Seeing Stars: The Movie Studios

10202 W. Washington Boulevard,
Culver City, CA. / (310) 280-8000

The greatest studio in the history of Hollywood was never really in Hollywood.

The vast studios of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (M-G-M) were actually located in humble Culver City, some seven miles southwest of Hollywood & Vine, closer to Marina Del Rey than to Hollywood.
The studios were born in 1915 as Triangle Pictures. The first building on the lot (the huge edifice fronting Washington Street, with its classical colonnades) was built before M-G-M even owned the lot. The studio became Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1924, and the rest is Hollywood history. Louis B. Mayer persuaded both
President Calvin Coolidge and performer Will Rogers to show up for the studio's grand opening.

M-G-M was the most powerful studio in Hollywood, renown for the glossy, bright, Technicolor style of its films, complete with lavish wardrobes, high priced sets, and an unbeatable stable of superstars.

It was here that Judy Garland starred as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939. In fact, the "Yellow Brick Road" is still inside the lot on Stage 27!

 It was here that a young Mickey Rooney made seventeen nostalgic "Andy Hardy" movies.

This is the studio that gave us Leo the Lion as their trademark, as well as such memorable series as "The Thin Man" mysteries (with William Powell & Myrna Loy), the "Tarzan" adventures (with Johnny Weissmuller) and the manic Marx Brothers comedies.

M-G-M used to brag that the studio had "
More stars than there are in the heavens." And it sure seemed that way.


Clark Gable was under contract to M-G-M, as well as Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball, Jean Harlow, Laurel & Hardy, Esther Williams, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Red Skelton, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Margaret O'Brien, Donna Reed, Robert Young, Lana Turner, Jane Powell, Wallace Beery & Marjorie Main, Peter Lawford, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Paul Newman, Kathryn Grayson, Hedy Lamarr, Mario Lanza, Greer Garson, Angela Lansbury, Rosalind Russell, Robert Taylor and Jackie Cooper. Two of M-G-M's stars, Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn, hold the world records for the most Oscars won by an actor and actress.


During its heyday, the studio cranked out an average of one film a week. In 1939 alone, M-G-M gave us two of the most beloved films in the history of Hollywood: "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." According to the Guinness Book of Records, when you adjust for inflation, "Gone With the Wind" is still the highest-grossing box office success in the history of movies (although they actually shot it next door at Culver Studios.).

In 1959, the studio made "Ben Hur" with Charlton Heston, which won more Oscars than any other movie in Hollywood history (eleven, including Best Picture). Their 1951 epic, "Quo Vadis," holds the record for the largest number of costumes used in any motion picture: 32,000.

In other years, M-G-M gave us such classics as "Boys Town" (1938), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), "Father of the Bride" (1950), "A Patch of Blue" (1965), "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

But those spectacular, Technicolor musicals were where M-G-M really shined, with hits like "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), "Meet Me In St. Louis" (1944), "Anchors Aweigh" (1945), "The Harvey Girls" (1946), "Easter Parade" (1948), "The Pirate" (1948), "Show Boat" (1951), "An American in Paris" (1951), "Singing in the Rain" (1952), "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" (1954), "Guys & Dolls" (1955), "Gigi" (1958),and "That's Entertainment" (1974).

Elvis Presley made many of his early films for MGM, including "Jailhouse Rock."

Where did the studio get its name? "Metro" was an early film company which belonged to showman Marcus Loew; "Goldwyn" came from producer Samuel Goldwyn, and "Mayer" was none other than producer Louis B. Mayer.

They first introduced their trademark, Leo the Lion in a 1928 silent movie; in the circular band framing Leo's head was the M-G-M motto: "Ars Gratia Artis" ("Art For Art's Sake").

Alas, M-G-M is not M-G-M anymore.

At the zenith of the mania for corporate buy outs, M-G-M Studios fell victim to just such a takeover. The company was bought out by corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian, who auctioned off the studio's prized possessions, and sold 38 acres of the studio's legendary back lots to housing developers. (Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" fetched $15,000, while the Cowardly Lion's costume went for $2,400.)  Historic sets were leveled. He funneled the money which he drained from the studio into construction of the giant M-G-M Grand hotel in Las Vegas.

M-G-M, the company, still exists in a new skyscraper in Century City, but stripped of both its historic Culver City studio lot and most of its former glory. The vast movie empire that was once M-G-M is no more. In the 70's and 80's, M-G-M essentially stopped making movies. In 1979 Kerkorian issued a statement saying that M-G-M was primarily a hotel company.

After acquiring United Artists in 1981 (thereby becoming MGM / UA), the company's film library was bought out by media mogul Ted Turner in 1986 for his cable TV channel. (He started colorizing many of the B&W films over the objections of film purists.)

In 1986, the M-G-M sign (and its lion logo) was removed from atop the Culver City studio.

The Culver City location briefly became home to Lorimar Pictures (producing TV shows such as "Dallas"). Finally, in 1990 the grand old studio was purchased by Sony Entertainment of Japan; it is currently home to both Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures (which are also now divisions of Sony).

With a grand history like that of M-G-M, you might expect the studio to offer a guided tour. Until very recently, they did not. But in mid-1999, they finally began offering a two-hour, guided walking tour of the grand old studio. The price is $20 per person. However, the emphasis of the tour is mostly on Columbia/TriStar, not on M-G-M. To read more details about the new guided tour, click here.

They also tape a few TV sitcoms at the old studio now and then, and if you call "Audiences Unlimited" you might be able to get free tickets to a taping of one of those shows. As a member of the live studio audience, you'll be admitted onto at least some portion of the studio lot. Recently, Sony taped the sitcom "The King of Queens," and the "Donnie & Marie" talk show on the lot..

Or you may prefer to just write for tickets to the game shows "Jeopardy" or "Wheel of Fortune," both of which are now taped on the historic lot. (If you would prefer to try out as a contestant for either show, read this my section about game shows.)

On a bright note, although the studio went without so much as a coat of paint from its sale in 1985 to 1994, Sony Pictures recently invested $100 million to refurbish the historic studio and help restore some of the luster to the lot. They repainted every building, restored the original ironwork gates on Washington Boulevard, built new walls, added nostalgic Art Deco touches and false fronts on Main Street, and put up huge, hand-painted murals of old movie posters. Studio buildings have been named after film luminaries such as Frank Capra, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The much needed facelift has made the old M-G-M lot one of the most attractive in Hollywood. And considering that Sony wrote off $2.7 billion in losses in 1994, that was quite a laudable accomplishment.

Update: In September of 2004, MGM announced that it would merge with Sony Corp. of America. In short, Sony bought MGM for $5 billion. There's a touch of irony in this, since Sony has owned the old MGM studios for years. Sony acquired MGM mainly in order to get the company's library of films, which is believed to be its most valuable asset. It constituted the biggest library of color movies in the world, including franchises such as "James Bond", the "Pink Panther" and "Rocky". Word is that MGM will continue to operate as a private company (which Sony will own), and will continue to put out several films a year, with Sony co-producing and co-financing. Recentlyu, they had big hits with the James Bond films "Skyfall", "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace", and also released "Hot Tub Time Machine" , "Valkyrie", the "Fame" remake, "The Pink Panther" and "Rocky Balboa".  They also make the TV series "Teen Wolf".

    To read more about Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, click here.

    To see vintage photos of the old MGM and Lorimar Studios, click here.

 Getting there: Sony Pictures Studios (formerly M-G-M Studios) is located at the northwest corner of Washington Boulevard & Overland Avenue, in Culver City. The studio is bounded by Washington Boulevard (on the north), Culver Boulevard (on the south), Madison (on the east) and Overland (on the west). The main old gate (with its classical Greek columns) is located at Jasmine Avenue & Washington Boulevard. / From the northbound San Diego (405) Freeway, take the Washington Blvd./Venice Blvd offramp, turn right (south) at the bottom of the offramp, and drive south two blocks to Washington Boulevard. Turn left (east), and go one mile on Washington Boulevard, to between Overland and Madison Avenues. The studio will be on your right (south) side.

Also see: The Culver Hotel, Culver Studios, and The Culver City Walk of Fame.

[For more information on this subject, you can access MGM's official website at:]

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Copyright  1999-2024-Gary Wayne
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