Broken Bridges

by David Koenig, contributing writer

Universal Studios Hollywood is scrambling to get its dilapidated old Collapsing Bridge back in action later this month, so that there’s actually something to see on the backlot tram tour following the devastating June 1 fire. The bridge was removed from service nearly three years ago, after being deemed too costly to maintain.

The blaze destroyed the King Kong attraction, video vault, and sets for New York Street and Courthouse Square. As a movie buff, I could live without Kong, but was saddened to hear of the loss of the actual streets and alleys which, tour guides told me, had been used in Back to the Future, The Sting, Lady Sings the Blues, and the 1950s Abbott & Costello TV Show.

In researching what other vintage movies had been filmed on the sets, I quickly discovered that there was a lot less than I had been led to believe. Both areas had been completely leveled and rebuilt after a fire in 1990. Ironically, the only element of Courthouse Square that survived the 1990 fire was the same structure that survived the 2008 fire—the clock-tower courthouse itself.

Relatively little remains on the backlot from the early days of movie-making thanks to a string of fires, as well as the fact that the original sets were less than durable—they were intentionally created to be temporary. In addition, the movie studio continues to use the sets and real estate in new productions, which often require vastly different looks.

A former USH manager confirmed, “In reality, probably 95% of the facades on the Universal backlot are really no older than five years or so. Because the fronts are made up of thin injection-molded sheet plastic, foam, and cheap plywood, whenever I had my golf cart on the backlot there would always be big pieces lying on the road that had fallen off. And whenever a new film production would come in, they would just hammer up their own ‘look’ onto the facade front. Probably the oldest thing that burned up in the recent fire was the King Kong figure!”

Consider USH’s other notable backlot sets:

  • Little Europe – guides will tell you this area was built for All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and later used in the classic horror movies of the 1930s and Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes movies in the 1940s. In truth, a blaze destroyed the original sets in 1967.
  • The Court of Miracles – named after Lon Chaney’s The Miracle Man (1919), the courtyard is most remembered for Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Adjacent to Little Europe, it was also lost in the 1967 fire.
  • Spartacus Square – Built for Spartacus (1960), the Roman courtyard was partially destroyed by the 1967 blaze, then leveled by another fire 20 years later.
  • Psycho House and Bates Motel – the original motel from 1960 was torn down in the late 1970s and rebuilt from scratch a few years later for Psycho II. The house, though, is the original—at least parts of it. Over the years, the structure has been dismantled and relocated twice—with many new components used when it was reassembled.
  • Colonial Street – this residential street was built in the early 1940s on the opposite side of the lot, where it was home to Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters. Most of the house have since been replaced or, at best, completely refaced, primarily for The Burbs (1989) and then for its transformation into Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane.
  • Elm Street – this nearby neighborhood was assembled for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but only one house, the first on the corner, remains from the movie. The rest were constructed for The Hulk (2002).
  • Denver Street – dating back to the silent era, this Old West avenue is regarded as the backlot’s oldest set. Nonetheless, a former theme park manager questioned just how much of the set is authentic: “I worked on the street for a few months supervising the cowboys, who for one summer (1999) staged a mock shootout as each tram drove by. Between this use—and later for a couple of Halloween Haunts seasons—the tour replaced more than 75% of the Denver Street facades.”
  • Six Points, Texas – this set of six western streets likewise is supposed to harken back to pre-talkie days, although only one building (Livery Stable) remains from the first half of the century. Many were built for the 1994 movie Wild Bill.

So have tour guides been intentionally lying all these years, or were they misled, or merely confused?

The ex-manager speculated, “Some of the confusion probably stems from the policy of when your production company tears down an existing facade to put in something else, that when your production is completed, you have to build a copy of what was there before. So, a lot of the facades look just like they are remembered in the movies, but are usually faithful reproductions of what was there before.”

If you want authenticity, he suggests the new Universal Experience memorabilia museum, which has moved into the old Lucy: A Tribute building. And, although it’s off limits to tours and remains a working production stage, Universal still has the original Soundstage 28, complete with Paris opera boxes intact from The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Yet, a former tram tour guide defended the practice of referring to rebuilt sets as if they were the originals: “What the tour guides tell everyone is what they are told to tell everyone. You have to remember they are acting to a script… there is no real curse to the Mummy’s Tomb and they know there is going to be a flash flood. But do they know the true history? That I don’t know.”

One thing you can be sure: Not long after brand-new New York streets are again humming with trams, guides will again be telling tourists, “And on your left, you can see the brownstone where Paul Newman and Robert Redford…”

Universal Horrors

Universal Studios Hollywood executives are far less preoccupied with the collapsing bridge than they are with their park’s collapsing attendance. Despite unprecedented local print, TV and radio advertising, paid admissions have been at dismal lows so far this summer.

Huge discounts have been ineffective, whether it’s admitting adults at the kids’ price or, instead giving adults a year’s pass for buying a full-price admission, giving them a free 18 months. USH has distributed 350,000 child tickets at Dodger games this season, which can only be used with a paid adult ticket. Few have been redeemed.

To make matters worse, Guest Relations is receiving a fair share of complaints about the new Simpsons ride. Riders seem to enjoy the simulator well enough; however, many are just disappointed to discover that it’s not a roller coaster, as they had expected after viewing the TV commercial.

 “I really miss the old days,” lamented one old-timer, “when USH would draw a legit 4 to 5 million paid visitors, and it was every tourist’s second stop—after Disneyland, of course—when visiting So. Cal.”

Say What?

Over at Disneyland, in mid-July, City Hall began instituting a new method for accepting complaints. “If a guest wants to file a compliment or concern at City Hall, they will not be given a form to fill out by Guest Relations,” related a cast member. “The guests will have to tell the cast member what they want to say, and the cast member will write it down. I guess the City Hall cast members will have to brush up on their dictation skills. If a guest insists on writing a comment themselves, they will be directed to the resort’s Web site and fill out a form under the ‘Contact Us’ tab. Why are we doing this? Don’t know.”

A cast member at City Hall would say only that the change had something to do with the legal department.

Shops on the Move

Saturday July 26 was final day of operation for the petite Three Fairies Crystal Shop on the east side of the castle (formerly the Candy Castle Shop). Workmen are now readying the space to hold the Sleeping Beauty Castle Virtual Walkthrough for guests who can’t maneuver the tight quarters and steep steps through the castle to view the actual diorama. The crystal store will be moved to the shuttered Gepetto Holiday Shop next to the Village Haus.

For those who just can’t get enough holiday decorations, the Christmas shop in New Orleans Square plans to take over the adjacent Court of Angels.

“What will happen is a ‘themed’ canopy will be put up over the courtyard, cash registers added, and it will be festooned with Christmas merchandise, as an extension of the tiny Christmas shop that borders it,” reports a cast member. “The plans are pretty similar to has been done with the Pieces of Eight shop and how they extended the location into the Royal Street Courtyard. A treasured, beautiful location will become a whore to the almighty dollar…”

Expect a fall opening.

Other dates to remember: October 5, slated to be the final day for Triton's Gardens, before it begins its conversion to Pixie Hollow, and September, when the Fortuosity shop, inspired by the eclectic Vault 28, is supposed to open in the former New Century Timepieces space. Let’s see how they theme hip and trendy with Main Street.

Graveyard Coming Back to Life

There does seem to be one bright spot, on Tom Sawyer Island. Although Fort Wilderness is never to reopen to guests, the area behind it soon will, for the first time since the island became Pirates Lair.

New gates at the rear of the fort have been installed, and the ground behind has been filled and leveled for bringing back the old cemetery. The surviving tombstones are in the Sign Shop being restored, and new ones fashioned for the wooden ones that rotted away. Guests should be able to lie in the open grave of Fort Wilderness's cemetery again by the end of this year.

But will the graveyard be “pirated up”?

Unlikely, says a source. “The cemetery will have the same headstones as in the past… unless something changes between now and Christmas. The pirates craze on the island has died down. Hopefully, the area from the fort and beyond will be left as is in the world of Tom and Huck”