The original church that stood here was originally built for the movie Gone With the Wind
Stained Glass Gone With The Wind Church/Hospital
Gone With the Wind concept of Atlanta. Notice the GWTW Church (Back center) has a steeple on it. The actual church in the movie did not.
A later shot of the church
More of the damaged church
Aunt Pittypat’s House in the 60’s before the fire
Aunt Pittypat’s House after, is seen in the right of the picture after the fire.
Located dead center of the old RKO backlot, it could be viewed clearly by town folks doing their everyday chores, if their endeavors take them down Jefferson Blvd. I remember my parents going to the local Fedco Department Store in pop’s station wagon, I marveled at all the backlots we passed along the way. Just east of MGM lot 3 and its sky background is the Desilu lot, perfectly wedged between a creek and a hillside. It sits at the edge of town. It was always a part of the landscape around here. It stands out like a parish should.
The best set ever built for a backlot backdrop is this complete church. It’s real inside and should count toward credit on Sunday mass. It’s better than many real churches I see about town. I was raised at St. Augustine’s catholic church. After school- often us Catholic boys headed over to Desilu and this church was our sanctuary from the grind of going to school in a church run by nuns. Frank Sinatra seems more forgiving than Sister Sheila. Every kid needs his Father Flanagan. If ever a backlot needed God’s influence, it’s this 40 acre backlot.
Pews stretch out inside from end to end. Most likely, the last mass inside was for The Andy Griffith series. It sat silently, yet stoically, as if on pause, until we breathed life into it again.
Long before Mayberry existed on this lot by name, this area was built as Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. Inside all the buildings are simple reminders of this prestigious past. Curtains, wallpaper, even some signs are inside every doorway. The focal point of this town is its wonderful church. It makes this town very identifiable, “oh I recognize that set”-stuff. When Jimmy and I first approached it, we tuned in all the Andy Griffith shows done here. One reason is that show was on every evening, so we could watch it on TV then-play there…
Well, that’s the buildup, so let’s step inside -follow me through the front door
We walk down a path with a black sign of mass schedules on one side and a flagpole on the other. We come to two wooden doors that hide what’s inside. So we open sesame…
A vast expanse religious space greets you; it takes a few seconds to absorb what’s inside. A four-story high roof creates an airplane hangar effect. It smells old inside here. There is scent in this building that began fermenting back when the church doors first opened back in 1947. Ancient dust kicked up by horses and soldiers and has settled for eternity inside these old buildings.
It’s real church size and a complete covered shelter. A large circular stained-glass window looks east, outward and beyond. At night the moon shines inside through it. This was the place where catholic boys can cut loose, get their uniforms dirty. Instead of myrrh incense, pot fills the air inside here often. It’s kinda where teen-age kids come to experiment. We’ve had deep life discussions in these pews, as deep as 13-year-olds get. Like confession!
Power exists inside, this church is often a hub for production to set up inside. Food tables, copy machines, refrigerators etc. Phone jacks and rolling phones are inside on production shoots. It doubles as an on-lot production office. The inside of this church was captured in the feature-Miracle of the Bells.
Starring Frank Sinatra and Fred MacMurray, this 1948 film captures this church like no other. As we begin to focus inside, we are greeted by silence. Opaque windows look out to the residential neighborhood that includes both Andy Griffith’s house across the street, two houses down from the church reverend.
A set of dual wood doors also provides access on this, the west side of the church. A messed up stand-up piano sits in a back corner, alongside a more messed up old gimbel horse. The horse is so old it’s decayed from termites but still has spooky eyes and a saddle built on to its back to pretend you’re riding off into the sunset.
For all I know Clark Gable sat on this rocker horse before us kids took it over
As we muster around here some more, we end up at the tallest peak this building offers. An imposing shaft towers overhead like the Tower of London. A straight shot ladder built directly into the church siding itself tempts you or…scares you away.
You came this far, let’s do it. Hold on tight to each rung, don’t look down. It’s worth the risk/ reward. Each story has a window to provide the only light to work with. At night, you make the climb by feel, best you practice in daylight. As you reach the summit, your head pops through to a belfry covered with pigeon and owl droppings. Owls leave piles of bones behind, I learned to differentiate up here. It’s like a kid science project. Not just a little, four decades worth, a foot thick. This old movie ranch has creatures of the night on the hunt. Nothing sleeps around here, you just lightly shut your eyes is all. Predators lurk at every turn. Bless the beasts and the children…
Now you’re here, this view is unparalleled, it’s the grandest position on the lot. It looks far beyond Mayberry and the 40-acre lot, Culver City encompasses the outer radius, beyond all parts Mayberry. It’s as if the two cities merge here. Culver City actually had Mayberry charm and innocence, way back when.
You have to factor in something important, you can easily be seen up here. It takes 20 to 30 seconds to climb up here, so if you’re seen and feel a need to escape, the posse after you can cover a lot of ground while you’re stuck in climb mode. As great as this view is- be careful is all. My Mom’s favorite line. Night time is the better time and I have spent many a moonlit night inside this church and up top in this steeple. I would guess I’ve been up here 100 times. It is the set of sets on this iconic lot.
Sadly, it was lit on fire. A small group of vandals has done so much backlot damage, it’s pitiful. Let’s celebrate its long existence, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s almost appropriate this lot goes out on fire, it’s what it’s best known for…
Gone With the Wind is how we began, and it’s how we end it. Close the curtains, put the horses back to pasture, and exit in the cloud of dust that blows in from the Ince main gate.
I love this place!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden…