CULVER CITY’S MERALTA THEATRE

Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker

CULVER CITY’S MERALTA THEATRE

The traveling female duo of ‘The large’ Pearl Merrill and ‘The Tiny’ Laura Peralta performed as “Ella Fant and Miss Kito” on the vaudeville circuit for many years, accumulating enough money to build their own theatre at 9632 Culver Boulevard, Culver City.

FILM PREVIEWS LEADS TO FIRST-RUN RELEASES

The Meralta’s opening premiere show included an appearance by Will Rogers, a new Thomas Ince film and an Our Gang comedy (which had all the kids leaping through their on-screen likeness when the projectionist stopped the film!). The duo then began to book other vaudeville acts at the new theatre, and the first was a review titled Half A Dollar Bill with Sherwood Wertz at the organ.

By 1927, the theatre was being used by local studios as a preview house for motion pictures and civic events. On May 27, 1927, MGM Studios hosted their sales convention in Los Angeles and arranged for their guests to see Lon Chaney’s latest film, The Unknown. By 1928, MGM was using the theatre not just for its previews, but also for its general releases such as Beatrice Fairfax’s The Lovelorn starring Sally O’Neil and Molly O’Day (see photo). And, by 1929, the theatre was being used on its “dark days” for Christian Science lectures.

On January 20, 1935, the Los Angeles Times announced that “The Meralta Theatre, at 9628 Culver Boulevard will be remodeled at a cost of $10,000, according to architect C. A. Balch.” The newly-remodeled theatre joined the Fox West Coast Theatre chain and began to show first run films.

In 1938, a typical film program included such fare as Holiday starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Three Comrades starring Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone, and The Saint in New York with Louis Hayward.

1940S: WAR-THEMED FILMS

During World War II, the theatre was screening war-themed films such as – Fighting Chetniks and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve. Five Graves To Cairo, starring Erich Von Stroheim, screened in August of 1943.

On August 10th, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Unscheduled Performance! Fire, which is believed to have started in a theater lobby, early yesterday, swept through a Culver City building housing a theatre [Meralta] and small shops at an estimated loss of $100,000.” The devastated theatre was moved to the Culver Auditorium the following year until a new building could be built. Sometime around the end of 1945, a new theatre was built on the original site.

A NEW ERA

After Pearl Merrill’s death in 1961, Laura Peralta Brackett remained in her apartment over the theatre, constructed so she could watch the films from a special room. At this time, The Grass Is Greener, starring Cary Grant opened at the theatre.

In 1969, the theatre was hosting studio previews and fundraiser parties for local schools and colleges. During the 1970s, the theatre suffered some vandalism and became run-down.

On February 24, 1983, the Los Angeles Times announced that “Culver Rebuilds ….. $4 Million Dollar Plaza on the old Meralta Theatre site is the first major development in Culver City in many years.” On June 3, 1984, the new Meralta Office Plaza (a Spanish-style office complex at 9696 Culver Blvd.) opened and was the first major public development in over two decades.

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CULVER CITY TO BE CALLED “HOLLYWOOD?”

Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker

 

CULVER CITY TO BE CALLED “HOLLYWOOD?”

The unthinkable happened in June of 1937 when the Culver City Chamber of Commerce sent out petitions to call for an election on the question of the city changing its name from Culver City to Hollywood!

The president of the Culver City Chamber said: “Our board of directors was unanimous in voting to change the name of Culver City to Hollywood. We believe the registered voters of the town will be almost 100 per cent in backing the suggestion. Sixty percent of the motion pictures made in California are made in our city, but we don’t get credit for it!” (The studios located in Culver City at that time were MGM, RKO/Pathe-Selznick, Hal Roach, and Victory along with other small production companies.)

 

THE HOLLYWOOD CHAMBER RESPONDS

When the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce heard of such a plan they were, to say the least, “angry” and “threatened.” It just so happened, that at that same time, Carl Bush, secretary of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, had led a drive to obtain a “Hollywood” postage postmark for the Los Angeles branch post office there.

A press release immediately went out, stating that Hollywood was the only suburb of Los Angeles, being within that incorporated city since 1910 when it dropped its own government to obtain Los Angeles water supply access.

“We have three plans to thwart the move!” Mr. Bush said. “First to confer with the Culver City Chamber and show them the confusion that would occur. Second is to obtain an injunction in Superior Court pointing out that it would be bad public policy to call the election because of the confusion the name change would create. Third, and this is our real ace in the hole, is to have the U.S. Post Office Department refuse to recognize the name change, if made, and still cancel their mail with the ‘Culver City’ mark.”

Of course, the Hollywood Chamber’s board was especially angry that the tourist business could be affected by such a change!

For days, newspapers in Los Angeles were front-paging the story of the circulation of petitions in Culver City calling for the special election. Both chambers of commerce issued statements deploring the other.

The feud resulted in the possibility that Los Angeles would be brought into this controversy and that the Hollywood studios would secede from Los Angeles if the worst came to be. Screen actors John Boles and Richard Dix formed the “Hollywood – for – the– Hollywoodians” division saying, “It would be a crime to sit idly by and permit Culver City to usurp the name of Hollywood!”

A“HATCHET-BURYING” CEREMONY

By October, 1937, the Culver City Chamber of Commerce gave up on the petition drive due to the incredible pressure that was applied by the studio heads in both Culver City and Hollywood. A “press conference” (which was actually a publicity stunt) was held on October 6th at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. A “hatchet-burying” ceremony was held in the forecourt of the theatre, ending the feud between Culver City and Hollywood over the right of Culver City to use the Hollywood name.

The first film to use the “Made in Culver City” caption on the beginning credits was Selznick International’s production of The Prisoner of Zenda. The Selznick studio sent a contingent of period uniformed soldier/actors to officiate the “hatchet-burying” ceremonies.

Shortly thereafter, MGM Studios began to place Made in Culver City, California on all their productions. Previously they had been using Made in Hollywood on all their major films which seemed to be misplaced to the locals in Hollywood as well as Culver City!

Postscript: Sony Pictures Entertainment has continued the tradition and uses Made at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CA on their productions.

Ed. Note: In the Summer issue of Culver Historical Highlights, Romayne Studios was misspelled in several instances. Its proper spelling is “Romayne Studios.”

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THE ROYMANE STUDIOS OF CULVER CITY

Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker

One of the forgotten small motion picture studios that once existed in the early days of Culver City was the Romayne Super Film Company owned by Henry Y. Romayne.

Located on the northeast corner of Washington Boulevard and what is now Ince Boulevard, the film company was formed in July of 1918 to produce five- and six-reel features for independent release.

Betty Burbank was the company’s first leading actress with Josephine Crowell playing supporting roles. Wyndham Gettins was the director general of the first film, Me und Gott, produced in a studio in Hollywood.

SETTLED IN CULVER CITY IN 1919

The Romayne Company settled in Culver City, building a two-story administration building and one large open stage and a backlot in 1919. Before Romayne could start using its own studio, Jack Warner leased the new studio to produce one of his early two-reel comedies with his popular comedy star, Monty Banks.

By May of the same year, Romayne produced The Sagebrush League starring Myrta Sterling. It was followed with other films into the 1920s such as King Cole, Mary Minds Her Business and The Torreador to name a few. Among their brightest stars between 1919 and 1921 included John Hayes, Myrta Sterling, Vera Sisson and Edward Hearn. Their directors included George Sergeant, Harry Grant, Fred Jefferson and Harry Edwards.

In 1920, the company decided to produce both big feature films and short comedies. When G. F. Thew of London, England, purchased a controlling interest in the Super Film Company, he and his son Eric enlarged the stage are in Culver City for more production space. Romayne secured the release of its pictures with the Western Exploitation company headed by Sol Lesser.

By 1921, the company had produced three one-reel situation comedy pictures entitled, Crossed Wires, Perfect Thirty Six and Dear Hunting, all directed by Harry Edwards.

At about this time, most of the Romayne productions were winding down and the Romayne Studios in Culver City were being used more as an annex by the Thomas Ince Studios which was situated across the street (today known as the Culver Studios).

By 1926, the old Romayne Studio became known as “The Studio Hotel” at 9099 Washington Boulevard, catering to motion picture professionals who worked at the studios nearby. The hotel operated well into the 1940s and was eventually replaced by Bill Murphy Buick which became a well-known Culver City landmark into the 1990s.

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Reel Culver City Winter 2008

Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker

BEVERLY HILLS & CULVER CITY SPEEDWAYS

The Culver City Speedway that was once located south of Culver Boulevard at Overland Avenue had its beginnings at Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

The mile-and-a-quarter wood board Speedway was originally constructed by the Speedway Association of Beverly Hills and was conceived by Beverly Hills real estate entrepreneurs, Silsby Spalding, Cliff Durant, Charles Canfield, Jake Dansinger among others. The Los Angeles Speedway track (as it was first named) measured 193 acres when it was opened in February of 1920.

For several years, the greatest names in motor racing appeared at the Speedway under the administration of the National Racing Circuit. The stadium was also used by the Beverly Hills Horse Show, the flower show, aviation shows and other events that brought thousands to Beverly Hills.

The Speedway was demolished after the Washington Day race in 1924, and the tract was purchased for development. Today, most of the former Speedway land has been developed into single family homes and apartment houses south of Wilshire. The area where the former Speedway once stood is now approximately bounded by South Beverly Drive, Charleville Blvd., Gregory Way and Spalding Drive.

In 1922, encouraged by the growing patronage of the Culver City nightclubs that flourished at this time, CC Council members approved plans for a thoroughbred horse-racing track which was built along Culver Boulevard, bounded on the west by Overland Avenue.

CC TRACK OPENS IN 1923

Opening in 1923, the track did not attract the crowds that were expected, and by Thanksgiving, 1924, the Council was looking for something else to substitute for horseracing. It was at this time that Beverly Hills was giving up its auto racing Speedway and a deal was made to move it to the horseracing site in Culver City.

After approval by the Culver City Council, the Speedway track (made of wood) was purchased and re-assembled in the Fall of 1924, south of Culver Blvd., replacing the horseracing track. By this time auto racing was very popular and the crowds came to Culver City from all over Southern California. The world’s best drivers competed at the track, one of them was Ralph De Palma who set several speed records on the track that had a capacity of 60,000 spectators.

The wooden track was banked at a 43 degree angle creating conditions for high speed racing in cars that had little protection for the drivers if they crashed. Like Beverly Hills, other types of events were held at the track such as horse shows and location filmmaking since the track was located adjacent to the newly named Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. The race track, which might be compared to the Indie 500 track of today, made Culver City an entertainment destination until the property was acquired in 1927 and, by 1928, the site had become Victory Park (now Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park), which is bounded by Braddock Drive, Motor Ave., Le Bourget, and Park Place, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood – a far cry from the rowdy crowds of its heyday!

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RARE HISTORICAL NEGATIVES OF EARLY CULVER CITY FOUND

Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker

RARE HISTORICAL NEGATIVES OF EARLY CULVER CITY FOUND

Recently I purchased a collection of old glass plate negatives from the Bruce Torrence Collection of Hollywood History. The collection was given to Mr. Torrence in the 1960s by Robert Spence of the Spence Aerial Photography Company. Though the Torrence collection is primarily focused on the Hollywood area, Culver City is well represented due to the concentration of motion picture studios within its boundaries beginning in 1915, when Harry Culver prevailed upon producer/director Thomas Ince to build the city’s first film studio in his “new” city (which was incorporated on Sep. 20, 1917).

Spence Air Photos, Inc. was prolific from 1918 to 1971 when the business closed. Spence shot almost everything there was to shoot in the Los Angeles area making the Spence archives one of the most important collections of Los Angeles history anywhere.

These photographs were taken at a variety of latitudes, angles, and directions, making the collection a huge assortment of unique shots. (Most of the Spence collection of historic aerial photographs were given to the UCLA Geography Department in the 1970s; additional information can be found at http://www.geog.ucla.edu/airphoto.php.)

WONDERFUL DISCOVERIES!

Of the more than 50 Culver City-related photographs I have been examining since I received the collection, several discoveries came to light. I have been collecting aerial photographs for over thirty years and some in this collection were wonderful surprises!

One negative discovered is the Pacific Film Company at Durango and Venice Blvds. in 1922. Today this property is a part of a shopping center and is now a part of Los Angeles. But in the early days it was the west coast studio of the Essanay Film Company of Chicago which had several studios in the Los Angeles area from the nineteen-teens into the early 1920s. The Pacific Film Company was one of several which occupied this studio site over the years and by the 1930s it was the Sam Katzman Studio where many ‘B’ pictures were made for Columbia. I have photographs of this studio over the years, but none as rare and clear as the one in this Torrence collection.

Another important discovery in this collection is several shots of the “40 acre” backlot of the former Thomas Ince studios (later to become the DeMille Studios, Pathé Studios, RKO Pathé Studios, and Desilu Studios among others) located at Higuera and Ince Boulevards. This backlot was famous for being where Gone With the Wind (1939) was filmed, and as the photographs show, where Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927) was filmed, showing rare views of the sets as they once stood.

The collection of Culver City aerials ranges in date from 1919 to 1937, showing all the major and minor studios in the area. The studios that are included: the Goldwyn Studios (1919-21), Thomas Ince Studios (1919-1922), Romayne Studios (1919-1920), the Pacific Film Co. (1922), Pathé and its “40-acre” backlot (1929-31), the DeMille Studios (1927), the Hal Roach Studios (1920-1937) and general Culver City aerials from 1919-1937 – including the Culver City Speedway when it existed on Culver Blvd. just south of the MGM Studios.

These photographs are quite a unique collection of glass negatives that have a very high resolution and clarity that can blow-up to very large sizes and still stay sharp and clear. The aerial images of early Culver City are currently being utilized for research on where and when some of Culver City’s earliest landmarks existed and is a unique record of the area and its development.

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