Historic Mack Sennett Studios Get Makeover in L.A.’s Hip Silver Lake

Silent-era facility is refashioned into a multi-use property in the heart of Silver Lake

Mack Sennett Studios
Daniel Hennessy

Few people who live in the area knew it even existed, including the owner, Jesse Rogg, who, like this writer, had driven by the structure countless times without giving it a second look. But the newly refurbished Mack Sennett Studios — situated off a no-man’s-land stretch of Fountain Avenue between Sunset and Hyperion in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake — has been operational since June, when the grand opening featured burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, and the line to get in stretched down the block. The facility recently got a second welcome Oct. 24 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony courtesy of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

The building, which Rogg took over in January, touts quite a history. Sennett — a slapstick pioneer of the silent era who worked with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle — actually built a larger studio on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. But this film factory, which dates back to 1916, was inspired as a kind of love letter to his then fiancee and one of the era’s biggest stars, Mabel Normand, who shot her first feature “Mickey” (1918) there. At that time, the facility was called the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co., and looked like an oversized barn.

Contemporary amenities include two fully equipped soundstages, 5,000 and 2,000 square feet, with adjustable grids and 30-foot ceilings. Both are accompanied by newly designed lounges; hair and makeup rooms; and spiffy, industrial-chic bathrooms. A former outdoor courtyard that connects the green rooms to the stages is now enclosed. Chairs and couches are clad in black leather. There’s also a kitchen for catering crews.

One can find original wardrobe shipping containers stamped with “My Fair Lady,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Gigi” lurking in the basement.

The walls throughout the ground floor are lined with vintage photos from Sennett’s heyday, when his dalliances — his cast of “Bathing Beauties” no doubt provided easy temptation — cost him his relationship with Norman. More recent shoots include parts of Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”; the Justin Bieber “Baby” video; the opening-credits sequence from season two of “American Horror Story,” which made astute use of the torture chamber-evoking chains and pulleys in the studios’ sub-basement; and feature “Life After Beth,” with John C. Reilly, which is in post.

For the remodel, interior designer Christopher Kreiling repurposed many of the studios’ original materials, fashioning light fixtures from vintage Fresnel lenses, lining table foundations with theater rope, and cutting drapes from old backdrop material. The lobby has been stripped of dry wall, exposing the support beams underneath (it’s amazing how artful century-old wood planks can look).

Rogg describes the space, all steel trusses and redwood, as a blank canvas, and it’s true — the vibe can range from Depression-era speakeasy to a hangar-sized art loft, with all the gritty urban charm inherent in the surrounding neighborhood.

Because of its versatility and convenient location for eastsiders who crave a sense of Hollywood history, Mack Sennett Studios is being used for everything from film, TV, commercial and video shoots to concerts, theatrical productions, special events, company retreats and even weddings.

More prominent signage is being debated for the building’s exterior, but for now, Rogg feels the facility’s inconspicuousness is a plus for its patrons. “We want to stay low-key,” he says.