Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Paramount Tour


Catching "How the West Was Won" in Cinerama was the unexpected delight of our recent trip to LA. The second unexpected experience was taking two studio tours. We had not planned on it, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. So, on the last day of our trip, before heading to the Cinerama dome, we found ourselves at the historic Paramount Pictures lot.

Or I should say lots, because Paramount and RKO were next-door neighbors. But after Howard Hughes ran RKO into the ground in the 1950s, Desilu -- the company formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz -- bought and moved into the RKO studio. Paramount eventually bought the property to form one large lot, so the tour takes you through both Paramount and the former RKO.

As always, a little history: Adolph Zukor founded Famous Players in NYC. In 1916, Famous Players merged with Hollywood's Jesse Lasky Company to form Famous Players-Lasky. Paramount was the company formed to distribute the films made at this studio, and eventually everything just became known as Paramount.

The studio opened at its current location in 1926, with the famed Bronson Gate (shown above), seen in such films as the great "Sunset Blvd," which was made at Paramount. Writer/director Billy Wilder was under contract at Paramount, and "Sunset Blvd." is arguably one of studio's most famous films from the golden era. It was a thrill to see the famed gate, although it's no longer the main entrance to the studio.

Since this was our third studio tour in two years, it's worth pointing out that they all share similarities -- walking through a few sound stages, learning about history, discussing the current projects. Yet despite this final point, visiting a studio is like slipping into the past. For example, when our wonderful guide, Lauren, pointed out a former RKO building where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rehearsed their musical numbers, I was in heaven. I resisted the urge to tap dance (mainly because I can't dance), but in my mind I was seeing images of "Cheek to Cheek" from "Top Hat."

Lauren also slipped us into the RKO theater where Howard Hughes barricaded himself for one month (an episode that Martin Scorsese put in "The Aviator" with Leonardo DiCaprio, although the scenes were filmed elsewhere). Lucille Ball's former office overlooks a grassy area that she had made to resemble the back yard of her Beverly Hills home. For all of you 1970s TV geeks out there, we got to see the building exterior used as the high school for both "The Brady Bunch" and "Happy Days." We also wandered around the set of "Monk," which wasn't filming that day.

But for the movie fans, the trip to the back lot buildings was a highlight. One building contained a space used both as a restaurant for "The Godfather" and the dime store in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"! This is also the lot of Billy Wilder, who made films like "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend" and "Sunset Blvd."; the great Preston Sturges, creator of such comedy classics as "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Lady Eve"; Mae West; Marlene Dietrich; famed costume designer Edith Head; and so many others, too numerous to name here.

Lauren shared so many terrific details. But rather than print them here, just make sure to book a Paramount tour the next time you visit LA. If my recent week in CA taught me anything, it's to continue looking for the movie history that exists on each visit.


  1. I need to get back to Hollywood and tour the Paramount lot. I did tour the Warner Bros. lot about 10 years ago and that was great. Walking around the town square used in "The Music Man" and driving past the city streets recognizable from so many Cagney and Bogart pictures. Didn't see anyone famous, though "Space Cowboys" was filming on the lot at the time and we saw a space capsule being towed to a set.

  2. I toured Paramount in 1996, and returned four years later for a filming of a "Frasier" episode. I wrote an entry about the lot that you might be interested in...