The Desilu Film Vaults

Film Vaults in yellow.

Once upon a time…to the left in this picture, are the film vaults. It looks like a wall.

Over by the La Ballona Creek, on what is famously known as the 40-Acres Backlot, is a bunker, military grade. Built like a fortress, bombs couldn’t open these blast doors. This pink fire door and cement bunker make you feel as if you’re in Normandy. To protect what?…. We, as kids, have no clue what’s inside. There are nine of these blast door facilities attached to this large cement fortress that maintains a low profile. This structure is located adjacent to the creek and within view of the guard shack where you enter this movie ranch at the Ince gate.

It presents a marvelous challenge to us to attempt to engineer a way inside. Us being: Danny, Pat, Jimmy and myself.

With all this testosterone, force might work, if we get the roof pried off. There is no going through this door as we know of for sure. This place was built for an atomic war, prior to atomic weapons.

The vaults are built into a man made fabricated hillside with asphalt providing a roof covering. It begins just behind that portable Air Conditioner, an old movie trailer for some star, and an Untouchables old shot up car. The house is not part of the studio.
Those nine images that look like grave plots are lids or roofs to individual vaults. That is not a rocket ship along side it, that’s an oil rig operation on the property.

Notice the simple fence surrounding this, not even barbed wire. The vaults are to the left in the picture above, and below, as they appeared in Hogan’s Heroes.

We are determined because of the treasures we imagine must exist inside its chambers. Like the Great Pyramids, what have the studio Pharaoh’s left behind for us to discover? We feel obligated to find out since so much here seems to be forgotten, lost or destroyed.

It seems like a massive task, as we can see previous attempts were tried, and all have failed! I decide to bring my 18-inch hole-making crow bar for an attempt to pry open the metal lid roof. Cleverly, I gain leverage on this little bar with a steel fence post that fits over my tool handle. This creates leverage, so much, that jumping on this cheater pole pop’s open this lid like a bottle top opener. We’re in…to the next step anyway.

There is no guard at the gate or anywhere on this lot usually. We call it Desilu, but actually Culver City Studios is the latest purveyor of how to run a studio into the ground. This place is not guarded, more often than not- now a days. It is beginning to appear very neglected. A big vacant playground still loaded with toys if you know where to look. We are looking right now, determined to find a mummy or great treasures…hopefully there is no curse involved here like the discovery of King Tut, an exhibit currently advertised coming soon to Los Angeles.

As we celebrate removing the top level, we now face jail bars and a thick wall of glass below, blocking any view of what lurks inside. These bars are spaced too close together for most adults, but I brought Pat. He is the tiniest of all my friends, yet tougher than a drunken Irish troll.

We each give our best muscled-up crank on this steel bar as we share are wildest wishes with the universe. As I pry with all my might just trying to gain a couple extra inches Pat needs, I wish outloud for Batman’s cape and mask to be inside this tomb. Pat takes his turn stepping on the bars and seeing if we are getting close to his circumference. ” I want Colonel Klink’s helmet, and for all we know it’s in one of these concrete treasure chests.

After prying with all our strength and energy, Danny and I try to push Pat through the slightly separated bars, but he complains. Danny, realizing we are close to being able to stuffing Pat inside tells Pat “I get Bruce Lee’s hat” if it’s in there.

Danny is a black belt in Tang Soo Do and was mentored by John Natividad, who has worked in film with Bruce Lee.

Jimmy chimes in his wish…”grab me Superman’s outfit!”

Well, if the studio Santa Clause grants our wishes, you will see Kato, Batman, Colonel Klink and Superman riding bicycles home.

And not in some cheap Blue Chip Stamp book fake department store costume, not us!

We gain another half inch of space and stick him back in… he’s so close but no cigar. I tell him “remove your shirt and belt.” Because he is getting hung up at the waist, I should have brought a bar of soap. Finally, with an extra pry, then a hard push by us…he slips inside past this barrier. He is able to kick out the glass, holding chicken wire so it won’t shatter, with the boots he always wears that make him feel like a soldier of fortune.

With kicks Bruce Lee would be proud of, Pat touches down in the chamber of pyramid 4. We can smell a strong mothball vinegar-like odor coming from the bunker. The only light inside is from the hole we created, as we all look down in this moment in the same anticipation. This is how guests on Let’s Make a Deal must feel!

We pick door number three Monty is played by Pat at this moment. We see racks and Pat quickly passes up to us a steel film can containing some reels of film inside. An old label on the film can says, “The Whirly Birds”, we open it and put the film frames up against the blue sky. We slowly spin like a projector and see an old-style helicopter take off…

Well, horse shit! My dad always says this when he’s upset. It’s film, these are film vaults, everything Desilu and its predecessors did is in one of these nine crypts. As cool as this is to see, we were looking for gold, costumes, jewels and Tommy guns, but this is celluloid treasure.

Well doggonit, what a let down. We reverse roll it back onto the reel and replace it back where its been sitting for 15 years at least. We ask what other films do you see, Pat says “Superman and Lucy are down here also. It’s all film… and it stinks down here!”

Pat has to be pulled through again to exit, he can barely take the odor in this dungeon which we clearly smell from above. Danny and I each grab an arm and squeeze him back out, like putting paste back in a tube.

We ride home not defeated but heartbroken, only wearing our ordinary clothing. Our dreams of wearing all the costumes I’ve watched for all these years will have to remain just that…a dream. But in the world I live in never say never.

We conclude by going back to Pat’s house as we leave Jimmy and Danny behind at their homes. Pat can’t wait to tell his dad the latest studio adventure. Our parents usually root us on but not today. In one of the sternest moment’s I’ve ever heard at his house, his dad lays into him…then me.

It turns out Mr. Rich worked at the Hollywood film labs and says, with emphasis that requires respect, “These films are nitrate and can easily catch fire or worse… explode. That’s why it is in a fortress. You all could be dead right now.” We had no idea the dangers we just side stepped, God blessed us once again, I’m lucky this story does not have an alternate ending.

Written and lived by Donnie Norden

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