Nebraska-born Harry H. Culver arrived in California in 1910 and established the city that would carry his name.
Although the east coast rightfully claims the beginning of the American movie industry, the West offered a special draw. In 1907, pioneer filmmakers from New York and New Jersey traveled to California to explore options. Southern California’s varied terrain and moderate climate offered the economic benefit of extended filming hours.
Nebraska-born Harry H. Culver arrived in California in 1910 and established the city that would carry his name. A real estate developer, Culver was also a businessman who understood the importance of an economic base and the lucrative potential of the movie industry as a major employer. Culver’s first foray into courting the movie industry is local legend. Seeing filmmaker Thomas Ince working on the banks of Ballona Creek, Culver famously convinced Ince to move his company from his “Inceville” location, now Malibu, to Culver City, where he built the Ince/Triangle Studios on Washington Boulevard.
THE HEART OF SCREENLAND
The landmark Colonnade entrance to Ince/Triangle Studios was in place by 1915. Samuel Goldwyn bought the studio in 1918, and it was known as Goldwyn Studios until the Metro-Goldwyn–Mayer merger in 1924. It expanded to six lots throughout Culver City, and boasted 180+ acres by the end of the 1930s. Ultimately the studio became MGM/UA, and divested itself of Lots 2-6 in the 1970s. It was sold to Lorimar in the 1980s. Under continuous ownership by Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc. since 1990, the studio lot was first known as Columbia Studios, then Sony Pictures Studios.
Louis B. Mayer, MGM studio chief, was fond of saying that “more stars than were in the heavens” entered his East Gate. Many notable films have been made at the studio, including THE WIZARD OF OZ, BROADWAY MELODY, BOYS TOWN, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, ANDY HARDY, NATIONAL VELVET, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, MEN IN BLACK, JERRY MAGUIRE, HANCOCK and the SPIDER-MAN series. TV shows such as THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., DALLAS, DR. KILDARE, KING OF QUEENS, PARTY OF FIVE, JEOPARDY! and WHEEL OF FORTUNE have also called the studio home.
After selling the Ince/Triangle Studios, Thomas Ince moved east on Washington Boulevard to establish the city’s second major studio. Known for its Mt. Vernon-like administration building, the studio’s fourteen-acre main lot is located in the center of Culver City. A 29-acre back lot was added, known as “The 40 Acres” based on the expression “the back 40”, where the KING KONG sets were burned to simulate GONE WITH THE WIND “burning of Atlanta.” In addition to those iconic films, CITIZEN KANE, INTERMEZZO, and E.T. were filmed at The Culver Studios, and the studio has provided rehearsal space for musical greats like The Beatles and Michael Jackson.
After Ince’s untimely death in 1924, ownership of his second studio changed hands several times, drawing the attention of investors like Howard Hughes and Joseph Kennedy. Over time, the studio’s front lawn sign read DeMille Studios, RKO, RKO-Pathe, Selznick International Studios, Desilu, Culver City Studios, Laird International Studios, and finally, The Culver Studios. The backlot was eventually sold and developed into commercial space across from the city’s industrial and creative media area, the Hayden Tract.
During the 1990s, the Culver Studios Office complex was built in the block adjacent to the downtown studio. Occupied by the award-winning Sony Pictures divisions Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation (SPA), the Culver Studios Office Buildings house the creators of cutting-edge visual effects for such movies as THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN™ and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2™ as well as animation of SPA feature films CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 1 & 2, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, and THE SMURFS 1 & 2.
Culver City also boasted a third major studio within its 5 square miles, the Hal Roach Studios. Hal Roach called Harry Culver because he had trouble expanding his space in downtown Los Angeles and Culver was more than happy to sell property to Roach. Known as “The Laugh Factory to the World,” and operating from 1919 to 1963, the Hal Roach Studios was well known for the LAUREL AND HARDY series and the OUR GANG COMEDIES, which transitioned into THE LITTLE RASCALS. During World War II, Hal Roach Studios was leased by the U.S. Government for a stipend, and dubbed “Fort Roach.” Harry Culver’s Pacific Military Academy housed combat photographers and actors there who were stationed at “Fort Roach” to make training films, among them Alan Ladd and Ronald Reagan. Today, Hal Roach Studios is commemorated by a plaque in a small park near Culver City’s Metro Expo line station at National and Washington Boulevards.
In addition to the three major studios that made history in Culver City, there were many smaller ones. They include The Willat Studios, a silent film studio with offices housed in a gingerbread-style building circa 1922, north of Washington Boulevard. Often called the “Witch’s House” because of its storybook architecture, the structure was later moved to Beverly Hills to serve as a private residence and remains there today. Other local studios included Master Pictures, Henry Lehrman Studios, Romayne Studios and Pacific Film Co.
Culver City has been known as “The Heart of Screenland” since that wording appeared on the city seal in 1936. In early times, the powers-that-be in both Culver City and Hollywood engaged in a friendly feud since film credits often read “Made in Hollywood.” To stake its claim, the Culver City Chamber of Commerce even printed “Culver City Chamber of Commerce, where Hollywood Movies are Made” on its stationery until there was a “Bury the Hatchet” ceremony in Hollywood in 1937. Today, residents appreciate seeing a Culver City location credit when movies are filmed in “the Heart of Screenland.”
Julie Lugo Cerra, City Historian- Culver City, California
Culver City has been known as “The Heart of Screenland” since that wording appeared on the city seal in 1936.