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Long Beach Dome Gets New Life in Film : Movies: The former home of the Spruce Goose earns good reviews as a production facility ‘five times larger than the largest stage at Warner Bros.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The black walls of the Batcave, secret lair of the Caped Crusader, rise ominously inside the set of “Batman Forever,” code named “Blinko” by Warner Bros. Concealed beneath a gleaming white geodesic dome--its exterior in plain view of thousands of commuters daily--work continues on the film, which is due this summer.

On the second floor of the Batcave, the remains of a recently blown-up Batmobile--one of three newly designed vehicles appearing in the film--is parked at the top of a wide ramp. “Forever’s” car features large dorsal fins above the rear wheel-wells and a third fin in the center, which splits into a V.

The film is being directed by Joel Schumacher and executive produced by Tim Burton, who directed “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” Val Kilmer has taken over the cape from Michael Keaton, Nicole Kidman plays his psychiatrist girlfriend and Chris O’Donnell is Robin. Batman’s two main enemies are Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Two-Face.

The set is closed, but recently the dome’s manager, Joseph F. Prevratil, offered The Times an impromptu tour of the area, after filming for the day was over.

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Not far from the cavern, carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the interior of Bruce Wayne’s mansion and garage, painting the gray balustrades. In the center of the great, circular sound stage, on a one-story platform, is a third set: what appears to be a stripped-down, chopped-up section of a 747 fuselage, a configuration reputed to be the hide-out of Harvey Two-Face.

As it happens, this isn’t the first giant, wooden fuselage to inhabit this space. Until 1992, the dome overlooking the Long Beach Harbor, near Terminal Island, housed Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the largest wooden aircraft to fly--if only for one mile, on Nov. 2, 1947.

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The dome was built by the Wrather Corp., in the early 1980s for $10 million, next to the Queen Mary on the Long Beach Harbor waterfront, to serve as a complementary tourist attraction, generating millions of dollars in income. Disney took over management of the attraction for several years from Wrather, and then turned it back to the City of Long Beach, which owns the property. When tourist interest in the aircraft trailed off three years ago, the plane’s owners, the Aero Club of Southern California, sold it to an Oregon aviation enthusiast for an air museum in McMinnville, south of Portland.

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Plans for the empty dome ranged from tearing it down to making it a special events center, although there was no money for either. Not long after the Spruce Goose was dismantled and floated north, producers of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Last Action Hero,” then shooting in Long Beach, figured out a perfect--if temporary--fit for the facility.

The first shooting in the dome took place serendipitously, in early 1993, when rain forced “Last Action Hero” to shoot inside the dome for several days to film scenes from the magical projection room and movie theater. French film company Canal+ then booked the dome for a year--for more than $500,000--to shoot all the interiors of last year’s science-fiction hit, “Stargate.”

So far, the dome has earned good reviews as a production facility.

“We’ve got 137,000 square feet--that’s five times larger than the largest stage at Warner Bros.,” says “Batman” producer Peter Mcgregor-Scott. “That’ll give you some perspective about size. . . . Consequently, we’re able to build an almost unlimited number of sets.”

Will that translate into keeping “Batman Forever’s” big budget under control?

“I think we ultimately may have a cost savings,” Mcgregor-Scott said. “We’re filming on one set and preparing to film on the next. We move literally across 20 feet to start filming on the next set. That’s a great advantage, rather than moving to a whole new sound stage.”

The dome is one of the world’s largest, clear-span, free-standing, aluminum geodesic domes. At 130 feet high, its physical dimensions are daunting. A retractable central skylight can almost illuminate the interior when filming is not going on.

Prevratil would not say what Warners is paying to film “Batman Forever” here but he did say it is “considerably more” than “Stargate’s” fee. “When the need is great, the fee is greater,” he said with a chuckle.

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Times staff writer Edmund Newton contributed to this story.


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