It’s a Backlot World!

I have done it. I have successfully navigated all the Culver City Backlots. Those are MGM, lots 2, 3, 4, 5. Now Desilu is an everyday option. Perfect for a Tom Sawyer hookie day. 

Lot 3, at MGM, is a 67 acre wonderland with exterior sets ranging from multiple western streets; a huge lake and jungle; New Orleans, and France. There are winding roads that appear to go on forever. Cobblestone has that unique sound when wheels or horse hoofs go over it. Its different in here.

One side of the fence is magical, the other side is reality and far too serious. But you must dare yourself to visit the magic. It is forbidden. Trespassing is what the studio calls it.

Well what fun is life without risk? I was born ready!

Holes in the fence happen…naturally and artificially. Climbing is easy when you’re a kid, so getting in can happen. The rush begins immediately. Generally, you hide…every chance you can. Slow and steady. No clocks here. These lots have movie production prepping or shooting, all the time. Night and day. Weekends are generally just a guard and a big empty lot.

MGM does not use dogs. Desilu was the last backlot to conquer, for us because of K-9 patrols. Lot 3 should be patrolled by dogs. It is almost twice the size of all the other backlots. But, thankfully they are not. They leave it up to old men who take turns driving a jeep that carries a salt rock gun. Yes, they shoot you here.

First, they have to find you in this labyrinth; that’s why we pick and choose the paths off the beaten trail. There are false fronts, or sets all over. Hiding behind the sets…and in many cases, in the sets, is the key to successfully avoiding unwanted breeches in security. The less security knows, the better. It sounds intimidating and it is. Most people shy away from danger and never see how cool this club is.

That puts security on auto-pilot. We have seen them nap, even. I told you they should go with dogs!

I recognize equipment that was on Lot 2…now at Lot 3. The backlot world is interchangeable with many moving parts, literally. The Rat Patrol moves their squad back and forth down overland,the public street that connects these Lots, depending on what village or train station they are attacking. Combat did the same, as did Garrison’s Gorillas, starring Ron Harper.

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Combat was canceled in 1967, but the crew jumped on to Garrison’s Gorillas. More quality war TV. The Rat Patrol, starring Christopher George, followed that ill-fated but really cool TV show and had a bit more success. J.D. Flowers does special effects for these shows. Constantly blowing things up. Safely! I met him when my career started and we talked all about MGM days. A toast to Mr. Flowers

I had a Combat board game, and a Rat Patrol lunch box. I live for this stuff. I even ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of my Rat Patrol lunch box…inside the German half-track from the Rat Patrol series. And I drank my Kool-aid out of my Rat Patrol thermos. I live my lunch pails. How many kids do that?image.jpg

I have yet to be chased here, at Lot 3…and don’t want to. I have run into trespassers who warned us this happens here…getting shot at, that is. It hurts badly I am told. Try to avoid that; your choices are, keep a lot of distance; cut and run like a jack rabbit, or criss cross…so they can’t aim strait. Doorways are your friends, but don’t get in a building where you’re trapped. Words to live by. 

Jimmy, my best pal, and I, are like Lewis and Clark. Same harsh but rustic surroundings. They dealt with Indians. We deal with guards. Both will scalp ya. But like them, we successfully map this wild frontier.

In fact, this is where you would film Lewis and Clark. Anything you can imagine can happen here. It’s where the right side of your brain can enjoy itself. Creative time and space for your mind. Not the dribble you get brainwashed with at school.

There is a Lot across from Lot 3. It is Lot 5. A simple rusted chain link fence tries to contain what is plainly within sight and within reach. It is a field with planes from WW2.

Bombers, and fighters planes…some German ones sit rusting, waiting for their next Hollywood battle. Real planes and real stories…now retired to be MGM props. What kid would not dig this. Planes that once glorified the sky are now littered around the backlots.

12 O’clock High was a Fox TV show; it had its tags on a fuselage indicating that it was a rental for that production. This is a plane museum. Across the street on Lot 3 is a train museum. A real steam engine pulls passengers half way around the Lot. The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, capture this in the song “Aitchison-Topeka.”

This defining number sang by Judy, herself, captured for eternity what backlots are about. History goes backwards here, but it’s captured on film for us to enjoy today. I still get goosebumps when I see scenes and productions that used my old sets.

“Willoughby, next stop is Willoughby,” shouts the conductor. That is a Twilight Zone episode, starring James Daly. In this episode, shot at our little train station at Lot 3, James succumbs to the corporate grind and dreams of of this backlot town, called Willoughby. He wants only to live the simple life that exists inside these fences. This train stops at Willoughby.

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That episode describes how wonderful my life is becoming. I live in Willoughby! 

Inside these studio fences is an unmistakable sense of history. You feel it, see it, it exists. Magic!

I am catching on, that inside these fences is a time machine of history—created where I am standing. One side of the fence is the harsh reality of school, responsibility, and expectations to succeed. But inside these fences, time merges…not a care in the world.

Time you learn to appreciate stuff not taught in school; a special time that you hope never disappears. So, Put on your tennis shoes and grab your fishing pole… we got a huge lake inside… Are you coming?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s time to enter …Stalag 13

We sit merrily, peering from the guard tower overlooking the moon lit stalag. Time stands still. There is no place I’d rather be. This has been a target for myself and a few friends for a long time.

Now we can see it, touch it, and smell it. Oh, and feel it…I got a splinter in my hand from the ladder leading up to the tower. It is like a souvenir. We become overwhelmingly confidant that dogs are not running free tonight. Certainly they would have heard us. The safer we felt or became, the louder we got. It was like being intoxicated without alcohol.

My five accomplices and I hastily rock the fence back open and cross our fingers. Our 6 dark images quickly run strait to Colonel Klinks’ office, up his front porch and through his front door. A dramatic pause as we catch our breath. We realize this is not a safe stop for us. The back side of this set is exposed, and we find out we can see Camp Henderson from Gomer Pyle fame through a row of eucalyptus trees  between the two camps.

Stalag 13 is a vintage WW2 camp while Pyle’s is contemporary. We knew this prior to veering down from Baldwin Hills, above. One camp at a time is how this gets done. There is a kennel for the picture dogs that you see in the opening credits. By watching the show, we realize that under one of these 6 dog houses, exists a tunnel. We all try lifting and looking underneath them. Like Russian roulette.

Bingo! We found the tunnel. Our hearts fluttered. It’s so cool. Up to three of us fit inside. It gives an appearance that its a tunnel, but it is really just a contrived hole in the ground. An illusion…welcome to the world off backlots.

Next we go inside the POW’s barracks. They are adjacent to the kennel. It’s pitch dark inside and it seems like a cot storage area. In another barrack, we find explosive boxes stacked up. On a table I find call sheets, John Banner’s name, Bob Crane’s son’s name, “Klemperer,” and director Bruce Bilson, as well as many others…all the cast and crew is on this sheet.

We try to identify in relation to the camp the famous Hogan’s Heroes tree stump. It would be outside the fence, of course. It’s how the show’s Heroes sneak in and out of the Stalag 13. This is must see TV.

We need to find that tree stump as we stagger around the camp’s perimeter, feeling very comfortable now that we are the only people here on this Sunday night.

Finally, adjacent to a large hillside overlooking the camp, we find a couple of tree stumps. Sure enough the lid opens on one of them, and a ladder takes you down inside this barely moonlit hole. We all had to take turns, as once again, this tunnel fits 4 people, max.

A smashing success. We have included another iconic Hollywood set on

to my Phantom resume…don’t touch that dial, more to come!

 

 

Stalag 13

My first excursion into the Desilu backlot was with a hand – picked group of friends that were willing to potentially deal with a pack of dogs. Volunteers anyone? Easier than I expected, I recruited five accomplices. We confirmed dogs exist from the hills above, but not that often. When work takes place on the backlot, dogs are not present. We will roll the dice on this night.

Finally, on a Sunday night after the TV airing of Hogans Heroes on network TV, we executed a plan we have rehearsed for over and over. We would go inside under the cover of darkness. Climbing a rusted fence post with a dog picture on it. That put us in a deep grassy hillside lined by large eucalyptus trees. The moon was crescent shaped giving us very little to see. It took awhile for our eyes to adjust to this complete darkness.

The camp in its entirety presents itself. All the POW barracks, a water tower, a German shepherd kennel with 6 dog houses. All recognizable in the dark hue. Of course, Werner  Klemperer’s office.

We were in no-hurry. The rush was on. We are sneaking into a iconic set that may be guarded by dogs.

We stared down from the hill over-looking the stalag. It was inspiring. We, my 5 friends, and I, were looking for any signs of life in this dark setting. Particularly, curious if the dogs are on duty!

We sat for an hour convincing ourselves that it will be safe to hit the first objective, the guard tower next to the Stalag 13 main gate. There are two at the main gate. A red and white guard shack sits next to the one we picked. Real barb wire surrounds this set from this angle, but the main gate itself is open.

We run down finally from our observation point in the tall grass to the guard tower, one of three overlooking the stalag, and scurry up the ladder. We our just outside the camp fence looking directly at Colonel Klink’s headquarters.

We have seen this tower for years from the Baldwin Hills above and beyond the fences below, now we are here. This is a truly satisfying accomplishment. Up in this guard perch we could see more of the camp, and we felt safe from dogs. The worst that can happen up here is we could get trapped all -night until work begins tomorrow on this lot.

We would sheepishly surrender to humans rather than to face a pack of angry shepherds. We ponder now what move makes sense next on this backlot chess board. We  want to sneak beyond this main gate fortress. Like Bob Crane and his band of merry heroes, we too plot to break-in to stalag 13.

All our previous exploits were on the MGM backlots so we do have training at this and this is not our first backlot rodeo. But, MGM has no dogs. It is always fun to explore the unknown. Night-time makes it safer from being seen but…….,..10 times more SCARIER!

Just a kid living inside the world of his TV.

To be continued……

Backlot Security

It is posted that rules exist and this is off-limits. That makes it all the better. This is not for the faint of heart. Preparation, the same thing I use for tests at school, was necessary. That starts with getting into the backlot property…and what better way, other than to be unseen!

Each lot was entirely different, and that starts with the fences to keep trespassers out. We ignore the warning signs… how climbable and hidden is our entry? We have only wood fences with knot holes to peek through. That’s helpful. We have metal corrugated steel fences, held up by wooden supports, that we could sit onto of. They are old and easy to climb. I would boost one guy up and he would reach down and pull the other guy, or guys, up by one arm.

We perfected this boost-up method, after our Hole in the Fence, left by a fallen tree, was repaired and we needed another way inside. We only needed two people and both could be inside, in thirty seconds. This went on for a decade.

Lot 2 was surrounded by a fence that was roughly 70 percent new and very sharp on top. This technique did not work on this style fence. Every fence was different and many styles existed. The rusty, old, chain link style—you know the kind…with three strands of rusted, barbed wire running across the top?—existed around MGM lots 3, 4 and 5…and also, almost entirely around Desilu.

Barbed wire climbs are the worst and you must climb the fence support poles to gain entry. This is impossible to enter or exit while being chased, so running to that style fence with the hopes of escaping is not very shrewd. Know your fences is a rule of thumb.

These fences allowed us to see inside. Often, we could not climb in, due to work going on within view. So, we would go to plan B. The fact is, getting to know the fences was like homework, and sneaking, not only in, but also out, was the pass or fail test.

We learned how to make our own entrances, using the same obstacles that would keep most kids outside of this make-believe world. We added strategic gates to the sharp metal fence. If you can’t climb it, secretly go through it!GetFileAttachment-1.jpg

These fences were the first level of security. The next involves humans with badges and…oh yes, dogs with collars.

Desilu fences have Dog on Duty postings on them. This was truly a scary alternative and it is how Desilu kept us out as long as they did. It took us a couple of years to come up with a courageous plan. But backlot passion was pulsating through my veins and all backlots were to become mine.

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This is the chain-link fence where the stars entered Lot 2. The Red Bronco in the background is the security vehicle that was usually on patrol.

 

 

 

Crosstown Desilu

A short bike ride away from Lot 2 was Desilu studios, located off Ince Ave., named after studio pioneer Thomas Ince. The forty acre backlot was separate from its main lot offices and stages, which was the case for all the MGM backlots. No stages, few people, but corner after corner of magical and historic facades, jungles, pirate ships, stage coaches, army trucks, etc. If you can imagine it, it is here!

Desilu was different than all the MGM lots. You could look down on it from a hill side above. The same hills also looked over MGM lot 3 and provided a bird’s eye view of everything. We could observe film production going on like a giant ant farm below. Even before we started sneaking in, this was how we got our fills…and thrills.

We were young. It was sensational. We learned these two lots extremely well, without ever stepping foot in any of them…..YET!

Lot 2 would have to be explored, one house, one village at a time. We couldn’t wait for the excitement of setting foot on private property.

We already knew Batman filmed there. We’d seen them shooting from above: both Batman and Bat-woman. The Green Hornet also filmed there. The show’s star, legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee, amazingly lived right behind the studio, in Culver City. And there were other shows: Star-Trek, Hogans Heroes, Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle, etc. I even had a Gomer Pyle lunch box, but that was a different lunch box for a different backlot.

 

The Morning After

Jimmy, my best friend,  lives just a few houses up from me. As time goes on, Jimmy will be my side kick on these expeditions primarily. We barely slept last night and could not wait to get up and see if the hole in the fence is still exists. Was this just a dream?

We leave much earlier today and plan to spend the entire Sunday inside the backlot. That depends if there is still a tree crashed through a fence. Bingo, it is just how we left it, and still undiscovered or fixed anyway. While walking hurriedly to lot 2, we planned our first move.

We arrive and climb in over the tree and hide to observe who and what is taking place here today. The lot is silent and empty as far as the eye can see. No activity. It’s like we own it. We see a bombed out village we know is from Combat. Blown up trucks lie in the outskirts off to the side of the cobblestone rode. A church sits a top the hill in the little French looking village.

We decide today this village gets conquered ! As we run across an open field we immediately duck for cover under an arch. Above us a sign says AutoBahn 2.5 km. We have arrived at the place that we have herd battles from, but barely seen.

Its silent, windy, desolate. Bullet holes everywhere. We think a million thoughts as we slowly turn our heads from side to side. Craters from explosions may become are hiding places. Our minds are flashing back to all the Combat episodes we recognize this village from.

All this exists just a sling shot distance away from my home. The world has become much smaller place.

The Bewitching Pool

We are extremely scared yet extremely excited. There is no one here. It is empty and silent. A large field separates us from the nearest village. We see a cobblestone road leading up to a French village. But to get there, we have to run across a large open space. We could be seen.

We decide to play it safe and stay by the fence, which leads us to a deep swimming pool, which we immediately recognize, from the TV show The Twilight Zone. The episode is called “the Bewitching Pool. And now that same pool is right in front of us. It is at this moment that realize that much of what we see on our television sets, is right before our eyes. The world just got smaller.

I would later learn that this pool was built for Esther Williams. It was also used by Elvis Presley. This pool is located in the back corner of Lot #2. It is the closest set to my house.

The Hole in the Fence

It’s a Saturday morning and my best friend, Jimmy and I, are riding our Stingray bicycles along the studio fence line, when…Low and behold! We notice a large eucalyptus tree has fallen overnight and has made a huge hole in the fence. We stare through the hole, dumbfounded. We see entire villages, cityscapes, and even the Great Wall of China. But we have to muster the courage to climb over the tree, and through the newly created hole in the fence.

What will happen to us if we climb through? What happens if we’re caught? We’re little kids…they can’t do anything to us! 

We stare through the hole for what feels like hours…trying to come up with reasons not to go through. Jimmy is more hesitant, but I say, “we’re kids, Jimmy! We can outrun them! The temptation of seeing these sets in a way we weren’t able to, before, is too much for us to resist. The daunting NO TRESPASSING signs are no match for our budding curiosity. So, we climb over the fallen tree, and go right through the hole in the fence. We suddenly find ourselves hiding behind aged tombstones in the middle of a huge cemetery. We’ve become explorers…or as the studio would later refer to us, “trespassers.”

 

 

The Back Lot Beckons

It’s the early 60’s. Gunfire can be heard everywhere. As I play in my backyard, I ask my mom, “where’s all that noise coming from?” She answers, “MGM. It’s a block away.” They film Combat there. That’s what you are hearing.” Well, this plants a seed in my young, fertile mind. In the days and months ahead, my neighborhood friends and I will walk the studio fence line, peeking through the holes in the fence, looking for Sgt. Saunders, better known as Vic Morrow, the star. He is my hero.

We can see smoke, hear gunfire and explosions, frantic, disjointed yelling through megaphones, and are completely awestruck. We want so much to see what is happening on the other side of the fence, but this will take time, as we are young, and a bit overwhelmed. We are happy with this experience, for the moment, but can’t even imagine what is next…