The first real studio, Nestor Film Company, soon followed from New Jersey, cranking out three pictures a week – one ‘western,’ one ‘eastern,’ and one comedy – for a grand total of $1,200.
By 1912, word of Hollywood’s ideal film-shooting climate and landscape spread, and at least 15 independent studios could be found shooting around town. Old barns were turned into sound stages and Hollywood’s quiet time was over.
It wasn’t just sunny skies that spurred the mass film migration to Hollywood. In 1897, famed inventor and early movie mogul Thomas Edison began suing rival producers who were utilizing filmmaking-projection devices based (he felt) on his Kinetoscope technology.
Many of these movie ‘pirates’ fled from New Jersey (home of the Edison Company and the original movie capital), first to Cuba, then to California for good.
By the early 1920s, Hollywood had become the world’s film capital. It produced virtually all films show in the United States and received 80 percent of the revenue from films shown abroad. During the ’20s, Hollywood bolstered its position as world leader by recruiting many of Europe’s most talented actors and actresses, like Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr, directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg, as well as camera operators, lighting technicians, and set designers,By the end of the decade, Hollywood claimed to be the nation’s fifth largest industry, attracting 83 cents out of every dollar Americans spent on amusement.
During the second decade of the twentieth century, immigrants like Laemmle and Zukor came to dominate the movie business. Unlike Edison and the other American-born, Protestant businessmen who had controlled the early film industry, these immigrant entrepreneurs had a better sense of what the public wanted to see. Virtually all of these new producers emigrated to the United States from central Europe and were Jewish. Not part of the Victorian ethos that still held sway in “respectable” Protestant America, they proved better able to exploit ribald humor and sex in their films. Less conservative than the American-born producers, they were more willing to experiment with such innovations as the star system and feature-length productions. Since many had come to the film industry from the garment and fur trades where fashions change rapidly and the successful businessman is one who stays constantly in touch with the latest styles, they tried to give the public what it wanted.As Samuel Goldwyn, one of the leading moguls, noted, “If the audience don’t like a picture, they have a good reason. The public is never wrong. I don’t go for all this thing that when I have a failure, it is because the audience doesn’t have the taste or education, or isn’t sensitive enough. The public pays money. It wants to be entertained. That’s all I know.” With this philosophy the outsiders wrestled control over the industry away from the American-born producers.
During the 1920s and 1930s, a small group of film companies consolidated their control. Known as the “Big Five” – Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, 20th Century-Fox, and Lowe’s (MGM) and the “Little Three” – Universal, Columbia, and United Artists, they formed fully integrated companies. With the exception of United Artists, which was solely a distribution company, the “majors” owned their own production facilities, ran their own worldwide distribution networks, and controlled theater chains that were committed to showing the company’s products. And at the head of each major studio was a powerful mogul such giants as Adolph Zukor, Wiliam Fox, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, Joseph Schenck, and the Warner Brothers who determined what the public was going to see. It was their vision – patriotic, sentimental, secular, and generally politically conservative which millions of Americans shared weekly at local movie theaters. And as expressed by such producers as Irving Thalberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Daivd O. Selznick, it was a powerful vision indeed.
The longtime president of Paramount Pictures and the true founding mogul of Hollywood, once said that his greatest fascination was “understanding audiences.” Yet his true talent lay elsewhere, in his mastery of industrial structure. It was Zukor who created the model for the integrated film studios that defined early Hollywood and that still form the blueprint for the way the film industry works. To do so, he overcame opponents with a very different vision of how the film industry should be structured, a vision of craft film that gave power to directors, independent theaters, and producers. The outcome of this struggle—the struggle to control Paramount Pictures—played a major role in creating what we now think of as American film.
Born in a small Hungarian village, Zukor made his way to the United States in 1899, alone, with a small sum of cash sewn into his coat. He slowly climbed his way out of the New York’s Lower East Side ghetto and into the middle class through a fur-cutting business, then a penny arcade, and finally a small theatre, then known as a nickelodeon. By the 1910s, Zukor was a rising producer, the head of a firm called famous players whose innovation was making films that for the first time centered on “stars” like Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin. But Zukor had larger designs. He could see the advantages of integrating his production capabilities with a powerful distributor, creating an exclusive channel for his products. The first step was a proposed merger of Famous Players and a few other producers with Paramount Pictures to produce a mega-company, the very first ancestor of the Hollywood studio.
Hollywood has always been a place where visionaries harness technology for entertainment and communications. Mount Lee, the home of the Sign, bears the name of a famous entrepreneur who made this ridge in Griffith Park into one of the most important historical sites in television history.
The W6XAO antenna alongside a powerful transmitter and fully-equipped TV studio on Mt. Lee in 1941. (courtesy of Steve Dichter)
Don Lee was a classic California bootstrapping entrepreneur who owned the exclusive rights to sell Cadillac cars in California in the 1920s. He extended his business into radio in 1926 with the purchase of station KHJ and other stations on the West Coast.
In 1930, Lee saw an opportunity to lead in the development of broadcast television, then just a promising but unproven technology. Using a portion of his substantial radio profits, he hired a team to expand on the television filming, transmission and receiving technologies that were just emerging.
W6XAO went live in December 1931 from a location near Gardena, launching more than eight years before NBC began its broadcasts in New York. By 1932, Mr. Lee had moved the TV studio to downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Bixel atop his Cadillac dealership. W6XAO aired the first documented television news coverage — of the Long Beach, California earthquake of 1933 — and the first soap opera, Vine Street.
An early design concept for the Don Lee studios on Mt. Lee. (courtesy of Steve Dichter)
However, since television signal transmissions were limited to line-of-sight, large population areas such as the San Fernando Valley were unable to receive his broadcasts.
In 1938, the Don Lee Network (now run by Don’s son Thomas) purchased a 20-acre site just behind the Hollywood Sign, an area that was co-owned by the original developer of the Hollywoodland project and Mack Sennett, the silent film director and father of “slapstick” comedy. Plans included a true state-of-the-art broadcast studio and transmission tower, indoor and outdoor filming facilities, a swimming pool, a suspended control room that would move on a track and more.
When the facility was completed in 1939, it boasted the highest elevation television transmission tower in the world and ushered in a new era in Hollywood’s storied history. The 300-foot tower broadcast from over 2,000 feet above sea level or (in terms that would have impressed any American at the time) one and a half times the height of New York’s Empire State Building.
Early PR for the glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle: Live broadcast by the pool in 1939 at the Don Lee studios. (courtesy of Steve Dichter)
From this location, the network broadcast a wide range of programming, including both in-studio and remotely filmed shows. In 1940, it became the first station on the West Coast to transmit a live remote telecast, using an elaborate radio relay system to send a live signal of Pasadena’s famous Tournament of Roses Parade to Mount Lee and then out over the tower. By 1941, it was operating about two hours per day.
After the war ended, Mt. Wilson was identified as a better location for broadcast towers and all three then-existing television broadcasters moved their transmission towers to this peak.
The site atop Mount Lee and the large radio tower still seen there today eventually came to be operated and owned by the City of Los Angeles.