As you approach the 2 Freeway onramp, Glendale Boulevard is a pretty discouraging drive. North of Montana Street, it is a corridor marked by empty lots, little-used industrial buildings and brick storefronts that have seen better days.
Yet 100 years ago, that same stretch of road was a hub of early Los Angeles movie-making. It was in 1912 that director Mack Sennett teamed up with two producers, Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman, to form the Keystone Film Company, a silent comedy factory that made stars of the heavy-set Fatty Arbuckle, diminutive spark plug Mabel Normand and a budding genius named Charlie Chaplin.
It was not long before Keystone comedy shorts — including 35 featuring Chaplin that were made in the span of a year — became known for pie throwing, high-speed chases, mustache twirling villains and clumsy Keystone Kops. Here’s a description of those days by Jeanine Basinger, from her excellent 1999 book “Silent Stars”:
By the fall of 1914, Chaplin was becoming a real star and was advertised as one of Sennett’s trio of popular comics, along with Arbuckle and Mabel: an issue of Photoplay presented a comic ‘menu’ that offered ‘Charlie Supreme, Stuffed Arbuckle, and Normand Scrambled.’
Keystone, with Sennett at the helm, was nestled in the community known as Edendale. Years would pass before that name fell out of use and the area came to be considered Echo Park. Chaplin, Normand and others left for greener pastures, but Sennett and his Mack Sennett Comedies continued to work with many other talents: cross-eyed clown Ben Turpin, budding actress Gloria Swanson, comedian Harry Langdon, eventual crooner Bing Crosby, director Frank Capra and the wise-cracking W.C. Fields, who worked with Sennett in sound comedies in the early 1930s.
Sennett had relocated to the San Fernando Valley by 1932, the year his studio in Edendale had blown down in a storm. But in the depths of the Great Depression, his luck ran out. He was deeply leveraged and his distributor, Paramount Publix, fell into receivership in 1933, according to Simon Louvish’s “Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett.”
“The big studio went bankrupt and I with it,” Sennett said in his autobiography, “King of Comedy.” “I lost the studio, the mountain, the acres of land in Los Angeles — I lost the whole shebang once upon a time valued at $15,000,000.”
The Barber Shop, featuring W.C. Fields, was the last film released by Mack Sennett Productions, according to Louvish’s account. Sennett received an honorary Oscar in 1938 for his career in film — one handed to him by Capra. The following year, he did his last work in Hollywood.
One of the Sennett’s studio buildings, now used a storage facility, at 1712 Glendale Boulevard has been designated as a city historic-cultural monument.