Why CBS Studio Center Became My Home Lot Over the Years
I did my first show at CBS Studio Center, the old Republic Pictures lot, in 1967. I was hired to do costumes on a short-lived TV Series called "Dundee and the Culhane," a Western that starred the late British actor, Sir John Mills. Our first six shows were filmed on location in Arizona, starting at a movie set fort near the Painted Desert, east of Flagstaff. The fort had been built for the Warner Bros. feature, "A Distant Trumpet." Our next stop was Apacheland, located just outside of Scottsdale. Apacheland was a Western town set, we shot two shows there. Then it was on to Old Tucson, right over the hill from, you guessed it, Tucson.
It wasn’t until the company returned to Studio City (CBS Studio Center was our home base), that I was able to visit the remarkable set of television’s longest-running Western, "Gunsmoke." I remember walking over to Stage 3 for the very first time. "Gunsmoke’s" shooting company was in the process of moving their equipment off the stage, then transporting the entire unit from the Western Street, which was contained inside that enormous building, to some outside, back-lot location.
By the time I got there, the company had nearly completed the move. The stage itself was still open, with a small group of wranglers sitting around outside minding the horses and other livestock. “Mind if I take a look around?” I asked one of the cowboys.
“Go right ahead, sonny” he advised me, “if you can stand the stink of 10-years worth of sweat, piss, and horse shit.”
The others chuckled as he nodded toward the huge, double doors, which had been left wide open. I thanked the man, and then went inside.
The Dodge City set was unbelievable: an entire Western Street built within the confines of a 24,000 square foot sound stage. The town included both the exteriors and interiors of the buildings. I edged my way past some wooden flats and came out on the other side in an alleyway, a kind of dirt, dead-end side-street, separating Doc Adam’s office, at the top of an old wooden staircase, on one side, and the Long Branch Saloon, on the other. The set was not lit, as in ready for filming, but there were a few scattered work-lights in addition to the stage-lights high above that threw a strange, eerie glow over the entire set.
I was happy I was there all by myself on that first visit. It gave me the chance to do some uninterrupted exploring. I walked through the batwing doors of the Long Branch, pretending to be a Texas cowboy fresh off the drive. And I spent even more time imaging myself playing all the parts the actors over the years had played inside that famous saloon.
After that, I crossed the street and went inside the most famous marshal’s office in the world: Matt Dillon’s place of work. I sat in Matt’s chair. I lay down on a cot in one of the jail cells. I read every wanted poster tacked to the walls. I even looked for Chester’s and Festus’s favorite coffee pot. It was no where to be found. I guess they probably hadn’t been shooting any marshal’s office scenes before they moved outside.
I went on to survey the inside of Delmonoco’s Steak House, the livery stable where Burt Reynolds worked for a short period before he was "Burt Reynolds," and the Dodge House.
Finally, I thought it best I return to my own show’s stage. I’d been gone for some time by then, and my boss was probably getting worried – or just plain mad at me.
The following year, I found myself back at CBS Studio Center once again, working on the "Family Affair" TV Show, as the wardrobe set man. I took care of actors, Brian Keith, Sebastian Cabot, and young Johnny Whittaker, while my boss was in charge of dressing Kathy Garver, and the show’s young female star, Annisa Jones. "Family Affair" being a one stage, one set show like it was, gave me many more opportunities to sneak over to the "Gunsmoke" stage. I got to know the show’s Key Costumer, a true creative Western wardrobe maestro and a real gentleman, Alex Velkoff. I had a friend who was working as the second assistant director who introduced me around to members of the supporting cast and crew. But I never got to meet James Arness, Amanda Blake, Ken Curtis, Milburn Stone, or Buck Taylor.
For the next few years I worked on "Here Come the Brides" and "The Young Rebels" over at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank. It was on the latter show that I got together with actor, Steve Ihnat, and the two of us wrote "The Honkers" over a span of four weekends. Needless to say, we sold the script to United Artists then shot the movie, starring James Coburn, Slim Pickens, and Ann Archer, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, during the first half of 1971. When "The Honkers" wrapped, I hung around Goldwyn Studios for a few additional months, sitting in on the editing – a new experience for me. I also picked up a costuming job on an ABC Movie of the Week titled "Revenge," shot in San Francisco. It starred Shelly Winters, Bradford Dillman, and Stewart Whitman.
When that show wrapped, Shelly Winters invited my co-costumer, Betsy Cox, to do her next movie of the week. And Betsy, who was a good friend from the old Columbia days, asked me to be her men’s costumer. Well, it was back to CBS Studio Center once again for that one. I was getting to know Frank Delmar, the head of the wardrobe department, by then; plus Edward O. Denault, the production manager for the entire studio.
When the show with Betsy, and Shelly Winters was over, Frank kept me on the payroll, assigning me to another Movie of the Week, a little horror script, titled, "Something Evil," directed by an unknown youngster on loan from Universal Studios by the name of Steven Speilberg.
In May of 1972, my writing partner, Steve Ihnat, died of a heart attack at age 37. His death was a shock to everyone, and because he had passed away in Europe – at the Cannes Film Festival – I spent the next few weeks with his wife and family, picking up their daughter from school and comforting Steve’s parents while we waited for the red tape to be processed so his wife, Sally, could bring his body home without further incident.
I didn’t go back to work for another few months, but when I finally did it was at CBS Studio Center one more time. The production was another Movie of the Week, "Deadly Harvest," a TV Movie starring Richard Boone and Patty Duke, shot on location in the Santa Rosa and Stockton areas. All the while, during preparation and wrap, at least, I would hang out on the "Gunsmoke" stage with the crew when I could. I began to feel I was a part of the show. I even got used to the unique smell of the "Gunsmoke" stage 3 set after a while.
Oh, I was called away to other studios on occasion, but my home lot was fast becoming CBS Studio Center. I loved it. It was the old Republic lot, remember? The studio that made all those Westerns I’d grown up on: Roy Rogers Westerns, Gene Autry Westerns, Don "Red" Barry, Monte Hale, and Clayton Moore Westerns. My favorites have always been "The Three Mesquiteers," with Bob Livingstone, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, and Max Terhune. Some even starred John Wayne. Republic Pictures also produced "Red Ryder," with Allan "Rocky" Lane, and the young Robert Blake; plus a gazillion others.
I’d spend lunch hours and free time exploring the studio. I’d walk the back-lot, living my dreams. I’d stroll along the Western streets with their familiar façades and buildings. I’d walk past the lake, where Gilligan and his friends were marooned for all those years, plus the reruns of course. There were the trails and insert roads ridden fast and furious by Bob Conrad and Ross Martin in "The Wild Wild West TV Series." I stood in awe before the Barkley’s mansion from "Big Valley" – the one on the back-lot, and the identical false front on the sound stage. And the cave set – one of a kind – a permanent instillation constructed inside the livery stable on the Western Street, where nearly very cowboy movie, serial, and television series had filmed at one time or another.
There was an under water tank where I was sure John Wayne had tangled with that giant squid in "Reap the Wild Wind," until someone reminded me that that legendary movie was shot at Paramount. I discovered an outside water tank with a blue backing, used for various things: as the ocean, a lake, river, or pool. I recall seeing it in an old Roy Rogers Western being used as a lake, with a fishing dock in the foreground.
In 1974, I was lucky enough to get called to work on "Gunsmoke" as a replacement for the show’s wardrobe set man who had taken ill. But I wasn’t going to be shooting on the CBS lot. Instead, I was flown to Tucson, Arizona, where the cast and crew were shooting four location shows in a row. That included "The Guns of Cibola Blanco," the final two-part episode for the 1974-’75 season.
Since I had been told before I left that I would be there for only a couple of days, I was uniquely surprised when I found out, on a daily basis, that I would be staying for yet another day – then another, and another. I had packed for a three day location, and over time, it stretched into a month. I had one change of clothes on my back, while another was at the cleaners, and a third hanging in the closet for me to use the following day. I thanked the Lord I was in the wardrobe department where I had access to the local cleaners, or I would have really been in a fix.
During that time, I got to know the cast pretty well. I had been assigned to take care of Milburn Stone who played Doc Adams; Ken Curtis, Festus, of course; and Buck Taylor, who was Newly. On occasion I was asked to help James Arness with something: hold his hat; bring him his boots, or whatever. I got along with them all because they were a great bunch of guys. More like the wranglers who took care of the livestock, than the stars of the show that they were.
On the last day of shooting in Old Tucson, I was sent to James Arness’ motorhome to help him change out of his costume and to collect it all for shipping back to the studio. I remember, as if it were yesterday, James Arness sitting on the bed pulling on his shoes. He still wore his Matt Dillon hat – the brown, wide-brim 5-X beaver, Matt had worn for twenty years.
As I stood there with all his other wardrobe gathered up in my arms, he slowly took off the hat and held it out so he could take one last look at it. There was a wistful look in his eyes. Finally he nodded. Then he handed it to me. “Be careful with my hat, son,” he said. “I think it might just have one more year left in it.”
That next year never came. "Gunsmoke" was canceled after that season. The show had a twenty-year run.