He was the first international movie star, famous around the world for silent comedy 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.
He was Charlie Chaplin, of course, and the studio he built in 1917 still stands in the heart of Hollywood at 1416 La Brea Ave., just south of Sunset Boulevard.
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). His last film shot there was Limelight (1952). His concrete footprints can still be found in front of Sound Stage Three.
These days, as you might have noticed while driving by, 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.
These days the lot borders a strip mall with a and a . 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, on Hollywood Boulevard, and the rest of downtown Hollywood.
He built it when he 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." The site was formerly owned by R.S. McClellan.
Not only did he create his chain of classic films, which many felt to be among Hollywood’s greatest masterpieces, he also hosted and filmed legions of luminaries at the studio, including Helen Keller, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.
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 cost about $70,000.
As this was primarily a residential neighborhood in 1917, the neighbors weren’t crazy about a movie studio being built so close to their homes (and so close to .) 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. Chaplin eventually built himself a home on the northern part of the lot, bordering Sunset Boulevard, but he never lived in it. Instead, he first resided at 6147 Temple Hill Dr. in Hollywood, then at 2010 DeMille Dr. before moving to Beverly Hills. Both houses are still standing.
Chaplin, a fit man who enjoyed athletics, was a longstanding member of the , 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 were converted to closed soundstages in the mid-'30s.
In 1927, a 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 of the costumes and props.
In 1928, La Brea Avenue was widened, and all the studio buildings on it had to be moved back from the street 15 feet.
Chaplin sold the northern section of his kingdom in 1942 to Safeway Stores, which demolished the house and swimming pool to build a shopping center. This section of Hollywood, residential when Chaplin arrived, had become extremely commercial along Sunset 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 its film Curly.
But that was an exception. Although Greta Garbo filmed her final screen test there in 1949, only Chaplin movies were filmed at Chaplin Studios.
This afforded him a great liberty of time unknown to most moviemakers. Chaplin could reshoot entire sequences if he didn’t feel they worked, adding weeks and even months to shooting schedules. He famously ridiculed the new assembly line factories in Modern Times, and 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 on his lot.
While filming City Lights in 1931, for example, he spent several weeks shooting and reshooting the scene in which 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 employed a good chef 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 . Raksin was one of many men who served as a “musical secretary” of sorts 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 1952 to take up residence in Switzerland, where he lived out his last years. He sold the studio the next year to New York real estate firm Webb & Knapp, which 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 cameraman 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 that 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’ most popular shows, were made there.
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 took out the block of concrete that Chaplin in 1918 had signed and pressed his footprints in and installed it at his home in Palm Springs. It has since been restored to the studio.
Skelton sold it in 1962 to CBS, which 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).
In 1969, it was designated as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Many great recording artists have recorded some of their most notable records here, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Carole King’s Tapestry, John Lennon’s Rock 'n' Roll, and A Kind of Hush by the Carpenters.
Just a couple months back, the new powehouse group SuperHeavy, with Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman and Damian Marley, assembled at what is now called the to record 12 tracks for its first album.
The long-running TV show Soul Train was filmed on the lot.
In 1972, Chaplin returned one last time to America to accept an honorary Academy Award 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 died on Christmas Day in 1977.
A&M Records was purchased by Polygram in 1992, the last major independent record label to be bought by a corporation. They sold the lot to the Henson family in February 2000 for $12.5 million. It’s now the headquarters of the independent production operation the Jim Henson Company, which erected the 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."