. Their success was limited. Cecil B. DeMille was rumored to be looking at lots within Studio City, and Paramount had bought thousands of acres near Studio City as an outdoor lot. In reality, Sennett’s studio remained by far the new community’s greatest get.

On January 23, 1928, Sennett and his stable of stars said a tearful goodbye to the famed old studio in Edendale. Sennett himself was probably not as sad as one would think. With construction booming in Los Angeles, he knew the time was ripe to sell off the old Edendale lot for a large profit.

Three months later, the Mack Sennett Studio and Central Motion Picture District were ready to unveil their new community. They invited the public to celebrate Studio City in the most slapstick way possible: a conceptual art callback to Sennett’s signature pie-throwing gags.

“Derelys Perdue, screen actress, yesterday purchased material for the giant pie,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Fifteen thousand prunes, 300 pounds of prepared flour, 350 eggs, 300 pounds of sugar, and 100 pounds of butter are among the ingredients of the pie.”

An aerial view of Studio City's studio, Republic, street at lower left is Ventura Boulevard, photographed in 1960.
An aerial view of the studio in 1960, with Ventura Boulevard at the lower left.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The pie gag, which coincided with a gala celebrating the opening of the Mack Sennett Studio, drew nationwide attention to the new city, according to the Times:

The baking of the largest pie in the world in front of the Mack Sennett plant in Studio City drew thousands of visitors to the new film capital. Motion pictures of the pie baking will show in every cinema theater in the United States…Traffic Officer Johnson, in charge of the detail of ten officers handling the traffic, said yesterday that in his estimation, a greater number of automobiles traveled over Ventura Blvd. than in any one day in the history of the highway.

Production soon started on the lot, which was also called “Studioland.” The studio was now filled with clumsy cops, pratfalling everymen, and the ever-present bathing beauties.

To shore up his empire, Sennett jumped on the sound wagon that fall, building two state-of-the-art soundstages. Still attempting to entice other motion picture companies to Studio City, Central Motion Picture President Milton E. Hoffman claimed the land in Studio City was ideally suited to sound recording. “Hoffman pointed out that the new film area is like a huge punch bowl,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “with gravel and water at the bottom, followed by successive layers of sand and silt, which form a ball bearing cushion, making vibration almost impossible. This is an almost perfect condition from a sound-production standpoint, Hoffman said.”

Sennett’s studio continued to be the syndicate’s major commercial selling point, according to historian Mary Mallory:

It announced in early 1929 newspaper advertisements that potential buyers should ask about a free trip through the Mack Sennett Studio. In April 1929, it created the Studio City Radio Hour, which ran Monday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm., and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on KGFJ, in an effort to boost sales. April 7, 1929, was named Movie Day, with movie stars appearing after the preview of a Sennett talkie, followed by a sightseeing trip through the studio.

There was some other film studio activity in Studio City, but Sennett’s studio was by far the biggest and most successful. Despite this, Studio City continued to grow both commercially and residentially. Then came the stock market crash in October of 1929, which put Sennett in a downward spiral from which he could never recover.

Despite making many more films, including ones featuring a very young Bing Crosby, the Depression and Sennett’s passé taste—screwball was in, slapstick was out—forced him into bankruptcy. He would lose almost everything in the next few years, including his still-state-of-the-art studio.

In 1933, the Mack Sennett Studio was bought by B-picture company Mascot Studios. In 1935, Mascot became part of Republic Pictures. By this time, Sennett’s old lot featured six soundstages. Republic was known for its low-budget Westerns, and it cranked out an impressive 50 pictures a year.

In 1963, the complex was taken over by CBS, and is known today as CBS Studio Center. The friendly, comfortable lot, in the center of still-charming Studio City, has been home to some of the most celebrated TV comedies of the last 50 years including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Seinfeld, and Parks and Recreation. The laughs keep on coming.