Since Christmas I’ve been immersed in a nice big stack of brand new Velva Jean research books, including one about the MGM backlot, the most famous backlot in history. Everything from The Wizard of Oz to Ben-Hur to Singin’ in the Rain was shot there, and it’s estimated that twenty percent of movies made in the twentieth century were made at and by MGM. During MGM’s heyday, they shot and released something like 52 films a year. MGM also featured the biggest roster of the biggest stars, which prompted their slogan: More stars than there are in heaven.
If Velva Jean’s going to Hollywood, I need to figure out which of the studios she might become affiliated with. So in the spirit of research, I headed to Sony Studios, formerly MGM, to take the tour. The lot, like much of Los Angeles itself, has a ragbag history. Unlike Warner Bros in Burbank–which is and always has been Warner Bros since the studio moved to the Valley in 1928 from their original location on Poverty Row– what is now Sony Studios began in 1915 as the Triangle Film Corporation.
In 1924, it became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but by the late 1940s, MGM was unraveling, and in 1969 a millionaire named Kirk Kerkorkian bought the studio and began to take it apart, acre by acre, lot by lot, historic film prop by historic film prop. Ted Turner bought it in the 1980s, Lorimar purchased it in 1986, and Sony Pictures took it over in 1993. Of the original 185 acres, only 45 remain.
For a holiday week, there were a number of folks on the tour. The lot was quiet because production is shut down till January. I’ve spent a good amount of time on various studio lots through my early (brief) acting career, my days at ABC Television, Mom’s work with James Earl Jones, and, most recently, my collaboration with Charlie Sheen and his company at Warner Bros when WB optioned and developed The Aqua Net Diaries as a TV show. Of all the studios, I know Warner Bros. best, but there’s something intriguing (perhaps it’s all that history) about the place formerly known as MGM.
The tour focused a lot (A LOT) on their two resident big-name game shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Because I’m more of a golden age of Hollywood kind of girl, and because I’ve never been a watcher of TV game shows, it took every ounce of self control for me not to go running off on my own to the part of the lot that I love best– the beautiful old art deco-y part where Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly rehearsed their dancing, where Clark Gable kept an apartment while shooting, where Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner went to school. The tour guide talked on and on about Jeopardy and Spiderman and Ghostbusters and The Green Hornet, until I thought I would lose my mind.
But at the very end of the tour, we found ourselves passing by the stage where Esther Williams filmed all her swimming scenes, where Judy Garland sang her way down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, where Joan Crawford shared her bungalow (aka dressing room) with the studio school. Only then did I get out my camera and start shooting (and no, I didn’t run off on my own after all).
It was over far too soon– I would have liked to linger, to sit, to explore the buildings on the inside, to walk on that floor where Gene Kelly danced, to go in search of Myrna Loy’s dressing room, to sit at one of those schoolhouse desks or gaze into Joan Crawford’s mirror.
One of the men on the tour kept cracking jokes. Loudly. Everyone lined up to pose with Adam Sandler’s golf cart. People talked over the tour guide and chomped on gum and texted like crazy. But I took what I could– soaked in what I could soak in– and did what I always do in research situations like this: just looked around and imagined my character there. Where would she have walked? Who would she have met? How would this place have looked back in 1946 or 1947 or 1948 when she might have been there?
And for one minute, just for a flash, I was back there myself. And I could see it the way it once was. And it was magic.