Incoming in Calabasas
You could almost hear the distinctive thump-thump-thump of medevac choppers swooping in over the old “MASH” television series set in Calabasas.
Except the only real noise here Thursday was the heavy breathing of Brian Rooney and Mark Rackow as they lugged a 10-foot signpost down a muddy canyon fire road on the western side of Malibu Creek State Park.
Its familiar-looking, hand-lettered arrows pointed the way to Boston, Seoul, Coney Island, San Francisco, Tokyo, Burbank, Death Valley, Toledo and Decatur -- just like the ones that for 251 episodes stood in the center of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital compound.
The iconic signpost was being returned for the first time in a quarter-century to the “MASH” filming location. Soon it will be the centerpiece of a partially restored set that state officials plan to use to pay tribute to Malibu Creek State Park’s cinematic past.
The park’s 6,000-plus acres have been the backdrop for thousands of movie and TV scenes since 1927, when it became the Scottish Highlands for a silent movie called “Annie Laurie” that starred Lillian Gish.
It doubled for Wales in 1941’s best-picture Oscar winner, “How Green Was My Valley” and was Shangri-La in 1937’s “Lost Horizon.” It was the backdrop for a primate-run world in “Planet of the Apes” in 1968 and where “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” were chased over a cliff by a pursuing posse in 1969.
But it is “MASH” that matters most to park visitors, who come from all over the world to see for themselves the Korean wartime world inhabited by Hawkeye, Hot Lips, BJ, Trapper John and the others who filled out the landmark black comedy’s on-camera Army surgical team.
“When I first came here in 1988, people were always asking ‘MASH’ this or ‘MASH’ that,” said state parks Ranger Tony Hoffman as he stood in the doorway of the Blandings House, where the 1948 comedy “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” was filmed. It is now a state parks office.
“At first I’d tell them, ‘Ask me about birds and I can tell you. Go to Universal Studios if you want to know about films,’ ” Hoffman said with a laugh. “But people come up every day and ask about ‘MASH.’ Last year when two experts, Harry Medved and Mike Malone, led a hike to the set, 250 people showed up in the rain to go with them.”
These days, park rangers and docents have been trained to answer questions about the shows and films shot there. As proof, Hoffman good-naturedly rattles off some facts and figures about the Blandings House -- like how it was built at 7/8 scale so Cary Grant would look taller, and with movable interior walls so cameras could get the most flattering shots of co-star Myrna Loy.
Rooney and Rackow maneuvered a four-wheel-drive truck carrying the replica of the “MASH” signpost as close as they could before mud forced them to finish on foot.
The directional arrows drew appreciative looks from other hikers on the rutted fire road.
Dave Tillett, 49, a retired chemical engineer from Thousand Oaks, acknowledged he was a fan of the 11-year TV show.
Andreas Kyriacou, 52, a retired chemical engineer who lives in Newbury Park, loved the 1970 movie.
“It was one of the first films that touched me. It was a special film for me -- an emotional thing,” Kyriacou said.
After toting the signpost about half a mile, Rooney and Rackow reached the set. All that was left were the rusted hulks of a military Jeep and an old Army ambulance.
Both were burned in an Oct. 9, 1982, brush fire that destroyed the set as the show’s final episode was being filmed.
The fire was written into the finale, which was titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” When it aired Feb. 28, 1983, it became the most-watched TV show ever.
Rackow, 54, is a retired builder. He constructed the directional signs in his Agoura Hills workshop from pine and cedar based on photographs of the original “MASH” signpost. It is displayed at the Smithsonian.
He searched under some twigs and found a hole he had previously dug for the post. Then Rooney carefully lowered the signpost into the ground.
Rooney stepped back and surveyed the surroundings near the sign.
“Hawkeye’s tent was here. The latrines were there. The showers over there. The mess tent was over by the picnic table there. The helicopter pad was on top of that hill,” said the 44-year-old West Los Angeles resident who has written a history of the Santa Monica Mountains that includes both the state park and the nearby Paramount Ranch National Park.
Rooney is helping state parks officials plan a Feb. 23 ceremony at the set that will mark the 25th anniversary of the show’s series finale. Cast and crew members are being invited to the event, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and open to the public.
Using original blueprints provided by 20th Century Fox, the actual locations of the set’s tents and structures will be outlined in rope around the signpost, Rooney said.
Eventually, special overnight camping at the site is being considered. Videos of the old “MASH” show might be projected on a bedsheet for campers, he said.
Interpretive signs will be erected at the set, along with a special photographic “viewing window” that will depict how the show’s tents looked when they were set up.
“In the past, a lot of people have been disappointed to come out to see the set and find out there was nothing much to see,” said Al Pepito, Malibu area supervisor for the state Parks Department. “We want to bring back the rich history of cinema here.”
Eventually, interpretive panels will be placed at movie sites throughout the park, Pepito said.
At the “MASH” site, Rooney’s signpost will be displayed on weekends, and only when a docent is present. It will be locked up the rest of the time to prevent theft.
“The parks people suggested making a concrete or a metal signpost,” Rooney said. “But ‘MASH’ fans would never allow that.”
And with that, Rooney and Rackow hoisted the signpost and carried it back up the muddy fire road. It will be returned Feb. 23.