One of those giant but short lived studios of the early silent days

Kalem Company

Kalem Went Where No Other Would

Active 1907-1917

In the beginning, Kalem Motion Picture Company had a New York office, but no studio as a base.  That left them free to go where ever they needed to make their movies.  No place was too far.  From close by Fort Lee to Jacksonville, Florida to Jerusalem, Ireland, and Egypt.  Kalem took their actors all across the globe.

Founded in 1907, Kalem's lifespan was relatively short, especially for a company of Kalem's size and success.  By 1917 it ceased production and in 1919 Vitagraph of America bought its assets.  But during its life, Kalem established more studio and shooting locations than any of the other early companies.  Like so many of its contemporaries, it flamed out early.

Of all the early companies, it was the only one not to have its beginnings in New York or Chicago.  Kalem got its name from the initials of its three founders, George Kleine, Samuel Long, and Frank Marion, then stuck a couple of vowels in between (this was a common technique in the early days). 

Long and Marion were former American Biograph employees who decided to strike out on their own.  They brought knowledge of the business side of movie making to the partnership.  George Kleine brought the money.  The company hired Sydnety Olcott as company President and it was under Olcott's leadership that Kalem has its greatest success.  He led them all over the world and then to Florida, California, and New Jersey. 

Kalem was a most enigmatic company.  They preferred to have no studio.  Two years in they finally decided a studio would benefit them, so they open a series of small underfunded studios, and didn't keep any of them for very long.  During their 11 years of existence the went through nine studios.  Kalem was a cheap company and took profits out rather than invest them back into the company, the studios, and the product.  When it looked like profits were diminishing, they didn't  wait around or try harder, they liquidated and took the money.  They were never interested in the movie business except as a way to make fast money.  Their lack of interest showed in their product.  They never looked for quality, but for the fast buck.

The company achieved profitability quickly and Long and Marion bought out Kleine early on (at a handsome profit) and the two remaining partners achieve great success.

Kalem became known for churning out low quality but highly profitable one reelers shot on location with practically no budget beyond salaries and film stock.

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(Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives)

Kalem's Demise

The early silent era ended for many of the original companies in the years during and following WWI.  Several lasted a few years longer but by the end of the 1920s most had vanished.  There were various reasons, and most companies failed for one or more of these.  For most companies it was circumstance, bad timing, and poor decisions.  For others it was merger to form larger companies or to avoid bankruptcy.  For Kalem it appears, according to legend, intentional.  But in the movie business, legend can be far from the truth.  We may never know the real truth.

Kalem, a highly profitable company, decided not to keep up with audience appetite and the changing technology.  Their form of comedy was being replaced by something more sophisticated and polished.  Acting techniques were advancing, cameras and lighting were improving, studios were becoming more sophisticated. Kalem did not want to invest the money it would take to keep up.

Feature length movies were becoming popular.  Most companies began to change their fare to the longer length movies to keep up with what audiences were demanding.  Kalem did not, making only a scant few.  They stated, according to that legend, that they would remain in business only as long as people came to see their one and two reel comedies.  When audiences stopped coming, they reasoned, Kalem would go out of business.   By 1917 their wish had come true...they folded.  They sold their Fort Lee studio and Verdugo Canyon studio became a rental lot.  By 1919 the giant powerhouse, Vitagraph of America, bought all of Kalem's assets, and Kalem became a footnote in history.

(click to enlarge)

(Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives)

Kalem Builds its First Studio

In 1908 Kalem established its first studio in an old hotel in Jacksonville, Florida.  Though it was just a temporary, winter studio, Kalem was the first of 50 or so studios that established winter headquarters in Jacksonville.  However, the local population and government made it clear that movie makers were not welcome in Jacksonville,eventually leading to its demise, instead of becoming the movie capital of the world.  That was Hollywood's destiny, instead.

Kalem wintered in Jacksonville for a number of years, eventually giving it up for the friendlier environment in California.

Kalem Moves to California

In 1909 Kalem discovered, as other companies did, that California provide a year round filming opportunity, being warmer in the Winter than the northeast and cooler in the summer than Florida.  The relatively mild temperatures made California ideal.

Kalem  set up California's third studio, landing in the dusty burg of Glendale in 1909.  They bought a tract of land in Verdugo Canyon, and while under construction set up some shooting stages briefly in Glendale at Orange and Broadway streets behind a drug store before finally moving into their Verdugo Canyon studio in December of 1910.  The new studio would serve them as their main studio until they closed in 1917.

They also established studios in Santa Monica in 1911 and East Hollywood (Los Feliz) in 1913.  Located at 1425 Hoover St. (now Fleming St.), they took over a studio built by competitor Lubin Company and next occupied by Essanay.  Kalem operated there until 1917, the same year the company closed.  This site later became the iconic Monogram Pictures Studio and later KCET, the Los Angeles PBS station.

On to New Jersey

In 1913 Kalem leased what was left of the old Laird Estate in Cliffside Park, New Jersey.  Years earlier the Fort Lee area and Bergen County had established itself as the world's first movie town.  A dozen or so of the early film companies based studios there, and the area built a reputation attracting movie producers, film processing labs, and other industry support services.

Kalem was a "come lately" to the area, arriving after Fort Lee peaked and was headed into its decline.  As was their pattern, Kalem first built outdoor shooting stages instead of indoor glass stages.  It was a sign of the company's general reluctance to invest in itself.

Additionally Kalem had brief studio stays in Culver City, and Highland Park in California and the  Bayou St. John neighborhood of New Orleans.

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Timeline of the Kalem Studios

  • Company founded
  • Traveled to Ireland
  • Jacksonville
  • Verdugo
  • Santa Monica
  • East H'wood
  • New Orleans
  • Highland Park
  • Fort Lee (Cliffside)
  • Culver City
  • closes
  • sold to Vitagraph

See the Kalem Studios on the Map

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