Beyond Hollywood: The Los Angeles Movie Industry

Hollywood may be synonymous with movie making, but films are made in studios and neighborhoods throughout the city.
By: Jesus Sanchez
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Hollywood has the big sign on the hill, the Walk of Fame and the star-struck tourists. But even a century ago, the film and entertainment industry, the powerhouse of the Los Angeles economy, was already spread across the basin and valleys beyond the limits of Hollywood, which is technically one of Los Angeles' many districts. The stars and their minions have worked, lived and died far from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, leaving behind a bit of history and glamour in the most remote corners of Los Angeles.

Young Hollywood

Hollywood boosters moved fast to make their town, which became part of Los Angeles in 1910, synonymous with moviemaking even as studios sprouted across the area. In 1915, early industry publications often described Los Angeles as the mecca of the fledgling film industry, said historian Marc Wanamaker. But by 1917, the name “Hollywood” came to dominate the headlines when it came to moviemaking and its early stars.

But not even the industry we know as Hollywood was born in Hollywood. The area’s first permanent movie studio, Selig Polyscope, opened its doors in 1909 in a section of Los Angeles then known as Edendale. A string of silent-film studios a few miles east of Hollywood soon churned out films starring the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and the Keystone Cops.

Edendale's reign over the movie industry was short-lived as Hollywood attracted larger studios and prominence. Yet, other parts of Los Angeles had better luck than Edendale in surviving as satellite Hollywoods. Culver City, a few miles southeast of Hollywood, boasted a trio of major studios, including MGM, now home to Sony Pictures Studios, and several smaller outfits. Culver City backlots and sound stages saw the filming of such classics as Gone With the Wind and Singing in the Rain. In fact, the city’s motto is “The Heart of Screenland.”

San Fernando Valley's Big Break

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Hollywood Hills in the San Fernando Valley, another large cluster of studios set up shop, including giants like Warner Brothers, Walt Disney and Universal. Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart made movies in the Valley studios and TV shows like Gunsmoke and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were shot here as well.

The Valley has also been a popular home and stomping ground for Hollywood stars. Clark Gable, for example, lived in Encino, and Bob Hope hailed from Toluca Lake. The more rural western edge of the Valley attracted the likes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as well as James Cagney and William Holden. The hills north of the Valley’s main drag, Ventura Boulevard, continue to be home to a great many stars and entertainment industry executives. Star seekers will have better luck spotting a celebrity in the cafes of Studio City, home to CBS Studio Center and down the road from Universal Studios, than by hanging outside of Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Of course, the Valley has long played a leading role in another part of the film industry: porn. The porn business did not really begin to flourish here until the 1970s, but, by most recent estimates, the Valley is now home to about 200 studios and distributors responsible for as much as 90 percent of the nation's adult films. It's not unusual for many of Hollywood's studio workers to moonlight in the Valley's giant porn industry, which has been dubbed by some as the "San Pornando Valley" or "Silicone Valley."

Neighborhoods Turned Movie Sets

If a Los Angeles suburb lacks a working studio or a celebrity resident, then it most likely has served as a backdrop for a film or television shoot. The area’s abundant sunshine and diverse scenery, from sandy beaches to Alpine mountains, were some of the main reasons why Hollywood took root here in the first place. Some early filmmakers wasted no time, shooting silent films on the streets of downtown Los Angeles within hours of arriving by train.

In the San Gabriel Valley town of Arcadia, the historic Santa Anita Race Track was the setting for the 1937 Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races as well as a recent remake of Seabiscuit. A short drive away, the foothill city of Sierra Madre was home to the Pod People in the 1950s sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Near the ocean, Venice High School doubled as fictional Rydell High in the movie version of the musical Grease. Fans of the TV comedy M*A*S*H who hike Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains might recognize some of the brush-covered hills that appear in the show’s opening credits. Films like Planet of the Apes were also filmed in this bucolic setting, part of the former “movie ranch” owned by 20th Century Fox.

Hollywood’s spotlight across Los Angeles even reaches into the city’s cemeteries. Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, for example, is the resting place for Lou Costello (of Abbott & Costello fame) and silent film greats Mabel Normand and Ramon Novarro. In Inglewood Park near Los Angeles International Airport, the names of such Hollywood notables as pin-up star Betty Grable and actor Cesar Romero show up on the graves and monuments. Meanwhile, the 300 acres of Forest Lawn in Glendale rivals the Hollywood Walk of Fame in terms of star power, with the graves of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Carol Lombard and many more.

Hooray for Hollywood

Ironically, while the entertainment industry’s clout has never been greater across Los Angeles, the business’ profile within the district of Hollywood has shrunk. During its peak in the 1930s, more than two dozen working studios called Hollywood home, Wanamaker, the film historian, said. While numerous sound stages and production companies still operate in Hollywood, only one major studio, Paramount, remains.

Despite this, the word "Hollywood" continues to be synonymous with the U.S. entertainment industry, its celebrities and all its glitz and glamour. As long as the rest of the region enjoys the economic benefits, Los Angeles seems content to let Hollywood dominate the spotlight.

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