Desilu’s Lost Film Vaults-Revisited

Vaults circled, 1976. The Desilu Forgotten Vaults. A yellow water tower stands where the guard shack once was. The entire lot is gone except for this locked up storage facility. I was able to breech this fortress and we put tennis shoes on the cement floor inside this strange smelling bunker. We entered through the roof after hours of intense struggling through each security protective layer. Yes, this impervious and supposedly invincible facility was uncorked by a handful of determined teen-agers. That story can be enjoyed in my book….Hole in the Fence.
In this 1969 episode of Hogan’s Heroes, the film vaults provide the setting for this German gun installation. The episode, starred Vito Scotti. Previously, that role was played by Hans Conried. The red door is one of eight that enter these vaults. That’s a heavyweight solid steel door fleeced with fake snow.
Each vault has its own anti-aircraft gun. The shed at top of the picture is at the Main gate fence line on Ince Blvd. Hogan’s Heroes was a Paramount/Gulf Western Production in the final years of this series. I believe they secured their assets from this vault area. Probably one of the last withdrawals of film. The Lost Episodes of Lucy-were inside these vaults, uncatalogued. I have much more on the legendary editor Dann Cahn, to come. He was able to find cuts inside these vaults that became the Lost Episodes…
Dann Cahn-pictured center was given a career achievement award by the American Cinema Editors. He is also known for finding and putting together the Lost Lucy Episodes from the Desilu Vaults. He was the last surviving member of the original creative team for I Love Lucy.
Dann Cahn, center, at his bachelor party thrown by Danny Thomas and Desi Arnaz. He was the editor on- I Love Lucy. He recovered the lost episodes of that series from these vaults. What I want to know is… what’s in that tiny trinket box? Photos courtesy of his son-Danny.
Film Vaults-bottom left. Picture from Baldwin Hills. Hughes Tool Corporation, Hetzler Road.
Oil Production is taking place adjacent to these vaults. “There’s oil in them there hills!” In 1924, oil was discovered in the area surrounding these backlots. Oil and film came to Culver City at almost exactly the same time period.
This is where Ince Blvd terminates into various dirt roads at the 40-acre main gate. Those eight white squares are the roof of the film vaults. This is a cement bunker with 8 blast doors, one for each vault. Normally this area outside the blast doors is used for storage, in this picture, oil production is taking place outside, a derrick is positioned in front. It’s real, not a set. Standard Oil made the hills overlooking this studio a boom town- striking oil in 1924.
Main Lot -Two vaults off Ince Blvd. 8 more located out back.

MGM…A vault at MGM exploded, August 10th, 1965. An electrical short caused the nitrate to explode. One man died. The blast could be heard all the way to MGM Lots 1 and 2. The entire contents were destroyed including several silent films and only known originals. MGM Studio Manager Roger Mayer describes vaults as “concrete bunk houses.” He stated at the time it was good storage because the film couldn’t be stolen. MGM Lot 3 had their vaults spread out so fire could not spread between vaults. MGM never purposely destroyed their film catalog, starting in 1930, MGM gave prints and negatives of its silent films to The George Eastman House. Thus began the transformation by Mr. Louie B. Mayer to transfer nitrate prints to safety film. Despite this sad mishap, MGM has saved over 68% of its silent films, the highest percentage of all the major studios.

Silver/Nitrate…is what existed inside these vaults. Residence homes on Ince, and Van Buren, butt-end with this potential fire hazard. Movie theaters have been known to catch fire with this film stock.
The area highlighted is the Film Vaults in bunker form.
This is one of Universal’s vaults that was next to the New York Street fires –two fires! These buildings are air conditioned for film preservation and employees here wear coats. Firefighters on the ground and in helicopters – helped defend this vault in the two legendary blazes on New York Street. Inside these vaults-it’s cold, a bit damp and smells strongly of film.
Universal Vault, I add these because Desilu racks look quite like this, just more of a cryptic tomb setting, like it was aware of its fate. Bing Crosby has a film inside here…”Two for Tonight.” Bing Crosby BCP was on credits for Hogan’s Heroes episodes.
Bing Crosby ProductionsHogan’s Heroes call sheet. BCP on ending credits…
Stuff exists in these vaults that has little if anything to do with complete films. Fact is-anything film over decades gets stuck inside these enclaves. Everyday goings-on, when captured on film and deemed savable, end up in these temperature-controlled vaults…Universal
An organized film vault looks like this…this vault is active and many of these shows are in your TV line-up today.
Organized for generations to come, most these shows are airing in some TV Land near you.

The major studios have their own vaults. MGM and Universal listed, RKO/Desilu no mention. They need them to store their films. The construction of these old vaults is fairly identical in regard to the old bomb shelter construction.
Projection room in Theater 2…Universal.
A mixing console is covered in between these rows of seats. Films get worked on, if need be, in post-production but also get screened here for VIP’S.

The projector lens merges sprockets of spinning frames of film onto a theater screen. We had 3 theaters when I was at Universal and this area, located alongside Doc Goldstein’s Sound Department, was always extremely busy. This is where film post-production creates the final product.

Let’s first start with this announcement-If you don’t already possess Hollywood’s Lost Backlot, Steven Bingen’s sensational book on 40 Acres, Get It! It’s The Bible for pictures and facts about this legendary backlot. You will refer to it all the time, the perfect Desilu Rerun companion. Also, his latest book, The MGM Effect, has a story with yours truly featured. I’m extremely honored to be part of that legacy and will do all I can to keep that logo alive and breathing forever. Another must have book for your studio library shelf, which- is the best shelf in the bookcase. Finally, an audio bonus, check out the podcast by Greg Dyro on the making of The MGM Effect, available online.


Because of all of the changes in ownership involving this studio, things got misplaced. In some cases, for decades. You still might still find an old make-up trailer just sitting around, covered with dust.

The very last structure to be bulldozed at 40-acres were the Film Vaults. In a land that once had sets from Stalag 13 to Mayberry, only a few trees and blowing tumbleweeds remained in August 1976. I shared previously my excursion inside these bomb shelters that are literally explosion proof. That’s because the contents inside are extremely volatile. Just recently I was contacted by a man named Barry, he happens to be the last handful of folks to see this place be excavated.

He contacted me because I’m one of the few folks still alive who has been inside. My entrance was about six months prior to the afternoon- I’m about to detail.

The Main Gate on Ince…

This is how you enter this backlot, you know you’ve arrived when pavement turns to dirt.

Welcome... A guard shack no longer exists just inside the chain link fence, it’s been replaced by an elevated industrial water tank to fill water trucks needed to help control blowing dirt. Yep, this lot is going, going, Gone With the Wind. Camp Henderson is the first missing set you notice and that hits you like a punch in the nose. To see this lot this barren, you would need to rewind over 50 years.

But the one thing that still stands was built for preservation, even in a war. Its appearance is that of a bomb shelter. Thick cement walls with heavy blast doors. The light switches inside can be used in an explosive gas atmosphere. That’s because this film is silver nitrate. This film has a nasty reputation. It’s been known to catch fire in movie theaters.

Nitrate was used from the late 1800’s to the 1940’s. These bunkers date back to that era. RKO probably built these, Desilu inherited them, and television made its way inside. Racks and racks and racks with enough film to stretch to New York are packed like a sardine can. The cans are labeled but little inventory can be diagnosed from the racks themselves. Basically, you just look, if it was a TV series, like everything I saw there was, then all these prints were stacked against each other. The more successful the series, the more cans it will have. Some film is 8mm, some is 16mm, the cans vary in thickness. One reel per can, some cans just contain cuttings. Strips of film frames captured in a roll held together by rubber bands.

Water then crept inside, so the bottom rack was inundated, and white calcium deposit levels show different water levels. This place seems to have been forgotten. Maybe no keys still exist. This studio has had several owners since Desilu sold it. Nothing seems to have been passed down from previous ownership. It’s like a sci-fi movie where everybody evacuated. I got in without keys and it was not easy. You can read my account in detail in my book Hole in the FenceThe Desilu Film Vaults.

Today, we will suffer together the twisted fate that was sealed in this tomb of chemicals and flammables and celluloid. We’re talking Hollywood’s most legendary stock TV series’.

Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Citizen Kane were recorded on nitrate, the earliest form of motion picture film. The latter two films were shot at this studio. As nitrate was phased out in the 40’s, many archives were destroyed intentionally, to eradicate the hazardous materials. Film archivists held nitrate in a different fiery light. Besides being an important ancestor to all forms of film to follow, nitrate is lauded for luminous contrast images resulting from emulsion rich in silver. It’s safe if handled properly.

As teenagers on the wild side, the word properly was misunderstood. Open the can lid and smell what is rolled tightly inside. If you want to see it, that requires unraveling the film, which I’m certain was EXREMELY DANGEROUS. Boys will be boys and we were looking for costumes and props- not film. I guess that’s why my mom always said ” Donnie-just be careful” every time I went out our front door.

I’m still alive so I did something right, plus I have a wonderful Guardian Angel that’s saved me numerous times.

What I describe on this day is through a different set of eyes, my pal Barry.

Ince Blvd– at the 40-acre backlot entrance a visitor arrives...

The main gate is wide open since there is no more backlot. Barry, a trespassing veteran himself, pulls in like he owns the place. Immediately, he sees a barren landscape, no more Camp Henderson, no more anything, except a claw on a huge tractor that’s parked in front of the film vaults. One door has been ripped off as he parks his car where he can observe. A huge dumpster sits precariously close to the action. A guard is with the operator and demolition crew.

Barry, during a lull in work, enters inside. The contents are about to be destroyed. He picks up a few cans and tucks them away in his car. That was easy, but as he returns, security this time says, “Stay Out!”

Following instructions, he stays out, but instead sneaks around to the blind side of this dumpster to grab film that’s been dumped. This time security is angry and asks for some I.D. He talks his way out and says he’s with the studio. Calm, cool and collected- but intensely frustrated, he exits just as the giant claw tears off the roof. This is a massive bucket doing the dirty work.

The items randomly recovered by our want to be hero turn out to be the Pilot of Star Trek, Captain Pike, not Captain Kirk. These are cuttings, not full reels. Other cutting tied by rubber band turn out to be Lucy, Ricky, and Bob Hope driving around in a convertible. These items were very close to being underwater as the bottom rack was at sea level.

Other films on the rack besides Star Trek included a pilot called The Sheriff of Cochise. Westinghouse Desilu Theater, and some I Love Lucy cans along with The Whirlybirds. Paramount had labels on film cans in the dumpster.

Edison-The All Electric House of the Future had film inside displaying futuristic homes.

We will never know exactly the depth of this catastrophe, but when you hear of lost episodes, this hand me down studio really did lose things. I imagine some recovery was made since there is enough vault space to handle decades of film. RKO has to have stuff inside here that was lost. I think they built it. Desilu took it over and TV filled the racks.

There is a comment I’ve heard researching what I still can from Desi Arnaz himself, dating back into the sale of Desilu on December 29, 1967 “Throw it all in the Santa Monica Bay” in regard to much of this film.

Back in the day, TV only had channels 2-13. Seven channels, if you’re lucky. This translates to tons of content with minimal ways to sell it. Quality shows, view outlets. Storage costs money, so if a product isn’t generating revenue, it costs money to store. Plus, liability, kids prior to this demolition accessed my entrance and film would be blowing down in the creek. It’s a miracle no kid met with a fiery fate.

The studio that brought you GWTW now is entirely blowing in the wind…ashes, dust, and celluloid make up this lost horizon.

Until 1962, Desilu was second to MCA’S Review Studios. When MCA bought Universal Pictures, Desilu became the number one independent production company until being sold in 1968.

That’s an update of an event that happened almost 50 years ago. No other studio mishandled their inventory like this Lost Backlot did.

Fade to Black

Written and lived by …Donnie Norden

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