Hollywood studios should be National Historic Landmarks

Stage 28 at Universal Studios

Historic Stage 28 at Universal Studios in Universal City still contains a set from 1925’s “The Phantom of the Opera”—and it’s doomed. (Credit: NBCUniversal)

Universal Studios in Los Angeles plans to demolish the 90-year-old Stage 28, one of the most storied on its lot. Stage 28 contains a wonder of American cultural history: an original set from the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera. That picture is considered so iconic that it was long ago sanctified by the National Film Registry.

Universal, which says it will try to preserve “much” of the set, wants to tear the stage down to make more room for its theme park; one of the reasons Stage 28 is no longer viable for filming in the first place is because Universal built a cacophonous thrill ride (based on the Transformers franchise) right next to it. Lately, Stage 28 has mostly been used to film special effects since those don’t usually require live sound.

Other indelible films that were created in Universal’s Stage 28, soon to be erased in favor of another ephemeral thrill ride, no doubt, include Dracula, The Bride of Frankenstein, the interior Bates Family scenes of Psycho and The Sting.

There are very few other patches of earth in the United States where so many historic things have happened, things that nearly all Americans witnessed and can tell you about. The White House, the Capitol—where else do so many familiar events share a common location?

I’m depressed. Broadway theatres are registered for their cultural value even though they continue to require rent (the New Amsterdam, the Biltmore), David Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theatre is designated, and even factories can be preserved for their importance. Yet no Los Angeles-area studios are listed as National Historic Landmarks. It’s time for all of Hollywood to embrace the fact it’s an essential thread in the fabric of American culture. Hollywood must stop hiding in its own Bermuda Triangle of history.

The entertainment industry’s blind spot for heritage has a lot to do with its temperament—and the temperament of L.A. in general, which is thankfully finally changing. Hollywood is and always has been mercenary. Since its earliest days, the entertainment industry has cared mostly about speeding headling toward profit, not about its place in society’s story.

Shot right here. If "Stage 28" had been on this title card, we'd all demand to protect it.

Shot right here. If “Stage 28” had been on this title card, we’d all demand to protect it. But Hollywood is vague.

For its century-plus of existence, Hollywood’s most consistent talent has been for erasing itself. The stories of incalculable loss stretch to the very genesis of the film business. For decades, companies habitually destroyed prints after they came back from cinemas. Vault fires destroyed generations’ worth of output, eradicating entire careers of work, from Universal (lost negatives of its films from 1913–1924), Warner Bros. (lost first talkies from 1928–1930), and Fox (lost negatives and masters for nearly all films before 1935). Many of the great pioneering TV broadcasts of the 1940s and 1950s were taped over to save money. Studios voluntarily destroyed screen tests, auditions, and backlots, and after a sale in the 1970s, MGM’s financier owner auctioned off everything he could, and what he couldn’t sell, he either dumped in the ocean or buried as filler under a freeway in Compton.

Even valiant attempts at preservation came to dust. In the 1960s, many surviving stars and crew members from the silent film era, aware of how much heritage had gone up in flames, bequeathed a treasure trove of props, costumes, and personal mementoes from that silent era. L.A. wasn’t very interested. Their gifts were reportedly deposited, unarchived, in holding units at the Lincoln Heights Jail. They are still not on display anywhere.

And if even they were, Americans are not conditioned to care.

Lon Chaney as 1925 Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney: another vanishing phantom from Stage 28 (and our shared past)

In fact, we’re missing about 70% of our early movies (according to Martin Scorcese, who cares about such things) partly because of Hollywood’s short-sighted money hunger. After pictures were shown, they were usually destroyed. To a point, it’s hard to blame the people who had that early mindest—people who grew up in music halls and theatre couldn’t yet grasp the possibility that new technology meant entertainment might be preserved and repeatable. It never had been before.

At today’s studios, the chief concern is getting the facilities booked, then after each shoot’s done, emptying them out to the last bobby pin and moving on to the next booking.

Most studios don’t archive the incredible, universally shared moments that have happened in their sound stages, and they certainly don’t encourage the public to think of soundstages as locales for the monumental moments that bound the world together. If it happened in entertainment, we only know that it happened, generically, “in Hollywood.”

Americans know where the Star-Spangled Banner was written (Baltimore harbor) and where Lincoln was shot (Ford’s Theatre).  But nearly no one can tell you exactly where on this planet the Wicked Witch of the West melted or Bogie said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” The Alamo happened at the Alamo, but where did Darth Vader say, “Luke, I am your father.”? It happened somewhere.

Is it important to recognize an event in the spot where it occurred? I think it is. It makes it real, it gives them worth, it reminds us about what’s always possible.

Now and then you'll find a plaque (like this one honoring two movies Julie Andrews shot on a stage at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank), but they only note a few productions, and they're uncommon.

Now and then you’ll find a plaque (like this one honoring two movies Julia Andrews shot on a stage at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank), but they only note a few productions, and they’re uncommon.

On a recent visit to Disney Studios in Burbank, I asked the lot manager if there was a source I could use to pinpoint which productions shot on which soundstages. She racked her brain but couldn’t think of anything. The industry trades might tell you some of that at the moment something is in production, but there’s not always a guarantee that if a show was aired by NBC then it would be shot at NBC Studios—everyone contracts out to other spaces. You either know the soundstage or you don’t—it’s an oral history, full stop, like campfire tales.

The collection of these fragments of our shared history has fallen mostly to fans—hobbyists, obsessives, bachelor uncles. I’m so thankful that blogs such as Inside UniversalTheStudioTour, and the phenomenal detective work of John Bengtson exist and do the good work, but let’s be honest—when the sharpest watchdogs of history and preservation are at the mercy of GoDaddy, and when Charlie Chaplin’s camera, which captured light that lit the planet, languishes ignored in the enthusiast-run, donation-funded, listlessly patronized Hollywood Heritage Museum, we’re doing our human heritage a grave disservice. If we talked about these things more, veins of tourism and true scholarship would develop.

A few studios—Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney—have some signs posted outside their biggest sound stages that list which major productions shot there. (Disney even has staff archivists, for branding purposes—which I love.) You’ll only see them if you’re on a tour or working there. So, great, we know where Cheers was made. But they only include the topline stuff, heavily weighted toward recent years, and nowhere can you find a stage-by-stage or, heaven forbid, scene-by-scene roster. Likewise, props and costumes were usually released back into the warehouses. No one really kept track unless it was immediately clear that something special was happening.

You'd think the only things Paramount Stage 20 gave us were "That Girl" and "Webster" and history began and ended in our lifetimes. (Credit: Loren Javier/Flickr)

You’d think the only things Paramount Stage 20 gave us were “That Girl” and “Webster.” (Credit: Loren Javier/Flickr)

It’s not as if the corporations that own the studios shirk their stewardship for lack of money. It’s that corporations are programmed only to make money, and curators, yielding no profits, are perceived as crackpots. Even to be on the National Register of Historic Places, a lesser designation than a National Historic Landmark, the site’s owner must approve. Do you think the major studios are going to opt for preservation and potential restrictions when they could simply tear down landmarks such as Stage 28?

Mostly, studios such as Sony Pictures Studios only want you to get excited about the most recent Spider-Man movie. You can take a walking tour, where the franchise is mentioned repeatedly but the MGM canon, which shot there previously, is given scant mention. Here’s its website—you can find the dimensions of each stage and its technical capabilities, but there’s no word about which celluloid ghosts might linger in the rafters.

Not all of them would be worth sanctifying—but we ought to at least know which ones are.

One of my dream jobs would be to work on lots, digging through archives and yellowing pages to piece together the geographical heritage of the entertainment that makes us who we are.

I’d bring the great moments of our collective American consciousness a time and place, and I’d be rectifying a century’s worth of headlong, heedless Hollywoodism if I could catalog and preserve them.


Postscript: They tore it down.

2 Responses to “Hollywood studios should be National Historic Landmarks”

  1. Eric Webster

    Jason, this is simply an amazing piece of writing. I get the general idea that greed in Hollywood surpasses any notion that there is a need to preserve history, but this piece really opened my eyes. History will always be lost but your passion has certainly fueled my interest and I hope one day to do my part to help actively preserve history within the industry.