Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Unguided History of Universal's Backlot

Front Gate, Circa 1915

Can I start this off by saying I really wanted to take the damn tour before I wrote this to have more than just what peers, books, and the internet have to go on? I hop on Universal's web site and am shocked.  EIGHTY DOLLARS!?! I even tried to land a press pass through work but there's a huge waiting list, so I guess when I get in there sometime in Febuary Ill add a part 2 for a first-hand account. I was pretty saddened by the cost. I live literally less than 2 miles from the front gate.  Are there no allowances for the people that have to finagle through the tourist traffic and live under the constant hum of sight seeing helicopters every single day? But I digress . .  I know it's LA, I know it's a huge tourist stop, but not being able to take just the studio tour without paying full admission was a huge bummer.  Seriously, 90% of the population here would have to choose between driving for a month or taking this tour, alone, in 100 degree weather. Pass.

In 1915, it was an apparently totally different scene.  For a mere 5 cents (with inflation that about $1.20 today. sheesh) Carl Laemmle would invite you to walk around the studio, sit on bleachers and learn about the history, see all the stars, bask in the awe that was being on a live set, and the 5 cents included a chicken boxed dinner. Oh, to have lived here in the early 20th century . . . You could even buy fresh fruit on the lot, since the vast majority of Los Angeles was orchards, and the studio itself was still fully operational farmland. Laemmle took great pride in showing off his pride and joy to the public, dubbing it "The World's Only Movie City!", making it an unforgettable and entertaining experience everyone could come and enjoy. This incarnation of the tour lasted until silents got the boot, officially ending in the early 1930s, as the background noise from passerby would have made filming talkies impossible.  

Universal Studios, Circa 1915

One of my favorite stories about the backlots is a ghost story (it wouldn't be Hollywood without a good ghost story!) that supposedly came to be on Universal's opening weekend. It spans decades -Many claim to have seen a man near Hitchcock's Psycho house, in  full aviator gear, stumbling around, giggling like a mad man, that just vanishes. Security guards, Studio staff, event staff, tourists, actors, all walks of life claim to have witnessed the "unnamed" pilot over the years.

Nicknamed "Uncle Carl" due to the number of family and friends he had on staff at the studio, Laemmle had apparently planned quite a party for the first public opening to the studios. Beautiful girls sprinkled guests in flower petals, cowboys and indians rode around the guests on horseback firing pistols into the air, Directors, actors and crew set up demonstrations of how movie-making worked behind the scenes... I wish I could have witnessed it then, it sounds like a serious party that only early Hollywood was capable of throwing.   The first day went off without a hitch, even a reconstruction of a flood that washed 50,000 gallons of water over the backlot worked flawlessly. Three of the main events, a wild west show, the flood, and a bridge demolition are still features in the tour to this day.

Second day, not so much.  Uncle Carl had hired famed Los Angeles pilot Frank Stites to re-enact a battle in the air for the public. High winds in the area had already postponed the show, and tensions were high as a stunt pilot had been killed earlier in the day in San Fransisco. Stites, assuming the title of "greatest aviator in the world" after the death of the man in San Fran, was supposed to detonate explosives by dropping payloads to the ground to blow up while performing arial dives and other stunts.  Unfortunately, after an explosion, Stites lost control of the craft and either by jumping or being expelled from his plane, fell from the sky to land at the feet of observers, dead on impact.  There is to this day a memorial on the lot for Stites, as it's a common held belief this is their giggling aviator.

While I am not sure where I stand on their recent attempt to have their neighbors pay for a makeover or what their hitting up the notoriously not-Beverly-Hills-earners means for their financial security in the future - the studio sent out mail to all of us that live in the vicinity asking for donations for a studio expansion/revitalization plan, touting the history of the studio, why it needs our donations and support, and how it intends to utilize dead space on their property and slowly devour Universal City, all while promising to provide "rich" job opportunities (that you'll have to know someone on the inside to acquire) and better entertainment (higher admission?-hope that means they'll finally be removing the Waterworld exhibit) - I hope they eventually learn to embrace more of their history in regards to the parks and tours they offer. 

Numbers vary but it's estimated the studio averaged about 500 visitors a day every weekend for the 15 years it was open to the public in it's original vision. Everyone from Valentino to Lon Chaney worked on these lots and glimpses of them could often be seen by fans in attendance.

Winter scene on the backlot

From Universal's first major production in 1913 (Traffic in Souls) to the full on theme park it's become today, it's one of the most visited sites in town and still holds a little air of movie magic, even today.  It's one of only two studios that even bothers with a backlot, as computer imaging and filming on location has become more popular, so it really is a must see if you are on vacation and have the funds to do it.  Guess I'll start a change jar and see what gets here first, admission for me and a friend, or my press pass date after the holidays. Either way, Universal is a really neat chunk of history nestled in the north hills.

You can learn more about the films and history of Universal right here at Journeys in Classic Film's blogathon all week long!  Hooray for Hollywood!


  1. Great post! My husband & I had the chance to take the tour in January when we were on vacation in LA, and I was fascinated to read about the 1915 tours - including the boxed chicken lunch!

    I hope you get to go on the tour soon. When you do, I'd be interested in hearing your impressions of the Psycho house, given the haunted story you related and the proximity of the house to the next stop on the tour.

  2. Have been enjoying you and your blog for many months now. It's a terrific job you do and perspective is welcomed. I'm sure I also like it because we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things! (and we both love Musso & Frank)

    So while you're waiting for February to roll around, why not come and take my walking tour (Felix In Hollywood Tour Co.)! You won't see the Psycho house, but you will see where Universal was *before* that lot.....for less than half the price.

    In any case -- Keep Doin' What Yer Doin'!!!!!

  3. SS-Im told its discounted to locals in the winter (by like 10 bucks, but, better than nothing) so i may try again then. I'd like to see all the studios eventually :)

    Felix - Ill trade the psycho house for a guided history lesson in town any day :) The heritage museum has been my favorite place so far, but ive been dying to do some of the tours, Now that its a bit cooler Ill def. be hitting you up in the near future.

    Thanks !

  4. Ha! Was just at the barn yesterday. (I go a couple times a month) See you soon!

  5. Great overview! The story about the phantom is amazing.
    Back in the beginning of the tour, it was cheaper, but for sure it was also cooler. Having the opportunity to see our favorite silent stars would make this tour unforgettable.