Warner Bros. Staffers Share 'Ski Lodge' Memories: Smoking With Neil Young, A Kiss From Prince & More
As Warner Music Group employees look to the future from their new state-of-the-art office building in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District, many have also been fondly reminiscing on the past. Warner Bros. Records spent 44 years in the “ski lodge” at 3300 Warner Boulevard in Burbank, Calif. From 1975 to 2019 such iconic artists as Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, Randy Newman and Neil Young freely roamed the homey, wood-clad hallways, performed on the patio, and, in the case of Young, lit up in conference rooms before it was legal in California.
The ski lodge, built by famed architect A. Quincy Jones, is a “significant piece of late Modernism architecture. The building, which remains the property of Warner Bros. Pictures, was designed to be residential and welcoming; not a lot of office buildings do that,” explains Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “Every space has a connection with a patio or a balcony or terrace or views to the outside.” He notes that one of Jones’ main contacts at Warner Bros. Records was beloved art director Ed Thrasher, who apparently gave the proviso that the 89,452-square-foot building must definitely not “look establishment” in order to further encourage the creative family vibe that the label cultivated when it came to its artists. “It wasn’t just a place to have your offices, it was more of an experience; that’s what makes it so special,” he notes.
Its residents, past and present, agree. They shared their memories and favorite moments with Billboard.
Ted Templeman, former executive vp, A&R; producer: When I started there we were in a Quonset hut, and I helped design the new building. We even put the A&R department in the basement so we could play our music loud. Prince used to come in the back way and use my office because he wouldn't have to see anyone. I started as a listener for $50 a week, then staff producer, vp, senior vp, executive vp. It was a great place. When I was there it was Steve Barri, Gary Katz, me, Tommy LiPuma, and Lenny Waronker [in the A&R department]. I remember just finishing “What A Fool Believes” by the Doobies after four nights of mixing it. I walked into the A&R meeting and said ‘I don't know what to do with this, it has no form, wanders all over the place, I had to play the drums to get the groove right… ready to bag it.’ They listened and said: ‘Are you crazy? It's great!’
Christine Christensen, former sales coordinator: Working in the A&R Department was absolutely the best of times! I got to listen to a lot of submission tapes, work VIP section at concerts and took bands out on the town when they were in L.A. Teddy Templeman was head of the department and was producing Royal Crown Revue at the time. Ted was absolutely the kindest human being I have ever met, he treated us all so special. You would never know he was one of the most legendary producers of all time.
Bob Merlis, former senior vp, worldwide corporate communications: I remember getting a phone call from David Lee Roth after the band had gone out on tour, probably the first tour [in 1978]. My assistant said, ‘David Lee Roth is on line one.’ I thought it was joke ‘cause, you know, how does this guy have my phone number? How did he even know my name? I wasn't hiding, but I wasn't really involved with Van Halen. I picked it up and he goes, ‘Hey man, I'm on tour and there's only dudes out here. How come there's no honeys?’ I said ‘WHAT?’ He complained to me about the demographic of the original Van Halen concert audience. What could I have done? Oh my God. Mars wants women, and so does Dave, you know?
Lenny Waronker, senior vp of A&R: Rickie Lee Jones came in with a guitar and played about two and a half songs, which was all it took to realize she was great. I think it was just Ted Templeman and myself. That was a no-brainer. Van Dyke Parks came into my office before his first record, when he was working with Brian Wilson. He had his stuff, and for me, it was amazing, him sitting at the piano… though that may have been at the old building. One time, when Russ Titelman and I were releasing Rickie Lee Jones’ first record [in 1979], we had a meeting with her in Russ’s office, which was adjacent to mine, and she had a new idea for an arrangement for “Chuck E.'s in Love,” which was basically to slow it down. It gave it real attitude.
Bill Bentley, former senior vp, media relations: My first day at Warner Bros. Records was on April 7, 1986. That day also just happened to be a listening session with Steve Winwood for his new album Back in the High Life. Winwood sat in the big third floor conference room with about 30 staffers while the album was played start to finish. I was a huge Winwood fan for the previous 20 years, back to the early Spencer Davis Group. After the playback, my boss, the wonderful Pete Johnson asked if I could interview Winwood and write a story for the monthly in-house magazine, Words and Music. Yes! Winwood and his wife Eugenia came into my tiny office and sat there talking for the next hour. I knew right then and there I'd found home.
Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips: I never figured out really where anybody’s office was. Say someone moves their office every couple of years; we remained confused the whole time. But it would be fun, going past people who signed artists you loved. You’re standing in rooms where they were, or will be.
Kevin Laffey, former West Coast director, A&R: Terie Ramsey was my assistant for the longest time at Warner Bros. It was early evening and almost everyone was gone -- everyone except Terie, me and an uninvited guest perched atop her desk. She was, polite and professional, mustering up all the courage she could for someone I didn't recognize. Because he was so close to her, leaning in to her ear as he whispered, I quickened my pace. She was listening, speechless. He was an older guy rocking dreadlocks so I couldn't see his face, not until I threw Terie a “Hail Mary pass” by asking if I’d had any calls. When he turned to look at me, I was at a loss for words. I don't know if she even knew who he was, but, oh boy, I sure did. Even with time to prepare, I wouldn’t have known what to say. What could one say to Miles Davis? In March of 1990, Miles was in Los Angeles recording the soundtrack to the film Dingo with Michel Legrand. His A&R contact was Benny Medina, whose office was across from mine. In November, 1991, Warner Bros. released the album. It was just five weeks after his death.
Christensen: We had so many bands coming in and out of that awesome building every day. I met Madonna, Prince, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Green Day, Chris Isaak, Johnny Rotten, Neil Young, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, Jane's Addiction and so, so many more. I became good friends with the guys from Linkin Park, The Farm, Ride, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro from Crazy Horse. I remember The Farm came into town and we went to a party after one of their gigs. Mick Jones from The Clash/Big Audio Dynamite was at this party and the band introduced me to him. Being a huge Clash fan, I had died and gone to heaven.
Waronker: We had a good attitude about artists coming to the building. It was a real culture there, based on respect for artistry. It took shape over the years; it was an amazing thing.
Coyne: We knew a lot about the producers and the connections and all that. We loved all that. When we run into Lenny Waronker; I mean, we were his fans, we were in awe of just being there and have him approve of your music and believe in your music. You can't know how much of an encouraging thing that is—you know, ‘Mo [Ostin] signed Jimi Hendrix and he really likes your record.’
Christensen: Lenny was always so nice to me when I filled in for his awesome assistant Gail. Not much of a talker, always serious but kind. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince came in one day to meet with Lenny while I was filling in. Prince was so soft spoken, somewhat timid and as we chatted in a separate office until Lenny got off the phone. Prince kindly asks me to get him a drink. When I got back, Lenny’s door was shut and someone was screaming at the top of their lungs. It dawned on me it was Prince yelling; I was shocked how loud he was because five minutes prior I could hardly hear him. When he came out of Lenny’s office, he thanked me for his drink, kissed me on the cheek and said goodbye in a very sweet soft voice. Still blushing from that kiss, I immediately called my mom to tell her I met Prince!
Yvette Oyabe, former senior director, national sales & marketing: I was in a meeting with Prince once. We were all to assemble in the conference room and suddenly the door opened and he came in and sat right down. It was the quietest meeting I had ever been in. And by that, I do not mean people were afraid to speak, I mean that Prince was speaking in a whisper-like tone and that set the noise level for all of us! He had a bodyguard that was waiting outside of the conference room door for him and when he got up to leave the room to use the restroom, the bodyguard stood at the bathroom door and no one else could go in.
Waronker: When Prince played our patio, it was unbelievable. It was later on in his career, and I think we’d talked to him about his stature, and how it affected the company, and we spoke to him about playing at the office. If he was up for it, it would be an amazing thing for the staff. And he agreed and did it.
Susan Leon, senior vp, global artist & label relations: I remember coming into the amazing lobby, and sitting and waiting for my interview in 1991 and thinking ‘What is this attitude that everybody has? Everybody's smiling, everybody's laughing, everybody's having a good time.’ I've never had a job that I could even enjoy my whole life. It was such an unusual concept for me that just everybody loves being in this space. Every Friday, normally people rush off and go home. But when we were growing up in the building, there’d be a DJ set up in the basement. You’d go downstairs and grab a drink and we'd be here till 10, 11, 12 o'clock at night, without even wanting to go anywhere. I remember those days super fondly. It was when the building was packed, I think there was like 500 people working here, and it was literally, people sitting on top of one another in the hallway. It was fucking chaos, but the most beautiful chaos. In the 28 years I've been in the building it's just been one joyful day after another, and I'm not exaggerating,
Alex Kane, guitarist from Life, Sex & Death (signed to Reprise/WB in 1991): Lenny Waronker was president at the time, and I think everybody at the label then knew who Life, Sex & Death were, particularly Stanley [the singer, who presented as an unwashed, mentally unstable homeless man]. Stan being Stan, never forgave people for not liking him the person, just him the performer. His feeling was “I was valid before you heard me sing.” So coming to the office for a strategy meeting, he headed straight for the big fern or potted plant in Lenny’s office and just started eating the fertilizer pellets.I can guarantee you that for all the experiences Lenny Waronker has had in his storied life, watching one of his new artists eat shit pellets out of a plant is probably not something Prince did.
Leon: Oh, you could smell Stanley before he got here. You knew he was coming from the stench. My boss would be like, ‘Is that Stanley? Close the door!’ There was a lot of talk that he was actually very wealthy and he acted as though he was homeless. It was the best character acting ever.
Kane: I saw the budget that we were responsible for paying back through album sales, and there were first-class flights for some of the executives that the band was paying for. So once this became apparent, what me and Billy (E. Gar, bassist) used to do was wait 'til the weekend. We knew the security guy and he knew us. We’d take our guitar cases, and we’d all but be spinning the empty cases over our heads like batons, and we knew where the secretaries kept the keys, and go to the locked cabinets, fill up with CDs and we’d walk out bathed in sweat, carrying these cases that now literally weighed like five bowling balls each, and go to Second Hand Tunes and sell them. We’d each probably get $200-$250, so that covered a sizable portion of our rent on the studio apartment that the five of us shared. The rest went to weed and beer.
Coyne: We only met Neil Young when we played his Bridge School [benefit], not at the building. There probably would have been some safeguard if you're Neil Young to say, ‘look, I'll come to the building, but don't let just anybody come up and fucking talk.’ If he was in a room, we'd have walked in. There were always some people, though they would be big stars, they would seem approachable. Back then, more people would have to go to the building. There wasn't so much that you're doing just from your laptop.
Oyabe: The first Neil Young record I worked was Broken Arrow, which came out in 1996. A group of us were gathered in the fourth-floor conference room and Neil and [then wife] Pegi came into the room, Neil talked a little bit about the record and they hit play and he lit up a joint and he passes it around the room and some partake and some do not. Every time Neil came to play a new record he would pass the dutchie!
Christensen: As I was showing Neil to the conference room for the playback [of Broken Arrow], he lit up a joint, and passed it to me. Me being a non-smoker, grabbed it from him and tried to take a hit, coughing all the way to the conference room. I was smoking pot with Neil Young, WTF!
Bentley: One evening I was working late in my office and a man walked by, slightly disheveled looking, and stuck his head in my office and asked where Chairman Mo Ostin's office was. He had a good aura so I pointed the way down the hall, figuring he was the new nighttime cleaning person, and was going to clean Mo's office. The next day I went to Lenny Waronker's office to interview Harrison about his new album, [1987’s] Cloud Nine, hopefully to come up with a promotional piece and advertising ideas. As soon as I went in the room, I recognized him as the man I'd met the night before who was looking for Mo's office. I smiled and asked about meeting the night before. He confirmed it, and I said I didn't recognize him the previous evening. Harrison gave me a knowing look, laughed a bit and then said, "Well, I wasn't a Beatle last night," proving, I think, that maybe clothes really do make the man.
Christensen: George Harrison and my boss Clyde Bakkemo were very close, so I also became friends with George. I think he liked the fact that I really didn’t know who he was when I first met him; I was young and into alternative rock. George took me to my first Indian restaurant and loved to give me advice about relationships and career. He came into the building one day to meet with Lenny or Mo, but came into my office first, looking stressed. He said when he walked through the front door of our building he got a negative vibe so he wanted to meditate in my office. He asked me to get him a cup of hot water and lemon and wait outside until he was done. He cleared off my desk, got on top of it, sat cross legged, hands resting on his knees and eyes closed. I had a small window on my door so I peered in periodically, hoping all would be good soon because I had tons of work to do. An hour went by as I sat across from my office in the jazz department not really knowing what to do. He finally came out and said ‘okay love, I’m good, are you good?' 'Oh yeah George, I’m great. Need another cup of hot water?'
Ernie C, Body Count: [Former president, Reprise/Warner Bros. Records] Howie Klein and I were sitting in his office listening to the [our 1991 album], the first Body Count record. When it was done, he said ‘I like the record a whole lot, but that's song "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight" going to get you in a lot of trouble.’ Little did he know!
Merlis: When the "Cop Killer" [backlash] happened with Body Count people were very much on edge. There was a bomb scare, a suspicious package had been found, and the bomb squad came and detonated in the parking lot. Turned out to be somebody’s demo. I have no idea if it was any good. They were not signed, needless to say.
Leon: I remember the first time I met Michael Buble in the building. He came over to me and said, ‘Hi, what's your name?’ ‘I said “my name's Susan."' He’s like, ‘so, what do you do?’ I said, ‘I work in international.’ He went, ‘Oh, I'm sorry, then I'm not Michael, I'm your bitch.’ That’s the first time I met Michael Buble and we've inseparable ever since. He came in with a film crew [recently] because they were making an NBC special on him. One of the segments is him coming back to the building and talking about how the chairman said to him, ‘Why would we sign you when we have Sinatra?’ Michael’s retort was, ‘Well, with all due respect, Sinatra’s gone, please don't let the music go with him.’ That’s the day they signed them and the day he told me he was my bitch.
Andrew McMahon, artist: I always look at that place as hallowed ground. The building itself is beautiful, and to be a young guy with albums out on Warner Bros. and be able to walk into the lobby and have your album cover hanging there… To be a regular, and not have to not have to go through security. It’s like, ‘Hey Andrew's back.’ I was a regular for sure. I moved within five miles of the Warner building. [2008’s] The Glass Passenger was the second Sire album. We played some of our very early Jack’s Mannequin showcases in that building, in that basement room, in like this subterranean artist's lounge. I feel like I met Mo Ostin down there.
Tom Corson, Warner Bros. Records co-chairman/COO: Various executives came in [to visit before we moved], like [former presidents] Phil Quartararo and Jeff Ayeroff, and tell stories about this place. I had Mo’s old office, which is pretty great. There's this giant desk that I inherited. There’s eight chairs around it, there could be 12. It’s huge. Quartararo was telling me how there used to be carpentry shop when the film and the music company were joined and that they would build furniture for the executives, and that he remembers it being made for somebody here at the time. It’s too big, it’s too heavy [to move]; it does not fit with the aesthetic of the new office whatsoever.
Christensen: WBR staff were like one big happy family, it almost seemed like people did not want to leave that building at day's end. There was so much going on all the time and the collaboration between departments was like no other. There were so many times we would work late into the night because a band was in town, or working a gig, but were right back at it early the next morning. I loved that I could walk into a svp or vp’s office and talk music, never feeling intimidated or uncomfortable. We were all there in that historic building for one reason only -- our love of music.