Friday, January 31, 2014

Special Guest Photos - Universal Studios, 1971

Today, Chuck Hansen comes to the rescue again by sharing his personal photos from a July 1971 visit to Universal Studios! Chuck has also provided some great info to accompany each picture, making my job easy.

First up is this awesome picture of Chuck and his mom (she's wearing a dress that she made) standing near three gigantic books featuring titles of recent movies (though "Slaughterhouse Five" wouldn't come out until 1972).

"The next slide takes a look at the back side of New York Street, which is located to the left of the previous photo.  It looks completely different from the back side of water.  In this picture, you can really see how the sets are little more than facades.  The King Kong attraction will be built in 1986 on this side of the large facade in the center right of the photo.  While the buildings are significantly different since a 2008 fire blazed through this area, you can still see the current street layout if you know what you're looking for."

This next one is a little bit blurry, but I wanted to include it anyway. Chuck says it is "…. a shot of the Colonial Mansion.  Built for the 1927 silent version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in 1971 it sat at the entrance to Colonial Street, which was then located behind the New York Street area along the northern edge of the property.  It was moved (along with many of its neighbors) in 1981 to a cul de sac at the back end of a new Colonial Street, located farther south and east on the backlot where Laramie Street had previously been located.  It was removed and destroyed in 2005 as part of an expansion of Wisteria Lane for the television program "Desperate Housewives".

"The location of (this next photo) is a bit of a mystery to me.  I'm guessing that based on the background, the rest room signs, and this map ( that it was probably taken near the tram boarding area near the entrance, but I really don't know.  Regardless of its precise location, it's nice to see Woody Woodpecker represented in a theme park.  And there's my mom's groovy dress again.  It was one of several she made the previous year before meeting my dad in Hawaii for his mid-tour R&R while he was in Vietnam."

"The next photo should bring back memories.  It's of me at Prop Plaza, holding a giant foam boulder.  I don't remember this part of this particular trip (I was only two and a half, so the flash flood and the "Ironside" set stood out more to me), but I do remember later visits to this area."

This next slide "... looks down into the backlot from the tram as it descends from the Upper Lot. ….One of the nice things about the old tour was the scenic drive down the hill, giving you a great overview of the back and front lots.  In these first two shots you can see a lot of Hollywood history that has been lost to various fires and redevelopment over the years.  The tram experience was less about thrills and more about seeing the sets, and there were a lot more of them in 1971". 

"…It's a typically smoggy summer day in LA.  The Warner Brothers' Studio and its iconic water tower, the later home of the Animaniacs, are visible in the distance acros the LA River Flood Control Channel.  In the middle right, you can see the original Spartacus Square set from the 1960 Stanley Kubrick/Kirk Douglas film of the same name, with Little Europe to the left.  The clay-tiled, orange-colored structures mark Mediterranean Square, built after the 1967 fire, and will serve as part of Tortuga in "POTC: Dead Man's Chest" in another 35 years. The castle in front of that is the Tower of London, built for the 1939 Boris Karloff/Basil Rathbone vehicle of the same name that marked Vincent Price's first role in a horror film.  The long, curved Western set bordering the right side of Mediterranean Square and the Tower is Denver Street".

"Following the contour of Denver Street across the picture, we can see the tops of the sets for Six Points, Texas, so-called because the design was supposed to allow simultaneous production on six silent Westerns.  Beyond Six Points is Park Lake, still containing the sternwheeler at this point in history.  The bridge built for the 1968 musical "Sweet Charity" is visible across the entrance to the Black Lagoon, but the Red Sea tram crossing won't be added on this side of it for another two years.  To the left of the sternwheeler you can see a portion of the apartments built for the short-lived NBC 1964-65 programing bloc "90 Bristol Court," which consisted of three separate sitcoms set in the same housing complex".

"In the extreme lower left you can catch a glimpse of Prop Plaza, which was a midway stopover on the tram tour with a few restaurants and a large collection of props set up on a large concrete platform with a great overview of the backlot (the photo of my mom and I and the giant books was shot here, not at the Upper Lot as I had previously assumed).  Visible in this photo is a stagecoach and rolling backdrop.  Dad could set up his Super 8 movie camera while you climbed up in the stagecoach and then a push of a button (or maybe a drop of a quarter) started the backdop moving, the wheels spinning, and the stagecoach rocking for your own bit of "backlot magic."  Prop Plaza is no longer used as part of the tram tour, but the location is still used occasionally for shoots or as a "base camp" for productions; the "Desperate Housewives" cast and crew used it for this purpose until 2012".

MANY THANKS to Chuck for all of his research (it was more than I would have done on my own photos, that's for sure! I'm lazy) and for sharing these great pictures of Universal Studios. There will be a "part 2" coming up soon.


K. Martinez said...

Wow!! You did an amazing job on the research, Chuck. So much detail. I first went to Universal Studios in the early 1970s, so this brings back a lot of memories. Thanks again for sharing your photos. I'm looking forward to "Part 2".

Nanook said...


The images certainly bring back memories of Universal's early years - where visitors could see the real Leave It to Beaver house, among many others, before even the tour became a facade of itself. And as we all remember from the early spiels... Facade is French for false front-!. And those great old trams with their slant front ends. "Ask for Babs". And the original Outdoor Universal Amphitheater, where I saw Jesus Christ Superstar.

Again, thanks for sharing Los Angeles' only real theme park, such as it is.

TokyoMagic! said...

Terrific photos, Chuck! I love seeing vintage Universal pics. I remember Prop Plaza very well and I have home movie footage that my dad took of that Stage Coach with the rolling backdrop. Didn't they used to tell visitors that the large props (Books, scissors, telephone, etc.) were used in the Irwin Allen TV show, "Land of The Giants"? I also seem to remember the tour guide saying that the sternwheeler in park lake was used in the movie, "Show Boat." I can't wait to see more vintage Universal pics.....thanks for sharing these with us, Chuck!

Chuck said...

I'm glad these photos are bringing everyone as much enjoyment as they have to me. I have to give most of the credit to my dad - without his eye, his trusty Canon FT QL, and 42 years of decent storage conditions, we wouldn't have these.

Nanook - you make an excellent point about the tour becoming a facade of itself. It's shifted from being about visiting actual, recognizable, working TV and film sets and turned into more of a big "ride through" attraction about the movies.

Even many of the surviving sets seem to be focused on the tour. When they relocated an abbreviated Colonial Street in '81, one of the design parameters was easy tram access to the area. The final design was a figure 8, with a circle at the end of the street so trams could easily turn around and a bypass exit behind the southern side of the street. The bypass left no room for backyards; since the Cleavers' house was now only a few feet from their backyard fence, all backyard scenes in the 1983-89 series "Still the Beaver" had to be shot on a soundstage.

TokyoMagic! - I remember the "Land of the Giants" references as well and can remember arguing with my mother that the boat had been used in "Showboat," although the guidebooks from that era do not make that claim, instead showing a still from the 1953 film "The Mississippi Gambler."

One of the things I've discovered is that sometimes the guides' spiels aren't completely accurate. For example, they normally don't tell you that the Cleaver house on the current tour was actually built for the 1997
"Leave It To Beaver" movie. It's possible that we both heard guides make a reference to "Showboat" on the tour and that's what stuck in our minds.

Major Pepperidge said...

K. Martinez, yes, Chuck went above and beyond. Sounds like we all went there at about the same time, I sure loved it back then. in fact I am surprised that we didn't go more often, since it was so close to where my grandparent lived (in Encino).

Nanook, "Ask for Babs"?? Why, was she going to show me a good time? It would be kind of amazing to hear a recording of one of those old spiels, I wonder if anyone ever taped one? I remember the amphitheater when it was open-air; I saw Elvis Costello there!

TokyoMagic!, I definitely remember being told that the giant props were from "Land of the Giants"; I believed it at the time! What the heck, Irwin Allen was famous for being tight with a dollar, maybe he saw them and figured he could use them in his show.

Chuck, thanks to your dad for taking the photos! It does kind of bug me when you know that the guides are misrepresenting some of the stuff seen along the tram tour. Maybe they don't even know that the info they are saying is wrong. On the other hand, whoever wrote the spiels probably knows that nobody cares about the 1997 "Leave it to Beaver" movie, but they have to say *something*.

Nanook said...

The "ask for Babs" quote was part of the tour's campaign, following the release of Animal House, 1978.

It took Universal "several" years before the tour guide spiel was "accurized" to properly credit many of the sights guests viewed while riding along the tram tour. The memory of "Showboat" is no fluke. That film, and countless others, magically were all shot, and/or produced at Universal - when the truth was anything but. Let's face it, compared to ALL the other Hollywood studios, Universal (back then) had little to crow about. (Yes, there were exceptions, but). Evidently their 'inferiority complex' was countermanded by "taking credit" for producing most of Hollywood's film output.

That - and other memory lapses of Hollywood's history. At one time a re-constructed set from Ironside was built to provide examples of methods used in shooting. The tour guides happily pointed out the fact that Ironside was one of the first sets to incorporate a practical ceiling. Hmmmm - I'll just bet. Besides countless other films & TV shows which beat 'ol Ironside to the punch, when it was pointed out to the tour guide Citizen Kane used that technique - quite famously - back in 1941, the guide admitted to "... not being acquainted with that film..." Frankly, I was surprised that property wasn't included in the "pantheon" of Universal Films.

Yes, they've come a long way: some for the good; others, not so much.

Chuck - again, thanks for these images. I'm also looking forward to Part 2.

Nanook said...


Also - I'm referring to the 1951 re-make of Showboat; not the 1936 version - which actually was shot at Universal.

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, oh yeah, Babs and Mandy; I remember the names from the song! As for authenticity, I am wondering if the Bates Motel (not the house) is from the color emake… I don't recall it being there in the old days. I mean, it looks great (in fact, the Norman Bates character pursuing the tram was one of my favorite parts of the tour), but it's just not the same as if it was the original Hitchcock set.

Nanook, I've only seen the 1936 version anyway (on Turner Classic Movies)….

TokyoMagic! said...

Major, the motel itself is not from the original 1960 movie. It was constructed in 1986 for Psycho III. I hate how the view of the motel has been ruined by the Whoville sets that stick up behind it.

Omnispace said...

Great to see these photos -- back when the focus of the Studios was still on the backlot and sound stages. I distinctly remember the prop plaza. Didn't they also have giant checkers? Last time I was in LA my guests didn't want to go to a theme park so we did the WB tour -- lots of fun on 12 person golf carts and a much more personal experience.

Snow White Archive said...

Great post with some really interesting pics of an early Universal and fascinating info too.

Snow White Archive said...

Great post of an earlier Universal and some interesting detailed info too.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, thank you for sharing your childhood memories. I appreciate it.

I visited this park once in the late '60's. I recall the Ironsides sets and the Parting of the Red Sea. Also there was a naval battle with miniature ships in a pond. The rest, ...

In your pics, in the middle distance, you can see the Toluca Lake golf course. My Dad grew up on a farm very near here in the 1920's. The city did not reach far past the golf course, beyond a little ways, it was all farms and orchards, then.

He said they could hear the Universal Studio zoo's lions roaring for their meals in the early AM quiet. He wanted to work as a caddy at the golf course, but the family moved out of the area, and he never got to do that.

In that era, the red car trolley ran right down to Santa Monica Pier. He said they could make that ride for a nickel. I wish he could see the replica in Disneyland, now. That era of Walt Disney's arrival in LA was very familiar to my Dad too.


Unknown said...

I'm with TokyoMagic -- I too remember those giants props and being told by the tour guide they were used for "Land of the Giants" (which ran from 1968-70, if I remember). It was kinda cool, cause "Land of the Giants" was a show I regularly watched. What's kinda amusing is that they kept the stuff there for so long after the show was cancelled, and apparently kept changing the titles of the books to reflect recent Universal releases, or even ongoing projects.

Living in L.A. and having out of state relatives visiting insured we went to all the attractions regularly (real cool for us kids, even if it became a "chore" to our folks!). I can't remember ever visiting and seeing anything being filmed, but I remember best the perpetually burning house (like on TS Island!), the Psycho House, the fake avalanche with Styrofoam boulders, the parting of the Red Sea, the flash flood, and later this weird "ice tunnel" thing that turned and gave you vertigo as the tram drove thru it!