In 1938, an unusually large production on the Desilu backlot needed to build a train station for a few key scenes. The show was, of course, “Gone With the Wind,” and the depot scenes (seen below) are some of the most stirring and memorable in the film.
Unfortunately, most of it burned down a long time ago, and what little survived has since been torn down.
Desilu again laid down rail tracks in 1959 for the “The Untouchables” series. In a spectacular two-parter (episodes 40 and 41), Elliot Ness foils an attempt to hijack the “Alcatraz Express” by criminals intent on freeing Al Capone.
But by 1974, Desilu no longer had this or any other train station. In fact, there were only two depots left in Tinseltown, and both of them were on the MGM backlot.
Vincente Minnelli’s “The Band Wagon” (1953) immortalized one of these iconic MGM stations.
And here’s the same gang plank in 1974! This was effectively the last time the station would look so polished, as a little movie called “Planet of the Apes” would soon transform it.
Which brings us to “The Fortune” (1975), a Mike Nichols’ film starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. This show needed a train station, but since Desilu no longer had one, they were obliged to bring the whole production circus over to MGM, a “company move” of less than two miles. It was a pretty easy job for a driver if you could get it.
Maureen gets the ball rolling by calling me about a tremendous amount of activity and lighting she can see from her bedroom window. Jimmy is with me, and we’re already preparing to visit the set when she calls. “We’re on our way! Bye!”
Jimmy and I check in with her, chatting through the bedroom window. She turns down our invite to sneak in, then brags about having a relative who’s a gaffer on this set. Apparently, she has her own “in!”
Maureen looks awfully pretty through the window screen. She’s wearing a white top, and Jimmy and I both smell her perfume. We’re wearing black, since it works well with trespassing at night. We look like criminals and Maureen looks like she stepped off a beach calendar.
Tonight she can wear a dress and get all dolled up since she has a free ticket to ride. “We’ll be up in the church steeple,” I tell her. “Say a prayer for us trespassers”! Signal us a ‘hello’ from the set tonight.”
“If you see Big George, he’s gonna wanna see proof you’re legal. Tell him I’m there too. With ten other guys! That should distract him!”
We all giggle, laugh, and split.
Jimmy and I easily make it up to the church belfry. We stare down like we’re in some kind of space capsule observing a very lit-up Earth from above. The shape is actually similar to a space craft: a cone shape at the top that tightly squeezes in two guests side by side.
Trust me, I’m a kid who has been in a space capsule. This is very similar. It allows us a view of the set as if from a lunar orbiter.
The views from this steeple.
Jimmy and I watch as vans shuttle the crew back and forth. Diesel exhaust from generators conveniently disguises the pot odor we’re generating up here.
Jimmy seems less about this moment tonight and more about Maureen. If I had an “eject button” up here, I’d use it. He’s too interested in my girlfriend. . . who we suddenly see, dressed in white, frolicking on the set! She’s been escorted there by her gaffer friend, and I know she knows we’re up here . . .
We watch as she walks around next to Warren Beatty. He and Jack Nicholson are having an intense conversation as they push a cart holding Stockard Channing. (See above.)
We watch Maureen as she slithers around the set, eventually moseying over to the fence by the train depot where we all climb in. No one but us and the two owls next to us can see this next move. . .
Maureen signals for our attention as if she’s landing a jet on an aircraft carrier. Broad hand gestures are directed up at us, and we respond, popping our heads out and waving quickly so as not to be seen by the entire set.
Below, Maureen’s view as she signals the church tower…
Contact has been made, but the symbols have changed. Maureen extends her middle finger and proudly flicks us the bird.
Just as quickly, we respond. Four arms and four pointing birds protrude outwards from the steeple towards that hot little blonde in the nice, white beach outfit. That’s what’s called “doubled-barrel flicking” the bird.
We stay until midnight, Beatty and Jack filming inside the old Pullman. As we leave, we take a final glimpse before jumping back over the fence and heading home.
We stop briefly to tap on Maureen’s window. Some messed up hair and then a hand peer back at us. Her hand quickly changes from a polite and friendly five finger wave to a one finger stationary Universal salute. She got us again!
We laugh all the way home, one block away.
Planet of the Apes set dressing. New York street get’s prepared, while “The Fortune” shoots at the depot. Stay tuned!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden