Left: A 1926 shot of the outside of the trailer Right: The trailer today
One of the oldest portable make-up trailers in Hollywood, once owned by Marion Davies, is found 100 years later in a backyard behind what was once….. the 40-Acre Backlot in Culver City.
Extra Extra…Read all about it!
Nearly a year ago, I posted a story about a make-up room which was loaned out for nearly 50 years to the RKO, Selznick and Desilu Studios, when they filmed on the 40-Acre Backlot. During that trip I visited a house, which I now believe was a movie studio bungalow, where this make-up room still stands today. Well at least partially, I’ll get to that later. While there, the current owner of 50+ years and I shared our personal stories of trespassing and he showed me the interior of this make-up room. When I saw the interior of this room all I could think about is, I want this mirror! At that time, my newly found friend was not interested in selling this because he was currently keeping his grandmas gardening tools in there and this 100-year-old structure was on the verge of collapsing.
Fast forward to this year, I receive a call from the owner of the house telling me they are selling the house and if I want the make-up mirror, come and get it. I couldn’t get over there fast enough!
I always wondered what was in this little room. Last time I gained entry I was only allowed to shoot a couple of pictures from afar of the crowded interior. But this time I get my wish.
As the door opens, again, an eerie presence resonated from the inside, like we opened the cork on a bottle with a genie inside. Behind some ancient gardening tools, I spot the mirror with lightbulbs adorning both sides. Not just any mirror, this is a set up for a movie star. The backside of the dressing room door also has a full body mirror from top to bottom. These two mirrors look at each other as a blue seat covered stool sits in between, where the star would sit for their make-up to be applied.
During filming of The Fair Co-ed, 1926. “Round as the world turns, the doorway and mirrors have soft, crescent shaped curves as do the ladies standing in front of these objects”...B -stands for billionaire
Vivien Leigh herself was rumored to have used this make-up room during early production, before she received her own portable trailer pictured above
Three of the four walls had fancy mirrors. The square mirror was replaced as changes were made inside over decade after decade. I have the round mirror reflected in the square mirror. Desi Arnaz would alter this room on his turn as owner. I would discover a Panatronic Radio inside whose manufacturer verifies was made specifically for Desi Arnaz.
A clear interior view of Marion Davies Dressing Room in 1926 Picture No. MGM-467
Marion Davies Dressing Room as it looks today. You can see some modifications were done over the 50 years it was in service
Marion Davies Make-up stool.
Behind all the rakes and fertilizer were shelves with items used by various star occupants and the make-up artist of the day. I realize something extraordinary, whoever was the last star to use this room left it thinking it would be used again. Half used make-up and items that wouldn’t have been left behind if this wasn’t the case. This star make-up room is still opulent over a 100 years later. Each item ties to a different era.
To my surprise, I notice this structure has a horse hitch attached to the front. And while searching under the trailer I noticed on each side there are two wheels cleverly concealed inside these mirrored walls! This is a trailer… A Mobile Star Trailer! At that moment I felt like a modern-day Indiana Jones. Holy Grail Batman!
Wheel Covers which hid these 1920s wooden spoke wheels
After talking to the owner of the house and validating it with pictures online, I was able to verify this make-up trailer was originally owned by Marion Davies, when she worked at MGM in 1926. And was moved to the backyard of this house in 1929/1930 when she replaced her original star trailer with one that had a refrigerator and running water. What use then, would she have for the outdated one? No use to her, but down the street, there was a great need to tend to actors out on the 40-Acre Backlot, for touch ups, since the Studio Main Lot was nearly a quarter of a mile away.
Marion Davies showing off her replacement “Dressing Room on Wheels” (1930). This coach was equipped with a radio, electric refrigerator, and hot and cold water. MGM Picture-1926
This is a significant historical find and one must wonder how it escaped being noticed for over 100 years, and how it got to this location.
Last year I tried to gather up stories from older residents who shared this street on Lucerne Avenue. I wanted history from other people who saw it first-hand or their parents. The most prevalent memory was the Burning of Atlanta fire sequence from Gone with the Wind. The towering inferno created havoc not only with the township, but all the critters that felt the need to escape the backlot and find a safe place on Lucerne. They also remembered their parents talking about the cast from GWTW using this room and Fay Wray during the backlot takes from King Kong.
Fay Wray looking scared
Filming of King Kong on the 40 Acres Backlot.
Same King Kong Gate being burned to the ground in 1938 to make room for future GWTW sets. SIP-108-386
A Selznick International Pictures Make-up still showing Scarlett and Tara near Portable Make-up Trailer
An early Aerial view of Tara (Left) in relation to “the house with the white roof”. Arrow shows the dressing room.
A further shot of the Gone with the Wind sets- Streets of Atlanta (Left), The Train Station (Center), Tara (Right) and our house in the bottom right corner
During the TV revolution, Spock, Bruce Lee, Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle are just some of the faces and characters who have been in and around here. The Batmobile was parked out front here, with witnesses’ having seen Batman drinking a can of beer from a brown paper bag. All these old homes are part of this film culture, inside and out. Many stories will eventually disappear, as so many pictures have- depicting all this. This corner in Culver City is as colorful as it gets. It’s centered between what was Desilu and Hal Roach studios. If TV Land has a neighborhood, this is it!
This backyard trailer was an active make up room up to the early 70’s. According to the family, the cast of Hogan’s Heroes would be the last show to use this dressing room in between takes.
As a kid, my passion to escape into Stalag 13 took me through this private yard, regularly starting in 1972. I had to first sneak into this yard before climbing a second fence that puts me right behind Stalag 13. In between the two fence climbs lies a unique structure covered with shingles. My initial encounter with this shed was just an observation as I climbed into Desilu. Etched there like every tree or obstacle in my backlot adventures was banked. The subconscious mapping of the brain is a marvelous tool, especially useful when on the run from the guards. In 1974, I was able to rescue the Hogan’s Heroes tree stump and rolled that iconic prop onto a steel wheeled cart and pushed cross town, to my home. So, I have previous history dating back half a century.
Similar view now occupied by Stalag 13, with the dressing room visible in the background. Front row seats!!!!!
Of all the amazing experiences I have had, both trespassing and in my long studio career, this is the most sensational item I have ever come across. Plus, it’s the ultimate studio game of CLUE. I get chills looking into the soul of these mirrors. They stare back with a depth and richness that only history can create. I feel it was my calling to save this unit from the claws of developers at this corner.
Another Post demolition of the 40 Acres Backlot showing the white roof of the Dressing Room.
A picture I took over the fence before I approached the owner of the house
Dressing room being used as a gardening shed
Additional interiors of this 100-year-old structure in decay
Original door handle, with upside-down lock and woodgrain
This is a photo shop picture of the Burning of Atlanta reflection in the door mirror. This room felt the heat and glowed orange as scared critters ran for cover…in December of 1938. Shingles would be added to preserve the exterior A koi pond and ornate statue separates the house from the Make-up trailer. Private gates existed behind the house backdoor and access to and from the Backlot studio itself. This was obviously set up as a star compound, if not the first, then one of the earliest in Hollywood history. The things this door has seen and been part of will stagger your mind!
Marion Davies make-up mirror and stool, items inside still work including the light.
It’s all cleaned out Thora, time to go home.
An heirloom- full of heirlooms from movie history… Time to uncork some Phantom Wine
There is no doubt this trailer belonged to the marvelous Marion Davies. Firsthand accounts and pictures match up. Fifty years after my eventful sneak into Stalag 13- this room has discovered me! We’ve reunited, older but wiser. This time, we’re going to ride off into the sunset together!
Stay tuned next time for my post on the historical items found inside of this trailer.
For more backlot adventures, check out my new book on Amazon, Phantom of the Backlot Presents: Hole in the Fence.
Written and lived over the decades by Donnie Norden…