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Cinematic Sleight of Hand : That Graceful Rail Station in ‘Rain Man’ Is in, Gasp, Santa Ana

Times Staff Writer

Quick--what’s the location for the closing scene of “Rain Man,” when Charlie Babbitt puts his brother on a train bound east from Los Angeles?

Gotta be Union Station, right? Where else do you board a train in L.A.?

Wrong. It’s the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center.

The station’s tiled courtyard, curved stairways and graceful, wrought-iron railings provided just the backdrop the scene needed, according to Robin Citrin, location manager for the film, which is the odds-on favorite to sweep the Academy Awards this week.

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The film tells the story of the brothers’ cross-country journey, and “we wanted a real transition from coast to coast,” she said. The Santa Ana station “exemplified (the West) with its Spanish-style architecture.”

Union Station in downtown Los Angeles not only was too cavernous and old, but regulations there were too restrictive.

“They only wanted us to film at night,” Citrin said. “The script called for a daytime scene.”

Also, Union Station has extraordinarily high insurance requirements for film productions. California Film Commission director Lisa Rawlins said each star working there must be insured for $10 million to $20 million.

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“If you film on state property, the general requirement is $1 million” in insurance, Rawlins said. “Union Station traditionally has required much more.”

Once it was clear that Union Station would not work out, Citrin contacted Rawlins at the Film Commission, which maintains files on locations throughout the state. Rawlins sent pictures of the Santa Ana station. Citrin said she chose it over several others, including Glendale and Pasadena.

The $17-million transportation center, on Santa Ana Boulevard just west of Grand Avenue, opened in 1985, replacing an old depot a few blocks south, on 4th Street.

Citrin said: “It wasn’t too small, it wasn’t too large and, to our understanding, it had never been shot before. . . . It looked real great in the film. It’s always a plus to have an undisclosed location. It gives (the scene) a fresh look.”

Getting the scene was a coup for Santa Ana, which, except for the Old County Courthouse, has few venues that make it into the movies. In general, Rawlins said, the film industry considers Orange County to be “as far away as Miami.”

The city is “just outside the (30-mile) union zone,” Rawlins said, “so if they come down there . . . (the movie companies) have to pay additional expenses.”

Still, about 120 cast and crew members trekked from Los Angeles to film the scene July 20. The scene lasts just a couple of minutes, but the crew spent 13 hours at the station getting it right.

A train was sent down from L.A. by Amtrak. A spur behind the regular track allowed filming to go on without interrupting the regularly scheduled trains bound for Los Angeles and San Diego, according to Israel Garcia, the transportation center manager.

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The station was subsequently the setting for part of pop star Tiffany’s most recent music video, “All This Time.” Garcia is hoping that his building’s show biz career is just starting to bloom.

“It’s good for the city,” said Garcia, who almost made it into the movie himself but, after putting on a conductor’s uniform, was told he looked too young. “It’s something we would like to promote.”

And how was the climactic “Rain Man” scene received in Santa Ana? Did anyone notice the old town’s gleaming train station up there on the silver screen?

“A lot of people recognized it,” Garcia said. “They thought it was great. But I was amazed how many people are not aware of this facility. They think we’re still on 4th Street.”

ORANGE COUNTY IN THE MOVIES

Other movies that featured Orange County locations:

“Gleaming the Cube” (1988)--Balboa Pier, Irvine Ranch orange grove, Woodbridge High School in Irvine, John Wayne Airport, Little Saigon.

“Heartbreak Ridge” (1987)--the Swallows Inn, San Juan Capistrano.

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“Sweet Dreams” (1985)--the Westminster Herald newspaper.

“Frances” (1982), “Gideon’s Trumpet” (1980), “Norma Rae” (1979), “Compulsion” (1959)--the Old County Courthouse in Santa Ana.

“The Hindenburg” (1975)--Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.

“Death Race 2000" (1975)--Chet Holifield Federal Building (the Ziggurat) in Laguna Niguel.

“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)--the stark, futuristic looking buildings were on the UC Irvine campus.

“Rebel Without a Cause” (1954)--the scene in which the teen-age drivers played chicken was filmed on the Dana Point bluffs.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930)--the battles were filmed in Corona del Mar, on land that is now the site of Newport Center.

“The Ten Commandments” (1923)--Seal Beach was used as the Sinai Desert.


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