"Picked up your MGM Backlot book today. It brought back so many memories, especially the photo on page 225 and map on 226-227.
I was born in Culver City in 1959, and lived there until I graduated high school
in 1977, when I left, never to return. I lived on Stever Street, which is in
the extreme upper left of the photo on 225. There is El Rincon Elementary school,
and next to that is Blanco Park. Stever is the next street. To the right is
a golf course, which I don't remember, but my older siblings do. To the right
of the golf course is Studio Drive In, which is also now gone. Some of the houses
on Dobbs Way, next to the Drive In, had small viewing rooms in their back yards
with sound from the Drive In piped in. This was before the home theater craze.
I'm not sure how much of what I remember is accurate, and how much I'm getting confused with trips to Disneyland, as I'm sure you'll realize how similar MGM and Disneyland were to an 8 year old kid. In the late 60's, MGM had already made the decision to sell off lots 3 & 5, so security became very lax. Young boys can be very adventurous. We would break through the fence (along what is called Eucy Road) and play on the Western sets, and also on the Jungle set. That's as far as we got.
I clearly remember the process tank and the backdrop. I know the process tank was still being used in the 60's because the horizon was painted several times. I seem to remember some tall ships, and also some WW2 era ships.
The picture on 225 clearly shows what I remember as Leo the Lion's cage. I have no recollection of a zoo or any other animals. I thought that the lion was defanged and declawed, but in the photos in the book he obviously still had fangs.
Elsewhere in the book there is a photo of a feral cat wandering around a set. When they started bulldozing everything, our neighborhood was overrun by feral cats. It took several years to get rid of them, but we never had any vermin.
MGM was not our only victim. Desilu had a backlot at Ince and Lucerne and I can remember playing on the sets of Gomer Pyle and Hogan's Heroes.
In 1975, when I was 16, I got a job at the Palms Theater, which was on Motor and Venice, walking distance to Lot 1. Later I also worked at the Culver Theater which is now owned by Sony and operated as the Kirk Douglas premier theater. Both theaters got lots of attendance from people in the industry. The Culver is visible in the upper left of the photo on 286.
In 2007 I returned to Culver City for my 30th high school reunion, which was held on the Sony backlot, the first time I'd ever been there. I parked right in front of the Thalberg building.
The most impressive item by far was the confidential internal memorandum re: before and after real estate values. If they'd held onto the property for a few more decades it would have probably tripled.
As I'm sure you're aware, during prohibition Culver City was the center of vice activities in Los Angeles. Speakeasies, casinos, brothels, organized crime. By the time I came along it was a pretty boring place. Nobody ever went to downtown Culver City. Most people didn't even know there was one. Now it is so hip I can't even afford to go there.
Not sure if you've been to the Roll & Rye Deli in Studio Village. They have lots of MGM photos, including a wall size blow up of the "More Stars than there are in Heaven" picture. Great kosher food too.
I'm looking forward to reading the book.
As Bob Hope would say, thanks for the memories.
Yes, I do have a story to tell and am thrilled to have a copy of the book about M-G-M as well as to see the excellent write up in the Wall Street Journal today. What a terrific help your work and that of your colleagues is for those of us doing research about M-G-M among the many other prospective readers.
I have a treasure trove of letters and telegrams that no one else has ever seen sent from Culver City between the beginning of 1938 and 1942 (and especially in 1938 and 1939). Jane Hall’s fiction– part satire and part romantic comedy-- frequently appeared in national magazines between 1936 and 1940. Her sharp wit and superb ear for authentic dialogue soon caught the notice of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In October 1937, twenty-two year old Jane was offered a contract as a scenarist and would stay in Hollywood for much of the next three years.
She worked on several films and in August 1939, “These Glamour Girls,” based on her screenplay (with Marion Parsonnet) and her book length novel for Cosmopolitan (12/1938) opened in New York City. The New York Times called the film “the best social comedy of the year.” (8/31/1938). (It gave Lana Turner her first big role.) She should have been on her way, but Hall's career was cut short soon after her marriage in 1940.
Jane's letters demonstrate surprising self-awareness and literary intelligence; she wrote hundreds of them to would-be suitors about life in Culver City when she “belonged to” Louis B Mayer. (In 1938, Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the office next to hers.) Her personal story is compelling; the complex and often difficult world she portrays of the creative process inside and outside the writers’ building at MGM during its Golden Age is unforgettable.
The link below is to a small album which I put together for a talk. Do you recognize any of the people surrounding Jane Hall in the second photo? Is this at MGM?
The October 1939 Cosmopolitan cover speaks for itself. (I have the original pastel.) Jane’s best friend in Hollywood was “Kate,” a wire haired fox terrier she rescued at the beginning of March 1938 in front of Chasen’s during the historic flood that devastated Los Angeles. Among her other friends are artists and photographers she had met in the East, men for whom image is all. In their hands, Jane Hall, who had always been the harshest critic of her own work and her appearance, was transformed. Illustrator Bradshaw Crandell has identified one of his usually anonymous and yet iconic cover girls: “Jane Hall MGM.”
I'm an historian and have just begun to write about this material and put it in context. Jane was my mother. Your work is invaluable-- Thanks!
Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan:
Unfortunately I have no inside details for your continued nurturing of MGM's history, but I must tell you (as if you didn't know already) that yours is an exquisite book. I imagine each of you thinking how great it was to be part of such a team to produce such fine work. Certainly your story of "Hollywood's Greatest Backlot" is a studious graphic bonanza -- perhaps a stately Ponderosa of further mixed-metaphoric praise! But your text is such an enhancement too for a perfect Picture Book. It's as if the whole thing "moves" like a "movie". I think you understand what I'm trying to say here.
I've written three books under my own byline and have been a professional writer since I was 18, although nobody pays me to write now (I'm 65). I was associated with California's storied Yolla Bolly Press and its proprietors Jim and Carolyn Robertson, who produced fine books there and great educational films at their previous iteration, The Amazing Life Games Company. So I know what it takes to make a good book sing. Your good book presents us with an aria! Or more fittingly, an MGM musical extravaganza!
Anyway, I'm passing around the word about "MGM: HGB" to friends.
Dear Stephen X. Sylvester,
I am Tom Stempel, and I had to write to you to let you know how good I thought your book on MGM's backlot is. You should forward this to your co-authors, assuming you are all still speaking to each other after all the time and effort you put into the book.
The amount of research that went into the book was absolutely staggering. I had no idea so much of this material existed and was available. As a jobbing film historian (I've written six books and taught film history at Los Angeles City College for forty years---Jeff Mantor at Larry Edmunds is a former student of mine, which is how I found out about your book; he also gave me your email address), I know how difficult it must have been to track down all the information. As well as get people and institutions to part with it. In addition, you guys, unlike some authors I could name, have not just dumped all in. I love the way you have organized the book, so it becomes like a tour of the old studio.
Which is something I know about, since I was a tour guide at MGM in the summer of 1968 between my first and second year of grad school at UCLA. I don't think you mention the tour that existed at that time, I suspect because anybody who knew about it has made a conscious effort to forget about it. It was not run by the studio itself, but contracted out. The guy who ran it was a real sleazebag whose name I have forgotten. I am convinced to this day that he must have had very incriminating photos of some executive at the studio. He also ran tours of the movie stars homes, but did not provide maps to his guides so the guides just made up who lived where. He had three busses for the studio tour, but he only had two of them registered with the state, so he only had two sets of license plates. He put one set on one bus, and the other set he split between the other two busses. I never noticed that until one of the guards at the gate pointed it out. The guard was very casual about it.
The tour guides were college students on their summer break, and the tour spiel was passed down verbally, so by the time I arrived there were a lot of inaccuracies. On one of my days off, I read an article in Films in Review, probably the one you list in your Bibliography, which provided some factual information. But we were wrong about a lot of things, including the classic misidentification of the Southern Mansion on Lot 2 as Tara. Boy, I wish we had your book then.
The tour started by going past the Thalberg Building. One film shot in front of the building you don't mention is "TRIAL (1955)". We went in through the East Gate and went down to Stage 15, where we stopped and went inside. There was a large house interior set there built for "THE IMPOSSIBLE YEARS", and was then used for an Elvis movie. One of the things that struck me about the MGM lot is that the toilets were not attached to the stages. This was done when the stages were first built, since the sound of plumbing would have ruined the sound recording. I was amused to imagine a break between shooting one of the big musical numbers on 15 where all these people in elaborate costumes had to squeeze into these four-hole outhouses. Twentieth Century-Fox solved the problem by putting the toilets on the sound stages, but soundproofing the toilets. Going to the bathroom at Fox was a very silent, creepy experience. I have never seen the "bathroom organization" discussed when dealing with the Introduction of Sound in any film history book.
We drove across to Lot 2, which the tourists loved because they could recognize
Andy Hardy Street and the others. I don't think you mention that the speakeasy
that is raided in the opening scene of "SOME LIKE IT HOT" was on
Warehouse Alley, and I think the garage in which the St. Valentine Day's Massacre
was in one of sets, since the exterior as you look out looks like the New York
We then drove down to Lot 3. You say that "BOOM TOWN" used the Ghost Town Street as the title street, but I really think that was shot on the Western Street. I happened to see "BOOM TOWN" a couple of years after I did the tour and it looked more like the Western Street than Ghost Town St. On the other hand, you have all the studio information at your disposal, so you may be right, but check it out the next time you look at "BOOM TOWN". I was surprised that in your list of films shot on the Western Street you don't mention the 1968 Clint Eastwood film" HANG 'EM HIGH". It is very clearly that street. I particularly found the Western Street interesting, because a few months before I had read the screenplay for "SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF" in my graduate screenwriting course. This draft of the script did not include the final shootout, but had a note saying the shootout would be written when they decided what set they were going to use. Williams Bowers mentioned in the class that they were using that street at MGM, so I had the whole summer to imagine a big shootout. I was disappointed when I saw the film. MY version would have been so much better. Of course it would have run nine hours.
I loved your story from Rod Serling on getting inspiration from the “MEET
ME IN ST. LOUIS” Street. In 1992 I wrote a book called “STORYTELLES
TO THE NATION: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN TELEVISION WRITING”, for which I
did an interview with Sam Rolfe. He told me that when he was doing “MAN
FROM U.N.C.L.E.” on the MGM lot, he would ride around the backlots on
his bicycle trying to think up stories that they could shoot on those sets.
He said the studio workers were incredibly helpful, since there were very few
features being made there and they all wanted to protect their jobs.
Your photo on page 251 of all the ice from “ICE STATION ZEBRA” really brought back memories, since the ice was still there that summer. We also went by the shed behind the Salem Waterfront set. The side of the shed was open and we could see all the models of all the ships that had been used on the process tank. We did not go on Eucy Road, but looking at the photos, I suspect the road was used in "NOTORIOUS" not so much for her drunken drive, although it may have been, but for the horseback riding scene where Cary Grant comes up on Bergman and Claude Rains. But again, you have access to more information than I do.
One of the downsides of doing the tour in 1968 was that there was very little going on. The only feature that was shooting there was what was later titled "MARLOWE". I am not sure I ever saw James Garner, but I think one of the other busses did. One time as we were driving on Lot One I saw Rita Moreno, who was going to one of the rehearsal stages to work on her dance number in the film. Since I had had a major crush on Moreno ever since I hit puberty, I was able to give the tourists over the loudspeaker in the bus almost a complete resume of her career. She probably thought we were well-trained guides. One day we came along Eastside Street across Fifth Avenue and I noticed a crew shooting in front of what will always be for me the school "BLACKBOARD JUNGLE". It was not a full crew, but a skeleton crew obviously doing tests. I recognized the director. It was the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. He was preparing to shoot "ZABRISKI POINT". Needless to say, Antonioni's name meant nothing to the tourists. There was a little recognition when I mentioned that he had made "BLOW UP", but even that was not a film seen by a lot of people who take studio tours.
In addition to writing to you guys directly, I also gave your book a little
plug in the Understanding Screenwriting column I do on line. You can read that
particular column at:
http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2011/08/understanding-screenwriting-78-friends-with-benefits-crazy-stupid-love-harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-part-2-and-more/ Again, congratulations on a terrific book.
My Dad went to work at MGM in 1937 (as a janitor in the Thalberg Bldg) - then got a job as a clerk in the studio 'Storeroom' (which was like a hardware/stationary store for the entire studio). I was born in 1940 & remember the labor strikes (in the 40s) - & the 'MGM stable of Stars' (in the 50s). And the MGM 'family events'- at the studio & at the Hollywood Paladium - and previews of new releases.
During the summers of 1953 & 1954 - I collected autographs of MGM stars & other MGM noteables .. as I waited for them across the street from the Thalberg Bldg. I filled 3 autograph books with signings - which included: Marilyn Monroe - Lionel Barrymore - Fred Astaire - Gene Kelly - Debbie Reynolds - Howard Keel - Red Skelton - Ann Blyth - Kathryn Grayson - Frank Sinatra - Jane Powell - Lana Turner - Barbara Stanwyck - Vic Damone - Dore Schary - Joe Pasternack - George Murphy (who went on to become a US Senator)- David Rose - Shelley Winters - Charles Laughton - Robert Mitchum - Sheila Grahame - Jean Simmons - Gordon McRae - Anthony Quinn - Paul Newman - Zsa Zsa Gabor - Walter Pidgeon - Esther Williams - Ethel Merman - Randolph Scott -Keenan Wynn - Andre Previn - Hedda Hopper ... and many others...
As a kid -I also remember sneaking into MGM ( in elementary school - up thru high school ) - over the fences... ( Lot 2 = the fences along Culver Blvd )-- ( Lot 3 = the fences in back of the lot adjacent to the oil derricks in the Baldwin Hills - above Jefferson Blvd / near Overland Ave )
In high school - a group of us would 'hop the fence to Lot 3' on a weekend nite - and explore the many sets there = the Showboat set (in the huge water tank) -- Andy Hardy Street -- the Olde Europe street --- til' the 'studio cops' would make their rounds & chase us... which was the 'real fun' for us ! (note: we NEVER got caught !)
After high school (and against my Dad's advice) - I got hired ( thru the union = Local 724 ) as a laborer - at MGM - in 1959... and worked there for about 2 years (on Lots 1 - 2 - 3 - & 4 )... it was a fascinating experience ! While working during 1960 - on Lot 1 - with a carpenter crew ... I discovered that (2) of the carpenters on that crew had 'ties to stars" = (1) was the brother of Red Skelton - another was Natalie Woods father ! (both stayed totally 'under the radar' ! )
During - and after college - I also worked nites & summers at MGM and other studios ( Disney - Paramount - Columbia - Republic - 4-Star - etc...
I would have to say that my experiences - as a kid growing
up in Culver City ( The city's slogan was " THE HEART OF SCREENLAND " )
- where we often 'rubbed elbows' in town with stars from MGM - Selznick & Hal
Roach Studios = which were ALL located there - and my later-in-life experiences
were truly 'magical' = the 40z to the early 60z were the "GOLDEN AGE OF THE STUDIOS" - especially MGM !!
Whidbey Island, WA
Thanks so much for the spectacular book on the MGM backlot!! This book is delightful -- not only because I've been imagining what the MGM backlot might have been like for years, but also because I had no idea there were other "backlot geeks" out there! I have been so delighted to discover there are enough of us out there to merit the publication of this GREAT work!
For years I pored over various "behind-the-scenes" books, hoping to read a paragraph or see an aerial photograph of MGM's old lot, so to be able to enjoy all of the amazing photographs and maps you put into this is a dream come true. I have spent many hours taking in every detail. I'm also something of a Man From UNCLE buff, and now I watch every old episode naming each set. That show was like an unintentional tour through Lots 2 and 3 in their final, fading glory!
While I never made it to the MGM lot, I did sneak onto the Disney backlot before it was all torn down. I was assisted by some cooperative Disney employees I met at lunch across the street. When they headed back through the studio gates, I walked with them and scooted right past the guard. Borrowing a clipboard from one of them, I tried to act as official as possible as I wandered unhindered through every standing outdoor set, and sound stages and other buildings too. Clipboard + serious look = backstage pass!
I have also enjoyed visiting the Warner and Paramount lots on their tours, and of course Universal. I wish I could have done that at MGM, but now I have your book! I hope other works on other studios are forthcoming.
Thanks again for this amazing publication,
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I saw your request for any info regarding old Hollywood and the movies.
A friend of mine, Suzanne Scheirer, worked for years for Helen Rose in the MGM Wardrobe Dept. during the1950's. One day, as Suzanne was working at her desk, she looked thru a glass wall and noticed a woman standing next to the street. It looked like the woman was waiting for someone to come pick her up. Twenty minutes went by and she was still waiting. Suzanne took a piece of paper and did a quick sketch of the woman, and finally realized who she was. It was Carmen Miranda. So Suzanne took the sketch and went out to talk to Ms Miranda and show her the drawing. They were soon talking and laughing, Carmen loved the sketch, signed it, her ride came and off she went. Now, over 50 years later, Suzanne gave me the sketch, and has since passed on. It's a little tattered, was never framed, but it is in one piece and is signed.
Sincerely........................................Lee Van Epps
Simply put, this is a wonderful book – perhaps my favorite film book of the last five years. It is a virtual guided tour – presented through stunning photos and extensively researched, fact-laden text – of the Neverland that was MGM during the studio’s fabulous heyday. The book presents a detailed history of every inch and every area of MGM’s three main parcels — Lot 1, which housed the company’s offices, departments, and soundstages; and Lots 2 and 3, which together contained an amazing collection of faux jungles, deserts, castles, antebellum mansions, big cities, small towns, and dusty Western streets — as well several smaller satellite properties. It not only describes all of the various lots’ sets, natural areas, and facilities, but also provides a pretty comprehensive list of all of the movies shot in each spot over an almost 60-year period. The last section of the book – which chronicles the closing and destruction of all of the studio’s lots, with the exception of Lot 1 (which these days is home to Sony Studios), through a combination of changing times and tastes, corporate greed, mismanagement, and short-sightedness; a lack of appreciation for historical value and preservation; and some plain, simple stupidity – is simply heartbreaking. Leo the Lion’s massive, wonderful celluloid playland is no more, but thanks to this book, we can understand why Hollywood was once called the Dream Factory – by showing us the factory, the authors help us rediscover the dream.
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I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your new book! Fascinating to look at and fascinating to read. It makes me want to watch a ton of MGM movies again and also to review my Twilight Zone DVD collection to take note of the various locations.
I pored over the pages with a magnifying glass looking at all the sets, particularly the shots of Lot 2 where the Cartoon Department was located. I was disappointed to find out that I could have seen that building before it was torn down but didn’t even know it still existed at the time.
Anyway, great job on a great book!
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