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A South Pas Jewel: Inside Baranger Studios

The English-style building was once the home, not of a movie studio, but of something more enchanting.

In 1984, when Charles Stanislawski bought Baranger Studios, the building had already been dedicated a historical landmark by South Pasadena's Cultural Heritage Commission. But that's not what sold Stanislawski. Back then he wasn't much interested in history. He bought the building for his accounting practice because, as he says, "It was absolutely lovely."

Baranger Studios, at 729 Mission Street, is a South Pasadena landmark. Designed by G. A. Howard Jr. and built in 1925, it looks like a charming transplant from an English village.

But real magic took place inside: Between 1925 and 1959, husband-and-wife team Arch and Hazel Baranger and their design partner, Robert Gerlach, manufactured electric motion displays called "Baranger Motions." These "motions" functioned as store window advertising in the form of miniature fanciful scenes.

Picture a smiling lion and his lioness who apparently don't mind being caged in a pink carriage, with a musical "diamond band" piping away on top. Or a honeymoon rocket that circles the moon while the happy couple crane their necks to look out a bubble window. Or how about a racehorse galloping to the finish, his jockey leaning in close, while above them a sign reads, "You always win if you pick one of our beautiful diamonds"? (Check out the videos to the right of this column.)

These moving mechanical mini-dioramas were each about 20 inches wide, 12 inches tall and 12 inches deep. The Barangers created a total of 167 designs, usually made of cast aluminum and painted in bright colors.

A typical Baranger client was a jeweler or watchmaker who rented the motions under contract, usually on a monthly basis. After a month the display was returned to Baranger to be replaced with a new motion. The returned display would be spruced up and sent to another customer. Thus the generic messages painted on the motions: Above a stagecoach fly the words, "You will always be on the right road with one of our beautiful diamonds." "Maybe a diamond would persuade her" floats near a diver and mermaid in an undersea scene. The Barangers stopped creating new designs in 1959, but continued renting motions until the company went out of business in 1977.

Although the Baranger business is gone, the gold "Baranger Studios" lettering remains on the brick facade of the building. South Pasadena historian Rick Thomas--author of four books about South Pasadena, including Images of America: South Pasadena (Arcadia Publishing, 2007)--says the lettering sometimes leads people to believe Baranger was once associated with the film business.

In planning his book, Thomas wanted to include Baranger Studios "to clarify the confusion that it might be a movie studio." But beyond wanting to include it, he felt he had to, just like he had to include the Raymond Hotel, because "it's a distinctive part of our history."

Charles Stanislawski, the building's current owner, says he was unaware of the Baranger Studios history when he bought the building more than 25 years ago. "There have been some bad cracks from earthquakes," he said when asked if the structure requires special attention. "It's an old building. It takes a lot of care."

Collectors today prize Baranger Motions, which can sell for upwards of $10,000. The House on the Rock tourist attraction in Spring Green, WI, could be the place with the most motions: There are more than 200 in that collection, including a pristine example of the diver-and-mermaid scenario. Even a book,  Baranger: Window Displays in Motion: Dramatizing the Jewel by John A. Daniel (Zon International Publishing, 2001), rarely sells for less than $200.

You can bet Charles Stanislawski has a copy. In the years since he bought the "lovely" structure, he's become more interested in history and even serves on the board of the Pasadena Museum of History. "There's a book about Baranger Studios," he says, "and it says the top of our flagpole is the shape of a diamond. So I took a look, and there it was. I'd been here 20 years before I noticed that."

The flagpole stands in the courtyard on the building's west side. You'll have to move several yards away to see the top of it, and you'll need binoculars, a telephoto lens or very good eyesight. But it's there: a traditional engagement diamond shape tops the flagpole, as it has for 85 years.

Petrea Burchard October 18, 2010 at 04:00 PM
It is a "great odd bit" as Karin says, noticeable because it's so different from the Spanish adobe style and Craftsman architecture we see around here. Gretchen, if you stop at House on the Rock you'll have to report back. From what I can tell, it looks like an ode to kitsch beyond belief. Take pictures!
Susan Campisi October 25, 2010 at 05:51 AM
I never get to South Pas so I'm not familiar with this building and I certainly didn't know about Baranger Studios and the "motions" they produced. What an interesting piece of history. You've revealed a real gem to us, Petrea, including the one at the top of the flagpole.
Petrea Burchard October 28, 2010 at 05:21 PM
Thanks, Susan. Next time you head south be sure and check it out. It's a pretty piece of architecture.
John Lawrence November 19, 2010 at 07:35 PM
I grew up on Prospect St. just up Mission from the Baranger building. I remember walking to Mission Food Mart (pre-Trader Joe's) and seeing their motion displays in the window. They were fascinating. Didn't (I think it was...) Anderson's Jewelers on Fair Oaks always have one of their constructions in their window, too?
Petrea Burchard November 21, 2010 at 05:44 AM
Hmm. I tried researching it but someone who's been around here longer than I have will have to answer that one for us, John. It would make sense for a local business to subscribe to the Baranger service though, wouldn't it?

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