On a recent crisp and cloudless afternoon, workmen perched on a crane high above the Culver City lot removed the last letter of the landmark 105-foot-wide MGM sign. It was probably just another job for them, but to Shirley Englander, a secretary who has been there for the last 42 years, it meant the end of an era for the studio that was home to such movie classics as "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."
"It's sad," she said, staring out the window near her desk in the facilities building, "the way the place has just been sort of carved up. It was once just a big happy family here."
The removal of those giant names, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer , and finally the famous mascot--logo--Leo the Lion, from the facility at Washington Boulevard and Overland Avenue signals a hard reality that has tapped an emotional response from those who grew up with the studio. Once the dominant studio of the "majors" with dozens of high-powered stars and directors under contract, MGM Pictures Inc. is now merely a collection of studio executives with a slate of movie projects housed in a gleaming high-rise office building a block away.
The separation of MGM--which is still an ongoing entity--from the lot and the parceling of the company was only recently completed. Last March, media baron Ted Turner purchased MGM/UA Entertainment Co. for about $1.25 billion after his bid to purchase CBS failed. From the start, cynics insisted that Turner was not interested in the whole company--just the valuable MGM library of films which he hoped to air on WTBS, his Atlanta-based super station.
The cynics were proved right: On the same day the MGM sale was announced, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. sold the United Artists subsidiary for about $480 million to financier Kirk Kerkorian who had been the majority stockholder at MGM. Today, UA, a studio without a lot, is housed in offices in Beverly Hills.
Last June, Turner also sold the MGM Entertainment Co.'s television production and distribution business and Home Entertainment Group to United Artists Corp. for $300 million in cash.
Finally, last month Turner completed the sale of the 44-acre, 24 sound stage production facility along with the Metrocolor Lab to Lorimar-Telepictures Corp. for another $100 million.
The net result of all of that: Turner wound up with the 4,500-film library owned by MGM and managed to keep under control what would have been a staggering debt level.
(In the transition, about 200 MGM employees, primarily commissary and maintenance staff, were laid off, according to Barbara Brogliatti, senior vice president at Lorimar.)
Because of the complicated nature of these financial arrangements, observers seemed dazed, at times angered about the sale of the lot to Lorimar-Telepictures Corp. "This is not just an acquisition," said Merv Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of Lorimar. "It's a commitment to preserving a tradition. . . . This is not the end of a wonderful film history, it is the beginning of a new studio . . . . " It could have been worse. Turner began selling the studio as one would sell off a car for parts, looking for buyers for the pieces he no longer wanted. A handful of developers expressed an interest in knocking down all of the buildings and replacing them with condominiums. Fortunately, we will probably never see Tara Towers or Ozland or any similar development on the lot. (Indeed, there already is a Raintree Apartments where MGM back lot No. 3 once was, sold off in 1971 shortly after the studio auctioned the bulk of its props and wardrobe department.) In 1937, the Culver City City Council zoned the parcel of land "for studio use."
"Atlanta burned on that site and 'Citizen Kane,' was shot there," says Culver City Mayor Paul A. Netzel. "This studio has always been a major force in the community and the industry. You just don't go from that type of relationship in the community to turning it off and turning it out to pasture."
From "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924), the first film entirely produced by MGM, to "Running Scared"(1986), the last film completed there before MGM executives moved, MGM has been a studio laced with history and a rich sense of tradition. Employees who worked there and continue to work for the new owners still love to recall the days when you could find yourself seated next to Clark Gable at the commissary or Elizabeth Taylor at the studio ice cream parlor.
"MGM always had a whole different aura to it," says Peter Bart, an executive who worked there for several years when Frank Yablans was the head of production. "You could just soak up the history if you walked around the place."
Even today, you can still find several tarnished pieces of the Yellow Brick Road on Sound Stage 15 where Mel Brooks is busy making "Spaceballs."
It is not the artifacts but the people of the past that employees like Tony Villone, now 70, miss the most. Villone who has worked in the art department for 48 years, was there when L.B. (studio head Louis B. Mayer) controlled the place with an iron hand and knew the first name of every gaffer and grip on the lot. "When he (Mayer) came out of the Administration Building, you knew he was the No. 1 guy," Villone recalls. "Writers and producers walking with him would always stay a few feet behind him as he walked around the lot." Shirley Englander vividly remembers sneaking onto the set of "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) with a girlfriend and being spotted by Gene Kelly who did the choreography for the movie, which also starred Frank Sinatra. " 'What are you girls doing there!' " Kelly screamed in mock anger, Englander recalls. "And then he made us come sit by him so we could get a better look at the shooting."
Or the time Englander was almost hit by Katharine Hepburn in a golf cart and how nice Hepburn was to her. Or when Jimmy Durante used to come up to her office window and shine his nose on the pane. Or when the crew lifted Red Skelton's new sports car while the comedian was at lunch and hid it.
Now that storied history is slipping away like steam vanishing from a teapot. The lot will continue to be used for film and TV production (it will now be much busier than the final inactive days before the Lorimar purchase) and the place is undergoing a massive and, for some, traumatic face lift of sorts.
All signs of Leo have to be removed, to be replaced by the Lorimar logo. Leo was painted on the speed signs and on the barber shop sign. Two lions engraved in cement will have to be covered and the sweat shirts and coffee mugs in the studio store will now have to bear the Lorimar name.
As the studio changed hands there was sudden interest in MGM memorabilia. Even stars got caught up in the frenzy. Larry Hagman, J.R. Ewing on "Dallas," has asked Lorimar head Merv Adelson if he and Patrick Duffy could have the two giant lions standing watch near the studio entrance. And what would Hagman do with them? "I don't know, put them on the beach in front of my house or something," he said.
There, on the Malibu shores, Leo may rest in retirement, listening to the waves crash and remembering a storied history that we can only conjure up by looking at the celluloid residue of a Hollywood institution.
Those films--many of which are being colorized--all belong to Ted Turner today. Maybe one day he will reach into the vaults and screen a long-forgotten 1934 gem that brought in a few bucks for MGM. Based on the true story of Hetty Green who amassed millions on Wall Street, it was called "You Can't Buy Everything."