The Columbia Ranch

by Susie Hodgson

Have you ever heard of Columbia Ranch? Did you know it was in Burbank? But isn’t Columbia part of Sony down in Culver City? And – wait – isn’t that Burbank ranch now part of Warner’s?

The answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.

Here’s the history.

Columbia Pictures started out in 1918 as a movie-making company called CBC in New York. The acronym stood for Cohn-Brandt-Cohn. One Cohn was Harry Cohn; the second was his brother Jack, and the B stood for Brandt, as in Sam Brandt. Although it started out in New York City, like most studios, CBC soon made the move out west, specifically to Hollywood – in this case, Sunset and Gower. Why did all those studios move to Southern California? For the same reason most of us do – for the weather.

It didn’t take long for the two Cohn brothers to start (or continue) bickering, which finally got Brandt to the point where he couldn’t take the tension anymore and he sold out his interest in the studio. Harry then became President of the studios that they re-named Columbia. Rumor has it the Mob lent Harry the cash to buy Joe out. Mafia connection stories followed Harry Cohn his entire life. And Harry didn’t seem to mind.

The company had a reputation as a tacky studio. It made low-budget, low-quality films. CBC was often referred to a “Corned Beef & Cabbage.” But another “C” delivered fame and fortune to the studios. That “C” was a director by the name of Capra. In 1934, Frank Capra -- and Columbia Pictures -- brought the movie “It Happened One Night” to the world. It swept the Oscars and is, to this day, considered one of the greatest films ever made. Capra went on to make film after film for Columbia and under Harry Cohn’s rule, Columbia never failed again to make a profit.

But what is this “ranch,” Columbia Ranch? In 1934, Columbia had just plain run out of room for filming. They needed open space for a back lot – streets to “act” as busy cities, or to act as old western towns, as family neighborhoods. That’s when Harry Cohn came across 40 acres for sale in Burbank, a spacious, rural town just over the hill from Hollywood. Right near Hollywood Way and Oak, there was an area perfect for filming, so Harry bought it. And that was Columbia Ranch – the new back lot for Columbia Pictures.

One of the first blockbuster movies Columbia filmed in their new Burbank ranch, at Hollywood Way and Verdugo, was Lost Horizon. Based on James Hilton’s 1933 bestselling novel, the film version came out in 1937. (Note: Author James Hilton was already a famous author for his earlier bestseller Good-bye Mr. Chips, which was also made into an Oscar-winning movie.) The “star” of the film Lost Horizon was the mythical paradise of a city called Shangri La – a term still used for idyllic locales. In fact, the original name of the Presidential retreat in Maryland was Shangri La in FDR days. Today we call it Camp David. Columbia spent all kinds of money on Lost Horizon, going nearly $800,000 over budget. Harry Cohn and Frank Capra were never on good terms after that.

Meanwhile, Columbia Ranch was used as a backdrop for nearly all Columbia movies – especially its popular movie serials, including the original Batman, Superman, Captain Midnight, Blondie and Three Stooges series. Other big movies filmed there included Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, High Noon, You Were Never Lovelier and The Wild Ones.

Formed in the late 1940s, the Columbia TV division, Screen Gems, also used the area to film dozens of famous television shows, such as Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Dennis the Menace, Hazel, Bewitched, Gidget, I Dream of Jeannie, The Monkees, The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family, and Fantasy Island. Do you remember the opening theme of the classic TV show Friends? If you do, then you probably remember a certain fountain (built in 1935) that they all danced around. That fountain is located at the ranch.

But times changed. In 1958, Cohn died suddenly. In 1970, the ranch was devastated by three separate catastrophic fires. In the early 70s, Columbia and Warner Brothers joined forces to combat each of their respective failing finances. They called their new venture “The Burbank Studios.” (The Burbank Studios would later become engulfed in scandal, due to executive David Begelman’s sordid case of embezzlement.)

In the mid-70s, eight acres located near Hollywood Way and Verdugo were sold off and a shopping center moved in. In 1974, during a community fair held at the ranch, yet another fire broke out, destroying even more of the ranch. Eventually, Columbia moved to the MGM lot (later Sony) in Culver City and Warner Brothers took over the Burbank property completely, re-naming the ranch “Warner Ranch.” (Note: It has since been sold.)

But some things never change – like human nature. Harry Cohn – much like Harvey Weinstein – was considered a micro-managing , screaming tyrant and non-stop womanizer. He was well known for his casting couch proclivities and his nasty temper. The characters portrayed by Broderick Crawford in the renowned movies All the King’s Men and Born Yesterday were based on Harry Cohn – as was the movie mogul Jack Woltz from The Godfather.

But when he died, Harry Cohn’s funeral was very well attended. People showed up by the busload. Viewing that, comedian Red Skelton famously quipped, “It proves what Harry always said: Give the people what they want and they’ll come out for it!”

Pretty funny, huh? Yes, yes, yes and yes!!!

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
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