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Storage Firm Buys Old Mack Sennett Studios

June 25, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The former Mack Sennett Studios in Echo Park, once home to Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, has been sold to a firm that wants to raze the landmark and build a storage facility or other commercial venture.

Glendale-based Public Storage Inc. said it agreed to purchase the 78-year-old studio from Don Cornelius Productions for an undisclosed sum. Cornelius, the host and producer of the TV dance show "Soul Train," has abandoned plans to renovate the dilapidated former studio as a state-of-the-art videotaping facility.

The now-empty studio on Glendale Boulevard just south of the Glendale Freeway's terminus was one of the cradles of the movie industry and was declared a city cultural-historic monument in 1982. Such a designation can hold up demolition for a year while the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission works with the owner to find alternate solutions or another buyer. Eventually, demolition will require city approval because of its landmark status.

Public Storage Vice President Carl Beckmann said his company is aware of the studio's monument status, but that he does not see that as a problem. He said Public Storage would either build a public storage facility or develop the 2-acre site for other commercial use.

"Hopefully, we won't have any battle with the city. We'd like to be sensitive to the local community," Beckmann said. He added that his firm would support plans to relocate the historic building at another site.

Ruth Ann Lehrer, executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservationist group, said the old movie site should be preserved. She said the Sennett Studio had "great historical significance to the movie industry and deserves recognition."

Richard Adkins, president of Hollywood Heritage Inc., a nonprofit historical society, said he feels the old studio can be renovated and adapted for a different use.

The 35,000-square-foot facility was where the comic genius of Charlie Chaplin was first captured on films and where the Keystone Kops bumbled through many misadventures. But it has not housed a bona fide studio since the late 1920s, when director Mack Sennett relocated in Studio City.

After that, it was home to less glamorous activities, including a roller-skating rink and a window frame factory. From 1976 to 1982, the Center Theatre Group, one of the Music Center's in-house acting companies, built scenery there. The Music Center sold the site in 1985 to "Soul Train" impresario Cornelius for about $1 million. Cornelius promptly announced he would renovate the cavernous, graffiti-scarred concrete building and move his weekly dance show there from facilities he rents at Metromedia in Hollywood. He also planned to rent the studio to other production companies.

Cornelius said he expected that rehabilitation would take about six months. But, 1 1/2 years later, the faded yellow building and two sound stages are still empty, and Cornelius told The Times last month that he still hadn't lined up the financing to renovate the building. Cornelius was unavailable for comment this week, but an employee confirmed that the site has been sold.

William Wingate, executive managing director of the Center Theatre Group, said that Cornelius makes his payments regularly and that the property is nearly paid off.

Public Storage said it must sort out logistical problems before it can begin construction. The site is on a hill that might make development difficult, Beckmann said.

Commission President Amarjit S. Marwah said commission members drove past the property last month at the request of a Public Storage employee.

If and when the firm requests a demolition permit, the commission will hold a public hearing to gather comments from preservationists and others and make a final evaluation of the site's cultural and architectural significance.

The commission would then try to work with the prospective developer and come up with another plan such as moving the studio, building around it or finding another buyer interested in restoration, Marwah said.

The nondescript building has few distinguishing architectural features. Inside, wooden catwalks are all that remain to suggest that the building was once a movie studio.

But its importance is nostalgic, said Wingate of the Center Theatre Group, who calls the Sennett studio "a historical monument to the silent movies."

The site, a former horse ranch, was purchased in 1909 by New York Motion Picture Co., owner of Keystone Film Co. and Bison Film Co., which made Western films. During the early years, the lot was used mainly for cowboy movies.

In 1912, actor-director-writer Mack Sennett arrived to head up comedy production at the Keystone set, working with company actors such as Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling. Sennett bought the property from New York Motion Picture Co. in 1916 and continued to make movies there until he moved to the San Fernando Valley.

Appropriately, the final film shot entirely at the studio was a 1928 offering, "The Last Goodbye."

Wingate, of the Center Theatre Group, said restoring the building would require a large investment and that he could understand why a new owner might want to demolish it.

However, he added that, because of the studio's historic value, "I think they are going to have a tough time hauling it down."

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