On a bare wall in the once lavish office where Gene Autry directed his local media empire, someone has taped a yellowed newspaper photograph of Hollywood's singing cowboy sitting at his desk. In the photo, Autry is framed by a large painting by Western artist Frederic Remington, and he's grinning a wide grin.
The cheerful image is a fitting metaphor for the historically rich but worn East Hollywood complex, the original headquarters for Warner Bros. that Tribune Co. now hopes to restore to something approaching its former splendor.
For nearly 80 years, the 10-acre lot at Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness Street has been a laboratory for technological innovation in the entertainment business evidenced in countless productions, from "The Jazz Singer" and "Don Juan" to "Gunsmoke" and the "Looney Tunes" cartoons.
A former hay and barley farm purchased by the Warner brothers in 1920, the property, originally known as Warner Sunset Studios, is a cultural monument and one of the oldest continually operating studios in Hollywood.
Now Tribune is undertaking a major overhaul of the complex, including a refurbishment of the Sunset Boulevard building, nicknamed "Tara," and a video and sound conversion that will make the nine-studio lot the nation's first all-digital production complex.
Tara, which derived its nickname from its similarity to the plantation house in "Gone With the Wind," (that film was shot at the old MGM studios in Culver City), housed Autry's offices and those of the legendary Jack and Sam Warner. But the Southern colonial landmark has been gathering dust for more than half a decade as Tribune contemplated the best use for the structure. The company now plans to spend up to $15 million for digital conversion and rehab.
To keep its city landmark status, Tribune was required to meet Interior Department standards for architectural changes, a process that went smoothly because there were so few, said Jay Oren, an architect for the city of Los Angeles. As a city landmark, Tribune also stands to receive a sizable tax break.
"There is a certain excitement of being associated with a piece of old-time Hollywood when moguls were moguls and not conglomerates," said Tribune Entertainment President Dick Askin. "We're going to take an asset that had been allowed to deteriorate and turn into a strong asset, not only from a historic standpoint but from an economic standpoint."Hollywood firsts
Before Tara and the first two sound stages were erected in 1923, Warner Bros. used an old barn on the property to shoot its pictures. In 1927, Warner Bros. released "The Jazz Singer," the first commercial "talkie," which unleashed a revolution in popular entertainment and fueled the construction of stages four, five and six. The company's Vitaphone sound system was developed in part in a workshop on the lot where the KCOP studios now stand.
The 80,000-square-foot, white-columned administration building served as Warner Bros. headquarters until the company expanded into Burbank in the 1930s. Part of the lot's longstanding lore, that Jack and Harry Warner located their offices at opposite ends of the building's long hallway because they didn't much care for another, is not true, according to Marc Wanamaker, owner of Bison Archives, which consults studios and producers on historical matters.
"Jack Warner was a big ham, a frustrated actor who was irascible in general," he said. "The truth is they were very close."
Warner Bros. eventually built nine studios on the lot, in the process hosting the biggest names in Hollywood and producing some of the most popular films of the day. John Barrymore, Mary Astor, James Cagney, Myrna Loy and Edward G. Robinson were among the actors who did some of their most enduring work there.
Besides films and cartoons, Warner Bros. established KFWB on the lot, constructing two tall antenna towers (one still stands) for what was the first radio station based in Hollywood.
In 1946 the studio converted two stages into a large bowling alley, Hollywood Lanes, which was popular well into the 1960s. It was purchased from Warner by Paramount Studios, which moved KTLA onto the lot in 1957.
In 1965, Autry's Golden West Broadcasting purchased the studio and it remained there until Tribune bought the company in 1985.
Autry built an annex to the east side of the Tara building, constructing a lavish office suite with a full kitchen, breakfast room, dining room and bathroom with shower and bath. Outside, Autry's parking space was marked by his name spelled out in braided rope.
By the time Golden West moved in, the studios were being used increasingly for TV production. Among the shows filmed on the lot were "Jeopardy," "Let's Make a Deal," "The Donny and Marie Show," and "Gunsmoke," the longest running prime time program in television history.
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