Boystown becomes Girlstown

Written and lived by Maureen Miller…

An Aerial view of MGM Lot 2, showing backside of “Girlstown”

This is Girlstown, not Boystown…

I’m never invited into the lot when there is a group of boys. I want to go today. I can keep up. Donnie starts off by mentioning that there is nothing of interest going on today. But I insist. “Okay”, he agrees, “you can come along with us.” He explains I might be on my own for a while but it’s gonna help us out in the long run. I bring my transistor radio for company. It has a handy wrist strap that really isn’t handy at all. You can’t dangle it from your wrist and climb. I just shove the whole transistor down my tucked in shirt to climb in. Once on the other side, I start fishing it out and man, it’s really down there. I reach and twist and finally get it out. When I look up I notice that all eyes are fixed on me during that maneuver. That was awkward but luckily the group is small today.

At roll call we have Donnie, who acts cool around me when others are present, Danny, who is older and I don’t know very well, and Gerald, who I do know. Gerald has chased me around these neighborhood streets with bad intent for years. But we’re grown up now and it’s time to forgive him for the loogie he landed in my hair. Besides, none of that matters today. THIS IS WAR! I’m so excited to be a part of this troop, I have to resist the impulse to grin from ear to ear and instead maintain a strict game face.

Proudly, I join the huddle to hear the strategy of the day. Donnie plays no favoritism-we are a squad. He calls the play: “There is no “I” in trespass. We need to be a tight knit unit. Maureen, you will gather important Intel at Boystown if you can handle it.”

“Like a Sentry? Of course, I can! I’m ready!” He continues: “I’ll drop her off at Boystown and meet you guys on NY Street in about 5”.  I don’t say out loud what I’m thinking… I don’t need an escort! How humiliating.

As we arrive he barks more orders, I can tell he likes bossing me around. “What we need to know is how many times the Bronco comes around here during this part of the day and who’s driving.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep, if it’s too boring, you can come along another time…”

“No, I’ve got it!” I question whether he is truthful or just trying to ditch me, but I go along and take the task seriously.

“We need some information on a set being built over at New York Street, this could be dangerous, the smaller my posse the better”, he dictates. So much for my illusions of getting picked for active duty on the frontline… The boys are off to explore behind enemy lines while my job is to take notes on security. “White Rook, you’re in charge here. Here’s your share of the rations”, he says as he hands me a Tootsie Pop.

Radio on. I’m reminded not to play too loud. Yes sir! I know the drill. Great! Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown! They’re only on #35 Dancing Machine-The Jackson Five. Donnie says “you know Stairway to Heaven always wins.” “I know”, I say. “I’ll be back to get you when we’re done with our part.” “Sure thing” I answer and give a salute.

No sense in saving the sucker for later I think as I pop it in my mouth. So, what’s new around here since I’ve been here last… Someone drew hands and a face with a big nose looking over a wall “Kilroy was here” and a “Keep on Truckin” bumper sticker. Nice touches…

Mostly, it’s just gotten dirtier. Empty cans and bottles, wrappers on the floor. This place needs a woman’s touch. #29 Clean Up Woman-Betty Wright. I start by shaking out the old purple drape that’s been here forever. Then, I use it to sweep the dust off the floor and outta here! So much dust. I don’t want to cough or do anything too loud, I arrange the pop bottles around the place since they make for nice knick-knacks. I just brush the wrappers and shell casings to a designated corner. Anything left here is not really trash, it’s like a memory of someone before. Or maybe it’s just trash… But I’m not taking it out. I am here on an Intel Gathering Mission. I’m not the maid!

I hear tires! The noise I’ve been waiting for, I peer out the lookout hole to see if I can see anything. Bronco sighted. Who’s driving… looks like George Barner. #20 The Joker-Steve Miller Band. I duck down, I know he can’t see me through this peep hole but I’m not taking any chances. My heart is racing. I cover my mouth instinctively to not gasp out loud. He doesn’t stop, drives around. I can officially log this in as “once”. OK, heart rate coming down. Coast is clear.

#17 Spiders and Snakes-Jim Stafford. This reminds me, time to do a spider check. I secretly do this every time I come here, but today it is especially important. I hate spiders! I look in all the corners, nooks and crannies. Daddy long legs is okay. He’s like a long-term tenant. Creepy crawly, creepy crawly Boris the Spider I whisper to myself. I notice one very interesting cranny, something is stuffed in it. It looks like Comic Books. Yay! Something to do. They’re really crammed in there. I use the antenna on my radio to dig them out. Got em! What? Playboys? That figures… I am furious, but also curious… First, I notice that they cost around a dollar. You could buy two Mad magazines and two beef jerkys for that price. But I bet they acquired it from someone’s collection kept under their bed or something.

#15 Whatever Gets You Through the Night-John Lennon. I never knew there were jokes and articles and stuff. Hmm… featuring none other than Mamie Van Doren. How fitting. This is Girls Town after all. I remember her in that movie. “It’s not a prison, it’s a nun-run reform school for young women in trouble with the law.” Well, I don’t think even the nuns could straighten her out. She’s too curvy. I know how she made the “Most Wanted” list: big lips, big hips, big bazonkers! Mamma Mia Mamie! #12 Squeeze Box-The Who.

She passed her reform school sentence right here in this facility and heck, the way the guys ditched me I feel like I’ve been committed here too. I got a bum rap I tell ya! High School Confidential and Girls Town, it all happened here. Quite a legacy. I can hear Jerry Lee Lewis singing and banging on his piano “Boppin’ at the High School Hop!

As I soak it all in, I wonder if Mamie would be mad the boys deemed this place Boystown. I don’t think so. After all, they are keeping her spirit alive and well, although hidden in the rafters.

Let’s see, our next incarcerated cover girl is Barbi Benton. Tsk-tsk Barbi, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Yep, just me, Mamie and Barbi. We’re just thrill hungry girls who don’t want to know right from wrong.

There is an Interview with Howard Cosell in this issue. Well, if you must tell the wife why you bought a Playboy, Howard Cosell is your alibi. Anyway, if this is all boys think about, it confirms what I’ve thought all along. Boys are disgusting.

I’ve got to put this back exactly as it was. I’m fumbling miserably. I don’t want to get caught with this pirate booty! All the time practicing my best Sgt. Schultz impression “I see nothing! I see nothing!”

#9 Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me-Elton John. I love this song. I lay on the floor and put the radio right next to my ear so as not to make any detectable noise. I almost feel as though I could take a cat nap right here and now. I wonder why he wants to come and get me later. I certainly know my way home from here.  Well, orders are orders. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute…

I come out of my snooze state to the sound of someone coming up the stairs. I quickly wipe the drool from my mouth, shut off the radio and quietly move to hiding position. “Maureen are you still here?”

“Yes!” I hear Donnie and I’m trying my best to pull out of my stupor, I can’t let on that I was asleep on the job. I report “The Bronco came around twice about an hour apart.” (actually, I didn’t hear the Bronco a second time, but he may have come around while I was dozing off and twice sounds way more official)

“Huh? Oh, yeah, the Bronco… Uh, great job. This is useful information.”

Sure, it is, I think to myself… “Did you forget to come get me?”

“Absolutely not!” he looks outraged. “Hey, this place looks nice! Anyways, thanks again. Let’s get you home. It’s already dinner time.

“Oh, by the way who won the countdown?” “Stairway to Heaven” I say.

Written and lived by Maureen Miller…

Mayhem in Mayberry 1975

An impromptu get together at Desilu has just developed after a series of phone calls with my spiraling network of friends. I’ve captured the imagination of kids who are just realizing what fun trespassing on these backlots-IS!

My old private school pals are being integrated into a public, very few rules…lifestyle. My friends encompass several schools now, Culver Jr High and High School, Venice, Loyola, St Bernard’s, and St Augustine’s. I even have several in the U.S.M.C. I’m prepared for anything when need be, but mostly, I enjoy showing newbies around. I love this place, formerly called Desilu Studios.

The phone call I just received was from an old Catholic school boy named Tim. He and I have known each other for many years, and he is in SAG. In fact, he often can be seen on the TV series Happy Days. His SAG family is made up of bit players on several films. When I stop by his house around 5 pm, Tim’s entire house and family comes to life, with all the ambiance of a cheap hotel. Betty, Tim’s mother, is a hardened veteran of the Screen Actors Guild and multi tasks during her roll call segment on the family rotary phone. In one side her mouth is a Lucky cigarette, on the other is the phone handle, cradled to her shoulder as she plays out her poker hand in the family card game. I’m watching a pro… she reminds me quite a bit of Popeye the Sailor, with her scruffy voice. On the other end is the Central Casting Hotline, each family member takes their turn “begging” for work on any film or TV show in need of talent. If you’re lucky, Uncle Carl of Central Casting will stick you in a make-up tent before the sun’s even up.

5 pm is when Hollywood gets ready for 5 am. It’s a feeding time for the piranha as the sun sets in the west…Welcome to Showbiz.

Betty’s a winner, she manages to puff smoke as she repeats her call time “7 am, Starsky and Hutch, at Venice Beach Pier”, she can’t celebrate fast enough, her horse, ridden by Willie Shoemaker crosses the finish line in the eighth race at Hollywood Park, another victory, in a lifestyle where money changes hands quickly.

Due to lack of work, many SAG folk need to supplement their income, and sometimes, fine Columbian Gold and Black Primo Hashish take center stage. It’s like you get high, then wait by the phone, watch reruns on TV, and embellish your last walk by scene-on screen performance. It seems like this entire Guild gets high, and what better place to do so than these old Hollywood backlots. Tonight, a special shipment has arrived, Black Primo Hashish. Culver High School has opened up the vast expanse of experimentation into mind altering drugs, for many of us. So far in my public school journey, my education involves street smarts and pretty girls. I still dislike math but do enjoy my education no longer being delivered at the end of a 12-inch ruler. I even have a crush on my English teacher…

Tonight, several boys meet up, according to plan, at my fort in the Spanish Cantina. One kid is here on business, and inside his jacket pocket are a handful of aluminum foil wrapped grams. He lays them out like hors d’oeuvres, on top of a box that says Explosives. Don’t fret, it’s just a prop ammo box we use as a table inside our upstairs fort… it’s from Hogan’s Heroes.

It’s night time on the old backlot and that means it’s pitch dark back here. Our fort only requires us to exit the creek, climb a slope like Batman and Robin do in those cheesy scenes as they tug on a rope and talk to cameo stars who open their windows to honor the caped crusaders. It looks like that until we get to the top, which is the backlot property line. Run across a simple dirt road and cut through a stable full of hay and you’re inside a Cantina style courtyard. An exterior staircase takes you up into an occupiable space we have trimmed out with props we’ve found all around the lot. All forts are a work in progress, we add stuff all the time.

Up those stairs and inside the little room at top, is my Spanish Cantina fort…Through these arches-we appear!

Tonight, this is about the art of a deal, actually several. 7 grams, cut from a dark slab of a wonderful smelling oil-based import. Our ship has arrived! 7 grams for 7 brothers, sounds like a TV show. Yours to be had for a pricey-10 dollars a gram. We begin to take a test drive. A haze quickly envelopes our small, packed upper attic space. Each time the lighter ignites for the next drag-the smoke takes on different shapes. It’s how I imagine a Turkish Opium Den greets you.

Hashish, processed in some far off village that probably looked a lot like where we are sitting right now. We each pick a country of origin, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, or Afghanistan and laugh, since the maps we refer to are triangles for drug shipments. Well, all roads lead to Desilu, tonight anyways.

For most of us inside this fort tonight, this hash sample is our first Hookah party. I stand, because all the seats are taken, and since this is my fort, I am very hospitable. I’m entertaining, that’s what I’m good at. We are here to experience life, in a place that’s vacant and devoid of tribesmen and sheep herders. Like a revolution has cleansed our pitch-dark surroundings.

VROOM-SWISH…Our peace and tranquility have just been violated!

I’m the only one to see it. A police car just flew by, with his lights off. The black and white side panels stand out-even in the dark. Seconds later, an onslaught of vehicles speed by below us, kicking up dust that integrates with our thick clouds of hash smoke. As the second wave of law enforcement arrives, everyone’s attention has been captured. We all nervously observe as to calculate some escape. We quickly realize, this has nothing to do with us, Mayberry has trouble brewing!

Thin Lizzy moment…

Search lights scan rooftops and upper windows, moments later, a barrage of gunfire cuts loose…BAM, BAM, BAM, ZIP, ZING, POW, POW…HOLY SHIT!

Some really bad guy must be in here, and bad stuff’s happening all around Mayberry. We feel invincible, we realize it’s someone else being hunted, possibly killed, and we want to watch. Having recently experienced huge gun battles on this very street on the movie Capone, this isn’t our first powder keg rodeo. We advance from our fort to the Hogan’s Heroes bridge set. We reach our next observation point, and a hail of gunfire resumes after a small pause, the suspect must still be alive.

That’s great, because we are still trying to get close without being hit by friendly fire. Whoever this is, he must be on the rooftops, and is-very bad ass. What did this guy do to deserve all this attention? This is better than any old movie!

This is the view from the roof of the fort we are inside of. Hogan’s Heroes bridge is just off to the left side, surrounded by hills with dry vegetation.

Flashlights beaming in every direction are the only lights we see. We stay in a group rather than break ranks. We complete our crawl to the top of a hill full of dry grass and fox tails. This is as close as we can safely approach this tactical incident. We see in between buildings and around street corners that something is amiss. The police seem to be playing, there is a lack of intensity. They are pretending to be after people, it’s practice, and the backlot is a firing range. The Mayberry Hotel is not the place to be checked into tonight.

Above: Mayberry Hotel side door entrance…a suspect is in the doorway. This is not the place to be standing, take cover!

We lower our heads and think out loud, ” what if we had picked Mayberry instead of Mecca tonight, we could be dead!”

Well, now I’ve seen everything. At first, this was a buzz kill, but now it’s the buzz. We could look like ducks at the shooting gallery if we aren’t careful. Our line of heads could be targets, if spotted. The intensity levels off, both in Mayberry and in our minds. After an hour or so, peace restores itself in the quiet little town called Mayberry.

The police exit as they arrived, as a thundering herd and a cloud of dust. We retrace our steps and go back to our Turkish coffee shop set. We too, get back to business. As our special guest gets ready to do an exchange, of hashish- not guns, he realizes the contraband has fallen from his pockets. 7 little foil wrapped goodies are somewhere else on this lot. The night ends, a crescent moon is all that is left above us as we leave our Middle East consulate.

Our friend vows to return tomorrow to search in daylight for his stash. Well, let’s just say, we looked for him. The ground we crawled through last night was some rough terrain, we decide after a valiant salvage operation, to give up. We pay Mayberry a visit with our pockets empty, and to our amazement, shell casings are everywhere. We load those empty pockets with 38 and 45 caliber shells. Spent-red colored shot gun cartridges litter Mayberry’s gutters and sidewalks. We take a deep sniff of each shell as we load our pockets, it’s a smell you inhale and breath proudly, the smell of victory!

Good job officers…last night must have been one fun night to race your cars, shine your badge, fire your sidearms, and wear your Culver City cap proudly… in the Heart of Screenland.

The kids hiding behind you guys really had a good time too!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…

Ferry Across the Mersey, MGM Style-Chapter 78

‘Royal Wedding’…1951

Tucked away, almost secretly as only a movie studio can do, is a large passenger ship. Its glory days have long since sailed by. It sits docked in what must seem like an eternity for this old, unseaworthy relic. It may have seen as much history as The Queen Mary, it’s older-that’s for sure.

This ship is actually still waiting on its maiden voyage. Sure, you have seen this being boarded and unloaded in countless films. But unseaworthiness would be an understatement. It’s a false front. Different platforms can stick you in a porthole if need be, but the camera is really only interested in the dock, ramp, and deck. So, no fancy interiors exist inside nor did they ever. Priceless old graffiti greets you as you walk up the gang plank to board. Sir Johnny Mexico 1946 is scribbled on the interior wall.

We have played in this ship for years, as it is an extension of the Giant Toy Chest warehouse that doubles as a ship yard in its spare time. To board the ship from the front, you walk amongst space crafts in need of operators and bygone props.

Monsters, submarines, stage coaches and stuff that had nowhere else to go ends up here. Like some kid’s bedroom with those big oversized toys. The doors are airplane hangar size and can be pushed open or can be closed. These doors are more solid than the ship it conceals.

Gizmos and gadgets, parts of stuff that have been separated from their purpose, exist along port side. Like a movie set retirement home. But I get the feel the props that lay in wait here actually like each other. I imagine, often, they come to life when we leave. Yet-they stop dead when you look twice, making you think to yourself, “did I just see that move?”

Jimmy and I return to these same props all the time, but our adventures change. No two days are ever the same. This is close to the front gate and security always drives by here, but no one knows these props like us. We can escape by land, sea, or air…if need be.

Does the big rocket actually fly- only to return home with secrets? Do the rest of these props in the old warehouse want to chew on and enjoy the space ship’s discoveries, on his latest mission just completed? Did the submarine recover the capsule at sea? All the things needed for a mission are stored right in front of this ocean liner. Maybe a tea party is in order. Giant tea cups and a saucer, are parked along mission control row. Consoles that once lit up may reset their fuses in excitement. Each prop wanting to “outdo” the prop next to it…”Back in my day” type stuff!

Large coffee cups exist for large problems, I suppose. This huge hanger is the largest storage facility in the business. But it has been used to welcome and send off many a movie star.

The Mighty McGurk, 1947
Dean Stockwell arrives in America.

An A-list of MGM’s best performers set sail here. Gene Kelly in the Black Hand. Wallace Beery and Freddie Bartholomew in The Mighty McGurk, The Marx Brothers are some of my favorites. The Vets Tower stands proudly overlooking it’s lot, like a proud parent or big oversized spaceship that won’t fit inside.

Jimmy and I first discovered this place way back in 1972, we were extremely impressed.

Let’s Go There

It’s a Saturday, people rushing around doing stuff, simple stuff, each with their own secret care. But Jimmy and I are different. We work hard all week at school in anticipation of these weekend backlot excursions. In other words, we earn this privilege!

This is a play day! As soon as the Combat rerun of the day rolls it’s closing credit, we salute the TV and march with its wonderful theme song in our heads. How could you not be pumped up? Jumping the fence is like jumping back in time. We Time Travel almost daily. It’s 1972, again. The train tracks are a reminder of the reality of having to do things to prepare you for adulthood. But, as we touch down on the dirt that’s called MGM, these thoughts seldom if ever cross our mind. The last thing we think inside here is time going forward, or responsibilities, or expectations. We shed those clothes and put on uniforms from past armies. There is a whole room full of military jackets and helmets, Jimmy goes with clothing so old looking, it probably was in Ben-Hur…the first one. I choose WW2 today. I want to be a Sergeant, named Saunders. Luckily, they have my size.

It’s like we’re in some giant’s closet. We grab only what we need, just like we learned in the Twilight Zone episode with Ernest Truex. That way, the treasure chest will always be there for us. A towering three-story space ship is parked next to the door we exit from. I’m sure this same wardrobe room had spaceman outfits in it, since a bone yard of extra space parts sits around waiting to be reassembled…to something else.

As we board ship, we’re careful what boards we step on. If ever a ship needed life jackets, it’s this one. The interior is no ship at all, just a series of dilapidated platforms to stand on and to look out. Our ship sits in a concrete basin that can be filled with water which creates the appearance this ship can sail. It’s like some mirage, but one you can enter and exit. It’s as if magic built this place, and the magicians, wizards and sorcerers are still hiding here.

We feel welcomed…by what or who we’re not sure. Every prop wants to show off, but it requires an audience that (believes) in magic. Kids usually do, these two kids do, anyways.

This is the view from the upper deck of this ship, you are on board! I am looking through the big bull doors, props from decades ago, are on both sides of those doors. Tarzan’s jungle is off in the distance looking west.

Jimmy and I often look at each other, and one of us will turn and say “you gotta believe!” That’s a quote uttered on this lot by a little boy to Bolie Jackson, on our Brownstone street. That episode of the Twilight Zone forever will echo around this entire backlot. This place is loaded with magic, Ya just Gotta Believe!

This ship never needs to sail again, ‘cause this land’s the place I love, and it’s here I wish to stay...

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…

Boy in No Hurry- Chapter 76

Radio Changed Everything—

It was just over 60 years ago that the transistor radio appeared on earth and changed everything. You could listen to anything, anywhere. Throughout the years, many varieties of handheld radios appeared, like this one, which looks just like the one I had. I remember the day I bought it, from Grant’s Department Store. You could hide out in the school bathroom and listen to sports, or on the beach and listen to Casey Kasem’s Top 40. Heck, you can even get the armed forces, the weather and the police on this magical little box. Most of ’em took C batteries, which weren’t too heavy, so you could carry an extra set in your backpack. It was my personal ticket to the world.

TV Audio; The Best Wavelength of All—

Besides sports and music, this thing deploys one last, very handy wave length… it broadcasts TV audio. Since I’m the only kid with a TV radio on my street, everybody comes over to gather around the radio. And, my street connects to Mayberry! So, we feel like we’re right inside the set, even before we walk over. At Desilu, we can listen to Andy Griffith on all the movie sets, while listening to the actual audio. In other words, we listen to the audio from the very same programs that were filmed on these backlots, in exactly the same spots where the scenes took place.

Now I can kinda experience what we do at MGM, reliving these shows exactly where they were filmed. This backlot has power issues, so I quickly learn to calculate how many hours I’ll get from one set of batteries. Six will give me an entire day of audio selections. KLOS and KMET are separated by a very slight twist of the biggest knob. Turn that knob as far right as it will go and KWEST will filter in.

But somewhere in between the habitual turn of the wrist, if you stopped just short of the usual spot… and then joggle it ever so slightly where you begin to hear the hiss break up… you can hear familiar old voices reaching out from deep space. The whole procedure requires patience to maneuver the signal, slowly reciprocating back and forth. But with the antenna extended as far into the sky as it can reach, if it’s 1PM, you can pull in that famous opening whistle. Channel 11 gives you two afternoon episodes a day, followed by a Ben Hunter matinee. This is a good as TV gets!

I love to get lost on the backlots with just my devices, which include a handheld AM transistor and my instamatic camera. Both are pocket size and easy to run with.

My TV set would be sacrificed if I were being chased—and that is a distinct possibility at any time—so it has its limitations, plus it needs to be plugged in. But, this new king of the road works perfectly for boys on the run, so to speak. I can clutch it like a football and run and climb the fences with one arm (and two feet, of course). I “practice” this all the time.

Another Brick In The Wall—

Since I’m already doing so well in school, I see no reason to go. Public school is really easy. But I make sure I’m in class for important things. Teachers have realized already what the nuns at my old school would have told them… he’s different. But he does good on tests, somehow. I’m sure their conclusion is that he must cheat. But I don’t. I had a good education beat into me; my parents paid good money for it! I had no idea it would work to such an advantage when I walked past the prison-like brick wall and through the steel framed glass doors of this campus, with that half man-half horse Centaur staring down at me. The school logo looks like something that would chase me through the backlots.

My mom enables me with excuse after excuse, while saying “this must stop,” every time! She knows what I do and she is torn, since, she would love to sneak around the backlots, too. So she turns a blind eye and prepares yet another reason why I missed class today. I’m sure the note will have nothing to do with Andy Griffith reruns… only my mom understands me.

The afternoon begins

Andy’s House… I’m upstairs.
This Pow, Pow, Pow moment.

Pow, Pow, Pow! I hear Opie coming, and I’m upstairs in what was his bedroom, in the TV series. I recognize immediately what episode this is by the sad music. Opie is muttering “get up, you can fly.” It’s the Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod episode. Those were the names of the three baby birds that Opie rescues after he accidentally kills their mother with his slingshot.

He is filled with so much remorse that he takes care of them… until they get too big. And so he has to set them free.

Here I am, upstairs listening to dialogue that was recorded 13 years ago, while overlooking the same tree and the same yard in which this sad episode was filmed. I cry like a girl every time I watch it. I have friends, who shall remain nameless, who shoot birds on the backlot with their BB guns. I purposely click my gun, or even go as far as to shoot towards the little fella just to scare it away from my target happy friends. But I have to act like I was trying, since I play with older kids and mustn’t act like I have a heart.

I connect with this entire moment and feel Opie’s heartbreak, like it was my own. He has to deal with a devastating situation that he himself created. It’s as if it calls forth all the sadness that I’ve felt in so many situations in my life, where I have ruined something. Even though I haven’t even experienced those situations yet. Because… I’m just a kid, like Opie.

Maybe its because the lesson he learns while having to repair it, is universal and resonates with everyone who has ever caused harm without meaning to. That’s the magic of a show like Andy Griffith… such a meaningful message in one little story. The only difference is, in a sitcom, things get fixed in a half hour. Whereas, in life, sometimes you can fix stuff and sometimes you can’t. Damn, this show just started and I’m all worked up. I’ve seen this episode a million times, but never while sitting across from the actual tree, where the whole bird crisis went down.

Recovery is a success, Opie did it!

After Opie successfully rehabilitates these three little backlot flyers, he sends them upwards and onwards as the camera faces my upstairs bedroom and the tree in front of it. When Andy says “Don’t the trees seem full?” you cheer that final hallelujah moment.

The tree’s are full of music again

A Reflective Moment on the Porch—

Wow, what an ending, I think to myself. I really can feel the power of this episode. Birds are singing from this exact tree, years later. Living this episode from a reverse angle… that is to say, while trying to match decade-old audio to exact spots where these lines were rehearsed and delivered, is a really fun hobby.

Having this house to myself during the last three years, has provided the opportunity to relive several key moments, on the same front porch that was used in so many episodes, like these:

– I love when Buddy Ebsen teaches the young lad to play hooky and snag gum balls, while Aunt Bee serves him lemon aid. All this, while Andy patches the roof.

– Bill Bixby slowly wins over the small town hospitality, on this very front porch.

– Don Rickles paints this house once… or tried to, anyway.

– Opie gets a black eye while playing football out front here, by a girl, of all things.

I’m in no hurry for this episode to end… I’m just a boy living a dream!

What episode follows?… I hear a car pulling up on my radio audio, and Gomer is being asked for a repair at the filling station. I have this episode already figured out (It’s Man in a Hurry).

What’s my line is quickly solved. It’s very surreal to have these sets, in living color, all around me, while the ancient audio that goes along with it, plays on my radio. It makes it more real than watching it on TV.

The filling station , closed on Sunday’s
We only serve gas today…
Mayberry on a Sunday…

What is interesting is that I first watched this episode as a kid, Opie’s age, but now I’m older than the man in the intersection. You can’t hurry time, nor should you want to… just enjoy it.

Same intersection, pictures a decade apart
Just relax old fella, this is the life…

A little bit of Aunt Bee’s home cooking, some country guitar, and a good smoke will slow you down, so that you can appreciate what’s all around you. It’s like I own this house and all its memories. This porch is America’s porch. God gave me a tiny window to experience dreams in ways completely unique to me. I cherish these moments! It’s as real as it can get!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

The Snow Department-Chapter 77

MGM Lot 3

Same set, with and without snow.

Nothing is real here, but everything can seem real and anything you can imagine can be easily whipped up. The reason being, nothing gets thrown out. There are supplies and stored items for every occasion.

One of the most important of those items is not really an item, per se… it’s snow! Not only is it critical in establishing the look of winter, as well as the occasional cyclone, but also, sometimes, just a sprinkling is romantic. Just strategically tossing about little clumps of it, here and there, on a curb or on a sidewalk, can send a chill through your bones as the viewer. Funny thing is, the average temperature in Culver City is 72 degrees and it has never snowed once. That is, except on these iconic backlots.

We have several types of snow here. I say “we” because we… me and Jimmy on this occasion, have taken charge of this long, narrow wooden hallway that connects to the enormous Grand Central Station backside. We actually exit the lot often by jumping of its 10 foot roof.

Maureen’s bedroom window stares directly at this Train Station on lot 2. The only negative is that there is just one entrance door. So, if we are “challenged,” we may have to bury ourselves under the soft plastic snowflakes that are overflowing from box after box, as far as the eye can see. That said, the lighting inside here is on the dark side, making it easier to camouflage ourselves.

Leaving the door ajar improves our vision, but it also increases the likelihood of the guards becoming suspicious… Chances are, they’ll get curious and want to see why the door is open. We don’t need them sniffing around. So becoming a snowman may be the best hiding place of all.

What is interesting is all the different types of snowflakes that are kept here. We discover stacks of boxes filled with heavy ground snow on wooden shelves. We figure this is the tough type that can be laid out over streets and trampled on. And of course, it will never melt. High grade, heavy-duty stuff. Good to see it gets reused… dirt on the bottom indicates prior usage.

This place is a trip! We keep repeating to each other. The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin comes to life in this room…

This seems to be an area that got forgotten with time. The musty smell in this long, narrow shed, reveals the years tucked away in this storehouse, along with all the snow. The single row of dim incandescent lights is just enough to cast our creepy, long shadows on the opposite wall.

As we continue down this mysterious corridor, the whitest top snow gives itself away only when the light flickers above it, against the darkened pits of vastness that remain unexplored. It feels as if we’ve stepped into another world… one that teeters in some netherworld between opposites. Between shadow and light and between time and timelessness. The darkness leaves the space undefined. There’s no beginning and no end. We’re not even sure anymore where the exit is. It’s as if we’ve opened a door to the Twilight Zone.

Plaster molds of human forms that look like Greek Gods and Goddesses lay against the walls in the darkest corners, and in our altered frame of mind, piqued by the darkness, it seems they are just waiting to come alive again.

But, it is also like a meat locker. And the arctic temperature soon knocks me out of my dream-like musings. Nothing can melt inside here. After all, it has stood the 50 year test of time. When we first entered, there was barely a hint of what was inside. But after being in here long enough to go through the first stages of deep freeze, I suddenly become preoccupied with all logistics and exit whereabouts.

We click the old light switch and wait… Nothing. Then, a faint light, as if someone had lit a match. Slowly the darkness transforms itself into a golden glow, illuminating what is inside.

This shadowy light is a bit like a tempting tease, as if to say, “common in — I dare ya!”

We do, hesitantly.

We have to shut the door to feel safe, since the Bronco parks right at this door almost every day. It’s our prime get-into-MGM spot on the backlot, and security knows it, so they focus right here. Plus they like to visit with Maureen. I don’t think she ever really has worry about getting caught because most security guys dig her. But her neighbor, Big George, would cuff her in a heart beat.

He patrols in front of her apartment, just looking for slip ups by the kids who shout insults at him and Bronco Bob. He even drives by on his own time, just looking for a piece of us. Funny thing is, he would make a great abominable snowman… Hairy, huge, and devours everything.

Interesting couple of pictures here, it’s the exact same parking spot and both guards are taking a nap… years apart.

This is Maureen training the next generation of trespassers. Across the street is MGM Lot 2 and the parking spot these security guys sleep at. The snow room sits adjacent to all this action.

So, we leave the door of this annex ajar, allowing the breeze to meander inside, and as it creeps along the floor, it brings all the stray snowflakes to life.

Plastic flakes suddenly become airborne, swirling around with only the addition of the most gentle of breezes. Like those colorful flowers in Alice in Wonderland… timid and frightened at first, before springing to life with Alice’s gentle invitation. Before long, they are all telling stories and singing with the butterflies, encouraged by her curiosity. Similarly, the snowflakes in this room, having suddenly awakened from their fifty year slumber, have leapt out of the boxes with glee, and are suddenly dancing and swirling around, as if someone had secretly goaded them on.

It’s as if it was pre-rigged to activate when the door opens. The snow effect needed on the set is actually taking place inside this annex. Each new puff of air stirs up the flurry of different sized flakes. There are white sparkles darting through the air all around us, like shooting stars. And as the breeze works its way further down the corridor, new containers liberate even more snowflakes. Yes, we have fallen into some sort of rabbit hole, where snowflakes have come to life and are amusing themselves in celebration. Before long, we can barely see from one end of this building to the other, due to the sudden turn of weather… INSIDE!

We need to fully shut the door in order to feel safe from MGM security, which means we could get locked inside. They park just outside; it is the only way in and out of here.

This igloo is sitting at the base of The Great Wall of China set, as I called it. Snow must have surrounded it. It is a snow ball’s throw from the snow room. Inside this igloo is decades worth of cob webs… even little kids don’t want to play inside it. It is just plaster and wood that’s held up to eternity, which basically describes the entire backlot.

This oldest part of this backlot stands with this set looking out the front door of the snow room.

Just across from my snow room is this iconic set loaded with weapons in this picture. I have wandered home from this lot with spears before—made of wood, and including the spearhead itself, painted in tribal colors. Ready for action. I picked up a couple on the show Phantom of the Backlot; they were outside the home that the Phantom hid under – in the show. The real Phantom grabbed the spears from someone playing a Phantom on TV… The show would change its name to the Phantom of Hollywood right before airing.

Desilu has a snow set, Stalag 13. Plaster slabs lay out beyond the camp, never melting or even being touched, for the entire length of that TV series.

We have stumbled into another closet capturing a certain moment in time when effects artists such as my hero, Arnold Gillespie, ruled the weather and everything needed to take place within it. You name it, it can be created here.

Powerful blizzards, no problem… just bring in the giant Ritter Fans and set the D.C. power on full throttle. 20 boxes of flakes, some plaster for the ground, some loose powder for density and a big fan to swooosh it all around, and you’re good to go. Jimmy and I will have to settle for gentle breezes to create our effects, but we know we are playing where big boys once played… in the snow.

Shoot, security just woke up! Let’s get out of here! For now, anyway!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

Mayberry Town Drunks- Chapter 75

I have decided that I really want to spend the night in Desilu. There are already three hammocks tied to a cluster of pepper trees over on the grassy hill. The Sullivan Brothers put them up and it is fine work. Leave it to the Brit kids. This is the same hill that enveloped me last summer, when a film crew had to save me (The Fortune).

I have also decided that Pat would be the best buddy for this particular exploit, since he’s totally dependable when unexpected snags arise. So I invite him over to my house for a sales pitch. It shouldn’t be difficult to sway him, especially if he is greeted with a bamboo bong packed solid with Colombian Gold.

Just for kicks, right before he arrives, I empty out some gunpowder from one of the shells that I collected from Combat, and then pour it into the bong. The black powder looks like pepper, so I cover it with the gold leaf. Now, I just wait for Pat to light up. I make sure I don’t give myself away by laughing, and force myself to keep an extra casual attitude. We sit alongside each other and he probably wonders why I am being so polite when I offer him the first hit…


Hmm… not good. the flash was bigger than I expected. Damm gunpowder. It’s an instantaneous blast, but the smoldering facial hair from his billy goat beard makes quite a picture. After a pause, Pat gets up swinging at me, but he misses wildly because… he can’t see.

I feel sort of bad, yet I laugh uncontrollably… I guess I used a little bit too much dynamite!

If anyone is tough enough to deal with this mishap, it’s Pat. This is the kid that would blow up an old car several years later. Everyone chalked it off to the old Irish temper, but being a fellow Catholic school survivor, I have a different theory. You see, Catholic School and its strict mode of control has the effect of making you want to prove yourself to be uncontrollable. So, you rebel and do things that a “good Catholic boy” isn’t supposed to do. And all of us that have gone through it have an understanding. We talk tough to each other, but that’s because we’re like brothers. If anyone else messed with him the way I do, I’d be all over ’em, and fast. And I know he’d do the same for me.

After his wispy little beard stops emitting smoke, Pat agrees that this will be a great adventure. He finds a body for the third hammock—his pal Kerry from Venice High. Kerry is a master of many cool things: karate, surfing, dirt bikes, and bonging… this will be one fun Friday night!

The Adventure Begins—

We lower ourselves to ask adults to buy us some alcohol at the 7/11 on my corner. We find it’s actually easier to buy drugs, but finally we find our pigeon in the form of a dark haired man with an accent, who looks like he’s auditioning to play Erik Estrada after a month long eating binge and no shaving. Moments later, out comes a brown bag with a gallon of Gallo Fine Wine safely tucked inside. “Gracias Amigo, you keep the dinero,” we say to our foreign friend as he gets back into his battered Datsun. We mount back up on our bicycles for that long ride across town to Desilu.

Kerry and Pat have top notch bicycles since they race at Palms Park every Thursday night. They carry crescent wrenches; that’s how into bikes these two are. They talk spokes, cranksets and cable tension, like it’s everyday conversation. These guys make repairs while pedaling. I’ve never seen anything like it!

For them, bicycling is big time, like Ford vs Ferrari… their motto is if it moves, we can make it move faster!

Well, I carry a brush. That’s because I’m into my hair. I can brush, pedal, and carry a bottle of wine, all at once, while cruising low-rider style at the back of the line. Helps me scout better… I have an overview of everything. Plus, you miss things if you race right through it too quickly without taking it in and assessing the surroundings properly.

As we arrive, it is already starting to get dark. We don’t expect to run into any security since there are no active jobs going on at the moment. We do expect trespassers though, since word has spread through school and now this has turned into a teenage stoner camp.

When in Rome

Well, so, we might as well smoke, too. It’s not like we’re out to raise the bar or set an example, or anything! But at least we’re non-violent. Unless provoked. We leave our bikes hidden behind a barn that is within our view, but once the sun sets, it will be pitch black… just as if there were a power outage.

Up to the hammocks we go, as we sink deeper into the overgrown grass, with each step. We bulldoze our way up to the summit—the same one that used to look down on Stalag 13. Now this is an empty field again, ever since the sets were removed from the movie The Fortune. It now looks just like it did after The Burning of Atlanta… it’s all Gone With the Wind.

We toss ourselves into these wobbly strips of canvas as a test flight into what will be our sleeping quarters tonight. We quickly discover that these are a bit tricky to get comfortable in. If you dive into it too fast, you’ll flip right out of it, but they’re pretty easy to get the hang of. One thing we didn’t count on though, was temperature control. It’s getting a bit cold out here, but wearing down jackets helps a lot. Alcohol will definitely help, too.

Wine is an odd choice for us. We usually go for Bacardi 152. Or Colt 45 Malt Liquor, since they did a commercial on this lot with Redd Foxx, at the main intersection next to the Mayberry Hotel…plus the Bull escaped the lot here once in another commercial and terrorized people that live beyond the studio fences. So, we drink that here once in awhile, just for the sake of commemoration. But, Estrada must’ve felt that Gallo was a fine selection for us boys tonight.

We no longer have a phone to call off lot; the studio repossessed our VIP line and boarded up our personal fort in the saloon. We’re just regular peasants now, around here. So we can’t order pizza from Chris’s, unless we can access the guard shack. Or at least the phone, since it sits temptingly on the desk, right on the other side of of tiny glass window pane. We would only have to break that one little pane of glass, but no one has Chris’s number anyway… So, we pass on this plan, for now, anyway.

Drunken Irish

That’s how the drinking starts, with deep thoughts like that. Pat has a Panasonic cassette deck with brand new batteries and some Pink Floyd music, while Kerry unpacks a huge bamboo bong. This thing must be nearly a foot and a half long and all custom built and waxed inside. Kerry also builds surfboards.

We have come prepared… for what… we’re not sure. And we’re off to a rip roaring start. We fill the Bong and I hand it to Pat all loaded up. Recalling what happened earlier, he catches himself and says “You Light It.” So I do. I also spit out “You big Irish Chicken,” as I exhale out a cloud as big as a volcano plume.

The drunker we get, the more stuff will come out I’m sure. It’s time to get personal. I once heard a Russian proverb that says when you’re drunk, you either hug more or fight more. We’ll see what happens out on this cold and empty field tonight.

“So… how’s that all boy Catholic school working out for you, you little chicken Leprechuan?” I manage to form a question in between tokes. I guess this is the adolescent boy’s equivalent of hugging. Pat comes from a family of tough Irish stock… they drink hard and play harder. I continue… “My school has pretty girls, and an even hotter teacher-lady… how about yours?” Still unable to get a rise out of him, I keep poking, “Don’t tell me you have priest teachers still!”… as I seize up in laughter and polluted lungs. I laugh and cough simultaneously, multi tasking.

Kerry throws in a jab while I roll around in the tall grass.” If you would stand up to your parents, you wouldn’t be at that Loyola Penitentiary School.” Pat is silent as he slugs down this reservoir of high end spirits. Kerry and I are enjoying the wisecracks. It’s teenage bonding.

Kick a a boy when he’s down… hey the nuns do it, why can’t we?

I continue the adolescent raillery, “How did you end up at an even worse school than when we were at St Augustine’s? Your parents must hate you!” I look for a crack in his stoic guise. He refuses to make eye contact… he just stares at the tops of trees. Must be all that strict Catholic training. Just accept whatever’s dished out. Especially at this new place he’s at.

I can’t help picturing his facial hairs smoldering earlier this evening, and I see he could use a barber, or at least a razor and scissors.

I try to hide the fact that I’m starting to shiver, even with all the alcohol in our blood. Soon, we all slip our hands deep into our down jacket pockets and slide into our hammocks. We stare up at the crescent moon that shines over the backlot above us.

“It could be worse, I guess, Pat,” I say from a horizontal position, as my head spins and my stomach turns. “You could’ve burned to death in the film vaults… God just wants to punish you, not kill you.” As I turn the opposite way to help digest the excess drinking and partying. I don’t know if that Gallo stuff agrees with me.

Let’s do a middle of the night Mayberry after Midnight tour after a little shut eye… We all agree. Then everything fades to black…

00.00 Hours… and counting.

Morning Has Broken and… Gallo NOT so Fine—

One by one we wake up, or the cold air pulls us out of our drunken dreams. Kerry is the only one who wore a watch… we all mumble and grunt as we jump out of these hammocks like three popsicles. “What time you got?”

“25 or 6 to 4” he says, as he fills up the bong.

We gather like moths to the heat from the lighter. We each pass the peace pipe and are ready to take the latest tour on record, or perhaps it’s the earliest.

But, I for one, feel AWFUL! The wine has terrible after effects! I believe this is what adults call a “Hangover.”

I have a word for it: sick-as-hell! And yet, here we are smoking again. But pot never makes me feel this way! Neither does cocaine, or LSD or mushrooms… just Gallo. And wine is legal, go figure. I swear this vice off before it can ever begin…. Never Again! Next time I’ll stick to drugs, á la carte.

We stumble our way down from this grassy knoll. Every step feels like a huge effort… like I have two bricks for feet. And even talking takes work. As I speak, every word is an exertion… it’s like trying to start up an old car that you have to keep cranking just to get a sign of life. And then it blows a bunch of exhaust at every start. That’s what I feel like.

And it keeps getting better. I can feel it coming back around again. Here we go… Just as we arrive to Mayberry, I puke. At first, I try to excuse myself and run to an alleyway. Then I don’t bother anymore. I’m defeated. It just keeps coming up, again and again. I puke at almost every famous set still standing. Mayberry Courthouse, puke. I fought the law

Mayberry Hotel, puke. That one was from five stories up… getting fancy! Right over the side like a hook shot! I’m so miserable, I don’t even care if I fall at this moment. Put an end to my misery! Chances are, I’d probably live… just to endure this torture a bit longer!

Watch out… don’t look up, it could get messy!

I’d call a doctor but our phone was disconnected. My mom thinks I’m at Pat’s house.

Church pews exist inside… many would end up as benches in other buildings

Laying down inside the Mayberry church on a pew only exasperates my distress, as I pray to Frank Sinatra for help. Sadly, wine and church go together, so I leave and cross the street as I go up to Andy Griffith’s house… we walk with distance between us since I’m not the only town drunk that’s sick around here.

One last purge, upstairs in Opie’s room (when they film exteriors, anyway). Aunt Bee will have to clean that one up.

Low and behold, it’s 4 am and here comes a set of headlights on a white truck that we know is security. This place never gets guarded lately, but it’s 4 am so I guess it’s to be expected, since this is hardly prime time for trespassers—that would be after school, or dinner, or both. The low idle of a truck goes by in one direction, then it does a U-turn and repeats this action in the opposite direction.

4 am is for Teamsters, drug addicts, and town drunks. I checked for Otis when I was inside barfing at Andy’s courthouse. He wasn’t tucked inside. Maybe security is looking for the Town Drunk…

Well, tonight they will need both cells for all the town drunks that showed up at Mayberry… after Midnight!

Good night everybody… After I wake up from this adventure that went a bit… sideways, I hope Aunt Bee has breakfast waiting for us!

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

Tarzan Lake Row Boat Adventure-Chapter 74

Today, as we scavenger around the backlot, Jimmy and I decide to get away from city life and soon find ourselves at the water’s edge of Tarzan’s Lake, looking at craw fish and bull frogs. The top of New York Street towers above the trees in the adjacent forest. The shadow cast on us by Boystown grows longer as we while away the hours. A cross atop the steeple on Combat street is also visible in the distance.

One of the dirt roads splits down the middle of the jungle, while another one circles around in front of the lake. Hiding places are abundant, and if we happen to get chased, crossing the little foot bridge would create havoc for any guard. He would then be forced to exit the Bronco and chase us by foot.

Good luck with that!

It’s pretty hard to get caught here, unless you’re in a boat. You’ve probably heard the saying: up the creek without a paddle… well it applies to me today…

The Story begins

Jimmy got a hankering to go out on the little row boat that has a leak in it, so this afternoon, we are checking out what would be needed in order to sail it. First, we realize we have no paddles, then we see that it’s already half full of water.

So we pull it ashore and empty it out. That solves that. Next, we attach a rope to the front of the craft. Rope exists everywhere on studio backlots. Many appear to be a hundred years old, but any will do. These are not rapids, just a tranquil pond full of fish… many of which are bright orange.

Ducks quack around us, no longer afraid, as they were when we first did this years ago, back when this boat had no issues. Sometimes this setting is what you need… not the bright lights of the famous cities from around the world that surround us.

Jimmy jumps in first. My job is to pull him around the pond. I do so, while running, to increase excitement. I pull him as fast as I can, then when I let go of the rope, he has to duck his upper torso to avoid hitting himself on the footbridge overhead. He wasn’t expecting that, and the row boat hits a post that holds the bridge up. He nearly falls out, like I was hoping he would!

Next, it’s my turn to ride and his turn to be the motor. Life is good… until we hear the roar of the Bronco. Security hasn’t seen us yet, but we hear it and we can tell it is close, so, old pal Jimmy drops the rope leaving me stuck without a paddle.

The Bronco must have seen Jimmy run, and it is approaching in MY direction. I lie down as much as is possible in the boat, but I carefully lift my head to see if I can spot him. Through squinted eyes, I catch a glimpse of the larger-than-life silhouette that fills up half the windshield. A glimpse is all that is needed. It is Ron Smith, the Paul Bunyan of guards. He is 6′ 9″ tall and that doesn’t count his cap. He is big, his gun is big, his hat is big.

Damned if he doesn’t sit there taunting me and tormenting me in my predicament, on purpose. He has positioned the Bronco to face me and my little boat. He sits point blank watching me, probably laughing to himself, knowing full well my quandary. I just sit there, in my slowly sinking boat, staring back. What else can I do?

It feels like an eternity has passed, but in reality, it has probably only been a minute or two. As he approaches, I think to myself, I may be able to talk my way out of this… After all, Ron is the only guard besides Mario to ever give me a tour. But then again, I waffle… he has given me some of my scariest chases. So, which Ron is now pulling me to shore, friend or foe?

As my boat gently glides up and out of the water to dock, I say “Hi,” like I’ve just come home from school or something. He asks, “where did your friend go?” I guess we’re skipping formalities, so I respond, “not sure, but let’s go find him, he ran toward Boystown.” Ron falls for my offer to assist him, but I’m actually buying time to escape.

A Good Scout—

Yet, Ron is so nice that I no longer feel threatened. Now, I truly want to catch Jimmy. I’m on a mission with a security guard, no less. Like a helpful scout, I offer beneficial info, “I bet he’s hiding in Boystown,” follow me! I am not going to show him the fort I have built, and I have already calculated that Ron is way too big to get around some of the secret passages.

I was “kidding” when I said he was in here, but… onward and upward!

Boystown…home of the best fort ever!

We walk together, Ron behind me, the entire time, as we zigzag through a ridiculous number of passage ways in our mock search for Jimmy. I was thinking he must be home by now watching Hogan’s Heroes with a big sandwich, but to my surprise, I peer into a soffit and he’s in it!… I actually found him!

But, I don’t give him away. We might tease each other while playing with boats, but in these situations, friendship rules. I stay as cool as a cucumber and without missing a beat, I act like I see nothing. But Ron decides to look up at what I just saw. At that moment I think, Jimmy’s had it. But Ron looks and appears satisfied… I’m amazed. Within a microsecond, Jimmy has repositioned himself and it was good enough for Ron to miss him. I am so shocked, that I need to look again. He is not visible, that was a slick as it gets… like a Twilight Zone. Now you see him, now you don’t.

Ron and I leave the building and he gives me a ride over to the train station. As I turn to jump out of the Bronco, he calls out to me, “See ya… next time, you might not be so lucky!”

I climb out through the studio across from Maureen’s apartment and nod a nice good bye, as I jump down off the fence and run back to the big city. Jimmy should be following me shortly and I can’t wait to relive all of this with him… what the heck just happened?

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

MGM… A Kid’s Toy Chest Chapter 73

One Man’s Trash—

I’ve been told I have an “active imagination.” Like that’s a bad thing. I tend to tune out the “real world” with all of its stress and pressures, in order to spend every waking moment on some back lot, somewhere. I always defend my so-called fantasy life… what’s “fake” to you is “real” to me! Because the stuff you see on TV does exist; it’s not fake! I see it, I smell it, and if I can climb all over it, I DO!

And all the old things stored inside these back lots are like some cool kid’s garage. Some people might call it junk, but you know what they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I’d say this is especially true for a kid, and this kid has access to every toy… past, present, or future. No size is too big. And many items are custom built just for one scene, making them special rarities.

Paul McCartney lyrics: Junk

Handle bars
Bicycles for two
Broken hearted jubilee
Parachutes, army boots
Sleeping bags for two
Sentimental jamboree
Buy buy says the sign in the shop window
Why why says the junk in the yard
Candlesticks, building bricks
Something old and new
Memories for you and me

Those rarities will have their one big moment in the sun. Like those mayflies that live only for one day… they appear in the world to do their business and then, just like that, Poof!… it’s over. Once these oversized gizmos and special props have served their purpose, they are retired and forever laid to rest. The hands of time and dejection begin to turn them into forgotten relics. It was the Toy Story before the story was told. Gizmos and gadgets that once had a part to play… now left in a warehouse to collect dust. Because… in Hollywoodland, You’re only as good as your last role.

These items just want a good home. Although MGM provides them with shelter, the buildings on this lot are jam packed and they hardly know what they have. But, since it might get reused one day, they keep it. That was old school studio mentality, when MGM ruled the screen. This world will never topple.

Well, at least they are captured on film for eternity. To me… finding them is like accidentally stumbling into the world’s largest toy store. Their keep it mentality created a haven of things to play with. It didn’t take long to see that MGM has a much better toy chest than I do. I have wandered into a warehouse filled with riches that I cannot believe. I am a pirate who has found beaches lined with gold. It is a bounty. I am Woody Allen in Sleeper, with those huge vegetables.

While I have Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars, and army guns; MGM has fuselages and rocket ships and stagecoaches and submarines! And they are all REAL!

But, no one uses them. It’s like the kid who once lived here grew up and moved away. This stuff is one garage sale away from ending up God knows where. And, knowing the eventual fate of MGM, I tell myself I am doing these nostalgic items a favor… a turn of good service, by giving them a forever home where they will be appreciated.

Yes, on this day, I officially scale up my findings. When I woke up this morning, I had no idea that I would unearth the airplane whose cockpit has been used in two Twilight Zone episodes—one with William Shatner, and one with John Carradine. I will recognize it immediately and I won’t be able to believe my eyes.

First Discovery—

I see a three-story rocket ship in the corner of this giant warehouse. It towers to the ceiling and it even has its capsule beside it. It is dusty as heck, but my first thought is… I have to have that! I begin to imagine that rocket ship in my own backyard… Still reeling from the 1969 space mission, I decide then and there that we will name it GEMINI and fly to space ourselves. Or… we can listen to music and read magazines up there. We can haul our record albums up and play them on our excellent sound system that we will have installed!

It Gets Even Better—

I continue on to what is unmistakably a hangar… or, what is to my eyes, a humongous “toy chest,” which happens to be locked. But, I’m good at picking locks.

In no time, I’m in… I waste no time and go straight for the cockpit.

There are so many knobs and levers it’s astonishing to see what pilots must deal with. These are real planes, cut into sections. A fuselage from a Jumbo jet used in Sky Jacked, has an upstairs/downstairs and this plane is a teen age party spot. Comfy chairs recline, food table carts sit waiting for a pretty face to push them. Since there is a lock on the hangar door, security takes for granted this building is secure. I take for granted they will never come in here, so I let my hair down, literally!

This cockpit is the one in the Twilight Zone. It is in the process of being moved as it awaits its fate up by the main gate. The airplane room – its home for decades, has just been disassembled.

I have had many an Odyssey in this cock pit, maybe even better then Flight 33’s crew.

The cockpit that took us all back in time… to a prehistoric world.

Anything goes in here. What goes on in the airplane room stays in the airplane room.

Signs, Signs… Everywhere a Sign—

The next cool department in this Super Store of toys is behind New York Street, in a covered two story, steel structure that can easily double for any Bowery warehouse. Inside are signs you all have seen; every TV show and film on this property have used them. I estimate there are 500 large flashing neon Broadway signs stored in here. Unlike the other oversized treasures, these get used all the time, or they used to, in MGM’s heyday. Now, like everything else, it just collects dust.

If you look real close at the neon signs that flash on your favorite Twilight Zone episodes that were filmed on New York street, you will see them again and again, on all the different building fronts. Like a deck of cards being reshuffled. But this card game went on for decades. I would think this is all very valuable and should be saved, rather than destroyed, but what do I know… I’m just a kid.

Movie Magic—

I can see how this environment would bring out your artistic side. It’s fake, yet real. Like a huge puzzle with all the pieces spread out around the kitchen table… waiting for their turn to get placed. Only this table is the whole “fake” neighborhood. It’s a magical puzzle that is 3D. Once you place the pieces in their designated spots, they come to life. They blink and flash. And they have buttons and moving parts. The artists, or set designers just need to decide… what corner? what store? which building front? It’s a game of mix and match… Which item goes best where, for which shot? Every job here looks so fun. This is a big kid’s toy chest. The back lot is the board and the pieces just move around like one big family. I could hide in here all day…

Does your street need lights? We got those! Maybe you need snow? No problem. Heck lady, we can even throw ya a parade! Set props from every era and every walk of life… oil lamps to electric lighting… horse and buggy to hot rods… Night can become day and day can become night. We can turn the middle of July into Christmas. We can wave a wand and turn this place into Paris, complete with mustached men playing accordions with scarves hanging around their necks. Never mind the big blue tarps covering up the Culver City ordinariness behind you… it’s not in frame!

Nothing is real or what it seems, this place is run by Wizards.

More Stuff—

Another drawer in this giant toy chest is the helmet room, located by an ocean liner. (Not a real ocean liner, of course.) There are helmets from Combat, army jackets, and a mountain of ammo clips that snap into place, allowing eight rounds to be fired. The guns are not here though, and it appears that this room has already been picked over.

A clothes hanger that says “Ben-Hur’s head gear” stands forsaken in a closet, missing its iconic helmet, like a couple who have become separated after a long marriage. Soylent Green used this room as a make shift wardrobe in 1972. But the biggest garage in the world is the odds and ends storage facility. Nothing too large for this building. Space ships park alongside Pirate ships, and a conning tower from Ice station Zebra peeks over the top with its periscope. Scattered pieces from some by-gone laboratory look like an unfinished science project.

Hidden amazingly in a corner is a headless monster. I would later see this creature on the movie, The Brothers Grimm. And a submarine… My overactive imagination takes off again… that would make a good secret hang out spot for smoking doobies and making out with girls.

My pal Stanley, makes the perfect head replacement from this oversized prop used in The Brothers Grimm.

Sometimes it takes years to complete a puzzle, but inevitably, I end up seeing all the shows this stuff was used in. Is the puzzle complete?

MGM, thanks for making me the best toy chest any kid could ever dream of...

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

Maple Street Chapter 72

Maple Street 1975

Once upon a time there was a street called Maple Street. At least… that’s what it was to us. You see, this street has had many names through the years. It existed long before The Twilight Zone, that’s for sure, and was once called New England Street for Minelli’s Some Came Running. But as I said, for me and my pals, this was Maple Street. When we first snuck through this set, we immediately recognized this location from several episodes of Rod Serling’s classic tales.

Stopover in a Quiet Town, The Shelter, Black Leather Jackets and Maple Street all used this street, located on the MGM backlot, extensively. We first explored this house, while running and sneaking house to house, like soldiers. What else could we be?… Combat Village is right next door.

This Saturday afternoon, according to my TV guide, KTTV will be showing a rerun of one on Maple Street, this afternoon at 12:00 pm.

All my friends and I enjoy a special TV land perk, being that we live just beyond the fence of so many of these sets. We watch stuff and then two minutes later we can be there. Out of the blue, Pat and I have a thought. Let’s grab my TV! It’s light and compact and easy to carry! All we’ll need besides, is an extension cord and a pair of pliers to change the channel (since the knob broke off).

It’s been decided. We will have a picnic in one of the houses that stands on this street, and watch this episode exactly where it was filmed. Like some black and white time machine. We purge my mother’s cupboards of goodies, and I find a treasure in the form of a box of Van de Kamp’s crumb donuts, immediately recognizable with the little blue windmill in the corner. I now realize she hides stuff from me. I’m taking the whole box. She’ll forget about ’em, I reason. We make bologna sandwiches, grab a couple bananas, and pack it all up carefully into this Rat Patrol lunch pail…

We are off to Maple Street, looking like the Beverly Hillbillies. We take turns carrying the TV since it is a bit bulky, but not heavy. We trade off: TV for lunchbox and extension cord, as we walk down the railroad tracks that lay just beyond the metal fence behind this iconic street.

This lunchbox and I have been through a lot together… it went to school with me every day when I was at St. Augustine’s Catholic School. When I would walk past the main gate, I would often see these exact vehicles parked up front, the same ones on my lunch pail. I would press it against the chain link fence at the main gate so it could see how it has its own hit TV series.

At lunchtime, I would open it up and be happily surprised by whatever menu my mom provided. As I sat in the schoolyard my imagination ran wild wanting to be on these sets instead of school… I kid that I am living out the images on my lunchbox!

We have arrived. With no traditional entry point behind this street, we climb in at the train station and then contort ourselves, willing ourselves to become invisible, as we move hunchbacked, along the inside of the fence line… with a TV in tow. This is a critical moment. It’s where anything can and often does happen. It’s an open space and we could easily be seen. It would be especially awkward to have to run from the Bronco with our arms stretched around a big plastic box with rabbit ears bobbing about all over the place. We keep our focus on finding cover… on Maple Street.

We arrive safely. We set down our supplies and now we must find a house with an electrical panel. Not every set has them. Andy Hardy’s house does. We set ourselves up on the second floor and slip the cord through the floor to a 120 volt plug below.

Now, our reconnaissance can shift its focus to figuring out if and where security is located. Not that we care… it’s just good practice to take roll call. Exiting will be simple; we can climb over a fence 20 yards away. The way these fences are built, you can exit anywhere. And we’re experts.

While we look out from the upstairs windows, we try to pull in a signal with these partially damaged rabbit ears. We twist and turn and quickly get a solid picture. Don Cornelius and the music show, Soul Train, dials us in, and Combat follows. We just climbed in at a train station I laugh, as I tell Pat “they should film that here too, we can make you a Soul Train”… But this moment is all about Maple Street, so we turn to channel 5.

–As we watch the iconic opening credits, Rod speaks… You unlock this door with the key of imagination… while clocks and doors and E=mc2 go floating across the screen, then suddenly disappear, like an invitation to play hide and seek… making you feel like you want to go chasing after these mysterious symbols into an enchanting land of magic… You just crossed over into… The Twilight Zone.

And then the camera pans down to the street. Two seconds into the episode and we already see the very building we’re hiding in! We become part of a land of shadows and ideas, as we open up my Rat Patrol lunch pail to enjoy a Maple Street picnic.

We only wish we had a pause button to slow everything down, so that we can take it all in and better examine our surroundings. We do the best we can to quickly compare the things we see around us to what the camera allows us to see, on screen. We see Maple Street below us, in full color… while we watch a black and white version of it, filmed over a decade ago. This is better than drugs, but we did bring some Kona Gold to add to the experience.

What’s real… is it the TV show or is it us…Well, these crumb donuts are real!

This is a trip, for sure. I have watched this episode a million times but not like this. We sit up high, on the second floor of this building, as we continue to float up… even… higher… and the black and white imagery becomes as colorful as the real Maple street below. And we become transported to some place that is a merging of the two… a land of both shadow and substance

Above: The home where the car starts on its own. Below: The yard that is directly across the street from this house.

Our question has been answered… Yes, there is a guard and he has just pulled up in the Bronco. Worse yet, he is parking out front… what a buzz kill! We turn the volume down, while continuing to watch the mob scene taking place. We are looking down at the Bronco, with trigger happy Bob Coleman behind the wheel. On the TV, we see two aliens also looking down. We know the lines by heart, so the volume is unnecessary. It’s all about the visual. We feel like aliens, without a space ship to fly away on and ditch this killjoy. Actually, there are a couple in storage not too far away…

We keep a cautious eye on the Bronco below that sits in the light drizzle that begins to fall. We joke, why did he park here, could he also be watching this… ?

He leaves, as the end credits begin to roll. We just lived through an alternative ending, so to speak. Well, in a half hour, Combat is on… that show shoots right over there. Let’s pack it up, troupe!

Don’t change that channel! Actually… do change it… it’s on channel 11. This is how to spend a gray, misty day watching classic TV, right where it was made!

Andy Hardy’s House is pictured above….we had a living room fort upstairs. It had a carpet, a table and a bench to sit on, we are quick to seize on left over furnishings. Eventually the studio discovers this set up and reclaims all our stuff.

Above: The front side of the house that faces Maple Street. Below: same building, another side.

This is one of my favorite pictures… so much is here… in the foreground is the backside of Andy Hardy’s house. We have chairs inside, on the second floor. This building had the power we needed, in order to power up my TV. Also chairs and a table for relaxing. The backside of this picture is Maple Street.

If Rod Serling could see us now…He’d be proud !

Written and lived by Donnie Norden
Edited by Donna Quesada

The Desilu Film Vaults- Chapter 71

Film Vaults in yellow.

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.

The vaults are built into a man made fabricated hillside with asphalt providing a roof covering. It begins just behind that portable Air Conditioner, an old movie trailer for some star, and an Untouchables old shot up car. The house is not part of the studio.
Those nine images that look like grave plots are lids or roofs to individual vaults. That is not a rocket ship along side it, that’s an oil rig operation on the property.

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 3. 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.

Written and lived by Donnie Norden