This evening arrives in the blink of an eye… the last three weeks of building, decorating, painting, electrical rigging, and pre-lighting have just concluded. Filming is about to commence on this old backlot.
My mom made me an early dinner tonight as I excitedly enlighten her on my latest MGM adventure. I warn her I may be coming home real late all this week, due to the fact that all the filming takes place at night… “it’s a Frankenstein movie, mom… directed by Mel Brooks…. I’ll be safe, I promise,” beating her to her favorite line, which I hear every time I walk out the front door.
At this very moment, the rotary phone next to the dinner table rings. I grab the reciever and stick it next to my head. It’s Maureen, my girlfriend. Her enthusiasm can’t be contained by the phone line. No hellos. Just… “Get over here!” Then, she managed to blurt out “they’re filming at the train station across the street… lights are shining in every direction.” Barely breathing, she continues, “my whole bedroom is lit up”…
“On my way,” as I finish off my glass of double scooped Ovaltine, grabbing my skateboard…
I’m hauling ass, as fast as one leg can pump, on this chilly evening. As I round the corner, I can see that the studio is lit up like a rocket launch. I arrive in literally seconds at Maureen’s front door, and I just barge in. She is standing on her bed, as I join her.
Together, we can see one side of the trains that are parked alongside the station’s platform. Thick steam is clouding our vision; it is artificial, being created by special effects. It protrudes above and beyond the studio fence.
This moment is magical. This old edifice has been transformed… like it took a sip from a fountain of youth. Movies such as The Band Wagon and The Brothers Grimm have captured this set with class and dignity, but tonight, Young Frankenstein will add to this train depot’s long list of credits.
Maureen and I now find ourselves in the same situation we were in just a few weeks ago—jumping up and down on her bed… like a couple of pogo sticks, watching The Phantom film… Maureen has the coolest bedroom window, ever!
We know that the higher we can jump, the farther we can see… albeit, very briefly. We get quick mental snapshots as we teeter up and down. I go up as she goes down. We can hear a director’s commands on a megaphone, which we gather is Mel Brooks.
Her bed has become a complete mess. It is nighttime and everyone can see us do this alternating, hodge podge dance, with each jump… the crew can see our heads bobbing up and down. We see them in flashes as they see us.
I’m getting exhausted already, yet the company is still setting up this first shot. The exhilaration of jumping is intoxicating. I wonder what actors may see us as we continue to bounce, giggle and laugh. We turn off her bedroom lights and now her room is indirectly lit by the same lighting that is capturing scenes from across the street.
Next, I grab a ladder that is in her laundry room and we head to the train tracks across the street… we can see through windows at the depot, as we share a seat atop this ladder. We can hardly believe it… “Is that Gene Wilder?” We squint our eyes… trying to see through the steam… “There he is!… he’s rehearsing with Madeline Kahn.” We can’t hear the actors’ lines, but we see their every move, including Gene’s, as he boards the train to Transylvania.
Bronco Bob is the guard on duty, as is Big George. MGM has its heavies securing this station. MGM knows we operate from this depot. We are not hiding, since we are not trespassing, at the moment… Bob’s short stocky build is recognizable, even in the fog… He sees us and waddles over… He says to us, “you two better stay outta here or you’re going to jail!” I respond, “can’t you just say hello, and be a bit nicer? I have a pretty girl with me,” I say, rather sarcastically… “the last thing we would do is intrude on your watch… leave us alone!”
Bob snarls and mumbles and right before he disappears from our view, I shout with my ego inflamed, “you can’t out run either one of us, anyway… even if we do pop over!” What a buzz kill this guy is.
Above: The scenes we are seeing filmed, on this night…
On the next night, the train station is dark. Quite a contrast from last night. But over at Boystown, the lights are strong enough to bounce off the moon and back. Gerald wants to go with me tonight and I oblige him.
We are determining if we can get past the web of security that George and Bob create and so, we take it all in from our Boystown fort. Set lighting equipment is lit up at the Transylvania station set as we arrive. We will watch this scene, from the colonial mansion, a couple hundred yards away.
This train depot, with steam and fog, created by special effects, is the center of attention at the moment. We see Marty Feldman, “Igor,” greet Gene Wilder, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he arrives. Everyone laughs as take after take is shot and reshot. The actors are having a tough time keeping a straight face, as everyone on set laughs at their difficulty…
Below: Sequence of photos showing Dr. Frankenstein arriving at Transylvania station
Introduction to Igor
“My name is … Igor”
“I am a rather brilliant sugeon and I can fix that hump,” says Dr Frankenstein.
“What Hump?” responds Igor…
Above: Special effects creates interesting lighting. It’s an old trick that requires creating a “dead short” in an arc lamp. Special Effects and Set Lighting work together for this scene.
A roll in the hay… who could resist Teri Garr?
The whole scroll Above: All the scenes shot on this chilly evening…
Next evening… The actors are rehearsing at the cemetery below Boystown. Special efffects sets up a rain bar. A fire hose is attached to an aluminum manifold controlled by valves; that’s basically how this device works… It’s like a big sprinkler system. Rain can be controlled with this apparatus. A high pressure hose attaches to a water truck.
We overlook the set by climbing up to the top off my Boystown fort…
We are now in our familiar surroundings, yet my secret hiding place is now the center of the universe. Light comes through every crack, hole and slot… we are directly above a grave plot with a pile of dirt alongside it. A coffin sits between some grave stones and the rain bar sits above this gated cemetery and plot.
Gerald and I sit above all of this, like we are looking down from the stars above. Just watching as we wonder what scene is being set up next… We are in our sanctuary overlooking a haunted paradise.
As usual, I share this experience with two wise old owls. I love these two horned beings. I wish they could talk and tell me what all they have seen in this old backlot…
What we see is of course in color, yet this film we are told, will be in black and white. Just like the Boris Karloff original.
Igor and Dr. Frankenstein continue rehearsing a grave robbery. We sit 40 feet above this grave sequence, and after this coffin is exhumed, Dr. Frankenstein is disgusted with himself for stealing this cadaver. Igor then shows a bit of humility by saying, “it could be worse… it could be raining!”
On that queue, Effects creates a deluge on the cemetery. We take this all in, from above the rain, like the God Thor!
Lightning flashes, as wind blows on command… giant fan blades, like airplane propellors, which run on DC, silently churn the rain into powerful gusts of wind, to add intensity. We are so close, but we have to muffle our laughs as this hysterical scene takes place… in living color. Right before our astonished eyes…
This scene needed to be rehearsed to perfection… since the rain will immediately change a dry cemetery to an unworkable wet set. The scene needs to work as a dry-to-wet sequence
Above and Below: These are all the scenes shot that night, right below my fort…
“It could be worse” Igor points out.. “It could be raining!“
So far we have not seen Frankenstein, but I’m sure this will change.
New Night… Gerald begs to be a part of it, again. I oblige.
More tents have been set up for tonight, as many extras will be needed in these shots. The tents are heated and full of donuts, fruit and coffee. Costumed villagers huddle inside. George and Bob could be on the other side, but the lure of a chocolate bar is stronger than our fear at this moment, so we pull the tent flaps back and enter. The food table is located on the opposite side of this entrance, so we pass by many extras, as they talk amongst themselves about parts and shows they just did, elsewhere… It looks like some sort of gyspy camp.
“They are dressed like Bavarian Boy Scouts,” we joke… “They should have a Saint Bernard with ’em”…
We are overhearing one extra tell another about his appearance on a new TV show, Happy Days. He was just on that set yesterday and hopes he can be a regular on this new series… this is like a movie industry coffee shop and trade show, involving all available cattle… I was up for “this” part… I was up for “that” part… Quickly, we see how egotistical this part of the movie industry seems to be, and we’re just kids…
Our eyes scan each corner of the tent… many extras are sunken into their own lounge chairs, sleeping under newspapers, with their mouths half open… In one corner of the tent, there’s a card game going on… In another corner, they are standing around, anxiously, chain-smoking, as they wait their turn for the telephone… all making their nightly call to Central Casting, hoping to lock in a part for the next day. They all wonder where their next check will come from… We take it all in.
We leave with a hand picked selection of the best donuts. We also expect a long night. We need to get into a rooftop position while things are getting setting up. Plus, Bronco Bob and MGM’s security version of the Monster, “Big George,” would have us in a pickle if they were to walk inside here right now…
The company will now shoot many scenes in this rebuilt village… until the sun rises and kids go to school.
Below: This is the set where Frankenstein will will be hunted down by villagers carrying torches with blood hounds. It is a hard set for us to approach, due to the fact that this is a very-small, quaint village.
Above: This rooftop, over looking the center of town, will be our preferred spot to oversee everything the next few nights... We try to put together a feasible plan, but often, plan Bs must be implemented, due to unforseen events…
Above: This scene was still being filmed as I left, around 11 p.m. Still …No Monster!
Above: Frankenstein has arrived in my little village… He looks a lot like George Barner, MGM’s guard “on duty”… I peer down in amazement, as I see The Monster for the first time… I want to talk to him so bad! Peter Boyle is behind all this make-up and has a grey complexion.
Below: We watched these scenes get rehearsed and reshot, take after take, from this rooftop spot… in living color! My plan worked to perfection.
Below, the villagers unite to hunt down my favorite monster!
Above: Villagers cross a bridge that spans the Tarzan lake. That concludes this production on MGM’s Backlot 2… it was the only exterior location used in this film…
Below: A call sheet…
Above: Look Carefully at the call sheet… A “hump” for Igor! And look again, farther up… The two studio police requested on the insert are the ones that both hate me! (And the feeling is mutual!)
Next up, I meet Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. A special once in a lifetime, memory! The show… That’s Entertainment!
Don’t change that channel…
All stories written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by DQ