Alive with more than history

It's been decades since movie studios had movie stars on contract. And you're as likely to stumble across movie filming on a downtown L.A. street as on the Universal Studios back lot these days. But the studios still have that special feel of a gated village of the privileged, sprinkled with producers' personal parking spaces, dotted with streets named for directors and stars and charged with a frisson of excitement.

No one was more drawn to that electricity than the teenage Steven Spielberg, who took a bus tour of the Universal lot one summer after his junior or senior year in high school in the '60s (he can't remember which), ditched his fellow tourists during the bathroom break, and — in a scene that could be from one of his movies — set off to explore. "It was one of the best days of my life," he recalls.

When he stumbled into an office to use a phone, a film librarian named Chuck Silvers asked him what he was doing there. Spielberg confessed. At Silvers' invitation, Spielberg came back the next day with two of his own short films. After that, Silvers gave him passes for three more days on the lot.

Banking that the guard would recognize him after the fourth day, Spielberg, dressed in "my bar mitzvah suit," simply walked back onto the lot, smiling and waving to the guard. For two months, he continued. "I met film editors and sound mixers and TV directors, and I met a lot of actors," he recalls. "I was befriended by John Cassavetes."

Eventually, one of his short films made it into the hands of former studio honcho Sid Sheinberg, who gave him his first professional directing job — an episode of the TV show "Night Gallery," which guest-starred Joan Crawford.

Universal gave him "Jaws" to direct in the '70s, which became the blockbuster that began his rise to the stratosphere of Hollywood. In the early '80s, following hit after hit, the studio built him his own offices — a smart move on the part of bosses Lew Wasserman and Sheinberg, laughs Spielberg, "because they betrothed me to the lot forever."

He installed his Amblin Entertainment production unit in the Santa Fe-style building — where any future Spielberg would have to sneak by Amblin's own attentive guard. Indeed, he's been in residence on the lot ever since — even after co-creating his DreamWorks studio and selling most of it recently to crosstown rival Paramount.

"I'm a traditionalist, and I owe a lot to this place," he says. "This is my ancestral homeland…. I was the barbarian at the gate, at least as far as my ambition goes."

People speak of Hollywood as an industry or a state of mind. But there still are rambling, fascinating physical places where thousands go to make movies — to shoot them, edit them, perfect their sound, hone their look and market them. In a city notorious for tearing itself down, the historic studio lots here are nearing their century mark, changed but still vital.

The Universal lot in the Hollywood Hills is an amalgam of television and film production plus postproduction services. The main entrance is tucked off busy Lankershim Boulevard. Beyond a less-than-grand gatehouse, Main Street winds its way past office buildings and soundstages. On one side rises the fabled Black Tower, once the perch of the shrewd, irascible Wasserman, who reigned over Universal for several decades, and now the aerie of Ron Meyer, the disarmingly casual chieftain who rode around the lot on his bicycle, introducing himself when he first got his position.

It's been 92 years since Carl Laemmle, a German Jewish émigré, decided to move all his operations here. His West Coast manager selected 230 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley and paid $165,000. The Universal that Laemmle founded is now part of NBC Universal, which is 80% owned by General Electric and 20% by the French company Vivendi. Officials roughly estimate the number of employees at 2,000. The lot, now 390 acres, is a pastiche of all its eras — Stage 28, which dates to 1924 (when it wasn't actually a soundstage, because movies were silent then), the quaintly drab office bungalows from the '40s, the stucco building where Rock Hudson held court in the '50s, the eerily preserved disaster scene complete with a crashed jet from last year's "War of the Worlds" (directed by Spielberg).

In recent decades, the company has coped with a $20-million fire in 1990 that destroyed 4 acres of sets — even with a county fire station located on the lot — and a couple of shooting incidents, one in which a guard was killed.

Through it all, though, the lot offers a sense of place. When producer Marc Platt needs to clear his head, he leaves his bungalow, passes the sign that bears the name of his eponymous production company and hops on his golf cart. He motors around, pausing at the house where Anthony Perkins went "Psycho," then moving on to the courthouse square where lightning struck and Michael J. Fox went "Back to the Future."

"It's like a dreamland," says Platt, a professed "movie geek" from Baltimore. His own dreams have had their detours. He was head of movie production here briefly in the late '90s; then, after being fired — "It wasn't the right fit," he says — he set up his own company on the lot. It was at Universal that Platt found the book "Wicked," started to turn it into a movie, nixed the idea and developed it into the hit stage musical (with Universal's blessing and financial backing).

"While the business evolves, while different owners come and go, the soundstages are still there, the back lot is still there, the physical lot is a constant," Platt says. "We all want a sense of constant in our lives."

The person responsible for maintaining all 2 million square feet of office and production space also likes to crisscross the lot on his golf cart. Some call him "the mayor of Universal," a term Jim Watters, president of Universal Studios Operations Group, eschews. But he does have quite a municipality to run.

Watters, 54, who started 29 years ago as an assistant film editor, has survived five Universal administrations, facilitated the changeover to the digital age, landscaped little pocket parks around the lot and battled an infestation of bees on the "New York" streets of the back lot. As befits the unflappable image he projects, when life gave him bees, he made honey.

"We put beehives up there," he says, gesturing as he motors past a grassy, tree-dotted hillside. The hives drew the bees away from the New York part of the lot, and now Watters has the honey harvested into about two dozen jars a year that he gives to co-workers.

All in all, it's an extraordinary juxtaposition of high tech and low tech, the new and the traditional. Fourteen of the 30 soundstages on the Universal lot are wired for Internet access. But outside the soundstages, a pickup truck trailing a rectangular magnet sweeps the roadways for nails and screws — a byproduct of the constant production — as has been done for decades.

As much as the executives like to talk about the people who work there as a family, it's a family that has opened its house to boarders. These days, Universal is in the business of offering its services to anyone who can pay. The studio will host birthday parties and bar mitzvah celebrations for the right fee. Movies, TV shows, commercials and music videos all film on soundstages and the back lot or, like the sound editors on the TV pilot "Shark," avail themselves of the technical resources. "We treat these people like gods," says Karen Dean, executive director of sound services.

When James Woods spent a long day recently looping his voice for "Shark," he found his favorite pineapple upside-down cake waiting for him. "Of course, we knew!" Dean explained later. "We research it."

Forty percent of the business on the lot is not related to Universal. "Desperate Housewives," which is not a Universal TV show, sets its now famous Wisteria Lane on Colonial Street, tucked against a hillside. (Trivia alert: The home of the housewife who committed suicide in the show's debut was the house from the 1997 "Leave It to Beaver" movie.) A sign posted at the opening of Wisteria Lane announces that it's a closed set. Just a few faux houses away, a couple of deer who inhabit the hills munch away on a grassy slope.

Watters grabs his golf cart whenever he has some time and checks the back lot and all the "nooks and crannies" when he can. "I hate Dumpsters," he notes as he drives past one parked outside Stage 28.

He pulls onto the labyrinth of streets that makes up the New York zone. (Other faux exteriors include Mexican Street, Western Street, European Street.) The dingy buildings look like an Edward Hopper painting come to life. Watters drives on to the sprawling transportation department.

"Oh, there's Columbo's car," he says pointing to a battered convertible, one of two that Peter Falk used as the disheveled TV detective. Reverentially, the studio, so willing to rent out everything else, never lets these cars budge off the lot. The studio might make another "Columbo," notes Watters.

The Columbo car aside, studios in general have a dismal record of preserving their history.

"I've come to the conclusion that whenever history makers are making history they really don't realize that," says Jeff Pirtle, 34, the manager of archives and collections. When he joined Universal four years ago, he was amazed to discover that staffers had long ago torn up many valuable first-edition posters and used them to paper the wall of the commissary. Oddly, though, the results are stunning.

Original posters that have been preserved, as well as actual film, are stored in a giant limestone mine in Pennsylvania. Costumes and props of historical value are stored in an unmarked warehouse in Sun Valley.

Still, unexpected treasures appear from time to time. "Want to see something cool?" Pirtle asks, donning white cotton gloves. He opens a file cabinet drawer and pulls out a detailed drawing of a woman in a spangly gown. It's from the film "The Wanderer" (1925), and it is signed "Edith Head," the legendary costume designer.

"This was one of her first credited productions," says Pirtle, who explains that the drawing is a bit of a puzzle. It was recently discovered stashed in a file cabinet. Head had worked at Universal, but she didn't work on "The Wanderer" there. It was produced elsewhere.

It's the job of Pirtle and his staff of six to calculate what history is being made right now. The archivists ask for items from films and TV shows. As the long-running series "Will & Grace" neared its end, he was culling items that embody the show's quirky characters.

"We wanted to get Jack's Cher doll, but we were told it wasn't available," he says. Instead, they'll preserve Rosario's maid's outfit, among other relics.

Carla Hall is on the paper's Metro staff. She appeared in the pilot episode of "Capital News," a TV show that had a very brief run in 1990.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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