PULLING UP to 1416 La Brea in Hollywood is not an easy task when you aren’t exactly sure where you are going - so after making U-turns from all four angles at the intersection of La Brea and Sunset, I finally spotted the location. The building has a charming exterior with what appears to be a brick house on the outside with a towering archway overhead that reads “The Jim Henson Company.” I tried to enter the gates beneath the archway, but a security guard kindly informed me that if I wasn’t there to see anyone in particular, I would not be allowed entrance. As I was backing my car back out onto the extremely busy intersection I had been frequenting for the past twenty minutes, I asked him “what is this place, exactly?” He responded like he was talking to someone who was a little looney, and said, “just a bunch of offices, ma’am.”
I took a glance at the plaque on the brick house-looking building before I left, and it read “Historic Charlie Chaplin Studio. Build 1917 Declared 1969.” Immediately I understood what was so charming about the place - it was a cozy studio, the type of establishment that characterizes Hollywood and what it stands for, but tucked away like a delicate gem on the side of one of the busiest intersections in the city. Chaplin, the first actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine (1925), must have seen the allure as well, because in his autobiography, he described his decision to purchase the studio space by saying, “I decided to buy land in Hollywood and build [a studio]. The site was the corner of Sunset and La Brea and had a very fine ten-room house and five acres of lemon, orange and peach trees. We built a perfect unit, complete with developing plant, cutting room, and offices." No wonder it was so quaint; it had originally been a farmer’s home!
Chaplin purchased the land from a man who had been living on the lot for several years and decided that he would reside there as well in order to be as close to the studio as possible. The creative genius that he was, he had distinct a visual plan for the land. He wanted the six buildings on the property to be “arranged as to give the effect of a picturesque English village street,” which was definitely accomplished and can still be seen today. The cost of carrying out the studio was estimated at nearly $100,000, but when all was said and done Chaplin managed to create the lot he wanted for only $35,000 in just under three years. When it was finished, it was described by one writer as “eccentric Peter Pan architecture.”
There was a bit of trouble getting everything squared with the nearby residents, who complained that the studios were too close to Hollywood High School, but in the end the city was on Chaplin’s side and signed his permit almost unanimously. Not only were his living quarters and studio space incorporated on the property, but there were “stables, a swimming pool and tennis courts” (Wikipedia). The orange orchard that had existed when Chaplin bought the studios became the backlot for filming, where classics like “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940) and “Limelight” (1952) were shot.
Chaplin placed his footprints in wet cement outside of the studio, which was perhaps an inspiration for the Chinese Theatre. The studio underwent several changes during Chaplin’s reign, and one particularly notable change on one of the stages because of a fire during the production of the film “The Circus” in 1827. Chaplin enjoyed great company at the studio, including people from Winston Churchill to Helen Keller to Henry Lauder. By 1942, Chaplin sold part of the property (including his persnal residence, the tennis courts, and most of the backlot) to the company Safeway, where they wiped it all out to build a shopping center.
Greta Garbo had her last screen test there in 1949, and by 1953 Chaplin sold the rest of the studio to a real estate agent from New York for $650,000, gaining a hefty profit. Even though the investor was not planning on keeping it as a studio, a television company leased it from him and named itself Kling Studios. Several television series were shot at the studio, and in 1953 the “Adventures of Superman” were shot there was purchased by Red Skleton in 1960. Skelton bought $3.5 million worth of equipment for color television taping, and had a “Skelton Studios” sign put up on La Brea. But his ownership didn’t last long, and he sold the studio to CBS in 1962 where the “Perry Mason” television series was filmed for the next four years.
CBS sold the studio in 1966 to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss where it then became the headquarters of A&M records. The stages and the swimming pool were transformed into a recording studio, and Alpert and Moss described their transformation by saying, "The old sound stages are in the process of being completely rebuilt into what must be the most luxurious and pleasant recording studios in the world. Chaplin's cement footprints are one of the few reminders of the past." Incredibly successful artists like Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison recorded there.
Chaplin returned to the studio in 1972 after 30 years away from it when he came to America to receive an Academy Award, but instead of accepting an event that A&M wanted to throw him, he simply drove by the studio on a weekend day.
Then, in the year 2000, Jim Henson’s children bought the studio for a whopping $12.5 million in order for it to serve as “The Jim Henson Company.” Henson’s daughter Lisa has said that, “The buildings are a lovable hodge-podge of quirky, unusual spaces. There are unexpected elements in some of the offices like original vaults and fish tank-like bathrooms. It's not your typical corporate space, but it's ideal for the Muppets.” Henson’s son Brian said, “When we heard that the Chaplin lot was for sale, we had to have it. It's the perfect home for the Muppets and our particular brand of classy, but eccentric entertainment. When people walk onto our lot, they fall in love with Hollywood again."
And lastly, the designation of the lot as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument was certainly an important touch. In February 1969, the President of the Los Angeles Vulturual Heritage Board, Carl Dentzel, said that "His studio was one of the first to be established here and by some quirk of fate continuity from the movies' earliest times to today's television and recordings demands has persevered.”
Although the studio is no longer a sprawling 5 acres but rather 2.2, and it is not used for anything as glamorous as Chaplin’s movies or A&M’s “We are the World” recording, it is still a standing piece of Los Angeles history with a great backstory.
-- Jordan Younger