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KCET's First Hollywood Home: The Historic Mutual-Don Lee Studios

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KCET Studios on Vine Street
KCET's first studios, on 1313 North Vine Street in Hollywood, circa 1964. Adjacent to KCET was the ABC Vine St. Theatre, where 'The Joey Bishop Show' was being taped. | Photo: KCET Archives

The sleek, mid-century modern production facility at 1313 North Vine Street in Hollywood had already acquired the patina of television history by 1964, when Community Television of Southern California moved in and launched the region's first educational TV station, KCET.

The building had opened on August 18, 1948, as the headquarters of the Mutual-Don Lee broadcast empire. Designed by Claud Beelman -- the architect behind such local landmarks as the Eastern Columbia Building and the Culver Hotel -- and his associate, Herman Spackler, it was larger than its compact, three-story profile suggested. Inside were 14 separate broadcast studios, including four large sound stages with auditorium seating for live audiences.

An early also-ran to CBS, NBC, and ABC, the Mutual-Don Lee network grew out of a syndicate of West Coast radio and television stations controlled by Don Lee, a Cadillac dealer who became a television pioneer before his untimely death in 1934. Lee made history on December 23, 1931, when his experimental station W6XAO Channel 1 transmitted L.A.'s first television broadcast. At the time, there were five receiving TV sets in the entire city.

Lee's station became KTSL -- its call sign incorporating the initials of Lee's son and heir, Thomas S. Lee -- in 1948 when the FCC granted it a commercial license. Soon thereafter the station moved into the new Vine Street studio and in 1950 CBS acquired the station (still broadcasting today as KCBS Channel 2). Much of the Tiffany Network's (as CBS was nicknamed in its early years) early programming broadcast from within 1313 Vine -- and so did local programs like "Carson's Cellar," which starred a pre-"Tonight Show" Johnny Carson. Later, KHJ Channel 9 (today, the CBS-owned KCAL) also made the studio its home.

And so the landmark moment when KCET first signed on the air on September 28, 1964, only burnished the Vine building's historic credentials. Not only was KCET the first Los Angeles station devoted exclusively to educational programming, it was also among the city's first UHF channels. Other stations had already claimed the available VHF channels -- 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13 -- and so KCET broadcasted at Channel 28 on a frequency not all television sets were then equipped to receive.

Though it launched with only 56 employees, KCET soon outgrew its rented facilities -- It only occupied the northern half of the building. In 1970, the station left for the historic Lubin Studios at 4401 Sunset Boulevard, but the Vine Street building continued to play an important, if supporting, role in Hollywood history. ABC acquired the facility in 1970 and produced such shows as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game" there. In the 1990s AIDS Project Los Angeles moved in, and since 2002 the historic Mutual-Don Lee Building has housed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study and the Academy Film Archive.

KCET's first studio facility in Hollywood opened in 1948 as the headquarters of the Mutual-Don Lee broadcasting empire. Circa 1949 photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
KCET's first studio facility in Hollywood opened in 1948 as the headquarters of the Mutual-Don Lee broadcasting empire. Circa 1949 photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Filming CBS's 'Panorama Pacific' inside the 1313 Vine facility in 1955. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Filming CBS's 'Panorama Pacific' inside the 1313 Vine facility in 1955. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
In the 1950s, CBS-owned television station KHJ (since renamed KCAL) moved into the 1313 Vine facility. Courtesy of the California State Library.
In the 1950s, CBS-owned television station KHJ (since renamed KCAL) moved into the 1313 Vine facility. Courtesy of the California State Library.

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