Nothing is real here, but everything can seem real and anything you can imagine can be easily whipped up. The reason being, nothing gets thrown out. There are supplies and stored items for every occasion.
One of the most important of those items is not really an item, per se… it’s snow! Not only is it critical in establishing the look of winter, as well as the occasional cyclone, but also, sometimes, just a sprinkling is romantic. Just strategically tossing about little clumps of it, here and there, on a curb or on a sidewalk, can send a chill through your bones as the viewer. Funny thing is, the average temperature in Culver City is 72 degrees and it has never snowed once. That is, except on these iconic backlots.
We have several types of snow here. I say “we” because we… me and Jimmy on this occasion, have taken charge of this long, narrow wooden hallway that connects to the enormous Grand Central Station backside. We actually exit the lot often by jumping of its 10 foot roof.
Maureen’s bedroom window stares directly at this Train Station on lot 2. The only negative is that there is just one entrance door. So, if we are “challenged,” we may have to bury ourselves under the soft plastic snowflakes that are overflowing from box after box, as far as the eye can see. That said, the lighting inside here is on the dark side, making it easier to camouflage ourselves.
Leaving the door ajar improves our vision, but it also increases the likelihood of the guards becoming suspicious… Chances are, they’ll get curious and want to see why the door is open. We don’t need them sniffing around. So becoming a snowman may be the best hiding place of all.
What is interesting is all the different types of snowflakes that are kept here. We discover stacks of boxes filled with heavy ground snow on wooden shelves. We figure this is the tough type that can be laid out over streets and trampled on. And of course, it will never melt. High grade, heavy-duty stuff. Good to see it gets reused… dirt on the bottom indicates prior usage.
This place is a trip! We keep repeating to each other. The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin comes to life in this room…
This seems to be an area that got forgotten with time. The musty smell in this long, narrow shed, reveals the years tucked away in this storehouse, along with all the snow. The single row of dim incandescent lights is just enough to cast our creepy, long shadows on the opposite wall.
As we continue down this mysterious corridor, the whitest top snow gives itself away only when the light flickers above it, against the darkened pits of vastness that remain unexplored. It feels as if we’ve stepped into another world… one that teeters in some netherworld between opposites. Between shadow and light and between time and timelessness. The darkness leaves the space undefined. There’s no beginning and no end. We’re not even sure anymore where the exit is. It’s as if we’ve opened a door to the Twilight Zone.
Plaster molds of human forms that look like Greek Gods and Goddesses lay against the walls in the darkest corners, and in our altered frame of mind, piqued by the darkness, it seems they are just waiting to come alive again.
But, it is also like a meat locker. And the arctic temperature soon knocks me out of my dream-like musings. Nothing can melt inside here. After all, it has stood the 50 year test of time. When we first entered, there was barely a hint of what was inside. But after being in here long enough to go through the first stages of deep freeze, I suddenly become preoccupied with all logistics and exit whereabouts.
We click the old light switch and wait… Nothing. Then, a faint light, as if someone had lit a match. Slowly the darkness transforms itself into a golden glow, illuminating what is inside.
This shadowy light is a bit like a tempting tease, as if to say, “common in — I dare ya!”
We do, hesitantly.
We have to shut the door to feel safe, since the Bronco parks right at this door almost every day. It’s our prime get-into-MGM spot on the backlot, and security knows it, so they focus right here. Plus they like to visit with Maureen. I don’t think she ever really has worry about getting caught because most security guys dig her. But her neighbor, Big George, would cuff her in a heart beat.
He patrols in front of her apartment, just looking for slip ups by the kids who shout insults at him and Bronco Bob. He even drives by on his own time, just looking for a piece of us. Funny thing is, he would make a great abominable snowman… Hairy, huge, and devours everything.
Interesting couple of pictures here, it’s the exact same parking spot and both guards are taking a nap… years apart.
So, we leave the door of this annex ajar, allowing the breeze to meander inside, and as it creeps along the floor, it brings all the stray snowflakes to life.
Plastic flakes suddenly become airborne, swirling around with only the addition of the most gentle of breezes. Like those colorful flowers in Alice in Wonderland… timid and frightened at first, before springing to life with Alice’s gentle invitation. Before long, they are all telling stories and singing with the butterflies, encouraged by her curiosity. Similarly, the snowflakes in this room, having suddenly awakened from their fifty year slumber, have leapt out of the boxes with glee, and are suddenly dancing and swirling around, as if someone had secretly goaded them on.
It’s as if it was pre-rigged to activate when the door opens. The snow effect needed on the set is actually taking place inside this annex. Each new puff of air stirs up the flurry of different sized flakes. There are white sparkles darting through the air all around us, like shooting stars. And as the breeze works its way further down the corridor, new containers liberate even more snowflakes. Yes, we have fallen into some sort of rabbit hole, where snowflakes have come to life and are amusing themselves in celebration. Before long, we can barely see from one end of this building to the other, due to the sudden turn of weather… INSIDE!
We need to fully shut the door in order to feel safe from MGM security, which means we could get locked inside. They park just outside; it is the only way in and out of here.
This oldest part of this backlot stands with this set looking out the front door of the snow room.
Desilu has a snow set, Stalag 13. Plaster slabs lay out beyond the camp, never melting or even being touched, for the entire length of that TV series.
We have stumbled into another closet capturing a certain moment in time when effects artists such as my hero, Arnold Gillespie, ruled the weather and everything needed to take place within it. You name it, it can be created here.
Powerful blizzards, no problem… just bring in the giant Ritter Fans and set the D.C. power on full throttle. 20 boxes of flakes, some plaster for the ground, some loose powder for density and a big fan to swooosh it all around, and you’re good to go. Jimmy and I will have to settle for gentle breezes to create our effects, but we know we are playing where big boys once played… in the snow.
Shoot, security just woke up! Let’s get out of here! For now, anyway!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden Edited by Donna Quesada
I have decided that I really want to spend the night in Desilu. There are already three hammocks tied to a cluster of pepper trees over on the grassy hill. The Sullivan Brothers put them up and it is fine work. Leave it to the Brit kids. This is the same hill that enveloped me last summer, when a film crew had to save me (The Fortune).
I have also decided that Pat would be the best buddy for this particular exploit, since he’s totally dependable when unexpected snags arise. So I invite him over to my house for a sales pitch. It shouldn’t be difficult to sway him, especially if he is greeted with a bamboo bong packed solid with Colombian Gold.
Just for kicks, right before he arrives, I empty out some gunpowder from one of the shells that I collected from Combat, and then pour it into the bong. The black powder looks like pepper, so I cover it with the gold leaf. Now, I just wait for Pat to light up. I make sure I don’t give myself away by laughing, and force myself to keep an extra casual attitude. We sit alongside each other and he probably wonders why I am being so polite when I offer him the first hit…
Hmm… not good. the flash was bigger than I expected. Damm gunpowder. It’s an instantaneous blast, but the smoldering facial hair from his billy goat beard makes quite a picture. After a pause, Pat gets up swinging at me, but he misses wildly because… he can’t see.
I feel sort of bad, yet I laugh uncontrollably.
If anyone is tough enough to deal with this mishap, it’s Pat. This is the kid that would blow up an old car several years later. Everyone chalked it off to the old Irish temper, but being a fellow Catholic school survivor, I have a different theory. You see, Catholic School and its strict mode of control has the effect of making you want to prove yourself to be uncontrollable. So, you rebel and do things that a “good Catholic boy” isn’t supposed to do. And all of us that have gone through it have an understanding. We talk tough to each other, but that’s because we’re like brothers. If anyone else messed with him the way I do, I’d be all over ’em, and fast. And I know he’d do the same for me.
After his wispy little beard stops emitting smoke, Pat agrees that this will be a great adventure. He finds a body for the third hammock—his pal Kerry from Venice High. Kerry is a master of many cool things: karate, surfing, dirt bikes, and bonging… this will be one fun Friday night!
The Adventure Begins—
We lower ourselves to ask adults to buy us some alcohol at the 7/11 on my corner. We find it’s actually easier to buy drugs, but finally we find our pigeon in the form of a dark haired man with an accent, who looks like he’s auditioning to play Erik Estrada after a month long eating binge and no shaving. Moments later, out comes a brown bag with a gallon of Gallo Fine Wine safely tucked inside. “Gracias Amigo, you keep the dinero,” we say to our foreign friend as he gets back into his battered Datsun. We mount back up on our bicycles for that long ride across town to Desilu.
Kerry and Pat have top notch bicycles since they race at Palms Park every Thursday night. They carry crescent wrenches; that’s how into bikes these two are. They talk spokes, cranksets and cable tension, like it’s everyday conversation. These guys make repairs while pedaling. I’ve never seen anything like it!
For them, bicycling is big time, like Ford vs Ferrari… their motto is if it moves, we can make it move faster!
Well, I carry a brush. That’s because I’m into my hair. I can brush, pedal, and carry a bottle of wine, all at once, while cruising low-rider style at the back of the line. Helps me scout better… I have an overview of everything. Plus, you miss things if you race right through it too quickly without taking it in and assessing the surroundings properly.
As we arrive, it is already starting to get dark. We don’t expect to run into any security since there are no active jobs going on at the moment. We do expect trespassers though, since word has spread through school and now this has turned into a teenage stoner camp.
When in Rome—
Well, so, we might as well smoke, too. It’s not like we’re out to raise the bar or set an example, or anything! But at least we’re non-violent. Unless provoked. We leave our bikes hidden behind a barn that is within our view, but once the sun sets, it will be pitch black… just as if there were a power outage.
Up to the hammocks we go, as we sink deeper into the overgrown grass, with each step. We bulldoze our way up to the summit—the same one that used to look down on Stalag 13. Now this is an empty field again, ever since the sets were removed from the movie The Fortune. It now looks just like it did after The Burning of Atlanta… it’s all Gone With the Wind.
We toss ourselves into these wobbly strips of canvas as a test flight into what will be our sleeping quarters tonight. We quickly discover that these are a bit tricky to get comfortable in. If you dive into it too fast, you’ll flip right out of it, but they’re pretty easy to get the hang of. One thing we didn’t count on though, was temperature control. It’s getting a bit cold out here, but wearing down jackets helps a lot. Alcohol will definitely help, too.
Wine is an odd choice for us. We usually go for Bacardi 152. Or Miller Malt Liquor, since they did a commercial on this lot with Redd Foxx, at the main intersection next to the Mayberry Hotel. So, we drink that here once in awhile, just for the sake of commemoration. But, Estrada must’ve felt that Gallo was a fine selection for us boys tonight.
We no longer have a phone to call off lot; the studio repossessed our VIP line and boarded up our personal fort in the saloon. We’re just regular peasants now, around here. So we can’t order pizza from Chris’s, unless we can access the guard shack. Or at least the phone, since it sits temptingly on the desk, right on the other side of of tiny glass window pane. We would only have to break that one little pane of glass, but no one has Chris’s number anyway… So, we pass on this plan, for now, anyway.
That’s how the drinking starts, with deep thoughts like that. Pat has a Panasonic cassette deck with brand new batteries and some Pink Floyd music, while Kerry unpacks a huge bamboo bong. This thing must be nearly a foot and a half long and all custom built and waxed inside. Kerry also builds surfboards.
We have come prepared… for what… we’re not sure. And we’re off to a rip roaring start. We fill the Bong and I hand it to Pat all loaded up. Recalling what happened earlier, he catches himself and says “You Light It.” So I do. I also spit out “You big Irish Chicken,” as I exhale out a cloud as big as a volcano plume.
The drunker we get, the more stuff will come out I’m sure. It’s time to get personal. I once heard a Russian proverb that says when you’re drunk, you either hug more or fight more. We’ll see what happens out on this cold and empty field tonight.
“So… how’s that all boy Catholic school working out for you, you little chicken Leprechuan?” I manage to form a question in between tokes. I guess this is the adolescent boy’s equivalent of hugging. Pat comes from a family of tough Irish stock… they drink hard and play harder. I continue… “My school has pretty girls, and an even hotter teacher-lady… how about yours?” Still unable to get a rise out of him, I keep poking, “Don’t tell me you have priest teachers still!”… as I seize up in laughter and polluted lungs. I laugh and cough simultaneously, multi tasking.
Kerry throws in a jab while I roll around in the tall grass.” If you would stand up to your parents, you wouldn’t be at that Loyola Penitentiary School.” Pat is silent as he slugs down this reservoir of high end spirits. Kerry and I are enjoying the wisecracks. It’s teenage bonding.
Kick a a boy when he’s down… hey the nuns do it, why can’t we?
I continue the adolescent raillery, “How did you end up at an even worse school than when we were at St Augustine’s? Your parents must hate you!” I look for a crack in his stoic guise. He refuses to make eye contact… he just stares at the tops of trees. Must be all that strict Catholic training. Just accept whatever’s dished out. Especially at this new place he’s at.
I can’t help picturing his facial hairs smoldering earlier this evening, and I see he could use a barber, or at least a razor and scissors.
I try to hide the fact that I’m starting to shiver, even with all the alcohol in our blood. Soon, we all slip our hands deep into our down jacket pockets and slide into our hammocks. We stare up at the crescent moon that shines over the backlot above us.
“It could be worse, I guess, Pat,” I say from a horizontal position, as my head spins and my stomach turns. “You could’ve burned to death in the film vaults… God just wants to punish you, not kill you.” As I turn the opposite way to help digest the excess drinking and partying. I don’t know if that Gallo stuff agrees with me.
Let’s do a middle of the night Mayberry after Midnight tour after a little shut eye… We all agree. Then everything fades to black…
00.00 Hours… and counting.
Morning Has Broken and… Gallo NOT so Fine—
One by one we wake up, or the cold air pulls us out of our drunken dreams. Kerry is the only one who wore a watch… we all mumble and grunt as we jump out of these hammocks like three popsicles. “What time you got?”
“25 or 6 to 4” he says, as he fills up the bong.
We gather like moths to the heat from the lighter. We each pass the peace pipe and are ready to take the latest tour on record, or perhaps it’s the earliest.
But, I for one, feel AWFUL! The wine has terrible after effects! I believe this is what adults call a “Hangover.”
I have a word for it: sick-as-hell! And yet, here we are smoking again. But pot never makes me feel this way! Neither does cocaine, or LSD or mushrooms… just Gallo. And wine is legal, go figure. I swear this vice off before it can ever begin…. Never Again! Next time I’ll stick to drugs, á la carte.
We stumble our way down from this grassy knoll. Every step feels like a huge effort… like I have two bricks for feet. And even talking takes work. As I speak, every word is an exertion… it’s like trying to start up an old car that you have to keep cranking just to get a sign of life. And then it blows a bunch of exhaust at every start. That’s what I feel like.
And it keeps getting better. I can feel it coming back around again. Here we go… Just as we arrive to Mayberry, I puke. At first, I try to excuse myself and run to an alleyway. Then I don’t bother anymore. I’m defeated. It just keeps coming up, again and again. I puke at almost every famous set still standing. Mayberry Courthouse, puke. I fought the law…
Mayberry Hotel, puke. That one was from five stories up… getting fancy! Right over the side like a hook shot! I’m so miserable, I don’t even care if I fall at this moment. Put an end to my misery! Chances are, I’d probably live… just to endure this torture a bit longer!
Watch out… don’t look up, it could get messy!
I’d call a doctor but our phone was disconnected. My mom thinks I’m at Pat’s house.
Laying down inside the Mayberry church on a pew only exasperates my distress, as I pray to Frank Sinatra for help. Sadly, wine and church go together, so I leave and cross the street as I go up to Andy Griffith’s house… we walk with distance between us since I’m not the only town drunk that’s sick around here.
One last purge, upstairs in Opie’s room (when they film exteriors, anyway). Aunt Bee will have to clean that one up.
Low and behold, it’s 4 am and here comes a set of headlights on a white truck that we know is security. This place never gets guarded lately, but it’s 4 am so I guess it’s to be expected, since this is hardly prime time for trespassers—that would be after school, or dinner, or both. The low idle of a truck goes by in one direction, then it does a U-turn and repeats this action in the opposite direction.
4 am is for Teamsters, drug addicts, and town drunks. I checked for Otis when I was inside barfing at Andy’s courthouse. He wasn’t tucked inside. Maybe security is looking for the Town Drunk…
Well, tonight they will need both cells for all the town drunks that showed up at Mayberry… after Midnight!
Good night everybody… After I wake up from this adventure that went a bit… sideways, I hope Aunt Bee has breakfast waiting for us!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden Edited by Donna Quesada
Today, as we scavenger around the backlot, Jimmy and I decide to get away from city life and soon find ourselves at the water’s edge of Tarzan’s Lake, looking at craw fish and bull frogs. The top of New York Street towers above the trees in the adjacent forest. The shadow cast on us by Boystown grows longer as we while away the hours. A cross atop the steeple on Combat street is also visible in the distance.
One of the dirt roads splits down the middle of the jungle, while another one circles around in front of the lake. Hiding places are abundant, and if we happen to get chased, crossing the little foot bridge would create havoc for any guard. He would then be forced to exit the Bronco and chase us by foot.
Good luck with that!
It’s pretty hard to get caught here, unless you’re in a boat. You’ve probably heard the saying: up the creek without a paddle… well it applies to me today…
Jimmy got a hankering to go out on the little row boat that has a leak in it, so this afternoon, we are checking out what would be needed in order to sail it. First, we realize we have no paddles, then we see that it’s already half full of water.
So we pull it ashore and empty it out. That solves that. Next, we attach a rope to the front of the craft. Rope exists everywhere on studio backlots. Many appear to be a hundred years old, but any will do. These are not rapids, just a tranquil pond full of fish… many of which are bright orange.
Ducks quack around us, no longer afraid, as they were when we first did this years ago, back when this boat had no issues. Sometimes this setting is what you need… not the bright lights of the famous cities from around the world that surround us.
Jimmy jumps in first. My job is to pull him around the pond. I do so, while running, to increase excitement. I pull him as fast as I can, then when I let go of the rope, he has to duck his upper torso to avoid hitting himself on the footbridge overhead. He wasn’t expecting that, and the row boat hits a post that holds the bridge up. He nearly falls out, like I was hoping he would!
Next, it’s my turn to ride and his turn to be the motor. Life is good… until we hear the roar of the Bronco. Security hasn’t seen us yet, but we hear it and we can tell it is close, so, old pal Jimmy drops the rope leaving me stuck without a paddle.
The Bronco must have seen Jimmy run, and it is approaching in MY direction. I lie down as much as is possible in the boat, but I carefully lift my head to see if I can spot him. Through squinted eyes, I catch a glimpse of the larger-than-life silhouette that fills up half the windshield. A glimpse is all that is needed. It is Ron Smith, the Paul Bunyan of guards. He is 6′ 9″ tall and that doesn’t count his cap. He is big, his gun is big, his hat is big.
Damned if he doesn’t sit there taunting me and tormenting me in my predicament, on purpose. He has positioned the Bronco to face me and my little boat. He sits point blank watching me, probably laughing to himself, knowing full well my quandary. I just sit there, in my slowly sinking boat, staring back. What else can I do?
It feels like an eternity has passed, but in reality, it has probably only been a minute or two. As he approaches, I think to myself, I may be able to talk my way out of this… After all, Ron is the only guard besides Mario to ever give me a tour. But then again, I waffle… he has given me some of my scariest chases. So, which Ron is now pulling me to shore, friend or foe?
As my boat gently glides up and out of the water to dock, I say “Hi,” like I’ve just come home from school or something. He asks, “where did your friend go?” I guess we’re skipping formalities, so I respond, “not sure, but let’s go find him, he ran toward Boystown.” Ron falls for my offer to assist him, but I’m actually buying time to escape.
A Good Scout—
Yet, Ron is so nice that I no longer feel threatened. Now, I truly want to catch Jimmy. I’m on a mission with a security guard, no less. Like a helpful scout, I offer beneficial info, “I bet he’s hiding in Boystown,” follow me! I am not going to show him the fort I have built, and I have already calculated that Ron is way too big to get around some of the secret passages.
I was “kidding” when I said he was in here, but… onward and upward!
We walk together, Ron behind me, the entire time, as we zigzag through a ridiculous number of passage ways in our mock search for Jimmy. I was thinking he must be home by now watching Hogan’s Heroes with a big sandwich, but to my surprise, I peer into a soffit and he’s in it!… I actually found him!
But, I don’t give him away. We might tease each other while playing with boats, but in these situations, friendship rules. I stay as cool as a cucumber and without missing a beat, I act like I see nothing. But Ron decides to look up at what I just saw. At that moment I think, Jimmy’s had it. But Ron looks and appears satisfied… I’m amazed. Within a microsecond, Jimmy has repositioned himself and it was good enough for Ron to miss him. I am so shocked, that I need to look again. He is not visible, that was a slick as it gets… like a Twilight Zone. Now you see him, now you don’t.
Ron and I leave the building and he gives me a ride over to the train station. As I turn to jump out of the Bronco, he calls out to me, “See ya… next time, you might not be so lucky!”
I climb out through the studio across from Maureen’s apartment and nod a nice good bye, as I jump down off the fence and run back to the big city. Jimmy should be following me shortly and I can’t wait to relive all of this with him… what the heck just happened?
Written and lived by Donnie Norden Edited by Donna Quesada
I’ve been told I have an “active imagination.” Like that’s a bad thing. I tend to tune out the “real world” with all of its stress and pressures, in order to spend every waking moment on some back lot, somewhere. I always defend my so-called fantasy life… what’s “fake” to you is “real” to me! Because the stuff you see on TV does exist; it’s not fake! I see it, I smell it, and if I can climb all over it, I DO!
And all the old things stored inside these back lots are like some cool kid’s garage. Some people might call it junk, but you know what they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I’d say this is especially true for a kid, and this kid has access to every toy… past, present, or future. No size is too big. And many items are custom built just for one scene, making them special rarities.
Those rarities will have their one big moment in the sun. Like those mayflies that live only for one day… they appear in the world to do their business and then, just like that, Poof!… it’s over. Once these oversized gizmos and special props have served their purpose, they are retired and forever laid to rest. The hands of time and dejection begin to turn them into forgotten relics. It was the Toy Story before the story was told. Gizmos and gadgets that once had a part to play… now left in a warehouse to collect dust. Because… in Hollywoodland, You’re only as good as your last role.
These items just want a good home. Although MGM provides them with shelter, the buildings on this lot are jam packed and they hardly know what they have. But, since it might get reused one day, they keep it. That was old school studio mentality, when MGM ruled the screen. This world will never topple.
Well, at least they are captured on film for eternity. To me… finding them is like accidentally stumbling into the world’s largest toy store. Their keep it mentality created a haven of things to play with. It didn’t take long to see that MGM has a much better toy chest than I do. I have wandered into a warehouse filled with riches that I cannot believe. I am a pirate who has found beaches lined with gold. It is a bounty. I am Woody Allen in Sleeper, with those huge vegetables.
While I have Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars, and army guns; MGM has fuselages and rocket ships and stagecoaches and submarines! And they are all REAL!
But, no one uses them. It’s like the kid who once lived here grew up and moved away. This stuff is one garage saleaway from ending up God knows where. And, knowing the eventual fate of MGM, I tell myself I am doing these nostalgic items a favor… a turn of good service, by giving them a forever home where they will be appreciated.
Yes, on this day, I officially scale up my findings. When I woke up this morning, I had no idea that I would unearth the airplane whose cockpit has been used in two Twilight Zone episodes—one with William Shatner, and one with John Carradine. I will recognize it immediately and I won’t be able to believe my eyes.
I see a three-story rocket ship in the corner of this giant warehouse. It towers to the ceiling and it even has its capsule beside it. It is dusty as heck, but my first thought is… I have to have that! I begin to imagine that rocket ship in my own backyard… Still reeling from the 1969 space mission, I decide then and there that we will name it GEMINI and fly to space ourselves. Or… we can listen to music and read magazines up there. We can haul our record albums up and play them on our excellent sound system that we will have installed!
It Gets Even Better—
I continue on to what is unmistakably a hangar… or, what is to my eyes, a humongous “toy chest,” which happens to be locked. But, I’m good at picking locks.
In no time, I’m in… I waste no time and go straight for the cockpit.
There are so many knobs and levers it’s astonishing to see what pilots must deal with. These are real planes, cut into sections. A fuselage from a Jumbo jet used in Sky Jacked, has an upstairs/downstairs and this plane is a teen age party spot. Comfy chairs recline, food table carts sit waiting for a pretty face to push them. Since there is a lock on the hangar door, security takes for granted this building is secure. I take for granted they will never come in here, so I let my hair down, literally!
I have had many an Odyssey in this cock pit, maybe even better then Flight 33’s crew.
Anything goes in here. What goes on in the airplane room stays in the airplane room.
Signs, Signs… Everywhere a Sign—
The next cool department in this Super Store of toys is behind New York Street, in a covered two story, steel structure that can easily double for any Bowery warehouse. Inside are signs you all have seen; every TV show and film on this property have used them. I estimate there are 500 large flashing neon Broadway signs stored in here. Unlike the other oversized treasures, these get used all the time, or they used to, in MGM’s heyday. Now, like everything else, it just collects dust.
If you look real close at the neon signs that flash on your favorite Twilight Zone episodes that were filmed on New York street, you will see them again and again, on all the different building fronts. Like a deck of cards being reshuffled. But this card game went on for decades. I would think this is all very valuable and should be saved, rather than destroyed, but what do I know… I’m just a kid.
I can see how this environment would bring out your artistic side. It’s fake, yet real. Like a huge puzzle with all the pieces spread out around the kitchen table… waiting for their turn to get placed. Only this table is the whole “fake” neighborhood. It’s a magical puzzle that is 3D. Once you place the pieces in their designated spots, they come to life. They blink and flash. And they have buttons and moving parts. The artists, or set designers just need to decide… what corner?what store?which building front? It’s a game of mix and match… Which item goes best where, for which shot? Every job here looks so fun. This is a big kid’s toy chest. The back lot is the board and the pieces just move around like one big family. I could hide in here all day…
Does your street need lights? We got those! Maybe you need snow? No problem. Heck lady, we can even throw ya a parade! Set props from every era and every walk of life… oil lamps to electric lighting… horse and buggy to hot rods… Night can become day and day can become night. We can turn the middle of July into Christmas. We can wave a wand and turn this place into Paris, complete with mustached men playing accordions with scarves hanging around their necks. Never mind the big blue tarps covering up the Culver City ordinariness behind you… it’s not in frame!
Nothing is real or what it seems, this place is run by Wizards.
Another drawer in this giant toy chest is the helmet room, located by an ocean liner. (Not a real ocean liner, of course.) There are helmets from Combat, army jackets, and a mountain of ammo clips that snap into place, allowing eight rounds to be fired. The guns are not here though, and it appears that this room has already been picked over.
A clothes hanger that says “Ben-Hur’s head gear” stands forsaken in a closet, missing its iconic helmet, like a couple who have become separated after a long marriage. Soylent Green used this room as a make shift wardrobe in 1972. But the biggest garage in the world is the odds and ends storage facility. Nothing too large for this building. Space ships park alongside Pirate ships, and a conning tower from Ice station Zebra peeks over the top with its periscope. Scattered pieces from some by-gone laboratory look like an unfinished science project.
Hidden amazingly in a corner is a headless monster. I would later see this creature on the movie, The Brothers Grimm. And a submarine… My overactive imagination takes off again… that would make a good secret hang out spot for smoking doobies and making out with girls.
Sometimes it takes years to complete a puzzle, but inevitably, I end up seeing all the shows this stuff was used in. Is the puzzle complete?
MGM, thanks for making me the best toy chest any kid could ever dream of...
Written and lived by Donnie Norden Edited by Donna Quesada
Once upon a time there was a street called Maple Street. At least… that’s what it was to us. You see, this street has had many names through the years. It existed long before The Twilight Zone, that’s for sure, and was once called New England Street for Minelli’s Some Came Running. But as I said, for me and my pals, this was Maple Street. When we first snuck through this set, we immediately recognized this location from several episodes of Rod Serling’s classic tales.
Stopover in a Quiet Town, The Shelter, Black Leather Jackets and Maple Street all used this street, located on the MGM backlot, extensively. We first explored this house, while running and sneaking house to house, like soldiers. What else could we be?… Combat Village is right next door.
This Saturday afternoon, according to my TV guide, KTTV will be showing a rerun of one on Maple Street, this afternoon at 12:00 pm.
All my friends and I enjoy a special TV land perk, being that we live just beyond the fence of so many of these sets. We watch stuff and then two minutes later we can be there. Out of the blue, Pat and I have a thought. Let’s grab my TV! It’s light and compact and easy to carry! All we’ll need besides, is an extension cord and a pair of pliers to change the channel (since the knob broke off).
It’s been decided. We will have a picnic in one of the houses that stands on this street, and watch this episode exactly where it was filmed. Like some black and white time machine. We purge my mother’s cupboards of goodies, and I find a treasure in the form of a box of Van de Kamp’s crumb donuts, immediately recognizable with the little blue windmill in the corner. I now realize she hides stuff from me. I’m taking the whole box. She’ll forget about ’em, I reason. We make bologna sandwiches, grab a couple bananas, and pack it all up carefully into this Rat Patrol lunch pail…
We are off to Maple Street, looking like the Beverly Hillbillies. We take turns carrying the TV since it is a bit bulky, but not heavy. We trade off: TV for lunchbox and extension cord, as we walk down the railroad tracks that lay just beyond the metal fence behind this iconic street.
This lunchbox and I have been through a lot together… it went to school with me every day when I was at St. Augustine’s Catholic School. When I would walk past the main gate, I would often see these exact vehicles parked up front, the same ones on my lunch pail. I would press it against the chain link fence at the main gate so it could see how it has its own hit TV series.
At lunchtime, I would open it up and be happily surprised by whatever menu my mom provided. As I sat in the schoolyard my imagination ran wild wanting to be on these sets instead of school… I kid that I am living out the images on my lunchbox!
We have arrived. With no traditional entry point behind this street, we climb in at the train station and then contort ourselves, willing ourselves to become invisible, as we move hunchbacked, along the inside of the fence line… with a TV in tow. This is a critical moment. It’s where anything can and often does happen. It’s an open space and we could easily be seen. It would be especially awkward to have to run from the Bronco with our arms stretched around a big plastic box with rabbit ears bobbing about all over the place. We keep our focus on finding cover… on Maple Street.
We arrive safely. We set down our supplies and now we must find a house with an electrical panel. Not every set has them. Andy Hardy’s house does. We set ourselves up on the second floor and slip the cord through the floor to a 120 volt plug below.
Now, our reconnaissance can shift its focus to figuring out if and where security is located. Not that we care… it’s just good practice to take roll call. Exiting will be simple; we can climb over a fence 20 yards away. The way these fences are built, you can exit anywhere. And we’re experts.
While we look out from the upstairs windows, we try to pull in a signal with these partially damaged rabbit ears. We twist and turn and quickly get a solid picture. Don Cornelius and the music show, Soul Train, dials us in, and Combat follows. We just climbed in at a train station I laugh, as I tell Pat “they should film that here too, we can make you a Soul Train”… But this moment is all about Maple Street, so we turn to channel 5.
–As we watch the iconic opening credits, Rod speaks… You unlock this door with the key of imagination… while clocks and doors and E=mc2 go floating across the screen, then suddenly disappear, like an invitation to play hide and seek… making you feel like you want to go chasing after these mysterious symbols into an enchanting land of magic… You just crossed over into… The Twilight Zone.
And then the camera pans down to the street. Two seconds into the episode and we already see the very building we’re hiding in! We become part of a land of shadows and ideas, as we open up my Rat Patrol lunch pail to enjoy a Maple Street picnic.
We only wish we had a pause button to slow everything down, so that we can take it all in and better examine our surroundings. We do the best we can to quickly compare the things we see around us to what the camera allows us to see, on screen. We see Maple Street below us, in full color… while we watch a black and white version of it, filmed over a decade ago. This is better than drugs, but we did bring some Kona Gold to add to the experience.
What’s real… is it the TV show or is itus…Well, these crumb donuts are real!
This is a trip, for sure. I have watched this episode a million times but not like this. We sit up high, on the second floor of this building, as we continue to float up… even… higher… and the black and white imagery becomes as colorful as the real Maple street below. And we become transported to some place that is a merging of the two… a land of both shadow and substance…
Above:The home where the car starts on its own. Below: The yard that is directly across the street from this house.
Our question has been answered… Yes,there is a guard and he has just pulled up in the Bronco. Worse yet, he is parking out front… what a buzz kill! We turn the volume down, while continuing to watch the mob scene taking place. We are looking down at the Bronco, with trigger happy Bob Coleman behind the wheel. On the TV, we see two aliens also looking down. We know the lines by heart, so the volume is unnecessary. It’s all about the visual. We feel like aliens, without a space ship to fly away on and ditch this killjoy. Actually, there are a couple in storage not too far away…
We keep a cautious eye on the Bronco below that sits in the light drizzle that begins to fall. We joke, why did he park here, could he also be watching this… ?
He leaves, as the end credits begin to roll. We just lived through an alternative ending, so to speak. Well, in a half hour, Combat is on… that show shoots right over there. Let’s pack it up, troupe!
Don’t change that channel! Actually… do change it… it’s on channel 11. This is how to spend a gray, misty day watching classic TV, right where it was made!
Above: The front side of the house that faces Maple Street. Below: same building, another side.
This is one of my favorite pictures… so much is here… in the foreground is the backside of Andy Hardy’s house. We have chairs inside, on the second floor. This building had the power we needed, in order to power up my TV. Also chairs and a table for relaxing. The backside of this picture is Maple Street.
Written and lived by Donnie Norden Edited by Donna Quesada
Once upon a time…to the left in this picture, are the film vaults.It looks like a wall.
Over by the La Ballona Creek, on what is famously known as the 40-Acres Backlot, is a bunker, military grade. Built like a fortress, bombs couldn’t open these blast doors. This pink fire door and cement bunker make you feel as if you’re in Normandy. To protect what?…. We, as kids, have no clue what’s inside. There are nine of these blast door facilities attached to this large cement fortress that maintains a low profile. This structure is located adjacent to the creek and within view of the guard shack where you enter this movie ranch at the Ince gate.
It presents a marvelous challenge to us to attempt to engineer a way inside. Us being: Danny, Pat, Jimmy and myself.
With all this testosterone, force might work, if we get the roof pried off. There is no going through this door as we know of for sure. This place was built for an atomic war, prior to atomic weapons.
Notice the simple fence surrounding this, not even barbed wire. The vaults are to the left in the picture above, and below, as they appeared in Hogan’s Heroes.
We are determined because of the treasures we imagine must exist inside its chambers. Like the Great Pyramids, what have the studio Pharaoh’s left behind for us to discover? We feel obligated to find out since so much here seems to be forgotten, lost or destroyed.
It seems like a massive task, as we can see previous attempts were tried, and all have failed! I decide to bring my 18-inch hole-making crow bar for an attempt to pry open the metal lid roof. Cleverly, I gain leverage on this little bar with a steel fence post that fits over my tool handle. This creates leverage, so much, that jumping on this cheater pole pop’s open this lid like a bottle top opener. We’re in…to the next step anyway.
There is no guard at the gate or anywhere on this lot usually. We call it Desilu, but actually Culver City Studios is the latest purveyor of how to run a studio into the ground. This place is not guarded, more often than not- now a days. It is beginning to appear very neglected. A big vacant playground still loaded with toys if you know where to look. We are looking right now, determined to find a mummy or great treasures…hopefully there is no curse involved here like the discovery of King Tut, an exhibit currently advertised coming soon to Los Angeles.
As we celebrate removing the top level, we now face jail bars and a thick wall of glass below, blocking any view of what lurks inside. These bars are spaced too close together for most adults, but I brought Pat. He is the tiniest of all my friends, yet tougher than a drunken Irish troll.
We each give our best muscled-up crank on this steel bar as we share are wildest wishes with the universe. As I pry with all my might just trying to gain a couple extra inches Pat needs, I wish outloud for Batman’s cape and mask to be inside this tomb. Pat takes his turn stepping on the bars and seeing if we are getting close to his circumference. ” I want Colonel Klink’s helmet, and for all we know it’s in one of these concrete treasure chests.
After prying with all our strength and energy, Danny and I try to push Pat through the slightly separated bars, but he complains. Danny, realizing we are close to being able to stuffing Pat inside tells Pat “I get Bruce Lee’s hat” if it’s in there.
Danny is a black belt in Tang Soo Do and was mentored by John Natividad, who has worked in film with Bruce Lee.
Jimmy chimes in his wish…”grab me Superman’s outfit!”
Well, if the studio Santa Clause grants our wishes, you will see Kato, Batman, Colonel Klink and Superman riding bicycles home.
And not in some cheap Blue Chip Stamp book fake department store costume, not us!
We gain another half inch of space and stick him back in… he’s so close but no cigar. I tell him “remove your shirt and belt.” Because he is getting hung up at the waist, I should have brought a bar of soap. Finally, with an extra pry, then a hard push by us…he slips inside past this barrier. He is able to kick out the glass, holding chicken wire so it won’t shatter, with the boots he always wears that make him feel like a soldier of fortune.
With kicks Bruce Lee would be proud of, Pat touches down in the chamber of pyramid 4. We can smell a strong mothball vinegar-like odor coming from the bunker. The only light inside is from the hole we created, as we all look down in this moment in the same anticipation. This is how guests on Let’s Make a Deal must feel!
We pick door number three Monty is played by Pat at this moment. We see racks and Pat quickly passes up to us a steel film can containing some reels of film inside. An old label on the film can says, “The Whirly Birds”, we open it and put the film frames up against the blue sky. We slowly spin like a projector and see an old-style helicopter take off…
Well, horse shit! My dad always says this when he’s upset. It’s film, these are film vaults, everything Desilu and its predecessors did is in one of these nine crypts. As cool as this is to see, we were looking for gold, costumes, jewels and Tommy guns, but this is celluloid treasure.
Well doggonit, what a let down. We reverse roll it back onto the reel and replace it back where its been sitting for 15 years at least. We ask what other films do you see, Pat says “Superman and Lucy are down here also. It’s all film… and it stinks down here!”
Pat has to be pulled through again to exit, he can barely take the odor in this dungeon which we clearly smell from above. Danny and I each grab an arm and squeeze him back out, like putting paste back in a tube.
We ride home not defeated but heartbroken, only wearing our ordinary clothing. Our dreams of wearing all the costumes I’ve watched for all these years will have to remain just that…a dream. But in the world I live in never say never.
We conclude by going back to Pat’s house as we leave Jimmy and Danny behind at their homes. Pat can’t wait to tell his dad the latest studio adventure. Our parents usually root us on but not today. In one of the sternest moment’s I’ve ever heard at his house, his dad lays into him…then me.
It turns out Mr. Rich worked at the Hollywood film labs and says, with emphasis that requires respect, “These films are nitrate and can easily catch fire or worse… explode. That’s why it is in a fortress. You all could be dead right now.” We had no idea the dangers we just side stepped, God blessed us once again, I’m lucky this story does not have an alternate ending.
The movie Outlaw broke boundaries in several ways. To emphasize the camera capturing her figure correctly, Howard engineered a push up cantilevered bra to capture her bust. According to Mrs. Russell, she did not use it because the metal rods hurt too much, he’ll never check…
Give him a break he builds planes…not bra’s.
Funny enough, the bra ends up in a Hollywood museum and it was not attached to to what you imagine. Typical Hollywood, like the Ruby Slippers that were sold at the MGM auction, pair 6. The good one’s ended upsomewhere…
Outlaw was completed in 1941, yet The Hollywood Production Code Administration would not approve it and this was viewed immoral. 20th Century Fox decided to cancel its release agreement, standing to lose millions, this shrewd businessman turned the tables. The outcry from the public was to ban this explicit film, but that in turn gave it massive publicity creating demand to see it.
Thought: this guy is playing the room and lets remember, he builds planes and other classified items
The major buzz only lasted a week and it was then pulled for good. Finally released in 1946, five years after completion, it became a box office hit with lifetime rental earnings of $5.075 million.
Howard, in 1941, had more on his plate than this film; WW2 is underway and he is a significant contractor. In the hills above this movies location, something else is underway. TOP SECRET!
We are at war, MGM goes dark along it’s streets because of the threats of bombardment from the air. Studios have two worries, they look like aircraft factories- so they could get bombed, secondly, they are producing military training films.
While the worry of a woman’s breast exposure is being worked on at the RKO lot below, Howard is deeply involved with the war effort, I will take you to his facility that rises above what was Desilu, RKO, and so many other studio names.
Inside that building with the chemical tank attached is a wind tunnel.
All these structures over look the Desilu Backlot and Main Lot, beyond those trees looking west is more Hughes property. He owned the most expensive real estate anywhere, from the ocean to the hill tops, the world was his.
There is always more to story than what you see with your eyes, and needless to say Howard Hughes was a complex individual who succeeded at things because he never quit and took risks!
My Dad briefly worked at Hughes Air Base as a firefighter, that guy was my pops hero, I dig him just as much, I wish I could have met him. I was in his office at the Hughes Air Field before the remodel of Playa Vista. That’s another story for another day.
Ironically, the place the Spruce Goose was built staged some of Hollywood’s biggest movies on some of the biggest stages you could rent…built for aircraft. What goes around comes back. I will tour that backlot/aviation ranch military base- call it whatever you want it to be- in the future.
My new best pal, MGM security guard Al Marioenzi, will open up new vistas never before imagined. This obliging and approachable watchman has a playful demeanor, which is clearly why he works the entrance gates on Lot 1. Personable guards greet the stars, but crude types end up patrolling the backlots.
Al has been giving tours to my entire neighborhood. The only thing is, as he repeats, in his Brooklyn accent… ya just gotta meet across from the girlfriend’s place. He means Maureen’s apartment. The wall in front of her house now doubles as a bus bench when Marioenzi works the backlot. We know the drill now.
He especially can’t be seen driving the bus for us. But once we are safe and sound inside the Bronco, the fun begins.
I first met Al at MGM’s East Gate. That’s the studio’s main entrance. It was also where I met Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. This is his usual post…
The story begins—
Maureen and I are prowling around the city and stop by to see who is working the main gate. We’ve just come from Pronto market, just across the street, and are loaded with after school staples… specifically, licorice, gum and Doritos.
Al is the dick at the gate tonight… he sees a very excited Maureen. She looks great, as usual, and Al turns on the charm. I love bringing her to meet security. They behave much differently around her, like she is some actress or something.
I’m just Donnie, the guy the’re paid to track and hunt.
I take for granted how foxy she is… especially tonight, in her tight Ditto jeans and pink peasant top. She could definitely be mistaken for a movie star.
In his excitement, Al makes an offer we can’t refuse, as Maureen sips her Root Beer and I chew on my Red Vines. He says, in a near whisper, like a nice uncle, offering us some treasure from his war days, “How would you two like to see Louie B. Mayer’s office?”
We stare at him as I chomp away at an extra large mouthful and she slurps the last sips … “sure, I didn’t think it still existed,” I manage to say, with my mouth full.
“It sure does. I take lunch at 9PM if you two want to go.”
I offer him some licorice as a gesture of thanks. The kids’ equivalent of breaking bread. He accepts… Cheers!
Clock strikes 9—
We pass some time watching fancy cars come and go through this gate, before reuniting with Al. What star do you think is in there? we ask each other. We wonder if it’s Esther Williams or Spencer Tracy or even Katharine Hepburn, sitting low in the back seat of that shiny LTD. What do they do back there? We wave without knowing because we are friendly, like Al.
We find each other at the designated spot. He seems excited, as we begin by walking from the guard shack to a side door at the Irving Thalberg building. While we walk through a long corridor, he fumbles through what seems to be an endless mass of keys in various shapes and sizes. Each has the potential to open up its own adventure… Ohh, what I would give for that magical set of keys. I would own this place…
We next enter an elevator that brings us upstairs to another long hallway. It is decorated with fancy art that I now know to be Art Deco, but we don’t have to walk very far, Al jiggles another lock and presto… a door opens.
He smiles proudly like this is his place, but we enter cautiously, like it may be a trap. If you were to ask me what gave me that feeling, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe just that it was so deserted along that long stretch of a hallway. Besides the abandoned hanging Art Deco pieces, there wasn’t another person in sight… no one going in or out of the many closed doors that we passed along the way.
Gone, But Not Forgotten—
The room is very white, so white, that I can’t help but think of the song White Room, by Cream. Al positions himself in the power seat, occupied at one time by Hollywood’s most famous mogul. We stand as he sits. My head spins faster than Al can spin stories. I make myself slow down so I can take this all in. On some level, I realize that I am experiencing something very special, that I have stepped into an epoch that would soon be just memories. This is where many decisions were made, where life changing phone calls were made, and ultimately, where stars were made.
It is not lost on me that this is the office of THE most iconic Industry Giant, yet the only furniture that remains is his desk and chair. It is positioned in front of a window whose drapes are open, light from the official MGM Thalberg Building entrance illuminates the one small picture of Louis B…. the one item, besides his iconic desk, that identifies this place as his. Although it’s been stripped of all physical adornments, it is bursting with some invisible quality… A spell takes over those who walk in here… still. Despite the emptiness, I feel like Louis B. is in here right now.
But if you run your fingers along the stark white walls and bare desktops, where his belongings used to be, you will pick up plenty of dirt. Like the stories that Al seems to enjoy telling…
Many a Tale to Tell—
Al prattles on with story after story. Some are pretty good, but some are downright unseemly… we’re just kids, after all! “Once the Marx Brothers were here to have a meeting with Mr. Mayer, and they arrived first, so they took off all their clothes and were naked as Louie walked in.”
Hmm… I think, as we barely react. Lots there to picture… or, let’snotbut say we did!
Al delivers another little tidbit… “Once Shecky Green was naked on a food table, so when the silver goblets were removed from the trays, Shecky is exposed. Everyone thought they were getting Prime Rib but got Prime Shecky.” He laughs a big belly laugh.
Two naked stories already, and he just sat down. What’s next?
Luckily for us, the walkie talkie he wears on his hip, instead of a pistol, goes off… “Al, we need Stage 1 locked up, are you available?”
“Copy that, on my way from Thalberg building.”
“You two stay here, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I strike my hand to my forehead… “yes sir!”
Saved by the beep!
A Private Audition—
We now have the place to ourselves, and I decide that this office needs a new mogul. And tonight, I’m that guy.
He leaves the door ajar, but as fast as he disappears, Maureen shuts it completely, while I take on the mighty VIP chair. She suddenly transforms into a temptress. As she turns around, she sashays toward me with devious eyes…
“So… Mr. Mayer,” she coos… I hear you have a part in a big MGM movie? How about… I audition?”
Then, she swivels around, to the back of my desk and I suddenly feel powerless. She continues, “Is it a big part Mr. Mayer?” She brushes up against me like a cat, “Can I see the script?” I am the one in the swivel chair, but suddenly I can’t move.
She continues to tease me. Then I remind her she was mighty fickle with her loyalties on our previous project.
I assume some sort of big shot accent, and make my voice low and powerful: “I’m still feeling aggrieved that you turned me down on the western flick we shot over at Desilu. You should have been in that, it would have looked good on your resumé… a damsel in distress, you know, a saloon waitress, and girl that could hit a moving target at twenty yards.” I clear my throat in an exaggerated way.
I take on the character thoroughly. I raise my eyebrows and assume a puffed up, affected posture: “Your response to my last offer was, AND I QUOTE! ‘it’s all just a bunch of silly boys playing with their guns.'”
Although we are playfully joking about “questionable film loyalties,” it is also my way of addressing her recent “escapades” with my best pal Jimmy. But neither of us have the guts to say what we really mean. However, I forget all of that serious stuff, as my engines fire up…
Maureen seductively puts both hands on the desk and leans in toward me…
In her best Marilyn Monroe imitation she says, “I would bend over backwards to get the part, Mr. Mayer.”
I stand up to meet her physical advances, and we begin to embrace. Then, we turn to look out the window, right behind the desk. Below is the East Gate, where we started earlier tonight, and in the distance, we see the MGM Logo, now all lit up, just atop a soundstage. Seeing it from the same angle Louis B. had is inspiring. Below the MGM logo is an advertisement for That’s Entertainment.
Did I already say that I recently met Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on that show? I got their autographs right below this very same window. It’s surreal to be standing here now… the exact same show being advertised in lights is the very one in which I met MGM’s two biggest stars!
I fall into a kind of reverie… all those movies that take us into another reality are conceived right here! For two hours, a movie can take us anywhere… back in time or into the future. To little European villages or into space. We can be war heroes or mafia men. And somewhere in the recesses of your mind, that reality lives on… In some universe, Gene Kelly will be swinging around on that lamp post, with an umbrella in his hand, forever, until the end of time. But in this moment, I have gotten to take a peek behind the curtain. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, and I have gotten a glimpse of the wizard—the man that makes all that movie magic happen.
He can also make you a star. If he likes something about your face, you get to pass through the magical gateway. It’s a star making enterprise. And he’s the one who pulls the golden levers.
A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. … We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting. ~Louis B. Mayer
Then I suddenly snap out of it. I’m 14 years old and we have to kiss before the chamber keeper returns! Just as I bend Maureen over the table, as I’ve seen them do in movies, the door flies open. No knock, just a surprise. Maureen and I quickly adjust ourselves, and Al misses out on his, ahem… Marx Brothers moment. But he does get a Gable/Harlow deep stare upon his return.
“Well, did you guys have fun?” he says with his big Italian smile and cheerful tone. “You wouldn’t believe how much fun we had…” Gee,Thanks, Uncle Al!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden and Maureen Miller Edited by Donna Quesada
Our Warner Brothers adventure was barrels of fun! Let’s see what other trouble we can get into today…
I’ve been sneaking around studios for years now, but never got to drive an old car. The closest I came was just to sit in a few. The butterflies in my stomach that were created by the runaway stick shift Coupe and nearly slamming into John Boy’s house, have flown away and I’m all ready for more.
We open the doors on Jimmy’s VW, while he pulls out a map from under his seat. As he spreads it out on his hood, we all try to see where some of the other studios are located. We triangulate, then come to the same conclusion simultaneously: Walt Disney Studios is nearby!
Casing the Joint—
We consider this tantalizing prospect. There is still daylight, we are already out here in the valley, and Burbank Studios was the easiest studio ever… So, let’s go case this joint called Disney! We unanimously agree to one more adventure on New Years Day.
We drive down a side street that lies across from a backlot, which is surrounded by the standard studio chain link fence. We coast in front of a row of large homes, just scoping it out. We don’t want to stop since that would look suspicious. We can clearly see a backlot tucked inside. Grassy berms with trees form a separation between one world and another. What goes on in there stays discreet and hidden. We realize we can get in almost exactly the way we did at TBS.
It’s just another barbed wire fence. All in a day’s work! So, we yield to the temptation and climb right up and over. But, only one climber at a time, lest it shake and wobble, endangering all who are on it. This type of fence greets me everywhere. I should put a section like this in my backyard just for practicing… the way Philippe Petit used to practice his wire walk on a makeshift rope he had in his backyard.
A De Rigueur Detour—
Now that’s a heist that deserves a little digression! That’s the Frenchman who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers on a summer day last year. And he had to go sneaking around in advance, in order to plot out the set up. Now, that guy knew how to case a joint! And in good maverick fashion, he all but flipped the bird to his pursuers on the day of the big event. But he was too much an artist for that… instead, he danced, glisséd back and forth a few times, took a bow, and then lay down on the wire!… basking in his non-compliant glory… while suspended among the clouds, 1300 feet above the dumbfounded spectators below. Meanwhile, the equally dumbfounded faces with badges were waiting on the sidelines, trying to concoct an official charge. Practice makes perfection is the point of all of this!
Once inside, we sit on a berm that offers up only a little bit of a view, but it’s a handy place to hide. We wait, watch, and listen. Safety first…
What kind of Disney E-Ticket ride awaits us? We wonder…
We scout with our eyes before dispatching the next move to our legs. We are just taking in our surroundings… the Walt Disney water tower is directly above us, Stage 7 is visible, beyond the tiny backlot area… and in the distance some ways, is a little neighborhood church.
We decide that today is a fine day to give thanks. So, off to church we go. Our first set exploration! Every backlot I’ve ever visited has at least one church. This one is fine, but nothing remarkable. Desilu has the best, by far. But Combat church, at MGM, has the best location… right in the middle of a war torn village.
It’s early in this trespass, but we note right away that this backlot seems smaller than 20th Century Fox’s. Stages and offices dominate the landscape. We poke around trying to figure out where we can go, while I snap a couple of pictures to say I was here, on my brand new camera. I realize it has a dent in it from the little setback I had while hanging halfway through the roof at Burbank Studios. But, that dent may have saved my life…
We sit on the church steps for a while, taking it in. We go back and forth about what may have been filmed here. I’m into war movies and spaghetti westerns, but I did like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Kurt Russell is the kid I’d like to be if I wasn’t the kid I am. Then we ponder… why spend our whole day here? Not much backlot here and we already covered it. After some hemming and hawing, we decide to leave.
To be honest, I’m a bit let down. I was hoping to drive Herbie’s Love Bug around the lot… heck, even off the lot!
The Exit Climb… not as smooth—
So, off we go. Jimmy goes first. Pat lines up and waits for Jimmy’s tennis shoes to touch down on the legal pavement. Pat goes next, with the big boots that he wears everywhere, like he’s ready for ground combat in the swamps. I fiddle with my camera, then secure it around my shoulder for the climb.
Well I’ll be!… Here comes a guard on a Three-Wheeler! Pat is busy making the critical transition over the top of the barbed wire. Jimmy is watching safely from the other side of the fence, while I must wait in line… just like… at Disneyland!
The guard is yelling “STOP,” as I am yelling “Hurry!”
Pat makes it over and I now have exactly 3 seconds to make this climb. Figures, it’s my stinking turn on a ride that’s about to go down…
The guard is reaching for me, right as I throw my leg over the barbed wire. And just when I pivot off the top post, it breaks!
So much is going on in this moment; Jimmy, Pat and I are all looking at the guard, who is a mere four feet away, looking like a pitiful little nerd who got injured on the football field, trying to play ball with the big guys. His arm is cut pretty badly and it’s dripping blood everywhere. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Camera Gets Captured—
For a flash, I feel sorry for him, but I’m glad we out ran him. In this same long moment, he reaches down into the tall grass and picks up my camera. Shit. I now realize that even though I’m safe, my camera has been captured. Tons of thoughts run through my mind in this instant… Is the joke on us? Are there any pictures of us in there?
Damn my luck, the film they have will show us driving around Warner’s, it’s the same film roll.
The strap must’ve broken in all the haste. Security looks me in the eye and says, “Hey Fucker, you gotta give up, I got your camera!” As he wipes his sweaty face with his blood-covered arm.
Well, like ABC’s Wide World of Sports, I just went from the thrill of victory, to the agony of defeat. Very similar to that poor skier that gets plummeted in the promo for that must see reality TV show.
The rubber has truly met the road. We plan our next move right in front of our new blood-smeared friend. I tell Jim and Pat to leave, knowing the police will most likely be here quickly. I’ve never gone over plans and procedures next to a guard before. Classified info in front of the enemy!
Jimmy will be heading back alone. Pat, my loyal Catholic school buddy, offers to stay with me, as we tell the guard we will meet him at the main gate to turn ourselves in.
I have no choice, my Minolta is expensive and this is my first day using it. Mom just got it for me.
Three Minutes Later—
We arrive at the main gate. Jimmy lets us out around the corner, and heads back to Culver City alone, just him and his VW Squareback.
We stand at the guard box and are escorted to meet the watch commander. It is a she. We are in her crummy office, which looks and smells like a converted bathroom. I’m so unimpressed.
I have better forts than these so called “offices” at MGM and Desilu…
“Where is my camera?” I ask. “The officer is on his way,” she responds. Then after a pause, adds, “What were you taking pictures of?”
“Just the lot” I reply, like it’s the most normal thing to do… the most ordinary photo spot in the world.
At that moment, the officer who has my camera, walks through the door wrapped in bandages. He tells me to open it up and remove the film… I do. What else could I do?
Next, the woman with the bathroom for an office, pushes a big, black rotary phone across her big, dumb desk, right towards me and Pat, and demands, “Call your parents now!”
While I slowly spin the dial, I wonder what will happen if no one answers. But of course, good old Nancy, my sister, picks up on the other end.
I tell her my predicament and she responds, “so you’re in trouble again… where did you say you’re at? Disneyland?”
“No. Disney STUDIOS, in the valley, let me talk to dad.”
He asks, “What kind of trouble are you in?” “Movie trouble, dad, is all, come get me, please?”
The commander asks me to wait at the guard shack at the main gate. My parents will take at least an hour, I reckon, to myself. This is a dangerous place to leave me—at a shack stuffed with schedules and information. I take mental notes on the way security deals with stuff here. It’s not my first guard shack!
I see stage opening times, advance film schedules, expected deliveries… this is like a Disney vault of studio operation information!
Making Friends with the Enemy—
I quickly become friends with the guy who chased me, as I tell stories to him and his buddy about MGM and Desilu. And they share stories with me, too, from Disney. Except theirs are boring. We’re one big happy family, now. I smile and partially pay attention as my eyes keep wandering up and down, scanning for information tacked to the big cork bulletin boards.
I ask, “Do you have a trespasser’s captured list?” Security gives me a long, blank stare, like I’ve just asked where they keep the aliens. Then finally, the buddy responds, “We keep your info filed away… we seldom, if ever, get trespassers!” (No surprise there!)
“You guys do great work here, that’s why!” I wink, as I gather more info.
Damm, I wanted it, so I could hang it next to MGM’s captured list!… All the stupid valley kids who get caught would make great reading!
The Folks Arrive—
My parents’ white Impala has turned off the main street and slowly approaches the shack I’m sitting in. It’s the first vehicle to approach this closed studio since I arrived at this post. As they come to a stop at the arm barrier, the power windows roll down. I greet them, as if they would be two movie stars coming to shoot their scenes and then I proudly lift the arm barrier. I never get to do this at MGM.
It’s like I’m being trained for lead guard at this gate. And I got the production schedule memorized. All’s I need is a hat and a badge to play this part out.
My bandaged buddy with a badge, yes… “buddy,” mentions that we are both “good kids!”
Dad goes to the Watch Commander to finalize my release and pick up my camera. This is not the first Watch Commander my dad has had to deal with… All goes well, and Dad acts appropriately concerned and promises discipline. I wish everyone a wonderful rest of your New Year’s Day evening, like a nice kid.
This isn’t me and Pop’s first rodeo, lady.…
I then climb into our Impala for the drive back. The mood is fine, not tense, like you’d imagine. My parents greet Pat again, having visited briefly before starting this long day. My parents know this is my world. Heck, that’s why my folks bought me this fancy 35mm camera for! So I could capture memories forever. But, doggone it, there will be no memories from this place; that film went the way of E Tickets.
I sit in the backseat, anxious as ever, to develop the other roll of film from The Burbank Studios. I made sure Jimmy took that with him. At least that half of the day was saved. I mention to my dad as we drive, “I practiced driving a stick shift earlier today, at another studio.” He’s impressed, “What year was the car? What kind was it? What show were they filming?”
I have cool parents, and a magical camera. It now has a dent and a broken strap from its first day on the job. But, what a future we have together, and this was only Day One!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden… Edited by Donna Quesada
Capone has fueled our need for explosives. And New Year’s Eve is the perfect excuse to blow stuff up. I invest heavily in all variety of fireworks with the money I get from… let’s just say, selling stuff at school. I have everything from family friendly smoke bombs and rockets, to the ones with more zing, like missiles and girandoles… even some spinning wheels and ordinary firecrackers can be fun. Especially when you tie ’em to Matchbox cars—they take off like a hare running from a bobcat, then spin and pop around before crashing into something. That’s a real bang for your buck. Kids I don’t even know suddenly appear and gather around for this thrill.
This little side hobby of mine begins every year in July, when the fireworks stand opens for a week. That’s when I begin stockpiling enough inventory to make it to New Year’s. By the time the big night arrives, I’ve got a stash that’s fit for a stand of my own… I can hardly find anything else in my closet.
I take a couple of twinkly fountains and some snails, and mix in a bit of gun powder from theblank shell ammo acquired on the Combat sets at MGM. That’s always a big hit all around. Snap, Crackle, Pop. Then, Danny takes about a hundred firecrackers and tosses ’em into a bucket. The crackles and pops echo in there, so it seems like more. It must be the drummer in him… he especially likes anything that makes a lot of noise. I once heard that the Chinese believe that fireworks can ward off evil spirits… Well… devil be gone!
We can hear Chicago blaring from the brand new entertainment center in my living room— they must be performing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. And no one is home to tell us to turn it down, since my folks are out ’till late tonight and my older sister Nancy is nowhere to be found. The sounds of the trombone and trumpet mix with the explosions in my driveway. After pausing for Terry Kath’s guitar solo, we go back to shooting rockets. Pat and Jimmy are last to leave. They help make sure we don’t accidentally light any houses on fire.
It’s Midnight… Somewhere—
The clock strikes 9PM. That means it is midnight in New York. Happy New Year! It is now 1975!
Before going our separate ways for the night, the three of us—Pat and Jimmy and me— make a plan for New Year’s Day: To sneak into a new studio. One we never have never snuck into before… The Burbank Studios, formerly Warner Brothers.
Seven Hours Later—
We are all up unusually early for teenagers, on this holiday morning. Our ears are still ringing from all the fireworks just hours earlier, but we are all ready and raring to go. This bodes well and indicates the professionalism of my battle-tested posse, small as it may be, with just Jimmy, Pat, and me!
Jimmy has offered up his white VW square back for the occasion. I can’t help but recall that lately, the passenger seat has been reserved for Maureen. Our mutual friend.
Today he is my friend. Girls would only slow us down. Or worse, stall us altogether.
As Jimmy drives, I am doing a crash course on the new camera that my mom just gave me for Christmas. It is a 35mm SRT 102 Minolta… an upgrade from my Kodak Instamatic. My studio pictures should improve, and it has a fancy zoom lens that I am sure will come in handy. Jimmy says he will teach me about the F-stop, as well as various lighting exposure tricks.
We pass Universal on our way there, and for a moment, we all feel tempted. Should we try this lot? We decide to continue on for today, but we keep Universal in mind, as a Plan B. We continue down Barham.
The determining factor will be whether or not we can figure a way into Warner Brothers. We would be really embarrassed if we can’t. After all, we are Culver City’s elite trespassing force. We trespass with swagger.
We find one street full of upscale homes in a neighborhood with horses that sits directly across from a fenced in jungle. That’s perfect… a jungle to take cover in, and a fence that is climbable. It’s your standard chain link fence with barbed wire on top.
What worries us is that these nice homes have bay windows, like bug eyes staring out at us; we will probably be seen climbing in. But it’s a chance we have to take. This seems to be the only accessible entry way.
Trained yardbirds that we are, we first scout the fence line for gaps in the fence, or sections that may be folded, due to tree branches or other mishaps. In other words… we look for any hole in the fence. Alas, there are none to be found. Damn thing is perfect. As we continue to scope it out, we reason that we have to climb slowly because of the barbs. And only one guy at a time, can climb, otherwise the shaking can create a miscalculation. It would really be inconvenient if someone went home in stitches.
This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s do or die. Go big or go home. And after all, if there was no risk, there would be no reward. We are all pumped up, and running on adrenaline. Jimmy goes first. He finds an uneven-height break in the fence, where it will be easier to maneuver his legs over the fence without getting scratched. I watch as he grabs between the barbs and hoists himself up and over, in one swift move to the other side. Pat, then goes next as I take up the rear. No one slashes any body parts with the razor-sharp barbs. We are all safely on the other side in what feels like an hour… even though only about 10 minutes have passed.
We figure someone may report us, so we lay low in the bushes for a few minutes, not knowing what sets exist around us. We feel a bit exposed, so we run towards the first set we see, on the backside of a barn. This is a fully dressed and working barn. As we peek out the main doors, we quickly realize where we are.
The Walton’s house—
We can’t believe our eyes when we see the familiar porch. Home of the Hamner family. I hardly ever watch this show… my family is not like theirs. But being here makes me feel the same nostalgia as when I first stepped foot on Andy Griffith’s front porch. I can see myself on that tire swing over there… I decide to make it a reality!
I sway back and forth by pushing my foot against the porch posts, waiting for Grandma Walton to bring me a lemonade, when Jimmy pulls me out of my sentimental moment. I suddenly hear him mimicking the lines everybody knows, even if you’ve never seen the show… Good night John Boy, Good night Mary Ellen, Good night Grandpa… Then we all just about bust a gut laughing.
New lot, new humor. Sadly, we will be saying goodnight to each other like this, all day.
Starting the New Year by Looking Back—
We reminisce about MGM and the Culver Lots, as if we were adults looking back on special times from the past. We all notice that this house carries almost the exact same design as “our” farm house at Desilu, where I have a fort upstairs, right behind the left window… the one in which Ken Berry lived, at Mayberry R.F.D.
As it turns out, Mayberry RFD was filmed here also… Desilu structure below:
We pass the time, yet we have no clock. All we know is that it’s the first day of 1975. After thoroughly exploring this set, we decide to push off, leaving this thrill behind, as we venture forth into the new year, and into new adventures to come.
It appears that no one has reported us. And so far, not one sign of human life. We decide to walk down a jungle road, since that appears to be the road less traveled. Less is best while we gather intel. We pass a country store that appears to be ready to open back up, after the holiday. Farther on, through the trees, we see the edges of buildings, which still seem distant. We trek on.
Finally, we arrive at Laramie street… I haven’t seen a western street this nice since Billy the Kid Street, over at MGM’s Lot 3. We enter a saloon and toast to the occasion, with a joint. The midday sunlight is diffused through little holes in the ceiling. A cascade of luminous crystal beams pours over us, and as we blow plumes of Columbian gold into the air, we watch as they billow out and swirl around the glimmering streams of light. The whole smoky room is glowing yellow… We all know this moment is magic, but as 15 and 16 year old stoned boys, we don’t articulate it very well. So, we just keep smoking. We have no idea what else is in store for us today, nor what we may find around each unexplored corner, but at this moment, it doesn’t matter.
Divide and Conquer—
As the three of us complete our first celebratory toast of the year, we have already achieved our resolution. We are novices on a new and unexplored backlot. The Burbank Studios seem to be no match for my small group of studio-tested trespassers. We, The Three Amigos, exit through the swinging saloon doors, like we just threw a couple of bullets around just for the heck of it. Because we’re badass. Then, we decide to head off in three different directions. We agree to explore every dirt road in this old western town before meeting up again to compare notes.
I ponder the climb to the roof of the town bank that overlooks this street. I want to take pictures from the highest point I can access, with my fancy new camera. As I look around, I see that this set appears to be split; Kung Fu has set dressing labels on props that are displayed on the wooden covered sidewalks. Yet, vehicles from another era are parked on the opposite side of this dingy, western dressed street.
Jimmy likes to take pictures, too, so he could be anywhere. Pat is probably putzing around inside these parked vehicles, since they’re all vintage.
I see a ladder that’ll take me to the top of this bank. There are no floors in between the dirt floor and the roof above… just three stories of AIR in between the top and the bottom. With Chicago still in my head from last night, I sing to myself, trying to go real low, like Kath, as I make the relatively easy climb real high, to the top.
As I survey the landscape from this flat roof top, I fumble with my lens cap and start turning all my F-stops. As I begin focusing with my bitchin new zoom lens, I see Pat inside an old coupe picture car, below. Jimmy is nowhere to be seen. I aim right down Main Street and snap my first picture on this old backlot.
Hang Man, Hang Man—
The snap of my shutter is followed by another snap!… this one much louder. And my happy, solitary singalong and half-stoned glee are instantly replaced by an inner air horn, as I realize, at once, that this second snap is the roof giving way.
There’s always this moment, after a fall or some such mishap, where you wonder, how bad is it?… did I break anything? I quickly register that I have fallen half-way through the same ceiling that I was just standing on. I am in a kind of limbo position. I have the thought that… I have just taken a picture that I may never see, as my life hangs in the balance, three stories up from the ground.
In exact terms, my upper torso is still on top of the roof, looking down the street, while my legs dangle like a man being hanged, inside the bank.
Somehow… despite my predicament, I manage to take a quick survey of my situation and figure out that my camera is serving as a life-saver. Because of the way it’s strapped to me, it has prevented me from falling all the way through. I reckon I can try to pull my legs back up to reunite them with the rest of my person, or I could just scream for help… but, I doubt anyone would hear me. Of course… this is how it all ends! In a backlot!
Hmmm… This is strangely, kinda like the way I always imagined quicksand would be; the more I squirm, the more likely this will give way. This is a first. My mom always says, be careful Donnie, whenever I leave the house. Well, if she could see me now!
I twist ever so carefully… it’s like the game Operation, where the tweezers can’t hit the metal rim that surrounds the body part being removed. After some careful maneuvering, I finally succeed at lifting my hanging limbs and then surgically remove myself from this hole in the roof.
As I make the long climb down the ladder, I look up to see a new hole in the roof… Hmmm, I wonder what everybody else is up to?
Above: my first picture ever, at Burbank Studios. I earned it!
Jimmy and Pat are all over a sweet Ford Coupe, like they own it. Every door is wide open, including the trunk and the hood. Pat is doing his best Goober Pyle as he turns the key. The engine kicks over as Jimmy hands us some wardrobe items from the trunk of the car. Hats and coats all around!
Above: My Driver’s Ed car...
Ford Coupe Tour Begins—
No one seems to care that I was almost a dead man. Forget my story! No one cares about me! These guys are fixin’ to take a ride. Well, I want in, too! So what… that I don’t have a license,so what… that it’s a stick! I practice shifting my dad’s El Camino all the time! So what… that it’s with the car parked and the engine off! I’m ready to grow up. Jimmy grabs the wheel, I sit shotgun and Pat rolls down the back windows. We’re goin’ for a spin!
What a car… I wish my dad was here. It’s filthy inside, but fun as hell. Especially as we pick up speed on the same dirt jungle road that we just cruised by foot, a bit earlier. A cloud of dust follows us as we drive past the Walton’s house, this time exiting on the road most traveled. We decide to loop around this section of the lot, since we know it’s safe.
Pat asks for his turn, and Jimmy changes seats. I’m a little bit nervous, not about being caught, but about never having driven a stick.
Pat drives us towards N.Y. Street. We are the only car in this area. Now we can see Stages. I can only imagine what reaction we will get if somebody in a uniform presents themselves. He better have a faster car than we do!
We park in a tiny alley so as not to be seen, while we get out to shoot a couple of pictures… still in costume, mind you.
Okay, great street, but everyone wants to drive, and now it’s my turn. I start by grinding it into reverse, then somehow manage to back out of this alley without hitting anything. Second disaster averted today… so far! I start to gain confidence, as I successfully thwack the thing into first gear without stalling.
I remember to push my left foot down on the clutch as I lift my right foot off the gas, just like dad instructed… in the driveway. When I hear the engine descend and then climb back up again, I know I’ve got this and I start to feel more relaxed. I repeat this series of coordinated actions as I slip it from second to third, like a pro, and leave New York Street in the dust. I can see it disappear behind us, in the very tiny rear view mirror.
I pass a row of old sets and stop at a gazebo that is this backlot’s version of a small town square. We get out and have a look around… Wonderful day for a drive about town!Shall we stop and have a soda somewhere, fellas? We have the only car around these parts. It’s like we’re the Walton’s family running their errands.
I quickly get good at driving… let’s do it again! We load up up for another ride in our little Deuce Coupe, and I easily slip from gear to gear, while picking up clouds of dust…
As we get closer to John Boy’s home, I have the idea to park the car and say good night to this most highly rated television family. But, I’m moving a bit too fast. I’m in neutral and I’m not yet comfortable downshifting. So, there goes that idea… This iconic house is quickly becoming centered between… the headlights and the hood ornament! And I can’t slow it down! Finally, I use the brakes and the car pulls itself violently to the side, as I turn the wheel to avoid striking the front porch.
The car turns itself off like it wants to be left alone. Like when girls stop talking to you when they’re mad. After the dust settles, we exit by the same fence posts that we climbed in on. The only thing different is that there is now a dusty, slightly beaten Coupe blocking the front porch of this iconic house. The crew returns from the holidays to get back to work on Season Five… tomorrow, most likely. I wish I could be there to see their perplexed reactions.
I’m now this show’s biggest fan!
Goodnight Jim Bob, Good night Don Boy, Hurry up, Pat dude… is how we exit this Walton’s adventure…
The day is only partially over. There is another studio waiting for us… Stay tuned!