Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker


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.)


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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