When Pacific Palisades architect Virgil McDowell needs classical French moldings that look as if they were made in the 1920s, he takes his drawings and heads to Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, to a shop whose business it is to leapfrog through place and time — the Paramount Pictures lot.
Most people don't realize that Paramount Wood Moulding is open to those who will never compete for an Oscar or hold a SAG card. In addition to work for Paramount and other studios, about 30% of the shop's projects are for nonindustry clients who hear about it through word of mouth.
"They're the best-kept secret around," McDowell says. "They actually sit down and work with you. Whatever you want in wood, they can do. They are really artisans. Other places hand you a catalog and ask you to pick between a, b, c or d — and if you ask for custom work, they laugh at you."
Paramount is the foremost of a few remaining industry molding shops (Disney and Fox run smaller operations) where customers can rub shoulders with fully costumed movie and TV stars. After making an appointment, customers drive directly onto the lot, which is its own ecosystem: golf carts instead of cars, trailers instead of houses, a gated community peopled with famous faces and with set designers and craftsmen busy transforming soundstages into alternate worlds.
Mark Goldstein, owner of local Madison boutiques, arrived on the lot clutching glossy cutouts of fireplaces from Decor magazine and Architectural Digest when he was remodeling his Brentwood home in 2002.
"I had gone to fireplace stores, but I just didn't like the fireplaces. They looked too tract-homey," Goldstein says.
Paramount replicated Goldstein's cutouts — "one fireplace is painted ebony brown and antiqued," he says. "Another is white and looks like it was taken from a 150-year-old house in Connecticut."
Goldstein was so pleased with the work that he ordered his other moldings from Paramount as well.
"They just have interesting moldings that you don't find at any molding stores," he says.
Moldings are priced slightly higher than at Home Depot or other national chains — per-foot costs range from 21 cents (window stop) to $9.74 (large crown molding) — but clients say that Paramount's moldings are far more diverse, detailed and have larger profiles than what can be found elsewhere.
The shop itself, near the set for the TV show "Charmed," offers a view of the entertainment industry that few of us get to see: union workers feeding raw lumber into giant machines that chisel it into molding and spew sawdust into tubes snaking up and along the cavernous ceiling; boxes and piles of baseboards and casings and all variety of trim fashioned from sundry hardwoods and softwoods; custom-made doors and window frames and columns leaning against the walls.
"On a busy day, we fill a 16-foot-long dumpster with sawdust," says Mark LeCompte, head of Paramount's wood molding department.
Because there is never a lack of molding, wood turning and custom door and window orders to be filled and filled pronto, and because sets are rarely recycled, most days are busy. All profits are folded into the studio coffer.
Paramount moldings are also sold through Anderson Moulding in Culver City, Topanga Lumber in Topanga, and the lumberyards at Warner Bros., CBS and Sony Pictures. The Paramount shop is a favorite of architects and designers who are looking for rare and custom molding — and the workers' set-designing expertise makes them uniquely suited for these jobs, says Paul Staheli, production designer for the WB's "Charmed."
"Generally speaking, the molding we get out of here has a lot more detail to it than what you would normally get in your houses," says Staheli.
Filming requires exquisitely detailed molding, he says, because the camera picks up variation, and if the molding doesn't clue you in to place or period, a room is "nothing but a square or rectangular box. My office, for example, is nothing, a zero space. But if I were to trim out the windows and doors, I could turn it into a Victorian room, an Art Deco room. Name your period."
If you've watched TV or movies in the last 90 years, you have undoubtedly seen molding and other woodwork by Paramount. Angelenos may have also seen the shop's work around town, such as at Pasadena's Castle Green, an 1898 Moorish Colonial and Spanish-style structure refurbished last year with Paramount detailing.
Or at the former SAG office building at Sunset Boulevard and Sherbourne Drive in Hollywood, which was restored in 1999 using Paramount moldings.
Alan Graybill, whose carpentry company C Six contracted the Sunset and Sherbourne job, says he removed all deteriorating moldings and asked Paramount to duplicate them exactly. On a recent morning, LeCompte demonstrates the process of creating a custom molding.
"Because we're so in tune with doing one-of-a-kind things for movies, we don't mass produce anything," he says, trudging up a sawdust-covered staircase into the storage room where he keeps a scanner and computer-controlled saw called a router.
Hundreds of custom knives and sample wood moldings spill out of dozens of boxes emblazoned with the Paramount logo. The Hollywood sign is visible from a nearby window.
"This used to be the breakaways glass room," LeCompte explains, where the studio manufactured faux-glass items like windowpanes and bottles that shattered without injuring actors. First, LeCompte scans the molding he is duplicating or the customer's drawing into a computer-aided design program, and the router cuts a fiberglass knife template. The template is sent downstairs to the grinder, a sandpapered wheel that works like a key cutter to shape a steel plate and sharpen its edges.
The customized knife — or knives, if it's an intricate molding — is mounted onto a cutter head, which fits into one of four molding machines. LeCompte and his workers use rip saws to size lumber down to a fraction larger than the intended molding, then feed the planks through the molder, which cuts all sides at once.
And that's the easy stuff. Complicated wood turnings, such as ornate radius castings, have to be carved precisely by hand on a lathe. "They know how to turn and mill columns, how to do what people did in the '20s and '30s that nobody else does anymore," says McDowell, the architect. "When we use their moldings in a new room, people come into the room afterward and say, 'Wow, this looks old. A fine restoration.' "
Seems like a lot of work considering that many of their creations are blown up in action scenes or for special effects, and that even surviving sets eventually land in the trash.
But LeCompte, who has clocked 26 years in this industry and whose father ran the now-defunct Universal Studios molding shop, doesn't mind. "Putting them in the trash is good for business," he says with a chuckle. It keeps the orders coming.
For clients outside of the industry, Paramount moldings are more than quality detailing — they're also conversation pieces.
"You feel special," says Michelle Smith of Cypress who ordered a set of oak double doors. "You get to see a realm that we've all wondered about . And when somebody asks me where I got my doors, and I say 'Paramount Studios,' they look at me dumbfounded."
Steven Barrie-Anthony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. *
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How to get on the lot
Paramount Wood Moulding is open by appointment only — call (323) 956-4242 and arrange to drop by 555 Melrose Ave. in Hollywood between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can also view the catalog online at http://www.paramountstudiogroup.com (click on the links "enter the studio group," "production" and then "wood moulding").