A Requiem for NBC Burbank

The Demise of Beautiful Downtown Burbank

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.


The Burbank operation was known for many years as Color City (CBS also having beaten NBC to the name Television City).  However, final approval of compatible NTSC color by the FCC did not take place until December 1953, over a year after black & white programs began originating from Burbank.  The construction site signage reflects this.  During the initial construction phase, it announced “NBC TV Headquarters.”  When construction of Studio 2  commenced in mid-April of 1954, the signage changed to “NBC Builds First Color TV Studios.”

The construction signs changed as soon as construction on Studio 2 “Color City” began.  Left photo from USC digital archives, right photo courtesy of Kris Trexler (www.kingoftheroad.net)

Studio 2 was the third stage to be built at Burbank and NBC promoted it as the “first studio to be built exclusively for colorcasting.”  A new technical operations building was also part of this phase of the construction.  The Color City label came to refer to the whole operation even though the network continued to originate black and white programs from the first two studios for several years.

Seven months after the approval of RCA’s compatible color television (also know as NTSC), Studio 2 and the new technical support building were well underway.  City of Burbank via Wes Clark’s Burbankia website

When the formal dedication finally came in 1955, NBC Burbank had been producing programs (albeit in black & white) for over two years.  As the 90 minute color spectacular entitled “Entertainment, 1955” unfolded in Studio 2, it was clear NBC’s corporate parent had waited to dedicate the facility until it could use it to promote color television.

A little more than seven months later, NBC announced they would build another studio in Burbank.  Studio 4 would be an “exact duplicate” of Studio 2 and would be completed in time for the 1956 television season.  It was part of a $6,000,000 network expansion program that also included the addition of the 60,000 square foot, three story administration building, construction of additional technical facilities to house the additional color equipment, installation of color recording equipment, more color film facilities (including the Lenticular film process – more to come on that later) and a new master control.

  

There is wide rumor the construction also included a swimming pool for specials planned with Esther Williams.  But the actress was not even working for NBC when either Studio 2 or 4 were built.  The earliest arrangement to be found is from the Los Angeles Times in April of 1956 when the network formed a partnership with the swimming star to produce an “Aqua Spectacle.”  However, the 90 minute spectacular was done out of NBC’s Brooklyn, NY studio only a few months later.  Later, in April of 1957, Ms. Williams was signed to appear in a Lux Video Theater from the NBC Burbank lot.  “The Armed Venus” was produced the following month and included one short pool scene at the end of the program.  According to the LA Times, a pool was constructed on the stage for the production.

Since there is no mention of any kind of permanent pool or tank in any promotional material or in any of the industry trades, it can be presumed that the story is urban legend and took on a life of its own.  However, according to a Broadcasting Magazine article from March 21st, 1955, Studio 2 had an audience pit at one time, although that information appears nowhere else. Examination of a picture of Studio 2 under construction gives no evidence of any kind of pit or tank.

Interior of Studio 2 under construction just six months from it’s first live color “spectacular.”  City of Burbank via Wes Clark’s Burbankia website

In November, 1962, the Owned and Operated NBC station, KNBH (later KRCA then KNBC) moved to Burbank from the Sunset and Vine location.  Within a couple of years, the Sunset and Vine location was demolished as entertainment oriented network radio quickly faded into oblivion.

Demolition of NBC Hollywood in 1964, the site of many classic radio shows as well as early television productions.  A bank occupies this portion of the site today.  From radiocityhollywood website

Over the succeeding years, NBC’s Burbank presence amassed a rich history of producing outstanding comedy, variety and musical programs.  Aside from the notable shows and memories produced on the Burbank stages, technical advancements were made there as well.  The most obvious is in the name it adopted – Color City.

As mentioned before, color television was brand new.  In order for NBC’s parent company, RCA, to sell color receivers, there had to be color programming.  Color cost more but the equipment wasn’t very accurate yet.  Sets and wardrobe had to be specially made to appeal to the imagery of early equipment that wasn’t always reliable or consistent.  All of this translated into extra costs advertisers were hesitant to ante up.

The color cameras were behemoths weighing over 300 pounds and required massive amounts of light and no wonder.  Within each one were three complete black and white pickups.  In the 50’s a black and white camera lens focused the picture directly onto a large photosensitive vacuum tube known as an Image Orthicon.  In the first color cameras, the image had to travel through a dichroic prism that broke the light beam into the three primary colors (red, green and blue) before reaching the three black and white Image Orthicon pickup tubes.

To make the three individual black and white images recombine properly back into color, engineers developed the art of “Registration.”  By adjusting a myriad of controls repeated in triplicate for each primary color, the three signals were made to appear identically line for line and would take over an hour to setup.  Even after warm up, the vacuum tube circuits would drift and require frequent adjustment to maintain the delicate registration and color balance of the three separate signals.  But when properly tuned, these early color cameras could render excellent color pictures.

A bank of multiple RCA TK40 color camera setup controls.  Note the identical sets of knobs for red, blue and green adjustments.  From RCA Broadcast News #77, January, 1954

While NBC began airing color programs routinely to the eastern and central time zones, the western half of the country was relegated to watching the shows in black and white from kinescope films.  Even if the show originated in Burbank, local Los Angeles viewers could not receive the shows in color.

By the time the Ampex Corporation invented black and white videotape, NBC was already committed to a new film process that would allow kinescopes in color in time for same day time zone delay.  NBC demonstrated the Lenticular Color Film Process to the press and color TV receiver dealers on September 11, 1956, five months after Ampex showed the first working videotape machine to the industry.  Lenticular photography had been around since the 1920’s.  But the application to television was new.

Color kinescopes did exist.  However, the processing time for color film did not allow the network to turn the show around inside of the three-hour window between the live feed for the east coast and play back of the delayed show to the west coast.  The new process, developed jointly by NBC and Eastman Kodak, used a special black and white film embedded with tiny lenticular prisms.  The film was then processed as normal black and white film and able to make the three-hour time zone delay deadline.

The problem was the process didn’t work that well.  The press was harsh in their criticism of the demonstration.  The New York Times reported the blues were purplish and images tended to be fuzzy.  Overlapping and bleeding of colors were evident.

NBC promised the bugs would be worked out and the process began on air use a little over two weeks later on the Esther Williams “Aqua Spectacle” described earlier.  The program was recorded in Burbank from the New York live feed, processed and projected to the western time zones in color.

Unfortunately, there was not much improvement over the press demonstration, but with so much invested and the future of color television at stake, it was still put into daily use.  In his book The History of Television, 1942-2000, Albert Abramson said, “In spite of all the time and money spent on this process, it was a dismal failure.”  The Lenticular film process only lasted until February 19, 1958, when color videotapes were able to take over from Burbank’s new Video Tape Central. 

 
A segment from the Ernie Kovacs show “Saturday Color Carnival” dated January 19th, 1957.  This color kinescope is most likely NOT lenticular as has been widely thought, but a 16mm recording on standard color film of the time.  However, it does approximate what a color film image might have looked like on the very few color screens available across the western United States in those days before color videotape.  As of this writing, no Lenticular color transfers of those early programs are known to exist and any example of the results of the process are presumed to be lost forever.

For the time being, the process is lost in antiquity.  The equipment to project Lenticular kinescopes no longer exists.  Since the films can easily be confused with black and white kinescopes, there is no easy way to retrieve the programs that were recorded using the process.  If enough films could be found to justify rebuilding the equipment, it would be interesting to see what today’s technology could do with restoring those lost programs.

But NBC Burbank’s technical triumphs far out weigh the problems of the Lenticular film process.  We’ll explore some of those in next time.  Read part two here.

It is comforting to at least know NBC Burbank will not meet the fate of the wrecking ball as befell the Sunset/Vine location.  Thankfully, the city of Burbank, through a development agreement reached in the 1990’s, prescribes all companies that locate to the Burbank lot must be tied to media in some way.  The new owners have already taken on tenants.  One, I Heart Radio (a division of Clear Channel), has signed a long-term lease and has taken over Studio 3.

But it won’t be the same as when the peacock spread its feathers over Beautiful Downtown Burbank.

 

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Richard Wirth

Richard Wirth

Richard Wirth had barely learned to read when he began burying himself in anything he could find about that glowing box in the living room. The more he read (and of course watched), the more he dreamed of one day becoming a part of the world of television production. Stops on his life timeline include a few local stations, several mid-western production companies, American Forces Television while in the Army and the Motion Picture Association. Along the way, the path lead him to NBC’s beautiful downtown Burbank and later, NBC News. Always looking for new toys to play with, he launched a venture that became the Network Group, a production and transmission services company specializing in planning and providing production services for adhoc live broadcasts for the networks and corporate television. Along the way, he added consulting and teaching to his resume. Today he is Manager, Post Production, for the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California/