The cameras may soon be rolling again at the old Mack Sennett Studio in Echo Park. But this time, instead of capturing the bumbling antics of silent film clowns such as the Keystone Kops, they will be following the energetic movements of people who aren't expected to trip up each other: the youthful dancers of "Soul Train."
Don Cornelius, producer and host of the weekly black-oriented television dance show, recently paid more than $1 million for the cavernous, graffiti-scarred building at 1712 Glendale Blvd. and plans to turn it into a state-of-the-art videotaping facility.
Besides becoming the home of "Soul Train," the studio will be rented out to other production companies, Cornelius said in an interview.
Renovation Set to Begin Soon
Renovation of the 35,000-square-foot facility a few blocks south of the Glendale Freeway is expected to begin soon, once the necessary city permits are obtained.
Because the building was declared a historical landmark by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board in 1982, restoration must be done in a manner that does not harm its essential character.
Constructed of solid reinforced concrete around 1915, the building still contains the 70-by-155-foot sound stage where Sennett first cranked out slapstick silliness for Keystone Film Co.
Cornelius said he wants his studio, to be called DCP Television and Film Centre, ready for rental by April. He is not sure when "Soul Train," now taped at facilities leased from Metromedia in Hollywood, would begin taping on Glendale Boulevard. "The rush is not to get 'Soul Train' in the studio," Cornelius said. "The rush is to get it operable, period."
Cornelius says his new studio will be one of two black-owned movie or television production facilities in the Los Angeles area.
For the past year, the faded yellow building and its two sound stages have sat empty on a 2-acre lot, a ghostly shell of the former fun factory where the comic genius of Charlie Chaplin was first captured on film. Over the years, the building took on a number of less glamorous roles, including that of a roller-skating rink, moving van and storage company, window frame factory and gas station.
The last action to take place on the 14,000-square-foot main sound stage was the scenery-making activity of the Center Theatre Group, one of the Music Center's in-home acting companies. It moved its technical facilities there in 1976, storing costumes and props in the maze of rooms in the catacomb-like basement.
While building scenery for productions at the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre, the group's technicians used the system of pulleys installed in the ceiling for rolling around the interchangeable sets of Sennett's silent films.
In need of larger surroundings, the Center Theatre Group abandoned the Echo Park facility last December, moving to Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles.
Valued at $1.6 million, the old studio was apparently a hot piece of property, even though it took the Music Center a year to make a sale, according to Jerry Killan, the shop manager for Center Theatre Group. "We got a lot of offers for the building," Killan said. "A lot of people were always inquiring about it. In fact, the for-sale signs are still up and we still get calls."
Producer Inquired About Building
One of those who inquired about the building earlier this year was Anthony Sabatino, executive in charge of production for "Soul Train."
In the past, Cornelius had expressed interest in owning his own studio because of difficulty in renting a stage large enough to accommodate the flashy "Soul Train" set and the 150 to 200 "regulars" who dance on the show, Sabatino said. But, he said, Cornelius didn't seem too impressed with Sennett's old haunt at first glance.
"He just kept walking around and didn't say anything," Sabatino recalled. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he thinks I'm crazy.' Then, all of a sudden, he got real excited about it and said it would be a great fixer-upper."
The inside of the building doesn't offer much for the inquiring eye besides a lot of empty space. Nothing is left to suggest that it was once a movie studio except the original wooden catwalks in the ceiling. Cornelius will probably spend more to refurbish the property than he did to buy it, Sabatino said.
The concrete structure with its tin roof is all that remains of a group of buildings on both sides of the boulevard that made up the Keystone Film Co. movie lot.
The land it occupies was part of a former horse ranch purchased in 1909 by the New York Motion Picture Co., which owned Keystone and its cowboy film-making counterpart and forerunner, Bison Film Co. The movie lot, originally used by Bison for its Westerns, was one of several on what was then known as Allesandro Street in an area formerly called Edendale.
Formed Company in 1912