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Studio Ghosts : Compromise Will Preserve Historic Mack Sennett Movie Sound Stage in Echo Park

August 31, 1989|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

There's not much left these days on the site of the former Mack Sennett Studios in Echo Park--just a hulking shell of a sound stage and perhaps the ghosts of the studios' most famous characters, Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops.

These days, the ground where Chaplin perfected his famous walk is being graded for building foundations, and the glamour of early movie making is gone, replaced by an orange-and-white storage company sign and the sounds of cranes and carpenters at work.

Transformation Under Way

The crumbling complex, one-time headquarters of Hollywood's early comedy stars, is fast being transformed by its owner, Public Storage Inc., into a storage facility. The only building left on the site--the first permanent concrete reinforced movie sound stage built on the West Coast--will be preserved as part of an agreement worked out early this year between the company and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.

Public Storage bought the dilapidated studio site at 1712 Glendale Blvd. two years ago and planned to raze the remaining 35,000-square-foot building there and replace it with the orange-and-white, boxlike buildings for which the company is known.

But preservationists were enraged by the company's plan. They appealed to the Cultural Heritage Commission to prevent demolition of the former sound stage, which had been declared a cultural-historic landmark by the city in 1982.

The designation can delay but not prevent demolition of buildings. Eventually, Public Storage agreed to preserve the former sound stage and build two additional storage buildings next to it.

Public Storage spokesmen said the company plans to convert the former sound stage into a warehouse, renovate its exterior and set up a display of photographs documenting the building's history.

Film historians and several preservation-oriented groups, among them the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage, are relieved that the building will remain.

"What makes it adequate for all of us, what makes us happy, is that they're not going to tear the building down and they're going to use it," said Marc Wanamaker, a film buff who is writing a book on the histories of Hollywood studios. "I would love to see it alive as a movie studio again, but Hollywood has moved away from that area. I'm afraid this is the best we can hope for."

$2-Million Investment

Paul Hendrickson, a Public Storage spokesman, said the Glendale-based company is investing $2 million in the two-acre site. He said the new buildings on the site will be partially faced with glass and are designed to be reminiscent of the studio buildings once there.

The site, a former horse ranch, was purchased in 1909 by New York Motion Picture Co., which owned Keystone Film Co. and Bison Film Co., which made Western films. During its early years, the lot was used mainly for cowboy movies, and the structures built there, like most in Los Angeles, were made of wood and torn down after each shoot.

But when director Mack Sennett bought the site in 1916, he built several permanent sound stage buildings.

"This company built a permanent stage, establishing the beginnings of a permanent film industry in Los Angeles," Wanamaker said. "There's not much left from the early days, just a handful of places. It's really important that it remain because of what it meant for L. A."

Under Sennett's direction, the studio became home to movie greats Chaplin, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling. But the site has not housed a bona fide movie studio since 1916, when Sennett relocated in Studio City.

Later, the facility was a roller-skating rink, a window frame factory and a theater group's headquarters. Its last tenant moved out in 1982 and since then, the site has become an eyesore, its ground thick with weeds and its buildings defaced by graffiti.

Public Storage officials said they expect to complete work on the site in April. They said that when they do, the land will look better than it has for years.

Preservationists and city officials are reserving judgment.

"Public Storage is not famous for beautiful architecture," said Jay Oren, staff architect of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. "What they are famous for is large, ugly orange signs. But we just didn't want to lose that building. Period."

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