Reel Culver City
by Marc Wanamaker
One of Culver City’s most famous studio backlots was a 40-acre location property on the north bank of La Ballona Creek.
INCE & DEMILLE
The story begins with the creation of the Thomas H. Ince Studio in 1918, the second of two studios in the new town of Culver City. At this time Thomas Ince Productions used La Ballona Creek and the surrounding hills as film locations.
When Ince died at the end of 1924, his friend Cecil B. DeMille purchased the studio in the following year with the help of Pathé America as his financial partner and film distributor. DeMille acquired acreage on La Ballona Creek at what is now Higuera Street and Ince Boulevard. One of the first films shot on this new backlot ranch was The Road To Yesterday (1925), and over the next three years, DeMille used the area for his epic film The King of Kings (1927), among others.
PATHÉ, RKO & SELZNICK
In 1926, the Radio Corporation of America merged with Pathé and by 1928, had changed its name to Pathé Studios Culver City. The backlot ranch at this time contained around 32 acres and another eight acres were added along the north bank of La Ballona Creek.
By 1930, the backlot was called the RKO-Pathé ”40-Acres” (though, in fact, it was only 29 acres). Between 1930 and 1935, more sets were built in and around the previous settings of the DeMille days. In 1932, the large King Kong “jungle wall” sets were constructed, later to be burned down during the shooting of Gone With the Wind in 1938. When David O. Selznick leased the entire studio complex in 1935, the ranch name alternated between ”30-Acres” and ”40-Acres.”
In 1946, RKO-Pathé purchased the “40-Acres” ranch after a long lease arrangement. Throughout the 1940s, Selznick used the backlot for such films as Since You Went Away, Duel In the Sun and Portrait of Jennie.
HUGHES & DESILU TV
In 1950, Howard Hughes took over ownership of RKO and continued renting the RKO-Pathé studios to outside producers. In 1951, the early “Superman” TV series was shot on the 40-Acres – beginning the backlot’s television history. At this time such films as Jet Pilot, The Big Sky and Androcles and the Lion were also shot on the RKO 40-Acres.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz took over the old RKO-Pathé lot and renamed it “Desilu-Culver” in 1957. Over the next few years, Desilu TV shows such as “The Untouchables,” “The Texan,” “Whirlybirds” and “Sheriff of Cochise” used the backlot settings.
In 1965, for the epic film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, several more sets were built among the many already there. During the sixties, the most prominent show dominating the back lot was ”Hogan’s Heroes.” When Desilu was sold to Paramount in 1967, the “Star Trek” television series was the most popular show using the studio and 40-Acre backlot.
THE END OF AN ERA
The studio was sold to a chemical company in the following year and renamed the ”Culver Studios” where the television show ”Lassie” continued to use the studio and the backlot settings.
When Laird International purchased the studio property at the end of 1977, they thought they were buying the studio lot and the 40-Acre backlot. To their surprise, the 40-Acre parcel had been pre-sold to a developer who demolished the entire lot and built an industrial park on the site – which has grown and developed into its current form.