On Locations
exhibit about film locations at clui los angeles

1065 The empty and familiar-looking Graystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, likely the “most-filmed mansion in the world,” one of numerous real sets featured in the On Locations exhibit at the CLUI Los Angeles exhibit hall. CLUI photo

ON DISPLAY THIS SPRING AT the CLUI exhibit hall in Los Angeles was the exhibit On Locations: Places as Sets in the Landscape of Los Angeles. The exhibit (open April 7 to May 27, 2001) featured images, text and a multimedia display about the film location industry, and particularly, how places within the public realm can be transformed, physically and contextually, by the moving-image industries of film, television, and advertising. CLUI director Matthew Coolidge presented a slide show and lecture about the project to a full house at the opening reception, and an interactive computer display, designed by CLUI project manager Erik Knutzen, was installed as part of the exhibit.

The identity of Los Angeles has always been composed of a blend of film myth and historical myth, and their alleged counterparts in reality. Some say that all of Los Angeles is a film set, and indeed it is hard to drive across the city without spotting one of those distinctive-looking production trucks, or those day-glo production signs that point the way to active locations and base camps, like some kind of cryptic treasure hunt. Within the spectrum of facades, streetscapes, and structures that are used as locations are certain spaces that vividly embody, physically and theoretically, this paradox of place, and express, subtly or otherwise, the intriguing dynamic between "real" and "cinematic" space. These were the structures and sites that were sought out, explored, and explained in the exhibition.

Some buildings possess a history of great significance to the City, a history which can be modified by repeated recontextualization through films. Buildings that are particulary illustrative of this phenomena include the Herald Examiner building, where William Randolph Hearst ran the notorious newspaper that helped form Los Angeles’ politics and image, an ornate, historic building, designed by Julia Morgan (who went on to build Hearst's Castle at San Simeon, later portrayed cinematically in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane). The Herald Examiner building, located near downtown, looks from the outside like an unused hulk. It is still owned by the Hearst Corporation, though it is not open to the public. It is used instead as a film location.

Several other architectural icons and landmarks in the city are used primarily or exclusively as locations, including the 600-room Ambassador Hotel, once an elegant resort that hosted politicians, celebrities, and the Academy Awards ceremonies, and is now a crumbling hulk on Wilshire Boulevard, open only to film and television production. Used for over 100 productions per year, the Ambassador can represent different kinds of places, but is often used for that run-down, dated hotel look. One hallway, for example, still has the '70s Las Vegas hotel wallpaper applied to it for the shooting of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and a couple of rooms were used to represent a Cleveland hotel of a similar vintage for Almost Famous.

The archtypal mansion in film may be the Graystone mansion in Beverly Hills. Though owned by the city, and located in a park, the mansion is not open to the public. It is used only for special events, and as a film location, and is probably the most-filmed mansion in the world. It is popular also because it is a rare case of an authentic-looking old world English mansion, unlike so many of the Mediterranean mansions in the hills above Los Angeles, and its history is as gothic as any of the scary films that are shot there.

The 55 room gray limestone structure was built in 1928, and was second only to Hearst Castle at the time in regional opulence. It was built by Edward Doheny, who amassed a fortune as the first to discover oil in the Los Angeles basin, and who was later involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal, where he gave $100,000 to the Secretary of the Interior and received favored oil leases at the federally-owned Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve in nearby Kern County.

Graystone was a gift to his only son, and the heir to his fortune, but a few months after moving in with his wife and children, Edward Jr. and his male secretary were found shot in the head in a guestroom, in an apparent murder suicide. Edward Jr.'s widow lived there until 1955, when she sold Graystone to a Chicago business man who never moved in. It was during this initial period of disuse that the film industry started using the mansion, and for the next ten years, at least 40 productions were shot there.

In 1965, Graystone and its remaining acreage was bought by the City of Beverly Hills for $1.3 million, in order to build a reservoir on the grounds. The building continued to be used for filming, and was leased to the American Film Institute from 1969 to 1980. It is now empty and used for an occasional event, but is primarily used as a film location. Base camp for the film production trucks and caterers is on a large parking lot above the mansion, built by the City. Underneath the asphalt is the buried reservoir that serves the City of Beverly Hills as a drinking water supply.

Among the productions shot at Graystone are All of Me, Death Becomes Her, Guilty by Suspicion, The Phantom, Ghost Busters II, and Murder She Wrote.

Filming in active prisons is generally not permitted for obvious reasons, and as a result, prison sets are built in soundstages, back lots, and inside other locations. A few prisons in Los Angeles are currently closed, and are regular filming locations. The Sybil Brand Institute, at the County Sheriff’s complex in City Terrace, east of downtown, was the primary Los Angeles County correctional facility for women before it closed in 1997. Though still managed by the sheriff's department, it is now used exclusively for filming.

1066 Portions of the Sybil Brand Institute are familiar from films shot there. This visiting area has appeared in several films. CLUI photoBuilt in 1963, Sybil Brand was a minimum to maximum security facility, with a design capacity of 900, and a peak occupancy of 2,800. It once housed Susan Atkins (whose confessions to a cellmate at the prison led to the arrest of Charles Manson and family), and Susan McDougall of Whitewater scandal fame. When Sybil Brand closed, inmates were transferred to the new Twin Towers complex. The County may renovate the building and open it again as a prison, but in the meantime it offers modern looking prison rooms including cafeterias, hallways, recreation areas, visiting areas, infirmaries, and cells from solitary confinement to dormitories. As it was a women's prison, the interior walls have a pink color, which is usually painted over for filming.

Productions film here at a rate of two or three per month. The film Blow, about cocaine dealers, recently spent five weeks shooting all over the prison. Other productions include Arrest and Trial, Gangland, X-Files,  and America’s Most Wanted.

Though older and more run down, the City of Los Angeles jail in Lincoln Heights is also closed, and is used regularly as a film location, appearing in NYPD Blue, Unsolved Mysteries, and other film and television projects.

1068 The landmark Johnie’s Coffee Shop, featured prominently in the film Miracle Mile, is now open only as a filming location. CLUI photoThe classic diner makes frequent appearances in film and television. Often these diners are studio sets or functioning restaurants. Johnie's Broiler in Downey, for example, is often used (The Game, Short Cuts, Reality Bites), and the Hawthorne Grill in Hawthorne was used for Pulp Fiction, before it was torn down. There is even at least one property company in Los Angeles that offers a lunch counter interior set mounted on a truck, that can be delivered to any shooting location.

One of the most visible of the classic diners in Los Angeles is Johnie's Coffee Shop, located in the heart of the Miracle Mile corridor of Wilshire Boulevard. The restaurant was featured prominently in the 1988 film Miracle Mile, most of which was filmed on this same stretch of Wilshire. In the film, the lead character spends a lot of time in Johnie’s and takes a phone call at a pay phone outside that indicates that a nuclear armageddon is 75 minutes away. The phone booth and the spinning clock sign, which effectively counts the minutes to the destruction of Los Angeles, were props.

Johnie's has been used in many television shows, music videos, and ads. It also appears briefly in another film about cataclysm and Los Angeles, the 1997 film Volcano, where a barricade was constructed across Wilshire Boulevard to keep the molten lava from flowing westward (Johnie's is spared, though the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Petersen's Automotive Museum across the street are destroyed in the film).

Johnie's was built by the googie architecture firm of Armet and Davis in 1955. It ceased serving food in late 2000, and the current owners have no plans to use it as a restaurant, intending instead to continue to rent it exclusively as a restaurant film location.

With the change in banking from the full-service branch to ATMs and electronic banking, many bank buildings have closed, and several of these are used only as film locations. The Security National Bank on Hollywood Boulevard was built in 1920 by the architectural firm of John and Donald Parkinson, creators of such Los Angeles landmarks as Union Station, Bullocks Wilshire, and the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.

It was one of the principal banks used by Hollywood, for financing films (including those of Cecil B. DeMille), and for maintaining personal fortunes (Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, and W. C. Fields are said to have had accounts at this bank). Though the upstairs offices are in use (primarily by entertainment industry professionals) the bank on the ground floor is vacant and has been used for numerous advertising shoots, and was one of the principal locations for the television show Arrest and Trial.

The Bank of America building, downtown at 7th and Spring, was the Los Angeles headquarters for the bank from 1930 to 1972. The upstairs offices are now used by the Los Angeles Department of Engineering, while the grand bank lobby, with vaulted ceilings, has been vacant since 1988, and has been used in numerous films, including Traffic, Blow, and Seven. The bank vault on the main floor, as well as the walls behind the counters, are set dressings left from filming.

Aging relics of a bygone era of the film industry in Los Angeles are visible on just a few blocks of downtown, where along Broadway, twelve large and ornate movie palaces sit in various states of reuse and disuse. In the 1930's these elaborate theaters hosted the premieres and galas of that era's Hollywood. Today, instead of screening films, many of the old Broadway theaters are now used in the creation of films.

The Los Angeles Theater is probably the most-filmed of them, hosting productions for 170 days last year. It was the last of the great baroque movie palaces built along Broadway, constructed during the depression at a cost of over $1 million, and finished in time to host the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights in 1931. It finally closed as a movie theater in 1994, and has been used as a location since 1995, after a partial restoration by its new owners.

The Los Angeles Theater usually plays a theater in the productions which are shot there, or is used for its elegant lobby and reception areas. At the beginning of End of Days, for example, the lobby can be seen serving as the interior of the Vatican. Other films that have used the theater include Batman Forever, Alien Nation, Houdini, and Escape from LA. For Man on the Moon, the Milos Forman film starring Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, the Los Angeles Theater played Carnegie Hall. The backdrop from this film remains above the stage at the Los Angeles Theater, in the space that was once occupied by a movie screen.

1069 Opened for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the Los Angeles Theater rarely screens films anymore. Instead it is rented out for $10,000 per day as a film location. The backdrop on stage (where the movie screen used to be) is left over from the filming of Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon. CLUI photo
Other sites discussed in the exhibit at the CLUI include empty office buildings downtown that are used exclusively for filming; a suburban office park built by Lockheed as a secret military technology center, and which has been used since as a television stand-in for the CIA and FBI; industrial sites, like those that are blown up for Schwarzenegger movies; entire hospitals that are now exclusively sets; as well as train stations, airports, and iconic desert gas station/motel/cafés on public roads that are, in actual fact, standing sets.

The subject of film locations has a special resonance with the CLUI exhibit space, which is located across from Main Street, Culver City, a town whose official motto is "The Heart of Screenland." A few blocks away from the CLUI is the walled compound of Sony's main studio, home of Columbia and Tristar pictures, and ground zero for TV shows like Married With Children and Jeopardy. Main Street, Culver City (in addition to being known as the shortest Main Street in America, as it is one block long, and is actually shorter than that because it's bisected by the LA/Culver City line), can be seen in the background of early Hollywood films, many of which were shot on location on this "typical downtown street."