Monday, April 20, 2009

How'd you like to go to work here everyday?

Last week on AMERICAN IDOL the contestants went to 20th Century Fox studios. And they were each interviewed standing right in front of my old office. Of the many movie lots I was fortunate to work at, 20th was probably my favorite.

Especially during MASH.

Back then I drove into the studio past the New York street built for HELLO DOLLY. Today there are office buildings. Goodbye Dolly. I drove past the MASH stage (9) – actually I raced past the MASH stage so I wouldn’t be stopped by an actor who had a script question. My parking space was in the old western town square used for BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I was mere steps from the whorehouse.

Our office was in “the Old Writers Building”. And that was before I was one. It was a two story Swiss chalet, featured in BABES IN TOYLAND and any other film that had elves. Supposedly, our office on the second floor once belonged to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda’s empty gin bottles were still behind the couch so it must be true.

There was always filming going on. CHARLIE’S ANGELS were there every other week. I guess the angels broke up a lot Swiss drug rings. But I’d walk out of the building and there would be Jackie Smith in a tight jump suit pointing a gun at me. This is why I wanted to be a writer, by the way.

The Old Writers Building still exists but western town is a memory, replaced by trailers. Jackie Smith can still get into that jumpsuit so that’s pretty cool.

The commissary was in the PEYTON PLACE town square. Remember the white gazebo? That was still there. Not anymore. Replaced by a massive parking structure.

What is now Century City used to just be part of the 20th Century Fox lot. But they lost so much money on CLEOPATRA that they had to sell some of it off. But in the late 70s a good portion still remained. There was a private bridge over Olympic Blvd that led to a back lot where a ton of scenery was stored. My partner and I would walk to Century City for lunch past several of the original STAR WARS sets.

Today the bridge is gone as is the back lot. There is a large office building and a parking structure. (“Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot”) The STAR WAR sets are in the Smithsonian or some prop guy’s den. They would have been in my den if I were smart back then.

A trip to the prop building was like a day in the greatest Hollywood museum ever. Priceless props were just collecting dust. Yul Brynner’s belt buckle from THE KING AND I was even there! Why didn’t I steal that too?! I am such an idiot!

Every afternoon we could watch dailies. The screening room was right behind Commissioner Gordon’s office from the TV version of BATMAN. Remember how the Batmobile would park right in front of the building and Batman and Robin would bound up the stairs? On the other side of the fa├žade was probably the producers watching the Julie Newmar in her cat suit from the day before.

And all of this was before even going on our set and watching them film scenes that are still being shown today.

It was a golden time that I cherish now and happy to say, recognized and appreciated at the time. Dream factories were more dreams and less factories. When I have occasion to drive onto the lot today I usually pass by the former site of the old western town and think of that great exchange in BUTCH CASSIDY.

BUTCH: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
GUARD: People kept robbing it.
BUTCH: Small price to pay for beauty.

42 comments:

Paul said...

Thanks for the walkthrough. As someone who used to work at Fox Studios before getting laid off a few months ago, it's nice to hear some of the history. You hear a million old stories about what used to be where, but it's nice to get a more accurate picture of it from someone who was there.

D. McEwan said...

For a real movie buff, wandering a studio is really a greta trip. The Universal tour just doesn't have the same magic, although the first time I ever took it, and saw the Psycho house for real the first time, I did get goose bumps all over.

(A variation on the WV game. I was seeing one of Sally Field's osteoperosis commercials today - "Hi. I'm Sally Fields, and my bones are turning to powder. Soon I'll literally be a bag of guts." - and the product is called "Boniva."

Isn't that what Hitler liked to do every night?)

D. McEwan said...

BTW, Which BABES IN TOYLAND was that? Disney's was shot on the Disney lot, and surely Laurel & Hardy's was shot at Roach. And weren't the early STAR WARS MOVIES shot at Shepperton, and just released by 20th?

The most-exciting movie location moment I've ever had (and I've had a bunch of them) was climbing the Vendome Stairs in Silverlake that Laurel & Hardy carried the piano up and down, over and over, in THE MUSIC BOX. In the footsteps of Oliver Hardy. Holy Ground.

xjill said...

Nothing better than being on a lot. I get tingly no matter how many times it happens. I especially love the history/feeling at Culver Studios - love those bungalows!

jbryant said...

D. - Didn't the Three Stooges make a trip up those stairs, too, with a block of ice? Not sure if you're quite as excited about following in Curly's footsteps, but I thought I'd throw that out there.

Ref said...

astork: a very wealthy stork.

emily said...

Ken,

Are you and David working on the untitled ABC Kelsey Grammer project?

Anonymous said...

Ken, Yul Brenner's belt buckle aside, I'd be interested
to know what treasured bric-a-brac you did manage to pick up along the way.

A. Buck Short said...

So that’s why they call them lots! I really enjoyed the virtual tour. Commissioner Gordon’s office is a perfect example of one thing my wife always points out. On TV or in the movies, whenever anybody has to get somewhere in a hurry or otherwise, there’s always a parking space directly in front of the place they have to go – and apparently no parking meter enforcement in the rare instance in which you might encounter one. That’s one of the attractions of the Golden State, ample free parking – as long as you’ve got a location PA to save the space or bag the meter.

My first impression of Hollywood was that Paramount always looked most like a studio from outside the front gate, and Fox from just inside the front gate.

D.McE, congratulations on the discretion in submitting your third choice of word verification definition for Boniva. My favorite related reference is Wendy (20 years of rimshot punch lines without a single rimshot) Liebman’s: “Over the past several months I’ve been able to drop 20 pounds. Of course most of that was bone loss.” I happen to be one of that unique male subset diagnosed with osteoporosis. We think I might have gotten it from a toilet seat. The Fosomax you’re supposed to take once a week for that is still sitting in the medicine cabinet, because you’re supposed to either eat, drink or lie down without eating for a half hour after taking it. I can’t sit up straight for a half hour in the morning without coffee. You know these elixirs are not aimed at you, when the questionnaire in the doctor’s waiting room starts off by asking how long it’s been since your last menstruation. I wrote in at least 40 years, and quite possibly even longer.

Ken, I listened last night and would have called, were you not two hours behind us, so that I would be awake enough to think of a question. Did Ms. Finke ever find a way to try to bond with you with any reference besides the writer’s strike, using the baseball allusion “I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em?” It shocked me a little. I didn’t realize they let nice guys who encourage their guests on talk radio.

John said...

Location, location, location -- in this case, Fox's lot was in too good a place not to attract the real estate wolves. If they had been smart, they would have located in a crappy area like Paramount/RKO (Desilu) and the only people trying to take over their property would have been the hookers, car thieves and drug dealers.

Michael Green said...

That must have been the lot Alan Alda was describing as having the rats that made the Swamp seem so realistic.

John Hudgens said...

What Ken saw couldn't have been Star Wars sets - all of the in-studio stuff was shot entirely in England... the only US shooting for the original was location stuff out in Death Valley (the same canyon was reused for Raiders). Empire didn't shoot any locations stateside, and Jedi shot out in Arizona or Northern California...

I wonder what it really was he saw?

KEN LEVINE said...

They were STAR WARS sets. Randomly lying around. Because I saw them before I saw the movie and after I had seen STAR WARS I said to my partner, "Hey, those are from that space movie". Maybe a few sets had been transported there. I dunno. But they were STAR WARS. If I was smart they'd be in my backyard and I could show you all now.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I wonder if there's a western set left anywhere. I love westerns and their rare appearances these days (or, worse, their pc appearances) are a sad thing.
Another great post, Ken.

Tom Quigley said...

Having a BA in History, I suppose it was only natural when I became interested in pursuing work in the film/television industry that I'd want to learn some of the history of the places where I would be working, and the studios certainly don't disappoint.

One of my favorite things to do was when I was on a studio lot was was to sneak around if I had the time and find some of the sets or places that figured in well-known TV shows and movies... If I knew a little of the history of the lot or of a particular show or movie, it made it all that much more interesting. Managed to drive my car on Universal's back lot one time all the way over to Spartacus Square...

CBS Radford, though fairly small, was a lot I spent numerous days on, and was the home of so many MTM shows, (MARY TYLER MOORE, both Newhart shows, both WKRP shows), but I discovered that's where they also filmed much of GUNSMOKE and THE WILD WILD WEST (the TV show, not the Will Smith movie), not to mention GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, MY THREE SONS, ST. ELSEWHERE, THIRTYSOMETHING, SEINFELD, ROSEANNE and a bunch of others... The beach for Gilligan's lagoon was still there when I first worked on some shows, but was eventually filled in to make way for more bungalows and parking.. I had a chance to film on one of the streets there that was used as the neighborhood for THIRTYSOMETHING when I was in an episode oF THE SINGLE GUY. It's now used as the street for ACCORDING TO JIM...

At Warner Brothers I walked past the fountain many times that the FRIENDS cast doused themselves in under the credits (and the buildings in the backgound are just flats).

Culver, where I worked most often on MAD ABOUT YOU was the home of GONE WITH THE WIND, CITIZEN KANE and the original KING KONG... Stage 11, where MAD ABOUT YOU was filmed, served as the the ballroom set of Ashley Wilkes' mansion in GWTW. And I always got a kick out of parking in the underground structure that was built directly benenath the white-columned administration building which faces out onto Washington Blvd., a shot of which always opened a Selznick-produced film. It's virtually unchanged today....

Damn! Now I need to go give myself a classic film fix!....

RE: the STAR WARS sets: Perhaps since George Lucas was already tentatively planning at least two sequels, he might have had some of the sets sent back to Fox from England in anticipation that they'd be used again...

Dana Gabbard said...

A. Buck Short, I remember in an old TV Guide (remember back when it had real articles, or was even about TV?) a piece complaining about that. And complimenting Knot's landing for having a scene where William Devane comes out from some meeting to find his car has a parking ticket because the meter has expired.

Anonymous said...

wow, so cool to see and hear stories from an insider!! hope u keep blogging forever!!

Jeff Tompkins said...

Great post. Thanks for the "tour." I'd love to read more stuff like this.

growingupartists said...

Sometimes, in this clairvoyant world we all live in, I'd be content scanning your content for capitals. But really, I just want to know what the script question would've been. What do actors ask writers about scripts? Or are we talking prescriptions, and you just don't want to admit it?

Anonymous said...

When I worked there in the 80s, the Fox lot was a special transitional place with footholds in the future and the past.

The studio "hospital" (like the nurse's office in junior high) was Shirley Temple's old dressing room building. The old barn where they kept Tom Mix and others' horses was the ad-pub warehouse

But my two favorites were Dolly Street and the map of the lot the studio published. My office was behind the New York Library set with the two lions, Faithful and Prudence, flanking the stairs. But DOLLY had been shot about 15 years earlier and an ivy vine had grown up inside one of the hollow statues and come out its mouth, making it look as though the lion was sticking its tongue out at who knows what.

The other was the building attached to the main music scoring stage. On the map in my employee's handbook it was identified as the
"organ blower room." The new maps no longer combine scoring and organ blower.

Anonymous said...

"Of the many movie lots I was fortunate to work at, 20th was probably my favorite."

Hey--wait a minute. You vote for Fox over Paramount? Paramount with its iconic Bronson gate and the old writers' building from SUNSET BLVD? The big blue sky? A real back lot? Where CITIZEN KANE and
I LOVE LUCY were shot? THE GODFATHER; Hope and Crosby; Martin and Lewis; Cheech and Chong???

We deserve a tour of your home for the greatest part of your career.

D. McEwan said...

"jbryant said...
D. - Didn't the Three Stooges make a trip up those stairs, too, with a block of ice?"

How would I know? I haven't voluntarlily sat through a 3 Stooges film since puberty. They are not worthy of following in the footsteps (ripping off?) the magnificent Laurel & Hardy. Hacks vs Genius.

"John said...
Location, location, location -- in this case, Fox's lot was in too good a place not to attract the real estate wolves. If they had been smart, they would have located in a crappy area like Paramount"

John, it wasn't a crappy area back when the studio was founded, nor was 20th in a "good place" when it was founded.

"KEN LEVINE said...
They were STAR WARS sets. Randomly lying around. Because I saw them before I saw the movie and after I had seen STAR WARS I said to my partner, 'Hey, those are from that space movie'."

So the question arises: what were they doing there? The movie was not shot in California, nor even in America. Now it's a full-fledged mystery.

"Tom Quigley said...
Perhaps since George Lucas was already tentatively planning at least two sequels, he might have had some of the sets sent back to Fox from England in anticipation that they'd be used again..."

So they could be sent BACK to England again? That makes no sense at all? Besides, the interiors of the Millenium Falcon were pretty much the only re-used sets.

Maybe some were reproduced in California at the studio for some quick post-production reshoots.

Once on the Universal tour I saw the 5 story interior set built for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. The guide said: "This was Robert Wise's first science fiction movie."

I stuck up my hand and asked: "What about THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL?"

Guide: "What is THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL?"

Me: "One of the greatest science ficiton classic films of all-time, directed by Robert Wise in 1951."

Guide: "I've never heard of it."

Me: "Then you aren't qualified to guide this tour. When you just spew out ignorant, made-up, non-facts, like calling THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN Robert Wise's first science fiction film, you're providing anti-information. You're making us less informed, not more. Why should we listen to you if you don't even know the classic films, let alone know what you're talking about?"

The guide and I were at odds the rest of the tour. I realize they can't just hire knowledgable film buffs for tour guides, but they ought to have at least provided them with ACCURATE information to dispense.

WV: brefr: a briefer form of "briefer."

D. McEwan said...

Oh, and speaking of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, the famous opening scenes with the flying saucer in the park were also shot on what later became Century City.

Mate Famber said...

Ken,

You pissed off the "Star Wars" geeks.
Nice knowin ya.

D. McEwan said...

"Mate Famber said...
Ken,
You pissed off the 'Star Wars' geeks."

Who is pissed off, and who are you calling a STAR WARS geek?

I'm just trying to figure out what the sets Ken saw were doing 6000 miles away from where the movie was shot. I'm not doubting him, just puzzled by it. That STAR WARS was shot in England is a well-known fact. You don't have to be a geek to know it. Just a film buff.

D. McEwan said...

"John Hudgens said...
the only US shooting for the original (STAR WARS)was location stuff out in Death Valley (the same canyon was reused for Raiders)."

Actually that canyon, from both STAR WARS and RAIDERS (And you're right that it's the exact same canyon), is in Tunesia, VERY far away from Death Valley.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

The stairway used for Laurel & Hardy as piano movers was indeed the one used by the Three Stooges to deliver ice. No matter what Doug says, they're icons of American slapstick humor. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

WV: liesses. What people say when they insist the Stooges ain't funny.

Max Clarke said...

In one of the William Goldman books -I think it was the sequel to Adventures in the Screen Trade- Goldman worried that Butch Cassidy couldn't be made today. He pointed to the exchange Ken quoted as an example of the weaknesses in his screenplay. He said a real bank robber type wouldn't say something so witty, ...small price to pay for beauty.

As Paul Newman delivered it, small price to pay for beauty was great.

D. McEwan said...

Cap'n Bob,

"Knuckledragger":
Someone over the age of 11 who insists The 3 Stooges are funny. They are not worthy to touch the hem of Stan Laurel's frock coat.

The only one of them with any real comic potential was Curly. Shemp was a solid supporting comic player in such films as BUCK PRIVATES, THE BANK DICK, and THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. (In THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, you have Shemp Howard acting with John Barrymore. There is something DEEPLY wrong with that.) He is unwatchable in the Stooges' stuff. I enjoyed Joe Besser when he was sparring with Lou Costello as "Stinky" ("I'll harm you!"), I even read his autobiography, but not in the Stooges. Moe was every school bully I ever loathed. Who could love that horrible, vicious character? And what was Larry Fine doing there at all? What did he contribute? And why would I want to watch a bunch of grown men hitting each other? (My same reason for loathing boxing.)

(Okay, the name "Shemp" is a funny word. A friend of mine sometimes performs, tongue-in-cheek, the horrible old Elvis Presley song about a dog, OLD SHEP. But when he sings it as OLD SHEMP, it becomes hilarious.)

I'm prepared. I had this debate with a close friend for 27 years, until I won by default when my friend died. He knew better than to leave his sizable Stooges collection to me. The irony was that I had seen the stooges perform live onstage, had seen in person Larry and Moe tape a talk show appearance with Lohman & Barkley (Mickey Rooney was also on the show. Moe and Larry, as I'm sure you know, were soft-spoken offscreen. Rooney was, as usual, so loud, obnoxious, and egotistical that I found myself wishing Moe would slip into character long enough to club Rooney with a crowbar.), and I ran into Curly Joe DeRita in a hotel lobby once. My Stooges fanatic friend never set eyes on them in 3-D in his whole life.

That they shot some film delivering ice up those same steps as L&H did in their lone Oscar-winning film only shows their lack of originality. "Let's do a lousy rip-off of Laurel & Hardy's Oscar-winning masterpiece."

When I want to watch grown men poke each other, I'll watch gay porn. (Good idea. I have some here. Bye.)

John said...

D --

My tounge was solidly across my molars on the comment about Fox's picking a bad location -- of course all the studios were original built out on the edges of town in the teens through the early 1940s, and it's unlikely there were crack dealers wearing straw hats and bowties outside the Paramount gates circa 1922 (hookers dressed up doing the Charleston and sounding like Helen Kane? That's another story, and probably one that never made it onto one of those Paramount on Parade one-reelers).

Paramount was/is just lucky that their section of town is not one that is hot on the real estate market and that Charlie Bludhorn was smart enough to buy out Lucy and merge the RKO and Paramount lots in 1967. Being in what turned out to be a better neighborhood was actually worse for Fox's back lot (though if someone like Kirk Kerkorian is hell-bent on selling off a back lot even in a not-so-hot area like Culver City because he only needed the studio's name for his casinos, there's not much you can do to save the place).

Anonymous said...

Worked on a Miller/Boyett show on the former Lorimar, now Sony lot in Culver City. This was around 1991. In the "Gable Building" to be exact.

So one day all the women run to one end of the production offices screaming, oooing and Ahhhing. Turns out Kevin Coster drove up in an old Camaro to do some post work.

One day Barbra Streisand walks by also heading toward a post production office.

A while later Spielberg and crew took over several of the large sound stages to work on Hook. Late, really late, one night I was copying scripts, delivering scripts around the lot and one of the night guards invited me to check out one of the gigantic sound stages where hook was beind produced. We walked around for a while just checkin the place out.

Awesome times being on that lot!

Randy said...

Thanks for the memories. They WERE "Star Wars" sets. I was on the lot in that era when 20th still had a record company and that stupid outer space movie was yet to be released.

Back then the food in the commissary was actually good. And best of all, the dinnerware all had the old searchlight logo.

A. Buck Short said...

On the lot of the studio that produced The Snows of Kilimanjaro there is the dried and frozen carcass of a horax. No one has explained what the Star Wars creature was seeking in that lassitude from a Fox, so far from the ice planet Hoth. Possibly a 3-picture deal? But that was a long time ago in another century, on an avenue of stars, now far, far away.

Kate Coe said...

Zelda was never in LA when Scott was working. Sorry.

Paramount is the best lot, with the most history, but FOX is very cool. Pity about the research library.

Tallulah Morehead said...

"Anonymous said...
Late, really late, one night I was copying scripts, delivering scripts around the lot and one of the night guards invited me to check out one of the gigantic sound stages where hook was beind produced."

Was the stench on the HOOK set horrible beyond belief?

Because that movie stank to high heaven. I don't just want my money back. I want the two-plus hours it soiled in my life back.

Cheers.

VP81955 said...

CBS Radford, though fairly small, was a lot I spent numerous days on, and was the home of so many MTM shows, (MARY TYLER MOORE, both Newhart shows, both WKRP shows), but I discovered that's where they also filmed much of GUNSMOKE and THE WILD WILD WEST (the TV show, not the Will Smith movie), not to mention GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, MY THREE SONS, ST. ELSEWHERE, THIRTYSOMETHING, SEINFELD, ROSEANNE and a bunch of others..."That '70s Show" used the same soundstage as "MTM" and "Seinfeld," but the lot's history goes all the way back to the days of Mack Sennett, as I wrote in an entry at my blog some time ago (shameless plug):

http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/46765.html

My tounge was solidly across my molars on the comment about Fox's picking a bad location -- of course all the studios were original built out on the edges of town in the teens through the early 1940s, and it's unlikely there were crack dealers wearing straw hats and bowties outside the Paramount gates circa 1922 (hookers dressed up doing the Charleston and sounding like Helen Kane? That's another story, and probably one that never made it onto one of those Paramount on Parade one-reelers).If you've ever read about ill-fated early Paramount star Wallace Reid, who died as an addict at the height of his fame, you know the drug dealers of 1922 didn't need to stand outside the studio gates.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Doug, it's said the world is divided into two camps: Those who like the Stooges and those who don't. I know the Stooge haters exist, I just don't understand what kind of genetic abnormality prevents them from enjoying those great funny men. But I accept it and hold no animosity for those unable to watch the boys do their stuff. Chacun a son gout.

Mr. Peel said...

Re: STAR WARS. Weren't the bulk of the creatures in the cantina sequence part of a reshoot that was done in L.A. after the fact with the masks designed by Rick Baker? Could that have been part of what Ken saw? Could some of it have been used for, so help me, the Holiday Special? Just putting the possibility out there.

Paramount's my favorite too, but nothing wrong with Fox.

D. McEwan said...

"Mr. Peel said...
Re: STAR WARS. Weren't the bulk of the creatures in the cantina sequence part of a reshoot that was done in L.A. after the fact with the masks designed by Rick Baker? Could that have been part of what Ken saw?"

Interesting thery. It sounds perfectly plausable to me. I never heard of Rick Baker, who at the time should have been reeling with shame for his performance as King Kong in the ghastly DeLaurentis version of KK the year before, having been involved in STAR WARS, but I'm no expert on SW. What we need is an actual SW geek who does know this stuff, but they seem unlikely readers of this blog.

D. McEwan said...

"thery"???

I swear I pressed the "O" key when I typed "theory," but I guess not hard enough. I gotta proof-read my comments.

VP81955 said...

Speaking of studios, there's now a Yahoo! group called "StudioBacklots," dedicated to studios past and present. Their archive has several hundred photos of film and TV studios -- including some aerial shots (I found eight taken from the 1923 "Blue Book Of The Screen." . Quite interesting. It's at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/StudioBacklots/

jason said...

Actual Star Wars geek here, D. McEwan.

Yes, it's true, Rick Baker did work on the cantina scene, although I've always heard Lucas was less than pleased with his efforts and several of the creatures that got CG'd over in the '97 Special Edition were Baker's(I could be wrong on that).

I would guess that any set material that may have been sitting around the Fox lot was used for pick-ups done after primary shooting was completed. Lucas is known to have been tinkering and editing the movie right up until the day of its release. Legend has it some of the prints arrived at their theaters still wet...