They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore
The very first time I set foot on the legendary Columbia Ranch (in Burbank, California), was in the summer of 1965. I had just recently been hired as an assistant to the associate producer on a Screen Gems’ television series. I was an overly eager 22-year old who had been in love with the movies all my life – especially Western movies. I was pretty excited because I’d sold Columbia Pictures’ producer-writer David Swift on my writing ability by submitting to him a short outline for a children’s television show. It wasn’t anything outstanding: just a modern-day take on silent comedies, utilizing the standing sets on the Columbia Ranch (which I had never seen in person) and re-creating some of the old silent comedy routines made famous by the greats – Charley Chaplain, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton. It would be a very inexpensive show to shoot, so I thought I had a pretty good chance. Instead of buying my idea, or rejecting me completely, Swift called me into his office and offered me the job of assistant to his associate producer on the “Camp Runamuck” TV series, a show Swift had created and was now executive producing. An associate producer can be many things, but this one did what a line producer does today – watched how the studio’s money is spent; handled the day to day problems that arise on a shooting set; plus, acted as a go-between when the actors, director, and certain crew members felt they needed to deal with the executive producer and/or studio.
Since I was only the assistant to a producer that meant I was still considered by most to be the hired help. So when I pulled up to the Ranch gate that very first morning, I was immediately relegated to the employee parking area just inside the main entrance. From there, the guard told me, I would have to walk the rest of the way to the “Camp Runamuck” office which was located all the way on the other side of that sizable plot of real estate. Later on in my career I would work on MGM’s legendary Lot #2; the Warner Brothers Back Lot; plus the CBS Studio Center Back Lot (formally Republic Pictures) – the first two being somewhat larger than the Columbia Ranch. I have also been lucky enough to have traversed that enormous parcel of San Fernando Valley property, the Universal Studios Back Lot. I never worked at Universal, but was there several times as the guest of some friends who worked on Universal shows, and through them I was able to explore the back lot. Plus, my wife, Beth, and I eventually took the studio’s famous Tour as paying customers. Please note that I had not yet seen those other studio lots when I was first introduced to the Columbia Ranch.
Beyond the parking area and guard station, there was a large service station. That’s what gas stations were called back then – service stations. Besides selling gasoline, service stations offered service: windshields washed, oil and tire pressure checked, etc. This completely practical service station was used as a set for the many petroleum company commercials the studio was hired to produce. All they did was change the sign from Texaco, to Standard, to Phillips 66, and no one ever knew the difference.
From there, I followed a road for a few hundred feet which took me to an enormous city park and square. This spacious greenbelt was flanked on one side by a small-town residential street, with its freshly-painted clapboard houses, green lawns, perfect sidewalks and well-snipped landscaping. I recognized a couple of the houses as those used in the “Blondie” movie series, and the “Dennis the Menace” TV series. On the other side of the park stood an exact replica of a Boston Street, accurate in every detail, right down to the rough, cobble-stone pavement. Three-story brick row-houses lined the sidewalk. On one side of the commons, intricate wrought-iron fencing bordered the recently manicured lawn. One corner of the park hosted a very large swimming pool; across the way on another corner, sat an impressive circular, water fountain. Moving away from the fountain then turning slightly to the north took me onto the New York Street. Halfway down this metropolitan thoroughfare, other streets intersected – these with nothing but brownstones: those New York, tenement-style buildings – the “old” neighborhood.
The New York Street dead-ended into Camp Runamuck. I guess I could say the “Camp Runamuck” set. Newly-constructed grassy berms (man-made hills), with a few recently planted trees scattered here and there, surrounded two neat rows of military-style tent-houses – all of them facing a spindly flagpole planted dead center in the small, dusty compound. On the other side of one of those berms, was the Camp Devine set, approximately the same setup as Camp Runamuck, except the canvas coverings on the front of the tent-houses, as well as the window flaps, were done in red and white vertical stripes instead of a dull brown. This was the girl’s camp that was supposedly located across the lake from Camp Runamuck. To the west of Camp Devine, on the other side of some dense foliage, was an old, dark green, soundstage. Tucked in beside the stage, and looking more like the sales hut for a used car lot, was the “Camp Runamuck” office, where I’d be working.
No one was around. I had arrived much earlier than I had been told to, so I decided to do a little exploring. To the right of the “Camp Runamuck” berm, and on through an arch belonging to some long forgotten movie set, was a wide, blue lagoon. Bulldozers had scooped out a sizeable depression which was then covered with asphalt. The leftover dirt was then used to build a surrounding berm. When filled with water it became whatever the script called for. At that time, the lagoon’s shoreline was being used as a Southern California surfer’s beach for the TV series “Gidget,” starring the teenaged Sally Field. Some years later when I worked on the “Here Come the Brides” television show, that same lagoon shoreline would be where the Seattle logger’s camp was set up.
Opposite the “Camp Runamuck” set was the backside of a towering edifice. Moving around to the front of the structure, I found that it was a large blue sky backing. In front of the backing was a very large, cement water tank which was being used at the time by “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” television series. There was the deck portion and conning tower of a Japanese submarine floating in the tank. Silhouetted against the blue-sky backing, the sub gave me the sensation that I was out at sea and about to witness a World War II naval battle.
Moving on down a small sloping stretch of dirt then around the backside of a decaying facade, my eyes widened considerably. Right there in the middle of Burbank, California, somewhere between Pass Avenue and Hollywood Way, stood the very recognizable dusty Western Street the brooding Gary Cooper (in his Academy Award winning role of Marshal Will Kane) courageously walked down alone in the unforgettable 1953 Oscar-winning Best Picture “High Noon.”
As I walked around on this captivating set, memories of Gene Autry and his sidekick, Smiley Burnett, swirled in my head. I could also picture Charles Starrett, as the Durango Kid, dressed in black with his face-mask fluttering in the breeze, galloping out of town on his white stallion in pursuit of the escaping outlaw gang. And Randolph Scott, his legs spread apart, drawing and shooting faster than the other guy who, with hand over heart, fell to the ground – dead. Then I noticed there was a cement sidewalk concealed beneath the boardwalks. I knew instinctively this had to be the same small town taken over by Marlon Brando and his motorcycle gang in producer Stanley Kramer’s “The Wild One.”
I rounded another corner and was standing in the exact spot the drunken Lee Marvin was seen slumped in the saddle of his sleeping horse in “The Ballad of Cat Ballou.” So many of my favorite Westerns had been filmed on that street, my head was spinning. I was in Western Fan Paradise.
A few years later, when I was working at the Columbia Ranch as a costumer on the “Here Come the Brides” TV series, I would actually be one of the first to see the black smoke rising from the area of the Western Street when I came back from lunch with some friends. We knew all that smoke meant a real fire, and not a special effects blaze which we were all used to seeing. And that a real fire could easily destroy those old, wooden sets in minutes. We immediately split into two groups. One bunch raced toward the Western Street, while the other group ran to the “Here Come the Brides” set. I was with the second group. We searched frantically then finally found a telephone and called the fire department. In the meantime several of us scrambled for the tool-shed where someone had started handing out shovels and other pieces of equipment that could be used to fight the fast-spreading blaze. Burning embers were dropping everywhere, setting small fires wherever they landed. These were beaten out and smothered with dirt before they could do further damage.
When the fire department arrived, all they could do was try to contain the flames to the Western Street where the holocaust had begun. We fought alongside the professionals, for what seemed like hours, until what could have been a much larger disaster was averted. The rest of the film companies who had been shooting their shows at the Ranch that day gathered in the park near the fountain and the pool. That was where the television news crews were doing their reporting. None of these people ever even got close to the fire. Even so, one of the series’ stars (I won’t mention names) rubbed some ashes on his face before giving an interview telling of how he had barely escaped the raging flames while saving some poor soul from certain death (the “pour soul” never did come forth to corroborate the story). After the fire the studio rebuilt the Western Street exactly as it had looked before, using old blueprints and photographs. It may have looked the same, but it never felt the same.
When “Here Come the Brides” folded, I worked on another series at the Ranch: a revolutionary war series called “The Young Rebels.” I haven’t been back to the Ranch since then, but I know it was turned over to Warner Brothers as part of a deal when Sony entered the picture and Columbia moved to the old MGM Studio facility in Culver City. I’m sure a lot of things have changed over the past 35 years. For one, I know the corner of the Ranch where the lagoon was situated was sold off in the 70s and became a strip mall. I’ll wager the Western Street is gone by now, too, just like all the other Western Streets that dotted back lots all over Hollywood. The Paramount Western Street, where “Bonanza” was filmed all those years, is now a parking lot.
Today, most movies and TV shows are shot on location – they say audiences want the “real thing.” Because of that, we have all lost what was once called “movie magic” – when a Western town in Kansas, a New York downtown street, a California surfer beach, a rural Nebraska town square, a Boston commons, and the lush mountains of Washington State, were all condensed into one small area called The Columbia Ranch