Hollywood backlots are endlessly fascinating, aren’t they? When I moved to Long Beach in 1977 I drove up to Burbank one day to check out the Walt Disney Studios on Buena Vista Street. I parked on residential South Lincoln Street behind the studio. Peeking through a knothole in the studio fence, I could just catch a glimpse of what I’m sure were the old sets for the Zorro TV series. I was never able to prove it, though, and I guess I never will now: the Disney backlot is gone — and for all I know, the fence, that section of Lincoln St., and the houses that faced it — subsumed into the Walt Disney Feature Animation building that went up in the 1990s.
In 1986 I attended a screening of Wisdom (in which I had a bit role) at the 20th Century Fox studios, and afterwards took a stroll around the grounds (that’s when I learned that once you manage to get inside a studio’s gates, people let you go more or less where you please, on the assumption that you must belong there). I saw the picturesque little Swiss-looking bungalow that had been built for Shirley Temple (later the writers’ building), and walked the stunted remains of the Fox backlot, all that was left after they sold off the 180 acres that became Century City.
Also, the book could have used a more thorough job of copy editing. There are far more than the usual number of misspellings (“Donald O’Conner,” “legers [ledgers]”) typographical errors (“The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street,” elsewhere called “Wimple Street”), malapropisms (“initialized” for “initiated,” “cache” for “cachet,” “skewered” for “skewed”), grammatical missteps (“…the sets fell in to disrepair…”) and other hard-to-classify errors that could be one or more of the above (“…the seeds of destruction…were sewn…”). You can hardly go five pages without one gaffe or another. (And by the way, was there really a “Red Square” set in Yolanda and the Thief ? I don’t remember one in that picture, which took place in a mythical South American country, but the authors say there was one, and that Lot 2’s New York Street played the role.)
All quibbles notwithstanding, this book is a swell read, a step-by-step tour that takes us through each lot one by one, ushering us in the front gate and taking in every building (on Lot 1) and outdoor set (on the others) in turn. There are plenty of maps, starting with this one showing all MGM’s holdings at its peak. (The two lots on the left are the ones you can see in the picture above.) If you live in the L.A. area and have a passing familiarity with Culver City, it’s easy to get the lay of MGM’s land.
Changing the subject slightly, I just got a DVD on eBay comprised of Kodachrome home movies taken at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Seeing the place in color is a much more immediate experience than all those old black-and-white newsreels and photos, and what comes through most clearly to me in these 70-year-old home movies is that everything — from the Trylon and Perisphere all the way down to the Amusement Zone rides — looks so absolutely and completely permanent.
It’s like that too in the movies shot on the MGM backlot. I mean, I’ve lived on streets that I don’t remember as vividly as Kensington Avenue from Meet Me in St. Louis or Andy Hardy’s street — which was also Maple St. in the “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” episode of The Twilight Zone, and the street Bobby Van hopped down in Small Town Girl.
That’s just from seeing them in the movies. How much more solid and permanent they must have looked to the people who actually worked on them. Not that they would have looked or felt real, of course. An actor always knows when he’s on a set, and Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone surely never had any illusions that the Hardys’ front door actually led anyplace — the company would have to adjourn to a set on one of Lot 1’s sound stages to continue that illusion.
But even so, there must have been a feeling that these sets would always be there, and it’s easy to imagine the wistful bewilderment people like Rooney and Debbie Reynolds and Ann Rutherford felt walking the backlot toward the end — after the carpenters and maintenance crews and greensmen had all been laid off, and there were weeds growing around the doorsteps and torn canvas walls flapping in the Santa Ana Winds. In fact, we don’t have to imagine it; we can see it in pictures like That’s Entertainment! and the documentary-cum-obituaries that date from the 1960s and ’70s. It’s there, too, in dozens of quotes in MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, from stars and “backstage” workers alike, and always the subtext is the same: Jeez, what happened?? With the studio humming along on all cylinders, thousands of employees keeping everything fresh and ready to use on a moment’s notice, and packing the commissary every day at lunch, the MGM lots surely seemed as permanent as the pyramids.