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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

California's Film Industry

Hollywood! To movie fans all over the world, the name is synonymous with glamour, stardom, and cinematic dreams; a place also known—by the more cynical—as Tinseltown. Today Hollywood, a district within the city of Los Angeles, is the capital of the American film industry. Hollywood exists both as an abstract in peoples’ imaginations, and as a real community northwest of LA’s downtown skyscrapers.

The community got its start in the 1880s, when Harvey Wilcox moved to Los Angeles. After purchasing several acres of a fig and apricot orchard in a beautiful canyon west of downtown, Wilcox decided to subdivide the land and sell the lots. On February 1, 1887, he filed a plat of his subdivision with the Los Angeles County Recorder’s office, for a tract his wife had named “Hollywood.”

It was a rural settlement of about eighteen families when land developer Hobart J. Whitley arrived in 1893. Having created suburban towns in Chicago, Whitley looked around and saw that Hollywood might become a flourishing suburb of Los Angeles. Forming his Los Angeles Pacific Boulevard and Development Company, Whitley subdivided 480 acres of open fields in the early 1900s, with Highland Avenue running north/south through its center, and built a hotel and a bank on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenues. Later honored as the “Father of Hollywood,” Whitely also brought telephone, electric, and gas lines into the new suburb.

Meanwhile, visionaries elsewhere, mostly on the East Coast, were inventing and developing “moving pictures” with emerging new technology. In 1893, the same year Hobart Whitley came to California, Thomas Edison built the world’s first film-strip production studio on the grounds of his laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison was among the first to improve on an image-projection device designed earlier by California-based photographer Edward Muybridge. Edison’s invention, which he called a Kinetoscope, caused a sensation when it was demonstrated in 1894 in New York City, and newspapers from coast to coast spread the excitement. It was almost magical, they said, the way the kinetoscope’s inner workings (a lens, a light bulb, a strip of film and a spinning wheel) produced lifelike representations of people and objects in motion, as a viewer peered through a peephole. In San Francisco, savvy businessmen acquired five and promptly put them on display.

In 1905, a brand new business, called nickelodeons because the admission price was a nickel, premiered in Pittsburgh. As the first type of venue showing short moving images on film, nickelodeons were instantly popular. In 1907 a number of budding film producers moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey to establish studios (because land was cheaper there than in New York City), so for a time New Jersey was the motion-picture capital of America.

Soon enough, however, the patents Thomas Edison held on movie-making processes and equipment motivated filmmakers to go where Edison’s patents didn’t legally extend. California, with its year-round temperate climate and its enticing variety of outdoor landscapes as usable story scenery, beckoned. In the Sultan’s Power is considered to be the first film shot entirely in Los Angeles, in 1909. In early 1910, film director D.W. Griffith, accompanied by an acting troupe that included Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, discovered that the little suburb of Hollywood welcomed his movie company. Griffith’s In Old California was the first film shot in Hollywood. The next year a different company, Nestor Studios of Bayonne, New Jersey, was the first to build a studio in the Hollywood neighborhood.

With the advent of “the talkies” in the 1920s, the complex, diversified industry branded with the One-Word-Says-Everything name “Hollywood” became one of the early twentieth century’s biggest growth industries, and by the 1930s, virtually all filmmaking had shifted to the West Coast. Then and now, Hollywood’s work flow is unique: most of its work force doesn’t report to the same office every day, nor follow a set daily routine. Instead, workers report to changing locations around the globe according to ever-changing schedules. Besides its working studios, Hollywood’s other world-renown features include amusement parks, the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater, chic restaurants with Michelin star or two, and the much-photographed Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The now-iconic Hollywood sign, first erected in 1923, was a real estate advertisement for a development of new homes in the area, not a signpost to assure tourists they were in the right place. Essentially a billboard composed of separate letters, the original spelled out “Hollywoodland.” The “land” section was removed when the sign, in much need of repair, was refurbished for the first time in 1949.

The sign is 450 feet wide, and each white letter stands 45 feet high. Like the film industry itself, the Hollywood sign will doubtless endure for many decades to come, holding a permanent place in the imaginations of everyone who believes in the magic of movies.

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