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When Universal Studios Hollywood reopens April 16, emerging from a year lost to COVID-19, it won’t have been the studio and theme park’s first brush with disaster. The place has endured nine fires since 1932, the worst in 2008 — a three-alarm blaze that destroyed sets like the New York Street and the King Kong attraction as well as “the video vault,” which contained more than 100,000 priceless master tapes from artists like Chuck Berry and Nirvana.
After a brief closure, the park reopened, and attendance has crept up steadily — from 4.3 million in 2009 to 9.1 million in 2018. Almost from its inception, Universal Studios was open to the public. In 1915, founder Carl Laemmle charged visitors a nickel to tour the new studio, which sat on 400 acres of San Fernando Valley farmland. The fee included a boxed lunch. By the 1930s, the tour was discontinued because the studio was making talkies and the visitors were too noisy.
The current theme park has its origins in 1962, when Music Corporation of America (MCA) bought out the studio and then-president Albert Dorskind saw revenue potential in allowing Gray Line tour buses on to the lot. By 1964, Dorskind convinced MCA chairman Lew Wasserman to invest $4 million ($34 million today) into constructing trams and dedicated tour facilities. The pink-and-white-striped GlamorTrams debuted July 15, 1964, and took visitors on a tour that included a walk-through of Doris Day’s dressing room and a Western shootout performed by two stuntmen.
The attractions grew more ambitious over the years: In 1968, a flash flood engulfed the trams; in 1972, the Parting of the Red Sea was added; in 1976, the Jaws Experience was unveiled, featuring a 25-foot-long mechanical shark; and in 1986, a 30-foot-tall, animatronic King Kong, modeled after the Kong from the 1976 Jessica Lange movie, thumped his chest for the first time. In 2010, instead of laying him to rest, the park gave him a post-fire face-lift — with Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
This story first appeared in the April 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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