Beacon of a New Wave: Mt. Lee and the Birth of Television

Beacon of a New Wave: Mt. Lee and the Birth of Television

Hollywood has always been a place where visionaries harness technology for entertainment and communications. Mount Lee, the home of the Sign, bears the name of a famous entrepreneur who made this ridge in Griffith Park into one of the most important historical sites in television history.

The W6XAO antenna alongside a powerful transmitter and fully-equipped TV studio on Mt. Lee in 1941. (courtesy of Steve Dichter)

Don Lee was a classic California bootstrapping entrepreneur who owned the exclusive rights to sell Cadillac cars in California in the 1920s. He extended his business into radio in 1926 with the purchase of station KHJ and other stations on the West Coast.

In 1930, Lee saw an opportunity to lead in the development of broadcast television, then just a promising but unproven technology. Using a portion of his substantial radio profits, he hired a team to expand on the television filming, transmission and receiving technologies that were just emerging.

W6XAO went live in December 1931 from a location near Gardena, launching more than eight years before NBC began its broadcasts in New York. By 1932, Mr. Lee had moved the TV studio to downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Bixel atop his Cadillac dealership. W6XAO aired the first documented television news coverage — of the Long Beach, California earthquake of 1933 — and the first soap opera, Vine Street.

An early design concept for the Don Lee studios on Mt. Lee. (courtesy of Steve Dichter)

However, since television signal transmissions were limited to line-of-sight, large population areas such as the San Fernando Valley were unable to receive his broadcasts.

In 1938, the Don Lee Network (now run by Don’s son Thomas) purchased a 20-acre site just behind the Hollywood Sign, an area that was co-owned by the original developer of the Hollywoodland project and Mack Sennett, the silent film director and father of “slapstick” comedy. Plans included a true state-of-the-art broadcast studio and transmission tower, indoor and outdoor filming facilities, a swimming pool, a suspended control room that would move on a track and more.

When the facility was completed in 1939, it boasted the highest elevation television transmission tower in the world and ushered in a new era in Hollywood’s storied history. The 300-foot tower broadcast from over 2,000 feet above sea level or (in terms that would have impressed any American at the time) one and a half times the height of New York’s Empire State Building.

Early PR for the glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle: Live broadcast by the pool in 1939 at the Don Lee studios. (courtesy of Steve Dichter)

From this location, the network broadcast a wide range of programming, including both in-studio and remotely filmed shows. In 1940, it became the first station on the West Coast to transmit a live remote telecast, using an elaborate radio relay system to send a live signal of Pasadena’s famous Tournament of Roses Parade to Mount Lee and then out over the tower. By 1941, it was operating about two hours per day.

After the war ended, Mt. Wilson was identified as a better location for broadcast towers and all three then-existing television broadcasters moved their transmission towers to this peak.

The site atop Mount Lee and the large radio tower still seen there today eventually came to be operated and owned by the City of Los Angeles.

Today, Hollywood still pays tribute to this fascinating history by calling this famous ridge “Mount Lee.”