It was never about the movies.
Few people realize this but the movies themselves are only the end result, a byproduct of the factories which created them. It sounds downright sacrilegious, considering the vast emotional weight we place on our cinematic entertainments but trust me, the most momentous and important thing Hollywood has given the world isn’t a movie at all, any movie, but rather Hollywood itself. That is, Hollywood’s movie studios and our ideas about them.
It’s true, behind the tall walls at Hollywood’s seven studios have been created no less than our very ideas of what we are, where we live and what makes up our world. And none of this has been accomplished by the movies at all, but rather by the studios, the physical factories which birthed these movies. Most of our ideas about sociology, history, architecture, and geography were created inside these gates. The movies created there were the only the medium through which these messages were delivered.
“When I was a kid I took a trip to Los Angeles with my parents and at the time MGM was offering, for a little while, a tour of their studio,” remembers writer Stephen X. Sylvester. “I spent an afternoon there and it changed my life. We went to Disneyland the next day and I was so disappointed. Compared to MGM, Disneyland felt like pale Xerox of a movie studio. Real life felt like a pale Xerox of as movie studio. It still does.”
If one was to place a push-pin in the intersection of Hollywood and Vine on a map of Los Angeles – and then to place additional pins at the historic (if not always original) sites of the seven major film studios, the “Seven Sisters” as they are still referred to, that compose the industry, a jagged triangle would be formed. Furthest afield would be MGM, which was nine miles through dicey LA traffic from Hollywood Blvd. Twentieth Century-Fox would make up the other side of this triangle at seven and a half miles. Warner Bros., to the north, is just over four miles away. Universal, at the base of the Cahuenga Pass, just over three. Paramount and RKO lie to the south a mile and a half away. Columbia, slightly west at only half a mile from ground zero would complete the physical picture. (Disney, the last sister, rose to prominence as a major as RKO waned)
A visitor to either modern day or historic Hollywood however, would have a hard time doing more that staring through the fences at these studios. True, several of the majors offer, or have offered, public tours of their lots, and one studio, Universal, even has its own amusement park. But Hollywood’s studios have always been closed-off cities with their own rules and folklore.
Movie studio backlots are the sections of a studio which distinguish that studio from any other factory, industrial site or manufacturing center. In the history of the world there has never been another business where entire secret cities have regularly needed to be manufactured and then never used as what they appear to portray. Sets on a studio backlot may need to look like Shanghai at midnight or Dodge City at high noon, but only in the most superficial way possible. A backlot version of the Grand Hotel need only look like the Grand Hotel – or like an audience’s idea of what the Grand Hotel needs to look like. And in fact, for most of us, that which makes us think we are familiar with the Grand Hotel is probably born not from reality – but from watching films set – but not filmed, at the Grand Hotel.
Sadly, in modern Hollywood a studios’ signature architecture is becoming an endangered species. Like Route 66, which once spider-webbed across the nation and now survives only in our imagination and in fit and starts, backlots still exist at all the studios, if you look for them, but only in pieces. Even in an a era of computer created virtual backlots modern studios have discovered that it is indeed practical to keep limited standing sets on their properties and, if you have a friend, who can get you a pass to visit, take a public tour, or if you can climb a fence, you can still visit them. The experience is well worthwhile, both alien and achingly familiar. Time does not stand still on a backlot, only in the films and memories which they produce. But if your mood and the sunlight through the smog and the time of day are right while you are there, a modern backlot can feel just like it must have felt in the past. Just like it can feel in the movies.
Before its too late then, let’s pick up that map of Hollywood again and visit Hollywood’s’ mythical, mysterious studios, not as they were in the movies, but as they physically exist today. And as they once were…
In some ways MGM built the ultimate, prototypical, backlot. Producer Thomas Ince, credited with being the inventor of the modern, factory-styled movie studio – and movie studio backlot – opened the property in Culver City in 1915 in partnership with fellow pioneers D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. Corporate wrangling resulted in the lot eventually being acquired by Samuel Goldwyn, and after a 1924 merger, by the newly created MGM. Exterior sets were constructed at the western or “back” part of the studio property as needed. Someone, probably plant manager J.J. Cohn, started recycling these sets for later pictures when it was discovered that a sign or a title card or another angle could turn a street created to look like one location into something entirely different. The era of the backlot was born.
MGM’s backlots were divided into 3 properties. The first and oldest was the real estate on the edge of the original studio property, aka; “Lot One.” Lot One’s backlot was distinguished by a man-made lake which was used regularly into the 1940’s. But many of the surrounding sets were gradually moved across the street to the 40-acre “Lot Two.” Lot Two eventually contained a variety of European and Asian districts, the industry’s largest (7-acre) “New York” Street, and a working railroad with three depots of progressively larger and more modern vintage and culminating in a vast Grand Central Station replica. The “Small Town” or “Andy Hardy Street” was perhaps the busiest of all backlot sets at all studios, owing to MGM’s many pictures extolling the virtues of rural communities, which it copied, and which copied it, and which still existed all across the United States at the time.
Up the road a few blocks was the even larger (65-acre) “Lot Three” which itself was surrounded by the smaller satellite lots “Four,” Five,” “Six,” and even “Seven.” Lot Three contained fewer sets than Lot Two, but they were generally larger than those at any other studio. A man-made tropical jungle and lake was infested with real animals and marine life, which apparently couldn’t tell the difference. A tree-line road was so generic that it was used by virtually every film of every historic period that the studio produced. Most studios could boast of a Western street somewhere on their backlot, but MGM had 3 separate frontier era districts, even though the parent company produced comparatively few Westerns. Adjacent was the famous “St. Louis Street” which most production designers agreed was the ultimate masterpiece of all studio backlots. The eight houses constructed there by Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and John Martin Smith charmed everyone who visited the location or saw any movie which utilized it. To see this set, everyone agreed, was to experience a feeling of longing for a past which no one alive today, or even in 1944 when it was constructed and when the world was at war, ever really experienced firsthand. The nostalgic, heightened reality these homes embodied and represented could not have been created, or experienced anywhere but on a backlot. The set was planned, designed and created to be better than real life.
Across town and on the other side of our map, Universal Studios held a very early backlot. Founder Carl Laemmle purchased the land which would become the largest movie studio on earth in 1914 for $3,500. He took satisfaction in knowing that real history had taken place near his new property in 1846 when Mexico officially ceded the territory of California to the United States right across the street from his office. The grand opening party (Universal’s, not California’s) was held on March 15, 1915.
Universal, despite its size, (various acquisitions and mergers eventually bloated the lot to 415 acres) has the disadvantage of being built on the side of a hill. It is the only Hollywood studio where golf carts have to be gas-powered in order to make it up the steeper grades. Therefore, the backlot has been limited over the decades in size and shape by the natural terrain. Various sets, particularly residential streets, have been built or moved onto the hillsides, but areas representing cities have historically had to be constructed along a flat, narrow band of real estate between the bottom of the hill to the south and the Los AngelesRiver on the north. Lankershim Blvd. on the west and Barham Blvd. to the east provide man-made borders on the other two sides.
The front lot was constructed along Lankershim and consists of 31 soundstages, post-production and technical facilities. Walking east onto the backlot from there today an explorer immediately finds oneself in a wonderful reconstruction of New York City, which oddly has mountains on one side and a nearly dry, paved river bed on the other. Unfortunately, most of today’s “New York Street” is of a comparatively recent vintage. The original street was lost in an arson fire set by a disgruntled security guard in 1990 (some of which itself burned again in 2008) and what the cameras (and guests on the company’s “studio tours”) actually see is a copy which mimics and in some cases surpasses the original sets.
All of this, of course, begs what eventually must be asked when thinking about backlots. At which point does a backlot set, always in a constant state of flux, stop being the original structure and become a copy or a new building with an entirely new identity?
While we ponder this question on our tour, this pseudo-historic New York evolves into a small town street with courthouse. A residential street, apparently designed as part of this same set, was removed in 1981 so that production offices could be constructed. Some of the houses from this street, familiar from American television series like The Munsters, Leave It to Beaver and Bachelor Father were moved up onto the hillside, where they remain, in truncated form to this day. Part of a castle once stood nearby.
A “Mexican Village” complete with cobblestone streets, corral, and bridge lead, appropriately, into the studio’s (and Hollywood’s) last surviving Western set. Universal publicists claim that their “6 Points Texas” Western street is the oldest working spot on their backlot and the most filmed spot on the planet, although most of the current structures are actually of relatively recent vintage. But a walk down this weathered, grey strip, and the nearby “Denver Street” with its wooden sidewalks and dirty storefronts, leaves one feeling that this is indeed the real thing: an “actual” Hollywood location, not a recreation for tourists or a dude ranch pastiche. And the affection this area inspires is not for the actual Old West, but for Hollywood’s impression of that West, and for the Western itself. So a glance up at the company’s “Black Tower” office complex, which looms over the slat-board facades and casts its shadow over her ersatz frontier streets somehow is not as incongruous as it should be.
Let’s move on. A lake and a smaller pond fronts a New England fishing village.
Farther over are the remnants of a European Street alleged to go back to 1919, although most of the extant streets and structures actually date to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and, let’s be honest: nearly all of them are certainly much more recent than that.
The pseudo-Gladiator “Spartacus Square” stands on the extreme east side of the studio’s lower lot. Walking behind this impressive edifice, where the trams full of Hollywood’s happy tourists can’t go, the tired traveler sees not a Roman Senate in progress but crushed cola cans and dirty paper plates left behind by some long-ago craft service staffer. Yards away, traffic can be heard buzzing by on Barham Boulevard behind the razor wire fence.
Across the street from Universal, and running parallel to the Hollywood Hills is the massive (one often hears the word “sprawling” used) 110-acre complex still occupied by Warner Bros. Warners looks today, at the sunrise of the 21st century, more like a traditional movie studio than any of the other majors, even Universal, where studio construction seems to be dictated by what a tourist expects to see while in Hollywood. In fact, at Warner Bros., it almost seems as if the studio was built after the clichés were created only in order to live up to them In any case, the wide streets and orderly rows of soundstages which greet a modern visitor constitute virtually the same view which Humphrey Bogart would have seen when he first drove onto the lot in 1932.
The auto gate on Olive Blvd. (or “Gate 2”) has been used, for decades, as the quintessential movie studio entrance in pictures. Less ornate, and therefore less identifiable with a specific lot than Paramount’s regal Marathon Ave. entrance, it has shown up both in the studio’s own product - A Star is Born (1954), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), Blazing Saddles (1974) – and rented out as a set to other companies: Universal’s Bowfinger (1999), Disney’s Ed Wood (1994), Columbia’s The Way We Were (1973), etc. One can cross all the way onto the backlot from this single main artery.
By the late 1940s, this backlot, although comparatively small when measured alongside to the kingdoms at Fox and MGM, must have been astonishing in its variety and scope. A visitor in, let’s say, 1946, could wander down “Brownstone Street” onto the six blocks of New York Burroughs and find hidden behind the that set’s eastern wall the formidable Stage 21, at one time the world’s largest soundstage, where inside floated two complete ships, each 130 feet long! A railroad shed, with two locomotives, exterior track and a working indoor station sat behind it. Farther along, “Bonneyfeather Street,” a European coastal area would twist would and spiral through a tangle of alleys and morph into a big city “Tenement Street,”complete with fire escapes, streetlights, parking meters, neon signage, and machine gun pockmarks on many of the walls left over from the studio’s gangster dramas.
“Dijon Street,” a mid-eastern/Arabic community, was built in 1930 for a long-lost early version of Kismet and part of this street can be seen as Casablanca in 1943. “English Street” runs south for two blocks and terminates at a warehouse/landing strip which stores a small fleet of prop airplanes. On the other side of this hanger can be found a “Viennese Street,” which would be rebuilt into “Madison Avenue” in 1949 for Life with Father and some of which survives today as “French Street.” An early version of the studio’s current “Midwestern” or “Midvale Street” with residential section, curls behind this thoroughfare and to the east.
Behind this is a “Norwegian Street” which, with a disarming sense of logic, eventually becomes “Canadian Street,” a sort of Western town, only with snow. (Oddly the studio would not have a permanent “Western Street” on lot until 1956). The backlot then curls west and back into itself with a rather upscale “Philadelphia Street” before terminating into what was then Soundstage 20 (and which today is the Media Archive Building). Taking this 1946 trek would surely leave any exhausted visitor wondering what continent, what world, he was in.
In addition to the mazes and cul-de-sacs of standing sets found on the main lot, Warner, like most of the other studios, kept a ranch facility. Theirs was a 2500-acre tract in Calabasas.
Columbia Pictures represented the outstanding rags to riches success story among the majors. The company started out among the most miserly and penny-pinching of the low-rent studios which clustered up, and then withered away and died, in the poverty row district of Hollywood along Sunset and Gower Streets. Columbia’s early product was indistinguishable from the films being ground out by any her neighbors in this district. But she did have something all of her fellow unfortunates lacked. And that was Harry Cohn. Cohn was regarded by his peers with awe, derision, envy, admiration, hatred—just about anything you might want to say about the man, good or bad would probably be accurate. His penny-pinching ways were much remarked upon in Hollywood, yet in the depths of the Great Depression, Cohn was the only mogul who refused to back an industry-wide measure which would have halved the salaries of anyone making less than $50 a week. Fortunately for his well-maintained reputation, this act of kindness was not widely publicized.
Cohn literally and determinedly pulled and dragged his grubby little company up from the squalor – and in an astonishingly short amount of time, even for such a young industry, managed to anoint her as a major force in the industry, first with profits, then with respectability, and finally with Academy Awards and genuine if begrudging prestige.
The physical lot he did this on certainly reflects the company’s hand-to-mouth origins. Cohn’s plant was the smallest, physically, of any of the seven sisters. Even at its largest it was only a city block deep by half a block wide. Columbia Studios always looked like a hodgepodge ghetto of squalid little offices and, eventually, 14 over-worked and mostly closet-size soundstages.
Any sort of significant backlot here was nearly impossible; consequently, in 1934 Cohn purchased a ranch facility a half dozen miles away from his chaotic fiefdom up in Burbank. Other movie ranches, Warners, Fox’s, RKO’s, Paramount’s, were usually hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres across, containing terrain suitable for any sort of location. Cohn’s cut-rate equivalent was a whopping 40 acres (a second 40-acre parcel was quickly sold off). In 1952’s High Noon, it is possible to spot the telephones poles and post war tract houses spiraling across the “Western” landscape during the famous crane shot near the climax.
Cohn’s spread however, did evolve into one of the more interesting satellite backlots. Perhaps because space was so limited, and budgets so low, many of the facades constructed there saw an inordinate amount of duty over an inordinate number of years. A single curved block of residential homes, which either had no backs, or which had two fronts so as to be eligible for double duty, started appearing in features from the late ’30s but really reached iconic status from the 1950s onward when Screen Gems, Columbia’s television division (started in 1949) began shooting their domestic-themed sitcoms there.
Until this street is experienced first hand, it is impossible to imagine that the home of TV’s Dennis the Menace is the same set used as the home of Donna Reed. Or that the house next to it was Blondie’s home, the I Dream of Jeannie house, and the home where Father Knows Best. Or that the house next to that was used in both Bewitched and The Partridge Family. Or that the Bewitched home is next to the house used in the Lethal Weapon film series, as a not-so-stately Wayne manor in a Batman serial, and as the home of both Gidget and Hazel! In 1999 this entire, surreal city block stared in the feature film Pleasantville. The plot concerned a strange place inside a black and white television where old sitcoms flower magically to life.
The real world however, could not be kept out. The turmoil the movie industry faced in general in the 1970s hit Columbia particularly hard. In 1972, the young business school grads who had inherited Cohn’s cramped offices on Gower Street vacated many of them to cohabitate with Warner Bros. up in Burbank. They turned the original lot, briefly, into a tennis club. In 1998, Columbia moved across town again, this time to its current digs, the old MGM Lot One. The Columbia Ranch stayed part of Warner Bros., which it remains today.
RKO was in a similar situation to Columbia, although “the biggest little major” always had the prestige and cache that Columbia originally lacked. The studio was the first major created after the coming of sound --as its logo, that of a beeping radio tower astride the globe seemed to testify. An actual, physical replica of this insignia used to stand on the corner of Melrose and Gower Streets, astride one of the company’s soundstages. The studio underneath this logo was hardly any bigger than Columbia, which lay only a few blocks north but in a decidedly shoddier neighborhood. And as with Columbia, it seemed in the early days that the executives inside would be forced by the cramped locale to build their exterior sets off-lot in the San Fernando Valley.
Instead, those executives purchased an entire, preexisting studio complex, actually another old Thomas Ince lot, also in Culver City, in January 1931 – instantly fortifying the company with an additional 11 soundstages and a spectacular standing backlot as well. Most RKO pictures from this era were shot at one or both of these facilities, with the interiors often being shot on Gower Street and the exteriors out on “40 Acres.” In 1937 the studio also purchased 88 additional acres in the San Fernando Valley – Encino, actually.
With postwar hard times, the Hollywood lots were purchased by General Tire and Rubber in 1955 and shortly thereafter RKO ceased active production. Lucile Ball, once a perky RKO starlet achieved the dream of every starlet by buying her old studio for her own production company, Desilu, in 1956.
Paramount Pictures was RKO’s next door neighbor. In 1967 Paramount executives bought the property and removed the wall between the two lots. The surviving studio now occupies the entire 65-acre compound. Even today, a walk across Paramount’s grounds will reveal ghostly touches of RKO, including the manhole covers on the west side of the studio, which still say “RKO” (One wonders if there are any companies today, however affluent, that would go to the expense of putting their names on sewer fixtures that would be seen only by employees!) Even the famous Paramount studio water tower was in fact once part of the original RKO property. The beeping radio tower facing the street has been removed too, of course, but the globe it stood on paradoxically remains. It looks down on a very different world indeed.
Like RKO, Paramount, has always suffered somewhat in that their location, right in the center of Hollywood, became valuable quicker than the outlaying suburbs of Culver City and Burbank. With the “movie boom” of the teens and twenties came escalating real estate prices. And, so relatively early in the game the studios with the most desirable and centralized locations, responsible for the sudden local growth to begin with, found themselves with no place to expand beyond their current locations. Paramount’s lot was big enough for this to not be as much of a problem as it was for RKO and for Columbia, but they never had the space for the sprawling backlots which could be found at some of the other, outlying studios.
A look at the Paramount product tends to bear this out. Most of the studio’s pictures are rather stage-bound. There are few exteriors, and these are often soundstage exteriors, with painted backdrops and process screens substituting for the real thing. Artistically, this somewhat artificial mise en scene gave the studio’s pictures a definite and recognizable “house style.” And yet this look was definitely an economic choice rather than an artistic one.
To alleviate their lack of suitable exteriors, Paramount purchased a 2,400-acre ranch near Malibu in 1927 although perhaps due to its somewhat distant location it wasn’t used as much as other studio ranches. Sets included a New England Street, a frontier village and Calvary fort. They actually sold the property in 1953 but continued to lease parts of it, along with other studios and independent producers, for decades. Today the property is owned by the state. A western town, constructed shortly after the Paramount era ended still stands on the grounds. Television’s Carnivale and Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman have been comparatively recent tenants.
The primary backlot area Paramount constructed on their main lot was paradoxically built near the center of the studio and buttressed up against the wall looking over into RKO. Closest to that iconic main gate, which everyone still associates with the studio (and which, in case you ever wondered, was constructed between August 24 and September 10, 1926) stood, until the mid 1970’s, a smallish version of that must-have on every studio lot, a small-town business district. Until 1979, a “Western Street” stood on real estate where a massive parking lot sprawls today (Amusing but unsubstantiated rumors at the time held that Paramount was afraid to dismantle their Western town while John Wayne still lived!). The hundreds of black BMW’s which now bake under the California sun occupy ground where many a cinematic cowboy found immortality or oblivion. A most interesting feature about this set was the artificial mountain range which buttressed the north western flank of the set, and kept audiences from realizing that unlike some of the street’s suburban cinematic neighbors, Paramount was in the middle of a city – even if that city was Hollywood.
A 75-foot-high sky backdrop (The original was built in 1947, the surviving version is a copy) still stands on the northern edge of the studio’s impressive “New York Street.” At five acres and with five separate and distinct districts, it is one of the most impressive sets of its kind. Unfortunately, the set which visitors and film goers see today is actually a copy of an older “New York Street” which was destroyed in a fire in 1983. Happily, in 1991, it was rebuilt.
Incidentally, the South LA community of Paramount was founded in 1946 and was in fact named after the studio.
Twentieth Century-Fox is the studio which most tried to emulate the success of MGM. Physically, their lot, located west of Beverly Hills in a community later and tellingly called Century City, was closer to Metro’s in size, ambition and even geographically, than any other. In one respect at least, Fox was actually superior in that the entire property, almost 300 acres at one point, was located on one large parcel of land, and not broken up or eviscerated by distance or highways (although Olympic Blvd. cut the plant into two distinct halves). Some of this real estate was never really developed for production, although the open land must have come in handy. Oil wells, real ones, not props, dotted the eastern side of the lot for decades. Quality-wise, the Fox pictures, while not really inferior to MGM, often felt so because their predominant choice of genres; musicals and period pictures, seemed consciously designed to echo the pictures made down the road in Culver City
The front lot, as befitting its (near-) Beverly Hills location, was beautifully maintained and landscaped. The “sound” stages – for in fact they were the first of their kind constructed for sound anywhere – decorated with ornate statuary and scrollwork, looked more like a carefully regulated civil engineering project than a factory. At least the early ones did. The later stages are less gaudy, giving the whole place a sort of Oz-meets-the-Bowery-Boys lopsidedness.
Our traveler walking across the backlot could have encountered, depending on which decade he took the trip, any of the following: “Bernadette Street” (from The Song of Bernadette, 1943) a French village, a Roman “slave market” set, an enormous and pillared “Colonial Home,” a “Spanish Street,” a “Swiss Set,” a “German Village,” a partial castle with a moat. “Algerian Street” was a sort of Ali Baba/Jerusalem compound which sat behind the “English Garden of Charles II” – which was beautifully decked out with swimming pool and rolling lawns. Behind this all was a long “New York Street” which dated to 1931. “Tombstone Street” was the ambiguous Western village; It rested across from the “Alaska Town” and the “New England Street.” All of this finally led to the company’s back gate on Santa Monica Blvd. – a real Los Angeles street by the way, not a backlot. Commuters on this street for years could see part of the elaborate Titanic model constructed for the 1953 picture peeking over the fence.
The East Lot, on the other side of the soundstage sector, contained the “New” “New York Street,” A section of Railroad, a “Compound” or fortress set, and a vast section of desert. The Chicago set from In Old Chicago (1938) also stood in this sector and covered nearly six acres. This area was redressed in 1944 and doubled for a gas-lit London in The Lodger. The “Chicago Lake” stood on one end and was repeatedly drained and refilled to portray every body of water on the planet for the 25 years. “The Waterways,” a series of locks and canals also stood nearby. “Jones Street” the studio’s all important residential street, also stood over here.
As if every location in the known world was not covered on-lot somewhere, Fox also maintained a ranch near the Paramount Ranch in Malibu. They purchased the property in 1946, after leasing real estate in the area for several years. The studio sold the property to the State of California in 1974.
Fox was the first studio to suffer physically from the contractions the film industry faced in the 1960s and ’70s. The enormous overhead accrued by Cleopatra which was shooting in Europe in 1963, literally forced the moguls running the studio back in California to begin selling off some of their now-trendy Westside real estate upon which the studio had been built in order to meet payroll.
The acres of sets and landscaped lawns toppled over. The lakes were drained. The palaces and kingdoms were disassembled. In their place rose the skyscrapers and shopping malls and law firms of CenturyCity. As recently as the mid-80’s, the beautiful commissary where Tyrone Power and Shirley Temple had once supped was halved to build a monolithic office tower. One of these skyscrapers, decades later, would one day house MGM.
By 1969, when Fox was producing Hello Dolly, there was no backlot left on which to construct the elaborate turn-of-the-century New York Street the production called for. Instead, the sets were built on the front lot; in the parking lots, across the lawns, on top of the offices and over the front of the administration buildings where the decision had been made to dismantle the studio in the first place. It was as if, ghoulishly, those administrators, having devoured the backlots, the sinew and very flesh of the studio, now found themselves surrounded, entombed, and eaten by the very thing, the very flickering ghost they thought they had destroyed.
Many of the minor studios and several of the rental lots constructed permanent exterior set at various times and of varying degrees of interest and complexity. The Republic lot in Studio City, which survives and is now owned by CBS, being a particularly notable example. Notable sets on this property included, naturally, several large Western streets, and the lagoon later used in the TV series Gilligan’s Island. Part of a residential street survives today.
Powerful independent producers Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznick also kept standing backlots on their property. Goldwyn’s contained a few blocks of city streets and a small town district. A “New York Street” lasted there into the late-’70s.
Selznick leased the “40 acres” Thomas Ince backlot of which RKO was the longtime landlord (and which for the record, was actually 28 acres) He burned down most of his standing sets spectacularly on camera for Gone With The Wind (1939) Cannily, he then built his Atlanta sets over the ashes for that picture.
These vaguely “southern” facades saw duty for decades, most prominently on The Andy Griffith Show for American television. At various times the backlot also contained the Hogan’s Heroes prisoner’s compound (built on the site of GWTW’s Tara), the Gomer Pyle Army barracks, a Western village, a jungle (utilized in RKO’s Tarzan film series), an Arabian village, and detailed New York and Chicago Streets (kept very busy in The Untouchables TV series). The backlot portion of the studio, which was located near the end of Ince Blvd., was torn down in 1976 and is now an industrial park whose warehouses are used by a space-starved film industry for television production.
The other major independent producer of the era was, of course, Walt Disney.
Disney had little need for a standing backlot until the early 1950s. Before this, most of his sets were, like most of his stars, painted cells animated for the camera. “I’ve always admired you” Alfred Hitchcock was reputed have told Disney at an apocryphal Hollywood party in the ’40s. “If you don’t like your actors, you can tear them up.”
The first Disney studio was located at 2719 Hyperion Ave in Hollywood (a grocery store today) and contained no facilities for live-action production. Disney moved his operations to a 51-acre tract he had paid $100,000 for in Burbank in 1940 after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Designer Ken Webber crafted all of the original buildings, imbuing the lot with a campus-like unity alien to the random hodge-podges of architectural chaos that existed at any other studio. The first soundstage was constructed at this time and was used for the occasional live action or live action/animation hybrid produced by the studio. Stage 2 was constructed in 1949 and was used for live action features and television, including Dragnet (an original tenant) and “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Stage 3 was built in 1954 and includes the underwater tank used extensively for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The cavernous Stage 4 was built for Darby O’Gill and the Little People in 1958 and later subdivided for TV to become 4 and 5 (1988), Stage 6 and 7 were not completed until 1997.
In 1959, even as he started building a backlot on his own studio, Disney purchased a 700-acre ranch in Santa Clarita and started building sets there as well, mostly of the Western variety. Golden Oaks Ranch, as it is called, and which Disney is still developing, remains a valuable location, not just for Disney but for all of the real estate-starved modern studios
On his Burbank lot, an early California pueblo set was constructed in 1957 for use in the Zorro TV series and became the first permanent standing set on the property. It contained several blocks of cobblestone streets, a fountain, a fort, and a town square. The result was versatile enough to be successfully redressed into a French olive plantation for Monkeys Go Home (1967) and a British village in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). It was demolished in the mid-eighties and replaced, inspirationally, by the current “Zorro Parking Structure.”
A “Western Street” was constructed in 1958. It too was rebuilt several times over the decades and stood in for the Irish countryside in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, (1959) and a beachfront fishing village in Pete’s Dragon (1977 — complete with ocean!) “Western Street” was bulldozed in 1988.
A “Residential Street” was added in the early 1960s. So by this time the only backlot staple missing from Disney’s fiefdom was a small town business street. Disney of course, had already built just such a town, not at his studio but at Disneyland.
Walt Disney apparently had been looking for and recreating this street, in different ways ever since his childhood in tiny Marceline, Missouri. His somewhat wistful longing for the charm of small-town America was common to men of Disney’s age and era. A look at the works of such diverse artists as Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, Sterling North, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Norman Rockwell, Frank Capra, Booth Tarkington, Meredith Wilson, and Earl Hamner Jr. reveals this same longing for a world which each of them had, presumably chosen to leave behind and then regretted forever.
Disney finally did order a small town American street built in 1965, obstinately, for 1966’s Follow Me Boys. The set would rise near the north east corner of the lot, to compliment his already standing residential street. Oddly though, “Business Street” as the set was called, turned out to be a decent if not spectacular shooting space. Designer John Mamsbridge found that by this time there was little he could add to the street Walt had been over-designing in his head and at Disneyland for a decade. In 1965, there was little more to be done except copy the copies and uncork the nostalgia. The somewhat pedestrian result would turn out be Walt’s last personal addition to his studio, He would die less than a year later.
The “Business Street” backlot would survive Disney by a decade-and-a-half before being rebuilt for Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1981 and demolished entirely in 1994. It was, at that time, the last existent sector of Disney’s original backlot. Stages 6 and 7 stand on the site today.
Walt’s original lot now has one tiny exterior set, a Midwest-themed boulevard built in 1997 over the outer wall of the Plumbing Department. It consists of one half of one side of one city block. Like its forbearer, it is christened “Business Street,” perhaps as much a hope for future production bookings as a homage.
Our tour of Hollywood’s lots and backlots then is over. As has been observed in our travels, most of Hollywood’s backlots are now either gone or have been repurposed into parking lots or office space. And with the advent of “virtual backlots” created inside a computer the future doesn’t look rosy.
So if you plan on visiting Hollywood and climbing that fence, you’d better do it soon.
Steven Bingen is a historian, author, and former archivist for Warner Bros., who has written or contributed to innumerable books, articles, and documentaries on Hollywood history. In 2011, Steve coauthored MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. His latest book is Warner Bros: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot, an acre by acre and scandal by scandal examination of the legendary studio. He also authored the screenplay for 2012′s The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, which was the last theatrical feature film ever shot on black and white film stock. Appropriately enough, Steve lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles.