A Requiem for NBC Burbank

The Demise of Beautiful Downtown Burbank
Richard Wirth
By Richard Wirth 01.05.14

In 1982, I began what was to become one of the most favorite periods of my life.  I was hired at NBC in Burbank, California.  It wasn’t the most prestigious position nor was it the best job I would ever have.  But it was the best place I would ever work.

I don’t know what the seed was that began my quest for my Burbank version of a Holy Grail.  Was it the legendary stars who walked the hallways from studio to studio?  Was it NBC’s parent company, RCA that built nearly all broadcast equipment during that era?  Or could it have been the immortal words of Gary Owens as he began every “Laugh-in” show with the famous phrase, “From beautiful downtown Burbank”? 

It was probably a little of all of these. The programs emanating from those studios had become a sound track of my life.  Suffice it to say, I could at last identify myself with the first facility known during the early color years as “Color City” (CBS had beaten NBC to the title “Television City” with their own temple to the infant industry).  Whatever it was that had drawn me, my objective to be a part of this storied location for years had come to pass.

However, this home to programs such as “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “Laugh-In,” “Bob Hope,” “Dean Martin,” “Hollywood Squares,” “Midnight Special,” and so many, many others, will be no more.  Several years ago the peacock began the process of closing its feathers for the last time.

One side of the two elephant doors leading into Studio 4.  They're called elephant doors because they are, literally, large enough for an elephant to walk through, but usually they accomodate large sets and vehicles.  Decades ago, NBC painted each studio's elephant door to honor iconic programs that were produced on that particular stage.  Photo by author.

The sale of the historic location was completed to the Worthe Real Estate Property Group in 2008.  At the time, the sale didn’t have much impact as NBC continued to lease back the property while preparations went forward to move operations to nearby Universal Studios.  But slowly, over the last five years, things have changed.

Offices emptied out as executives moved over to the Universal lot.  The NBC/Universal owned cable networks moved.  On July 6th, 2012, the curtain came down on the famous NBC Studio Tour.  There simply was nothing more to show a curious public other than nostalgic references of shows no longer in production.  

Today, the only NBC occupants left are “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Days of Our Lives,” “Access Hollywood,” KNBC, the local NBC station and the NBC News Los Angeles bureau.

Within a few months, they, too, will be gone.  When the Winter Olympics begin in February, “The Tonight Show” will cease production and move back to New York 42 years after Johnny Carson first brought the show to California.  Ironically, the new incarnation with Jimmy Fallon will move back into the same studio at 30 Rock it left behind.

At the same time, KNBC, the NBC owned and operated station for Los Angeles will move to new facilities on the Universal Studio lot.  The station was first licensed to Los Angeles in 1949.  When NBC moved the station to Burbank in 1962, the FCC license was changed to Burbank.  Now it returns to its Los Angeles roots. 

NBC News is scheduled to move to the Universal lot in May. "Access Hollywood" will be the last to leave when the show moves probably in 2015.   

The most visible transformation came just before spring of this year  – the NBC Peacock signage was replaced with the new company’s logos for the historic lot – The Burbank Studios.

Then and now from the iconic address 3000 West Alameda Avenue, Burbank, CA.  Left photo from Google streetview.  RIght photo by author

Prior to moving to Burbank, all NBC west coast television operations were housed at Radio City, Hollywood at the corner of Sunset and Vine.  The Hollywood facility was built in 1938 primarily for radio.  Even in the heyday of radio, television was clearly on the horizon and the design and construction of the Hollywood studios attempted to take that into consideration.  However, as the popularity of television exploded after World War II, it became painfully obvious to all the networks their converted radio studios were woefully under built for shows requiring grand sets, sweeping camera movements and large audiences.

NBC Hollywood at the corner of Sunset & Vine.  Built in 1938 primarily for entertainment radio, the studios quickly became too small with the advent of television.  Los Angeles Department of Water & Power website.

NBC Burbank was formally dedicated on March 27th, 1955.  Governor Goodwin Knight designated the occasion Color Television week in California.  According to the LA Times the next day, “For the first time from the West Coast, NBC went on the air with a 90-minute color spectacular which most the nation’s viewers saw in black and white.”  Very few homes had color sets.  NBC was spending a lot of money betting that by providing color programming, color sets would sell.

But NBC Burbank's history doesn't begin here.  Operations actually began several years earlier.

In September, 1951, a mere ten years after commercial television in America began, NBC purchased nineteen acres from the city of Burbank and thirty acres from Warner Brothers Studios for construction of a new west coast headquarters.  The project went forward in phases.  When construction began, two studios facing Alameda Avenue along with supporting technical facilities went up quickly.  

Almost exactly one year later the first phase was ready.   The first two studios would become known as Studio 1 and 3 and both contained permanent audience seating areas for as many as 500 (Later, Studio 3's seating area is said to have been removed so Andy Williams could shoot his show in the round).  The first show from the new facility was NBC’s All Star Revue variety show on October 4th, 1952.

NBC Burbank as it was in 1952 around the time of the first telecast.  Studio 1 is on the right and was home to the "Tonight Show" during the reign of Johnny Carson.  Bob Hope also preferred the studio for his shows as well.  The studio to the left would eventually become Studio 3.  City of Burbank via Wes Clark's Burbankia website

In an interesting side note, CBS was in the final stages of completing its Television City when NBC announced they would go on the air from Burbank on October 4th.  Television City’s opening wasn’t planned until November.  Not wanting NBC to beat them by going on the air from Burbank first, CBS rushed an episode of “My Friend Irma” into production and televised their first program from an unfinished Television City on the evening of October 3rd, one day before the first telecast from NBC.

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