Tag Archives: early warner bros. studios

1/21 and Done

Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer

If you happen to be famous, you may want to stay in bed today.

Who knows? Maybe it was the stress of having just made it through the holidays and knowing that there were less than 350 shopping days until the next Christmas that did these folks in. Whatever the case, the 21st day of January has historically proven fatal to a large number of entertainers.

This dark trend began in 1895 when David Burbank died on this date. While not much of an entertainer himself, dentist and rancher Burbank owned the land that now houses the lots for Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and NBC.

The first film star to pass on this date was beautiful silent actress Alma Rubens (b. 1897) who died from complications from drug addiction in 1931. Canadian-born actress Marie Prevost (b. 1898) met a similar fate six years later due to alcoholism.

On this date in 1938, French magician and cinematic pioneer Georges Melies passed away in Paris. Twelve years later, British dystopian author George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903) died from tuberculosis.

In 1959, two Hollywood notables passed on the same day – one old, one young. The elder victim was epic film director Cecil B. DeMille (b. 1881) whose death overshadowed the news that day that thirty-one-year old ex-Our Gang member Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer had been shot during an argument over a hunting dog. The two were buried a few hundred feet apart in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Western actor Al “Fuzzy” St. John, who got his start in silent comedies with his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, died on this date in 1963. Actress Ann Sheridan (b. 1915) died four years later from cancer.

Death took a holiday until 1984 when the scythe again swung twice claiming the lives of actor and Olympian Johnny Weissmuller  and Soul singer Jackie Wilson.

Cecil B. DeMille

Actress Susan Strasberg died on this date in 1999, followed three years later by actress and singer Peggy Lee.

Other notables who passed on this date include baseball hall of famer Charlie Gehringer in 1993, Chicago television personality and original Ronald McDonald portrayer Ray Rayner in 2004, and Chi-Lites vocalist Robert “Squirrel” Lester in 2010.

January 21 was also the death date for two actors on the world stage. It was on this date in 1924 that communist leader Vladimir Lenin died in Russia. This happened exactly 131 years after King Louis XVI lost his head in 1793.


Anything For A Weird Life

My nephew found himself with some free time during a business trip in London the other day, so he stopped in to Highgate Cemetery, snapped a photo of Douglas Adams’ snow-draped tombstone, and then fired it off to my email address. (Sometimes family and the Internet can be so cool!)

The photo came at a good time, because I’ve been missing Douglas Adams a lot lately. I usually do this time of year when I mentally “auld lang syne” the heroes from my youth who have moved on.

Adams, who died suddenly of a heart attack at a gym in Montecito in 2001, is most famous for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, a hilarious six-book science-fiction “trilogy.” The story is centered around the character Arthur Dent who escapes the planet Earth along with his alien friend Ford Prefect moments before the planet is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. My teenaged stepson now shares my Adams addiction, ever since we started listening to recordings of the Hitchhiker’s BBC radio shows on the way to his school every morning.

I usually read the entire Hitchhiker’s series every year of two to re-calcify my funnybone. This year I’ve added And Another Thing … to the list, which is the latest offering in the series, penned last year by Eoin Colfer, the creator of the fantastic Artemis Fowl books. Although critics have claimed that the Colfer book is “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Douglas Adams,” I have thoroughly enjoyed it so far.

I was lucky to meet the great man once back in October 1992. It was at a book signing at Book Soup in West Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. I got to the store early and was able to secure a seat right next to the podium. Adams arrived late (he always had an aversion to deadlines) and read from one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, acting out all of the voices as he read along. We all ate it up. When he went to read from his book Last Chance To See – a rare bit of non-fiction he wrote about vanishing species – the store had none in stock. I gladly offered him my copy, which I had brought along for him to sign. I remember he flipped through it and said, “Wow, it’s marked up!” commenting on my habit of making notes in books. Afterwards, he pulled me to the front of the line where he shook my hand, signed my copy, and stamped a bright red “42” on the front (the answer to the question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”).

A couple of months ago I got the chance to host my own signing at the same venue for my book Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. It was weird standing at the same podium where Adams had once voiced the part of Marvin, the Paranoid Android to all of us nerdy fans all those years ago. The unworthiness I felt reminded me of Adams’ computer Deep Thought’s comments about a superior machine: “A computer whose operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate.”

I heard once that if you want to change your life, you must first change your heroes. A couple decades ago my life changed for the better, becoming a lot funnier in the process, when I first discovered Douglas Adams. The laughs ended far too soon.

I’m not bringing you down, am I?


The Fifth Warner Brother

Bette Davis, and her famous eyes.

When Bette Davis first came to Hollywood in 1930 after being discovered on Broadway by a Universal talent scout, she traveled by train and was shocked on arrival not to be greeted by a representative from the studio. In fact, the studio had sent a man to meet her, but he left after failing to see anyone exit the train who looked like an actress.

For the next five decades, Davis would employ her unique look, as well as a willingness to play unsympathetic characters, to create one of the greatest of all Hollywood careers.

After her anticlimactic arrival in Hollywood, Davis would get her first role at Universal on the recommendation of a cinematographer who found her eyes to be striking. She quickly moved over to Warner Bros., where she got her big Hollywood “break” in 1932 when actor George Arliss personally chose her for the lead female role in his film The Man Who Played God.

Two years later, she earned critical acclaim in Of Human Bondage. When she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for the film, the ensuing uproar forced the Academy to change its nominating process. She won the Oscar the following year for Dangerous, but till the end of her life she would contend that the statuette was a consolation prize from the Academy for the previous year’s snub.

Along the way, Davis became nearly as famous for her legendary fights with studio chief Jack Warner, as for her body of work. In 1936, she tried to break her contract with the producer, believing that Warner was damaging her career with the roles he was demanding she play. Her case went to court in England, where Davis had fled, and was lost when her claim that WB kept her in “slavery” produced laughter in the courtroom when it was pointed out that her involuntary servitude was netting her $1350 per week.

During World War II, few actors in Hollywood threw themselves more valiantly behind the war effort than Davis. She once personally sold $2 million worth of war bonds in only two days, and in 1942, she, along with some other A-list friends, transformed an old nightclub into the “Hollywood Canteen,” a service club for men in uniform. She made it her personal mission to insure that it was staffed nightly by Hollywood stars who would entertain the fighting men on leave. Two years later, art imitated life when she played herself in Hollywood Canteen, a fictionalized account of the club. She was later quoted as saying that the founding of the Canteen was one of her proudest achievements.

Davis was a ubiquitous part of the Warner landscape for decades, making 54 films, and winning two Oscars along the way.

Even in death, the “Fifth Warner Brother,” who died on this date in 1989 at the age of 81, is said to keep an eye on things at the studio from her grave, which faces the lot from a short distance away.

Davis' grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.


The Untimely Death of Sam Warner

Producer and visionary Sam Warner.

Sam Warner, perhaps the most affable of the four brothers who founded the WB motion picture empire, was always thinking about the future. 

Schmuel Wonskolaser was born in Poland and came to the United States as a child with his family in the late 1880s. As a young man, he worked in several trades before going into the nickelodeon business with his two older brothers near their home in Youngstown, Ohio. Sam’s job, as the most technically-minded of the brothers, was to crank the projector. 

The boys soon moved into film distribution and added younger brother Jack to the business. Sam was able to get along well with all his brothers, and provided a buffer between the argumentative Jack and his other two siblings, Albert and Harry. This pattern would continue for the next two decades as the Warners moved into film production and settled in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” district. 

The four Warner Brothers. Clockwise from the upper-left they are Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert.

As second-tier producers during the early 1920s, the brothers constantly hovered on the brink of bankruptcy. Only the success of Rin Tin Tin films kept the young enterprise afloat. The brothers knew that to remain in business, they would have to make a big gamble, but they were rarely in agreement on what that gamble should be. 

Sam felt that the future belonged to sound

Silent films were entrenched into the fabric of Hollywood and few felt that the situation would change any time soon. Sam disagreed. He had worked closely with sound engineers from Western Electric setting up WB’s first L.A. radio station. (Jack Warner would later say that the call letters for the station, KFWB, stood for “Keep Filming, Warner Bros.,” but they were coincidental. The station still exists today and has a news/talk format.) 

Sam was given a demonstration for a new sound-on-disk process that Western Electric had developed and was convinced that it would save the company. But first, he would have to convince his brothers. It was a tough sell, but Harry, the WB president, agreed to buy the invention if Sam would only use it for background music. They named the process Vitaphone, to capitalize on their recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios. 

Hollywood had taken its first baby-step into sound production. 

Sam oversaw the production of several sound shorts, as well as Don Juan, the first sound feature, in 1926. The film had a recorded orchestra and employed a few crude sound effects. It was a huge hit, but was unable to recoup the massive investment that WB made in wiring their theaters for sound amplification. 

The brothers found themselves seriously in debt once again. They decided to push in all the chips and make a true “talkie” film; one where not only the background music would be heard on the soundtrack, but the voices of the actors as well. Sam was again put in charge of bringing this difficult birth to term. 

 

The result was The Jazz Singer, which was released on October 6, 1927 in Manhattan. The film set box-office records, and effectively put the silent era on life support. It also secured WB’s future and propelled the brothers into the ranks of the major film producers. 

Tragically, none of the brothers were in attendance at the theater that night to hear history being made. That’s because Sam, the brother most responsible for Warner Bros.’ and Hollywood’s new era of talkie films, had died 24-hours earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by the stress of bringing the film to the screen. 

That was 83-years ago today. 

Sam was only 42. 

 

If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.


The Grand Ole Autry

Multimedia star Gene Autry.

Of all the more than 2400 performers who have been immortalized with terrazzo and brass stars embedded into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, only one has a star in each of the five featured categories of film, television, music, radio, and live performance. Can you guess who it is?

Bob Hope? Nice try, but he only has four stars.

Frank Sinatra? Danny Kaye? Good guesses, but only three stars each.

I don’t know? … Elvis?

Nope. “The King” has only one star, but the true King of Hollywood Boulevard is none other than the great singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

One of Gene Autry's five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Singing Cowby Superstar Orvon Eugene Autry was born on this date in 1907 in the Red River Valley of Texas and grew up on a ranch a few miles to the north in Oklahoma. After high school, Autry worked as a railroad telegrapher during the graveyard shift where young Gene would entertain himself playing the guitar and singing.

Autry signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in 1929 and later hosted his own music show for four years on WLS-AM in Chicago where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. Autry’s biggest hits came in the Christmas music category where he struck gold with “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.He would eventually record over 600 songs – half of which he wrote – and would sell over 100 million records.

Hollywood soon came calling and Autry and Burnette went west to star as singing cowboys in pictures for Monogram, which was later absorbed by Republic Pictures. He made dozens of enormously successful cowboy films over the next twenty years atop his horse Champion, with Burnette often playing his singing sidekick. From 1940 to 1956 he would also host a successful radio show called Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch.

He invested the millions he earned wisely in real estate and broadcasting. He was the long-time owner of L.A.’s KTLA television station as well as of the baseball team that is today known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

A recent photo of my film class at the Melody Ranch gates.

Melody Ranch, another former Autry property, is a film ranch located in Newhall, California. Melody Ranch has a history stretching back nearly 100 years, and has been the filming site of thousands of Westerns, including many made by Autry. He was able to acquire it in 1953 and used it daily for film and television production until August 1962 when a brushfire burned most of it to the ground. Autry had intended to build his museum at the ranch, and much of his priceless personal memorabilia was destroyed in the fire. The museum was later built in Griffith Park. For the next three decades the property served as a retirement home for his horse Champion.

In 1991, brothers Renaud and Andree Veluzat purchased the ranch and re-created the Western Town from old photos. It has since been home to dozens of commercials, films, and television shows, including the spectacular HBO series Deadwood. (Fans can get a peek inside the Melody Ranch gates during Cowboy Festival, which takes place every April.)

Autry passed away at the age of 91 on October 2, 1998, just three months after the death of his friend and rival Roy Rogers.

(For more on Warner Bros. Sunset Studios, which later became KTLA, check out my new book Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.)


“Burning Deal” Turns 35

The "burning deal" photo, taken on the Warner Bros. Studios lot.

I’m sure all of us have albums that were important to us at pivotal times in our lives. I happen to have several, but none more than Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which was released 35 years ago this week. The record is not only a true classic progressive rock album that gave me hours of listening pleasure over the years, but it actually served an instrumental role in finding me a wife.

The story goes like this: In 2003 I got a job at the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank. During my first few months there I spent lots of time exploring the studio during lunch breaks. One spot near the massive Stage 16 proved enigmatic to me. Whenever I stood at the intersection looking north towards the commissary I was struck with an intense feeling of déjà vu.

A few weeks later I was going through a stack of old CDs when I saw the Wish You Were Here album with the famous “burning deal” cover, which features two men shaking hands, with one of the gentlemen lit on fire.

That’s when it hit me. The reason it felt like I had been to the spot by Stage 16 was because I had been there before, mentally of course, every time I looked at the cover of the Wish You Were Here album.

I met a WB co-worker named Kim at around the same time and took her to the spot one day during one of our first commissary “dates.” As we stood in the approximate spots as the gentlemen on the cover, a guy walking by us started cracking up. I asked him what he was laughing about and he told us that the guy on the cover was named Ronnie Rondell who just happened to be his uncle!

He gave me his uncle’s phone number and I later gave him a call. Ronnie was very friendly and told me that he was paid $500 for the shot, and that yes, he was really set on fire. I asked him if he got lots of requests for autographs, and he could only recall ever signing one CD previously. I later mailed a poster of the album cover to him, which he signed and mailed back to me. Stuntman Danny Rogers, the other guy in the picture, later autographed the poster as well. To the best of their knowledge, it was the first poster the both of them had ever signed.

Kim thought it was all pretty cool, and the dates continued. Two years later we were married and today the poster with the two autographs hangs in the hallway outside of our bedroom.

Thanks to Pink Floyd, the world got a classic album, and I got a unique piece of rock and roll memorabilia, to go along with a perfect wife.

The same spot today.

For more history of the Warner Bros. Studios lot, check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.


Burbank’s “Chamber of Secrets”

For 166 hours every week, Kimi and I reside in the real world, but on Thursday mornings we briefly step out of Muggle-dom to spend the remaining two hours inside the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger.

That’s because for the past year we have both been docents at the Warner Bros. Museum on the studio lot in Burbank, where the entire second floor is filled with original props and costumes from the first six films in the fantastically successful Harry Potter franchise.

The museum’s first floor has artifacts from WB’s eight-decade history of film and television. Among the many treasures there is the tiny 58-key piano from Casablanca, the original Maltese Falcon (currently out on loan), Heath Ledger’s purple joker outfit from The Dark Knight, a row of Hugo Weaving mannequins from The Matrix, and a shelf of Academy Awards won by the studio going back  to 1928. Last week, some new items from WB’s most recent hit Inception were put on display, including Leonardo DiCaprio’s white suit from the Alpine compound, Cillian Murphy’s passport, the “totem” top, and the stainless-steel “Dream Case,” (which, by the way, is labeled “Halliburton” on the outside).

But the second floor is where the non-Muggle magic resides. That’s where you can find the original Marauder’s Map, Goblet of Fire, Triwizard Cup, Sword of Griffindor, a Nimbus 2000, Tom Riddle’s Diary, a petrified Hermione, Harry’s cupboard under the stairs, and one of the giant spiders from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There are also dozens of costumes worn by all the principals, including the Triwizard Cup jersey donned by Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), which regularly draws squeals from little (and sometimes notso little) girls.

The centerpiece of the collection is one of the original “sorting hats” used in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. Guests line up to be sorted, just like first-year students at Hogwarts. When we place the hat over their heads (the one and only prop that we are allowed to touch in the museum), a disembodied voice places them into one of the four Hogwarts’ houses – Gryffindor (Harry’s house), Slytherin (home of the evil Draco Malfoy), Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. The sorting is not random, but is on a continuous loop, and after a year in Hogwarts, we both know when Slytherin is rolling around, and when it does we try to substitute an adult in place of a child, so as not to cause a youngster any permanent mental scarring from thinking they were just “born bad.”

It may sound pathetic for a guy pushing 50 to still get geeked-out by books and movies written for kids, but judging by the thousands of parents who get giddy being sorted into Gryffindor every year, I don’t appear to be alone.

The Warner Bros. Museum is open to everyone who takes the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour. (Do yourselves a favor and check out the clips on the Ellen Degeneres Show link.)

For more on the history of Warner Bros., check out my new book, Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios (co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker).