A VIRTUAL TOUR OF THE OLD M-G-M BACK LOTS

MGM facade

The 1974 film That’s Entertainment, was a surprise hit for MGM, placing in the top 20  movies of the year and resulting in a sequel in 1976. The movie showed clips of the studio’s library of great musicals, narrated by its former stars.: Fred Astaire; Gene Kelly; Elizabeth Taylor; and Frank Sinatra, among others, and were filmed as they walked through the old standing sets of the back lots 3 through 6. In 1974 these back lot standing sets looked forlorn and worn down. Fred Astaire began the documentary at the train station on lot 2, where years earlier he had sung the first song in Band Wagon. He walked in front of a train wagon that was falling apartBing Crosby narrates a visit to the English lake and its Waterloo bridge that he describes as looking “scruffy.” Donald O’Connor introduces the Esther Williams movies by visiting the outdoor pool that had been built just for her films. The whole area looked looked like some of our Southern California foreclosed properties of late.

The 1970s were not good years for MGM. Losses from declining revenues led to a corporate take-over by Kirk Kerkorian in 1969. He had little interest in movie-making, Kirkorian was mostly interested in using the MGM name for his hotel development in Las Vegas and other locations. Kirkorian installed James Aubrey as his hatchet man.  A large staff-cut was Aubrey’s first move, with several film projects cancelled. Next was the  famous (or infamous) 1970 MGM auction held over eighteen days of the studio’s collection of 12,000 props and rolling stock, even including its paddle steamboat, as well as some 350,000 costumes and “star wardrobe.” The year after That’s Entertainment was made, all of the lots with the standing sets were sold for residential development, thus all traces of them are gone today.

MGM gate

The old entrance to the M-G-M Studio

With its patriarch Louis B. Mayer long gone, apparently the only persons that thought the back lots should be preserved for posterity, as a museum  or attraction park, was Debbie Reynolds, and Robert Nudelman of the Hollywood Heritage organization. Debbie had tried to buy them for that purpose (no doubt at an affordable rate) but was unsuccessful. A virtual tour of some of the standing sets through M-G-M’s Golden Age follows.

MGM lot sign (1)

The classic era M-G-M studio had several lots. Lot number 1 where all the offices and major buildings were located was bordered by Washington Street, Culver Blvd. Overland Avenue, and Madison Blvd. While most of the lot had been taken over by sound stages and various buildings by the 1930s, part of the lot still had exterior standing sets through the 1950s. That lot is now occupied by the Sony Studios.

Lot 1 also had standing sets, these changed over time, some having been there since the days when it was the Thomas Ince studio and then the Goldwyn Studio. The M-G-M standing sets were on the Overland Avenue side of the lot. This area even included a concrete lined “lake” and the waterfront town as can be seen below.

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The European town waterfront above could be changed with its storefronts reconfigured and re-painted as-needed for each movie. It extended its length and was known as “Waterfront Street.”

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The more wild appearance of the lake or lagoon above was used for jungle-like settings, including for filming parts of Tarzan the Ape Man. Lot 1 also had standing sets replicating haciendas, medieval France, and New York City.

Moving over to Lot 2 across Overland Avenue, the lot was mostly used for standing sets, although various storage facilities were scattered throughout the lot.  The New England town of the Andy Hardy movies was there, and the “Small Town Square”  used in movies as diverse as Raintree County and The Philadelphia Story, not to mention The Twilight Zone, and there was also  the “Grand Central Station.” used in various films.  The “Waterloo Bridge” seen in That’s Entertainment, was also in lot 2, used in its prime for movies like The Divorcee in 1930, The Three Musketeers in 1948, Little Women in 1949, and  Royal Wedding in 1951.

Nearby is “Quality Street,” which was used for a variety of medieval and 18th century European towns.

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Quality Street was one of the old standing sets, originally built for Marion Davies’ starring vehicle Quality Street, from 1927, which William Randolph Hearst and his production company Cosmopolitan Pictures produced for her at M-G-M. It was also used for filming the 1948 production of The Three Musketeers.

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Quality Street was also redecorated as an English Street for the Jeanette MacDonald film, Smiling Through from 1941, as seen above.

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A continent away in architecture and theme but adjacent on the lot was a Chinese set used for The Good Earth in 1937. The castle wall and entry was used and re-used for a variety of films set in different countries and eras. It may have been originally built for the first Ben Hur in 1925.

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The mansion-looking set above was used for several movies but looked different for each. In two it was an academic building, having been built, apparently, as a “girl’s school” for Forty Little Mothers in 1940, where the structure had a bell tower. It featured notably in Tea and Sympathy with Deborah Kerr and John Kerr in 1956. The structure as it looks above was used for The Cobweb, where it was a psychiatric clinic. This 1955 movie starred Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and John Kerr.

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The New York Street on Lot 2 was a larger set than a similar set on Lot 1. It had nearly ten acres of sets and could serve for a variety of urban settings.  Many movies were filmed there, starting with Wife vs Secretary in 1936others including Words and Music, Band Wagon, Singing in the Rain, and many more were also filmed on these sets.

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The photo above shows the suspended electrical power lines feeding into the various sets. The framing supports behind the façades can also be  seen.

We take the tram down Overland to Lot 3 at Overland and Jefferson. This more remote lot (or so it was in the 1930s and 40s), allowed for some expansive outdoor sets.

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One of the most famous “neighborhoods” on Lot 2 was the “St Louis Street,” named for Meet Me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincent Minnelli. It was built expressly for the latter film at Minnelli’s direction. Minnelli can be seen directing the scene on the boom above.

The outdoor set below is the New England street and set for the Andy Hardy movies starring Mickey Rooney.

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The first permanent Western Town set on Lot 2 was built for the 1939 film Stand Up and Fight, starring Robert Taylor, Wallace Beery, and Charles Bickford. The standing set is amazingly detailed, especially compared to the western sets of the films from the 1970s- on and the spaghetti westerns.

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Above is the Adam & Thomas McGara Store set from Stand Up and Fight.

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Above is the General Store in the center of the photo with the Drug Store to the left.

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The “Bullet Stage Yard” is in the foreground above with a view to Dan Rock’s Restaurant and Saloon.

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Dan Rock’s Restaurant & Saloon is seen above with its hitching posts for horses and teams.

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The house above was the attorney’s home on the set – note the partial front on the neighboring house, but the carefully built picket fence and shutters.

 

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Note all the paraphernalia at the Hardware Store.

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A proper town needed its Sheriff, and the town of Cumberland had theirs as seen above.

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Luggage is part of the set dressing at the “Bullet Stage Line.”

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The teams and wagons are part of the set at the Bullet Yard

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The Blacksmith’s shop looks like it’s ready to take on any work

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A porch on Cumberland Street opposite the Restaurant & Saloon

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The Church is our last stop as we leave the wild west for other locales.

Lot 3 also had another lake and waterfront, seen below in this Port scene from some unknown film.

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More familiar is the “Cotton Blossom” from the movie Show Boat, which M-G-M publicist Lionel Ascher visits below.

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A fly-over Lot 1 shows the classic era M-G-M and the standing sets that existed, with the Thalberg Building at the bottom left.

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The corporate history of MGM post-1974 is its own story, but it separated the classic film library and the studio lot from the name. Similar fates had befallen RKO and Columbia. The three-week long auction of the props and costumes is its own fascinating story, a subject for another post perhaps. I won’t dwell on the destruction of the sets, in order not to ruin this little tour.

For a thorough history of the M-G-M back lots, please read Steven Bingen’s, Stephen Sylvester’s, and Michael Troyan’s M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot published in 2011 by Santa Monica Press.

 

 

33 thoughts on “A VIRTUAL TOUR OF THE OLD M-G-M BACK LOTS”

  1. Thank you very much for your very welcome post, Christian, which is especially nostalgic for me. I first stepped on the MGM lot in the 1950s, when my father Lee Le Blanc was head of the Special Effects Matte Painting Department. It wasn’t until 1970 that I began my career at MGM, the year that Kerkorian took over the studio. I was working as secretary to the head of the Property and Upholstery Departments until Property was closed down the following January by Mr. Aubrey, at the commands of Kerkorian and his henchmen. It was just one of the many departments that were closed, but when production began to pick up again it became apparent that some of these departments were essential, so were reopened. I have just one correction. The auction began before James Aubrey stepped on the lot as head of production. When I left MGM in 1991, there was no longer an MGM “Studios”. First, all the secretaries and most department heads were all ecstatic when we thought Ted Turner would be taking over the studio, but that was not to happen. Lorimar succeeded in taking over the lot, but that didn’t last long before Sony had the money and wherewithal to claim it and contain it. In the meantime, the rest of MGM was scattered across town in different buildings until they were finally rounded up in a business park in Santa Monica. I can at least say I remember what a great studio MGM was and how happy I am to have been a small part of it.

    1. Thank you Deirdre for providing this additional information on MGM and its fate. Your father and the department he headed produced such great work for the films that MGM produced. In the days before CGI, entire scenes and backgrounds could still be produced with studio special effects and matte painting. The latter needing high artistic talent and the former years of practice and skill development.How great that you were there to see while it was still MGM.

  2. What! No pictures of “Tara”? You used to be able to see it from the surrounding streets (Jefferson & Overland?) when I was a kid.

    1. The Plantation House set used for Tara was on the the Selznick Studio lot’s 40 acreas (once the RKO/Pathe lot now the Culver Studio lot). The set was sold off in 1959 to go to Atlanta. MGM had a similar looking building that tour guides used to say was the Tara building but it wasn’t. The Mansion on the Culver Studio lot is sometimes confused with Tara.

  3. A few weeks ago I met a guy who told me he would sneak on the backlots and take pictures of the lots when he was a kid. He mentioned the lake and how MGM once owned all the land where the Tara Hill condos now stands. He also said that he visited the lot where Gone With the Wind was shot.

    1. That must have been fun as a kid, although by then many of the outdoor sets were dilapidated. But they did shoot such classic TV shows as the Twilight Zone on the MGM backlot, so its great to see many of the outdoor sets on those shows. Gone with the Wind was shot at the Selznick Studio, which is now the Culver Studio. The Tara plantation house is no longer standing (not to be confused with the mansion house which is seen at the opening of the Selznick movies, it is still there).

  4. Amazing. I have the book on the MGM back lots and have read it 3 times already. It is all so fascinating to m e. Being a big fan of Turner Classic Movies , I frequently try to imagine what it must have been like to work at MGM surrounded by the amazing sets and backlots. I am still sad to this day to know that they are gone. This history is part of our culture and the angst is how we treated it. But the back lots will live in the movies for all of us to enjoy. Thank you for the great post and photos . Excellent job.

    1. Thanks for your comment Glen. Yes, as you say it is very sad. The book is great in its documentation. Have you seen “That’s Entertainment” where they show the back lot’s in 1974 when they had deteriorated? That was just before they were all torn down and the lots sold for development. I’m sorry I never got to visit MGM in its heyday.

      1. Yes I saw That’s Entertainment in the movies when it first showed. I was just 16 and fascinated. I wanted to run away to Culver City and see them in person. My interest in how films were made , pre 1960, started then. It has continued ever since. I would have liked to be part of film preservation too. Again I find all the amazing craftsmanship in these temporary sets so wonderful. I thank you again for keeping this alive and for doing such a great job on the subject.

        1. Thank you Glen. My great-aunt worked in the Wardrobe Department at MGM back in 1925, then moved on to Fox and RKO. There were so many people that worked making all those films look so good. I think of her and the others in bringing some of these scenes back to life.

  5. Hello Christian, thanks for presenting these MGM backlot photos. Many unseen before. I found out about the backlots when I began to see similar sets in different films back in the 70’s as a teenager watching the films on late night tv. It began a quest to put it all spatially together for me- how one set segwayed into another- how the designers built it all.

    The picture under the St Louis picture (Minnelli) is actually New England/Andy Hardy Street. Not to prove a point but to show amazingly how one can pin point exact sets after seeing so many film from so many shots.
    Thanks again! I am always searching for new photos of the lots.

    1. Thank you for your informative comments Craig. I first saw many of these films in the 50s on daytime TV, and then much later when I appreciated them more. I collect these photos too, and other Hollywood memorabilia, notably costume design sketches. Thanks for the info on the Andy Hardy set, I’ll re-caption that image.

  6. Dear Christian, I found this concept fascinating. I was fortunate to spend many years sneaking on the backlots and living amongst that history, I collected call sheets, took pictures and saw many amazing productions. i also have pictures from MGM art dept. And coup de gra meeting Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on Thats Entertainment.On rainy days we danced exactly where Gene did in singing in the Rain. On the Combat sets we pretended to get shot and die recreating the actual scenes. It was marvelous such a special place. Even funner when vacant of employees and it became mine!

    1. How lucky you were to sneak and the lot as a playground! And meeting Fred and Gene during That’s Entertainment. Great memories. And the lots were used for thw Twilight Zone episodes too, which can be seen with a more eery and perhaps more fitting image now. Thanks for sharing your unique experience.

    2. Yep,I used to hang with you on this lot.AND I believe I saved your life when someone threw a large wooden crate off of the roof of the Logans Run set.I was glad to have saved you from that.

  7. Thankyou for this amazing tour of MGM. I have ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot’ & spend hrs combing thru the pages. Can’t help but lament about MGM’s destruction, if only a wealthy industrial conglomerate like Gulf & Western with Paramount or MCA with Universal had purchased MGM rather than Kirk Kerkorian, all that backlot majesty might still be in place. Meanwhile, while Sony should be praised for retaining & astheticising Lot 1, they’ve also turned it into a bland business park by pulling down stages 18, 19, 20, removing set construction-properties from the lot & converting the amazing stages 5-6 Theatre Stages to recording & an office tower

    1. Thanks for your comment and additional information about the current situation at the Sony lot. There is much to bemoan really in the loss of movie-making heritage at the old MGM lots and in greater Los Angeles. I collect one area, costume design sketches, which have scattered to the winds (those that survived). I started recuperating old MGM lot and set stills by accident. There’s loss everywhere you look.

      1. Hello Christian, thankgoodness for the efforts of yourself & the legendary Debbie Reynolds for preserving artefacts of the MGM legacy. I visited the then Lorimar Studios in the mid 1980s on a holiday to the US. Peering in thru the gates off Overland I marvelled at this place, was like a sabbatical to Bethlehem or the Vatican to me, somehow unreal; the glory was faded & the MGM shingle & lots 2-3 had long gone, but lot 1 was still fully in tact. The place would have been better than Disney Land!

        1. Thanks John. I agree, the lack of vision by the then ownership was staggering. In the case of Universal Studios, even the sale of prime real estate of “Universal City” was a colossal loss of value.

          1. Lack of vision is a nice way for you to put it — I am kind of outraged by it ‘s destruction and of people who think this way. It could have been preserved. Why do some people think if a building is over 40 years old it is of no value anymore. Very stupid and un-enlightened on their part I say

          2. I agree Ava. You could also say they wanted to make a quick buck and weren’t really interested in the movie business .Universal Studios turned part of their sets into an amusement park. 20th Century Fox sold off their back lots and land for cheap, which was developed into Century City in L. A..

  8. “The Great Earth”? Try “The GOOD Earth.” Most of the rest of the text is on the same insipid level. The photos are great, of course, but already available to anyone who has the indispensible “M-G-M Hollywood’s Greatest Back Lot.”

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