Celebrating 100 & 1 Years of Universal City
February 25, 2016
The Hollywood Heritage Museum, which was closed for several months in 2015 for renovation, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Universal City last October. The festivity came a few months late due to the Museum's makeover, but the observance was memorable nonetheless!
And yes, this was another post I originally meant to publish in 2015, but alas, here we are, only a few weeks late...
The sold out evening - which I narrowly made, since I have a habit of not buying tickets in advance - was packed with NBC Universal employees and executives, members of the film and archival communities, fans, and some surprise celebrities, that last group including Marilyn Knowlden, Jane Withers, Dawn Wells, Julie Adams and Betty Lasky.
Reproduction of what (assumingly) was DeMille's office door about 100 years ago. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
I know the Museum usually hosts great events with loads of guest speakers and fantastic accompanying exhibits, but I had no idea what to actually expect from the evening. Before the presentations started, I took a lap or two to admire the artifacts on display: from Universal's 1912 Minute Book to Herman Munster's suit jacket to props from the NBC show Parenthood to Universal theme park maps, the exhibit covered over 100 years of history on the film side, over five decades of television, and 50 years of Universal's theme parks.
The speakers that evening explored the festivities surrounding Universal City's opening day in 1915, but to my surprise and delight they leaned more heavily towards the subject of preserving the history of NBCUniversal in several spheres: corporate, film, TV, and parks. As someone who has always been interested in working in an archive or a museum, I found it fascinating to hear what constitutes the basic duties of each department and how the various archival arms acquire their material and ensure each object's survival and preservation.
Here's some highlights from each section of the presentation:
The event began with a bit of history from Jeff Pirtle, the Director of Archives and Collections at NBCUniversal, who explained that the company's archives maintain and preserve "anything and everything" (corporate documents, props, posters, costumes, etc.) having to do with NBCU's various businesses for a number of purposes (events, DVD releases, photo licensing, historical, etc). Their collection ranges all the way from the beginning of Universal Film Manufacturing in 1912 to movies and television being produced today and current day theme park attractions.
Pirtle also filled in for Eric Chin, a Senior Corporate Archivist who unfortunately couldn't attend the celebration due to an injury. Chin was set to discuss the collection's earliest materials, Universal's corporate records of the studio, which include maps, telephone directories, photos of studio property, and more dating back to 1914. One of the oldest pieces on display at the Museum that evening was a 1912 Minute Book, a very important historical document which detailed everything during the company's first few years (including all of the fighting and corruption charges that apparently occurred.) Other examples Pirtle highlighted included Carl Laemmle's stock certificates from the 1920s and photos in a series shot in 1916, the latter of which detailed several of Universal's streets, the zoo, and even the transportation department, which included an elephant at the time. No joke.
To (delicately) flip through the pages of this 1912 Minute Book...(Picture by Kim Luperi)
Production Archives - Film and Television
The land at Universal City was leased in 1912 and erected solely to shoot film and later, television. Deidre Thieman, manager of the Production Archives, explained how the Archive collects material from every production to tell the story of how each was made, with artifacts ranging from costumes to props to photography to set plans to story boards to miniatures and more.
The methods for acquiring property from features and television differ a bit, but both involve analyzing each show or movie to determine what items may be historically relevant. The starting point for both is the script; after a thorough read, scenes and props that may be relevant are tagged. Some obvious assets on the list may not be acquired for several reasons: perhaps they were rented, requested by cast or crew, or maybe even destroyed during filming.
As for television, the process obviously lasts longer, depending on how many years a show stays on the air. For collecting material in this sphere, a series must either run longer than two seasons, be part of a franchise, be a live event, or be a standalone limited series. After a production wraps, those in the Archive will watch every episode and compile a list of items they believe best represent a season or the show as a whole or exhibit "unusual or important qualities." Sometimes, pieces are acquired when a show is still on the air and is perhaps clearing out storage for a season, but for the most part, assets are received at the end of a show's run. Props, costumes and art department items are the most popular types archived. The collections, which are stored in an offsite facility, are used in many ways by the company, from sequels and spin-offs to loans and exhibits.
A (dusty) chair from DeMille's The Cheat, produced in 1915. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Universal Studios Theme Park
Did you know that Universal Studios actually owes its roots to one of Laemmle's early ideas? It's true. The studio head always wanted the public to have the opportunity to see how movies were made and introduced the 25 cent ticket for audiences to come to Universal City to watch silent films in production during the city's early days. However, with the advent of sound, noisy visitors were no longer practical, but Laemmle had a visitor observation platform installed instead, which would later become an inspiration for the theme park. In 1962, the idea of using the studio commissary for profit birthed the studio tour: buses took visitors around the lot, which included the provision that they had to eat at the commissary before or after the employees ate! The tours grew quickly in popularity and eventually on July 15, 1964, the theme park opened its doors. Fun fact: Famed costume designer Edith Head created the design for the employee uniforms.
With constant changes taking place in the park, how does NBCUniversal archive and preserve its history? Turns out there are several ways. Archivist Jessica Taylor explained one of the easiest methods is collecting park maps, which track physical changes to the park and the landscape over the years, as well as the diverse marketing techniques and styles utilized to promote the venue. Other items gathered include press releases, publicity photography, employee handbooks, concept art and site models, all of which can be used for fact checking, displays, and internal and external requests.
3-D materials aren't collected until a ride or attraction is either retired or being revamped, and the team works closely with the park to survey attractions that they may be able to collect from, which includes a walkthrough of the space to create a wish list of assets ranging from set dressings to pieces of wardrobe to models, etc. Though the team is usually able to retrieve what they want, sometimes a piece does not survive removal, can't be removed or isn't able to be stored properly. For example, since the House of Horrors sign couldn't be obtained for the Archive, the Code of Conduct sign located inside the attraction, which used images of monsters to represent the experience, sufficed instead.
What DeMille's office looked like around 1914. Definitely a 3-D piece, but not from the theme park! Though that would be cool... (Picture by Kim Luperi)
What an educational evening! I really enjoyed sneaking a peek into the inner workings of a studio's archive - or at least part of it. Next step: taking a stroll through that offsite storage facility?
Maybe not, but at least I can dream...