It is with disheartening news that I share my personal tales of Columbia Ranch… It is now known that this lot will soon go the way of MGM and so many other iconic sites, as history is sold off to the highest bidder… in this case, tract home development.
My boots first touched ground on this movie backlot in the mid-seventies. Very easy to enter; Jimmy and I simply climbed a brick wall behind a supermarket. We covered the entire lot on our first visit. It was Christmas day… 1975.
Above: This is where we climbed in… right through this supermarket parking lot.
Above: Climbing in for the first time, and taking cover for the first time… is intoxicating. Slowly we proceed… one bush, one tree, then a forest, and finally, some buildings to take cover in.
Above: The buiding we are hiding in now will shortly become a regular set in the TV show Fantasy Island.
Below: As we weave around, through pathways and dirt roads, we see a western street that is very old. Some facades are starting to become slanted or unsafe to climb on. A saloon interior is inside one of these. It has seen better days.
Above and Below: We spend time time climbing on what ever we think can hold our weight. It is neat to look from behind the dusty drapes, and spotted windows that overlook this wind-blown, tumbleweed street. It’s like we are expecting a high-noon gun battle!
We take our time in the old west, peeking around for security. If past history at MGM has taught us anything, we may not see the sheriff at all… on this religious, toy sharing holiday.
A church steeple towers over these two-story western buildings from a neighboring set beyond. It caught our attention, since we like climbing to the top of them. Every studio has at least one belfry.
As we climb to the top we become… filthy!
This hobby may seem glamorous, but right now I’m covered in bird shit!
Dead birds lay everywhere. They apparently become trapped inside. It stinks horribly. We rate this the worst steeple we have ever been inside. But, it does give us a privileged vantage point, overlooking a neighborhood with very famous houses.
Above: We tear out of the steeple and through this little village. We discover that by simply turning the corner, we journey from Europe to an all-American residential street.
Above: We run inside the front door of the Bewitched house… upstairs, downstairs, backyard, every angle… like we’re buying it.
Below: Right across the street lives my favorite kid on TV… Dennis the Menace.
We relive countless, classic moments on each front porch… this is as cool as it gets for me. All the obstacles blocking us from this experience have been overcome, we have conquered another iconic backlot!
Above: The General Lee from the Dukes of Hazard.
Below: The only stages on this backlot…
Jimmy and I had our last chase/get-away on this lot. Although we had no way of knowing it then… this incident, on a Saturday afternoon, would be our last close call moment. The closure of a decade of trespassing at every studio. Our swan song.
After being seen by a man on a golf cart, we knew by his reaction, we better hide. So, we jumped into an old barn, behind a sheet of plywood, which was laying up against a wall.
Face to face, again… just Jimmy and I.
Waiting, listening, barely breathing, as two men search this barn. Finally, while listening to them talk and search, they conclude that we must’ve gotten away.
A few minutes later… we did!
Jimmy was 24. I was 22. We were 12 and 14 when we began a life of running and hiding.
Looking back, we had no idea how historic this get away would be… our very last, as a duet. Like Butch and Sundance, except we lived on.
On September 25, 1980… John Bonham died. A news flash bursted over everything else on the radio, just as Danny, Jimmy, and I, jumped over the studio wall… the Led Zeppelin drummer was no more.
Sadly, we took this news in, on the Fantasy Island jungle set. Danny, being a terrific drummer himself, could barely fathom this event.
We were all stunned. This took the wind out of our sails that afternoon.
Led Zeppelin played on the radio all day… From the pastel shades of “Going to California,” to the volcanic eruption that is “Immigrant Song,” this was an unmatched band and Bonham was a beast of a drummer. These songs emanated from every building. It became our soundtrack as we remembered his life and the Zeppelin concert we saw together, at “The Fabulous Forum.”
A backlot is more than just a filming location. Life takes place in, on, and around its pearly gates. History is made, but also lives here…
Just as we had to accept that Led Zeppelin will never be again… we must now, 40 years later, accept that this treasure of a movie lot is soon to be just a fond memory.
That’s the way it is…
Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada
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