Tag Archives: warner bros. studios

Occupy Chuck

(It’s customary in the media (and I guess a blog is technically part of the “media,” isn’t it?) to add our own “Auld Lang Syne” item to the list of things that went away during Millennium 2.011. Here’s a bubbly-raising post dedicated to an underappreciated television show that wrapped for good a couple of weeks ago.)

Imagine growing up loving – and I mean lovingGilligan’s Island. (Knowing no better, this was an affliction that many of us in Indiana once succumbed to, having spent countless after- school hours watching WGN reruns.)

Now imagine what it would have been like to have spent part of your working days as a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, occasionally dipping your toe into the lagoon.

Welcome to our world, sort of, or at least a portion of it, anyway.

For the past several months, both Kimi and I have seen our own worlds collide with the fictional setting of our all-time favorite television show, Chuck.

We both work on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where I give tours and she works in the studio protection group. Both of our roles call for us to interact directly with the shows on a regular basis. I lead three tours a day through the sets and Kimi works with the productions during filming as part of her set watch duties.

We can’t call ourselves long-term fans of Chuck. As a matter of fact, we had never even seen it until a few months ago when I started this tour-giving gig. I thought I’d better sample some of the programs made on the lot to know what I was showing off to the paying customers and borrowed the first season on DVD from a friend. After the first few moments of the pilot episode, Kimi and I uttered a collective “dammit,” knowing that until we had powered through every season, our sleep would be sacrificed nightly to feed our newfound “just-one-more-episode-of-Chuck” habit. We were hooked.

The humor, quirkiness, and infectious joy that Zachary Levi – the loveable nerd-turned-spy Chuck – and the rest of the cast brought to the screen immediately won us over. Although our addiction was new, it was strong.

The following mornings I would get to lead tours to the set of Chuck’s apartment on Stage 4, the fantastic “Buy More” set on Stage 17, and every so often to “the Castle” set on Stage 10.

A visit to the apartment set provided the added benefit of me getting to say hello to WB’s smallest celebrity: a cat named Smokey, who lived in the courtyard fountain when the stage wasn’t in use. (Smokey has another home next door on the set of Ellen and occasionally appears on the show.)

Sometimes, when the touring crowds were slight, I would stage sit at Chuck’s apartment for a few hours at a time, taking in the details of the sets. Someone must have taught Smokey how to high-five, because I was able to bond with the near-feral feline to the point that she would sometimes go paw-a-mano with me.

One thing you learn quickly in Hollywood is that if the star of the show is nice, niceness will permeate the entire production. (Sadly, the alternative is equally true.)

Since Zac Levi is the friendliest guy in Hollywood, the sets of Chuck were the most approachable on the entire lot. Comparable, in our experience, to the former sets of The West Wing, which because of the kindness and warmth of Martin Sheen, were congenial throughout.

I was never a Chuck insider – far from it. Smokey was the only member of the cast or crew with whom I was on a first-name basis.

Much of my interaction with the cast took place when I was leading a tram full of tour guests. We encountered Zac on several occasions, often atop a skateboard, wheeling himself from one soundstage to another between scenes. He would always say hello and offer a wave, no matter how busy he was. During one of these meetings he introduced himself to our tour group, apologizing because WB’s lot didn’t have 3D gorillas or thrill rides like Universal Studios, instead only having “schmucks like me.”

There were other Chuck cast moments, like the time I watched Joshua Gomez, who plays Chuck’s hapless best friend Morgan, practice karate moves on the apartment set. A couple of days later I got a shy wave and Australian-accented hello from Yvonne Strahovski. Another time, I turned the corner to see the entire cast walk by in bathrobes.

Kimi’s encounters with the cast were more substantial since she spent many hours with them during tapings over the past season. On once such night, the show was taping inside the parking structure just across from the lot on Forest Lawn Drive. It was the final night of shooting for an episode that Zac was directing. During a break, she asked him if he was having fun being the boss.

“Well …?” he replied with a knotted face suggesting that “fun” wasn’t the word he would have used. Then he smiled and commented that it was pretty stressful, but that he had a lot of support. Later that evening, he surprised everyone by personally renting two gourmet food trucks, which were made available to everyone on the crew, including Kimi. A sign was placed on both of the trucks which read, “Thanks for all your hard work. It’s gonna be great! – Zac.”

Despite having a rabid core of fans, the show never reached higher than #65 for a season, since for most of its run it was up against Monday Night Football. This season it was relegated to Friday night, which is where shows go to die, so everyone knew that it would soon be coming to an end.

In the weeks leading up to the final days of shooting, a visit to the sets was like seeing a friend who was terminally ill with no chance of recovery. Towards the end, even Smokey seemed to sense something was up and could often be found camped out on Chuck’s bed in an “Occupy Chuck” movement of one.

I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the cast because they were out on location for most of their final week. But Kimi did. She was walking past Zac’s trailer on their last day on the lot when he stepped outside. She extended her hand, telling him he would truly be missed at Warner Bros., and that it had been an honor working with him. She added that what he had brought to us was nothing short of magic.

Instead of simply shaking her hand, he embraced her, thanked her … and fought back tears. He apologized and explained that she had caught him at an emotional moment. When Kimi joined him in tears, they both laughed, and he wished her “a beautiful day.”

According to a young friend of ours at WB who spoke recently to Zac about his plans, his next stop is Broadway. NY’s gain is LA’s loss, most likely a temporary one, since anyone who has watched Chuck over the past five seasons, or has had the honor to meet Zac personally, champions this guy and hopes he makes it to his rightful place at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

I’m sure the rest of the cast will be okay too. Adam Baldwin consistently finds himself in fantastic, albeit short-lived shows (Firefly); and sweet and shapely Yvonne Strahovski, who recently appeared on the cover of a Maxim magazine, will have no trouble making rent.

The lot is quickly moving on. These days I pass by Stages 4, 10 and 17 and see the dumpsters outside filled with former Chuck sets. Three times a day I still see one of the Nerd Herders parked in the Transportation Museum and Smokey has moved back in full-time with Ellen.

A few months ago we were down in Studio City at the studio where Gilligan’s Island was filmed. The lagoon had been drained years earlier and replaced with a parking lot.

I know something will soon occupy Chuck’s former digs, and I imagine one day guests on my tours will see a line added to the brass plaques that don the sides of its former stages that reads “Chuck 2007 – 2011.”

Kimi and I will miss the cast and crew of Chuck, but we’ll be forever grateful to have been a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, and occasionally dipping our toes into the proverbial lagoon.

Kimi and I would like to thank the 86,511 “Deadwrite’s Dailies” readers who stopped by for a visit in 2011.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Day Movies Learned to Speak

A quick glance at the calendar will reveal that I’m a bit late in pulling the “Welcome to August” trigger, but better late than September.

So let me be the last to welcome you to the eighth month of the year. (And as the eighth month, shouldn’t it be called Octo-ber? The answer is yes. It would have been had a couple of megalomaniac Roman emperors named Julius and Augustus not inserted months named after themselves into the middle of the summer, thereby messing up the calendar forever.)

There are dozens of Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries worthy of a blog post during the first half of this month, including: August 1 – Concert for Bangladesh (1971); MTV’s debuts (1981); August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok gunned down (1876); August 3 – Wings formed (1971); August 4 – President Obama’s 50th birthday; August 9 – Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics (1936) …

Lucille Ball would have turned 100 on the 6th of August, something a good chunk of the world (and Google) seemed to remember. But also on that date back in 1926, a little remembered film debuted that changed the world. Today’s post is about that.

On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. taught movies to “speak.”

On that day, WB first brought sound to movie audiences with the premiere of Don Juan. Before that night, filmmakers had essentially ignored the sense of hearing, relying on live accompaniment for their presentations.

Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, premiered at the Warners’ Theatre in Manhattan to a packed house that paid the record-setting price of $11 per ticket for the night’s entertainment.

Don Juan’s sound came from a 16” phonograph that was synchronized to the film in a complicated process called “Vitaphone.”

Vitaphone was the brainchild of Sam Warner, the second youngest of the four Warner brothers. Sam felt that the studio he and his brothers created would never rise to the highest rung of the Hollywood ladder unless they took a bold step. That bold step was sound.

Sam loved tinkering with technology and had previously worked alongside Western Electric technicians setting up WB’s radio station KFWB on their Sunset Boulevard studio lot. It was here that he learned of a process Western Electric had developed to synch sound to movies. Sam talked his brothers into purchasing the system which was named Vitaphone to capitalize on WB’s recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios.

Don Juan was still essentially a silent film with all the dialogue written on cards. What is most notable about the movie is that it added the sound of an orchestra (along with some special effects), which removed the need for live musicians.

In spite of its huge opening night receipts, Don Juan couldn’t recoup its budget and WB was left seriously in debt. But Sam Warner pressed on in the development of sound, much to the chagrin of his brother Harry – the keeper of the company’s accounts.

Don Juan would prove to be the warning shot fired across the bow of silent films. The genre would be effectively killed fourteen months later by WB’s release of the first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.

Sadly, Sam Warner wouldn’t live to see its release. The stress of overseeing its production ruined his health, and he died 24 hours before The Jazz Singer’s premiere from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Vitaphone itself would pass away by 1930 (the process anyway, the name would survive until 1959) when improved sound-on-film technology replaced it.

The huge profits that WB reaped from their pioneering efforts into sound gave them the funds to purchase the First National Studios in Burbank in the late 1920’s, which remains their headquarters to this day.

(And if you want to see the place, stop by the studio this summer and I may be the one giving you a tour! www.wbstudiotour.com)


Down the Road to Eternity, Part 1

(I started working again at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank today, a place that’s figured prominently in my life. It was here during an earlier gig where I met Kimi, the love of my life, and the lot was also the subject of my first book. It was also paramount in importance to the story of James Dean, who filmed parts of his three films on the lot before dying tragically in a car crash. A couple of years ago, Kimi and I, along with our pal Alan Pollack, traced his final day. Here is what we saw along the way.)

“Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider, and took him down the road to eternity.”

James Dean, The Eagles


“It looks like the planet where Luke Skywalker grew up,” jokes my lovely wife Kim, motioning towards a desolate San Joaquin Valley farm whose main crop appears to be sagebrush.

I know what she means. We’re only a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, but it’s easy to imagine we’ve entered an extraterrestrial home of jawas, droids, and sand people.

We find ourselves on this lonely highway heading towards a destination that has become an annual pilgrimage for many.

On the morning of September 30, 1955, 24-year-old actor James Dean drove from his home in Sherman Oaks to a garage in Hollywood to get a tune-up for his newest toy, a Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean had purchased the Porsche a few days earlier to celebrate signing a new $1 million Hollywood contract and would be running it in a race that weekend in the Central California town of Salinas.

Dean had originally planned to tow the car to the racetrack, but changed his mind at the last minute. With his mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun, and a pair of friends following behind in Dean’s station wagon, he set out for Salinas. He never made it.

At approximately 5:30 PM, a young Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student with the unusual name of Donald Turnupseed was driving eastbound in a black-and-white 1950 Ford. At the Y intersection of California 41 and 46 (California 466 at the time) near Cholame, Turnupseed crossed into the oncoming traffic lane to head north. He apparently didn’t see the hip-high, silver Porsche with Dean at the wheel approaching from the opposite direction. They collided nearly head-on.

Turnupseed walked away with minor injuries, Wutherich was hospitalized for several months, but Dean died at the scene.

Dean was a fast-rising star in Hollywood at the time of his death, having appeared in numerous roles on television, and as the star of the feature film East of Eden, which had been released the previous spring.

During the intervening months, Dean found himself back in front of the camera in starring roles as the brooding Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, and alongside Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the oil epic Giant. Both of these films would be released after his death and would prove to be hugely popular with both critics and the public.

Dean had been barred from racing – his second greatest love after acting – during the filming of Giant, but with the wrapping of the film just two weeks

earlier, he was off to Salinas. (Ironically, East of Eden, for which Dean was to receive his first of two posthumous Best Actor nominations, was set in Salinas.)

Dean’s tragic death, coupled with the rave reviews he received later with the release of Rebel, immediately insured his legacy, and made the 41/46 intersection a site of veneration.

The weekend closest to the anniversary of Dean’s death has become the annual time of pilgrimage for many of his most faithful fans. It has taken on the macabre name of the “Death Ride” for some who feel that an official pilgrimage only occurs when Dean’s entire route is followed.

(More on the Death Ride tomorrow.)

Burbank’s “Chamber of Secrets”

For 166 hours every week, Kimi and I reside in the real world, but on Thursday mornings we briefly step out of Muggle-dom to spend the remaining two hours inside the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger.

That’s because for the past year we have both been docents at the Warner Bros. Museum on the studio lot in Burbank, where the entire second floor is filled with original props and costumes from the first six films in the fantastically successful Harry Potter franchise.

The museum’s first floor has artifacts from WB’s eight-decade history of film and television. Among the many treasures there is the tiny 58-key piano from Casablanca, the original Maltese Falcon (currently out on loan), Heath Ledger’s purple joker outfit from The Dark Knight, a row of Hugo Weaving mannequins from The Matrix, and a shelf of Academy Awards won by the studio going back  to 1928. Last week, some new items from WB’s most recent hit Inception were put on display, including Leonardo DiCaprio’s white suit from the Alpine compound, Cillian Murphy’s passport, the “totem” top, and the stainless-steel “Dream Case,” (which, by the way, is labeled “Halliburton” on the outside).

But the second floor is where the non-Muggle magic resides. That’s where you can find the original Marauder’s Map, Goblet of Fire, Triwizard Cup, Sword of Griffindor, a Nimbus 2000, Tom Riddle’s Diary, a petrified Hermione, Harry’s cupboard under the stairs, and one of the giant spiders from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There are also dozens of costumes worn by all the principals, including the Triwizard Cup jersey donned by Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), which regularly draws squeals from little (and sometimes notso little) girls.

The centerpiece of the collection is one of the original “sorting hats” used in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. Guests line up to be sorted, just like first-year students at Hogwarts. When we place the hat over their heads (the one and only prop that we are allowed to touch in the museum), a disembodied voice places them into one of the four Hogwarts’ houses – Gryffindor (Harry’s house), Slytherin (home of the evil Draco Malfoy), Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. The sorting is not random, but is on a continuous loop, and after a year in Hogwarts, we both know when Slytherin is rolling around, and when it does we try to substitute an adult in place of a child, so as not to cause a youngster any permanent mental scarring from thinking they were just “born bad.”

It may sound pathetic for a guy pushing 50 to still get geeked-out by books and movies written for kids, but judging by the thousands of parents who get giddy being sorted into Gryffindor every year, I don’t appear to be alone.

The Warner Bros. Museum is open to everyone who takes the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour. (Do yourselves a favor and check out the clips on the Ellen Degeneres Show link.)

For more on the history of Warner Bros., check out my new book, Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios (co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker).