New Year’s Eve Explodes—
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 the blank 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!
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Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada