I have done it. I have successfully navigated all the Culver City Backlots. Those are MGM, lots 2, 3, 4, 5. Now Desilu is an everyday option. Perfect for a Tom Sawyer hookie day.
Lot 3, at MGM, is a 67 acre wonderland with exterior sets ranging from multiple western streets; a huge lake and jungle; New Orleans, and France. There are winding roads that appear to go on forever. Cobblestone has that unique sound when wheels or horse hooves go over it. Its different in here.
One side of the fence is magical, the other side is reality… and far too serious. But you must dare yourself to visit the magic. It is forbidden. Trespassing is what the studio calls it.
Well what fun is life without risk? I was born ready!
Holes in the fence happen…naturally and artificially. Climbing is easy when you’re a kid, so getting in is easy. The rush begins immediately. Generally, you hide…every chance you can. Slow and steady. No clocks here. These lots have movie production prepping or shooting, all the time. Night and day. Weekends are generally just a guard and a big empty lot.
MGM does not use dogs. Desilu was the last backlot to conquer, because of K-9 patrols. Lot 3 should be patrolled by dogs. It is almost twice the size of all the other backlots. But, thankfully they are not. They leave it up to old men who take turns driving a jeep that carries a salt rock gun. Yes, you can be shot!
First, they have to find you in this labyrinth; that’s why we pick and choose the paths most off the beaten trail. There are false fronts, or sets all over.
Hiding behind the sets…and in many cases, in the sets, is the key to successfully avoiding unwanted meetings in security. It sounds intimidating because it is. Most people shy away from danger and never see how cool this club can be.
Lack of challenges puts security in auto-pilot mode. We even see them nap, often… I told you they should go with dogs!
I recognize equipment that was on Lot 2…now at Lot 3. The backlot world is interchangeable with many moving parts, literally. The Rat Patrol moves their squad back and forth down Overland, the public street that connects these lots, depending on what village or train station they are attacking. Combat did the same, as did Garrison’s Gorillas, starring Ron Harper.
Combat was canceled in 1967, but the crew jumped on to Garrison’s Gorillas. More quality war TV.
The Rat Patrol, starring Christopher George, followed that ill-fated but really cool TV show and had a bit more success. J.D. Flowers does special effects for all these shows. Constantly blowing things up…safely!
I met him when my career started and we talked all about MGM days. A toast to Mr. Flowers… an effects legend. In one of the more fulfilling days I’ve had, I was able to connect dots from a decade prior.
I have a Combat board game, and a Rat Patrol lunch box. I live for this stuff.
I even ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of my Rat Patrol lunch box…inside the the real German half-track from the Rat Patrol series. And I drank my Kool-aid out of my Rat Patrol thermos. I live my lunch pails. How many kids do that?
I have yet to be chased here, at Lot 3…and don’t want to. I have run into trespassers who warned us this happens here…getting shot at, that is. It hurts badly I am told. Try to avoid that; your choices are… keep a lot of distance… cut and run like a jack rabbit and criss cross…so they can’t aim strait. Doorways are your friends, but don’t get in a building where you’re trapped. Words to live by.
Jimmy, my best pal, and I, are like a modern Lewis and Clark. The same harsh but rustic surroundings. They dealt with Indians. We deal with guards. Both will scalp ya. But like them, we successfully map this wild frontier.
In fact, this is where you would film Lewis and Clark. Anything you can imagine can happen here. It’s where the right side of your brain can enjoy itself. Creative time and space for your mind. Not the dribble you get brainwashed with at school.
There is a lot across from Lot 3. It is Lot 5. A simple rusted chain link fence tries to contain what is plainly within sight and within reach. It is a field with planes from WW2 littered about…
Bombers, and fighters planes…some German ones sit rusting, waiting for their next Hollywood battle. Real planes and real stories…now retired to be MGM props. What kid would not dig this. My personal toy chest… Planes that once glorified the sky are now littered around the backlots.
12 O’clock High was a Fox TV show; it had its tags on a fuselage indicating that it was a rental for that production. This is a plane museum. Across the street on Lot 3 is a train museum. A real steam engine pulls passengers half way around the Lot. The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, capture this in the song “Aitchison-Topeka.”
This defining number sang by Judy, herself, captured for eternity what backlots are about. History goes backwards here, but it’s captured on film for us to enjoy today. I still get goosebumps when I see scenes and productions that used my old sets.
“Willoughby, next stop is Willoughby,” shouts the conductor. That is a Twilight Zone episode, starring James Daly. In this episode, shot at our little train station at Lot 3, James succumbs to the corporate grind and dreams of of this backlot town, called Willoughby. He wants only to live the simple life that exists inside these fences. This train stops at Willoughby.
That episode describes how wonderful my life is becoming. I live in Willoughby!
Inside these studio fences is an unmistakable sense of history. You feel it, see it, it exists. Magic!
I am catching on, that inside these fences is a time machine of history—created where I am standing. One side of the fence is the harsh reality of school, responsibility, and expectations to succeed. But inside these fences, time merges…not a care in the world.
Time you learn to appreciate stuff not taught in school: a special time that you hope never disappears.
So, put on your tennis shoes and grab your fishing pole… we got a huge lake inside… Are you coming?
Written and lived by Donnie Norden