Michael Holland, the L.A. City Archivist, wrote this story for the city employee newspaper Alive!
You’ve seen them: signs announcing a film shoot on your block. The trucks of equipment, lighting, and makeup trailers taking up all the parking. The mess left behind by the crew.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the very same problems confronted city park officials 100 years ago when the brand new movie industry started filming on city property.
In the city archives, we have minutes of meetings held by Parks Department commissioners, plus some day-to-day correspondence. They show the challenges of an underfunded department dealing with issues like park access and environmental damage.
For instance, there was a movie crew shooting in Griffith Park in April 1914. The park superintendent reported that the crew was using one of the canyons just east of Vermont for a wagon train scene involving 300 men, 100 horses and 20 wagons. He writes:
“The canyon was covered with the ordinary sage and greasewood, but after the horses had milled around in it for about two hours, all the vegetation had ground to dust. … I would like to ask if there is any limit to the size of a company, as such a large outfit changes the whole appearance of a place in a few hours.”
The commissioners then limited livestock to 25 head at any one time.
The movie studios were like today’s tech start-up companies that began with very few rules to deal with. They did pay for shooting permits – $1 a month in 1914 – and took their scenes wherever they could get them. A burning building with firemen on scene? Great! A parade in downtown L.A.? Fantastic! Get your actors into the middle of the action? All good!
That is, unless you were running one of the busiest city parks just down the street from one of the most iconic studios in history. The Mack Sennett Keystone Studio was just a mile north of Echo Park.
From 1915: panoramic view of the Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios at 1712 Allessandro Ave. (later renamed Glendale Boulevard) in Edendale. Image: LAPL/Pacific National Bank Collection
A typical park comedy would involve a park bench or two, a pretty girl and a guy making a nuisance of himself. Throw in another couple and a cop, and you had the recipe for a Keystone comedy.
When the city drained Echo Park Lake in 1913 for maintenance, Keystone shot scenes with Mabel Normand in a rowboat stuck in the lake bottom. Ford Sterling was the jilted rival who had opened the valve and drained the lake. The movie was titled “A Muddy Romance.”
But all the filming destroyed the beauty of the park, and so, in the spring of 1914, park commissioners banned film companies from the park. When Keystone complained to City Hall, the commission responded that the moviemakers “take all kinds of liberties and show no regard whatever for the fact that the parks are for the benefit and enjoyment of the citizens and not for the exploitation by any industry.”
Meanwhile, as the industry matured, a new trade group accepted a permit and fee structure from the Parks Department. A sliding scale began at $5 a day for one actor and ran up to $35 for 25 actors or more. The same livestock that scarred Griffith Park in 1914 now cost $1 per head per day. A new $250 monthly permit allowed the studios to shoot in almost any city park.
But when the Echo Park ban was finally lifted, Mack Sennett had given up the Keystone brand. Filmmakers like him would continue to use parks and city streets in their movies, but they would reflect a more urban city that had also changed from the one their audiences had fallen in love with.