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.
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.
The movie Outlaw broke boundaries in several ways. To emphasize the camera capturing her figure correctly, Howard engineered a push up cantilevered bra to capture her bust. According to Mrs. Russell, she did not use it because the metal rods hurt too much, he’ll never check…
Give him a break he builds planes…not bra’s.
Funny enough, the bra ends up in a Hollywood museum and it was not attached to to what you imagine. Typical Hollywood, like the Ruby Slippers that were sold at the MGM auction, pair 6. The good one’s ended upsomewhere…
Outlaw was completed in 1941, yet The Hollywood Production Code Administration would not approve it and this was viewed immoral. 20th Century Fox decided to cancel its release agreement, standing to lose millions, this shrewd businessman turned the tables. The outcry from the public was to ban this explicit film, but that in turn gave it massive publicity creating demand to see it.
Thought: this guy is playing the room and lets remember, he builds planes and other classified items
The major buzz only lasted a week and it was then pulled for good. Finally released in 1946, five years after completion, it became a box office hit with lifetime rental earnings of $5.075 million.
Howard, in 1941, had more on his plate than this film; WW2 is underway and he is a significant contractor. In the hills above this movies location, something else is underway. TOP SECRET!
We are at war, MGM goes dark along it’s streets because of the threats of bombardment from the air. Studios have two worries, they look like aircraft factories- so they could get bombed, secondly, they are producing military training films.
While the worry of a woman’s breast exposure is being worked on at the RKO lot below, Howard is deeply involved with the war effort, I will take you to his facility that rises above what was Desilu, RKO, and so many other studio names.
Inside that building with the chemical tank attached is a wind tunnel.
All these structures over look the Desilu Backlot and Main Lot, beyond those trees looking west is more Hughes property. He owned the most expensive real estate anywhere, from the ocean to the hill tops, the world was his.
There is always more to story than what you see with your eyes, and needless to say Howard Hughes was a complex individual who succeeded at things because he never quit and took risks!
My Dad briefly worked at Hughes Air Base as a firefighter, that guy was my pops hero, I dig him just as much, I wish I could have met him. I was in his office at the Hughes Air Field before the remodel of Playa Vista. That’s another story for another day.
Ironically, the place the Spruce Goose was built staged some of Hollywood’s biggest movies on some of the biggest stages you could rent…built for aircraft. What goes around comes back. I will tour that backlot/aviation ranch military base- call it whatever you want it to be- in the future.
My new best pal, MGM security guard Al Marioenzi, will open up new vistas never before imagined. This obliging and approachable watchman has a playful demeanor, which is clearly why he works the entrance gates on Lot 1. Personable guards greet the stars, but crude types end up patrolling the backlots.
Al has been giving tours to my entire neighborhood. The only thing is, as he repeats, in his Brooklyn accent… ya just gotta meet across from the girlfriend’s place. He means Maureen’s apartment. The wall in front of her house now doubles as a bus bench when Marioenzi works the backlot. We know the drill now.
He especially can’t be seen driving the bus for us. But once we are safe and sound inside the Bronco, the fun begins.
I first met Al at MGM’s East Gate. That’s the studio’s main entrance. It was also where I met Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. This is his usual post…
The story begins—
Maureen and I are prowling around the city and stop by to see who is working the main gate. We’ve just come from Pronto market, just across the street, and are loaded with after school staples… specifically, licorice, gum and Doritos.
Al is the dick at the gate tonight… he sees a very excited Maureen. She looks great, as usual, and Al turns on the charm. I love bringing her to meet security. They behave much differently around her, like she is some actress or something.
I’m just Donnie, the guy the’re paid to track and hunt.
I take for granted how foxy she is… especially tonight, in her tight Ditto jeans and pink peasant top. She could definitely be mistaken for a movie star.
In his excitement, Al makes an offer we can’t refuse, as Maureen sips her Root Beer and I chew on my Red Vines. He says, in a near whisper, like a nice uncle, offering us some treasure from his war days, “How would you two like to see Louie B. Mayer’s office?”
We stare at him as I chomp away at an extra large mouthful and she slurps the last sips … “sure, I didn’t think it still existed,” I manage to say, with my mouth full.
“It sure does. I take lunch at 9PM if you two want to go.”
I offer him some licorice as a gesture of thanks. The kids’ equivalent of breaking bread. He accepts… Cheers!
Clock strikes 9—
We pass some time watching fancy cars come and go through this gate, before reuniting with Al. What star do you think is in there? we ask each other. We wonder if it’s Esther Williams or Spencer Tracy or even Katharine Hepburn, sitting low in the back seat of that shiny LTD. What do they do back there? We wave without knowing because we are friendly, like Al.
We find each other at the designated spot. He seems excited, as we begin by walking from the guard shack to a side door at the Irving Thalberg building. While we walk through a long corridor, he fumbles through what seems to be an endless mass of keys in various shapes and sizes. Each has the potential to open up its own adventure… Ohh, what I would give for that magical set of keys. I would own this place…
We next enter an elevator that brings us upstairs to another long hallway. It is decorated with fancy art that I now know to be Art Deco, but we don’t have to walk very far, Al jiggles another lock and presto… a door opens.
He smiles proudly like this is his place, but we enter cautiously, like it may be a trap. If you were to ask me what gave me that feeling, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe just that it was so deserted along that long stretch of a hallway. Besides the abandoned hanging Art Deco pieces, there wasn’t another person in sight… no one going in or out of the many closed doors that we passed along the way.
Gone, But Not Forgotten—
The room is very white, so white, that I can’t help but think of the song White Room, by Cream. Al positions himself in the power seat, occupied at one time by Hollywood’s most famous mogul. We stand as he sits. My head spins faster than Al can spin stories. I make myself slow down so I can take this all in. On some level, I realize that I am experiencing something very special, that I have stepped into an epoch that would soon be just memories. This is where many decisions were made, where life changing phone calls were made, and ultimately, where stars were made.
It is not lost on me that this is the office of THE most iconic Industry Giant, yet the only furniture that remains is his desk and chair. It is positioned in front of a window whose drapes are open, light from the official MGM Thalberg Building entrance illuminates the one small picture of Louis B…. the one item, besides his iconic desk, that identifies this place as his. Although it’s been stripped of all physical adornments, it is bursting with some invisible quality… A spell takes over those who walk in here… still. Despite the emptiness, I feel like Louis B. is in here right now.
But if you run your fingers along the stark white walls and bare desktops, where his belongings used to be, you will pick up plenty of dirt. Like the stories that Al seems to enjoy telling…
Many a Tale to Tell—
Al prattles on with story after story. Some are pretty good, but some are downright unseemly… we’re just kids, after all! “Once the Marx Brothers were here to have a meeting with Mr. Mayer, and they arrived first, so they took off all their clothes and were naked as Louie walked in.”
Hmm… I think, as we barely react. Lots there to picture… or, let’snotbut say we did!
Al delivers another little tidbit… “Once Shecky Green was naked on a food table, so when the silver goblets were removed from the trays, Shecky is exposed. Everyone thought they were getting Prime Rib but got Prime Shecky.” He laughs a big belly laugh.
Two naked stories already, and he just sat down. What’s next?
Luckily for us, the walkie talkie he wears on his hip, instead of a pistol, goes off… “Al, we need Stage 1 locked up, are you available?”
“Copy that, on my way from Thalberg building.”
“You two stay here, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I strike my hand to my forehead… “yes sir!”
Saved by the beep!
A Private Audition—
We now have the place to ourselves, and I decide that this office needs a new mogul. And tonight, I’m that guy.
He leaves the door ajar, but as fast as he disappears, Maureen shuts it completely, while I take on the mighty VIP chair. She suddenly transforms into a temptress. As she turns around, she sashays toward me with devious eyes…
“So… Mr. Mayer,” she coos… I hear you have a part in a big MGM movie? How about… I audition?”
Then, she swivels around, to the back of my desk and I suddenly feel powerless. She continues, “Is it a big part Mr. Mayer?” She brushes up against me like a cat, “Can I see the script?” I am the one in the swivel chair, but suddenly I can’t move.
She continues to tease me. Then I remind her she was mighty fickle with her loyalties on our previous project.
I assume some sort of big shot accent, and make my voice low and powerful: “I’m still feeling aggrieved that you turned me down on the western flick we shot over at Desilu. You should have been in that, it would have looked good on your resumé… a damsel in distress, you know, a saloon waitress, and girl that could hit a moving target at twenty yards.” I clear my throat in an exaggerated way.
I take on the character thoroughly. I raise my eyebrows and assume a puffed up, affected posture: “Your response to my last offer was, AND I QUOTE! ‘it’s all just a bunch of silly boys playing with their guns.'”
Although we are playfully joking about “questionable film loyalties,” it is also my way of addressing her recent “escapades” with my best pal Jimmy. But neither of us have the guts to say what we really mean. However, I forget all of that serious stuff, as my engines fire up…
Maureen seductively puts both hands on the desk and leans in toward me…
In her best Marilyn Monroe imitation she says, “I would bend over backwards to get the part, Mr. Mayer.”
I stand up to meet her physical advances, and we begin to embrace. Then, we turn to look out the window, right behind the desk. Below is the East Gate, where we started earlier tonight, and in the distance, we see the MGM Logo, now all lit up, just atop a soundstage. Seeing it from the same angle Louis B. had is inspiring. Below the MGM logo is an advertisement for That’s Entertainment.
Did I already say that I recently met Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on that show? I got their autographs right below this very same window. It’s surreal to be standing here now… the exact same show being advertised in lights is the very one in which I met MGM’s two biggest stars!
I fall into a kind of reverie… all those movies that take us into another reality are conceived right here! For two hours, a movie can take us anywhere… back in time or into the future. To little European villages or into space. We can be war heroes or mafia men. And somewhere in the recesses of your mind, that reality lives on… In some universe, Gene Kelly will be swinging around on that lamp post, with an umbrella in his hand, forever, until the end of time. But in this moment, I have gotten to take a peek behind the curtain. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, and I have gotten a glimpse of the wizard—the man that makes all that movie magic happen.
He can also make you a star. If he likes something about your face, you get to pass through the magical gateway. It’s a star making enterprise. And he’s the one who pulls the golden levers.
A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. … We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting. ~Louis B. Mayer
Then I suddenly snap out of it. I’m 14 years old and we have to kiss before the chamber keeper returns! Just as I bend Maureen over the table, as I’ve seen them do in movies, the door flies open. No knock, just a surprise. Maureen and I quickly adjust ourselves, and Al misses out on his, ahem… Marx Brothers moment. But he does get a Gable/Harlow deep stare upon his return.
“Well, did you guys have fun?” he says with his big Italian smile and cheerful tone. “You wouldn’t believe how much fun we had…” Gee,Thanks, Uncle Al!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden and Maureen Miller Edited by Donna Quesada
Our Warner Brothers adventure was barrels of fun! Let’s see what other trouble we can get into today…
I’ve been sneaking around studios for years now, but never got to drive an old car. The closest I came was just to sit in a few. The butterflies in my stomach that were created by the runaway stick shift Coupe and nearly slamming into John Boy’s house, have flown away and I’m all ready for more.
We open the doors on Jimmy’s VW, while he pulls out a map from under his seat. As he spreads it out on his hood, we all try to see where some of the other studios are located. We triangulate, then come to the same conclusion simultaneously: Walt Disney Studios is nearby!
Casing the Joint—
We consider this tantalizing prospect. There is still daylight, we are already out here in the valley, and Burbank Studios was the easiest studio ever… So, let’s go case this joint called Disney! We unanimously agree to one more adventure on New Years Day.
We drive down a side street that lies across from a backlot, which is surrounded by the standard studio chain link fence. We coast in front of a row of large homes, just scoping it out. We don’t want to stop since that would look suspicious. We can clearly see a backlot tucked inside. Grassy berms with trees form a separation between one world and another. What goes on in there stays discreet and hidden. We realize we can get in almost exactly the way we did at TBS.
It’s just another barbed wire fence. All in a day’s work! So, we yield to the temptation and climb right up and over. But, only one climber at a time, lest it shake and wobble, endangering all who are on it. This type of fence greets me everywhere. I should put a section like this in my backyard just for practicing… the way Philippe Petit used to practice his wire walk on a makeshift rope he had in his backyard.
A De Rigueur Detour—
Now that’s a heist that deserves a little digression! That’s the Frenchman who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers on a summer day last year. And he had to go sneaking around in advance, in order to plot out the set up. Now, that guy knew how to case a joint! And in good maverick fashion, he all but flipped the bird to his pursuers on the day of the big event. But he was too much an artist for that… instead, he danced, glisséd back and forth a few times, took a bow, and then lay down on the wire!… basking in his non-compliant glory… while suspended among the clouds, 1300 feet above the dumbfounded spectators below. Meanwhile, the equally dumbfounded faces with badges were waiting on the sidelines, trying to concoct an official charge. Practice makes perfection is the point of all of this!
Once inside, we sit on a berm that offers up only a little bit of a view, but it’s a handy place to hide. We wait, watch, and listen. Safety first…
What kind of Disney E-Ticket ride awaits us? We wonder…
We scout with our eyes before dispatching the next move to our legs. We are just taking in our surroundings… the Walt Disney water tower is directly above us, Stage 7 is visible, beyond the tiny backlot area… and in the distance some ways, is a little neighborhood church.
We decide that today is a fine day to give thanks. So, off to church we go. Our first set exploration! Every backlot I’ve ever visited has at least one church. This one is fine, but nothing remarkable. Desilu has the best, by far. But Combat church, at MGM, has the best location… right in the middle of a war torn village.
It’s early in this trespass, but we note right away that this backlot seems smaller than 20th Century Fox’s. Stages and offices dominate the landscape. We poke around trying to figure out where we can go, while I snap a couple of pictures to say I was here, on my brand new camera. I realize it has a dent in it from the little setback I had while hanging halfway through the roof at Burbank Studios. But, that dent may have saved my life…
We sit on the church steps for a while, taking it in. We go back and forth about what may have been filmed here. I’m into war movies and spaghetti westerns, but I did like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Kurt Russell is the kid I’d like to be if I wasn’t the kid I am. Then we ponder… why spend our whole day here? Not much backlot here and we already covered it. After some hemming and hawing, we decide to leave.
To be honest, I’m a bit let down. I was hoping to drive Herbie’s Love Bug around the lot… heck, even off the lot!
The Exit Climb… not as smooth—
So, off we go. Jimmy goes first. Pat lines up and waits for Jimmy’s tennis shoes to touch down on the legal pavement. Pat goes next, with the big boots that he wears everywhere, like he’s ready for ground combat in the swamps. I fiddle with my camera, then secure it around my shoulder for the climb.
Well I’ll be!… Here comes a guard on a Three-Wheeler! Pat is busy making the critical transition over the top of the barbed wire. Jimmy is watching safely from the other side of the fence, while I must wait in line… just like… at Disneyland!
The guard is yelling “STOP,” as I am yelling “Hurry!”
Pat makes it over and I now have exactly 3 seconds to make this climb. Figures, it’s my stinking turn on a ride that’s about to go down…
The guard is reaching for me, right as I throw my leg over the barbed wire. And just when I pivot off the top post, it breaks!
So much is going on in this moment; Jimmy, Pat and I are all looking at the guard, who is a mere four feet away, looking like a pitiful little nerd who got injured on the football field, trying to play ball with the big guys. His arm is cut pretty badly and it’s dripping blood everywhere. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Camera Gets Captured—
For a flash, I feel sorry for him, but I’m glad we out ran him. In this same long moment, he reaches down into the tall grass and picks up my camera. Shit. I now realize that even though I’m safe, my camera has been captured. Tons of thoughts run through my mind in this instant… Is the joke on us? Are there any pictures of us in there?
Damn my luck, the film they have will show us driving around Warner’s, it’s the same film roll.
The strap must’ve broken in all the haste. Security looks me in the eye and says, “Hey Fucker, you gotta give up, I got your camera!” As he wipes his sweaty face with his blood-covered arm.
Well, like ABC’s Wide World of Sports, I just went from the thrill of victory, to the agony of defeat. Very similar to that poor skier that gets plummeted in the promo for that must see reality TV show.
The rubber has truly met the road. We plan our next move right in front of our new blood-smeared friend. I tell Jim and Pat to leave, knowing the police will most likely be here quickly. I’ve never gone over plans and procedures next to a guard before. Classified info in front of the enemy!
Jimmy will be heading back alone. Pat, my loyal Catholic school buddy, offers to stay with me, as we tell the guard we will meet him at the main gate to turn ourselves in.
I have no choice, my Minolta is expensive and this is my first day using it. Mom just got it for me.
Three Minutes Later—
We arrive at the main gate. Jimmy lets us out around the corner, and heads back to Culver City alone, just him and his VW Squareback.
We stand at the guard box and are escorted to meet the watch commander. It is a she. We are in her crummy office, which looks and smells like a converted bathroom. I’m so unimpressed.
I have better forts than these so called “offices” at MGM and Desilu…
“Where is my camera?” I ask. “The officer is on his way,” she responds. Then after a pause, adds, “What were you taking pictures of?”
“Just the lot” I reply, like it’s the most normal thing to do… the most ordinary photo spot in the world.
At that moment, the officer who has my camera, walks through the door wrapped in bandages. He tells me to open it up and remove the film… I do. What else could I do?
Next, the woman with the bathroom for an office, pushes a big, black rotary phone across her big, dumb desk, right towards me and Pat, and demands, “Call your parents now!”
While I slowly spin the dial, I wonder what will happen if no one answers. But of course, good old Nancy, my sister, picks up on the other end.
I tell her my predicament and she responds, “so you’re in trouble again… where did you say you’re at? Disneyland?”
“No. Disney STUDIOS, in the valley, let me talk to dad.”
He asks, “What kind of trouble are you in?” “Movie trouble, dad, is all, come get me, please?”
The commander asks me to wait at the guard shack at the main gate. My parents will take at least an hour, I reckon, to myself. This is a dangerous place to leave me—at a shack stuffed with schedules and information. I take mental notes on the way security deals with stuff here. It’s not my first guard shack!
I see stage opening times, advance film schedules, expected deliveries… this is like a Disney vault of studio operation information!
Making Friends with the Enemy—
I quickly become friends with the guy who chased me, as I tell stories to him and his buddy about MGM and Desilu. And they share stories with me, too, from Disney. Except theirs are boring. We’re one big happy family, now. I smile and partially pay attention as my eyes keep wandering up and down, scanning for information tacked to the big cork bulletin boards.
I ask, “Do you have a trespasser’s captured list?” Security gives me a long, blank stare, like I’ve just asked where they keep the aliens. Then finally, the buddy responds, “We keep your info filed away… we seldom, if ever, get trespassers!” (No surprise there!)
“You guys do great work here, that’s why!” I wink, as I gather more info.
Damm, I wanted it, so I could hang it next to MGM’s captured list!… All the stupid valley kids who get caught would make great reading!
The Folks Arrive—
My parents’ white Impala has turned off the main street and slowly approaches the shack I’m sitting in. It’s the first vehicle to approach this closed studio since I arrived at this post. As they come to a stop at the arm barrier, the power windows roll down. I greet them, as if they would be two movie stars coming to shoot their scenes and then I proudly lift the arm barrier. I never get to do this at MGM.
It’s like I’m being trained for lead guard at this gate. And I got the production schedule memorized. All’s I need is a hat and a badge to play this part out.
My bandaged buddy with a badge, yes… “buddy,” mentions that we are both “good kids!”
Dad goes to the Watch Commander to finalize my release and pick up my camera. This is not the first Watch Commander my dad has had to deal with… All goes well, and Dad acts appropriately concerned and promises discipline. I wish everyone a wonderful rest of your New Year’s Day evening, like a nice kid.
This isn’t me and Pop’s first rodeo, lady.…
I then climb into our Impala for the drive back. The mood is fine, not tense, like you’d imagine. My parents greet Pat again, having visited briefly before starting this long day. My parents know this is my world. Heck, that’s why my folks bought me this fancy 35mm camera for! So I could capture memories forever. But, doggone it, there will be no memories from this place; that film went the way of E Tickets.
I sit in the backseat, anxious as ever, to develop the other roll of film from The Burbank Studios. I made sure Jimmy took that with him. At least that half of the day was saved. I mention to my dad as we drive, “I practiced driving a stick shift earlier today, at another studio.” He’s impressed, “What year was the car? What kind was it? What show were they filming?”
I have cool parents, and a magical camera. It now has a dent and a broken strap from its first day on the job. But, what a future we have together, and this was only Day One!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden… Edited by Donna Quesada
Capone has fueled our need for explosives. And New Year’s Eve is the perfect excuse to blow stuff up. I invest heavily in all variety of fireworks with the money I get from… let’s just say, selling stuff at school. I have everything from family friendly smoke bombs and rockets, to the ones with more zing, like missiles and girandoles… even some spinning wheels and ordinary firecrackers can be fun. Especially when you tie ’em to Matchbox cars—they take off like a hare running from a bobcat, then spin and pop around before crashing into something. That’s a real bang for your buck. Kids I don’t even know suddenly appear and gather around for this thrill.
This little side hobby of mine begins every year in July, when the fireworks stand opens for a week. That’s when I begin stockpiling enough inventory to make it to New Year’s. By the time the big night arrives, I’ve got a stash that’s fit for a stand of my own… I can hardly find anything else in my closet.
I take a couple of twinkly fountains and some snails, and mix in a bit of gun powder from theblank shell ammo acquired on the Combat sets at MGM. That’s always a big hit all around. Snap, Crackle, Pop. Then, Danny takes about a hundred firecrackers and tosses ’em into a bucket. The crackles and pops echo in there, so it seems like more. It must be the drummer in him… he especially likes anything that makes a lot of noise. I once heard that the Chinese believe that fireworks can ward off evil spirits… Well… devil be gone!
We can hear Chicago blaring from the brand new entertainment center in my living room— they must be performing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. And no one is home to tell us to turn it down, since my folks are out ’till late tonight and my older sister Nancy is nowhere to be found. The sounds of the trombone and trumpet mix with the explosions in my driveway. After pausing for Terry Kath’s guitar solo, we go back to shooting rockets. Pat and Jimmy are last to leave. They help make sure we don’t accidentally light any houses on fire.
It’s Midnight… Somewhere—
The clock strikes 9PM. That means it is midnight in New York. Happy New Year! It is now 1975!
Before going our separate ways for the night, the three of us—Pat and Jimmy and me— make a plan for New Year’s Day: To sneak into a new studio. One we never have never snuck into before… The Burbank Studios, formerly Warner Brothers.
Seven Hours Later—
We are all up unusually early for teenagers, on this holiday morning. Our ears are still ringing from all the fireworks just hours earlier, but we are all ready and raring to go. This bodes well and indicates the professionalism of my battle-tested posse, small as it may be, with just Jimmy, Pat, and me!
Jimmy has offered up his white VW square back for the occasion. I can’t help but recall that lately, the passenger seat has been reserved for Maureen. Our mutual friend.
Today he is my friend. Girls would only slow us down. Or worse, stall us altogether.
As Jimmy drives, I am doing a crash course on the new camera that my mom just gave me for Christmas. It is a 35mm SRT 102 Minolta… an upgrade from my Kodak Instamatic. My studio pictures should improve, and it has a fancy zoom lens that I am sure will come in handy. Jimmy says he will teach me about the F-stop, as well as various lighting exposure tricks.
We pass Universal on our way there, and for a moment, we all feel tempted. Should we try this lot? We decide to continue on for today, but we keep Universal in mind, as a Plan B. We continue down Barham.
The determining factor will be whether or not we can figure a way into Warner Brothers. We would be really embarrassed if we can’t. After all, we are Culver City’s elite trespassing force. We trespass with swagger.
We find one street full of upscale homes in a neighborhood with horses that sits directly across from a fenced in jungle. That’s perfect… a jungle to take cover in, and a fence that is climbable. It’s your standard chain link fence with barbed wire on top.
What worries us is that these nice homes have bay windows, like bug eyes staring out at us; we will probably be seen climbing in. But it’s a chance we have to take. This seems to be the only accessible entry way.
Trained yardbirds that we are, we first scout the fence line for gaps in the fence, or sections that may be folded, due to tree branches or other mishaps. In other words… we look for any hole in the fence. Alas, there are none to be found. Damn thing is perfect. As we continue to scope it out, we reason that we have to climb slowly because of the barbs. And only one guy at a time, can climb, otherwise the shaking can create a miscalculation. It would really be inconvenient if someone went home in stitches.
This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s do or die. Go big or go home. And after all, if there was no risk, there would be no reward. We are all pumped up, and running on adrenaline. Jimmy goes first. He finds an uneven-height break in the fence, where it will be easier to maneuver his legs over the fence without getting scratched. I watch as he grabs between the barbs and hoists himself up and over, in one swift move to the other side. Pat, then goes next as I take up the rear. No one slashes any body parts with the razor-sharp barbs. We are all safely on the other side in what feels like an hour… even though only about 10 minutes have passed.
We figure someone may report us, so we lay low in the bushes for a few minutes, not knowing what sets exist around us. We feel a bit exposed, so we run towards the first set we see, on the backside of a barn. This is a fully dressed and working barn. As we peek out the main doors, we quickly realize where we are.
The Walton’s house—
We can’t believe our eyes when we see the familiar porch. Home of the Hamner family. I hardly ever watch this show… my family is not like theirs. But being here makes me feel the same nostalgia as when I first stepped foot on Andy Griffith’s front porch. I can see myself on that tire swing over there… I decide to make it a reality!
I sway back and forth by pushing my foot against the porch posts, waiting for Grandma Walton to bring me a lemonade, when Jimmy pulls me out of my sentimental moment. I suddenly hear him mimicking the lines everybody knows, even if you’ve never seen the show… Good night John Boy, Good night Mary Ellen, Good night Grandpa… Then we all just about bust a gut laughing.
New lot, new humor. Sadly, we will be saying goodnight to each other like this, all day.
Starting the New Year by Looking Back—
We reminisce about MGM and the Culver Lots, as if we were adults looking back on special times from the past. We all notice that this house carries almost the exact same design as “our” farm house at Desilu, where I have a fort upstairs, right behind the left window… the one in which Ken Berry lived, at Mayberry R.F.D.
As it turns out, Mayberry RFD was filmed here also… Desilu structure below:
We pass the time, yet we have no clock. All we know is that it’s the first day of 1975. After thoroughly exploring this set, we decide to push off, leaving this thrill behind, as we venture forth into the new year, and into new adventures to come.
It appears that no one has reported us. And so far, not one sign of human life. We decide to walk down a jungle road, since that appears to be the road less traveled. Less is best while we gather intel. We pass a country store that appears to be ready to open back up, after the holiday. Farther on, through the trees, we see the edges of buildings, which still seem distant. We trek on.
Finally, we arrive at Laramie street… I haven’t seen a western street this nice since Billy the Kid Street, over at MGM’s Lot 3. We enter a saloon and toast to the occasion, with a joint. The midday sunlight is diffused through little holes in the ceiling. A cascade of luminous crystal beams pours over us, and as we blow plumes of Columbian gold into the air, we watch as they billow out and swirl around the glimmering streams of light. The whole smoky room is glowing yellow… We all know this moment is magic, but as 15 and 16 year old stoned boys, we don’t articulate it very well. So, we just keep smoking. We have no idea what else is in store for us today, nor what we may find around each unexplored corner, but at this moment, it doesn’t matter.
Divide and Conquer—
As the three of us complete our first celebratory toast of the year, we have already achieved our resolution. We are novices on a new and unexplored backlot. The Burbank Studios seem to be no match for my small group of studio-tested trespassers. We, The Three Amigos, exit through the swinging saloon doors, like we just threw a couple of bullets around just for the heck of it. Because we’re badass. Then, we decide to head off in three different directions. We agree to explore every dirt road in this old western town before meeting up again to compare notes.
I ponder the climb to the roof of the town bank that overlooks this street. I want to take pictures from the highest point I can access, with my fancy new camera. As I look around, I see that this set appears to be split; Kung Fu has set dressing labels on props that are displayed on the wooden covered sidewalks. Yet, vehicles from another era are parked on the opposite side of this dingy, western dressed street.
Jimmy likes to take pictures, too, so he could be anywhere. Pat is probably putzing around inside these parked vehicles, since they’re all vintage.
I see a ladder that’ll take me to the top of this bank. There are no floors in between the dirt floor and the roof above… just three stories of AIR in between the top and the bottom. With Chicago still in my head from last night, I sing to myself, trying to go real low, like Kath, as I make the relatively easy climb real high, to the top.
As I survey the landscape from this flat roof top, I fumble with my lens cap and start turning all my F-stops. As I begin focusing with my bitchin new zoom lens, I see Pat inside an old coupe picture car, below. Jimmy is nowhere to be seen. I aim right down Main Street and snap my first picture on this old backlot.
Hang Man, Hang Man—
The snap of my shutter is followed by another snap!… this one much louder. And my happy, solitary singalong and half-stoned glee are instantly replaced by an inner air horn, as I realize, at once, that this second snap is the roof giving way.
There’s always this moment, after a fall or some such mishap, where you wonder, how bad is it?… did I break anything? I quickly register that I have fallen half-way through the same ceiling that I was just standing on. I am in a kind of limbo position. I have the thought that… I have just taken a picture that I may never see, as my life hangs in the balance, three stories up from the ground.
In exact terms, my upper torso is still on top of the roof, looking down the street, while my legs dangle like a man being hanged, inside the bank.
Somehow… despite my predicament, I manage to take a quick survey of my situation and figure out that my camera is serving as a life-saver. Because of the way it’s strapped to me, it has prevented me from falling all the way through. I reckon I can try to pull my legs back up to reunite them with the rest of my person, or I could just scream for help… but, I doubt anyone would hear me. Of course… this is how it all ends! In a backlot!
Hmmm… This is strangely, kinda like the way I always imagined quicksand would be; the more I squirm, the more likely this will give way. This is a first. My mom always says, be careful Donnie, whenever I leave the house. Well, if she could see me now!
I twist ever so carefully… it’s like the game Operation, where the tweezers can’t hit the metal rim that surrounds the body part being removed. After some careful maneuvering, I finally succeed at lifting my hanging limbs and then surgically remove myself from this hole in the roof.
As I make the long climb down the ladder, I look up to see a new hole in the roof… Hmmm, I wonder what everybody else is up to?
Above: my first picture ever, at Burbank Studios. I earned it!
Jimmy and Pat are all over a sweet Ford Coupe, like they own it. Every door is wide open, including the trunk and the hood. Pat is doing his best Goober Pyle as he turns the key. The engine kicks over as Jimmy hands us some wardrobe items from the trunk of the car. Hats and coats all around!
Above: My Driver’s Ed car...
Ford Coupe Tour Begins—
No one seems to care that I was almost a dead man. Forget my story! No one cares about me! These guys are fixin’ to take a ride. Well, I want in, too! So what… that I don’t have a license,so what… that it’s a stick! I practice shifting my dad’s El Camino all the time! So what… that it’s with the car parked and the engine off! I’m ready to grow up. Jimmy grabs the wheel, I sit shotgun and Pat rolls down the back windows. We’re goin’ for a spin!
What a car… I wish my dad was here. It’s filthy inside, but fun as hell. Especially as we pick up speed on the same dirt jungle road that we just cruised by foot, a bit earlier. A cloud of dust follows us as we drive past the Walton’s house, this time exiting on the road most traveled. We decide to loop around this section of the lot, since we know it’s safe.
Pat asks for his turn, and Jimmy changes seats. I’m a little bit nervous, not about being caught, but about never having driven a stick.
Pat drives us towards N.Y. Street. We are the only car in this area. Now we can see Stages. I can only imagine what reaction we will get if somebody in a uniform presents themselves. He better have a faster car than we do!
We park in a tiny alley so as not to be seen, while we get out to shoot a couple of pictures… still in costume, mind you.
Okay, great street, but everyone wants to drive, and now it’s my turn. I start by grinding it into reverse, then somehow manage to back out of this alley without hitting anything. Second disaster averted today… so far! I start to gain confidence, as I successfully thwack the thing into first gear without stalling.
I remember to push my left foot down on the clutch as I lift my right foot off the gas, just like dad instructed… in the driveway. When I hear the engine descend and then climb back up again, I know I’ve got this and I start to feel more relaxed. I repeat this series of coordinated actions as I slip it from second to third, like a pro, and leave New York Street in the dust. I can see it disappear behind us, in the very tiny rear view mirror.
I pass a row of old sets and stop at a gazebo that is this backlot’s version of a small town square. We get out and have a look around… Wonderful day for a drive about town!Shall we stop and have a soda somewhere, fellas? We have the only car around these parts. It’s like we’re the Walton’s family running their errands.
I quickly get good at driving… let’s do it again! We load up up for another ride in our little Deuce Coupe, and I easily slip from gear to gear, while picking up clouds of dust…
As we get closer to John Boy’s home, I have the idea to park the car and say good night to this most highly rated television family. But, I’m moving a bit too fast. I’m in neutral and I’m not yet comfortable downshifting. So, there goes that idea… This iconic house is quickly becoming centered between… the headlights and the hood ornament! And I can’t slow it down! Finally, I use the brakes and the car pulls itself violently to the side, as I turn the wheel to avoid striking the front porch.
The car turns itself off like it wants to be left alone. Like when girls stop talking to you when they’re mad. After the dust settles, we exit by the same fence posts that we climbed in on. The only thing different is that there is now a dusty, slightly beaten Coupe blocking the front porch of this iconic house. The crew returns from the holidays to get back to work on Season Five… tomorrow, most likely. I wish I could be there to see their perplexed reactions.
I’m now this show’s biggest fan!
Goodnight Jim Bob, Good night Don Boy, Hurry up, Pat dude… is how we exit this Walton’s adventure…
The day is only partially over. There is another studio waiting for us… Stay tuned!
The movie continues…24 hours later, Desilu Backlot—
Finally!… the school bell rings. But, despite my intense focus on getting to MGM as quickly as possible today, my attempt at making an undeterred exit is undermined by one kid after another… “are you headed back to MGM to see Capone?”… “Are they filming today?” They are practically tugging at my pant legs. I just want to get the hell out of school!
I side step the questions with little bites, “I believe Desilu is the show’s location today.” As I continue to get yanked at, I receive an interesting proposition…
A kid named Caffrey pulls out a sheet of what looks like a film negative and offers to share a tab of Brown Windowpain, otherwise known as LSD. I have tried it a couple of times before and it is one of the more colorful, hilarious, and mind altering experiences I have ever had. Doing it on the backlot would be quite the escapade. Always one for adventure, I accept his trade offer—this sheet for a couple of Fedora hats that we snatched from the set last night.
Now armed with a pocketful of craziness, I organize my trespassing buddies. Danny, my drummer friend from next door; Brian, the soon-to-be Marine recruit; Joey, my Gemini buddy, whose birthday is two days before mine; and finally, Gerald, who drives a Zamboni at the LA Kings’ games.
As we roll up, I mention that besides the fine Columbian doobies, I also have “a little something extra” for tonight’s entertainment. We agree that this will be ingested later, once we’re settled into this set. After all, we never know when we might run into trouble… we don’t wanna be seeing trails in case we need to get away…
Who,Me?… “Adam West”—
It’s now 4PM. My troupe and I arrive at the the creek that flows alongside the backlot. We peek through the trees and see a film crew passing us by on a dirt road, just in front of the old Hogan’s Heroes bridge. Each vehicle that goes by kicks up a little dust. We are in synchronicity with the show’s arrival. School didn’t conflict with filming today, like it did the last two days at MGM. The stars are aligned and we are off to a smooth start.
That is… until we are stopped dead in our tracks by some unknown man with a badge, who claims to be security. But, I know better… this lot seldom has security. Production vehicles that are still trickling in, witness this encounter. Super cop immediately wants us to write down our names “for approval, in order to go forward.” By the time it’s my turn, I can barely contain myself. My mouth is quivering and I’m sure my face is turning red from holding in my laughter.
The names I see written so far, are Sherlock Holmes, GI Joe, and Joey. Other than Joey, I see that my guys have broken into aliases. So, I follow suit and I jot down Adam West. Then I pass the paper down to Gerald, who scribbles Bruce Lee. We outnumber this clown and we know this place inside out, so we are hardly discouraged.
Right at this moment, a brown station wagon with Roger Corman inside, pulls alongside this investigation. Our super trooper turns and hands him the list of names. But, he didn’t read it before proudly handing it over. Roger looks it over as the guard asks him if we are with the show…
Then, to our thorough pleasure and delight, Roger replies… “Mr Holmes, GI joe and Adam West have been with us all week. They’re fine.” He snickers and glances at us as he drives off to the set. Permission granted… by the big cheese himself. We are beyond the moon with glee.
Shooting theFirst Scene—
So, we strut on into Mayberry, which is now the city of Chicago. Old cars are driving back and forth, as the sound of vintage horns creates the feeling of being back in time.
As we watch some actors rehearse their scenes in front of a cigar store, we spark up a victory doobie. They are ready to shoot the first scene of the night. The director yells out directions. A black Cadillac Town Sedan comes to a stop and almost simultaneously, a sawed off shot gun blast sends a gangster flying through the window of a tobacco shop. Nice… we are barely half way through our joint and we have already seen a guy get blown away. As the next set gets prepared, we examine the broken glass, the briar pipes and all the miscellaneous paraphernalia from this first scene. We grab some rolling papers and cigars for later on.
Below, exactly the scenes we just saw as we arrived…
A Real Trip—
Realizing this opportunity is off to a perfect start, we step inside and divvy up the LSD; one tab for each of us. At first I don’t feel anything. But as seamless as the sunset itself, I begin to feel as if the colors encircling the sun are somehow more real than the actual sun. I catch a glimmer of the idea that I may be experiencing the effects of the magical morsel, but then I lose that idea and I disappear into the experience. It is like layers of reality… which appear as layers of cake in my mind. There’s me having the experience… then… just the experience itself, with no “me.”
It is as if I’m seeing the sunset and the colors left behind, in the sky, without my sunglasses on. Funny, how people say that these kinds of drugs remove you from reality… when everything is actually more real. The “ordinary” world is the false world! Similar to when you look real close at a newspaper image, and you see those individual colored dots… then, when you back up and look at it the regular way, the colors are not that vivid. Perhaps looking close like that, you see the colors as they really are. The “trip” experience is the true reality… like a secret that has been revealed.
But as quickly as I have that thought, it breaks up and I lose it, the way dreams dissolve after being awake for a moment… and you try to recollect it, but it’s… just gone… like a distant memory of something that may or may not have happened. Was it a dream, or did that really happen? Then poof… it’s gone. Then you get a wave of it again. And at certain moments, I lose myself, too. Or, at least, the sense that I am watching myself. And then the very word “me” becomes so funny. What is “me?” It’s such a strange thought! And I am laughing again…
The backlot rooftops are glowing bright yellow under the sunset, while arc lights cast strange shadows. For a moment, I want to tell the crew that there are shadows in the set! And it feels very important to alert them. I must alert them! Then, one of my buddies says that Effects is preparing mutiple sets for “rapid fire filming.” We all start to laugh, as if that was the funniest thing anyone has ever said, EVER.
This is perfect for the rapid fire sensations taking place in our brains. The darker the night becomes, the more colorful this street becomes.
Next up: A drive-by hit. Sylvester Stallone delivers a bloody blow with his Tommy Gun… from the moving vehicle. Then the Pony Inn is next up. As a drunken group of Irishmen stagger out of a doorway, a burst of gunfire kills all three… in slow motion. The sign itself (Pony Inn) is littered with bullet holes. A light above the door gets blown off as squibs are placed everywhere. We are as close as can be to all of this, compliments of Mr Corman.
Bodies twist and turn, as blood packets under their coats explode and splatter everywhere. The gunfire is blaring, as orange fire protrudes from this old car.
Picture above… the doorway that was the Pony Inn; the location of this scene. Jimmy is in the doorway peeking through and pointing a pretend gun...
Below is the hit at the Pony Inn… Frank Nitti and Al Capone have a score to settle…
School Is Good for One Thing—
Well, this is mind boggling… it’s like a time machine back to the Dirty Thirties. Everything is so real… down to every detail. We soak it all in… We are as close or closer than the director. We smell the gun powder and the explosive residue. Our ears are still ringing from multiple Tommy Gun blasts… it is all so surreal, but yet, so real. If we were any closer, you would see us in these shots. School should be so interesting!
Well, school still a good place to score drugs!
Another shot is being prepared across from the church, two houses down from Andy Griffith’s house… Meanwhile, we enjoy ourselves by touching the bloody clothing. It still has wires and detonated blood packs attached to the interior lining. We follow up on each set as the company moves to the next scene; we trip out on all the destruction and we simply… trip out.
Above: The next shot will blow up this house…
Everything Is So Real and Also So Funny—
Every 10 minutes or so, we experience more intense sensations and journey deeper into the recesses of our minds. We are here in 1974, but we also are in the 1930s. I see everything to its core, as if that little tab of magic opened up the curtains to the sunlight. As if before… everything was covered in dust. Everything is simultaneously new, but yet familiar. I am visiting an old dream.
We step inside a building just to smoke. Our eyes are still bulging out from this ambush we just witnessed. GI Joe, better known as Brian, is eating this Tommy Gun stuff up, as we all are. He takes a hit and then pretends to shoot at us. We laugh so hard it hurts. Danny is air drumming again, but it’s the strangest thing… as he moves his hand up to hit the invisible cymbal, his arm seems to move in spurts, like when you slow down a movie and see each individual frame. Especially when he moves fast, it’s as if his hands are blurring. So I tell him to do a drum roll and we all laugh even harder.
Yes… we are higher than any kite!
Not everyone is laughing—
Al Capone is pissed off and lets the director know it… in full costume and make-up. Mr Gazzara is upset that he is still on set. He has one more scene—a fight, and thinks it should be done before this house gets blown up. Apparently, the director disagrees.
Tension takes over, as the crew works in silence. We are the happiest people on this set. We are the happiest people alive… anywhere. Anywhere happens to be standing in front of Andy Griffith’s courthouse, which is the half way point in between what was just filmed and what will be.
As fate would have it, Ben, or Al Capone at this moment, walks over to us and stands right in the middle of the six of us. I am right next to him on his cigar-hand side. I’m sure of this because he keeps puffing a stogie that I keep inhaling. He is like our best friend.
We are in a crescent line with each head staggered by just a couple of degrees. I casually peek down this conga line, with Capone in the middle of all my friends. He is still madly puffing on that cigar, almost like he’s ready to eat it. I miraculously control my urge to laugh at that. What if he eats his cigar?
Brian is on Capone’s right side, we book-end Capone. I stare at the scar make up put on Al’s face… Scarface Al Capone. This time, I let out a guffaw. I imagine everyone knows what I am laughing about and expect them to laugh with me. But they look so serious and I wonder why.
Brian seems to understand. I know this because he smirks at me. He will soon be a Marine and I wonder if he will lose his sense of humor. I then look at Danny and Brian to see if they see what I see, as Capone chomps and blows smoke. Danny’s mouth tightens as he tries to hold back his laughter. It makes me want to laugh even more, so I look away.
The next scene is being rehearsed; a car pulls up in front of the house and a gangster steps off the running board with dynamite. Set decorators work on the fly, adding a lamp, a picture and a chair inside the home. Next, they add some kid toys to the front porch to make it look “homey.”
Soon another green light from effects…
3, 2, 1… ACTION!
A cars rolls up, tosses the TNT. KABOOM!
Ben goes back to his trailer before this shot culminates, but he better stick around because he is in the next scene. There will be a fight at the end of the street.
Before we go there, we check out all the damage done to this house, which is just two houses away from Andy Griffith’s house. Al Capone, meet Sheriff Taylor… Only in Hollywood!
Inside is a smoldering living room. The front door has been blown off; this effects crew likes to see doors fly. Second one I’ve seen, so far.
Finally, Ben gets his last scene of the night in, and is tossed through a sugar glass window by two police types. Capone is picked up and thrown, so as to explain that scar on his face.
The company moved from Lot 2 at MGM, to Desilu, at around 4pm, and we all arrived at Desilu together… one big happy, Italian mafia family. And… although I was too young to see the Untouchables film here, this was just as cool.
I always wanted to see a gangster film being made and good old Roger Corman returned to the sites that he used to film The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre on, back in late 1967.
In that classic, MGM, Desilu, and Fox backlots were used… this film returned to the scene of the crime, eight years later. Thanks to one of Hollywood’s top producers and directors, I got to experience what I just shared with you.
Think twice before you start your car next time…. and,
Happy Trails to You!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden Edited by Donna Quesada
This production company is shifting backlots this evening, leaving MGM’s NY Street for Desilu’s Chicago Street, right across town. You’d have no trouble finding the place… The Tommy Gun blasts from the Untouchables TV series are still echoing through whatever is left of that set. But now, we will have a color version… (and as you’ll see in the next post, let’s just say, the colors become quite vivid!) Talk about Technicolor!
Last night at MGM, filming concluded with scenes at Brownstone, as well as MGM’s famous alley. The scene was being filmed as we arrived on the backlot from school. It was a set that had just been created… a hospital exit. As we snuck into earshot, an actor with a very recognizable face was standing in the alley, as the dialogue was being filmed… his name is Sylvester Stallone.
This tight alley set is a challenge, in terms of sneaking logistics. The sheer narrowness reduces our scope of movement and limits our escape options. Sure enough, we see Big George walk out of the very doorway we are sizing up as a hide out spot. Bob Coleman is here also; we’ve spotted our version of the Untouchables. Elliott Ness is wearing an MGM badge.
Informants are descending all around… suddenly, we feel like we are in the haunted forest in The Wizard of Oz, with vultures coming down to get you from all directions. With just a knowing glance to each other, we know what we need to do… we will cut right through the filming set by busting through the same doorway Stallone is now in front of… But we will have to be patient. When will he move? It’s all about waiting. And peeking through doorways to make our next move… We mentally will him to just look the other way! He’s not even a household name yet. Rocky is still a year away. Yet, our fate at this moment depends on him.
It’s now a house of mirrors… which doors are real and which ones aren’t?Which ones are manned and which ones are clear? There are no side street exits here. Only doors. And more doors. And very tall walls. And guards—which doors are they hiding behind?
This scene is where Capone becomes the ringleader after a tenure of serving as right hand man to Johnny Torreo “The Fox.” By this time, bootlegging is already big business and beware the moonshine merchants who refuse to “negotiate!” Let’s just say, bad things will happen. This is supposed to be the scene that nearly finishes off Torrio. Frank Nitti, played by Stallone, is next in line as chief officer. But, we’re just here to see some gun shooting!
Unfortunately, it looks like there will be no shooting tonight. Just guards and doors. Door number one, Bronco Bob. Door number two, Big George. Door number three, Stallone… Lets make a deal!
Looks like the crew has called Stallone over to talk about the scene. Go… Now! We bolt. Brian, Danny and I dart along the wall, as if we had synchronized our big move, to the door where Stallone was standing. As we enter, we find a huge wardrobe inside. After gathering our whereabouts, we see that this was once an old “bank” in some other movie feature. It smells like a vintage clothing store. “There is a box of hats on table!” Danny says.
We busy ourselves in here for quite a while, trying on hats and scarves, like a bunch of ladies. Danny tests out a black gangster-type Fedora hat and models around with it; he droops it down over one eye and comes toward us with an expression like he’s gonna shoot us. Then we all bust up laughing so hard, it’s a wonder they don’t hear us. Meanwhile, I am modeling around with a fur coat, speaking with a British accent… How do you do Madame? Would you like a spot of tea? While Brian rummages through old pins. Can’t imagine what he wants with those, but he’s weird that way. Looks like this is the highlight of the night.
We wear our new stuff while walking home. This is now the very next day after walking home with the burned up dummy head under my arm. The other kids are carrying Pee Chee folders. What must they think…
We relish our treasures and feel very pleased with ourselves. George and Bob can explain where the stuff went. We consider our goodies as something of a consolation prize, since filming has been scheduled for the next day at Desilu.
As we always do, we move surreptitiously through the lot, in costume, and climb out by Maureen’s apartment. I was hoping to impress her with my grown up bootlegger clothing… Oh well.
“See you at Desilu after school tommorow” is cordially how we end this evening.
Written and lived by Donnie Norden… Edited by Donna Quesada
20th Century Fox has returned to MGM again. The same rail depot that was recently used in Young Frankenstein and Planet of the Apes is all fancied up, for another show. This Fox production is a feature entitled Capone and stars Ben Gazzara as the king of the underworld.
I just can’t get enough of the Tommy Gun world. I have a toy Tommy Gun that shoots sparks—it’s the envy of every kid on the block. Guns are part of my birthright, as a boy, I suppose. But, we’re not talking cops and robbers here. A Tommy Gun, is THE choice weapon for gangsters. Real gangsters, like John Dillinger. They don’t call it the Chicago Organ Grinder for nothin’. This thing can wipe out a whole gang in seconds. The very same ones used in Capone’s infamous Valentines Day Massacre.
This will be the first 30’s era gangster show I’ve had the pleasure to witness. The Untouchables TV series has filmed classic episodes on both the Desilu and MGM backlots.
Security officer Al Marioenzi has already told me about the schedule at MGM’s backlot and I’m all over it. But Al only knows the MGM advance; I found out on my own that Desilu will be integrated into many action scenes, also… this will be like a color version of the Untouchables, but through the eyes of Al Capone.
I arrive late to the set, due to an unforseen task at school, which squandered my valuable MGM time. It appears that production is putting the finishing touches on this train set just as we arrive… I would’ve preferred to get here earlier. What a nuisance the whole school thing is… with all its boring busywork!
I am with Brian, my older friend, who just enlisted in the Marines, and Danny, my next door neighbor drummer pal. I build up the story line… “It’s a show about Al Capone, you know there will be tremendous shootouts! With Tommy Guns! I am talking at a great speed, while loping along the train tracks leading into MGM. I kick up dirt with my excitement, then glance back to see their reactions. Danny is playing air drums to a song no one else can hear and Brian is eating Taco flavored Doritos from a snack size bag. Yep, I think they’re into it just as much as I am.
These guys are two of my toughest friends and their favorite thing to do is have BB gun fights where Combat used to battle. That’s even better than filming.
Thinking they are filming at this depot, we are extra careful as we climb in.
But, I’m disappointed as I survey this area… there is nothing here!
They’re gone… no equipment, no filming, no cast, no action, no nothing. Even the set dressers are rolling away the period props that a 1930’s train station would have had, right before our eyes.
It’s like they’ve canceled the show that we’ve paid good money to see! We are indignant. In two seconds, we go from carefully peeking around corners to moving about with long strides, like we own the place. We expected better entertainment!Who’s making decisions around here?! We become crotchety old men, demanding to see the manager… and storm out in a huff.
We consider that perhaps the company simply disembarked for the day, and so we go explore on our own. Low and behold, as we enter Small Town Square, we see a small splinter crew setting up in front of a bakery that they just dressed…
The unmistakable smell of rubber cement permeates this tiny main street. It is being applied on a car that is being cut, basted, and stuffed, just like a turkey. Special effects is setting up for a blast of large proportions. As this car goes through its final preparations, we pick a vantage point that has a balcony to witness what is ahead.
The three of us sit perched inside what used to be Andy Hardy’s house. We stand in front of the upstairs windows, gawking at all the goings on. We’re pretty pleased with ourselves—we have just as good a vantage point as anyone here.
A sign attached to the building we’re in, says Phil’s Bakery. One side of Andy Hardy’s house is a residential entrance, while the backside is a commercial store front… Welcome to Hollywood.
Ironically, the buiding with the movie camera facing it is a Bakery also… Aiello’s.
Tasty pastries adorn the front of Aiello’s bakery while musty old drapes enclose dirty glass windows, suggesting that a few holidays have passed since this bakery did any baking here.
The proprietor is leaving his shop in this scene; while it is being shot, he locks the shop door and then takes a seat inside his old sedan.
As fast as the actor steps into the car, he is quickly replaced by a rubber dummy wearing exactly the same clothing. Rubber cement is poured all over this mannequin as Effects deattaches the car doors. This final step will make the next scene even more spectacular.
The doors appear to be functionable, but they are free-wheeling now—nothing is connected. They just sit in place with out restraints, like a toy car. After a thumbs up by FX that everything is ready, a large perimeter gets set up.
The effects coordinator yells out in a booming voice, “We need everyone to push back!” The unmanned camera is in the blast zone, surrounded by plexiglass to protect it.
The scene shot just prior to this one was of Mr. Aiello leaving his business, locking his front door, then getting into his car… unbeknownst to him, when he turns on his ignition, bad things will happen!
We anxiously hold our breath, as we lean against each other for the countdown… 3, 2, 1…
Our excitement settles into calmness. We made it on time to see something cool take place. I sure brought the right two friends for this escapade!
There is a stunned silence that follows the explosions and destruction of what we just witnessed. We felt the heat blast like a nucleaur bomb shock wave. The smell of burning rubber cement is everywhere… Special Effects fights its own fire. They douse this car with water and foam, quickly putting out the burning corpse that was Mr. Aiello.
The car doors blew off as planned and we climb down to approach this smoldering vehicle. The dummy is sitting cocked and leaning out of the car; he continues to burn, since he is rubber and soaked in flammables. His head takes an extra blast of a fire extinguisher to finally stop burning.
The whole unit is now headed towards New York Street. No sooner had they captured the scene, than everyone moved on. The next time we return, it will be like like nothing ever happened. Hollywood magic… now you see it, now you don’t. You can create entire worlds and then destroy them in seconds.
While there are still smoldering remains, we decide to make the most of our time, especially since we are now the only ones left. So we play around a bit in the aftermath. Naturally, I need to grab something for my museum, so I decide on the dummy’s head… Mr. Aiello will be coming home with me!
Severely disfigured from the blast, any resemblace to a live human being no longer exists. Just a rubber head that is easily removed from its body, like the doors that were on this car. This place creates illusions on a grand scale… we just got a dose of how to blow up a car for a movie.
Little do we know yet, this is just the start of something much more crazy. New York Street has several scenes still to be filmed here. It’s always a good sign when I can grab a souvenir right off the bat. It must make quite a vision… me walking home with Mr Aiello’s head under my arm.
(Which turned out to be questionable choice as a souvenir, by the way, as it smells terrible! Years later, that putrid smell would be just as strong, as if all this had just happened yesterday!)
Above: site of Aiello Bakery ambush… Below: view from upstairs of Aiello bakery looking across at Phil’s Bakery, where Danny, Brian and I are hiding. We are in the second floor looking out windows. This structure was Andy Hardy’s house. We would feel the heat from this blast across this town square.
More nights ahead on this film… Stay tuned!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden… Edited by Donna Quesada
An MGM security guard has befriended me. His name is Al Marioenzi. He could double for the cop below. Probably speaks like him, too…
I oughta teach ya’a lesson… all-a-yas! But despite his no nonsense look, he’s got a soft side. I first heard about him from Gerald, my pal. He says he is very friendly… says he even gives kids rides in the famous Red Bronco. I can’t help but remain a little skeptical, but I’d rather be inside the Bronco than running from it.
Al is a veteran security guard, loaded with cool stories from his 30 years of badge work. He normally works the main gate at Lot 1: The same gate that the legendary MGM guard Ken Hollywood usually posts at. But lately, they’ve been assigning him to the MGM backlot.
Tonight, our paths cross at this legendary spot, the main gate. His friendly demeanor seeps out from behind the badge and blues, the way the aroma of my mom’s freshly baked cookies escapes all her efforts to pack them up well, inside my lunch pail… beckoning me to eat them long before lunchtime. He buckles his mouth into a half smile when I ask him if it’s fun to work here. He proudly shares his stories and jokes that his own family is bored with them. I enjoy his Italian accent and feel cozy and comfortable in his company, as if he would be my grandpa. I’m beyond thrilled when he invites me inside for a private MGM tour. But, he says emphatically, he can’t be seen with me by the other guards, who know me as “Public Enemy Number 1.”
So, he says he will drive around and pick me up inside the backlot, right across from Maureen’s apartment. I climb into the lot, then meet Al at our designated spot. I can’t believe I’m breaking in right in front of the guard!Allowable trespassing!
I see him drive up in the Bronco and we eye each other conspiratorially. Then he motions for me to hop in quickly. The tour begins. He asks if I want to get Maureen and bring her with us. I say No, she’s busy.… with a huffy breath. This is my moment.
I’m sitting shot gun in a vehicle that shoots. A guard is giving me secret history lessons. For each set, he’s got various stories and tidbits about its past… I’ve died and gone to heaven, I keep saying to myself.
“Over here is where the Time Machine filmed,” he says, as he pulls into Copperfield Court.
We pull to a stop under the archway that leads you into New York Street, as I ask this 30 year veteran security guard what it was like with Combat here, at MGM. Al replies “the show was a lot of fun to be around… I became friends with Shecky Green from a Combat episode.”
I hate that episode, I think to myself, and come to think of it… Al looks a bit like Shecky Green.
He changes the subject and points to a window…
He points to the exact window that was the center of the time travel experience, right as the mannequins’ clothing, along with everything else, rapidly changed.
I keep thinking to myself how cool this guy is. My eyes must be bulging out as I point to the “Airplane Room,” as we call it, while announcing that the Time Machine from Twilight Zone is being stored in there. As if he doesn’t already know.
Large airplane parts, including cock pits and plane fuselages, all gather dust, while waiting for another show call.
He smiles as he says, “Rod Serling was always walking around back here… he is a great guy and very funny, too.”
“He saw both of these Time Machines, each used in different films,” he added.
“Lucky Guy… I want your job when I get older!”
“I know you and your friends love this place. I’m always good for a tour. I gave your girlfriend one, by the way”… he reminds me.
“I heard… you’re not the first guard to do that.” She can run like a fox and get over a fence in three seconds… she doesn’t need your help!” I kid.
“Ron Smith gives pretty girls tours also, but he can’t be seen with me, either,” I say, adding… “if I sneak in without asking him, he is all about the chase, and he’s scary. A big man with a big gun and a huge swagger to go with it. Maureen is the only reason he warmed up to me.”
My ex-trophy trespasser girl friend. She now goes to the studio drive-in movies in A CAR … Jimmy’s car, no less! I process thoughts silently, as I keep smiling and carrying on, like nothing bothers me.
Back to reality… “so I’m a security risk. Well, I’m flattered.” “Yeah, you are, that’s why I picked you up inside the lot. Coleman and Barner would have a fit if they saw this!”
“I figured. Well, I won’t blow your cover.” I hold my wrists together in front of his face, “we can pretend you just cuffed me, if either goofball shows up on a golf cart.” We laugh, as I adjust to being able to relax, while spinning stories, in the Red Bronco.
“The arch above us had lava spool down this street.” Al points out another tidbit. Then I add, “you know what happened here a couple weeks ago right?” He seems uncertain as I continue.
“My friends and I were inside this arch playing in its hidden passageways.” There is a long narrow, gang plank that connects one side of the arch to the opposite side of the street. It’s like being in a Pirate ship and walking the plank, only it’s like a secret world, like the secret underground tunnels in Paris.
I continue, “I was with about five other guys and we were playing around in there. Pat slipped off the plank and his leg plunged through the old plaster at the top of the arch, creating huge hole! And then it got stuck there! We were all cracking up so hard, that he almost fell all the way through.”
“I was in front of him as we were all crossing the plank together; When I heard the commotion, I turned around and tried to help, but with some careful maneuvering he managed to pull his leg out of the hole. Then, right at that exact moment, through that very hole that Pat had just created, I saw the Fire Captain Fernald drive by, right underneath us, with the window down in his Fire Chief’s Ford Falcon… with a siren on top.”
I can tell Al seems to be enjoying the story. Half of his mouth is lifted into that characteristic half smile that he does, and he lets out a chuckle at all the good parts. It’s as if, through us, he’s living out his own love of hooligan adventures, which have been snuffed out due to his being a guard an’ all. I reckon there’s a thin line between a racketeer and the long arm of the law. Life seems to be like that… just like how they say there’s a thin line between love and hate. Yeah, I can tell he’s secretly rooting for us!
So, with his attention all on me, I continue the archway adventure… “I’m leading this expedition, they trust me… So, I yell out to the others… ‘Party’s over! Let’s get out of here! The chief has heard us for sure, and he probably saw Pat’s leg hanging down through the hole… we’re leaving, NOW!”
“It seemed like forever, waiting for Pat to get his bearings again and shake off the fall. But as we finally exited the arch, I explained to the others, as if they were in my charge… ‘he is probably coming back with George! We had enough fun for today. After all, we’re already primed for breaking and entering, the last thing we need is to get slapped with damaging property.'”
I wrap up the story for Al, with extra animation, so he would feel like he was there, “Just as our tennis shoes touched down to safety, a loud plane was flying by overhead, camouflaging our noise. A little bit of stumbling, a bit crooked, but no worse for the wear. But most importantly, we were all safe.”
“Then, we walk away like nothing in the world is going’ on. Just a group of filthy, dusty teenagers out for a walk. As reach Arizona street, we joke that Combat is on at Noon, right after Soul Train… Let’s watch it when we get back to my house!“
“Then, just as we get to the corner of Arizona and Elenda, still joking around and feeling relaxed and easygoing, a Culver City Police car pulls up right beside us. I know my heart skipped a beat and I’m sure the others were jerked into reality. But we all kept a poker face.
“We’re looking for a group of MGM trespassers… would you guys happen to be them?”… as they snicker and watch our reactions.
“Everyone is amazingly silent, so I take it upon myself to explain. After quickly realizing that lying won’t work, as we fit the description right down to the slivers and dirt, I offer a simple but vague retort, ‘not sure what you’re referring to.'”
They interrogated us with a million stupid and irrelevant questions, like where we go to school and how long we’ve lived in the neighborhood, and then they made us fill out some information cards. I’m sure the point was just to hassle us. Then, they gave us a “stern warning” to “stay out of that lot!” And just to make sure we understood, they barked at us some more… “We’re gonna turn over this info in to MGM security, so you better get going… NOW!”
Oh… we sure will, since a Combat rerun is about to start!
Al had not heard that I was caught for the second time. Barner was the first, and now CCPD. Fernald gets the credit for the capture on the MGM trespass list, I would later find out.
Al gets a good laugh out of that capture story…
Well Al… thanks for this guided tour back through time, in a place that owns two Time Machines!
The Arch connects buildings 465 to 462 on the map above…
These Time Machines can even go back to any dates… such as Feb 2, 1949… I have had some real good times in the Twilight Zone Time Machine. It is stored inside a hanger on the backlot, hidden away. It’s perfectly located to play in...
Mama, take this badge off of me. I can’t use it anymore. It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see. I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door…
I’ve been taking a different, more clear cut route out of MGM these days. It cuts straight to my apartment. I climb up the pointed metal studio gate and onto a steel balance beam, then while leaning against a tree, I reach for a no-parking sign on the other side, just for balance. Once I have a good grip of the sign, I spin around like a whirling dervish until my tennis shoes touch down on the public sidewalk below.
Today, out of the corner of my eye, I notice an unfamiliar guard watching me as I exit. Well… I think, better here, than our more widely used trade routes. Less at stake. Anyway, I’m no threat… I’m just a girl, by myself… kinda like an ally cat, quietlyprowling aroundandhopping over walls… no problem.
The next time I do this, he is there again… guarding some movie set at the old rail terminal. I was trying to avoid all the construction activity when I realized I was being watched… again. I do not know this officer but he kindly waves at me to come over… It could be a trick, so I ponder my options.
Flight instinct naturally takes over; it’s ingrained in the DNA of all regular trespassers. But as I change direction, he continues to wave me over… So, I slowly walk towards him, all the while ready to run. Just like an ally cat!
He teases me with “you know they will be filming here on Thursday. I’ll look the other way if you want to drop in.“
“Thanks for the tip… I will!”
“What’s the show called?” I smile innocently.
“Capone” he replies.
“Is there someplace special on the lot you wanted to see?” he asks. While I puzzle over whether or not he can be trusted, he eliminates my doubts real quick: “I can even give you a tour!” But, before I can answer, he surprises me with this golden nugget: “I know you live across the street and I’ve seen you here before… with that Donnie guy, who the studio wants to keep out of here, at all costs.”
Gee, that’s a lot of stuff… But I don’t want to forfeit the offer on the table, so I answer before he has a chance to change his mind… “Well, everywhere!”
I want to make sure to seal the deal, so I whip up a location that I know is close to this train set.: “I especially like Esther William’s swimming pool.”
“Well then, let’s go!” he offers.
“Right Now?… is it OK?” I ask.
“Right now!” he repeats.
I hesitate… “But… what if someone sees me? you might get in trouble.”
He says, “Wear this. Now you belong.”
I can’t believe my eyes when he hands me his badge… He’s like a cool uncle.
I feel powerful. I’m MGM police. I’m riding in a jeep, shot gun. A woman with a badge. MGM does not have any women on the force… but now they do!
I feel like I’m starring in the Rat Patrol, as my hair blows freely in the wind. I assume an authoritative attitude. My partner and I will handle any of the hooligans that come along.
Tagging buildings… not on my watch!
Esther’s pool needs some service, I think to myself. Donnie and I skateboarded the bottom of the deep end just recently… Plus, he and his dad clean pools.
We come to a stop alongside this iconic pool set. I envision myself doing laps with Fernando Lamas…
I’m reminded of when Donnie and I rode around with Big Ron last year. Ron passed around his gun. We all had a real good time. Al doesn’t wear a side arm, I notice… That’s his name, “Al.” We’re on a first name basis now.
That memory seems so long ago, but now, I’m on my own… Ha! If he could see me now in the Bronco, wearing a badge! I’d so love to catch him. I relish the idea of the student passing up the teacher. I was his little “grass hopper,” and now I’m in charge of security! Well, for tonight, anyway. I bet I could catch him in a foot race, or yank him off the fence, at least! I’m invincible.
Look at me, you silly boy, I got a Badge!
Al finally delivers me back to where the evening began, at the fence across from my apartment. I climb to the top, pivot around, and wave goodbye, as I jump back through the invisible gateway, into reality. Now I have a new cool pal to hang with whenever I see him at MGM, from my bedroom window. Heaven is just a pirouette away.