I’m a big movie fan and lived the first nine years of my life seven blocks from the Warner Bros. Ranch, so imagine my delight to see Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot by Steven Bingen at the library. Sadly, there are no aerial photos from quite high enough to see my old house (no longer in existence), but you can’t have everything!

Subtitle notwithstanding, the book covers the studio itself (the front lot) primarily. There are lots of pictures of the studio soundstages, mostly exteriors, as well a number of pictures from the backlot through the years. Warner Bros. has one of the few remaining backlots in Hollywood. Universal has long since turned its backlot into a theme park, and most others have been sold off during hard times, since a few acres of Burbank (and other greater Los Angeles area real estate) are highly sought after and scarce.

As far as the Ranch is concerned, pages 223-240 are strictly devoted to it with photos of a number of the “houses” (some are just fronts, others contain at least some interior sets). If you’ve ever watched television or movies through the years, some of the houses will look very familiar. Among them are the Deeds House (which figured first in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”) and which later played high schools for the television series “Gidget” and “The Partridge Family” and the Lindsey House which was used as Gidget’s home as well as the Baxter home on the 1960’s series “Hazel.” It’s probably most familiar to people now as Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) house in the “Lethal Weapon” series.

Of course, along with the houses there are entire streets and neighborhoods on the backlot. Western Street, a jungle and lagoon, English Street, and various other streets that have played everything from European settings to the American Midwest. For a very long time, there was a train shed complete with tracks and railroad cars (cut in half to facilitate interior shots). It was demolished in the 1960’s, given that trains had largely faded away and no longer figured much in movies and television.

Going back to the earlier parts of the book, it starts with a brief history of the Warner Bros. studio and the beginnings of Hollywood. That is followed by an exhaustive tour of the front lot: front gate, security, property (props) building, the electrical fixtures department (full of some truly amazing lighting fixtures), mail room, the old Writer’s building (largely rented to production companies these days), the commissary, and so on. Depending on your interest in moviemaking, some of the coverage may seem excessive, but I found it pretty much all fascinating. One of the more astonishing bits is about Marion Davies “bungalow.” Bungalow, my Aunt Fanny! Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, was a star in her day (with plenty of help from Hearst). For a while, she worked from the Warners lot, and her (ahem) dressing room was “Spanish-style, with fourteen bedrooms, a sitting room, a master kitchen, a study with a walk-in fireplace, a serving pantry, a dining room, and four baths.” If that’s not sufficiently astounding, the entire shebang was cut into pieces to be trucked to the studio from MGM whence she came in 1934, and was again moved in 1937 when Davies left the Warners lot.

Far less grand are the soundstages, covered in the next section. Each soundstage’s history is covered, including dimensions and costs to build. Some are little more than wide open spaces, waiting to be divided into interior sets. Others have pools (including some big enough to float boat sets in such as for “The Old Man and the Sea” or “The Goonies.”

The book finishes up with an appendix (admittedly not exhaustive, but quite extensive) of productions shot on each of the backlots. For those with a good visual memory, that would be worth the price of admission all by itself! Speaking of the price of admission, all this can be yours to peruse with just your library card. Come on in and check out this or any of our other books on film and television or the stars from them.

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