Inside a Hollywood Music & Movie Landmark

Now Henson, it was A&M for decades, and originally Charlie Chaplin’s Studio.

Where else in town did Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Richard Burton, George Harrison, George Burns, Carole King, Buster Keaton, The Police, Red Skelton, The Doors, Greta Garbot, Desi Arnaz, Cheech & Chong, Cher, Randy Newman, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Paulette Goddard, Steely Dan, The Supremes, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Lucille Ball and KISS all work? It was here, at what is now Henson headquarters, but was A&M Records between 1967 and 1999. Before that, though, it was the Charlie Chapkin studio, built here on the corner of La Brea & Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood by the Little Tramp himself in 1917.

These days, as you can see while driving by The Jim Henson Company has taken over the property, but in deference to the former landlord, there is a statue of Kermit the Frog – Jim Henson’s most famous creation – dressed as Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s one of the most historic places in town, both for the momentous musical as well as cinematic masterpieces created here. This month marks the 35th anniversary of “We Are The World,” in which Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones gathered together most of the living legends of music then to record this special song. At the time this was A&M, the record company, recording studios and soundstage, on which the iconic video was filmed. It was 1967 that Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss moved A&M into this lot, building not one but two great recording studios. In 1999, after A&M was sold to Polygram, it was closed.

On January 28, an event commemorating “We Are The World” is taking place, which American Songwriter will bring to you.

That soundstage, known as The Chaplin Stage, has been used to film untold videos, commercials and more. But as producer Lou Adler, who recorded Tapestry here with Carole King as well as many other classic albums (even Cheech and Chong!) told us that they used the soundstage then for recreation. “We put in a basketball hoop, so we could play basketball there, and shoot some hoops. It was our gym then,” he said.

The soundstage was built there not for music videos, but for the filming of silent movies, as this was where Chaplin made his masterpieces, The Gold Rush, Modern Times and all the others.

Chaplin not only starred in his films, he wrote and directed them, and even composed the scores. The composition was always completed with the help of a musical secretary, a musician who could translate Chaplin’s ideas into a written score. David Raksin, who went on to write great scores of his own, was one who had this job, and is quoted in the story that follows, about the history of one of Hollywood’s greatest landmarks ever.

Chaplin was the first international movie star, famous around the world for his silent comedy which was understood in every language. He was the first film phenomenon. He was also the first movie-star in history – and about the only one since – to have his own studio lot.

Every independent film he ever produced was made at the studio, including the classics The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) here at the studio he built in 1917 at 1416  La Brea Ave., just south of Sunset Boulevard. His last film shot there was Limelight (1952). His concrete footprints can still be found in front of Sound Stage #3.

These days the lot borders a strip mall with a Ross’ Clothing and a 7-11. For years this property was a supermarket. Back in Chaplin’s day it was the home of his brother and business manager, Sydney Chaplin. Chaplin liked the location for its proximity to his  favorite restaurant, Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, and the rest of downtown Hollywood.

He built it when he had signed the first independent contract ever with a movie company, First National, after having made one-reel movies for Mutual.

“At the end of the Mutual contract,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, “I was anxious to get started with First National, but we had no studio. I decided to buy land in Hollywood and build one. The site was the corner of Sunset and La Brea and had a very  fine ten-room house and five acres of lemon, orange and peach trees. We built a perfect unit, complete with developing plant, cutting room, and offices.”

Not only did he create his chain of classic films, many felt to be among Hollywood’s greatest masterpieces, he also hosted and filmed legions of luminaries at the studio, including Helen Keller, Lord Mountbatten, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.

The site was formerly owned by R.S. McClellan, who had a house on the property and a large grove of old orange trees. Chaplin initially intended to build himself a home on the north part of the lot, bordering Sunset Boulevard, with the studio lot to the south. That house did get built, but he never lived in it.

The studio was designed to his own specifications, as he explained it, ” to give the effect of a picturesque English village street.” He paid $35,000 for the lot; construction was estimated to be approximately $70,000.

As this was a primarily residential neighborhood in 1917, the neighbors weren’t crazy about a movie studio being built so close to their homes, and so close to Hollywood High School. Despite much public resistance, the Hollywood City Council, wisely wanting to keep the movie’s golden boy in town, approved his application for a building permit.

Construction was complete in only three months, a pace Chaplin boasted about in a 1959 documentary he made called “The Chaplin Revue.”   “I wanted a studio in a hurry,” he said, “and in the States they do things in a hurry. And, as if by magic, I got it.”

The entire lot was completed in 1919, before a large house was built on its northern end. He originally intended to live in this house, but never did, living instead first at 6147 Temple Hill Drive in Hollywood, then at 2010 DeMille Drive (both houses are still standing) before moving to Beverly Hills.

Chaplin, a fit man who enjoyed athletics, was a longstanding member of the Hollywood Athletic Club a few blocks east on Sunset, where he often swam. But going there became unnecessary when he outfitted his new studio with a large swimming pool [on the north end, near the house], riding stables with horses, and tennis courts. An avid tennis player, Chaplin challenged every celebrity in Hollywood to play him.

The former orchard that was in the center of the property became a thriving backlot, where immense outdoor sets were constructed. Two large open-air soundstages were built on the southern end, surrounded by dressing rooms, a film vault, carpenter’s shed and garage. [Both soundstages were converted to closed soundstages in the mid-thirties.]

In 1927, a substantial fire broke out on the soundstage while Chaplin was filming The Circus. Although no one was injured, the immense circus tent set was destroyed, and water damage from extinguishing the fire ruined nearly all the costumes and props.

In 1928, La Brea Avenue was widened, so that all the studio buildings on La Brea had to be moved back from the street 15 feet.

He sold the northern section of his kingdom to Safeway Stores in 1942, and they demolished the house and swimming pool which stood there to build a shopping center. This section of Hollywood, residential when Chaplin arrived, had become extremely commercial along Sunset Boulevard and La Brea, as it has remained ever since.

Until 1943, only Chaplin made movies at the studio – it was not a rental lot. But that restriction eased slightly that October when Columbia Studios rented the lot for production of their film Curly.

But that was an exception. Although Greta Garbo filmed her final screen-test there in 1949, his movies only were filmed at Chaplin Studios.

This afforded him a great liberty of time unknown to most movie-makers, meaning he could reshoot entire sequences if he didn’t feel they worked, adding weeks and even months to shooting schedules. Although he famously ridiculed the new assembly-line factories in Modern Times, his studio was the opposite of a factory. He didn’t churn out films as much as he finessed them with the fine focus of a painter, allowing him to create not one but a chain of masterpieces during his time at Sunset & La Brea.

While filming City Lights in 1931, for example, he spent several weeks shooting and reshooting the scene where the blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill meets the Little Tramp. He even replaced the actress at one point with Georgia Hale, but eventually got the performance he wanted from Cherrill.

Although he had a good chef installed in the big kitchen of his studio, he liked to be driven up La Brea to Hollywood Boulevard to lunch at Musso & Frank’s, which was founded in 1919, the year production began at Chaplin Studios. He had his own booth at Musso’s – right in front to the left as you enter – which is still known as “the Chaplin booth.”

“We’d have lunch at Musso & Frank’s five days a week,” recalled the late composer David Raksin, in an interview for my book Hollywood Remembered. Raksin was one of many men who served as a “musical secretary” for Chaplin, notating his scores.

“Everybody recognized him at Musso’s,” Raksin said. “He liked that but it wasn’t so important to him. He’d been famous while he was a boy. He was very funny. We used to make up songs about the food.” 

Chaplin left Hollywood – and America – permanently in October of 1952 to take up residence in Switzerland, where he lived out the last of his years. He sold the studio the next year to N.Y. real estate firm Webb & Knapp, who purchased this historic jewel for $650,000 with the intention of demolishing it. This shows the lack of regard with which Chaplin was held at the time, an estimation that has obviously shifted over the years.

Though Chaplin had left the country, his longtime camera-man Rollie Totheroh collected as many negatives and prints as he could, and shipped them to Chaplin in Switzerland. Though priceless reels of Chaplin outtakes were preserved in the vaults, the new owners discarded them, emptied out the prop room, and even destroyed the iconic giant wooden gears from Modern Times.

Despite the destruction of so much of Chaplin’s Hollywood history, the building itself was saved. Rather than knock it down, the new owners leased it out to a Chicago TV company who renamed it Kling Studios. Shows such as the original George Reeves The Adventures of Superman series, Perry Mason, and The Red Skelton Show, one of CBS’s most popular shows.

Skelton evidently recognized the historic value of creating comedy in the house that Chaplin built, and purchased the studio in 1958. He hung a big sign in the front that read “Skelton Studios.” He spent an estimated $3.5 million to purchase three large mobile units for the taping of color television shows.

Skelton also had the block of cement where Chaplin in 1918 had signed and pressed his footprints removed and installed at his home in Palm Springs. It has since been restoredto the studio.

He sold it to CBS in 1962, and they ultimately sold it to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who made it the home of A&M Records.

Although there was already recording equipment there, Alpert and Moss installed a state-of-the-art recording studio, where countless classic recording sessions were held (most famously, the 1985 “We Are The World” sessions which featured Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and many others).

Many great recording artists have recorded some of their most famous records here, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Carole King’s Tapestry, John Lennon’s Rock & Roll, and A Kind of Hush by the Carpenters.

Just a couple months back, the new supergroup SuperHeavy, with Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman and Damian Marley, all assembled at Henson Studios to record 12 tracks for their first album.

The long-running show “Soul Train” was filmed on the lot.

In 1969, it was designated as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.

In 1972, Chaplin returned one last time to America to accept an honorary Academy Awards at that year’s Oscars. A&M Records had hoped to welcome him back with open arms to the studio he built, but for reasons unknown, Chaplin declined, choosing only be driven past the gates without stopping. He returned to Switzerland, where he lived out the rest of his days. He died on Christmas day, 1977.

A&M Records was purchased by Polygram in 1992, the last major independent record label to be bought by a corporation. Eight years later they sold the lot to the Henson family in February of 2000 for $12.5 million. It’s now the headquarters of their independent production operation the Jim Henson Company, who erected their 12-foot statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as the Little Tramp above the studio’s main gate.

“When we heard that the Chaplin lot was for sale,” said Jim Henson’s son Brian Henson,  “we had to have it. It’s the perfect home for the Muppets and our particular brand of classy, but eccentric entertainment. When people walk onto our lot, they fall in love with Hollywood again.”

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