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A Mansion Unmasked : The Real Bat-House Lies in the Shadow of an Impostor in Pasadena

Times Staff Writer

As teen-agers in Pasadena, Ron Stephan and his high school buddies would climb the cliffs rising from Arroyo Seco and play Batman. The imposing brick mansion at the top of the bluff--known as Wayne Manor in the “Batman” television series--was their backdrop.

For years, Stephan and other area residents pointed to the home just south of the Colorado Street Bridge, showing off the fictional home of the caped crusader and his young ward, Robin, to friends and tourists. And the success of the new “Batman” movie, bringing with it new interest in reruns of the TV version, may well prompt more gawking at the Pasadena landmark.

The only problem is, the so-called Bat-mansion is a Bat-impostor. In fact, the misidentification of the house has become something of a local tradition.

Tonie Carnes, a researcher with the preservationist group Pasadena Heritage, said the group’s tour guides pointed out the wrong “Batman” house for more than a decade.

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“It was an ‘oh-by-the-way’ type of thing that people referred to,” Carnes said. “We never researched it.”

The actual Bat-house--which was designed by the same architect as the impostor, according to its former owner--is hidden behind a six-foot-high wall a block south on San Rafael Avenue.

The three-story Tudor structure, complete with massive mahogany stairway and butler’s pantry, was the home of Norman Preston van Valkenburgh and his family at the time the television series was filmed.

“I took five grandchildren there to raise,” said Van Valkenburgh, 88, who acquired the seven-bedroom house in 1960.

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The television series, a camp version of the comic-book tales that first appeared in 1939, catapulted the crime-fighting duo into mainstream pop culture, said Hal Lifson, marketing consultant for the 20th Century Fox show.

The series, which originally aired from 1966-68, is experiencing a resurgence in syndication, fueled by the release of the movie and the approach of the comic’s 50th anniversary. It has become a cult hit in England, Lifson said.

When the “Batman” production crew came to the Van Valkenburgh home back in 1966, Norman van Valkenburgh was concerned that the filming might interfere with family time, he said. But his fears proved unfounded. Family members still remember the crew as considerate and cordial.

For three days, at $1,500 a day, the crew milled about the grounds from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Most of the action was filmed on a sound stage, and only external shots of the Pasadena house were used as stock footage, Lifson said.

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Van Valkenburgh’s grandson, Jeff, has memories of “hundreds of people in the street trying to get in. Kids were coming over the fences at the sides.”

About 10 years old then, he got introduced to new friends at school as “the kid who lived in the ‘Batman’ house.” Like millions of other children, he soon acquired the Bat-fan’s array of toys, from the all-purpose Batbelt with the fake two-way radio to a miniature Batmobile. The real thing had been parked in his driveway at one point.

“It was real exciting,” said Jeff van Valkenburgh, who has seen every episode of the series at least once. “I hung around Adam West (who played Batman in the series) and got a lot of stuff autographed. I was kind of a pain.”

He would bring friends to watch the filming, which was usually off-limits to spectators.

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“It was a lot of fun because I got a lot of attention,” he said. “We didn’t know how big it was until it really hit the screen. It was the biggest hit of the season.”

Although he sold the house three years ago, Norman van Valkenburgh still gets calls from film studios requesting use of the building for location shots. The house has appeared in various productions, from an Alfred Hitchcock mystery to a Toyota commercial. On several occasions it has served as a 1920s-era mobster’s house.

The children loved the “Batman” crew coming in, Van Valkenburgh recalled with a chuckle. “I think (the show) is nuts, and did at that time, too!”

Meanwhile, the case of mistaken identity lingers on; there are those who refuse to believe that the house on the bluff is not the real thing.

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Stephan swears one friend dropped to his knees in reverence after being shown the look-alike mansion. Upon being told it wasn’t the bona fide Bat-house, he just would not accept the truth.

“I’ve tried to explain it,” Stephan said. “But he insists that’s the house.”


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