The Happiest Place on Earth

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The Happiest Place on Earth…It seems to be all of that.

It makes me wonder why MGM does not make a theme park out of their backlot. Debbie Reynolds is heavily lobbying for this to happen and I love her for that. There is still that chance, cross your fingers, Lot 2 can become a money making theme park.  Universal is doing very well with those pink and white trams in the San Fernando valley.

Jimmy and I climb on board this raft and head over to Tom Sawyers island

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We touch ground on this charted island…I have been called Tom Sawyer often, and I do have my own lake and jungle…mine is named after Tarzan!

We wonder over to the barrel bridge… to cross it…a dozen times. We climb up in the tower of the log fortress that overlooks the lake. Very real looking rifles point out towards the Indians reservation over yonder. We both agree this island may be the last spot we can… kill this doobie. It’s rolled up in my top pocket. Nowhere else will we be able to isolate ourselves.

Just as we are about to spark it, some dam kids climb up. Darn,… so we climb down and enter a cave close by… about half way through, we stop. We discovered a small cut out, since no one else is around, I fire it up… here.

It’s a bomber and we are determined to finish it. Needless to say, the smoke can only go two directions in this narrow tunnel. I realize two people are entering at one end, backlit by the light at the end of the tunnel. Their hats quickly catch my attention then next, their uniforms. These are not tourists as I had hoped…it is the U.S Calvary, in full uniform, complete with a swords on their hips. The only thing missing are their horses.

My instincts tell me to run…but my brain says…Your house is 40 miles away.

I am forced to capitulate to these officers… on Tom Sawyers’ island, no less!

The three men in blue laugh like this is their Cheech and Chong moment. Pot smoke was billowing out each end of my underground lair, like a joint that is lit on both ends.

Jimmy is released amazingly, since I had the joint in my hands. As I begin the long escorted trip out of here I think to myself…these guys don’t realize who they have here, this would be huge capture at MGM…. Oh well, I am going to make another security list.

First, we are get our own charter boat across the water, just me and the men in the fancy blue duds. What waits on the mainland is something else, photo ops. By the hundreds, people from all over this small world want a picture with these calvary gentlemen…and me. Cuffs are not being used in public display so, they hold me tight as we all say…cheese !

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Never in my life have I had more pictures taken of me than this moment!…I now know how Winnie the Pooh must feel.

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It gets worse…these characters show up, (above), creating more of a jammed crowd…

Finally, I turn to all the smiling faces, ranging from every walk of life, and say in my best English… “Backoff…I’m headed to jail you idiots, get out of the way, please”… click, click,…flash…click.

We arrive at Disneylands City Hall and I realize costumes are the key to security here. Two pirates, also security, sit across from each other at a table. One has a loud walkie talkie stuck on a police channel, the other has on…a sword and cuffs. He is also wearing a wire.

Clever!,… I think to myself… undercover Pirate police…whmmm…this is quite the police force…Swords seem the weapon of choice here!

A Tomorrowland land officer walks by dressed like Captain Kirk, he has a laser gun. Different weapons for different criminals…

You can’t trust anyone around here, it appears!

After my interrogation concludes…

Next, I am escorted to the main gate for my official release from the Magic Kingdom. But waiting for me, under the iconic Monorail track is a Anahiem police car. The door is open and I find out there is yet another leg to this journey I’m on today.

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I am quickly stuffed inside the backseat of this police car…just as the Prime Evil World train passes by-stuffed with passengers, staring my way, taking more pictures. Slowly…the Monorail glides quietly overhead…All parties salute!

Next thing you know, I am in jail…I have never been, so this is new. I was in prison, but that was to see my teachers boyfriend. I am told I will remain here until my parents can be reached, me being a minor, this is my new home!

Pick up the phone, anyone please… 

I have been just brought a cell mate who can bilinguliarly cuss…and does so for the next couple of hours. I can see the Matterhorn all lit up from my cell window. It’s dark outside now. I imagine Jimmy riding the bobsled, as we had planned.

Ernesto, is my friend and cellmate now, he is in here for robbing a pharmacy. I am in here for having a roach!

I spend more time with Ernesto today rather than with my pal Jimmy.

Fireworks begin, it’s that late. The show can be seen from my barred window surprisingly good, so there’s a positive…

A negative: I’m still here…”Hello, Please answer the phone!”

The Happiest Place on Earth… is closing.

Finally, I am told, my parents are on their way…Yipee!

As I greet them, we shortly all exit the jail together, as a family…Instead of anger, there is a dead silence. Just three car doors shutting, then the engine starts. I listen to the motor all the way home…no radio, no conversation,… just the purr of a new 1973 Caddy engine and it’s quiet ride...extremely quiet, tonight!

I can’t wait to see how Jimmy’s day went…we got some cathing up to do!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disneyland…1974

Disneyland and Pacific Ocean Park have something in common. That would be: theme parks.

But on closer investigation, we find they were built and designed by scenic artists and built by studio craftsmen. They are like backlots with rides.

P.O.P is a classic and unique park built over the Pacific Ocean. Many of the same artist and engineers worked on both parks, along with their movie studio jobs. P.O.P, sadly became derelict, and worse, a home for derelicts, only to burn down to the ocean’s  edge. It can still be enjoyed in the Twilight Zone episode…Praise for PIP, starring Jack Klugman.

Get Smart, starring Don Adams, also filmed at this amusement park…As did Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Disneyland, with it’s huge lake, large paddlewheel boat, canoes, a large New Orleans street, trains, rockets, planes, etc…Exactly like MGM Lot 3.. But these theme park backlots allow you the opportunity to (buy) your way inside.

Instead of tanks, weapons, battlefields, and bombed out villages like most movie studios have in their arsenal, a smaller-family friendly place exists.

50 caliber machine guns are replaced my Muskets…actors in costume are replaced by mascots in worse costumes. Barb wire fences are replaced by toll-booths.

All built by the same folk. Since Jimmy can drive now, we head out this morning in his white VW squareback. The Happiest Place on Earth is our destination.

This is the first time either of us do this Kingdom without parents.

Six bucks buys a ticket booklet with passports for twelve rides. Unlike school grades,  A-ticket is the worst letter you can have. Slow and worn out rides surrounded by screaming kids require an A-ticket.

B-ticket…stands for better than A, but not by much. We have two decent options, the motorboat ride and the Casey Jr train ride.

C-ticket… you recieve three… so we strategize a few moments…Autopia, with those cool cars… is a must for beginner drivers like myself. Magic moments with Mr Lincoln is really cool, that robot guy with a hat and beard…For the third, well that will either be Mr. Toad and his wild ride…or the shooting gallery.

D- tickets…we get three, these look just like my report card.

The clock a top the train station stares down as we stare upwards. We position ourselves to run once these metal gates with mouse ears… open.

It’s 8 am, we charge in…like trespassers. Thousands follow quickly. We grab a seat on a train to New Orleans square. Here is where we will use most of these E-tickets.

No other ticket comes close!

All Aboard: is shouted for the last time as our tiny little steam engine begins jugging towards the Bayou, still a ways away. This train cost us a C-ticket…

On the way there we can’t help but wonder what it would be like to sneak around here. I am almost certain they don’t shoot kids here…unlike MGM. Having paid an entrance fee, we could always pretend… we’re just lost. We would have to talk are way out of any problems, since running home would be difficult… We live 40 miles away.

All we would need to do is show that we have a Disneyland passport, say we got lost and rely on are innocent looks. How do you think we got in here…some Hole in the Fence?… kiddingly!

We disembark at the New Orleans depot and run to get in a short line at Pirates of the Carribean.

Without parents is the only way to visit this resort, we quickly agree. “They just slow ya down,” we laugh…”Let’s Celebrate!”

 

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After the coolest water ride ever… we move hurridly to the fastest ride ever.

The Matterhorn…Its majestic peak towers above us but a very long line leads you to the bobsleds…we decide to try later. Instead, we decide to jump on board the Aerial Tramway and it’s private little flying baskets.

Two “D” tickets allow us to come sail away, and we head towards the Matterhorn by way of the sky. Alone with just Jimmy in this flying basket, I light up one of two doobies specially rolled for this afternoon. Not just pinners but much larger… bombers!

Acapulco Gold blows from our mouth as we pass inside and through this iconic mountain.

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Bobsleds zip by, as all occupants inside scream for help…. We float by very slowly, silently, and almost effortlessly… above them. A giant wolf growls at us as we approach the entrance at the mountain summit.

As we pass inside the Matterhorn, an abominable snowman with glowing red eyes stares me down…

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I stare back with blazing red eyes…smoke bellows from inside our little sky unit… which is being pulled by large steel cables.

Swoosh, more sleds, non-stop…below us. It’s a magic kingdom moment, and it’s more magical stoned. I have never been high around this many people before. It’s groovey!

We come to a soft exit… landing in Tomorrowland. We exit higher than we began this ride, that’s for sure. This is going to be a fun day on this backlot… theme park style.

We still have one more bomber joint on us as our sky ride concludes. We hurry to catch a raft to Tom Sawyers’ island… where I’m sure another adventure awaits us…

Stay tuned for… The Happiest Place On Earth!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…

 

 

 

 

Our House…

I have been dying to show Maureen our new hangout…the caretakers house. I cased the joint again right after school, just to make sure I can still make entry. Seeing the window is just slightly ajar, it looks exactly how Jimmy and I left it.

Our house below…

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Tonight, is date night, Maureen and I will have a picnic supper inside this really nice house we just inherited…

Our school pictures below…Maureen on the left, Donnie on the right.

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Sure we have no furnishings yet, but we are just a young couple starting out. All our utility bills seem paid, everything works, that’s most important. So it’s time to just relax with my girl- friend- buddy- pal.

I’m not in the mood to be chased or hunted tonight. I just want to show this super foxy chic just how cool she is!

Lot’s of older guys hit on my girlfriend and some even offer her rides in their fancy cars, I’ve seen it attempted. She always says (No)!

I’m telling you, there is (no one) I would rather share a fox hole with. She’s got my back!

We have packed a basket full of goodies. Peanut butter and and jelly sandwiches will be the main entree. I snuk 2 of my dads cheap beers out from his fridge.

I have my own fridge now, it’s just empty at the moment. Maureen and I may cook next time…it’s doable, we soon will both agree. I brought some Hershey’s Kisses for later, always thinking ahead!

But what I most look forward to is making popcorn. I have Jiffy-Pop hidden under a cloth in the picnic basket. This table cloth is hiding an asortment of, girly things, such as a red rose, Hershey’s Kisses, and reading material…

No BB guns or buck knives, tonight.

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I will share the surprise items with her as soon as we unpack. We have a cassette player, I checked that box before leaving home. It has a two hour tape. One side is Led Zeppelin and the other side is Steely Dan and Crosby,Stills,Nash and Young.

All that is left to do now is to go through a hole in the fence. I just made it earlier this afternoon. Impossible to see from the inside do to shrubs, it is hardly noticeable when walking down the public street…outside.

My guess, it will last us a couple weeks until it’s found and fixed. I only need it tonight, anyhow.

I already know this girl can climb with the best of them. Fearless, I call her!… She has nothing left to prove. She was trained well. But tonight, she won’t have to climb.

I will do all the dirty work this evening, cut her a hole in the fence, fall through a window and be as smooth as Chevy Chase as I open the front door. I will then escort her and our picnic basket inside, across the threshold.

All goes accordingly, and as we tour our new home together.

Her expressions are of surprise and amazement. She asks, while looking around, “Where are the bedrooms,”…”Great question”… I quickly respond. I pick up the picnic basket and say “Follow me…I’m one step ahead of you”

We excitedly run up the stairs. We have the pick of two bedrooms that both look over a vast expanse of the backlot.We settle down in the one that we feel has the best view.

Summer is about to start, the tall euclyptus trees are throwing long dark shadows on the Bewitchin’ Pool below us. We can see the Bavarian village that Young Frankenstein recently finished filming on, off in the distance.

The Ford Bronco even makes a courtesy drive by, slowly, on the dirt road behind us. We can’t quite tell who the lonely guard is tonight.

The setting sun casts a bright orange hew on the village rooftops. The village is still painted exactly as it was left by that film.

An Art Director couldn’t ask for more of a scenic atmosphere.

Maureen begins to unpack our basket as I fiddle with the radio/ cassette player.

“A candle”… Maureen asks?

“Yes it will be dark soon, it’s a very small candle don’t worry” I sheeplessly speak and smile simultaneously…”Oh, I’m not worried, just asking,” she adds.

“Ooohhh, nice pick, this looks like a good MAD magazine!” she begins to get excited…

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“Pop corn?” her next question, as she holds it by the wire handle…”how will we pop this?”

“Downstairs, on our new oven top” I remind her. She turns all smiles and giggles and says “Let’s do it!.

My heart flutters

“Let’s make popcorn!”

“Sure…sure Pop corn, yes, Pop corn,” of course, as I realize what she meant! 

Downstairs, we pop corn as Steely Dan plays…Reelin” in the Years.

Back upstairs, we share an apple then a jelly sandwich. The moon, in a crescent shape,  is beginning to rise.

“This is the time the owls come out to hunt”…” let’s just listen to nothing for a bit.” She agrees… moments later, two owls swoosh, screech and dive in the field in front of us. Silhouetted against what is now a very dark blue sky.

Well that is as romantic as it gets I think to myself, watching owls hunt!

So out break the Hershey’s Kisses and we stick one in each others mouth…. like any grown up couple would do.

We lay down on the carpeted floor together, just as the moon peaks inside our bedroom window with it’s romantic blue tones. The leaves on the trees are blowing in a gentle breeze, I hit play on the cassette tape deck.

Our mouths bask in choclate…but our ears bask in the music.

Stairway to Heaven begins to play as only Stairway to Heaven can play…perfectly!

We crack open two Burgermeisters to toast this event. Our favorite song helps begin our first evening in our new pad.

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Cheers!

Thanks MGM, everything’s sensational, as usual…

This is the type a moment that you wish never ends!

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Stairway to Heaven along fence on Montana ave.

Written and lived by Donnie Norden

 

 

 

 

 

MGM Trespassers list…

Having been captured recently by Big George, I knew it would just be a matter of time before this day would happen… Today is that day.

As Jimmy and I ride our bikes around MGM today after school, we head down Overland. It is the street that seperates the front lot from the backlot. We are on the Lot 2 side and naturally we check to see who is working the guard shack over on the Lot 1 side of the street.

If it’s friend we will cross the street to visit. If it’s a foe, as it appears it is, we will just mosely ride on the backlot side, just looking inside the fence.

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We see Les Green across the street, we consider him dangerous since he would love to catch me. Frankly, he is too old. So we ignore him and really don’t consider him a threat.

Lester…pictured below… in the West Gate shack.

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Doing just that, staying focused on our side, I hear him shout over top of the few cars going down Overland. We turn our heads, Jimmy and I, as we stop pedaling. Les is as animated as I have ever seen him move. He is standing outside the gate and is on of the dirt sidewalk beyond the guard shack. His arms are waving as he continues to shout, he has something clenched is his hand…some papers.

Les looks like me trying to get a stars autograph with his paper in hand …jumping in the air… waving…it’s like I’m Elvis Presley or Gene Kelly…I quickly process this sttrange image…

I can hear now and as the traffic stops for a moment.. he is shouting at me… particlarly me, not Jimmy. “We gotcha, we got everything,… your house… your phone number, and your name!”

We sit and stare but quickly we jaywalk over to him, we all meet at the West Gate guard shack. He proudly hands it to me, “Read it and weep” he says. “This is fresh from the press, it just got dropped off by my Captain”

It is 5 pages and quickly realize I know almost everyone on it, I sit myself down inside his shack while taking this all in… Jimmy crams in next to me and my spinning stool seat. We read slowly, we may never see this paper again. I’m flattered I mean so much to them. I was just caught a month ago so they revised this whole thing…. just because I’m on it.

Les stands outside his own shack as we box him out.We go over each and every name and who captured each trespasser. We see who is worth there salt in security…naturally Big George seems to be MGM’s Top Dog!

Al Black and Bob Trigger Happy Coleman are next in line. Bob takes them… dead or alive…we chuckle.  We have been here awhile and are barely through page 3. I look up to see Les bent over and leaning into a car window that wants to enter the lot…I quickly roll this captured list up and stick it under my sweatshirt, as I push Jimmy towards our bicycle’s. We silently ride off without saying… good-by.

So now I have me this fancy list fresh off the MGM printing press. It can double as my rolodex, If I need a friends number, well its probably on this list.

Here it is Culver City…find yourself…Enjoy!

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Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Please checkout my latest blog…theglamourtram

 

 

 

Almost Famous…

So far, 1974 has been magical. It picked up right where ’73 left off. TV show after TV show, movie after movie, my event calender has been very active. I barely have time to go to school…

Due to my unique and unusual hobby, I have become very popular when on campus. My English teacher and I have become very good friends. She is a very special grown up to me. She knows I’m different, and so is she. She says I remind her of her boyfriend, who she offers up to meet me. He is an inmate at a local prison…Terminal Island.

Well, I am flattered, as I accept her invitation. We agree to take a field trip after school, just me and teacher… in her two-seater 914 Porsche. Feel Flows, the Beach Boys classic, plays from her Blaupunkt radio.

As we speed cross the the the large green Vincent Thomas Bridge, I can see all of Long Beach in the distance. As her hair blows in the wind, Debby points, “that’s where we’re headed… that prison over there!”

We arrive on this minimum security island… All Along The Watchtower, by Jimi Hendrix pounds inside my head, as we pass underneath a real watchtower. Debbie, dressed in very tight blue jeans and a tight black sweater, clears us for a visitor entry. She looks mouth watering pleasant. Once inside the facility, Terminal Island turns into Temptation Island. For most male inmates, anyway.

Inmate 13 has entered the room. A handsome all-American type that must be extremely popular in here. She introduces me to him, as then she leaves the area. I was not expecting to be alone with a prisoner.

Inmate 13, in his Orange jump suit, sits across from me. I’m wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes. We begin by discussing Debbie, our only common ground. He asks, “so, where do you know her from?” I respond, “she is my teacher, we’re on a field trip”…

“How about you?” as I stare back at his shackled arms… “I’m her boy friend, or was, until I was extradited here!”

Our eyes lock together… a stone cold silence takes over the room, at this moment… he then continues… “I was framed and I am being charged with importing cocaine from Brazil in aerosol cans!” Well I’ll be dammed, this guy is bad ass! I think to myself… even though, everyone in here probably thinks they were framed!

I realize this is not the scared-straight moment that Debby was hoping for… I’m actually impressed by #13 in orange… friendly exchanges conclude my first ever prison experience.

This guy has it all… looks, charm, an international business, women in Brazil, a woman in Manhattan Beach… Debbie… and a Federal Trial he is sure he can win, based off his extradition process being flawed. Now, he has a 14 year old fan. I see what Debby likes in him… and in me. Bad boys bad boys whatchya gonna do…

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I take this experience to the Desilu backlot, as Debbie drops me off… to process this  meeting I just shared with inmate 13. I sit on the stairs under a sign that says Sing Sing PrisonOssinings, New York

This is a maximum security prison set used in the Untouchables, that sits alone, as it towers above an isolated corner on Desilu’s back 40. I like to visit sets that pertain to my mind state… It’s cool that I have my own prison to wonder in!

Heck, I have a whole world to wonder in…

I have forts… or offices, at two major Hollywood Studios. I have produced an 8mm movie on this lot. Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson are filming a blockbuster next to my saloon, where my World Headquarters for Hole in the Wall existed.. until we were suddenly canceled.

I recently met MGM’s most iconic and dynamic duo, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I just saw Frankenstein roam the backlot. I have been on the set of Medical Center and have seen Chad Everette, up close, multiple times.

Sydney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, Jack Cassidy, Broderick Crawford, Peter Lawford, Richard Roundtree, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, Edward G. Robinson, and Jimmy Stewart are just some of the stars I have seen in the last two years.

And the sets I have seen in the same time period are just as impressive… from the ancient past or the distant future… they are created for every mood and occasion.

I am strategically hidden most of the time, by a bush or a wall, but always just out of frame. I’m not famous… yet, to anyone who knows me, I’m… Almost Famous!

Check out theglamourtram.com on WordPress. Just launched, based off real events.

All stories written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by DQ

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue… 911

At Desilu, finishing touches are being added to the south western community, built solely for this film, called The Fortune. Mike Nichols is the director. This set has taken many months to build, and is located on the footprint of Stalag 13, exactly where the iconic camp used to stand.

The same construction crew that built this village also helped us earlier with the cantina fort that had a rotted ladder. They were kind enough to build us a new one!

Today I’m gathering information on this production. The film stars Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. To remain hidden, yet still see the set, we determine that a large grassy hilltop will give us the best advantage. It is impossible to get caught here, even if we’re seen, since we can run in any direction and hiding places are abundant. Like some Vietnam set.

This hilltop has very deep grass, tall trees, sand-paper plants, ohh… and sprinklers. We find where the spinkler system turns on, a major plus when it’s hot out.

This is a man-made hill top… I found out the hard way. The grass is so deep in certain spots, that we spring over it like leaping deer. Otherwise you just sink underneath it. On one leap, as I am ascending upwards towards the top, I disappear… literally!

This hill has swallowed me whole. I land 15 feet inside it, on my rear end, in some enormous cavern. Jimmy turns around and I’m no where to be found. We were just speaking a minute ago. Poof …no more.

I now realize that this grass we play on sits on top of a wooden rotting structure and this entire place is fabricated. This garden of eden set “above” is supported by a frame as weak as clay, “below.” I can’t get out!

Tree roots dangle above me, back-lit only by the hole that my body just punched. The underbelly of this organic studio prop has gobbled me into its version of studio hell. Heaven above, hell below…

The grass fixes itself like nothing happened. I barely see light. Jimmy has no idea about my dilemma or where I went. This sucks!

I shout for Jimmy relentlessly… but to no avail. I would not be surprised if I find skeletons down here from other missing kids.

I have no way to climb out. I’m in quite a predictament. Finally, Jimmy hears my shouts, but helping me will require a rope and he himself could fall in if this collapses any more. He talks into a hole in the earth, which is where I’m located.

We decide to ask for help from the people preparing The Fortune set. Jimmy enlists men with tools, ropes and ladders, who are more than willing to help. I sit in silence, in my hole. Dirt begins to fall inside from an already weak ceiling.

That’s just great, I think, as I wonder my fate. Mom always tell me, “Be careful Donnie!” Now look at me.

I hear lots of talking… Jimmy has recruited a small army to rescue me. The show stops preparing the movie set village for filming and shifts its focus to help me.

Finally, my tiny hole has been discerned. A man with a helmet and harness on… and a flashlight, stares inside. I say “Hello.”

“Oh… it’s you,” as men gather above and laugh downwards. Next, Bam! Down comes an extension ladder and up pops a teenager. I climb out and see that everyone on the set was dialed in to my rescue… I exit to a slight applause.

Studio transportation has a crew cab parked down below, they brought the ladder over. They have all seen me here before. They remember me filming my movie on western street, a few months back. Heck, it was their rolling phone that we used daily at my old saloon fort… to cast women and order pizza. I’m like crew.

Some of these guys, like Charlie, the Manson look-a-like, and me, have even gotten high together. I am handed an ice cold Hawaiian Punch by a pony-tailed Teamster. We all have a real good laugh and go back to our business.

The crew goes back to being a film crew and I go back to being me…

It took a village for this rescue… a studio village.

I feel… Almost Famous.

 

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Above: Base of hill that I disappeared into.

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The road in the above picture is located at the base of the my hilltop…

Below: This is where that road ends up… it was once the site of Stalag 13…

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Now this road drops you off at the set for Warren Beatty’s latest show… The Fortune (below)

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Below: View from the top of this hill, facing Baldwin Hills.

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Written and lived by Donnie Norden..

Today is a very special day. I have lauched another Blog… The Glamour Tram!

Like these stories, it is based off of real life events, later in my life, as I begin living my dream… working in the movie industry. It centers around the everyday goings-on, behind the scenes, at an iconic movie studio/theme park.

I think you will like it… here is the link to hop on board:

https://theglamourtram.com

Enjoy!

 

The Old Caretaker’s House

My entire life, or since I could walk without supervision anyway, I pass this old two story house almost daily. It is surrounded by a see-through chain link fence partially hidden by Oleander bushes.. Usually, a little terrier pooch runs the entire length, along side the public sidewalk, and barks at whoever is going by. It is the normal routine, for over a decade.

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Lately though, the dog, the car in the driveway, and the old man and woman that live inside are all missing. This house is located just behind Esther Williams swimming pool set. The colonial mansion is the closest MGM facade to this real life home. It has complete acess to the backlot since it is in the backlot…but this structure is a real home!

Myself along with all my MGM trespass buddies realize this would be a nice addition to our ever growing studio resources, if it’s available, as it appears it is.

Jimmy and I begin reconnaissance of this area, carefully of course. Trespassing is a misdemeanor but burglary, or breaking and entering is a felony!

We walk a fine line, but that’s what we do. Being young teenagers and not age 18, helps us push the envelope. If you break the law, you need to know the law… We Do!

Bushes that help frame the studio pool also conceal this caretaker house. They provide cover that allow us to get close enough to look in the windows. We see no furniture inside, this confirms what we were hoping for…it’s abandoned!  

Hoo-ray!…We nervously turn the backdoor handles, but they are locked. So too… is the front door, but luckily we find a side window is ajar. We push it open and climb inside, the one place on the backlot we have yet to be explore. As we tumble inside, our fall seems softened,  we happily realize that this place has wall to wall carpet, nice…

We go to the kitchen first  and a refrigerator exists empty, with an old box of Arm and Hammer inside…yet, it’s on. We have power,.. this keeps on getting better, the kitchen sink has hot and cold running water.

Next we go upstairs where three bedrooms exist, the windows look out over the pool set and all the way to the Bavarian village just used by Young Frankenstein. What a spot, it’s better than Maureen’s bedroom view. We turn the glass door knob and enter the bathroom, the toilet flushes and the shower works.

Jimmy and I smile at each other, saying nothing, but thinking …everything!

We scored, an entire house, nicer than my folks place!

Carefully, we cover our tracks, going back down stairs, keeping the doors locked as we exit through the same window that we climbed in. We shut everything so it appears secured.

We leave this place the way we found it. We are so excited, full amenities, carpets, power, water, gas, and phone jacks. We will find a phone to plug in later, that’s easy.

I can’t wait to tell Maureen…”Honey, we are moving up in the world!” 

Written and lived by Donnie Norden

 

That’s Entertainment

After school today, Gerald and I are riding our bicycles around MGM Lot 1, visiting guard shacks that have friendly officers posted. Usually, these studio police officers stationed inside these boxes are polished in public relations. They don’t wear side arms, they greet you with a smile and get around the lot with an electric cart. I can easily out run these carts.

That differs from the nose to the grind stone approach that I deal with daily across the street on the backlot… it is like when Central Casting picks different characters for different roles. The men assigned to this detail are equipped with pistols and a 4 wheel drive Ford Bronco. Inside the jeep is a CB radio so reinforcements can be found quickly.

The security in a box guards are much cooler than the patrol officers, and we really appreciate and utilizetheir kindness. As we talk to them, we look over their shoulder for valuable studio information, posted all over the interior of these ancient shacks.

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Above: MGM’s East Gate

Today, at MGM’s East Gate, the legendary Ken Hollywood is on duty. We roll up and we  immediately feel at home as we realize just who is on duty…

He pulls out two pieces of paper and hands them to Gerald and I. Gerald is turning into my apprentice, a little me. He watches my methods and copies my approach to info gathering.

Ken Hollywood says to us, “two guys are coming out any minute and you will want their autographs.” He leaves it at that as people come and go at the studio’s main entrance and we chat with Ken… waiting for these somebuddy’s…

Minutes pass and a Rolls Royce slowly pulls up to the stop sign next to the guard shack. Ken nods to the driver. Right then Gerald and I realize who this somebuddy is… Fred Astaire!

He looks so dignified and classy behind the steering wheel, just like a scene from his movies. He stops as he sees us walk towards his driver side window. “Hello Fred,” I say, as his power window touches down. He nods, seeing the paper and pencil coming towards him and graciously accepts our autograph request.

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We stand silently as he signs two different copies. We thank him and I shake his hand as he tips his hat. I am in awe, and speechless, as he smiles and says goodbye and rolls off  gently into the sunset.

A wow moment… catch my breath!… I just met MGM’s biggest icon!

I realize I was not prepared with any questions since I was caught off guard… I am still not sure who the next somebuddy is going to be…

I’m floating on a cloud as an old Impala comes towards this same exit. I ignore this car since it is not eye-catching fancy, and I face Ken in his shack. Ken dips his head, as if to say “turn around!”

I look again and the somebuddy inside that Impala is none other than Gene Kelly. My heart flutters…

I love everything about him… I’ve seen all his movies so I am ready to ask some questions. As God would have it, Gene sees our pencil and paper and says, “let me pullover,” and he does. He stops out front of MGM’s main headquarters, the Irving Thalberg building.

He gets out and leans against his car, seemingly in no hurry at all. He signs as I ask my first question… “Mr Kelly, what was your favorite movie you ever did?” “Well”, as he hands me my paper that now has two of Hollywood’s biggest icons names attached, “I am going to surprise you, it’s not a musical.” And he pauses…

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In my head, I quickly run through his catalogue… which movies are not musicals? I have to pick between Pay or Die, made in 1950, or is it… And just as I am about to say the right answer, he says, The Three Musketeers!

I say “you were fantastic in that! It appeared that the sword was attached to your hand! You are so athletic… dancers are great athletes!”

Gene responds…”I love baseball, I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. I would have played minor league ball, but one thing led to another and here I am.” Gene shrugs his shoulders and smiles…

I am thinking as he speaks… I just saw him on Johnny Carson, and it came up that women around the world propose to him constantly… women he does not even know… I can see why.

I am admiring his prescence… his persona is so cool, calm and collected…

“Gene,” I now feel like he is my pal and so I call him by his first name… “I loved It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)especially when you danced with those huge trash can lids on your shoes”…

“Funny you say that, it was actually a very trying number, due to the size of those lids, and the three of us had to be in sync. Michael Kidd did a wonderful job choreographing that dance sequence.”

I continue on, “Me and my friends often sneak into the backlot and recreate your dances exactly where you performed them.” “We copy your Singing in the Rain number, or try to… singing and dancing with umbrellas when it actually rains” …sheepishly, I smile, as I look at the ground… “well, mostly we just splash in the puddles, just trying to sing and dance like you.”

As Gene hears this, he begins to smile affectionately, as only he can with that big broad legendary smile… we shake hands and bid each other a fond farewell…

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I am on cloud 9… I just met two of MGM’s biggest stars ever… Gerald and I race home… I tell my mom and show her these autographs. She is speechless, then says, “How do you do this?”

“I smile.” She knows…

I did not wash my hands… literally, for one week, at least!…and…Lot 2 will never be the same again, I belong here, I cherish being able to amuse myself, recreating famous scenes, meeting iconic legends, exactly where these scenes were performed… years and  even decades before… 

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…

 

 

 

Young Frankenstein

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This evening arrives in the blink of an eye… the last three weeks of building, decorating, painting, electrical rigging, and pre-lighting have just concluded. Filming is about to commence on this old backlot.

My mom made me an early dinner tonight as I excitedly enlighten her on my latest MGM adventure. I warn her I may be coming home real late all this week, due to the fact that all the filming takes place at night… “it’s a Frankenstein movie, mom… directed by Mel Brooks…. I’ll be safe, I promise,” beating her to her favorite line, which I hear every time I walk out the front door.

At this very moment, the rotary phone next to the dinner table rings. I grab the reciever and stick it next to my head. It’s Maureen, my girlfriend. Her enthusiasm can’t be contained by the phone line. No hellos. Just… “Get over here!” Then, she managed to blurt out “they’re filming at the train station across the street… lights are shining in every direction.” Barely breathing, she continues, “my whole bedroom is lit up”…

“On my way,” as I finish off my glass of double scooped Ovaltine, grabbing my skateboard…

I’m hauling ass, as fast as one leg can pump, on this chilly evening. As I round the corner, I can see that the studio is lit up like a rocket launch. I arrive in literally seconds at Maureen’s front door, and I just barge in. She is standing on her bed, as I join her.

Together, we can see one side of the trains that are parked alongside the station’s platform. Thick steam is clouding our vision; it is artificial, being created by special effects. It protrudes above and beyond the studio fence.

This moment is magical. This old edifice has been transformed… like it took a sip from a fountain of youth. Movies such as The Band Wagon and The Brothers Grimm have captured this set with class and dignity, but tonight, Young Frankenstein will add to this train depot’s long list of credits.

Maureen and I now find ourselves in the same situation we were in just a few weeks ago—jumping up and down on her bed… like a couple of pogo sticks, watching The Phantom film… Maureen has the coolest bedroom window, ever!

We know that the higher we can jump, the farther we can see… albeit, very briefly. We get quick mental snapshots as we teeter up and down. I go up as she goes down. We can hear a director’s commands on a megaphone, which we gather is Mel Brooks.

Her bed has become a complete mess. It is nighttime and everyone can see us do this alternating, hodge podge dance, with each jump… the crew can see our heads bobbing up and down. We see them in flashes as they see us.

I’m getting exhausted already, yet the company is still setting up this first shot. The exhilaration of jumping is intoxicating. I wonder what actors may see us as we continue to bounce, giggle and laugh. We turn off her bedroom lights and now her room is indirectly lit by the same lighting that is capturing scenes from across the street.

Next, I grab a ladder that is in her laundry room and we head to the train tracks across the street… we can see through windows at the depot, as we share a seat atop this ladder. We can hardly believe it… “Is that Gene Wilder?” We squint our eyes… trying to see through the steam… “There he is!… he’s rehearsing with Madeline Kahn.” We can’t hear the actors’ lines, but we see their every move, including Gene’s, as he boards the train to Transylvania.

Bronco Bob is the guard on duty, as is Big George. MGM has its heavies securing this station. MGM knows we operate from this depot. We are not hiding, since we are not trespassing, at the moment… Bob’s short stocky build is recognizable, even in the fog… He sees us and waddles over…  He says to us, “you two better stay outta here or you’re going to jail!” I respond, “can’t you just say hello, and be a bit nicer? I have a pretty girl with me,” I say, rather sarcastically… “the last thing we would do is intrude on your watch… leave us alone!”

Bob snarls and mumbles and right before he disappears from our view, I shout with my ego inflamed, “you can’t out run either one of us, anyway… even if we do pop over!” What a buzz kill this guy is.

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Above: The scenes we are seeing filmed, on this night…

On the next night, the train station is dark. Quite a contrast from last night. But over at Boystown, the lights are strong enough to bounce off the moon and back. Gerald wants to go with me tonight and I oblige him.

We are determining if we can get past the web of security that George and Bob create and so, we take it all in from our Boystown fort. Set lighting equipment is lit up at the Transylvania station set as we arrive. We will watch this scene, from the colonial mansion, a couple hundred yards away.

This train depot, with steam and fog, created by special effects, is the center of attention at the moment. We see Marty Feldman, “Igor,” greet Gene Wilder, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he arrives. Everyone laughs as take after take is shot and reshot. The actors are having a tough time keeping a straight face, as everyone on set laughs at their difficulty…

Below: Sequence of photos showing Dr. Frankenstein arriving at Transylvania station

IMG_5794IMG_5793Introduction to Igor

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“My name is … Igor”

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“I am a rather brilliant sugeon and I can fix that hump,” says Dr Frankenstein.
“What Hump?” responds Igor…

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Above: Special effects creates interesting lighting. It’s an old trick that requires creating a “dead short” in an arc lamp. Special Effects and Set Lighting work together for this scene.

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A roll in the hay… who could resist Teri Garr?

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The whole scroll Above: All the scenes shot on this chilly evening…

Next evening… The actors are rehearsing at the cemetery below Boystown. Special efffects sets up a rain bar. A fire hose is attached to an aluminum manifold controlled by valves; that’s basically how this device works… It’s like a big sprinkler system. Rain can be controlled with this apparatus. A high pressure hose attaches to a water truck.

We overlook the set by climbing up to the top off my Boystown fort…

We are now in our familiar surroundings, yet my secret hiding place is now the center of the universe. Light comes through every crack, hole and slot… we are directly above a grave plot with a pile of dirt alongside it. A coffin sits between some grave stones and the rain bar sits above this gated cemetery and plot.

Gerald and I sit above all of this, like we are looking down from the stars above. Just watching as we wonder what scene is being set up next… We are in our sanctuary overlooking a haunted paradise.

As usual, I share this experience with two wise old owls. I love these two horned beings. I wish they could talk and tell me what all they have seen in this old backlot…

What we see is of course in color, yet this film we are told, will be in black and white. Just like the Boris Karloff original.

Igor and Dr. Frankenstein continue rehearsing a grave robbery. We sit 40 feet above this grave sequence, and after this coffin is exhumed, Dr. Frankenstein is disgusted with himself for stealing this cadaver. Igor then shows a bit of humility by saying, “it could be worse… it could be raining!”

On that queue, Effects creates a deluge on the cemetery. We take this all in, from above the rain, like the God Thor!

Lightning flashes, as wind blows on command… giant fan blades, like airplane propellors, which run on DC, silently churn the rain into powerful gusts of wind, to add intensity. We are so close, but we have to muffle our laughs as this hysterical scene takes place… in living color. Right before our astonished eyes…

This scene needed to be rehearsed to perfection… since the rain will immediately change a dry cemetery to an unworkable wet set. The scene needs to work as a dry-to-wet sequence

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Above and Below: These are all the scenes shot that night, right below my fort…

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It could be worse” Igor points out.. “It could be raining!

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So far we have not seen Frankenstein, but I’m sure this will change.

New Night… Gerald begs to be a part of it, again. I oblige.

More tents have been set up for tonight, as many extras will be needed in these shots. The tents are heated and full of donuts, fruit and coffee. Costumed villagers huddle inside. George and Bob could be on the other side, but the lure of a chocolate bar is stronger than our fear at this moment, so we pull the tent flaps back and enter. The food table is located on the opposite side of this entrance, so we pass by many extras, as they talk amongst themselves about parts and shows they just did, elsewhere… It looks like some sort of gyspy camp.

“They are dressed like Bavarian Boy Scouts,”  we joke… “They should have a Saint Bernard with ’em”…

We are overhearing one extra tell another about his appearance on a new TV show, Happy Days. He was just on that set yesterday and hopes he can be a regular on this new series… this is like a movie industry coffee shop and trade show, involving all available cattle… I was up for “this” part… I was up for “that” part… Quickly, we see how egotistical this part of the movie industry seems to be, and we’re just kids…

Our eyes scan each corner of the tent… many extras are sunken into their own lounge chairs, sleeping under newspapers, with their mouths half open… In one corner of the tent, there’s a card game going on… In another corner, they are standing around, anxiously, chain-smoking, as they wait their turn for the telephone… all making their nightly call to Central Casting, hoping to lock in a part for the next day. They all wonder where their next check will come from… We take it all in.

We leave with a hand picked selection of the best donuts. We also expect a long night.  We need to get into a rooftop position while things are getting setting up. Plus, Bronco Bob and MGM’s security version of the Monster, “Big George,” would have us in a pickle if they were to walk inside here right now…

The company will now shoot many scenes in this rebuilt village… until the sun rises and kids go to school.

Below: This is the set where Frankenstein will will be hunted down by villagers carrying torches with blood hounds. It is a hard set for us to approach, due to the fact that this is a very-small, quaint village.

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Above: This rooftop, over looking the center of town, will be our preferred spot to oversee everything the next few nights..We try to put together a feasible plan, but often, plan Bs must be implemented, due to unforseen events…

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Above: This scene was still being filmed as I left, around 11 p.m. Still …No Monster!

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Above: Frankenstein has arrived in my little village… He looks a lot like George Barner, MGM’s guard “on duty”… I peer down in amazement, as I see The Monster for the first time… I want to talk to him so bad! Peter Boyle is behind all this make-up and has a grey complexion.

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Below: We watched these scenes get rehearsed and reshot, take after take, from this rooftop spot… in living color! My plan worked to perfection.

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Below, the villagers unite to hunt down my favorite monster!

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Above: Villagers cross a bridge that spans the Tarzan lake. That concludes this production on MGM’s Backlot 2… it was the only exterior location used in this film…

Below: A call sheet…

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Above: Look Carefully at the call sheet… A “hump” for Igor! And look again, farther up… The two studio police requested on the insert are the ones that both hate me! (And the feeling is mutual!)

 

Next up, I meet Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. A special once in a lifetime, memory! The show… That’s Entertainment!

Don’t change that channel…

All stories written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by DQ

 

A Mel Brooks Film

I have spent the last three weeks observing, as these sets get fancied up. I have never seen the German Village look so debonair… all the bullet holes and craters have been patched or built over. A train station exists now next to Boystown, where horse stables are located. A sign greets you now… Transylvania station.

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Before Transylvania station was built on this site, stables and kennels existed. The stables are the doors behind the cage. Lassie Come Home with Liz Taylor is shown here… that show used two sets – now being used by Mel Brooks…   

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A cemetery set, has been put together, in all places, below my Boystown fort. As I watch these sets get final dressing, I envision how I will postion myself to view all the backlot scenes!… Like a stuntman familiarizing himself with his surroundings… before action is commanded.

This cemetery is especially enticing. I realize that the Boystown fort sits directly above these grave stones and plots. What an oppotunity! Hopefully, special effects or set lighting won’t need to be inside my fort. Special effects will have a rain scene directly above this cemetery, and just below my fort.

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A grave yard robbery will be filmed on this set, above… Below, the same exact area in the 1930’s

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Below, A gallows, complete with a hangman’s knotted rope, sits where the 1960 award winning movie, The Time Machine, once sat… A hanging will be happening soon 

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Below, a production still shot on the set of the Time Machine (1960). Mushroom cloud shelters have been replaced by a prison with a gallows pole…

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An actual Time Machine. Operated by… Yours Truly!

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The modern train station is also receiving an extreme make over. Fresh coats of green paint have been added to all the trains. Pennsylvania Central is stenciled on the side of these vintage Pullman passenger cars. We climb in right behind this set, usually… but if we get rerouted, so be it. I’m just happy to see this set made over so elegantly!

MGM security has a night set watch on these hot sets, but in the daytime, they are non- existant. It is crew only… besides me.

The countdown begins its final sprint, and all these sets are near ready. A circus sized film company arrives with all the usual stuff, star trailers, make up-wardrobe, craft service, a camera truck, stand by vans, and shuttles, etc.

They park in the open field between Boystown and German village, the most centralized and accessible spot to all locations being used. Tents sprout up like giant mushrooms, everywhere.

Two problems potentially exist for me. They always do…

One… Security is now present at all times.

Two… This film is nights only at MGM. Once again, school gets in the way of my life.

This means I can only stay until around midnight, which is when Catering serves second meal. But Friday, I’m good for an all-nighter. I already cleared it with my parents. They root for me. My mom offers her usual support, “Just be careful Donnie!”

The show has finished all its preparation. A Base Camp now exists. Set lighting does a pre-light prior to first unit arrivals. The lot looks magical as lights are positioned in certain windows. German village has transformed itself into Transylvania.

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Above: This same village in 1948… this picture is the making of The Three Musketeers… Set lighting is struggling over uneven cobblestone paving with arc lights that weigh more than they do… This same incline will have a coffin containing the Frankenstein body slip off a cart in one of the scenes that is to be shot here… The Constable will offer his hand in assistance…

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Lassie Come Home… A matte painting of a factory on a hill frames this iconic village as it appeared in 1943… Lassie was produced at the height of WW2. Ironically, WW2 did not hit this village until 1962 when Combat began a war that lasted 6 years with battles easily heard from my home… 

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Prelight begins… Arc lights are strategically placed. Smoke churns out from the vents on top of these 10 Killowatt set lights. Lamp operators stand atop ladders and continue to feed this monster its diet of carbon rods. These rods react to electrical voltage and generate a blinding illumination. New rods swiftly replace used rods. Lighting technicians open and shut these lamps like a revolving door.

These men use pliers while wearing thick gloves to exhume the used rods while feeding new ones inside the cowling. The result is light as bright as sunlight. This prelight will keep unwanted surprises to a bare minimum for this production company.

Below, over two decades earlier, is the arch that greets you as you pass into this village… Frankenstein will be seduced by a violin under this exact arch…

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Like the set lighting crew, I too have prepared as much as possible… going over different scenarios I may run into. I also dislike unwanted surprises… Mel Brooks and I share that common thread on this set.

Tommorow… 5 pm shooting call times… stay tuned!

All stories written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by DQ