Film production has just ceased on this backlot. This was a Lost Backlot unlike all the rest in Hollywood until Desi and Lucy purchased this parcel and named it Desilu. It finally had an identity, and you grew up here if you owned a TV. Black and white is fine, that is until Batman came along in living color. Slap a “Out of business” sale on the fence that warns of “Dogs on Duty.”
As Desilu ended its ties here, this lot once again became Hollywood’s Lost Backlot. Steven Bingen’s book of the same name is a must have bible for all things 40 acres. I just wish I had this book with me when I was running around this wild film ranch.
I had to make my own maps, figure things out on my own, all the while under fear of four-legged K-9 security.
I never became friends with security here on this lot, but have had several run-ins. And I never saw a regular face. Security was as hodge-podge as was the backlot itself. I’ve previously shared stories my friends lived who resided by this entrance…” Jim Nabors serenading children at the main gate while handing out lifesavers. Bob Crane was known to give tours of Stalag 13 and all adventures begin at this Ince main gate. Spock, in full costume, has exited this gate to visit the neighborhood Jackson Street market. “I’ll have whatever he’s having!”
There is one other studio gate on Higuera, but it is rarely unlocked and probably more of a fire gate or emergency entrance. Basically, this lot has one way in and out and it’s through this gate right here, unless you’re a trespasser- like me!
I’ve never met a fence that could keep me out, to be honest, there was no fence period along the creek. It was like an open border from Mexico to the U.S.A. Drugs and trespassers poured in, but I digress…
I told you-it’s the seventies!
Even in the sixties, I would stare through this fence when it was locked shut- wearing a Batman costume I bought with a million Blue Chip Stamps. I just wanted to see Adam West. Eventually I was lucky enough to see the Batmobile and the Caped Crusaders zip by. The hair on my arms stood up when my dream was realized.
Exploration sensitive area…
To explore the main gate and surrounding structures, you have to come to a conclusion first that security is not here. This is a very risky area. The gate would be locked and a quick tour through Mayberry can verify activity or not. If the lot is ours, then that’s our opportunity to get dirty at the main gate. Exploring the structures beyond the security shack would include the film vaults, which this guard shack looks directly at.
Inside the security shack are humble settings, A heater, a radio, a desk, a phone, a clock and a calendar. Finally, a water dispenser. Windows on all sides allowing the guard to watch filming, as if this shack is a TV set. The only luxury not inside was a TV. Very similar to my backlot forts, minus a heater and clock.
Public homes exist on Lucerne with their backyard being the studio fence property line. You can Bar B-Q while TV Land is filming over your back fence. You can slip a hot dog through the fence to your favorite TV star. A greenhouse sits neglected and in the process of being reclaimed by nature itself. The plants inside are letting their hair down, like a bunch of hippies. The stories this structure lived is rooted into the ground.
A wagon and a tractor sit side by side, tall weeds grow between the wagon spoked wheels, as gentle breezes encourage life to exist, once again. A plow wonders if it will till the land here ever again. Like a Toy Story. Time does not exist here. If you continue hugging this fence line you will see an artillery cannon, painted gray, as is a German Troop carrier and a Tiger Tank. That means you have left the boundaries of Camp Henderson and arrived behind the sets of Stalag 13.
Tucked behind Stalag 13, in a Triangle, is where I rediscovered Ms. Marion Davies’ first ever mobile make-up room. That is an incredible story still taking place… a hundred years after the fact.
This main gate doubled as a set frequently, especially for Gomer Pyle due to the proximity to the camp. Today, you explored with me a non-descript section that contains security headquarters on the 40-acre backlot.
If you get into the shack- dial 9 on the rotary phone to get off lot. Chris’s pizza delivers here- no questions asked…
The film that is, the shark is still in captivity. Every tram that circles Cabot Cove is attacked by this creature that lurks just below the surface. In my experience driving trams, this is the most popular animation still going on the tram tour. I’ve seen children cry when finding out the ride is closed for repairs. To attack trams as rapidly as need be, this shark moves both forwards, then backwards. It has to reset itself and the amount of moving parts that creates this tram attack is a constant work in progress. This old Great White is very high maintenance…
In the sequel to Jaws- Mr Spielberg handed the job to another director, Joseph Sargent. Sidney Sheinberg, who discovered Steven, put his wife in this remake. Lorraine Gary starred in this sequel with Michael Caine and Mario Van Peebles. This was the sequel to Jaws 2. The joke on the set is Lorraine is on a paid studio vacation. She’s getting paid a lot of money to sip cocktails on the beach.
The cast was mentioned by every tour guide, about 80 times a day, since trams actually could watch scenes filmed at our backdrop. This is one location on the tour where filming is often seen by tourists. It’s because the Ice Tunnel- or Mummy’s Tomb in more recent times- is adjacent to our giant backdrop. You have to pass this set to experience the last tram animation on your tour.
This was the first set I ever witnessed jet engines create wind effects. The electrical department (40 shop) handles Ritter Fans that require DC power to operate. We also power the wave makers; those are used to create a choppy water surface rather than a calm pond you could skip pebbles on. But Special Effects operate gasoline blowing devices including the jet engines used on this shoot. The sound created is like a jet plane taking off. Hearing protection only goes so far, no sound is recorded when under these conditions.
The buzz around the lot was this edition of Jaws was lacking something, besides just Spielberg. The cast was so so at best. The shark delivered its part well. We knew it was a flop before it flopped. I’m surprised this shark hasn’t resurfaced, pardon the pun, into another Shark box -office attempt. Like a Jurassic Park of the ocean, where sea creatures rule.
Considering sharks date back over 420 million years, it’s amazing we only did three of these…not counting the 3-D version. Steven Spielberg was busy focusing on land sharks -kinda- with Jurassic Park ready to replace the Great Whites.
Fear sells tickets, if you don’t think so, every animation on the tram tour is framed with fear. It’s not just a small world at Universal- it’s an extremely violent world- also.
Keep your arms and legs inside the tram at all times…
Combat just completed a run lasting longer than W.W. 2. ABC-TV shutdown one war series and simultaneously kick started another. Many of the crew jumped on board Garrison’s Gorillas. The most important being the powder guy, A.D Flowers. No one did a better job ever of blowing these MGM backlots up then this Hollywood Legend.
26 one-hour episodes are all we have left of this. ABC canceled it and it’s spot was replaced at the network by the Groovy, hip-Mod Squad.
We read comics on the backlot, it made them more realistic. It set off the soldier inside all of us, so we brought in guns also. B.B gun battles were inspired by reruns and comics. Combat had a board game we also played inside the studio. The best part about that game was the cover-with Sgt. Saunders doing his thing.
Combat did not make comics, but it had the best toy machine gun ever designed. It was cool to pretend, for sure, but real fun comes when you can feel pain. If you get hit by a round, you need to feel it. Daisy provide that little- umphhh. It made a nice welt. Realism meets make believe.
Mercy, Mercy, Me
Combat was the show we emulated as we had gun fights at MGM. It was usually on Saturdays when we had these battles. Noon-time happened to rerun Combat. The classic-Soul Train preceded it. I love Motown, you had me at Don Cornelius. When our showdowns began, there was a blend of soul in our ears as we prepared ourselves for battle.
“Four Tops– this is WHITE ROOK…OVER ”
The Rat Patrol would be the last war series to film war scenes on a regular basis. I saw all their equipment. It was always parked on the lot. A half track, troop carriers, a tank/cannon on rubber wheels, and the two jeeps with the 50 caliber machine guns mounted on back.
It is hard today to find quality reruns of Garrison’s Gorillas, why I’m not sure. But the star, Ron Harper and I would meet at this very train station discussed in this story. But it was during the filming of Planet of the Apes. Roddy McDowell granted permission for kids to watch filming. My entire street came to watch a Gorilla raid. Not Garrison’s Gorillas- just Urko, the Gorilla, leading a pack of Apes.
I bet Ron Harper never expected the future to become so chaotic. If you get hold of a copy of these two seasons, you will find every single episode uses the backlots of MGM.
New York Street sees a lot of action in this series, disguised as Berlin. Every exterior was practically MGM -somewhere. One episode has a mission, and it takes place in The Big Sky Backdrop, made famous by special effects Wizard– Arnold Gillespie. Nowhere will you be able to see what it was like inside the structure whose front side-is the sky in a broad horizon. If you wanted to be inside that massive historical backdrop first used in 1924 in Ben-Hur, it’s worth the effort to find it.
Everything about this show was awesome, yet it still flies, barely, under the radar, except in Japan. It became a cult classic in the land of the Rising Sun.
Long before this Movie of the Week TV show was made, a Phantom on the MGM backlot existed. Security gave me that name as I became their Public Enemy #1. 1972.
I was able to carry that title the entire time MGM was in charge of backlot security. It’s based off reports to the watch commander about a frequent trespasser. His real name is Donnie, but often went by the name John. A good trespasser should always have an alias ready at their disposal. This frequent flyer is often seen by security but wrangling me up is unlike any challenge MGM security ever dealt with involving this mysteriously haunted backlot.
Here one second…but gone the next is how accounts were explained to the higher-ups. Hence, the name Phantom was attached to my backlot portfolio. This was the reality of MGM security in the beginning of the 1970’s.
Fast forward a bit, December 1973. At this time, I have never been caught, only seen and pursued, even shot at, but always made it back home to check in like all’s well that ends well. I have already built a fancy fort up in a massive building that the studio calls The Girls School but what us boys call Boystown. This fort is for boys, girls could never climb all the obstacles needed to infiltrate the upper reaches that lead to a hidden paradise.
MGM, or Worldwide Studios as it is named in this TV Movie, began filming several important scenes all over what I call my backlot. Fancy that, I find a call sheet that details all things taking place on the MGM backlot. The title –The Phantom of Lot 2.
Timeout, I was called the Phantom of Lot 2, for close to two years. Now a film is taking place with my identity. It stars Jack Cassidy as the Phantom of this backlot. Broderick Crawford is in charge of security and rolls out a line directed towards me and Jimmy. He explains to studio head Peter Lawford about an accident involving my fort in Boystown. Two teenagers had just fallen to their death, from where my fort sits at the top of this iconic structure. The greatest fort ever built on the MGM backlot.
It’s perfectly safe if you know what you’re doing, but in this show movie deaths happen. Chalk lines shaped of teenage bodies are being photographed as Broderick explains to Peter, ” they’re just two teenage long-haired punks is all we know”
I take exception to that insult that accurately describes me and Jimmy. Peter Lawford wants “our deaths” to create a publicity moment warning the rest of the public teens of the dangers that exist back here on this ancient backlot. But the following line deserved a slogan on a T-Shirt. “You can’t fence out curiosity” No truer words needed.
Well, what am I watching here, a movie about me?
At another set, the watermill house, I meet the TV Phantom. Jack Cassidy, in between takes in the middle of a camera set up. He sees me staring at him and waves to me with his leather glove hand, while he carries an iron spiked weapon in his other. He is just about to kill a demolition worker that is part of the team tearing down the backlot in this show.
The moment has arrived the true Phantom meets the costumed movie Phantom, as director Gene Levitt looks on. In Phantom style, I quickly disappear, because MGM has security on this set. At the time, I had no idea what my world was about. All I know is I live on studio backlots in Culver City, often disappearing into dark shadows, only to reappear on some rooftop or an image or reflection in a window.
When this show aired about a month later, it was must see TV as anything ever. This is the coolest show ever -story wise- involving Lot 2. CBS changed the name from The Phantom of Lot 2 to The Phantom of Hollywood for more zing right before airing. Gene Levitt returned to his old Combat stomping grounds to polish off a couple buildings he used in his classic war series. Gene has permission to do whatever needs be around here since he truly is a backlot legend.
I feel honored that he used my lot, he used my fort, I met the costumed up movie version of “me .” To this day this is must have TV if you like my stories and love MGM like I do. Do yourself a favor and get a copy, many MGM stars do cameo rolls and it was made over a year before That’s Entertainment.
Call the street what you wish, but when best friend Jimmy and I first stepped foot on it, we named it after the Twilight Zone episode, Maple Street. That’s what we called it. We synergized it when we snuck in a tiny black and white TV with partially broken rabbit ears and watched this episode where it was filmed, here on Maple Street. TV’s and backlots work as time machines. Eventually you have two pictures, the original on television, and the one presently in living color, with living potential hazards.
It’s like One Step Beyond and The Twilight Zone combined…
Every studio has a residential street similar to this neighborhood. The residents vary from lot to lot, depending first on writers, then on ratings. Rod Serling imagined, then created memories and scenes that we still watch and love to this day on this backlot. His narratives helped shaped this street in the early 60’s. This backlot is…The Twilight Zone
Rod has written and produced more subject matter here than anyone else that’s set foot on this backlot. Not enough credit can be given to his accomplishments considering the quality of that series and the tight demands of TV scheduling. Six days of filming for one episode.
The concept Rod was selling to Westinghouse at the time faced rejections, and not until Bert Granet and Desi Arnaz vowed their unlimited support did this series get off the ground.
Due to budget restraints with CBS, some episodes were videotaped in the first season. It is extremely noticeable, only one episode made at Television City was the quality of what MGM produced. “The Night of the Meek” starring Art Carney as Santa Claus, held up in this format. It’s the only Christmas episode made. This cost cutting move, one video camera, completely on stage at CBS, was an attempt to trim the $65,000 per episode cost. The experiment was deemed a failure, then this show infiltrated into film and naturally –backlots!
I would have died to have run into Rod Serling walking around this backlot. I felt his spirit, he fits this backlot like a good pair of tennis shoes.
The film They Only Kill Their Masters, starring James Garner, was the first film I saw being made on this street. The set dressing inside a home on the street here consisted of (a wall picture, a table and a chair) which ended up disappearing from one house and reappearing upstairs across the street in Andy Hardy’s house.
Often, each house gets a complimentary doorway set up when front doors will be open. It’s like the Salvation Army around here.
Needless to say I spent an awful lot of time here. It’s like this street connects to my house and street. I have occupied every home on this street in one adventure or another.
Sadly, the church burned down in November of 1975. But before you shed any tears, Sgt. Pepper to the rescue. A little over a year later, this street was magnificently rebuilt- as good as ever. Backlot fires are easier to take when new sets sprout up from ashes of what stood before it.
Fittingly, a musical would charm the backlot in grandiose style. (The Trolley Song), performed here by Judy Garland, would turn into an entire Beatles album with artists including Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, and Billy Preston.
Let’s be happy this street went out with class. But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t take you somewhere daring, so lets go up in the church tower…shall we?
Through the church doors- we appear. We are greeted by a tiny room, like a chapel would look. If you open the next door in the sequence, you see an ocean liner. That’s how it works here- Lost Horizons are blocked by doors, curtains, and walls. Behind door number two is a ladder. Four stories, straight up. No ledges or platforms to rest at, just go to the top. See what surprises await you…
Bird feces cover everything in this bell tower. Worse- dead birds appear to have been trapped inside. It’s pretty terrible up here, and that’s coming from a teenager. On the conical top of this -place of worship -is where the MGM owls sit and hoot at all goings on. There are normally two, and they existed the entire time lot 2 was standing. They leave a pile of bones when they digest their prey, which is actually very interesting to reconstruct.
I’m happy to say, owls still hunt where the backlot use to be, I recently saw one fly across the street and up to the water tower on what is now Sony lot 1. This would be the offspring of my two favorite backlot birds ever. I’m a proud grandpa it turns out.
The climb to the top of this church is scary in daylight, but you should try it at night. Just trust what you’re grabbing hold of for support doesn’t snap. A sign of the cross is in order once you arriveup top….literally!
Four humans can fit fairly comfortable here but be careful not to be seen.
“OK …I got to go, good luck everybody getting down from here!”
The feature that just won’t quit. It’s so popular, the budget allows for episodes 2 and 3 to be made in the same year. Any and all on this production become consumed with this Pirate lifestyle. Pirate jewelry can be bought on set. Skeleton rings are popular and almost everyone wears one. Pirate flags are hoisted above the trailers at basecamp. The closer or deeper you go on set, the more real it gets.
My job allows me to see all phases of production. The preparation begins with construction of the sets. Once that happens scenic artists age it to look ancient. Then come the props, while set lighting pulls 4/0 cables from generators to distro boxes. You can never have enough power on sets this large.
The transportation department alone eats up over a thousand amps, set lighting, effects, catering-all need juice!
A show like this is self-contained and can film basically anywhere in the world. The producer, Jerry Bruckheimer has all the credit you need to open doors no one else can. When in Hollywood, their job becomes much easier. That’s why Universal gets attached to every Pirate episode. We have big stages and a huge backlot. We have had Pirate battles all over it, from our cobblestone European streets to lighthouse set up at Falls Lake.
One of my favorite sets ever on Stage 12 is the Singapore Harbor set. This stage is our biggest, and that set covered almost every square inch inside. I can walk you through there some other time. You will not believe the details and Chinese decorations; you will feel like you’re in ancient times as soon as you shut the stage door.
The Tortuga Bar set on the backlot was a relatively quick build for a show like this one. The morning after the all-night fight was classic, broken bottles were everywhere. Stunts were performed efficiently, and you probably woke up with a hangover, not from drinking-just being there as bottles full of syrup were everywhere you turned. This brawl was completed in one night, how’s that for professionalism?
As fast as it was put up, it came down. The bar was built in the courtyard of an already existing set, so hardly any materials were used. The bar itself was destroyed; I salvaged the Lion Heads that were headed to the dumpster. They lined the bar and are plaster. You can see them in my bar picture, just below the counter.
In the big picture, this was a small scene for this crew. But be forewarned-even the smallest scene on a show starring Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp–IS HUGE!
I wish J.D. well in his legal predicament that has America glued to Court TV. Stand up for what’s right, Captain Jack!
In 1995, the world watched in anticipation as the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. Universal was in complete shutdown mode on every stage and set when the verdict was to be announced on his murder trial. It was like a Murder She Wrote episode, but better.
Not only everybody at Universal watched, but the entire country took an early lunch for the outcome. I was in a gold room on Stage 12 and watched on a black and white rabbit ear TV set with set lighting personnel rigging the stage. We were shocked at the verdict, just as shocked as when we heard he was arrested back on June 13, 1994.
A driver friend Gene was with us and shared a very recent experience he had with O.J. on the set of Frogmen. In that film, Gene was driving for the show and was chauffeuring O.J. from the set in Malibu to his house in Brentwood. O.J. plays a Navy Seal in this film. On the way back home, he had Gene detour so O.J. could visit a store in Santa Monica that sells knives and swords. Nothing was thought of at that moment in time-but fast forward and then think backwards. Coincidence…?
You can read between the lines yourself. The role of a Navy Seal requires superior skill with weapons, and he received technical military training prior to what took place in Brentwood.
I met O.J. of all places-on the California incline in Santa Monica. He was running uphill with the Olympic Torch, as he handed it off, I high- fived him. I had chills it was so cool.
After all, he was #32, The Juice– back then…
I close with these legal memories…One, the O.J. trial, Two, the John Landis trial involving Vic Morrow, Three, Johnny Depp and his interesting situation, and Alec Baldwin’s debacle. Every 20 years something big happens to our unfathomable heroes.
At sea… the voyage begins at a berth in San Pedro, California. An hour away from Universal. I have a thing for Pirates, how can you not. The last Pirate Ship I was on was at Sony for the movie Hook. It would sit in the water tank on stage, but was not built to sail. Just to be admired, inside and out, this was a Pirate Museum. Gold bars were stacked aboard. “gold painted wood blocks.”
It was built in front of a harbor on stage, and no expense was spared on this Peter Pan film. Fast forward, from the twenties, through the eighties, and touch down at the original port of entry of all navigation going to and from Italy for the 1924 film Ben Hur. Distant locations required sailing to the destinations back then. This port area is where needed items were shipped out, and return voyages delivered film that was needed for post production. Now that’s pioneer movie making for you.
L.A. Harbor has long been a player in films. To this day, it’s always in use in some film series.
Things I’ll never forget is the cannon sequences when every hatched door opened with a powerful cannon blast, one after another. As real as it gets. The making of this movie and all the mechanical challenges, combined with sensation make up and costumes, is better than the movie itself. For added effect, fog guns laid a blanket on the sea that wind machines could push around. It helps provide contrast on a dark sea lane.
Usually a second unit goes to the desired location for all the marvelous establishing shots that transport the viewer where their mind should be. Then for costs, and control of activities, the principal sets are built here in Hollywood. For Pirates, Universal filled the bill three different times.
White Caps Harbor took over 3 months of preparation to build, with crews working 12 hour days.
Pirates 1-2-and 3 were done at the backlot that has those Glamour Trams cruising around. Tourists could see this set get rigged from a distance, and very few details were given out due to a family feud between these two studios. We don’t promote them nor do they promote Universal. Never mention the D -word while on our lot as a tour guide. That applies for the other Disney set yonder called Desperate . Housewives.
Disney had more successful shows on our lot than we did!
I remember one night about 3am, I had two shows going on in the middle of the night. Spiderman was on NY Street, the Spider Cam was attached to cables and simulated Spiderman traversing rooftops. New York Street looked like it was the real deal. The entire street was lit up. At the same time, Pirates was filming at the beach set I’m taking you on. We have two mega blockbusters going in the middle of the night –while the city sleeps.
Downtown Las Vegas has nothing on the Universal Backlot that week. This schedule went on for over a week of all nighters. But quickly after the final shots of rafts being blown up at sea and a tower blowing up in a major early evening explosion. It ended like when you wake up from a good dream. I want more…Everything was packed up to head overseas.
One set has a man dressed in a red Spider Costume, the other has a famous Pirate, also in a red outfit. I facilitate the technical needs of each film, so my job is insurance if something goes wrong, power wise. I sit next to Johnny as his beautiful make up artist touches him up. Johnny doesn’t hide away in his trailer, he’s Captain Jack, he belongs at sea, and all things surrounding it. I watch him, as he watches filming of a scene he’s not in. He’s the face of this film and he represents everything you would want in a star professionally. I sat 15 minutes two feet away, slightly behind him, watching his every reaction, inhaling his cigarette, in aww. Admiring how real he looks, from hat full of dreadlocks to those buckled boots and all things in between. Errol Flynn never looked this good.
If thats not enough, the next costumed star I run into down the hill is Spider Man. It’s 3:30 am, and our backlot is in full swing. There is more traffic on the backlot than the Hollywood Freeway.
These two shows overlapped with each other, trust me- these were gigantic production companies. These two sets were far enough apart that we could fit and film these sets at the same time without interference. Pyro must be finished by 10pm on our lot, for our surrounding neighbors. Nights often start with loud goings on and extreme action before settling down for dialogue basic photography.
The location work on that film at sea was augmented with scenes filmed on the backlot. Buildings hit by cannon fire. In Pirates 1, we blew up our European Street, it was being bombed by Pirate cannonballs. Then we built an entire village of Singapore, on Stage 12. That set was maybe the best on Stage 12- ever built.
Keith Richards was on that set, from the band The Rolling Stones I have a lot of history and precious memories from this series and I thought- Johnny could use some love. You know you’re a Pirate when you own your own island and hang with Keith Richards...that brit didn’t even need make up. Mick turned the part down.
As much as movie fans look up to Johnny, he himself looks up to someone. It’s natural, he’s human, Kieth Richard is that guy. The biggest box office star had his own dream come true on a Friday night at Universal, a cameo from a real life life Rolling Stone.
Flash Flood attraction c.1970 –The Good old– Pink and White Days
Same loaction many years later with added sets in the background. Universal Studios Hollywood, publicity photo.
The calm before the storm
Another TV series was omitted off that list, Alfred Hitchcock Presents has an episode involving this little village. One more, Airwolf had a tank battle with the helicopter. Yes, this area was built for films, but kept alive for tours.
Elephants used to be part of this studio. The huge sliding doors on sound stages are referred to as Elephant doors.
A vintage brochure. Many thins have changed since then. #14 is the Flash Flood location.
An arial view today showing the Flash Flood location left of the white roof.
1970’s postcard showing Flash Flood attraction
Prop Plaza -mid eighties…
We begin, once you’re seated;
In 1968 the Flash Flood set opened as the first special-effects attraction and proved to be a major hit for the theme park. 10,000 gallons of water would rush 200 feet down a narrow Mexican village street, uprooting an old tree and threatening to engulf the tram. From sunny California to a storm in a matter of moments, the weather would suddenly takes a turn for the worse. When I was a Glamour Tram Driver in the 80’s, this was one of the attractions that would get the most screams.
The area of Prop Plaza is where patrons would board the Glamour Tram for the second half of the guided tour. The tour guide and I often bond here, since there is down time involved with loading trams at this rest stop. It’s here, where we regroup and pick up 175 new passengers. The excitement begins when we close the tram gates. But as soon as we turn the corner, another back up tram greets you. It’s like an airport and you’re on a plane waiting for clearance to take-off.
So, after a small delay, I get my green light, signaling my turn to diagnose the 100-foot vehicle around a hairpin turn. The front of the tram can see the back off the tram for one brief moment, as this 16-wheel contraption moves along in serpentine fashion. The tour guide usually has run out of things to talk about, but whatever whispers are being directed through the microphone are soon overcome by the sound of rain, wind and thunder. Flood conditions and flash floods have tormented this area since trams replaced horses, back here. As I drive this tram down a sleepy Mexican village road, there’s a warning thunderclap, followed by a tropical downpour. Before you can react, a tree overhead cracks and up the road a wall of water rushes towards you in a monstrous wave. The tree is uprooted and the flash flood threatens to swamp the tram. At the last moment, the flood waters are diverted and the tree miraculously rights itself. The flood is a tribute to the ingenuity of Universal’s Special Effects Department.
I have had the privilege of doing VIP tours and one of my favorite moments at this spot involved a private tour for Don Adams and his kids inside our San Francisco trolley experience. Agent 86 being driven around by me. I love GET SMART, who doesn’t?
As the flood is about to charge us, I step off the tram because me being seated blocked the view of one of the kids on board. The wall of water is the full blown and spreads where I’m standing, soaking my shoes. Don Adams sees this and cleverly in his Get Smart voice says, “I ruin more shoe phones that way.”
As we all laugh- I take off my shoe and attempt to talk in it...Living the dream here, I watched this show of his every Saturday Night as a kid. I had goosebumps when I was told I was giving this tour to Mr. Adams.
It turns out, before I was a tram driver, Don Adams did a movie here involving trams, The Nude Bomb. They race the old pink and whites around our backlot. Agent 99 is replaced by Sylvia Kristel, most noted as a star in adult films. Any tour employee would enjoy this romp, and I must say, some of our tour guides have done adult films, but I digress. These are part of the spectrum of stories shared while waiting to pick up guests at Prop Plaza. If you ever wondered what gets discussed while we wait, it’s career stuff. Just tour guides looking for that big break!
Drivers make 5 times what guides make on the pay scale. We are Hollywood Teamsters, proud of it. Tour Guides rarely last more than a season or two. Some drivers call tramming a career. For culture, Universal cornered the market with top bands always booked at the quaint, acoustically sound, amphitheater. Movies, music, and a studio tour generated a large diverse income source that was second only to Disneyland for tourist dollars.
Tours always finish where they started, and we open the gates at the live action theater. The A-Team would be switched to Miami Vice. Crockett and Tubbs impersonators replaced Mr. T, or JJ as we knew him, and would greet guests to the thumping 80’s theme song playing over and over on the speaker system.
That’s Entertainment…Tram on the right-your turn-All aboard!
An aerial view from 1965 showing current filming of Hogan’s Heroes (L) and Camp Henderson (R).
Once upon a time continues…
The little Luft Stalag we all grew up wanting to be inside, better known as Stalag 13 from the iconic T.V. Series-Hogan’s Heroes, is our subject on the table today;
This fairly simple build -known by TV Land as Stalag 13, has quite the tumultuous past. What many folks don’t realize is the history that took place prior to it being a German World War 2 prison camp.
Fires, giant monsters and Jesus himself preceded this 1965 build of a camp needed to expand on a prisoner of war narrative. You got to have a Stalag, and few exist. MGM Lot 3 had a couple you could dress, alter into a camp.” Dachu” was a Twilight Zone episode filmed right down the street from where this camp was built. So Culver City had one existing already- but it’s at MGM.
Why not build our own, so Bing Crosby Productions did just that early on in 1965. They had plenty of land and could fabricate exactly what they envisioned. I doubt they expected the success this series spun into. TV series are a crap shoot, literally. Some good one’s get canned due to cost to film/ ratings ratio’s.Planet of the Apes TV series was as good as anything TV wise in the 70’s, but very costly to produce and was quickly disposed of. It broke my heart, but by that time I was getting use to Hollywood heartbreak and despair. Just beyond a line of eucalyptus trees, at this same time, another camp was being put up at the for Gomer Pyle. Camp Henderson sits south of Stalag 13. Yes-they’re neighbors.
They were built for two TV series that became staples in American History. But no-one knew what they really had then. In some ways these series are more popular today, with folks who weren’t even alive yet. Now that’s Good-TV.
Almost daily for close to 7 years, these two shows filmed back-to-back, side by side. But the past is often more glorious than the present. No piece of land on any section of backlot anywhere rocked and rolled like this one did. Framed by rolling man made berms and eucalyptus trees, they were built to hide the industrial warehouses that sprout upwards beyond the fence line behind it. Those factories make other things, but this factory makes films and television.
It’s changed names and owners, RKO, Selznick, and Desilu all created magic that stood the test of time. What most people might not realize is how so much history is layered on top of one another. There is always someone working on these sets who can tell anecdotes of activities far backwards in time, stories thatare golden- fade to silence. Completely disappearing, much like these backlots themselves.
Stalag 13 first captivated me from the outside, when I would ride my bike around looking through the chain link fence that surrounded this lot. One of the guard towers tried to tempt any kid who set eyes on it. Tower three could be seen clearly from the outside and looked down on Marion Davies Make-up room. This same fence threatened potential trespassers with Dogs on Duty warnings. Signs with viscous dogs you may run into –dare you try. So, a K-9 barrier existed and separating me from what would eventually become my backyard. It took a while for this kid wearing a Bat Cape to stomach the fortitude necessary to take on this assignment. Call it if you will- Mission Impossible.
Where theirs a will the theirs a way. In my book, Hole in the Fence, you can make this trespass with me, I dare ya!
Speaking of Impossible Missions, that series used this stalag as a 3rd world prison in South America. Set decorations tried best to hide what is clearly evident Stalag 13. This episode of M.I would never have been able to double dip this camp had the producers all not been in cahoots with the same Paramount Gulf -Western hierarchy. This camp ended it’s longevity with an adult film and no –Bob Crane is not in it. That said–Auto Focus is a film about Bob during the time his series was filmed here, it’s not exactly flattering, but accurate from most accounts of that time in his life. His death after Hogan’s Heroes was cancelled, in Scottsdale Arizona, is still unsolved. As is Thomas Ince’s, who built this lot in the first place.
Because of the wide-open distance these camps presented, getting in a the La Ballona creek to visit Stalag 13 was like crossing a mine field, of course the biggest concern was –the Dogs! So to cut out unnecessary crawling, ducking, and running, we climbed in through private property right behind that tempting guard tower that watches over this street corner, like a street light. Yes, we hid behind a shed often, shed being-Marion Davies make up trailer. For us, it was a place to hide and catch our breath before climbing one more fence and being inside-Stalag 13.
Little did I know at that time what was inside this shed. This compound was used by Hogan’s Heroes and was the last show/series to set foot inside this area. The owner of this property once started up theTigerTank, (you know the one)-it was parked back in this corner right behind his house. His kitchen window looked right directly at Klink’s office. A few POW barracks doors ended up on this property.
No set ever has captivated me so much, it seemed real, abandoned and liberated, yet ready for occupancy. What happened next was a show wanting this section of the backlot did not want a prison camp. A south western village is what replaced Stalag 13. The movie The Fortune built an entire community on this historic spot…
More, more, history to be made as Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson are now acting on that piece of land Stalag 13 just occupied. What saddened me most about losing Stalag 13 for this set was the fact I was on a photography mission to take pictures of Stalag 13 with my little Kodak Instamatic. That was my whole purpose, I hadn’t filmed that set and was going to use an entire roll of expensive to develop film. Times have changed in the picture taking world.
When I arrived after school, I could not believe my eyes, it was gone, the entire camp. But I was just here and explored it up and down, in towers, in little tunnels, under the dog house, all the cool stuff. I didn’t realize the urgency.
A work force was still moving and removing items. The three guard towers were moved from where they stood for 10 years, the dog houses were somewhere else. No more barracks, no more Klink’s office. Just a little yellow room, next to Klink’s office, would be retained. I watched in dismay from a hillside that’s background in every episode. I wanted a dog house, but they were on back of a truck. The only thing left, kind of hidden, nestled below this hillside is the tree stump.
Well, with perseverance and assistance from my buddy Pat Rich, we wrestled this prop all the way across town to my house, on an ancient steel wheel cart. It was at that time my greatest accomplishment. It lasted a few years, it held up well in my bedroom, but it got moved outside, played with by anybody who saw it and finally the wood and composite material collapsed from one too many escapes. The lid was hinged and that lasted decades more, just the lid.
This little Stalag, that looked and seamed so real to us kids, lasted 10 years…It was a set that was so unique no other facades came close. To be honest, this was my favorite set of all-time. And, it’s on TV Land six times a day!
That made it super fun, reruns, then on channel 11, bundled with Andy Griffith episodes, were extremely realistic for us kids, since we could go explore every piece of it, once again, like we were in the episodes…
Like the sets that preceded it, this entire area is shall we say Gone With the Wind
Written and lived by… Donnie Norden
The road being used is just east of Stalg 13
The Road to Stalag 13 Same highway-different day. A Mayberry Gold Shipment sped down this road with Barney locked in the back…
Family-coming to visit Gomer…
More 40 Acre backroads
This storage unit was one of the few items still around from Hogan’s Heroes when I arrived. The tool shed lasted the longest involving this camp. Besides my Hogan’s Heroes tree stump which ended up a mile away here.
The storage unit can be seen in this pictue I took in 1975. Those rope cots below were inside the barracks. The barracks roof tops lay along the right hand side in this picture. This is the strike of Stalag 13 taking place. The set still standing below can be seen in Hogan’s Heroes in certain camera angles, but was not part of the stalag. It’s in episodes of Andy Griffith.
Hogan and crew wreaking havoc on a german bridge located on the 40 Acres Backlot
A picture I took of what’s left of the bridge in 1975
This picture is on top of the hillside used as backdrop of this camp. One end looks down on the Atlanta Rail Depot. The other side looks upon Stalag 13. Jimmy is sitting in a spot we both spent a lot of time; this was a section of paradise and is absolutely impossible to get caught up here. We were up here so often, the bushes had the groove of our bodies in them, very comfortable space to discuss world issues that affect teenagers. The grass is so deep, you could disappear. I literally did once, this mountain gobbled me up. It was accidental I’m sure. The film crew on The Fortune, rescued me, I’m forever grateful. “Oh, it’s you!” were the first words I heard climbing to safety. Mom always said as I walked out our front door “Just be careful Donnie please” She should have made T-Shirts sporting that line.
A path through these sand paper bushes connects the Ken Jones, Mayberry R.F.D farmhouse to Stalag 13. You could traverse a top this semi- artificial hill top. There was no-way to get caught up here- it was our sanctuary.
Sadness, it’s gone. But quickly, new sets would sprout up. That yellow shed was left up and was used as a tool room during the building of the newest village to my backlot. That’s a guard in that white truck who arrived as work crews left for the day. Desilu water tower, often seen in episodes of Hogan’s Heroes can be seen in the distant haze.
A view from the same spot different direction. We had hammocks tied to trees up here and spent all night just being boys, no clocks, no worries, and a huge bottle wine.
You can stay inside here- plenty of bathrooms. That’s because-this is the only bathroom on this Desilu backlot besides a private one at the main gate for security. The lot has little infrastructure, portable power and amenities get added when and where needed.
Grab yourself a seat…
Back to Mayberry!
Stuff I found in the Stalag itself. Match these names to the TV credits. Bruce Bilson is the director, right column, number 658. He is legendary at 40 acres, a toast to Bruce, everybody. His career is all about quality TV, from Get Smart to Love American Style, you watch his stuff daily. He started as an assistant director on Andy Griffith from 1960-63. He has so much history, just involving TV on this lot. I talked briefly with him last year on the phone. I wish I could spend 10 more minutes with him. He did like my Hogan’s Heroes tree stump story. His laugh validated my effort to share the unique story with him.
In the old days before computers, we made maps…This one is more accurate than you realize.
If you’re not paying attention, you think this General Burkholder.
She’s prettier than the last commandant in charge, who would want to escape now...
Left: A 1926 shot of the outside of the trailer Right: The trailer today
One of the oldest portable make-up trailers in Hollywood, once owned by Marion Davies, is found 100 years later in a backyard behind what was once….. the 40-Acre Backlot in Culver City.
Extra Extra…Read all about it!
Nearly a year ago, I posted a story about a make-up room which was loaned out for nearly 50 years to the RKO, Selznick and Desilu Studios, when they filmed on the 40-Acre Backlot. During that trip I visited a house, which I now believe was a movie studio bungalow, where this make-up room still stands today. Well at least partially, I’ll get to that later. While there, the current owner of 50+ years and I shared our personal stories of trespassing and he showed me the interior of this make-up room. When I saw the interior of this room all I could think about is, I want this mirror! At that time, my newly found friend was not interested in selling this because he was currently keeping his grandmas gardening tools in there and this 100-year-old structure was on the verge of collapsing.
Fast forward to this year, I receive a call from the owner of the house telling me they are selling the house and if I want the make-up mirror, come and get it. I couldn’t get over there fast enough!
I always wondered what was in this little room. Last time I gained entry I was only allowed to shoot a couple of pictures from afar of the crowded interior. But this time I get my wish.
As the door opens, again, an eerie presence resonated from the inside, like we opened the cork on a bottle with a genie inside. Behind some ancient gardening tools, I spot the mirror with lightbulbs adorning both sides. Not just any mirror, this is a set up for a movie star. The backside of the dressing room door also has a full body mirror from top to bottom. These two mirrors look at each other as a blue seat covered stool sits in between, where the star would sit for their make-up to be applied.
During filming of The Fair Co-ed, 1926. “Round as the world turns, the doorway and mirrors have soft, crescent shaped curves as do the ladies standing in front of these objects”...B -stands for billionaire
Vivien Leigh herself was rumored to have used this make-up room during early production, before she received her own portable trailerpictured above
Three of the four walls had fancy mirrors. The square mirror was replaced as changes were made inside over decade after decade. I have the round mirror reflected in the square mirror. Desi Arnaz would alter this room on his turn as owner. I would discover a Panatronic Radio inside whose manufacturer verifies was made specifically for Desi Arnaz.
A clear interior view of Marion Davies Dressing Room in 1926Picture No. MGM-467
Marion Davies Dressing Room as it looks today. You can see some modifications were done over the 50 years it was in service
Marion Davies Make-up stool.
Behind all the rakes and fertilizer were shelves with items used by various star occupants and the make-up artist of the day. I realize something extraordinary, whoever was the last star to use this room left it thinking it would be used again. Half used make-up and items that wouldn’t have been left behind if this wasn’t the case. This star make-up room is still opulent over a 100 years later. Each item ties to a different era.
To my surprise, I notice this structure has a horse hitch attached to the front. And while searching under the trailer I noticed on each side there are two wheels cleverly concealed inside these mirrored walls! This is a trailer… A Mobile Star Trailer! At that moment I felt like a modern-day Indiana Jones. Holy Grail Batman!
Wheel Covers which hid these 1920s wooden spoke wheels
After talking to the owner of the house and validating it with pictures online, I was able to verify this make-up trailer was originally owned by Marion Davies, when she worked at MGM in 1926. And was moved to the backyard of this house in 1929/1930 when she replaced her original star trailer with one that had a refrigerator and running water. What use then, would she have for the outdated one? No use to her, but down the street, there was a great need to tend to actors out on the 40-Acre Backlot, for touch ups, since the Studio Main Lot was nearly a quarter of a mile away.
Marion Davies showing off her replacement “Dressing Room on Wheels” (1930). This coach was equipped with a radio, electric refrigerator, and hot and cold water.MGM Picture-1926
This is a significant historical find and one must wonder how it escaped being noticed for over 100 years, and how it got to this location.
Last year I tried to gather up stories from older residents who shared this street on Lucerne Avenue. I wanted history from other people who saw it first-hand or their parents. The most prevalent memory was the Burning of Atlanta fire sequence from Gone with the Wind. The towering inferno created havoc not only with the township, but all the critters that felt the need to escape the backlot and find a safe place on Lucerne. They also remembered their parents talking about the cast from GWTW using this room and Fay Wray during the backlot takes from King Kong.
Fay Wray looking scared
Filming of King Kong on the 40 Acres Backlot.
Same King Kong Gate being burned to the ground in 1938 to make room for future GWTW sets.SIP-108-386
A Selznick International Pictures Make-up still showing Scarlett and Tara near Portable Make-up Trailer
An early Aerial view of Tara (Left) in relation to “the house with the white roof”. Arrow shows the dressing room.
A further shot of the Gone with the Wind sets- Streets of Atlanta (Left), The Train Station (Center), Tara (Right) and our house in the bottom right corner
During the TV revolution, Spock, Bruce Lee, Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle are just some of the faces and characters who have been in and around here. The Batmobile was parked out front here, with witnesses’ having seen Batman drinking a can of beer from a brown paper bag. All these old homes are part of this film culture, inside and out. Many stories will eventually disappear, as so many pictures have- depicting all this. This corner in Culver City is as colorful as it gets. It’s centered between what was Desilu and Hal Roach studios. If TV Land has a neighborhood, this is it!
This backyard trailer was an active make up room up to the early 70’s. According to the family, the cast of Hogan’s Heroes would be the last show to use this dressing room in between takes.
As a kid, my passion to escape into Stalag 13 took me through this private yard, regularly starting in 1972. I had to first sneak into this yard before climbing a second fence that puts me right behind Stalag 13. In between the two fence climbs lies a unique structure covered with shingles. My initial encounter with this shed was just an observation as I climbed into Desilu. Etched there like every tree or obstacle in my backlot adventures was banked. The subconscious mapping of the brain is a marvelous tool, especially useful when on the run from the guards. In 1974, I was able to rescue the Hogan’s Heroes tree stump and rolled that iconic prop onto a steel wheeled cart and pushed cross town, to my home. So, I have previous history dating back half a century.
Similar view now occupied by Stalag 13, with the dressing room visible in the background. Front row seats!!!!!
Of all the amazing experiences I have had, both trespassing and in my long studio career, this is the most sensational item I have ever come across. Plus, it’s the ultimate studio game of CLUE. I get chills looking into the soul of these mirrors. They stare back with a depth and richness that only history can create. I feel it was my calling to save this unit from the claws of developers at this corner.
Another Post demolition of the 40 Acres Backlot showing the white roof of the Dressing Room.
A picture I took over the fence before I approached the owner of the house
Dressing room being used as a gardening shed
Additional interiors of this 100-year-old structure in decay
Original door handle, with upside-down lock and woodgrain
This is a photo shop picture of the Burning of Atlanta reflection in the door mirror. This room felt the heat and glowed orange as scared critters ran for cover…in December of 1938. Shingles would be added to preserve the exterior A koi pond and ornate statue separates the house from the Make-up trailer. Private gates existed behind the house backdoor and access to and from the Backlot studio itself. This was obviously set up as a star compound, if not the first, then one of the earliest in Hollywood history. The things this door has seen and been part of will stagger your mind!
Marion Davies make-up mirror and stool, items inside still work including the light.
It’s all cleaned out Thora, time to go home.
An heirloom- full of heirlooms from movie history… Time to uncork some Phantom Wine
There is no doubt this trailer belonged to the marvelous Marion Davies. Firsthand accounts and pictures match up. Fifty years after my eventful sneak into Stalag 13- this room has discovered me! We’ve reunited, older but wiser. This time, we’re going to ride off into the sunset together!
Stay tuned next time for my post on the historical items found inside of this trailer.
For more backlot adventures, check out my new book on Amazon, Phantom of the Backlot Presents: Hole in the Fence.
Written and lived over the decades by Donnie Norden…