Friday, November 9, 2012

Hollywood's Lost Studio


The main gates of the old Selig Polyscope Studios and Zoo as seen in 1962.
All photo's courtesy of "Google Images" and thanks to "Wikipedia for the information
contained in this article.

by Felicity Blaze Noodleman


Research for this article has been a “mind bender” to say the least.  It seems the early pioneers of the silent film era were all intertwined at one point or another.  The early twentieth century was an explosive period for new inventions.  The entrepreneurs who saw the potential and opportunity for new companies and products were forming everywhere at a frantic pace.  All sorts of businesses began manufacturing throughout the country and elsewhere in the world.   All sorts of products hardly ever imagined before from automobiles to electric toasters were being mass produced and becoming available for everyone. 


All of these new start ups were financed by Wall Street.  The production of Motion Pictures was no different from the other businesses of their day.  Dozens of film companies would eventually move into the Los Angeles area from New York, New Jersey and Chicago to take advantage of the unique opportunities in southern California.  This flurry of opportunity would all end with the Great Depression and the crash of the stock market in October 29, 1929 leaving only the financially strongest to survive.


I first heard the rumors of a lost studio here in Los Angeles on the PBS television program “The History Detectives”.  A young woman had written the Detectives about a park in her Lincoln Heights, CA neighborhood of Los Angeles.  At the gate of the park were two concrete lions.  She had been told the park once had been the location for a motion picture studio which had been there during the silent movie era.  The young woman was unable to establish a link to any studio which might have been in the parks location and was bewildered as to what the studios existence may have been.


The History Detectives uncovered many of the facts I have found for myself but I believe maybe we are able to go a little further and show a connection with one or more of today’s motion picture studios.  Many of the details for this week’s story have been lost for nearly a century.  The ages of time have almost wiped the story and the studios existence clean from the pages of history.  Only a park gate with the facade of two concrete lions stand as a testament to what happened there over a century ago in Lincoln Heights, CA.
 Advertisement for Selig Polyscope in Chicago, IL showing the early motion picture
studio and processing facilities.

Inside the Chicago, IL studios and filming stage.


The Selig Polyscope film company was founded in 1896 by William Selig in Chicago, IL.  Selig had been a magician and was impressed with Thomas Edison's movie equipment and decided to start making his own films.  He was highly organized and a visionary who was truly ahead of his time.  With help from Union Metal Works and Andrew Schustek, he shot his first film, "Tramp and the Dog".  He went on to successfully produce local actualities, slapstick comedies, early travelogues and industrial films (a major client was Armour and Company).   

In 1909 he moved west to southern California and was the first motion picture studio to open in the Los Angeles area of Edendale.   Moving to the Southern California area for expansion and the favorable filming conditions available in the Los Angeles area was a master stroke and his model for the modern motion picture studio still remains as the fundamental foundation upon which all of the studios of today were built upon.


William Selig

Over the years in Edendale Selig had collected animals used in the filming of his movies and by 1912 he decided to open a zoo to the east of Edendale in the Lincoln Heights area where he purchased 32 acres for $1,000,000. In 1916 Selig moved his studios to the new location where he combined his businesses. Selig had spent lavishly of the property, animals and the upkeep of building his new facilities which became the demise of Polyscope. This too would also be a lesson for the survival of today’s studios. Over spending is the one single biggest mistake a business can make and will almost always result in bankruptcy.

The Edendale area would become home to the "Keystone Studios" of Mack Sennette and William Fox would purchase the Ployscope studio in 1917.  A small community of early motion picture pioneers sprang up in the Edendale area and must have certainly influenced each other as they were now a studio Colene.



Originally a small bungalow in Edendale, Selig built his second studio in southern
California which was sold to William Fox in 1917.  I feel this a strong indicator of the
influence Selig on the Studios of today.  Fox's studio would eventually become
20th. Century Fox after a merger with 20th. Century Pictures.

The Selig Polyscope Studios and Zoo in Lincoln Heights, CA with their gates
inserted in the photo at the upper right.  Below; another aerial photo of the
complex.  The gates are visible in the lower portion of these photos.
William was a true innovator and pioneer in so many ways.  Business man, artist and story teller he was blazing the trail for all modern day film producers.  I love to see these old films after they have been lovingly restored to their original luster.  In many ways they were much like movies today.  Selig's genius lives on as an inspiration for film makers in our day.  
Selig Polyscope produced hundreds of early, widely distributed commercial moving pictures of all types, including the first films starring Tom Mix and other cowboy stars such as  Gilbert M. Anderson who was known on screen as "Bronco Billy" and had acted in Thomas Edison's film "The Great Train Robbery" (brought back to life by Clint Eastwood's 1980 film which was loosely based on the cowboy actors life), Harold Lloyd, Colleen Moore, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  Polyscope was the originator of the "Cliff Hanger" serial and did many of the stories from the children's book collection "OZ".  Polyscope did the first production of "The Wizard of OZ".  I get the feeling William Selig must have been a jolly ol' fellow who threw a lot of hart into his work!
Surviving hand tinted still from The Fairylogue based on L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

Some of the Selig Polyscope stars: (top left to bottom right)  G.M. "Bronco Billy"
Anderson, Kathlyn Williams, Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckel, Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix
and Colleeen Moore.
World War I cut severely into the substantial revenues of Selig Polyscope which had been garnered in Europe and the company shunned profitable movie industry trends which had shifted towards dramatic (and more costly) full length feature films.  Polyscope had been in the industry now for twenty years and a new generation of film makers were coming of age. 
Also;  theater chains back east were begining to establish their own studios which began to cut into Polyscop's business such as Fox, MGM and the Warner Brothers.  Competition for films was becoming fierce.   Selig Polyscope became insolvent and ceased operations in 1918.  Mix signed with Fox back at Edendale and went on to even greater success as a matinée cowboy star.  Movie studios rented animals and staged many shoots at the Selig zoo (sometimes later claiming they had been filmed in Africa).
The First Tarzan movie (1918) was filmed there. In 1920 Louis B. Mayer rented his first studio space for Mayer Pictures at the site.  I feel this is another strong link Selig had with the studios of today as  Mayer would eventually merge and become part of MGM.  Selig planned to develop his zoo into a major tourist attraction, amusement park and popular resort named Selig Zoo Park with a ferris wheel, carousels, mechanical rides, an enormous swimming pool with a sandy beach and a wave making machine, hotel, theatre, cinema, restaurants and thousands of daily visitors (more than 30 years before Disneyland). Only a single carousel was built. Selig Polyscope's extensive collection of props and furnishings were auctioned off at the zoo in 1923.
The potential of movies as long term sources of revenue was unknown to early movie industry executives.  Films were made quickly, sent into distribution channels and mostly forgotten soon after their first runs.  Surviving prints were wontedly stored haphazardly, if at all. Early film stock was chemically volatile and many prints were lost in fires or decomposed to goo in storage. Some were recycled for their silver content or simply thrown away to save space.  Out of Selig Polyscope's hundreds of films, only a few copies and scattered photographic elements are known to survive.

It is at this point that we should look at the movie theaters which were being built to exhibit these early silent motion pictures.  These motion picture palaces were built to compete with the live theater of the day.  Going to a silent motion picture in these newly constructed "movie shows" was quite a moving experience.  Sound was furnished with a live orchestra and the close up intimacy of the film drew the viewer into the story like never before in a theatrical presentation.  The photo below is an excellent example of the silent era "movie palace".  Well, you can see and imagine what an experience it must have been in the early 20th. century!


The Downtown Palace Theatre, at 630 S Broadway, was built in 1911 as the third Los Angeles home of the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit. It was originally know as the “Orpheum” and is the oldest remaining Orpheum theatre in the country. Renamed the Palace Theatre in 1926, it became a silent movie house and later added sound. The theatre is preparing for a new century of performances and screenings.

Selig Polyscope Filmography


·        Soldiers at Play 1898

·        Chicago Police Parade 1901

·        Dewey Parade 1901

·        Gans-McGovern Fight 1901

·        A Hot Time on a Bathing Beach 1903

·        Business Rivalry 1903

·        Chicago Fire Run 1903

·        Chicago Firecats on Parade 1903

·        The Girl in Blue 1903

·        Trip Around The Union Loop 190

·        View of The Tramp and the Dog 1896

·        State Street 1903

·        Humpty Dumptry 1904

·        The Tramp Dog 1904

·        The Grafter 1907

·        The Count of Monte Cristo 1908

·        Damon and Pythias 1908

·        The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays 1908

·        Hunting Big Game in Africa 1909

·        The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 1910 (survives)

·        Lost in the Arctic 1911

·        Life on the Border 1911 (partial section survives)

·        The Coming of Columbus 1911

·        Brotherhood of Man 1912

·        Kings Forest 1912

·        War Time Romance 1912

·        The Adventures of Kathlyn 1913

·        Arabia, the Equine Detective 1913

·        The Sheriff of Yavapai County 1913

·        The Spoilers 1914 (survives)

·        A Black Sheep 1915

·        The Crisis 1915

·        House of a Thousand Candles 1915

·        The Man from Texas 1915

·        The Garden of Allah 1916

·        The City of Purple Dreams 1918

·        Little Orphant Annie 1918 (not to be confused with the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie".

Selig finally sold the zoo following a flood during the Great Depression. Some of the animals were donated to Los Angeles County, forming a substantial addition to Griffith Park Zoo. The property was used as a jalopy racetrack during the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1955 the site was described as "an inactive amusement park."
William Selig became a literary agent, re-selling story rights to film properties he had produced or acquired years before.  For his contributions to the motion picture industry William Selig has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6116 Hollywood Boulevard.  In 1947 Selig and several other early movie producers and directors shared a special Academy Honorary Award to acknowledge their role in building the film industry.  Col. William N. Selig died at the age of 84 in 1948 having established three motion picture studios and was a true pioneer in movie history.  I'm glad to have learned of his story and was able to share it with you here at the Noodleman Group.


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