January 30, 2018

The Studio Built By The Little Tramp, Now Home to a Frog Named Kermit

I don't remember when it was that I first passed the former Charlie Chaplin soundstage on La Brea Avenue, just south of Sunset...

Postcard: Circa 1920s, California Postcard Co. (Collection of the California State Library)

...whether it was in the back of a taxi in the late '90s or riding shotgun with a coworker in the early 2000s.

By Charles W. Beam (British Film Institute) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It might've even been behind the wheel of my own car—rental or lease—I just don't remember.

What I do remember, however, is thinking, "I don't know what that is, but that is something."

That's a standard diagnosis from me for something off the side of the road—either "That's something" or "That used to be something."

As it turns out, both statements were true about the storybook-style facade across from a reality TV tattoo parlor and a strip club and a few blocks north of LA's most famous hot dogs.

What it used to be was the movie studio built in 1918 for such Chaplin classics as City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator to be filmed,

What it became at the start of this millennium was the new home of The Jim Henson Company—and, in a hat tip to Chaplin's legacy on the site, its Kermit statue at the front gate was dressed in the style of "The Tramp."

So there are two concurrent layers peacefully coexisting at this Tudor-style estate, which looks like a little bit of the English countryside plopped down in the middle of Hollywood.

Usually, security is pretty tight around the property. The gate is locked and guarded by steadfast security. You never see anybody go in or out.

The D23 Disney Fan Club occasionally offers tours to its Gold Members—for a pretty penny.

The Henson Company doesn't just want to keep access to its lot exclusive—it needs to, considering all the top-notch musical artists that still come here to record.

After all, this was once the site of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss's A&M Records and recording studio from 1966 to 1999, where dozens of international superstars came together to lay down vocals for "We Are the World" in 1985.

But the real stars of the Henson studios are the puppet creations—whether born out of the Creature Shop (located in the former Carpenter Shop)...

...crammed against the window in the main reception area, amidst all the Emmy award trophies...

...or springing out of the sides of more recently-constructed structures.

You'll find some of those creatures actually on the Chaplin Stage, too...

...thanks to one of the few productions that actually opens the property up to the public.

A few times a year, Jim Henson's son (and current chairman of the Jim Henson Company) Brian Henson puts up a puppet show he created called Puppet Up!—Uncensored, which gives audiences a down-and-dirty look behind the scenes of TV puppetry, performed improv-style by a cast of Muppeteers. And a ticket to that show was my ticket in.

Map of Chaplin Studios (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

I didn't find the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin that are supposedly imprinted onto one of the cement sidewalks. I didn't see any traces of the orange grove that had been there before, when Sunset and La Brea was still a dusty, residential neighborhood.

I caught nary a glimmer of the time when Red Skelton shot his TV show there in the late 1950s and early '60s, nor a shadow of Perry Mason from when CBS owned the studio and shot the series there from 1962 to 1966.

I didn't even feel a ghostly chill or catch a whiff of flowers, though the site is reported to be haunted.

But I finally got inside those gates. And if I want to go back, now I know how.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Creatures Under Construction
Photo Essay: Unleashing a Creature of My Imagination

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