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OVER 1,000 FILMED HERE : McDonald’s Shoots TV Commercials in McStudio That’s Tucked Away in City of Industry

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Jerry Lewis wanted a McDonald’s burger.

That might sound like no big McDeal. But the grills at the McDonald’s were cold as a milkshake. After all, this Los Angeles-area McDonald’s had been shut so that an ad agency could shoot a commercial linking the place with Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy telethon.

But Lewis, the star of the commercial, walked in with a hankering for something hot off the grill. The grills, however, were turned off. So, Lewis put the production on hold while he drove up the street to chow down at a competing fast-food stand.

This was back in the mid-1970s, before McDonald’s figured out how to accommodate hamburger-starved stars. The solution: It built a McStudio.

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At first glance, this so-called Production Store looks, feels--and even smells like every other McDonald’s. But there are a few differences. For one thing, the food is prepared way in the back, behind closed doors. That way, if Lewis wanted to, he could still knock off a few burgers, and the commercial wouldn’t show any lingering smoke from the grill.

The grill works just fine. It just never gets turned on.

It’s there, after all, simply to look good. Likewise for the soda machine and french fry cooker. “We could be open for business tomorrow if we wanted,” said Linda Magruder-Briggs, advertising production manager for McDonald’s. But, of course, that’s something they don’t want.

The whole place, really, is one big McTease. In fact, you can’t buy anything from this outlet, quietly tucked away in an industrial park in City of Industry, 20 miles south of Los Angeles.

Since it was built 11 years ago, nearly 1,000 McDonald’s commercials have been filmed here. Why in City of Industry? Well, for one thing, it’s in an industrial park with little traffic, which keeps gawkers to a minimum. Also, a couple of McDonald’s biggest food suppliers are in City of Industry. Each commercial, after all, requires plenty of burgers and fries. And it’s still close enough to Hollywood to find plenty of actors.

Even the untrained eye can see it’s not an everyday McDonald’s. The ceilings are slightly higher to accommodate Hollywood lighting, and the wiring is 40 times heavier than a typical McDonald’s. Downstairs are dressing rooms complete with bulb-lined make-up mirrors. Above the counter, you won’t find any prices posted on the menu board.

Outside, things are slightly amiss, too. The trees are all stuffed in special planters, so directors can roll them around. The McDonald’s sign rotates to face any direction. And main entrances sit on both sides of the building, so that two crews could film at once. What’s more, a 10-foot fence surrounds the entire place--giving it more the appearance of a prison than a place where Ronald McDonald might rest his arches.

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The fence, however, is not just there to keep out the curious. It also keeps out those who might confuse it with the real thing. Still, once in a while, a gate is left open and--in the middle of filming--some unsuspecting customer pulls into the drive-up window and honks their horn for service.

Cut!

All of this might sound like a lot of trouble just to film some commercials. But there’s more to it than that. Until the store was built more than a decade ago, McDonald’s would have to lock customers out of its restaurants whenever it wanted to roll in the cameras.

And that was not a very pretty picture. After all, some customers have just 30 minutes for lunch. When they drive up to the local McDonald’s--only to find the place closed for the filming of some commercial--tempers can flare faster than french fries hitting hot oil.

“Customers couldn’t care less about commercial shootings,” said Steve Frohling, who recently sold the five McDonald’s outlets he owned and operated in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. “They just want their Big Macs.”

Indeed, McDonald’s discovered that some customers who didn’t get their usual Big Macs or McNuggets didn’t just go away hungry. Some also left angry. “We had some customers who drove away and said, ‘Fine, we’ll just go to Burger King,’ ” said Magruder-Briggs. That is the rough equivalent of a Coke enthusiast suddenly enlisting in the Pepsi generation.

McDonald’s customers who were turned away found all kinds of ways to vent their anger. Some simply tore up free food coupons handed to them by apologetic McDonald’s employees. Some tried to make noise and distract the filming. And others never came back. After a commercial shooting shut down one of Frohling’s McDonald’s units for two days, he noticed a 15% drop in sales for the next two weeks.

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These kinds of scars left the deep-thinkers at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., with an odd idea back in 1978. They decided to plunk down nearly $1 million to build a McDonald’s that would be used only to film ads.

“Life is already an inconvenience for many of our customers,” said Tom Lines, technical advertising manager for McDonald’s. “We don’t want to add to it.” What’s more, the company has actually saved a tidy sum of money by building the store.

For one thing, when McDonald’s closed units to film commercials, it got stuck paying franchisees nearly $5,000 per day for lost sales.

What’s more, Tinsel Town has also discovered the McDonald’s-gone-Hollywood. A scene from the movie “Oh God! Book II,” starring George Burns, was filmed there. And most recently, a number of scenes from the soon-to-be-released “E.T.”-like film, “Mac and Me,” were also shot at the Production Store. While the film studios use the Production Store for free, McDonald’s is rewarded with plenty of free publicity.

Some Disadvantages

For its part, rival Burger King says it has no plans to build such a studio. “We want variety in our ads,” said Joyce Myers, a Burger King spokeswoman. “We wouldn’t want to go back to the same place over and over.”

And even directors of some of McDonald’s best-known commercials concede there are disadvantages to filming at the Production Store. “Occasionally, I ask not to shoot here,” said Robert Lieberman, who has directed more than 100 McDonald’s ads, including the popular commercial that showed a senior citizen going to his first day of work at a McDonald’s. “If I want an ad that shows an urban setting, that won’t work here.”

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But one day recently, Lieberman was at the Production Store to film a national McDonald’s spot about teen-agers discussing their career ambitions. Even as he filmed, a crew of cooks--in a sealed-off portion of the studio--watched the shooting on video cameras. They keep track of how much food they need to prepare by the number of times Lieberman reshoots a scene. As some members of the food crew watched the video screen, Todd Dressel, a so-called food stylist, painstakingly labored over each hamburger to be used in the ad. In fact, he placed the lettuce on the bun one piece at a time. “I don’t usually work quite this slow,” he said. “I’m just nervous.”

Meanwhile, stretched out on a couch in the employees lounge, Ursula Niklas, an actress who has appeared in a number of McDonald’s commercials, said she was getting hungry. “At the end of the day, they let us eat the french fries,” she said, “but by then, they’re pretty stale.”

All of this Hollywood hoopla strikes nearby businesses as a bit peculiar. Across the street from the Production Store sits Frank & Son Trucking, a company that specializes in hauling large loads short distances.

Frank Zamarripa, who owns the trucking company, has heard the same question a million times. “People drive in here all the time and ask me if that’s a real McDonald’s,” he said, pointing across the street. “I tell them to go try and order a Big Mac.”

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