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Sunset Gower Studios, former home of Columbia, marks 100 years

Sunset Gower Studios, once home to Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures and Rita Hayworth, now hosts 'Dexter,' 'The Newsroom,' 'Bunheads' and more.

October 15, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • The Technicolor Building, completed in 2008, fronts Sunset Boulevard at Sunset Gower Studios. It houses Technicolor’s worldwide headquarters.
The Technicolor Building, completed in 2008, fronts Sunset Boulevard… (Sunset Gower Studios Archive )

You can almost hear the clanging of the typewriters in the writers courtyard at Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

The Spanish-style courtyard of offices housed such scribes as Ben Hecht ("His Girl Friday") and Sidney Buchman ("Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") when the facility was home to Columbia Pictures. According to Brent M. Christo, sales and marketing coordinator for Sunset Gower and the neighboring Sunset Bronson Studios, one of the bungalows was the office of Oscar-winning producer-director Frank Capra ("It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town").


FOR THE RECORD:
Sunset Gower Studios: An article about Sunset Gower Studios in the Oct. 16 Calendar section said that the Hollywood site is home to the worldwide headquarters of Technicolor. That site is the company's North American headquarters; the world headquarters is in Paris. —

For a half-century, Columbia — the studio that made such Oscar-winning films as 1934's "It Happened One Night," 1938's "You Can't Take It With You," 1949's "All the King's Men," 1953's "From Here to Eternity," 1954's "On the Waterfront," 1957's "Bridge on the River Kwai" and 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" — was located on the lot.

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Among the stars under contract to Columbia were Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Kim Novak and the Three Stooges. All were under the watchful eye of infamous tightwad mogul Harry Cohn, who had offices on the second floor on the west side of the courtyard.

"That was his projection room up there," said Christo, the de facto historian for the lot, pointing to windows with the blinds drawn. "Every once in a while, Cohn would come out to the courtyard and he would stick his ear out and if he didn't hear any clacking, he would scream, 'What the hell I am paying you for?'"

Cohn's conference room, now used by Sunset Gower executives, also has a back door that is now blocked. In his day, it gave him easy access to the dressing rooms of Columbia's actresses.

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Sunset Gower has been owned for the last five years by Hudson Pacific Properties — the company that also owns the nearby Sunset Bronson Studios, which is more than 90 years old and was home to Warner Bros. until the 1930s. It is currently used by KTLA-TV Channel 5 and several daytime shows.

Hudson holds a "Celebrate Hollywood" party every year to honor "the production spirit that Hollywood was built on," Hudson's Howard S. Stern, president of the studios, said in an email.

This year's celebration on Thursday evening will also commemorate the centenary of Sunset Gower, though the rickety outdoor stages that sprung up around the southeast Gordon gate in 1912/1913 were torn down years ago.

"This year's celebration will feature a short film we have produced about the studio, highlighted by interviews with some of the living legends who have called Sunset Gower and Sunset Bronson home," Stern said. Christo directed the documentary.

The 14-acre TV and movie studio at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in Hollywood is currently home to such series as Showtime's "Dexter," ABC Family's "Bunheads," HBO's "The Newsroom" and ABC's "Scandal," as well as the Technicolor Building on Sunset, which serves as the worldwide headquarters for Technicolor.

Christo acknowledged that the history of Sunset Gower is a bit sketchy because the studio was once part of an area known in Hollywood lore as Poverty Row, bounded by Sunset Boulevard to the north, Fountain Street to the south, Gordon Street to the east and Gower Street to the west.

"There were a lot of little guys who started in this area," Christo said. "It was literally an office, a desk, a phone and a wastepaper basket. They sprung up overnight and folded just as fast."

Cohn, his brother Jack and Joe Brandt formed CBC Film Sales in 1918. In 1924, CBC became Columbia Pictures Corp. It didn't shake the Poverty Row label until "It Happened One Night" won Oscars for best picture, director (Capra), actor (Clark Gable), actress (Claudette Colbert) and adapted screenplay (Robert Riskin).

The studio fell into disrepair after Columbia left the lot in the early 1970s. "It sat fallow for five years," Christo said during a tour of the lot.

Then in the 1970s, developer Saul Pick, who built the Cinerama Dome, and award-winning musical-variety show producer Nick Vanoff saved the place from oblivion. Stages 15 and 16, which are now home to "Dexter," were added to the lot, and several ABC hit sitcoms were shot there in the 1970s and '80s, including "Barney Miller," "Soap" and "Who's the Boss?"

Stage 7, where "The Newsroom" now films, was once home to the Three Stooges — and more. A plaque on the outside wall lists such other occupants as 1946's "The Jolson Story," "Bridge on the River Kwai," the 1960s TV series "The Monkees" and Chuck Barris' 1970s daytime series "The Gong Show."

And then there were Rita Hayworth's digs.

"Do you see that gold-painted window up there?" Christo asked, pointing to a fancy window on the third floor of a vintage building. "That was Rita Hayworth's apartment for all of her years here. Cohn had that window installed because she preferred to read her scripts by ambient light."

He also had a wall built on the rooftop deck for her.

"Cohn put in the wall divide because she preferred to sunbathe in the nude," Christo explained.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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