In 1908, the creation of the Edison-backed Motion Picture Trust resulted in film exhibitors paying fees to show motion pictures. The Latham Loop used in cameras and projectors, coupled with various other patents, gave the Trust a monopoly. The first types of indoor exhibiting spaces were Nickelodeons. They derived their name from the nickel entry fee and the Greek word 'odeon', meaning 'roofed theatre'. The fees imposed by the Motion Picture Trust saw many of the Nickelodeon owners become disgruntled. One such owner was Carl Laemmle.
Born in Laupheim, Germany, Laemmle emigrated to the US in 1884. For twenty years he worked in Chicago as a bookkeeper, and he began to buy Nickelodeons. Infuriated by the fees being charged by the Trust, he decided to start his own film company. He moved to New York and, in 1909, he created the Yankee Film Company, which evolved into the Independent Moving Pictures Company.
On April 30th, 1912, Carl Laemmle merged his production company with Pat Powers of Power Motion Picture Company, Mark Dintenfass of Champion Films, William Swanson of Rex Motion Pictures, David Horsley of Nestor Films, and Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel of New York Motion Pictures to create the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Carl Laemmle assumed the role of President of the new company.
The company established studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a popular place for the production of early American films. The studio was moved to 235 acres in the San Fernando Valley, California. On March 14th, 1912, Laemmle opened the world's largest motion picture production company facility, Universal City Studios. From the beginning the studio was opened to the public, which made it unique.
Laemmle made the decision early that the company would not open theatre chains affiliated with the studios, like Adolph Zuker and William Fox had done in conjunction with their studios. This decision, coupled with the excessive and lavish productions of Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922) by actor-director Erich Von Stroheim, nearly bankrupted the studio. Fortunately, clever marketing saved the company.
In the 1920s, character actor Lon Chaney became a box office success for Universal. Leonidas Frank Chaney was a stage and film actor as well as a screen writer and director. Chaney became quite noted for his ability to use grotesque makeup and portray unconventional characters, earning him the nickname 'The Man of a Thousand Faces'. Universal produced two of his successful films, Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925).
During this time, Laemmle promoted his entrusted personal secretary, Irving Thalberg. Intent on bringing some class to the productions created by Universal, Thalberg was so good at his job that he was lured away with the promise of more money by MGMs head of production, Louis B Mayer. Having lost the guidance of Thalberg, Universal slumped into being a second-rate studio and remained so for many decades.
In 1926, Universal commenced producing films in Germany. The unit produced three to four films a year under the guidance of Hungarian-born American film director Joe Pasternak. The studio was forced to migrate, first to Hungary and then to Austria, as Hitler's domination of Europe spread. Nazi persecution and a change in ownership resulted in the studios being closed.
Governed by a 'clean picture' policy, by 1927 Carl Laemmle was starting to see that ordinance as a mistake. Universal owned the rights to 'Oswald The Lucky Rabbit', created by Waly Disney and Ub Iwerks. When Disney would not accept lower fees, Universal cut links with him. Walt Disney went on to produce Steamboat Willie (1928), the first sound cartoon short. It was not until eighty years later that Universal sold all Oswald cartoons back to Disney in exchange for Disney releasing ABC sport broadcaster Al Michaels from his contract.
In 1928, Laemmle gifted Universal to his son, Carl Jnr, for his 21st birthday. Laemmle was known for nepotism, having at one point 70 members of his family, including academy award-winning producer and director William Wyler, working for him at Universal. This hiring policy earned Laemmle the nickname 'Uncle Carl'. The famous nonsensical poet, Ogden Nash, apparently quipped about Laemmle, "Uncle Carl Laemmle Has A Very Large Faemmle".
Carl Jr was adamant that Universal needed to be updated. He bought and built theatres, and converted the studios to sound studios. He made a few forays into high-quality production. As part of his revitalisation of the studios, Carl Jr created a niche by making a series of horror movies. Unfortunately, the high-end productions and Carl Jr's excessive spending all through a depression marked the end of the Laemmle era for Universal. Deciding to produce a lavish production of the theatre piece Showboat, investors became nervous and insisted that Carl Jr take out a loan. Universal obtained a loan for $750,000 on the premise that the Laemmles' control of Universal was collateral if the loan was defaulted on. Standard Capital Corporation subsequently took control of Universal when the budget for Showboat went $300,000 over budget.
With Laemmle gone, the company concentrated on lower-budget productions and series throughout the 1940s. They were unable to afford to have their own stable of stars, and so borrowed and freelanced the acting talent they required in their productions. During the war years, Universal earned a little prestige through a co-production agreement with Walter Wanger and his partner, director Fritz Lang.
In 1945, British entrepreneur J. Arthur Rank was looking for a way to expand his American presence, and bought into a four-way merger of Universal. William Goetz, a son-in-law of Louis B Mayer, was asked to head the renamed Universal International Films. Universal Studios became the distributor for Rank's British Productions, including films such as David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948).
By the late 1940s Goetz was out, and Universal had returned to low-budget productions such as Ma and Pa Kettle. In the 1950s they continued their Arabian series, many of which starred Tony Curtis. The studio had continuing success with its horror and science fiction films. Universal started to gather a stable of stars, including Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, Audie Murphy and John Gavin.
By the 1950s, television was having a profound effect on cinema-going numbers. Universal shut down for a period, after which they agreed to sell to MCA. The studio was renamed Revue Studios, and was upgraded. Clients like Doris Day, Lana Turner, Cary Grant and the director Alfred Hitchcock were signed. In mid 1962, the company reverted to its name Universal. In 1964, MCA formed Universal City Studios, merging the film and TV divisions.
In the 1970s, Universal teamed up with Paramount Pictures to form Cinema International Corporation, to distribute films made by Paramount and Universal worldwide. Over the next fifty years, many consolidations and mergers took place. In June 2014, Universal Partnerships took over licensing of consumer products for NBC.
There are two very well-documented hauntings at Universal Studios. The first is a ghost dressed in old aviator clothing. The ghostly aviator haunts the area near the Psycho House, used in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. Maniacal giggling and the sighting of the full spectre walking along the backlot have been reported numerous times. The most likely origin of the haunting is a little-known incident that occurred at the spectacle kickoff of Universal studios arranged by Carl Laemmle. To celebrate the opening of what was hailed as "the greatest motion picture city in the world", Laemmle organised a weekend spectacular. Thousands of people travelled across the country to be at the official opening. On the second day of celebrations, a mock aerial battle had been organised. Universal hired Frank Stiles, a renowned stunt pilot. According to observers, Stiles lost control of the stunt plane and crashed to the ground. Stiles was dead on impact, and Carl Laemmle announced that all festivities were to be cancelled. Apart from a news report the following day, all record of Frank Stiles was quelled. It's possible that this is why his ghost lingers.
Visitors and workers that go to Stage 28 have reported that it is haunted by the ghost of actor Lon Chaney. Many workers claim to have sighted Chaney's spirit. He is often seen running along the overhead catwalk. Lights in the studio turn off and on by themselves, and doors open and close.
Universal Studios is a wonderful place to suspend reality and wander for the day. I particularly love the Psycho House.