Universal Celebrates 100 Years of Movies

Universal marks its 100th anniversary in the moving picture business this year.



39-year-old German immigrant Carl Laemmle moves to Chicago and opens the White Front Theatre on February 24. This nickelodeon was the first of a string of theatres opened by Laemmle. He expands his business to film distribution by creating the Laemmle Film Service on October 1.


Carl Laemmle forms the Independent Moving Picture Company of America (IMP). With the creation of IMP, Laemmle became involved in all three phases of the film industry: exhibition, distribution, and production.
IMP releases Hiawatha, the studio’s first film production, on October 25. Directed by William Rancous, the film was shot in Coyotesville, New Jersey.


IMP acquires its first West Coast studio at Gower and Sunset in Hollywood.


On April 30, the Universal Film Manufacturing Company is incorporated in New York. After a few board meetings over two months, the result of the new company is a merger between IMP (Carl Laemmle), Powers Motion Picture Co. (Pat Powers), Rex Motion Picture Company (William Swanson), Champion Film Company (Mark Dintenfass), Nestor Film Co. (David Horsley), and the New York Motion Picture Co. (Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel).


The Universal Animated Weekly, Universal’s first newsreel, debuts.
Traffic in Souls, directed by George Loane Tucker, is Universal’s first feature film. It grosses $450,000 thanks to its sensationalist story of white slavery.


On Carl Laemmle’s request, Isadore Bernstein purchases the 230-acre Taylor Ranch for $165,000. This is the land that will become Universal City.


On March 15, Universal City officially opens with three days of events and activities to showcase the new movie capital. Over 15,000 people attended the gala event, and thereafter, the public was allowed to observe the set of movies in production for 25¢.
On October 27, General Electric Founder Thomas Edison visits Universal City to dedicate the world’s first electric studio.


Where Are My Children? written and directed by one of Hollywood’s earliest female filmmakers, Lois Weber, grosses over $3 million for Universal.


Carl Laemmle hires 18-year-old Irving Thalberg. By the end of the year, Thalberg is Assistant Manager of Universal Pictures.


Erich von Stroheim directs his first film at Universal, Blind Husbands.


In May, Carl Laemmle and Robert H. Cochrane acquire Patrick Powers’ interest in Universal.


Dr. Jules Stein and William R. Goodheart Jr. form the Music Corporation of America (MCA) in Chicago as a talent agency for live music and later radio. MCA will become Universal’s parent company from 1962-1994.


Universal’s Phantom of the Opera is released, starring Lon Chaney.

Shares of Universal are listed for the first time on the New York Stock Exchange.


Universal opens its first “talking picture,” Melody of Love.

Walter Lantz, creator of Oswald the Rabbit, Woody Woodpecker, and Andy Panda, joins Universal as an animator and later as an independent producer.


Carl Laemmle, Jr., Uncle Carl’s twenty-one year old son, is placed in charge of production at Universal. He institutes a radical change in studio policy, producing a series of prestige pictures while de-emphasizing “programmers.”


Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The original Universal Studios tour is discontinued, due to the need for quiet sets.


Universal: Dracula and Frankenstein are released, beginning Universal’s horror cycle.


MCA receives a blanket waiver from the American Federation of Musicians, permitting MCA to act as both talent bookers and program producers. This waiver allows MCA to package radio shows with their own bands.


On March 14, Carl Laemmle is forced to sell Universal Studios by his creditors. A financial group around Standard Capital takes over the studio for $4.5 million. Charles R. Rogers becomes head of production, and J. Cheever Cowdin, President.

Three Smart Girls, directed by Henry Koster, introduces fourteen-year-old Deanna Durbin and is the first of her 21 box office hits, contributing immeasurably to Univeral’s bottom line.


MCA opens its first West Coast office in Beverly Hills, across the street from city hall. Lew Wasserman is sent to work at this branch office.

In January, Cliff Work succeeds Charles R. Rogers as production head at Universal Pictures, and RKO theatre executive Nate Blumberg is named president.


On September 24, Carl Laemmle dies at age 72.

Universal’s Deanna Durbin wins a Special Academy Award “for bringing the spirit and personification of youth to the screen.”

W.C. Fields stars in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, the first of four comedies the actor makes at Universal.


Arabian Nights, starring Jon Hall and Maria Montez, is Universal’s first 3-color Technicolor feature, and inaugurates a cycle of high-camp adventure films at the studio.


On October 3, Jules Stein and MCA open the “Hollywood Canteen,” a nightclub for servicemen where the hosts are movie stars donating their time.


Hal Mohr and W. Howard Greene win Academy Awards for “Best Color Cinematography” for The Phantom of the Opera.


Universal’s “Youth Unit,” which had been turning out a steady stream of swing music films during WWII starring Gloria Jean or Donald O’Connor, is disbanded.

In April, MCA absorbs two of its biggest talent agency competitors, the Hayward-Deverich Agency in Beverly Hills and the Leland Hayward Agency in New York. New clients include Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck.


On October 1, Universal merges with International Pictures, headed by Leo Spitz and William Goetz. This team heads up Universal-International, while Nate Blumberg and J. Cheever Cowdin remain at the helm of Universal Pictures, the parent company.

Universal International Logo, 1946-1962

On December 16, thirty-three year old Lew Wasserman is appointed President of MCA.


British distributor J. Arthur Rank Films buys a majority interest in Universal-International. With Rank’s affiliation, Universal begins releasing such British imports as Black Narcissus, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Hamlet.

Ronald Colman wins “Best Actor” Academy Award for A Double Life.


Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, produced by Two Cities Ltd. and distributed by Universal-International, wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.


MCA’s Lew Wasserman negotiates a percentage deal between Universal Pictures and his client Jimmy Stewart that revolutionizes the film industry. Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River (1952) gave new life to Universal’s western genre production.


Josephine Hull wins the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Universal-International’s Harvey.

Decca Records acquires a 38% share of Universal Pictures, and soon controls the company. Milton Rackmil, president of Decca, succeeds Blumberg as President of in July 1952, while Edward Muhl succeeds Leo Spitz and William Goetz as production head.


On July 23, Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan allows MCA to produce television shows and simultaneously represent talent in those shows.


Revue Productions premieres General Electric Theater on CBS. A year later Ronald Reagan joins the show as host, sometime star, and later producer.


Producer Ross Hunter becomes Universal’s most reliable moneymaker with the melodrama Magnificent Obsession, directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Rock Hudson.

Creature From the Black Lagoon is Universal’s entry into the 3-D and science fiction film market.


Dorothy Malone wins Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Universal’s Written On The Wind.


MCA purchases Paramount Studios’ pre-1948 sound film library for $50 million, the richest television syndication deal to date.

On December 18, Universal sells its 367-acre studio backlot for $11.25 million to MCA, then leases back studio space at $1 million a year.


Three of Universal’s biggest moneymakers are MCA packages: Operation Petticoat ($18.6 mil), Imitation of Life ($13 mil), and Pillow Talk ($15 mil).

Bonanza premieres, the first TV western in color.


Spartacus wins four Academy Awards for Universal

MCA signs a deal with Grey Line Bus Tours for “Dine with the Stars,” allowing buses to drive around the Universal lot and have lunch in the commissary.


MCA purchases Decca Records, and with it, Universal Pictures. Milton Rackmil and Edward Muhl remain in charge of Universal, while Dr. Jules Stein (Board Chairman) and Lew Wasserman (President) guide MCA. Because of a consent decree with the Justice Department, MCA divests itself of its talent agency business.


Gregory Peck receives an Academy Award for Best Actor in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.


In July, the Universal Studios Tour is opened in conjunction with Glamor Trams. The initial tour is operated with two drivers, two guides, and one ticket seller.

MCA acquires Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, including the rights to Psycho and all of Hitchcock’s television work.

Revue Productions is renamed Universal Television.


The entrance to the Universal Studios Tour is moved from Lankershim to the upper lot. The tour is augmented to include photo opportunities with movie set props.


The Universal Tour Entertainment Center opens with a western stunt show.


Universal Amphitheatre opens, with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar as its first venue.


Upon Jules Stein’s retirement in June, Sid Sheinberg assumes the presidency of MCA, while Lew Wasserman becomes Chairman of the Board.

The Parting of the Red Sea opens on the Universal Studios Tour.


The Sting wins seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.


Universal’s Earthquake receives Academy Award for “Best Sound,” “Best Special Effects,” and a Scientific Academy Award for development of the Sensurround System.


Jaws (1975) spawns Bruce the Shark in the Jaws Experience on the Universal Studios Tour.


Universal’s The Deer Hunter wins four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.


MCA Home Entertainment Group is formed, creating a catalog video distribution division.


Sissy Spacek receives the Academy Award for Best Actress in Universal’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.

MCA founder Jules Stein passes away on April 29.


Both Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn win Oscars for their performances in Universal’s On Golden Pond.


E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial wins three Academy Awards and dominates the domestic and international box office.


Universal’s Out of Africa wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The drive-through King Kong ride opens on Universal Studios Tour, initiating a new era in theme park design.


The Earthquake ride at Universal Studios Hollywood opens.


In June, Universal Studios Florida opens in Orlando, a joint venture of MCA Recreation and the Rank Organization.


On January 1, Japanese electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. acquires MCA, Inc. for $6.59 billion.
On March 15, the Studio Center including attractions like The World of Cinemagic, Starway, and a new Backlot Tram Tour opens at Universal Studios Hollywood.


Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In May, Universal CityWalk, a pedestrian promenade, opens outside Universal Studios Hollywood.


Jurassic Park: The Ride opens at Universal Studios Hollywood.


Waterworld, A Live Sea War Spectacular opens at Universal Studios Hollywood.
On April 9, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., CEO of the Joseph Seagram Company, Ltd., negotiates the purchase of an 80% interest in MCA, which is renamed Universal Studios, Inc. in 1996.


On April 23 Lew Wasserman becomes Chairman Emeritus of MCA, Inc.
On December 9, MCA, Inc. is renamed Universal Studios, Inc.


Islands of Adventure, the Portofino Resort, and Universal CityWalk open in Orlando, Florida.


In June, Vivendi, Canal+, and Universal Studios parent The Seagram Company Ltd. announce a strategic business combination that creates Vivendi Universal Entertainment, a new leading global media and communications company.


Universal Studios Japan in Osaka holds its grand opening on March 31. Just 37 days later, the theme park shatters attendance records worldwide, reaching one million visitors faster than any theme park in history.


Lew Wasserman passes away June 3 at age 89.


Universal becomes first studio with six releases breaking the $100 million mark (2 Fast 2 Furious, American Wedding, Bruce Almighty, Cat in the Hat, Hulk, Seabiscuit).


May 12 marks Day One of the new NBC Universal. This new entity is formed through the combining of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment. NBC Universal is 80% owned by General Electric and 20% owned by Vivendi.


On February 6, Jeff Zucker is named President & CEO, NBC Universal, succeeding Bob Wright.
Universal Pictures posts its best-ever worldwide box office of $2.133 billion; five smash hits push studio to its biggest domestic box office of $1.099 billion.


On January 28, Comcast Corporation assumes 51% ownership of NBC Universal from General Electric.

2 Comments on Universal Celebrates 100 Years of Movies

  1. jomontemayor // May 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm //

    truly a great article!

  2. Congrats Universal Pictures! I love your produced films 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.