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 A guard shack no longer exists just inside the chain link fence, it’s been replaced by an elevated industrial water tank to fill water trucks needed to help control blowing dirt.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 Fence–The 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