Gone but preserved in memorable films

Times Staff Writer

It was where Robert Zemeckis shot the electrifying clock-tower climax with Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future.” It was also the courthouse backdrop for Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In addition to engulfing a soundstage, a video vault and part of the King Kong attraction at Universal’s theme park, the fire that broke out early Sunday on the studio’s famous back lot destroyed the iconic Courthouse Square set, used in hundreds of film and TV productions over the decades, as well as part of the studio’s New York Street area.

This isn’t the first time the backlot has caught fire. Though the courthouse was spared in a 1990 blaze that swept through the studio (and destroyed more than four acres, including a building used in “Dick Tracy” and sets for “Ben-Hur”), the New York Street set had to be rebuilt from the smoldering ashes. That set was also destroyed by a fire in 1957.

Both outdoor sets have a tremendous history at Universal.

Fans of the old television series “Leave It to Beaver” may recognize the courthouse facade as where the Beav went to school.

And before it was called Courthouse Square, thanks to its use in the “Back to the Future” movies, the area was known as Mockingbird Square because of its extensive use in the 1962 adaptation of the Harper Lee novel.


The Hill Valley clock tower was added to the courthouse for “Back to the Future,” but over the years, filmmakers have removed the clock and redressed the buildings for several films, including Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” plus “Bruce Almighty” and “The Cat in the Hat.” It was also used in the 1960s musicals “Bye Bye Birdie” (it was where pop star Conrad Birdie performed to his adoring female fans) and “The Music Man” (as the locale of the “76 Trombones” parade finale).

Courthouse Square was one of the standing sets of the current CBS paranormal drama “Ghost Whisperer.”

Universal’s New York Street area has also seen many TV shows, commercials and films. The set’s New York Street is actually much smaller than it appears on-screen; it is curved on both ends to give the illusion on camera that it is a bigger area.

Among the recent films to have shot there are Clint Eastwood’s latest, “Changeling,” and Eddie Murphy’s upcoming summer comedy, “Meet Dave.”

Clay Griffith, “Meet Dave’s” production designer, was saddened when he heard about the fire.

“It’s so unfortunate,” he said, adding that the Universal back lot, and its New York Street set specifically, helped productions save money. The studio’s streetscape allows Hollywood productions to stay local and stage difficult sequences without worrying about crowds or other issues that could interrupt filming.

“We shot three different scenes there,” Griffith says of the New York Street set. “One of them is an Italian street fair, which is pretty hard to do in New York unless you are there [during the fair]. There’s also an explosion outside a police station, and it would have cost a lot of money if we shot it in New York.”

Universal’s New York Street set has also subbed for other cities, including San Francisco in Eastwood’s 1971 classic “Dirty Harry,” Chicago for the 1973 Oscar winner “The Sting” and the 1980 comedy “The Blues Brothers,” Seattle for the 1987 comedy “Harry and the Hendersons” and even Kansas City for 1984’s “City Heat” with Eastwood and Burt Reynolds.

For the opening sequence of last Christmas’ box office hit “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” the New York Street set was dressed to look like Washington, D.C., circa 1865. And in “Spider-Man 2,” the street’s theater was the location for Mary Jane’s performance in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Television series that have shot on the street set include “House,” “Ally McBeal,” “The X-Files,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Ironside,” “Airwolf” and “Simon & Simon.”

Both Courthouse Square and the New York Street sets are scheduled to be rebuilt.



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Remember these?

Two of Universal Studios’ iconic backlot sets, where some of Hollywood’s memorable movie moments were filmed, were destroyed in Sunday’s fire.

Courthouse Square:

“Inherit the Wind” (1960)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

“Back to the Future” trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990)

“Amistad” (1997)

“Bruce Almighty” (2003)

New York Street:

“Dirty Harry” (1971)

“The Sting” (1973)

“Earthquake” (1974)

“The Blues Brothers” (1980)

“Streets of Fire” (1984)

“Austin Powers” (1997, 1999)

“Transformers” (2007)