On a quaint little neighborhood on the Universal Backlot…We Begin
There are so many iconic homes are on this street, it’s hard to disguise what can still appear as clear as day. Every house on this street has a star attached to it, Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Barbara Eden, Eva Longoria, Marcus Welby, The Cleaver Family and my favorite-The Munsters.
Recently, I was watching Adam 12 and criminal activity was taking place where all these stars have studio homes. Reed and Malloy attempted to make a traffic stop on a speeder in a Chevy Nova, naturally he resisted. Quickly things escalated and backups arrived and scoured the street. I became fascinated, this street has very noticeable structures and all were in play on this episode. Two houses we all know and grew up at were the focus of police attention.
First, the Beaver House needed to be investigated, while the suspect ended up across from the Munsters’ residence. At this point, I’m all in. A potpourri of iconic film sets need police to secure it. This is better than my TV dinner. My mind races as the police search everywhere- my gosh, this could be me running from building to building. Before my long career, I trespassed here, I met Barbara Eden on this street in Harper Valley P.T.A.
I hung out with Dan Pastorini and Greg Evigan along with Sam – the chimp. Bear is his stage name. These were all fine trespassing moments. I never could have dreamed back when I banged the bushes to hang out here, I would eventually have a full backstage pass career here. Before I worked here, I knew these buildings inside and out. As a production electrician, I would need access to all the buildings on this lot. Inside are the shooting stations that we tie our power to and distribute around the set.
My job requires me access to the same buildings I used to hide from security in. My, how times changed.
This street would be moved, one structure at a time, to an upper lot location as the studio landscape was altered and producer bungalows would become a creative campus area. Backlot sets were relocated even deeper in the backlot. In this remembrance, I want you to see what the two homes featured in this episode look like inside. These interiors you walk into now are not the same as they originally were-they were restrengthened, and old rotted wood replaced.
This is necessary if you want another 50 years of movie and TV production to happen here. These sets are now built to last, secured and sealed from weather. Yes, flat out livable. There is one bathroom next to the Beaver House and not every house has water. But wood floors, carpets and drapes brighten up what once were drab interiors.
This episode of one of the best police shows of its time triggered so many memories. Tram guests love this street. Cameras can’t click fast enough as tourist’s heads swing side to side. Many not understanding a single word being spoken. One set is equal to a thousand words in any language. The studio offers tours in several tongues, and it was fun to hear these sets talked about in German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and just good old broken English.
I couldn’t understand 90% of the tour, but the faces and reactions said it all. Guides and drivers laugh at how many pictures of us in action are across this great big planet. Since tourists rarely see movie stars, they photograph us. We feel very honored to have this privilege. On coffee tables everywhere foreign flags fly, you may see a tiny piece of memorabilia with yours truly behind the wheel of a Glamour Tram.
Adios, Auf Wiedersehen, Sayonara, Zaijian, Arrivederci… so long everybody.
Our thirst for a backlot adventure has taken Jimmy and me out to Burbank this Friday afternoon. We pass Universal Studios after exiting the 101 freeway onto a street named Barham. It intersects with The Burbank Studios, and another road called Hollywood Way, where Columbia Pictures backlot ranch is located. Our destination is any one of these studio backlots. Just to see studio backlots again is refreshing.
Culver City officially destructed every set ever built on their backlots. Townhomes, estates, and industrial warehouses have replaced 5th Avenue, New York City, Tarzan’s Lake, Mayberry, Stalag 13 and on and on. No morals, scruples or guilt seemed on display. A pure money grab, I barely recognize the city I grew up in.
Now a days, we drive to the valley to get our fix of Hollywood. We never know what shows we will run into and that will depend on what lot we choose to scale the fences at. Our decision is sometimes made and based off the challenges of being seen by homeowners living on the streets we park on. We try not to display ourselves as unusual, so we kind of read the tea leaves, so to speak.
But today we grab parking just outside a rusted old ivy-covered chain-link fence with the typical 3 strands of barb wire on top. On the other side is a thick jungle with a berm blocking a rooftop. We are entering the TBS lot behind The Waltons house, and the shed is where we take cover, next to some empty chicken coops and farm tools.
Since this area is deserted, we swing for a bit, on the Waltons tire swing. Pumping feverishly, taking turns, trying to reach higher heights on each leg kick. The treehouse sits vacant above us- no sign of any Walton family today.
The beauty of the valley is we never know what to expect show wise, and these Hollywood lots are always busy. This is like climbing into your TV set. Look over there- it’s Richard Thomas or John Boy, wait there’s the General Lee with Bo Duke. Is that Mr. Roarke and Tattoo? That’s how trespassing at a place like this works.
Flamingo Road let us watch them film last time we were here, they were filming at the lagoon up yonder. We watched as Howard Duff was attempting to dock a hydrofoil. As simple as that may sound, it didn’t go well. This large fan that looks like a studio wind machine was a bit tricky at low speed and suddenly flipped, tossing Mr. Duff headfirst into the swamp. I was standing next to Morgan Fairchild who was watching this scene with us.
At first, there was some concern, but as his head popped out of the shallow pond, laughter erupted. Morgan Fairchild, who was sipping tea, turned and stuck her head in my shoulder, trying to hide her laughter. Like I’m crew or something, I’m trespassing, but the star of the show is trying to control her laughter by putting her head on my shoulder.
Right place-right time is how the magic works. MGM, over the last decade, trained me for this very proficiently.
Every road here can lead to its own adventure and in four weeks or so, you can watch and relive this day as the show gets aired on network television. In many cases, we see scenes that get cut or go afoul. Such as this Hydrofoil, that outtake will be cut out and only lived or remembered by those working…or trespassing!
From a tire swing hanging from a tree house, we begin foraging through the jungle. No one is home today at The Waltons House.We pass by the lagoon that is full of water and go inside a cabin that overlooks this pond. We smoke a victory joint in a location today void of human life. We christen this moment with a billowing cloud of happiness. These evolve into shapes like figures as the sun highlights different patterns as these plumes travel slowly along hugging the green water. We sit on the porch relaxing, before we head over to Laramie Street, our next location. At this point-I feel like Grandpa Walton.
In front of Ike Godsey’s Country Store, we are greeted by horses with saddles, tied to a large horse trailer. Jimmy and I exchange “Hellos” to these 4-legged actors. We scratch their snouts as they kick at the dirt. Lots of action is taking place over at Laramie Street, we see cowboys riding and kicking up dust. The western street is off-limits, and we could accidentally walk into a camera shot. The town bank is where most of the activity is. The side streets surrounding Laramie Street have trailers for make-up and transportation equipment. We peek inside each trailer door that is wide open while walking along the wooden sidewalks that lead to the saloon. We go upstairs to get the feel for what’s taking place on the street below.
Bingo, we see the star just across the way- It’s James Garner. The cardboard show identifiers in the vehicles indicate what we now have verified, this is the TV series Maverick.
We watch James messing around off camera, as my mind races. I love cowboy TV, I want to go meet him. Jimmy my friend, and I are plotting our next move. I tell Jimmy-“He loves the Oakland Raiders.”Our eyes follow his every move. ” Let me break the ice, we will talk Raiders football…follow me!
Out of the saloon we go and cross the dirt road like we belong here- casually positioning ourselves within speaking distance. We sit on chairs that are part of set decorations. Barrels, boxes and benches line the wooden gang planks. James is standing alongside an elevated arc light, with one hand bracing against the crank- evator that lifts the 10-k light and housing. A lamp operator wearing leather gloves stands on an A-frame ladder. He too chimes in on Raider talk.
Knowing timing is everything and his time is valuable, I act like I know him. “It’s so nice to see the Raiders dominate again.” I get out of my stool and stand directly side by side of- Maverick!
“Jim Plunkett turned that team around” is his response as he wipes his brow under his cowboy hat.
“Al Davis added that key piece- he’s the guru of football” I try to impress…
“No-one scouts talent better than Al, all the misfits from other teams put us over the top” Mr Garner replies.
“Big John Matuszak is a great example, my favorite player is Jack Tatum” I pump Raider knowledge. “This is a team full of Mavericks– I work that in cleverly, I’m so excited right now…
“The Snake is one Raider I miss, but Jim got us the trophy” answers Maverick himself.
This conversation is progressing well, here I am, trespassing, standing with the legendary star who I first saw at MGM on a show titled-They Only Kill Their Masters- 10 years ago.
Jimmy is still seated listening to James and I talk football when all of the sudden…
The smoking dragon that we are standing under just exploded! The fresnel, or glass lens just blew up. Broken glass narrowly misses our star. Maverick and I jump for cover, it’s like I’ve trespassed into my own scene with James Garner.
This arc light is now the center of attention and is fittingly how this visit to The Burbank Studios ended on this Friday, March 12, 1982.
Through the smoke of a damaged Arc light-we disappear...all in a days work.
On a hill once controlled by Howard Hughes… We Begin.
Paramount Pictures uses a mountain for their Moniker. They had it built on their backlot. It’s most famous for the TV series Bonanza. The Mod Squad filmed their opening credits inside it. It had a storage area that could double for a strange set.
But RKO/Desilu had a real mountain bestowed above their backlot, and it’s as legendary as the studio below it. From up on top of this dirt playground you could watch Hollywoodland develop from its preliminary infancy to robust, viable, commodity. Plus, the Hollywood stares back at this Hughes Radar hilltop. You can even see the Paramount lot in the distance with its tiny little composite snow painted mountain.
In my desperation to explore the Desilu backlot, I used this hilltop to map what’s below me in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This was my private balcony that overlooked this legendary backlot. Baldwin Hills has horse stables up as does 40 acres backlot below. Horses are king here, and bulls make good beer commercials. Wildlife thrives along the old creek bed, which divides up two sections of Desilu.
It was from this hilltop I verified what the Desilu fences had warned against- “Dogs on Duty.”
This set me back, it was almost impossible to gather a group of trespassers bold enough to explore here since… after all “You could be eaten alive.” Eventually temptation won out, Robin Hood-myself, along with a group of Merry Men, banded up together to go where no kid has dared to challenge- the 40-acre plot of backlot land protected by these The Dogs on Duty!
We slowly progressed, almost inch by inch-in pitch dark landscape, towards the first Stalag 13 guard tower we could climb up in…
The genie was officially out of the bottle for all things Desilu going forward. Dogs on Duty must be Dogs Asleep, thankfully.
Normally I take you through old sets, but today let’s look at the POV of Desilu from both looking down on it- and looking up at it. It’s a fun hike and the top has views of the Hollywood sign one direction, the Pacific Ocean the other. Overhead, a continual parade of aircraft lining up to land at LAX. This mountain top is a strategic vector as planes begin descent. Radar experimentation takes place up here, and that facility is operated by The Hughes Tool Company.
Everything that ever took place on the Ince, RKO, Desilu backlot could be clearly viewed from up here, and I’ve been told by engineers who worked up top here that’s exactly what took place. The Backlot was a T.V. set and this radar facility was like an antenna connecting you to the Outer Limits.
I find it fascinating that Howard Hughes ended up choosing this area for this secret facility, these hills extend to his aviation plant and airport. That’s the place the Spruce Goose was built. The real estate controlled by Summa Corporation is where Playa Vista occupies today… What didn’t Mr. Hughes delve into?
Nicolas Cage would film 8MM up top here at the summit after the facility was abandoned. On Jefferson Blvd. below this hill top-CHIPS, The A-Team, and Hunter, starring Fred Dryer-followed up the The Andy GriffithShow with more street credits.
To sum this all up, this mountain appears attached to the 40-acre backlot and indeed it is. Just traverse a creek and highway that lies in between. My biggest all-time regret is not photographing all this area with the backlot still standing below. You felt as if you were part of the studio up here. The church tower and the Mayberry Hotel were the tallest sets on the backlot but they were easily looked down upon here. This view made Desilu look like a game board with actual moving game pieces making T.V. shows below.
This area was to become upscale homes but thanks to the Santa Monica conservancy, it was spared an unrecognizable fate. I think a studio shrine needs to be included at the visitor center that sits lost and unenlightened after climbing the mile high stairs. This hilltop needs a good tour guide…
Film production has just ceased on this backlot. This was a Lost Backlot unlike all the rest in Hollywood until Desi and Lucy purchased this parcel and named it Desilu. It finally had an identity, and you grew up here if you owned a TV. Black and white is fine, that is until Batman came along in living color. Slap a “Out of business” sale on the fence that warns of “Dogs on Duty.”
As Desilu ended its ties here, this lot once again became Hollywood’s Lost Backlot. Steven Bingen’s book of the same name is a must have bible for all things 40 acres. I just wish I had this book with me when I was running around this wild film ranch.
I had to make my own maps, figure things out on my own, all the while under fear of four-legged K-9 security.
I never became friends with security here on this lot, but have had several run-ins. And I never saw a regular face. Security was as hodge-podge as was the backlot itself. I’ve previously shared stories my friends lived who resided by this entrance…” Jim Nabors serenading children at the main gate while handing out lifesavers. Bob Crane was known to give tours of Stalag 13 and all adventures begin at this Ince main gate. Spock, in full costume, has exited this gate to visit the neighborhood Jackson Street market. “I’ll have whatever he’s having!”
There is one other studio gate on Higuera, but it is rarely unlocked and probably more of a fire gate or emergency entrance. Basically, this lot has one way in and out and it’s through this gate right here, unless you’re a trespasser- like me!
I’ve never met a fence that could keep me out, to be honest, there was no fence period along the creek. It was like an open border from Mexico to the U.S.A. Drugs and trespassers poured in, but I digress…
I told you-it’s the seventies!
Even in the sixties, I would stare through this fence when it was locked shut- wearing a Batman costume I bought with a million Blue Chip Stamps. I just wanted to see Adam West. Eventually I was lucky enough to see the Batmobile and the Caped Crusaders zip by. The hair on my arms stood up when my dream was realized.
Exploration sensitive area…
To explore the main gate and surrounding structures, you have to come to a conclusion first that security is not here. This is a very risky area. The gate would be locked and a quick tour through Mayberry can verify activity or not. If the lot is ours, then that’s our opportunity to get dirty at the main gate. Exploring the structures beyond the security shack would include the film vaults, which this guard shack looks directly at.
Inside the security shack are humble settings, A heater, a radio, a desk, a phone, a clock and a calendar. Finally, a water dispenser. Windows on all sides allowing the guard to watch filming, as if this shack is a TV set. The only luxury not inside was a TV. Very similar to my backlot forts, minus a heater and clock.
Public homes exist on Lucerne with their backyard being the studio fence property line. You can Bar B-Q while TV Land is filming over your back fence. You can slip a hot dog through the fence to your favorite TV star. A greenhouse sits neglected and in the process of being reclaimed by nature itself. The plants inside are letting their hair down, like a bunch of hippies. The stories this structure lived is rooted into the ground.
A wagon and a tractor sit side by side, tall weeds grow between the wagon spoked wheels, as gentle breezes encourage life to exist, once again. A plow wonders if it will till the land here ever again. Like a Toy Story. Time does not exist here. If you continue hugging this fence line you will see an artillery cannon, painted gray, as is a German Troop carrier and a Tiger Tank. That means you have left the boundaries of Camp Henderson and arrived behind the sets of Stalag 13.
Tucked behind Stalag 13, in a Triangle, is where I rediscovered Ms. Marion Davies’ first ever mobile make-up room. That is an incredible story still taking place… a hundred years after the fact.
This main gate doubled as a set frequently, especially for Gomer Pyle due to the proximity to the camp. Today, you explored with me a non-descript section that contains security headquarters on the 40-acre backlot.
If you get into the shack- dial 9 on the rotary phone to get off lot. Chris’s pizza delivers here- no questions asked…
The film that is, the shark is still in captivity. Every tram that circles Cabot Cove is attacked by this creature that lurks just below the surface. In my experience driving trams, this is the most popular animation still going on the tram tour. I’ve seen children cry when finding out the ride is closed for repairs. To attack trams as rapidly as need be, this shark moves both forwards, then backwards. It has to reset itself and the amount of moving parts that creates this tram attack is a constant work in progress. This old Great White is very high maintenance…
In the sequel to Jaws- Mr Spielberg handed the job to another director, Joseph Sargent. Sidney Sheinberg, who discovered Steven, put his wife in this remake. Lorraine Gary starred in this sequel with Michael Caine and Mario Van Peebles. This was the sequel to Jaws 2. The joke on the set is Lorraine is on a paid studio vacation. She’s getting paid a lot of money to sip cocktails on the beach.
The cast was mentioned by every tour guide, about 80 times a day, since trams actually could watch scenes filmed at our backdrop. This is one location on the tour where filming is often seen by tourists. It’s because the Ice Tunnel- or Mummy’s Tomb in more recent times- is adjacent to our giant backdrop. You have to pass this set to experience the last tram animation on your tour.
This was the first set I ever witnessed jet engines create wind effects. The electrical department (40 shop) handles Ritter Fans that require DC power to operate. We also power the wave makers; those are used to create a choppy water surface rather than a calm pond you could skip pebbles on. But Special Effects operate gasoline blowing devices including the jet engines used on this shoot. The sound created is like a jet plane taking off. Hearing protection only goes so far, no sound is recorded when under these conditions.
The buzz around the lot was this edition of Jaws was lacking something, besides just Spielberg. The cast was so so at best. The shark delivered its part well. We knew it was a flop before it flopped. I’m surprised this shark hasn’t resurfaced, pardon the pun, into another Shark box -office attempt. Like a Jurassic Park of the ocean, where sea creatures rule.
Considering sharks date back over 420 million years, it’s amazing we only did three of these…not counting the 3-D version. Steven Spielberg was busy focusing on land sharks -kinda- with Jurassic Park ready to replace the Great Whites.
Fear sells tickets, if you don’t think so, every animation on the tram tour is framed with fear. It’s not just a small world at Universal- it’s an extremely violent world- also.
Keep your arms and legs inside the tram at all times…
Combat just completed a run lasting longer than W.W. 2. ABC-TV shutdown one war series and simultaneously kick started another. Many of the crew jumped on board Garrison’s Gorillas. The most important being the powder guy, A.D Flowers. No one did a better job ever of blowing these MGM backlots up then this Hollywood Legend.
26 one-hour episodes are all we have left of this. ABC canceled it and it’s spot was replaced at the network by the Groovy, hip-Mod Squad.
We read comics on the backlot, it made them more realistic. It set off the soldier inside all of us, so we brought in guns also. B.B gun battles were inspired by reruns and comics. Combat had a board game we also played inside the studio. The best part about that game was the cover-with Sgt. Saunders doing his thing.
Combat did not make comics, but it had the best toy machine gun ever designed. It was cool to pretend, for sure, but real fun comes when you can feel pain. If you get hit by a round, you need to feel it. Daisy provide that little- umphhh. It made a nice welt. Realism meets make believe.
Mercy, Mercy, Me
Combat was the show we emulated as we had gun fights at MGM. It was usually on Saturdays when we had these battles. Noon-time happened to rerun Combat. The classic-Soul Train preceded it. I love Motown, you had me at Don Cornelius. When our showdowns began, there was a blend of soul in our ears as we prepared ourselves for battle.
“Four Tops– this is WHITE ROOK…OVER ”
The Rat Patrol would be the last war series to film war scenes on a regular basis. I saw all their equipment. It was always parked on the lot. A half track, troop carriers, a tank/cannon on rubber wheels, and the two jeeps with the 50 caliber machine guns mounted on back.
It is hard today to find quality reruns of Garrison’s Gorillas, why I’m not sure. But the star, Ron Harper and I would meet at this very train station discussed in this story. But it was during the filming of Planet of the Apes. Roddy McDowell granted permission for kids to watch filming. My entire street came to watch a Gorilla raid. Not Garrison’s Gorillas- just Urko, the Gorilla, leading a pack of Apes.
I bet Ron Harper never expected the future to become so chaotic. If you get hold of a copy of these two seasons, you will find every single episode uses the backlots of MGM.
New York Street sees a lot of action in this series, disguised as Berlin. Every exterior was practically MGM -somewhere. One episode has a mission, and it takes place in The Big Sky Backdrop, made famous by special effects Wizard– Arnold Gillespie. Nowhere will you be able to see what it was like inside the structure whose front side-is the sky in a broad horizon. If you wanted to be inside that massive historical backdrop first used in 1924 in Ben-Hur, it’s worth the effort to find it.
Everything about this show was awesome, yet it still flies, barely, under the radar, except in Japan. It became a cult classic in the land of the Rising Sun.
Long before this Movie of the Week TV show was made, a Phantom on the MGM backlot existed. Security gave me that name as I became their Public Enemy #1. 1972.
I was able to carry that title the entire time MGM was in charge of backlot security. It’s based off reports to the watch commander about a frequent trespasser. His real name is Donnie, but often went by the name John. A good trespasser should always have an alias ready at their disposal. This frequent flyer is often seen by security but wrangling me up is unlike any challenge MGM security ever dealt with involving this mysteriously haunted backlot.
Here one second…but gone the next is how accounts were explained to the higher-ups. Hence, the name Phantom was attached to my backlot portfolio. This was the reality of MGM security in the beginning of the 1970’s.
Fast forward a bit, December 1973. At this time, I have never been caught, only seen and pursued, even shot at, but always made it back home to check in like all’s well that ends well. I have already built a fancy fort up in a massive building that the studio calls The Girls School but what us boys call Boystown. This fort is for boys, girls could never climb all the obstacles needed to infiltrate the upper reaches that lead to a hidden paradise.
MGM, or Worldwide Studios as it is named in this TV Movie, began filming several important scenes all over what I call my backlot. Fancy that, I find a call sheet that details all things taking place on the MGM backlot. The title –The Phantom of Lot 2.
Timeout, I was called the Phantom of Lot 2, for close to two years. Now a film is taking place with my identity. It stars Jack Cassidy as the Phantom of this backlot. Broderick Crawford is in charge of security and rolls out a line directed towards me and Jimmy. He explains to studio head Peter Lawford about an accident involving my fort in Boystown. Two teenagers had just fallen to their death, from where my fort sits at the top of this iconic structure. The greatest fort ever built on the MGM backlot.
It’s perfectly safe if you know what you’re doing, but in this show movie deaths happen. Chalk lines shaped of teenage bodies are being photographed as Broderick explains to Peter, ” they’re just two teenage long-haired punks is all we know”
I take exception to that insult that accurately describes me and Jimmy. Peter Lawford wants “our deaths” to create a publicity moment warning the rest of the public teens of the dangers that exist back here on this ancient backlot. But the following line deserved a slogan on a T-Shirt. “You can’t fence out curiosity” No truer words needed.
Well, what am I watching here, a movie about me?
At another set, the watermill house, I meet the TV Phantom. Jack Cassidy, in between takes in the middle of a camera set up. He sees me staring at him and waves to me with his leather glove hand, while he carries an iron spiked weapon in his other. He is just about to kill a demolition worker that is part of the team tearing down the backlot in this show.
The moment has arrived the true Phantom meets the costumed movie Phantom, as director Gene Levitt looks on. In Phantom style, I quickly disappear, because MGM has security on this set. At the time, I had no idea what my world was about. All I know is I live on studio backlots in Culver City, often disappearing into dark shadows, only to reappear on some rooftop or an image or reflection in a window.
When this show aired about a month later, it was must see TV as anything ever. This is the coolest show ever -story wise- involving Lot 2. CBS changed the name from The Phantom of Lot 2 to The Phantom of Hollywood for more zing right before airing. Gene Levitt returned to his old Combat stomping grounds to polish off a couple buildings he used in his classic war series. Gene has permission to do whatever needs be around here since he truly is a backlot legend.
I feel honored that he used my lot, he used my fort, I met the costumed up movie version of “me .” To this day this is must have TV if you like my stories and love MGM like I do. Do yourself a favor and get a copy, many MGM stars do cameo rolls and it was made over a year before That’s Entertainment.
Call the street what you wish, but when best friend Jimmy and I first stepped foot on it, we named it after the Twilight Zone episode, Maple Street. That’s what we called it. We synergized it when we snuck in a tiny black and white TV with partially broken rabbit ears and watched this episode where it was filmed, here on Maple Street. TV’s and backlots work as time machines. Eventually you have two pictures, the original on television, and the one presently in living color, with living potential hazards.
It’s like One Step Beyond and The Twilight Zone combined…
Every studio has a residential street similar to this neighborhood. The residents vary from lot to lot, depending first on writers, then on ratings. Rod Serling imagined, then created memories and scenes that we still watch and love to this day on this backlot. His narratives helped shaped this street in the early 60’s. This backlot is…The Twilight Zone
Rod has written and produced more subject matter here than anyone else that’s set foot on this backlot. Not enough credit can be given to his accomplishments considering the quality of that series and the tight demands of TV scheduling. Six days of filming for one episode.
The concept Rod was selling to Westinghouse at the time faced rejections, and not until Bert Granet and Desi Arnaz vowed their unlimited support did this series get off the ground.
Due to budget restraints with CBS, some episodes were videotaped in the first season. It is extremely noticeable, only one episode made at Television City was the quality of what MGM produced. “The Night of the Meek” starring Art Carney as Santa Claus, held up in this format. It’s the only Christmas episode made. This cost cutting move, one video camera, completely on stage at CBS, was an attempt to trim the $65,000 per episode cost. The experiment was deemed a failure, then this show infiltrated into film and naturally –backlots!
I would have died to have run into Rod Serling walking around this backlot. I felt his spirit, he fits this backlot like a good pair of tennis shoes.
The film They Only Kill Their Masters, starring James Garner, was the first film I saw being made on this street. The set dressing inside a home on the street here consisted of (a wall picture, a table and a chair) which ended up disappearing from one house and reappearing upstairs across the street in Andy Hardy’s house.
Often, each house gets a complimentary doorway set up when front doors will be open. It’s like the Salvation Army around here.
Needless to say I spent an awful lot of time here. It’s like this street connects to my house and street. I have occupied every home on this street in one adventure or another.
Sadly, the church burned down in November of 1975. But before you shed any tears, Sgt. Pepper to the rescue. A little over a year later, this street was magnificently rebuilt- as good as ever. Backlot fires are easier to take when new sets sprout up from ashes of what stood before it.
Fittingly, a musical would charm the backlot in grandiose style. (The Trolley Song), performed here by Judy Garland, would turn into an entire Beatles album with artists including Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, and Billy Preston.
Let’s be happy this street went out with class. But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t take you somewhere daring, so lets go up in the church tower…shall we?
Through the church doors- we appear. We are greeted by a tiny room, like a chapel would look. If you open the next door in the sequence, you see an ocean liner. That’s how it works here- Lost Horizons are blocked by doors, curtains, and walls. Behind door number two is a ladder. Four stories, straight up. No ledges or platforms to rest at, just go to the top. See what surprises await you…
Bird feces cover everything in this bell tower. Worse- dead birds appear to have been trapped inside. It’s pretty terrible up here, and that’s coming from a teenager. On the conical top of this -place of worship -is where the MGM owls sit and hoot at all goings on. There are normally two, and they existed the entire time lot 2 was standing. They leave a pile of bones when they digest their prey, which is actually very interesting to reconstruct.
I’m happy to say, owls still hunt where the backlot use to be, I recently saw one fly across the street and up to the water tower on what is now Sony lot 1. This would be the offspring of my two favorite backlot birds ever. I’m a proud grandpa it turns out.
The climb to the top of this church is scary in daylight, but you should try it at night. Just trust what you’re grabbing hold of for support doesn’t snap. A sign of the cross is in order once you arriveup top….literally!
Four humans can fit fairly comfortable here but be careful not to be seen.
“OK …I got to go, good luck everybody getting down from here!”
The feature that just won’t quit. It’s so popular, the budget allows for episodes 2 and 3 to be made in the same year. Any and all on this production become consumed with this Pirate lifestyle. Pirate jewelry can be bought on set. Skeleton rings are popular and almost everyone wears one. Pirate flags are hoisted above the trailers at basecamp. The closer or deeper you go on set, the more real it gets.
My job allows me to see all phases of production. The preparation begins with construction of the sets. Once that happens scenic artists age it to look ancient. Then come the props, while set lighting pulls 4/0 cables from generators to distro boxes. You can never have enough power on sets this large.
The transportation department alone eats up over a thousand amps, set lighting, effects, catering-all need juice!
A show like this is self-contained and can film basically anywhere in the world. The producer, Jerry Bruckheimer has all the credit you need to open doors no one else can. When in Hollywood, their job becomes much easier. That’s why Universal gets attached to every Pirate episode. We have big stages and a huge backlot. We have had Pirate battles all over it, from our cobblestone European streets to lighthouse set up at Falls Lake.
One of my favorite sets ever on Stage 12 is the Singapore Harbor set. This stage is our biggest, and that set covered almost every square inch inside. I can walk you through there some other time. You will not believe the details and Chinese decorations; you will feel like you’re in ancient times as soon as you shut the stage door.
The Tortuga Bar set on the backlot was a relatively quick build for a show like this one. The morning after the all-night fight was classic, broken bottles were everywhere. Stunts were performed efficiently, and you probably woke up with a hangover, not from drinking-just being there as bottles full of syrup were everywhere you turned. This brawl was completed in one night, how’s that for professionalism?
As fast as it was put up, it came down. The bar was built in the courtyard of an already existing set, so hardly any materials were used. The bar itself was destroyed; I salvaged the Lion Heads that were headed to the dumpster. They lined the bar and are plaster. You can see them in my bar picture, just below the counter.
In the big picture, this was a small scene for this crew. But be forewarned-even the smallest scene on a show starring Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp–IS HUGE!
I wish J.D. well in his legal predicament that has America glued to Court TV. Stand up for what’s right, Captain Jack!
In 1995, the world watched in anticipation as the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. Universal was in complete shutdown mode on every stage and set when the verdict was to be announced on his murder trial. It was like a Murder She Wrote episode, but better.
Not only everybody at Universal watched, but the entire country took an early lunch for the outcome. I was in a gold room on Stage 12 and watched on a black and white rabbit ear TV set with set lighting personnel rigging the stage. We were shocked at the verdict, just as shocked as when we heard he was arrested back on June 13, 1994.
A driver friend Gene was with us and shared a very recent experience he had with O.J. on the set of Frogmen. In that film, Gene was driving for the show and was chauffeuring O.J. from the set in Malibu to his house in Brentwood. O.J. plays a Navy Seal in this film. On the way back home, he had Gene detour so O.J. could visit a store in Santa Monica that sells knives and swords. Nothing was thought of at that moment in time-but fast forward and then think backwards. Coincidence…?
You can read between the lines yourself. The role of a Navy Seal requires superior skill with weapons, and he received technical military training prior to what took place in Brentwood.
I met O.J. of all places-on the California incline in Santa Monica. He was running uphill with the Olympic Torch, as he handed it off, I high- fived him. I had chills it was so cool.
After all, he was #32, The Juice– back then…
I close with these legal memories…One, the O.J. trial, Two, the John Landis trial involving Vic Morrow, Three, Johnny Depp and his interesting situation, and Alec Baldwin’s debacle. Every 20 years something big happens to our unfathomable heroes.
At sea… the voyage begins at a berth in San Pedro, California. An hour away from Universal. I have a thing for Pirates, how can you not. The last Pirate Ship I was on was at Sony for the movie Hook. It would sit in the water tank on stage, but was not built to sail. Just to be admired, inside and out, this was a Pirate Museum. Gold bars were stacked aboard. “gold painted wood blocks.”
It was built in front of a harbor on stage, and no expense was spared on this Peter Pan film. Fast forward, from the twenties, through the eighties, and touch down at the original port of entry of all navigation going to and from Italy for the 1924 film Ben Hur. Distant locations required sailing to the destinations back then. This port area is where needed items were shipped out, and return voyages delivered film that was needed for post production. Now that’s pioneer movie making for you.
L.A. Harbor has long been a player in films. To this day, it’s always in use in some film series.
Things I’ll never forget is the cannon sequences when every hatched door opened with a powerful cannon blast, one after another. As real as it gets. The making of this movie and all the mechanical challenges, combined with sensation make up and costumes, is better than the movie itself. For added effect, fog guns laid a blanket on the sea that wind machines could push around. It helps provide contrast on a dark sea lane.
Usually a second unit goes to the desired location for all the marvelous establishing shots that transport the viewer where their mind should be. Then for costs, and control of activities, the principal sets are built here in Hollywood. For Pirates, Universal filled the bill three different times.
White Caps Harbor took over 3 months of preparation to build, with crews working 12 hour days.
Pirates 1-2-and 3 were done at the backlot that has those Glamour Trams cruising around. Tourists could see this set get rigged from a distance, and very few details were given out due to a family feud between these two studios. We don’t promote them nor do they promote Universal. Never mention the D -word while on our lot as a tour guide. That applies for the other Disney set yonder called Desperate . Housewives.
Disney had more successful shows on our lot than we did!
I remember one night about 3am, I had two shows going on in the middle of the night. Spiderman was on NY Street, the Spider Cam was attached to cables and simulated Spiderman traversing rooftops. New York Street looked like it was the real deal. The entire street was lit up. At the same time, Pirates was filming at the beach set I’m taking you on. We have two mega blockbusters going in the middle of the night –while the city sleeps.
Downtown Las Vegas has nothing on the Universal Backlot that week. This schedule went on for over a week of all nighters. But quickly after the final shots of rafts being blown up at sea and a tower blowing up in a major early evening explosion. It ended like when you wake up from a good dream. I want more…Everything was packed up to head overseas.
One set has a man dressed in a red Spider Costume, the other has a famous Pirate, also in a red outfit. I facilitate the technical needs of each film, so my job is insurance if something goes wrong, power wise. I sit next to Johnny as his beautiful make up artist touches him up. Johnny doesn’t hide away in his trailer, he’s Captain Jack, he belongs at sea, and all things surrounding it. I watch him, as he watches filming of a scene he’s not in. He’s the face of this film and he represents everything you would want in a star professionally. I sat 15 minutes two feet away, slightly behind him, watching his every reaction, inhaling his cigarette, in aww. Admiring how real he looks, from hat full of dreadlocks to those buckled boots and all things in between. Errol Flynn never looked this good.
If thats not enough, the next costumed star I run into down the hill is Spider Man. It’s 3:30 am, and our backlot is in full swing. There is more traffic on the backlot than the Hollywood Freeway.
These two shows overlapped with each other, trust me- these were gigantic production companies. These two sets were far enough apart that we could fit and film these sets at the same time without interference. Pyro must be finished by 10pm on our lot, for our surrounding neighbors. Nights often start with loud goings on and extreme action before settling down for dialogue basic photography.
The location work on that film at sea was augmented with scenes filmed on the backlot. Buildings hit by cannon fire. In Pirates 1, we blew up our European Street, it was being bombed by Pirate cannonballs. Then we built an entire village of Singapore, on Stage 12. That set was maybe the best on Stage 12- ever built.
Keith Richards was on that set, from the band The Rolling Stones I have a lot of history and precious memories from this series and I thought- Johnny could use some love. You know you’re a Pirate when you own your own island and hang with Keith Richards...that brit didn’t even need make up. Mick turned the part down.
As much as movie fans look up to Johnny, he himself looks up to someone. It’s natural, he’s human, Kieth Richard is that guy. The biggest box office star had his own dream come true on a Friday night at Universal, a cameo from a real life life Rolling Stone.