It’s a Backlot Toy Chest World!

I have done it. I have successfully navigated all the Culver City Backlots. Those are MGM, lots 2, 3, 4, 5. Now Desilu is an everyday option. Perfect for a Tom Sawyer hookie day. 

Lot 3, at MGM, is a 67 acre wonderland with exterior sets ranging from multiple western streets; a huge lake and jungle; New Orleans, and France. There are winding roads that appear to go on forever. Cobblestone has that unique sound when wheels or horse hooves go over it. Its different in here.

One side of the fence is magical, the other side is reality… and far too serious. But you must dare yourself to visit the magic. It is forbidden. Trespassing is what the studio calls it.

Well what fun is life without risk? I was born ready!

Holes in the fence happen…naturally and artificially. Climbing is easy when you’re a kid, so getting in is easy. The rush begins immediately. Generally, you hide…every chance you can. Slow and steady. No clocks here. These lots have movie production prepping or shooting, all the time. Night and day. Weekends are generally just a guard and a big empty lot.

MGM does not use dogs. Desilu was the last backlot to conquer, because of K-9 patrols. Lot 3 should be patrolled by dogs. It is almost twice the size of all the other backlots. But, thankfully they are not. They leave it up to old men who take turns driving a jeep that carries a salt rock gun. Yes, you can be shot!

First, they have to find you in this labyrinth; that’s why we pick and choose the paths most off the beaten trail. There are false fronts, or sets all over.

Hiding behind the sets…and in many cases, in the sets, is the key to successfully avoiding unwanted meetings in security. It sounds intimidating because it is. Most people shy away from danger and never see how cool this club can be.

Lack of challenges puts security in auto-pilot mode. We even see them nap, often… I told you they should go with dogs!

I recognize equipment that was on Lot 2…now at Lot 3. The backlot world is interchangeable with many moving parts, literally. The Rat Patrol moves their squad back and forth down Overland, the public street that connects these lots, depending on what village or train station they are attacking. Combat did the same, as did Garrison’s Gorillas, starring Ron Harper.

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Combat was canceled in 1967, but the crew jumped on to Garrison’s Gorillas. More quality war TV.

The Rat Patrol, starring Christopher George, followed that ill-fated but really cool TV show and had a bit more success. J.D. Flowers does special effects for all these shows. Constantly blowing things up…safely!

I met him when my career started and we talked all about MGM days. A toast to Mr. Flowers… an effects legend. In one of the more fulfilling days I’ve had, I was able to connect dots from a decade prior.

I have a Combat board game, and a Rat Patrol lunch box. I live for this stuff.

I even ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of my Rat Patrol lunch box…inside the the real German half-track from the Rat Patrol series. And I drank my Kool-aid out of my Rat Patrol thermos. I live my lunch pails. How many kids do that?image.jpg

I have yet to be chased here, at Lot 3…and don’t want to. I have run into trespassers who warned us this happens here…getting shot at, that is. It hurts badly I am told. Try to avoid that; your choices are… keep a lot of distance… cut and run like a jack rabbit and criss cross…so they can’t aim strait. Doorways are your friends, but don’t get in a building where you’re trapped. Words to live by. 

Jimmy, my best pal, and I, are like a modern Lewis and Clark.  The same harsh but rustic surroundings. They dealt with Indians. We deal with guards. Both will scalp ya. But like them, we successfully map this wild frontier.

In fact, this is where you would film Lewis and Clark. Anything you can imagine can happen here. It’s where the right side of your brain can enjoy itself. Creative time and space for your mind. Not the dribble you get brainwashed with at school.

There is a lot across from Lot 3. It is Lot 5. A simple rusted chain link fence tries to contain what is plainly within sight and within reach. It is a field with planes from WW2 littered about…

Bombers, and fighters planes…some German ones sit rusting, waiting for their next Hollywood battle. Real planes and real stories…now retired to be MGM props. What kid would not dig this. My personal toy chest… Planes that once glorified the sky are now littered around the backlots.

12 O’clock High was a Fox TV show; it had its tags on a fuselage indicating that it was a rental for that production. This is a plane museum. Across the street on Lot 3 is a train museum. A real steam engine pulls passengers half way around the Lot. The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, capture this in the song “Aitchison-Topeka.”

This defining number sang by Judy, herself, captured for eternity what backlots are about. History goes backwards here, but it’s captured on film for us to enjoy today. I still get goosebumps when I see scenes and productions that used my old sets.

“Willoughby, next stop is Willoughby,” shouts the conductor. That is a Twilight Zone episode, starring James Daly. In this episode, shot at our little train station at Lot 3, James succumbs to the corporate grind and dreams of of this backlot town, called Willoughby. He wants only to live the simple life that exists inside these fences. This train stops at Willoughby.

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That episode describes how wonderful my life is becoming. I live in Willoughby! 

Inside these studio fences is an unmistakable sense of history. You feel it, see it, it exists. Magic!

I am catching on, that inside these fences is a time machine of history—created where I am standing. One side of the fence is the harsh reality of school, responsibility, and expectations to succeed. But inside these fences, time merges…not a care in the world.

Time you learn to appreciate stuff not taught in school: a special time that you hope never disappears.

So, put on your tennis shoes and grab your fishing pole… we got a huge lake inside… Are you coming?

Written and lived by Donnie Norden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hogan’s Heroes

 

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My first excursion into the Desilu backlot is with a handpicked group of friends that are willing to potentially deal with a pack of dogs… Volunteers anyone?

Easier than I expected, I recruited five accomplices. We confirmed dogs exist from the hills above, but not that often. When work takes place on the backlot, dogs are not present. We will roll the dice on this night.

Finally, this Sunday night after the TV airing of Hogan’s Heroes on network TV, we executed a plan we have rehearsed for over and over. We would go inside under the cover of darkness. Climbing a rusted fence post with a viscious dog picture on it. That puts us in a deep grassy hillside lined by large eucalyptus trees. The moon is crescent shaped giving us very little to see. It takes awhile for our eyes to adjust to this complete darkness.

The camp in its entirety presents itself. All the POW barracks, a water tower, a German shepherd kennel with 6 dog houses. All recognizable in the dark hue.  And of course, Colonel Klink’s office.

We were in no-hurry. We are sneaking into a iconic set that may be guarded by dogs.

We stare down from the grassy knoll over-looking the stalag. It is inspiring. My friends and I, are looking for any signs of life in this dark setting. Particularly of interest, are the dogs are on duty!

We sit for an hour convincing ourselves that it will be safe to go forward… our first objective, the guard tower next to the Stalag 13 main gate. There are two at the main gate. A red and white guard shack sits next to the one we picked. Real barb wire surrounds this set from this angle, and the main gate itself is closed.

We gather the courage to exit our observation point and run to the nearest guard tower. One of three overlooking the stalag, and scurry up it’s ladder. We our just outside the camp fence looking directly at Colonel Klink’s headquarters.

We have seen this tower for years, standing tall beyond the chain link fence that seperated us all this time. Now we are here!

This is a truly satisfying accomplishment. Up in this guard perch we can see more of the camp, and we feel safe from dogs. The worst that can happen up here is we could get trapped all-night until work begins tomorrow morning, on this lot.

We would rather surrender to humans than to face a pack of angry shepherds. We ponder now what move makes sense next on this backlot chess board. We want to sneak beyond this main gate fortress. Like Bob Crane and his band of merry heroes, we also, plot to break-in to stalag 13.

All our previous exploits were on MGM backlots, so this is not our first backlot rodeo. But, MGM has no dogs.

It is always fun to explore the unknown. Night-time makes it much safer not seen but… 10 times more SCARIER!

Just a kid living inside the world of his TV.

To be continued…

Story written and lived by Donnie Norden…

Backlot Entrances

It is posted that rules exist and this is off-limits. That makes it all the better. This is not for the faint of heart. Preparation, the same thing I use for tests at school, was necessary. That starts with getting into the backlot property…and what better way, other than to be unseen!

Each lot was entirely different, and that starts with the fences to keep trespassers out. We ignore the warning signs… how climbable and hidden is our entry? We have only wood fences with knot holes to peek through. That’s helpful. We have metal corrugated steel fences, held up by wooden supports. They are old and easy to climb. I would boost one guy up and he would reach down and pull the other guy, or guys, up by one arm.

We perfected this boost-up method, after our Hole in the Fence, left by a fallen tree, was repaired and we needed another way inside. We only needed two people and both could be inside, in thirty seconds. This went on for a decade.

Lot 2 was surrounded by a fence that was roughly 70 percent new and very sharp on top. This technique did not work on this style fence. Every fence was different and many styles existed. The rusty, old, chain link style—you know the kind…with three strands of rusted, barbed wire running across the top,exists around MGM lots 3, 4 and 5…and also, almost entirely around Desilu.

Barbed wire climbs are the worst!  You must climb the fence support poles to gain entry. This is impossible to enter or exit while being chased, so running to that style fence with the hopes of escaping is not very shrewd. Know your fences is a rule of thumb.

These fences allowed us to see inside. Often, we could not climb in, due to work going on within view. So, we would go to plan B. The fact is, getting to know the fences was like homework, and sneaking, not only in, but also out, was the pass or fail test.

We learned how to make our own entrances, using the same obstacles that would keep most kids outside of this make-believe world. We added strategic gates to the sharp metal fence. If you can’t climb it, secretly go through it!

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These fences were the first level of security. The next involves humans with badges and…oh yes, dogs with collars.

Desilu fences have Dogs on Duty postings on them. This was truly a scary alternative and it is how Desilu kept us out as long as they did. It took us a couple of years to come up with a courageous plan. But backlot passion was pulsating through my veins and all backlots were to become mine.

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This is the chain-link fence where the stars entered Lot 2. The Red Bronco in the background is the security vehicle that was usually on patrol.

Written and lived by Donnie Norden

 

 

 

Batman and the Green Hornet…

Desilu studios is a short bike ride away from Lot 2. It is located on a street named after movie pioneer, Thomas Ince. This forty acre backlot is separate from its main lot offices and stages. The detached backlot has few people, but corner after corner of historic streets and villages.

Desilu is different than all the MGM lots. We can look down on it from a hill side above. The same hills also look over MGM Lot 3 and provide a bird’s eye view of… everything. As we observe film production going on, like a giant ant farm below, the idea of sneaking in is being planted… we are doing our homework from high above.

This is sensational. We are learning this lot extremely well, without ever stepping foot in any of them… YET!

Desilu, like Lot 2, will have to be explored, one house… one village… at a time. We can’t wait for the excitement of setting foot on private property.

We already know that Batman is filmed here. We’ve seen them shooting from above… both Batman and Bat-Woman. She has a nice Purple motorcycle…

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I flash back to that moment when I was the caped crusader, myself, on my Stingray, racing around with my mask… cape blowing behind me. In my mind, my Stingray had mag wheels and wings.

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The Green Hornet also filmed here. The show’s star, legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee, lived right behind this studio, in Culver City.

Batman and the Green Hornet drive the best cars on TV, by the way…

Below: clips of the Green Hornet sedan… 

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Below: Bruce Lee, in a fight scene on the Desilu main lot, just below the iconic water tower… (Bruce could walk home from here).

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Below: Bruce’s two-story apartment sits right behind these studio bungalows

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I continue to live my lunchboxes… don’t change that channel! Same Bat Time, same Bat Place.

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…
Edited by DQ