Film nostalgia columnist recalls the movie factories he never expected he would see

Paul Welsh

Paul Welsh

First published in Paul Welsh by

I cannot believe it but 25 years have now passed since my first visit to Hollywood, the land of make-believe.

I am writing this on a cold winter day so it is nice to mentally transport myself down
memory lane to those two weeks in tinseltown.

I remember the year well as I was chairman of the Save Elstree Studio campaign and we had just succeeded in seeing the outgoing Cannon film company pass the baton to Brent Walker, the studio’s would-be saviour.


As it turned out, it was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire and I was to spend another eight years campaigning to save Elstree before it was purchased by Hertsmere Borough Council in 1996.

However, that was in the future and in 1988 feeling the studio had been saved, I went off for a holiday to Los Angeles.

The nearest I got to the sea was a visit to Santa Monica pier and the beaches of Baywatch with another seaside visit to tour the old Queen Mary in Long Beach.

The rest of the time I was like a kid in a sweet factory — visiting film studios, historic sights and film locations.

I got to stand where James Dean stood at the Planetarium in Rebel Without A Cause and saw the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was shot.

I looked at the homes of many old stars such as Jean Harlow and Humphrey Bogart and went on a Laurel and Hardy locations tour that included a visit to their graves.

My main aim was to visit the movie factories I had read about since childhood and never expected to see.

Luckily, the late Andrew Mitchell, who was managing director at Elstree, had given me some names of executives to contact so I could be given personal tours.

I recall visiting 20th Century Fox and seeing the set of Die Hard and the street set used in Hello Dolly. Sadly the backlot had been sold off many years earlier after the debacle of Cleopatra and was now Century City full of high-rise buildings.

Paramount was a joy and great fun to walk through the famous arch entrance and to see the exterior tank that was used for the parting of the waves in The Ten Commandments, although by then it was being used as a studio car park.

I remember meeting Michael J Fox on the set of Family Ties. By then, Paramount had absorbed the old RKO studios next door and I saw a boring quiz show being recorded on a sound stage where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had once created movie dance magic.

Warner Bros still had a great backlot with standing street sets that dated back to those Jimmy Cagney and Bogart gangster films of the 1930s and the Paris set from Casablanca.

I was introduced to Tony Curtis in the car park and visited the exterior set of The Waltons, which I had watched for years.

It had been a big show in its day and I think they were filming one of those reunion TV films. I do recall saying hello to Mr Walton, alias actor Ralph Waite, who congratulated us on saving Elstree even though we were 6,000 miles away.

I went on the Universal tour, which is great fun but obviously created for tourists so I asked if I could go to the operating studio part next door.

It was fun to stand on the sound stages where they had shot Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and on one stage, a 1920s Phantom Of The Opera theatre set was still standing. The lady showing me around was originally from London and we darted around on one of those vehicles you get on golf courses, visiting the backlot sets and avoiding collidisions with the tourist trams.

My last studio visit was to the great MGM in Culver City although alas its fantastic
backlots had already been turned into housing estates.

At this time the studio buildings were owned by Lorimar but had little changed since their heyday and you could almost sense the ghosts of Garbo, Gable, Tracy and the other stars who once inhabited the site.

In the scenery dock I got to travel in the wood-panelled lift that had once been attached to Louis B Mayer’s office and to go on the sound stage that was home to the yellow brick road in The Wizard Of Oz. Although no longer owned by MGM, the then owners Lorimar kindly recruited a 1940s MGM veteran to come back and show me around rather than a present day employee who would know little of its history.

Twenty-five years later they are all fading memories as I took very few photos and had no video camera.

I went back twice in the 1990s but nothing is ever quite as great as the first experience. Now a trip to Hatfield is about as much as I want to do It is now 53 years since I visited Elstree Studios for the first time  as a child.

Set visits are a thing of the past for me now but I do not miss it as meeting the “stars” of Dancing On Ice or Big Brother somehow does not quite match up to interviewing Charlton Heston or David Niven or having a cuppa with Sophia Loren on the mound on the backlot.

However, my younger friends have never heard of them. They were far more impressed when I hosted Simon Cowell’s plaque unveiling.

As we so often used to say at Hillside School — sic transit gloria mundi — or for Big Brother contestants, so passes the glory of the world.

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