A film star that has stood the test of time: L.A. City Hall

Times Staff Writer

Few Hollywood stars work harder -- or cheaper -- than Los Angeles City Hall.

“Mission Impossible III.” “Evan Almighty.” Now showing at a theater near you, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” All have had scenes play out across the landmark’s stately chambers, portrait-lined corridors and grand stairways.

Yet this publicly financed box-office favorite receives not a penny in return. Call it the price of being an architectural icon in one of the world’s foremost entertainment capitals.

“You just walk in and you literally start shooting,” said James McCabe, a location manager who has chosen City Hall for several of his films, including “Nancy Drew” and “Mobsters.”


“You cover up a few L.A. signs and you’re in business,” he added. “The state has some buildings down here, but none of them have the majesty of government that City Hall has.”

Filmmakers say the camera loves City Hall just as much today -- at 80 years old -- as when it was introduced to audiences in the 1928 silent film “While the City Sleeps.”

It played the Vatican in the 1983 miniseries “The Thorn Birds,” a secret CIA center in “Alias” and U.S. Capitol hallways in “The West Wing.” It even had a cameo in the popular video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”

In a courtlike room not far from where the City Council meets, “Liar Liar” (surely it was a coincidence) was shot, starring Jim Carrey. “Chinatown” showed Jack Nicholson in the ornate council chamber; Tim Allen’s “Shaggy Dog” used the building’s Spring Street steps.

Though much of the shooting occurs at night, it takes place frequently enough during the day that workers inside the bustling center think nothing of dodging a few lights and cameras as they walk or ducking inside doorways until someone shouts “Cut!”

“It happens so often, and we have work to do,” said Martha Pinckney, who works in the Business Tax Compliance Office in Room 101.


In 2006, nearly 50 shoots -- including commercials, TV shows and blockbuster movies -- took place in the marble hallways and historic meeting rooms that make up Los Angeles’ main political stage, according to the city’s General Services Department. That’s about 150 days out of the year.

“I don’t think when they built it [that] they had any idea that it was going to become what it’s become in terms of a cinematic triumph,” said Geoffrey Smith of FilmLA Inc., a nonprofit organization that contracts with Los Angeles to arrange filming throughout the city and county. “There are some spaces that are so huge and others that are not. It just lends itself so beautifully to so many things. It’s almost epic in its look and design.”

In a 1923 Times article, George E. Cryer, Los Angeles’ 43rd mayor, urged the residents of the rapidly growing city of more than 1 million to erect “a monument to the enterprise and progressiveness of the people of Los Angeles.” “Let us build a City Hall that will be a credit to the metropolis of the great West,” he said.

In 1924, voters approved the $7.5-million bond measure for the purchase of land between Spring and Main streets and construction of the imposing, 32-story building, which remained L.A.’s tallest skyscraper until 1964, when the city lifted height limits. The 454-foot structure contains sand from each of California’s 58 counties and water from each of its 21 Spanish missions, city officials said.

Filmmakers soon clamored to make the stately structure, with its grand entryways and cavernous rotunda, a Southern California landmark. And as Hollywood grew more ambitious in its moviemaking, so did the uses of City Hall.

The 1953 movie of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” depicts invading aliens destroying the building with their spacecraft. To create the look, a miniature City Hall was built and then blown up with explosives. The film won an Oscar for special effects.


When the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” TV series declared that the Man of Steel was “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” producers looked to City Hall as their chosen skyscraper.

Through the decades, set designers deceived audiences in other ways: The building’s rotunda was a backdrop in “XXX: State of the Union,” starring Ice Cube; the council chambers appeared again in the Leslie Nielsen comedy “The Naked Gun”; the stately boardrooms are often used for courtroom dramas such as “Fracture”; and in “Flags of Our Fathers,” director Clint Eastwood used one side of City Hall to depict a building in Baltimore and another side as the scene of a rally in another part of the country.

“Since 9/11, it’s such a hassle [for filmmakers] to travel outside of Southern California, with the security and delays,” said Harry Medved of the movie website “If people have the power to say where the film is shot, I think they’d rather stay at home.”

Some cities capitalize on Hollywood’s need to shoot close by. Beverly Hills, with its own grand City Hall made famous partly through Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop,” charges more than $2,000 a day for exterior filming and more than $3,000 if cameras need to go inside.

That generated nearly $300,000 in revenue last year, officials said.

Even homeowners profit when filmmakers step on their property. A Santa Clarita neighborhood cashed in with “The Unit,” which is set on a fictional military base in Missouri. Residents were paid $100 to $300 a day for the use of a driveway, $1,000 to $3,000 for house exteriors, and $2,500 or more for indoor shots.

Los Angeles once charged about $300 a day, but in 2006 city leaders waived the fee, saying too many other states and cities were offering filmmakers incentives to leave the comforts of home.


“New York would never let Wall Street’s banking industry be lured away, and we must refuse to allow Hollywood’s entertainment industry to be lured away,” Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said at the time.

Those in the industry say City Hall’s easy access is what makes the building so desirable.

“A production company needs to know they can come in and not be encumbered by an overwhelming bureaucracy,” said Smith of FilmLA. “Filming at City Hall has come down to a science now.”

There are a few requirements for film crews: The limestone walls and marble columns must be wrapped with protective material before bulky cameras are carried in. A city electrician must be present if the building’s historic lighting is to be altered. And all equipment must rest at least one foot from the walls.

“We don’t want them to damage any of the historic fabric, especially since we took such great pains to restore them,” said Kevin Jew, director of the city’s Project Restore, which managed the building’s $300-million retrofit after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Pinckney and other city employees say film crews are so efficient that their overnight shoots go largely unnoticed.

“You can’t even tell that they were there,” she said. “The office basically looks the same the next day as when we left it.”


Government and Hollywood will meet once again Jan. 18 -- the next scheduled shoot. City Hall is prepped.