Universal's rich entertainment legacy can be traced back to 1906, when 39 year-old German immigrant Carl Laemmle (pronounced LEM-lee) opened his first nickelodeon theater in Chicago. From exhibiting short silent films in one theater, Laemmle later moved to movie distribution and production. In June 1909, he formed the New York based Independent Moving Picture Company of America (IMP), not only to produce his own films, but to defy the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company that charged a license fee to all independent theater operators. Laemmle’s first production in 1909 was Hiawatha, a one-reel adaptation of Longfellow’s poem.
On April 30, 1912, the Universal Film Manufacturing Company was incorporated in New York. This new company was an alliance between Laemmle’s IMP, the New York Motion Picture Company, Rex Motion Pictures, and Powers Motion Pictures. By May 20, Nestor and Champion Films had also joined Universal, and on July 12 Carl Laemmle had officially been elected President of the new venture.
On August 15, 1912, Universal officially expanded its operation to the West Coast when it leased a portion of the Providencia Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Less than two years later, Laemmle decided to centralize his West Coast operations and ordered his manager, Isadore Bernstein, to buy more property in the San Fernando Valley. For $165,000 in March of 1914, Bernstein chose a 230-acre ranch, just across the road from where Mexican General Andre Pico and U.S. Colonel John Fremont signed the Treaty of Cahuenga in 1847. This site was to become “the entertainment center of the world” – Universal City.
On March 15, 1915 Carl Laemmle officially opened the gates of Universal City, the world’s first self-contained community dedicated to making movies. According to eyewitness accounts, over 15,000 people were present for Universal City’s opening day ceremonies. At the time of Universal City’s opening, the new municipality had nearly 500 residents. Among them were 75 Indians who lived in tepees on the backlot, western riders, movie “soldiers” and workmen.
Although the studio officially opened in 1915, film production on the lot began in 1914. Damon and Pythias, co-starring William Worthington and Herbert Rowlinson, was the first picture completed at Universal City.
As movie production at Universal City increased, a steady stream of silent films including westerns, comedies and action-adventures became Universal’s trademark. Laemmle also began inviting visitors to Universal City to observe his movie making, establishing Universal’s long-standing tradition of welcoming guests to enjoy the behind-the-scenes magic. However, the Universal tour was temporarily halted in the late 1920s, when “talkies” became the norm and producers demanded a set free of visitor noise.
A few of Universal’s most notable feature films of these early years include The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930. Universal also became well known for its horror films of the early 1930s. These productions included such classics as Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein.
In 1936, Carl Laemmle retired from the movie industry and sold Universal to the Standard Capital Company. In the years that immediately followed, the studio relied heavily on Deanna Durbin musicals, Abbott and Costello comedies, and Francis the Talking Mule. When Universal merged with International Pictures in 1946, Leo Spitz and William Goetz from International took over production, and the company became known as Universal-International. The production of Hamlet by Universal-International in association with J. Arthur Rank of England won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1948.
In 1950, Universal acquired 140 acres of land adjoining the southern boundary of the studio, increasing the overall size of Universal City to 400 acres.
1952 brought another merger to Universal, when Decca Records bought the company. Under the leadership of Milton Rackmil, President of Decca and Universal, and Edward Muhl, production head, some of the notable features of this era included Pillow Talk, Operation Petticoat, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Glenn Miller Story, and Spartacus.
In December 1958, MCA, Inc. purchased the Universal City Studio Lot. MCA’s Revue Television Productions relocated to Universal City, and Universal Pictures then leased back its property from MCA. This arrangement lasted three years, until MCA and Universal officially merged in 1962.
Jules Stein founded MCA, or the Music Corporation of America, in 1924 as a Chicago-based agency that booked bands into clubs and dance halls. The legacy of MCA was expanded and enriched by Lew Wasserman, who joined the company in 1936, became President in 1946, and over the years built MCA from a leading talent agency into a diversified global leader in the world of entertainment.
With activities in television and motion picture production well in place in the early 1960s, the succeeding years represented a period of growth and diversification for MCA Universal. Under the leadership of Lew Wasserman, MCA Universal expanded its interests not only in movies and television, but also in areas such as music and recreation throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The Universal Studios Tour was revived in 1964, and MCA Universal also became a pioneer in location-based entertainment during the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the most notable Universal feature films of this time were from Steven Spielberg, including Jaws and E.T: The Extra Terrestrial.
Throughout the 1990s, MCA Universal had a number of transitions: in 1991, Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co., Ltd. acquired MCA. Four years later, in June 1995, The Seagram Company Ltd. (VO) purchased majority equity in MCA from Matsushita. On December 9, 1996, MCA Inc. was renamed Universal Studios, and in June 2000 Seagram combined its business with France’s Vivendi.
In May 2004, NBCUniversal was formed through the combining of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment. NBCUniversal owns and operates a valuable portfolio of news and entertainment networks, a premier motion picture company, significant television production operations, a leading television stations group, and world-renowned theme parks. NBCUniversal became part of the Comcast family in January 2011.
Today, Universal City continues to be one of the largest full-service production facilities. With 30 sound stages and a backlot that can replicate any location in the world, it is not only a filmmaker’s destination, but also the Entertainment Capital of Los Angeles.