The Snow Department

MGM Lot 3

Same set, with and without snow.

Nothing is real here, but everything can seem real and anything you can imagine can be easily whipped up. The reason being, nothing gets thrown out. There are supplies and stored items for every occasion.

One of the most important of those items is not really an item, per se… it’s snow! Not only is it critical in establishing the look of winter, as well as the occasional cyclone, but also, sometimes, just a sprinkling is romantic. Just strategically tossing about little clumps of it, here and there, on a curb or on a sidewalk, can send a chill through your bones as the viewer. Funny thing is, the average temperature in Culver City is 72 degrees and it has never snowed once. That is, except on these iconic backlots.

We have several types of snow here. I say “we” because we… me and Jimmy on this occasion, have taken charge of this long, narrow wooden hallway that connects to the enormous Grand Central Station backside. We actually exit the lot often by jumping of its 10 foot roof.

Maureen’s bedroom window stares directly at this Train Station on lot 2. The only negative is that there is just one entrance door. So, if we are “challenged,” we may have to bury ourselves under the soft plastic snowflakes that are overflowing from box after box, as far as the eye can see. That said, the lighting inside here is on the dark side, making it easier to camouflage ourselves.

Leaving the door ajar improves our vision, but it also increases the likelihood of the guards becoming suspicious… Chances are, they’ll get curious and want to see why the door is open. We don’t need them sniffing around. So becoming a snowman may be the best hiding place of all.

What is interesting is all the different types of snowflakes that are kept here. We discover stacks of boxes filled with heavy ground snow on wooden shelves. We figure this is the tough type that can be laid out over streets and trampled on. And of course, it will never melt. High grade, heavy-duty stuff. Good to see it gets reused… dirt on the bottom indicates prior usage.

This place is a trip! We keep repeating to each other. The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin comes to life in this room…

This seems to be an area that got forgotten with time. The musty smell in this long, narrow shed, reveals the years tucked away in this storehouse, along with all the snow. The single row of dim incandescent lights is just enough to cast our creepy, long shadows on the opposite wall.

As we continue down this mysterious corridor, the whitest top snow gives itself away only when the light flickers above it, against the darkened pits of vastness that remain unexplored. It feels as if we’ve stepped into another world… one that teeters in some netherworld between opposites. Between shadow and light and between time and timelessness. The darkness leaves the space undefined. There’s no beginning and no end. We’re not even sure anymore where the exit is. It’s as if we’ve opened a door to the Twilight Zone.

Plaster molds of human forms that look like Greek Gods and Goddesses lay against the walls in the darkest corners, and in our altered frame of mind, piqued by the darkness, it seems they are just waiting to come alive again.

But, it is also like a meat locker. And the arctic temperature soon knocks me out of my dream-like musings. Nothing can melt inside here. After all, it has stood the 50 year test of time. When we first entered, there was barely a hint of what was inside. But after being in here long enough to go through the first stages of deep freeze, I suddenly become preoccupied with all logistics and exit whereabouts.

We click the old light switch and wait… Nothing. Then, a faint light, as if someone had lit a match. Slowly the darkness transforms itself into a golden glow, illuminating what is inside.

This shadowy light is a bit like a tempting tease, as if to say, “common in — I dare ya!”

We do, hesitantly.

We have to shut the door to feel safe, since the Bronco parks right at this door almost every day. It’s our prime get-into-MGM spot on the backlot, and security knows it, so they focus right here. Plus they like to visit with Maureen. I don’t think she ever really has worry about getting caught because most security guys dig her. But her neighbor, Big George, would cuff her in a heart beat.

He patrols in front of her apartment, just looking for slip ups by the kids who shout insults at him and Bronco Bob. He even drives by on his own time, just looking for a piece of us. Funny thing is, he would make a great abominable snowman… Hairy, huge, and devours everything.

Interesting couple of pictures here, it’s the exact same parking spot and both guards are taking a nap… years apart.

This is Maureen training the next generation of trespassers. Across the street is MGM Lot 2 and the parking spot these security guys sleep at. The snow room sits adjacent to all this action.

So, we leave the door of this annex ajar, allowing the breeze to meander inside, and as it creeps along the floor, it brings all the stray snowflakes to life.

Plastic flakes suddenly become airborne, swirling around with only the addition of the most gentle of breezes. Like those colorful flowers in Alice in Wonderland… timid and frightened at first, before springing to life with Alice’s gentle invitation. Before long, they are all telling stories and singing with the butterflies, encouraged by her curiosity. Similarly, the snowflakes in this room, having suddenly awakened from their fifty year slumber, have leapt out of the boxes with glee, and are suddenly dancing and swirling around, as if someone had secretly goaded them on.

It’s as if it was pre-rigged to activate when the door opens. The snow effect needed on the set is actually taking place inside this annex. Each new puff of air stirs up the flurry of different sized flakes. There are white sparkles darting through the air all around us, like shooting stars. And as the breeze works its way further down the corridor, new containers liberate even more snowflakes. Yes, we have fallen into some sort of rabbit hole, where snowflakes have come to life and are amusing themselves in celebration. Before long, we can barely see from one end of this building to the other, due to the sudden turn of weather… INSIDE!

We need to fully shut the door in order to feel safe from MGM security, which means we could get locked inside. They park just outside; it is the only way in and out of here.

This igloo is sitting at the base of The Great Wall of China set, as I called it. Snow must have surrounded it. It is a snow ball’s throw from the snow room. Inside this igloo is decades worth of cob webs… even little kids don’t want to play inside it. It is just plaster and wood that’s held up to eternity, which basically describes the entire backlot.

This oldest part of this backlot stands with this set looking out the front door of the snow room.

Just across from my snow room is this iconic set loaded with weapons in this picture. I have wandered home from this lot with spears before—made of wood, and including the spearhead itself, painted in tribal colors. Ready for action. I picked up a couple on the show Phantom of the Backlot; they were outside the home that the Phantom hid under – in the show. The real Phantom grabbed the spears from someone playing a Phantom on TV… The show would change its name to the Phantom of Hollywood right before airing.

Desilu has a snow set, Stalag 13. Plaster slabs lay out beyond the camp, never melting or even being touched, for the entire length of that TV series.

We have stumbled into another closet capturing a certain moment in time when effects artists such as my hero, Arnold Gillespie, ruled the weather and everything needed to take place within it. You name it, it can be created here.

Powerful blizzards, no problem… just bring in the giant Ritter Fans and set the D.C. power on full throttle. 20 boxes of flakes, some plaster for the ground, some loose powder for density and a big fan to swooosh it all around, and you’re good to go. Jimmy and I will have to settle for gentle breezes to create our effects, but we know we are playing where big boys once played… in the snow.

Shoot, security just woke up! Let’s get out of here! For now, anyway!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

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