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…
Life at the beach isn’t all it appears when viewed through the eyes and lens of one of the most legendary film producer, directors in motion picture history. Mr. Thomas Ince is a pioneer, at a level comparable to George Washington. His vision took him from New York to the west coast. The land he arrived at was truly known as Hollywoodland.
Mr. Ince set up shop at the beach, 25 miles as the crow flies from the sign above. Inceville Studios was born. In the memoirs written by Thomas Ince, he expressed dissatisfaction with this selection. Weather is not always that sunny on the ocean. Gray skies, fog, wind are as natural shall we say as Earth, Wind, and Fire. It goes with the turf.
This beach backlot proved to create more difficulties than Mr. Ince expected. Sand, wind and gray skies were turning into unforeseen issues. As fate would have it, Mr. Ince, in a chance meeting with Harry Culver on a set involving the La Ballona creek, developed a kinship. Mr. Culver was instrumental in luring all these studios to Culver City with sweetheart deals.
Mr. Ince first would develop Triangle Pictures, in what turned into MGM. But rather than be one of three– he built his very own studio on what was to be named Ince Blvd.
In 1924, big things were going to change Hollywoodland forever…
I share this story for the foundation of events soon to take place and to this day- has not been fully documented. I have discovered, on a corner once controlled by Thomas Ince, a piece of history that precedes the Hollywood we know today. It’s a major puzzle piece, a missing link to events culminating in 1924.
This is a series of groundbreaking stories dating back to the early twenties I’m about to share, I feel very honored to do so…
Thomas Ince, Cecil B. DeMille, RKO, Selznick International, Desilu and Cinema General Studios all leased or owned this piece of land known as the 40 Acres Backlot in Culver City. In the center of this backlot sat an intersection, known as the 4-way-intersection, whose roots go back to the film Gone with the Wind. During this time, wagon after wagon sped through this section as the Civil War raged on through the streets of this backlot.
20 years later, this Backlot would see major renovations when Desi Arnaz took it over and it became Desilu Culver. That period kicked off the height of television history… Everyone who turned on their TVs in the 60’s dialed into this corner. That’s because most every TV series that was popular passed through this low profile yet highly iconic piece of real estate. Culver City has doubled for Mayberry, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Berlin, Gotham City, or simply, The Metropolis, to name just a few cities.
No other studio backlot enjoyed such colorful costumes and figures, from both the ancient past- to the far-off future. This section saw it all.
As a kid growing up here, these temptations were too hard to resist, so I would enter these sets through a back entrance, then look out a window or doorway, and get the pulse of what was going on inside the lot. This is typically how my adventures began. The backside of this street was overgrown by 6-foot-tall licorice plants. The smell – intoxicating, would activate as you brushed up against these plants that also provide cover to maneuver around, after all, we are trespassing.
Old curtains sit behind filthy windows, the dust of a million TV shows gathers no moss. It’s dry and dirty here, all the buildings on this street are just fronts. The wallpaper was discolored and peeling, and from a different era, but just the same, bared witness to every scene ever filmed here. No backsides, so no protection, the decades took their toll, actually giving it more character. It smells old, it is old, and you can easily get hurt on certain rooftops that we shall deem, questionable at best. Film companies don’t care about what the camera doesn’t see. The dirt is romantic residue from past films, layered on top of previously kicked up dust. I was honored to wear much of it home-on my hands and clothing. At the end of the day, you should smell like dirt and have fun remembering how you got that way.
That’s what it takes to be a backlot explorer.
So, the inside of these sets reek of ancient film making. But outside these same windows I would look out of- is a TV Land. Pardon me Columbia Studio’s with Bewitched and Dennis the Menace, or the Partridge Family, or Paramount with the Brady Bunch and Love American Style. MGM was war TV like no other studio in existence. But Desilu was unique. This lot was built for Superheroes. Superman, Batman, Robin, KATO and The Green Hornet kept the crime rate low.
Next time you’re watching your favorite reruns, picture this intersection, it’s a representation of ancient sounds, and smells, mixed up with the TV generation. Our senses were presented with black and white reproductions. Color existing only on film sets, not TV sets. That changed in 1965 with the transition to color TV, if you were one of the lucky ones, that’s probably when your parents bought their first color TV. A big moment in households across the country.
From 1965 to 1971, this Desilu backlot was a kaleidoscope of imagery for your new fancy cathode ray tube box. Combined with an antenna on the roof, you should be able to pull in pictures from the sky. More than once, I’ve been on our steep roof adjusting the antenna for my dad. It takes two people. This is the cutting-edge science that brought this backlot to life in “living color”
This intersection is a very simple set considering all the history that stepped foot here. My second book will have the stories involving the last films to be done on these sets. One was Lepke, starring Tony Curtis. The other was a wild one-day bazooka blast in a show titled Vigilante Force.
Yep, that’s how this intersection closed, with Jan-Michael Vincent and Kris Kristofferson running around like, … well trespassers!
I realize this post is long, but that’s because of all the movie magic that’s taken place here, you can’t hurry love… I just wanted to share some details and anecdotes of the craziest intersection in TV Land history.
Written and lived by…Donnie Norden.
Atlanta Railroad Depot
Filming of Gone With The Wind. Nearly the same angle as the picture I took above.
A trespassing pic I took a few years later
Star Trek even used this Backlot
Same street as above 30 years before
Everyone’s favorite German
The replacement church built for Frank Sinatra’s Miracle of the Bells…
One Adam-12, we have a report of autograph seekers sneaking into Universal Studios. Meet security at the Lankershim truck gate. They will direct you from there…
Well, that’s how this episode rolls, and what was an autograph seeker turns into a shots fired sniper call. Employees are down in the backlot. As Reed and Malloy respond in their Dodge Valiant, a manhunt begins on our backlot. A tactical incident response is needed to rescue the fallen laborer and to apprehend the sniper. As I watched this episode, this iconic prop from a decade ago worked its way into another television episode. The PT 73 was sitting parked in Spartacus Square.
In need of a face lift, nothing a coat of paint and a little re-anchoring couldn’t fix. But PT boats aren’t much in demand after Mchale’s Navy fulfilled its obligations. So, this boat moved around more by land than by sea. Welcome to Hollywood’s biggest backlot. These two hit legendary TV series unite briefly in this episode.
Later on in the 80’s, PT 73 would return to the sea this series filmed at, as part of the tour. Honorable mention by every tram, as a submarine follows the Glamour Tram. Then sea mines explode by means of compressed air, and all that commotion leads to the parting of the Red Sea.
But once again, fiction would sync up with a factual event that took place sadly on our lot. The exact same gate that Adam-12 pulled up at to enter the lot had an autograph seeker pay it a visit. This tourist approached security wanting to meet Michael Landon. Highway to Heaven was a hit series at this time. But it was being filmed in Culver City, at the MGM main lot.
After being told “NO” by security, a short time later this fellow returned and opened fire on security. Two guards were killed.
Security is a mixed bag, many retired LAPD officers are corporate security, capable of carrying firearms. But the cheaper form of private security does not carry weapons. That is due to a major executive having a gun pulled on him by security. That changed the landscape. Walkie-talkies replaced firearms for the overall patrol of the studio. This coincided with the time frame of this episode, in the early 70’s.
Lo and behold, in 1988, this 1974 TV episode of Adam-12 rings many bells for anyone who experienced that afternoon at Universal Studios. Peace be with; Jeren and Armando….End of Watch!
Let’s see, is it just me, or is this movie chillingly accurate. The masks, the living conditions, and methods used for compliance… “Get the Scoops!”
I wrote about sneaking on this set and went into detail on the scariest chase ever in my first book. But a look back 50 years is a bit, shall we say Sobering. We seem to have these same problems, plus we have World War. Take that 1972- we got it worse.
Logan’s Run filmed on this lot 4 years later, and also has a form of population control. A wheel of fortune is how your fate is determined, when you hit thirty, you may wish to run.
The Ultimate Warrior filmed on these same sets with yet another apocalypse, starring Yul Brynner. Then, A Planet full of Apes took over the street and things ran very well.
Another film, which is coming true- is Blade Runner. Robots with artificial intelligence. What was sci-fi, is now as real as it gets.
I wanted to share this 50 year old snapshot in time and compare our society as it is today. Submitted for your approval– Soylent Green 1972-2022
“Soylent Green is People”... a harbinger of things to come!
Where the front lot stages meet the backlot perimeter. Producers row sits with offices of top award-winning film makers. Sidney Pollack had his office next door in refurbished bungalow. Michael J. Fox is next door to him. This was back in the day when I had full access to all things Universal…we were M.C.A. in the day. Music Corporation of America, yes- we rock and roll here!
Even the Beatles visited our studio 1965 and quickly became friends with the cast of The Munsters. Due to insurance issues involving the band’s exploding popularity, Lew Wasserman offered up some of our star dressing rooms for their visit before the Dodger stadium concert.
When you see a sign involving a bicycle flying with E.T. in the basket, you’re here. You’re greeted by a wood gate that will open if you belong here, it’s nestled in a southwestern style location of offices and bungalows. A Koi Pond, nestled below tall trees, provides a relaxation area outside. Inside, depending on your visit, is where many of your favorite all time films were negotiated and came to life. A rolling popcorn cart sits just inside from the patio. A quaint theater sits adjacent to entrance. Kathleen Kennedy has offices here. Several films were coproduced by these two.
This sloped agora area also has offices of several of the studio’s top bread winners, including Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s company. Here is a list of doors to knock on in the 80’s and 90’s etc…
Dino De Laurentis had a bungalow adjacent to theirs while making Red Dragon with Anthony Hopkins. That complex was at one time Alfred Hitchcock’s.
Tom Shadyac– Shady Acres complex
Ivan Reitman maintained a very plush office just outside the Amblin fences. Kindergarten Cop and Twins were done at our facility.
This area is like the old New York Yankees, Murderer’s Row...Each office has the potential to produce the top film at this lot. Normally, just bet on Spielberg.
Films I have touched bases with him as lead man include;
Amazing Stories- TV
Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3
Jurassic Park 1,2 and 3
Casper– the feature.
Amistad– a prison set on Stage 12
Jaws: The Revenge
War of the Worlds -Starring Tom Cruise
Minority Report- Starring Tom Cruise
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull- starring Harrison Ford
One enormous benefit of production at Universal is the promotional end, trams talk all things Universal films. Especially his, then the hope is you go buy a dinosaur T-Shirt. Go ride Jurassic Park, or E.T. Films interact with promotional caveats to hoist profits upwards in ways no other studio can utilize.
Yes, this man practically lives on this lot during filming and Universal gave him the production office he’s in since they don’t ever want him to leave. It’s quite the marriage, win- win. Sidney Sheinberg is the man responsible for signing on this young director and gave him a project titled –Duel-1971. Lew Wasserman was the last movie mogul in Hollywood at this time. Sid was Lew’s right-hand man.
Steven directed Night Gallery as his starter at the studio in 1969. This episode stars Joan Crawford and also my friend Roddy McDowall. Roddy and I first met on Planet of the Apes, MGM. Then again at Universal on Tales of the Gold Monkey.
Two memorable episodes of Amazing Stories on the backlot were…
One–The Daddy Mummy episode. A hospital bound daddy -to- be, mummified for his role in a horror film, grunts and stumbles his way through our backlot steeped in the Egyptian eerie legend of mummy Ra Amin Ka.
Two–You Gotta Believe Me… Convinced the vivid nightmare of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet crashing into his house is more than a dream. Earl Sweet tries to alter the tale.
Ironically, this would not be the last full scale jumbo jet Mr. Spielberg would bring to our lot. War of theWorlds had a similar fate.
Fast forward to Indiana Jones– Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the last feature I worked on of his. This show had sets on the backlot and on stages.
Universal’s ancient stage numbered 27 was used as a native jungle temple set. I was on set blowing a fan on our star Harrison Ford- to simulate a breeze.
Harrison is about to grab a blow dart gun from an Indian who is about to launch a poison dart. Indiana Jones blows into it, reversing the dart into the native ‘s mouth. Close-up stuff… all face to face. A pretty slick scene indeed…
Michael Bay happened to be on New York street filming Transformers at this same time.
It was then the A.D. tells Steven,”Michael Bay is here and about to enter inside Stage 27.” In a comic moment, Mr. Spielberg started yelling at his crew in a disrespectful way. That’s because Michael Bay is known to behave that way. So, Spielberg pretended to be rude and crude as Mr. Bay entered, that went on for a few seconds – expletives were being delivered left and right by our director before everyone split their gut in laughter.
Thanks for letting us visit Mr. Spielberg, and especially… for your magnificent film making!
When this feature was made back in 1981, I was aggressively applying to film companies and distributors of such around town. I was working for a company called Gilboy. We had movies that we shipped all over the U.S. usually six reels is the average length of a feature and they ship in metal cans. Our top movie was Star Wars. We couldn’t ship it fast enough, that’s when we all discovered for eternity Ms. Carrie Fisher.
She became bigger than life from that role of Princess Leia and most likely, bigger than Debbie Reynolds, the MGM matriarch. Once you’re a goddess from another Universe, you have reached your peak. So, this fun romp was just a throwback to a time when Culver City was overrun by dwarfs and little people. Debbie would eventually grace MGM in the fifties the way Carrie graced the Universe in the seventies onwards.
This story of the Munchkins arriving to make The Wizard of Oz had to touch a sentimental nerve in both Carrie and Debbie. Debbie would have worked with people involved with the making of the original Wizard of Oz. Carrie and Todd Fisher would grow up on these studio backlots that ringed the city.
What’s neat was all things existed in 1981 as they did in the years 37/38. Other than the backlots, which were all scorched earth by the time this recreation was made. Many of our our city landmarks still remained. The Culver Hotel being most centerpiece. A gate was built on the street named Van Buren for this film. It has Culver City Studios attached to it. The studio should be Selznick Studios and Gone With the Wind was taking up much of the studio located on Ince Blvd. The studio was Culver City Studios-in 1981, now Amazon Studios occupies this landmark.
The hotel that was described as Culver’s skyscraper looks down on all of this. It’s as rich in history as our studios themselves. They are directly tied together in fact. Previous owners besides the founder Harry Culver would include Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne. Legend has it Chaplin lost the hotel in a card game.
The Hotel opened September 4,1924, two months before the owner of the studio across the street-ThomasInce mysteriously passed on- aboard the Hearst yacht. Way back when Hollywoodland sign glowed proudly, looking down upon its aspiring film making entrepreneurs.
Let’s just say- The party was just getting started as this corner was being developed 1918-1924. After Ince’s death, RKO and Joseph Kennedy took over and the studio took on a rogue toughness. The backlot was a wild ranch, not lined with structured game plans like were being designed by MGM. One studio had a master plan while the other – shot from the hip. Even though highly competitive, the hotel and this entire downtown was a place for studio execs to compare notes on who gets what perks and where this film business is headed.
This area came together during silent film days- The Golden Age of Hollywood.
From 1924 until the time Under the Rainbow came here in 1981, the history on this corner is second to none in all of Hollywood. 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers are not built in a way that intersects so intimately with its potential audience. Many of our residents work on these films and movie stars are just par for the course. Paramount is centered in a way much like our Culver Studios.
A who’s who of guests have included Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Frank Sinatra, and Ronald Reagan. Dwight D. Eisenhower even had a campaign office inside in his run for office in 1952. Casts from Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz both staying here including over a hundred Munchkins were lodged here. But entertainment was across the street, at Big Ed’s Bar
It’s famous for the likes of Desi Arnaz, Leonard Nimoy, Batman, and every studio mogul and actor in need of a stiff drink. A tunnel existed from this Culver Hotel to the bar across the street. This was a speak- easy during prohibition. Drinking never stopped around here and drastically increased during this original production. The bar had an escape route back to your hotel. From all accounts, this corner was wilder than this film portrays it.
Drinks were on hand during this remake, Chevy Chase parked his black 911 Turbo Porsche right outside its saloon doors. My dad has many stories inside Big Ed’s. The Bar is featured in the film Barfly. My dad became a member of SAG after some shrewd negotiations by me and the producer in front of this bar. I became an agent, I got my dad a trailer and healthy residuals, a huge upgrade from a box lunch and all the booze you can drink. Ohh the memories…
This corner is as iconic as any in Hollywood. Robert Stack and his Untouchables was never really able to clean up this section, since Studio execs need it to freshen up at lunch time. More than one episode has Tommy Gun’s a-blazing right across the street from this watering hole. I can only imagine Robert Stack coming in to order a drink… “No, no no alcohol here sir!”
It wouldn’t shock me to hear a booze tunnel extended into the studio administration building, but I digress.