Disney Debacle Chapter 69

Our Warner Brothers adventure was barrels of fun! Let’s see what other trouble we can get into today…

I’ve been sneaking around studios for years now, but never got to drive an old car. The closest I came was just to sit in a few. The butterflies in my stomach that were created by the runaway stick shift Coupe and nearly slamming into John Boy’s house, have flown away and I’m all ready for more.

We open the doors on Jimmy’s VW, while he pulls out a map from under his seat. As he spreads it out on his hood, we all try to see where some of the other studios are located. We triangulate, then come to the same conclusion simultaneously: Walt Disney Studios is nearby!

Casing the Joint—

We consider this tantalizing prospect. There is still daylight, we are already out here in the valley, and Burbank Studios was the easiest studio ever… So, let’s go case this joint called Disney! We unanimously agree to one more adventure on New Years Day.

We drive down a side street that lies across from a backlot, which is surrounded by the standard studio chain link fence. We coast in front of a row of large homes, just scoping it out. We don’t want to stop since that would look suspicious. We can clearly see a backlot tucked inside. Grassy berms with trees form a separation between one world and another. What goes on in there stays discreet and hidden. We realize we can get in almost exactly the way we did at TBS.

It’s just another barbed wire fence. All in a day’s work! So, we yield to the temptation and climb right up and over. But, only one climber at a time, lest it shake and wobble, endangering all who are on it. This type of fence greets me everywhere. I should put a section like this in my backyard just for practicing… the way Philippe Petit used to practice his wire walk on a makeshift rope he had in his backyard.

A De Rigueur Detour—

Now that’s a heist that deserves a little digression! That’s the Frenchman who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers on a summer day last year. And he had to go sneaking around in advance, in order to plot out the set up. Now, that guy knew how to case a joint! And in good maverick fashion, he all but flipped the bird to his pursuers on the day of the big event. But he was too much an artist for that… instead, he danced, glisséd back and forth a few times, took a bow, and then lay down on the wire!… basking in his non-compliant glory… while suspended among the clouds, 1300 feet above the dumbfounded spectators below. Meanwhile, the equally dumbfounded faces with badges were waiting on the sidelines, trying to concoct an official charge. Practice makes perfection is the point of all of this!

We’re In—

Once inside, we sit on a berm that offers up only a little bit of a view, but it’s a handy place to hide. We wait, watch, and listen. Safety first…

What kind of Disney E-Ticket ride awaits us? We wonder…

We scout with our eyes before dispatching the next move to our legs. We are just taking in our surroundings… the Walt Disney water tower is directly above us, Stage 7 is visible, beyond the tiny backlot area… and in the distance some ways, is a little neighborhood church.

We decide that today is a fine day to give thanks. So, off to church we go. Our first set exploration! Every backlot I’ve ever visited has at least one church. This one is fine, but nothing remarkable. Desilu has the best, by far. But Combat church, at MGM, has the best location… right in the middle of a war torn village.

It’s early in this trespass, but we note right away that this backlot seems smaller than 20th Century Fox’s. Stages and offices dominate the landscape. We poke around trying to figure out where we can go, while I snap a couple of pictures to say I was here, on my brand new camera. I realize it has a dent in it from the little setback I had while hanging halfway through the roof at Burbank Studios. But, that dent may have saved my life…

We sit on the church steps for a while, taking it in. We go back and forth about what may have been filmed here. I’m into war movies and spaghetti westerns, but I did like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Kurt Russell is the kid I’d like to be if I wasn’t the kid I am. Then we ponder… why spend our whole day here? Not much backlot here and we already covered it. After some hemming and hawing, we decide to leave.

To be honest, I’m a bit let down. I was hoping to drive Herbie’s Love Bug around the lot… heck, even off the lot!

The Exit Climbnot as smooth—

So, off we go. Jimmy goes first. Pat lines up and waits for Jimmy’s tennis shoes to touch down on the legal pavement. Pat goes next, with the big boots that he wears everywhere, like he’s ready for ground combat in the swamps. I fiddle with my camera, then secure it around my shoulder for the climb.

Well I’ll be!… Here comes a guard on a Three-Wheeler! Pat is busy making the critical transition over the top of the barbed wire. Jimmy is watching safely from the other side of the fence, while I must wait in line… just like… at Disneyland!

The guard is yelling “STOP,” as I am yelling “Hurry!”

Pat makes it over and I now have exactly 3 seconds to make this climb. Figures, it’s my stinking turn on a ride that’s about to go down…

The guard is reaching for me, right as I throw my leg over the barbed wire. And just when I pivot off the top post, it breaks!

So much is going on in this moment; Jimmy, Pat and I are all looking at the guard, who is a mere four feet away, looking like a pitiful little nerd who got injured on the football field, trying to play ball with the big guys. His arm is cut pretty badly and it’s dripping blood everywhere. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Camera Gets Captured—

For a flash, I feel sorry for him, but I’m glad we out ran him. In this same long moment, he reaches down into the tall grass and picks up my camera. Shit. I now realize that even though I’m safe, my camera has been captured. Tons of thoughts run through my mind in this instant… Is the joke on us? Are there any pictures of us in there?

Damn my luck, the film they have will show us driving around Warner’s, it’s the same film roll.

The strap must’ve broken in all the haste. Security looks me in the eye and says, “Hey Fucker, you gotta give up, I got your camera!” As he wipes his sweaty face with his blood-covered arm.

Well, like ABC’s Wide World of Sports, I just went from the thrill of victory, to the agony of defeat. Very similar to that poor skier that gets plummeted in the promo for that must see reality TV show.

The rubber has truly met the road. We plan our next move right in front of our new blood-smeared friend. I tell Jim and Pat to leave, knowing the police will most likely be here quickly. I’ve never gone over plans and procedures next to a guard before. Classified info in front of the enemy!

Jimmy will be heading back alone. Pat, my loyal Catholic school buddy, offers to stay with me, as we tell the guard we will meet him at the main gate to turn ourselves in.

I have no choice, my Minolta is expensive and this is my first day using it. Mom just got it for me.

Three Minutes Later

We arrive at the main gate. Jimmy lets us out around the corner, and heads back to Culver City alone, just him and his VW Squareback.

We stand at the guard box and are escorted to meet the watch commander. It is a she. We are in her crummy office, which looks and smells like a converted bathroom. I’m so unimpressed.

I have better forts than these so called “offices” at MGM and Desilu

“Where is my camera?” I ask. “The officer is on his way,” she responds. Then after a pause, adds, “What were you taking pictures of?”

“Just the lot” I reply, like it’s the most normal thing to do… the most ordinary photo spot in the world.

At that moment, the officer who has my camera, walks through the door wrapped in bandages. He tells me to open it up and remove the film… I do. What else could I do?

Next, the woman with the bathroom for an office, pushes a big, black rotary phone across her big, dumb desk, right towards me and Pat, and demands, “Call your parents now!”

While I slowly spin the dial, I wonder what will happen if no one answers. But of course, good old Nancy, my sister, picks up on the other end.

I tell her my predicament and she responds, “so you’re in trouble again… where did you say you’re at? Disneyland?”

“No. Disney STUDIOS, in the valley, let me talk to dad.”

He asks, “What kind of trouble are you in?” “Movie trouble, dad, is all, come get me, please?”

The commander asks me to wait at the guard shack at the main gate. My parents will take at least an hour, I reckon, to myself. This is a dangerous place to leave me—at a shack stuffed with schedules and information. I take mental notes on the way security deals with stuff here. It’s not my first guard shack!

I see stage opening times, advance film schedules, expected deliveries… this is like a Disney vault of studio operation information!

Making Friends with the Enemy—

I quickly become friends with the guy who chased me, as I tell stories to him and his buddy about MGM and Desilu. And they share stories with me, too, from Disney. Except theirs are boring. We’re one big happy family, now. I smile and partially pay attention as my eyes keep wandering up and down, scanning for information tacked to the big cork bulletin boards.

I ask, “Do you have a trespasser’s captured list?” Security gives me a long, blank stare, like I’ve just asked where they keep the aliens. Then finally, the buddy responds, “We keep your info filed away… we seldom, if ever, get trespassers!” (No surprise there!)

“You guys do great work here, that’s why!” I wink, as I gather more info.

Damm, I wanted it, so I could hang it next to MGM’s captured list!… All the stupid valley kids who get caught would make great reading!

The Folks Arrive—

My parents’ white Impala has turned off the main street and slowly approaches the shack I’m sitting in. It’s the first vehicle to approach this closed studio since I arrived at this post. As they come to a stop at the arm barrier, the power windows roll down. I greet them, as if they would be two movie stars coming to shoot their scenes and then I proudly lift the arm barrier. I never get to do this at MGM.

It’s like I’m being trained for lead guard at this gate. And I got the production schedule memorized. All’s I need is a hat and a badge to play this part out.

My bandaged buddy with a badge, yes… “buddy,” mentions that we are both “good kids!”

Dad goes to the Watch Commander to finalize my release and pick up my camera. This is not the first Watch Commander my dad has had to deal with… All goes well, and Dad acts appropriately concerned and promises discipline. I wish everyone a wonderful rest of your New Year’s Day evening, like a nice kid.

This isn’t me and Pop’s first rodeo, lady.

I then climb into our Impala for the drive back. The mood is fine, not tense, like you’d imagine. My parents greet Pat again, having visited briefly before starting this long day. My parents know this is my world. Heck, that’s why my folks bought me this fancy 35mm camera for! So I could capture memories forever. But, doggone it, there will be no memories from this place; that film went the way of E Tickets.

I sit in the backseat, anxious as ever, to develop the other roll of film from The Burbank Studios. I made sure Jimmy took that with him. At least that half of the day was saved. I mention to my dad as we drive, “I practiced driving a stick shift earlier today, at another studio.” He’s impressed, “What year was the car? What kind was it? What show were they filming?”

I have cool parents, and a magical camera. It now has a dent and a broken strap from its first day on the job. But, what a future we have together, and this was only Day One!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…
Edited by Donna Quesada

Phantomofthebacklots on FB

5 thoughts on “Disney Debacle Chapter 69”

  1. If this was 1975 at the Disney studios you should’ve looked around a little more: you would’ve found the Zorro set and Disney’s western street

  2. Terrific, Phantom! Thought I’d take a break from the political circus and look at my blog list! I see your lovely editor waived her magic wand once again. Good times. Good read and fun diversion!

  3. I toured Disney Studios in 67. Watched several scenes being shot on stages and in lot(Rascal), and toured animation, meeting animators. The lot was in its prime (less than a year after Disney passing away)and had quite a nice backlot of facades. Unfortunately, the didn’t allow cameras back back, and this was strictly enforced. But I have wonderful memories.

  4. I worked in the Labor Dept ( as a laborer – Local 724 – AFL- CIO Laborers & Hod Carriers ) at Disney Studios in Burbank twice … the 1st time in late 1959 for just a few weeks.
    I worked there again from Feb. 1962 – Jan. 1963. during that time – I worked with the electricians who were building the animals for the Jungle Ride – the Talking Abraham Lincoln – and the birds for the Tiki Hut / House = for Disneyland.
    I also worked with the painters who painted signs for Western Street & Zorro Street. I also helped bring Walt Disney’s oak desk from his office to the Paint Dept. to be refinished… and then helped take it back up to his office. ( note: Walt’s desk was refinished annually – when he was out of town on vacation. )
    I also worked on a location – building sets – at Walt’s ranch – ” The Oak of the Golden Dream” – out in the Saugus- Newhall area. In fact, I was out there working with the painters – painting HUGE oak trees ( that were dead & on BIG platforms of wood ) – when a limo arrived. The driver went to the foreman in charge & asked if a Wayne Flaaten was there… he said I was & pointed me out to the driver. The limo driver came up to me & said… “I’m here to take you back to the lot – your wife is in labor at Valley Presbyterian Hospital !” … and off we went… back to Burbank. I hopped in my ’59 VW Bug & headed to the hospital. The doc had decided it was ”false labor” & sent us home. BUT… the next day my wife went into REAL labor & our oldest son was born !
    During my days at Walt Disney Studios I had the honor & privilege to see: Walt Disney ( on an almost DAILY basis as he walked the entire lot – with his typical clothes of khakis – a polo shirt – and a golfer’s sweater. IF he was giving dignitaries a tour of the lot – he wore a suit & tie. ) – Roy Disney Sr. – Roy Disney Jr. – Ron ? ( Walt’s son-in-law ) – Fred Mc Murray – Dean Jones – and a host of other stars.
    On my breaks I often visited with ”Cotton” Warburton – who was an Oscar winning film editor at Disney Studios… and who also was a neighbor of mine in Culver City- where I was born & raised.
    From Jan. 1959 – Aug. 1970 – I worked at several studios including: MGM – Republic – Four Star – Paramount & Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney Studios was – HANDS DOWN – my FAV lot to work on ! Why ?? = it was VERY clean – the employees were ALL VERY friendly – everybody showed extreme PRIDE in their various jobs – and Walt Disney fostered a ”family-like atmosphere” ! ( note: MGM was my 2nd FAV ! I started my ”laborer’s career” there on Lot 3 in Jan. 1959 – and last worked there on Lot 1 in Aug. 1960 = just before I moved from Culver City to the SF Valley to attend San Fernando Valley State College ( Now = CSU – Northridge ) — my Dad worked at MGM from 1937 to 1965. ).

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