We’ve all heard the old expression “You can never go home again.” Well, I proved that old maxim wrong the first time I stepped onto the old Republic Studios Back Lot.
During the 14 years I was employed at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, California (1967 – 1981), I considered myself very lucky whenever I got the chance to work on the back lot. On the occasions I found myself elsewhere, I would still drift back for another peek whenever I had a spare moment. As a kid of the 1950s, in love with Westerns ever since my dad brought home our first television set, I sure as hell knew where the Republic Pictures Studio stood in the B-Western pecking order – right at the top. It was those old Republic days that excited me; and once I began working at Studio Center, nothing stood in the way of my daily excursions to those wonderful old Western movie sets that had made such a large impression on my youth.
The first time I worked on one of the Western Sets (Dakota Street) was 1967. This was the same set used frequently in the Big Valley TV series. I was doing costumes for a CBS Television Show called Dundee and the Culhane. I prepared the show out of Western Costume Company in Hollywood without ever seeing the studio. We immediately began shooting on location in Arizona, filming our first segment in Flagstaff. We moved on down to Apacheland near Scottsdale for two more shows, and finished up our location work in Old Tucson with three more episodes. Then we flew back to Hollywood where we continued to shoot at Studio Center. The day I was finally able to pass through those hallowed Republic gates, I knew I was in Cowboy Heaven.
All the stages, executive offices, writers’ and directors’ buildings, editing and projection rooms, plus most of the individual departments, were located at the front of the lot, with the main entrance on Radford Avenue. It was not until you passed quite a few sound stages; Suburban Street – where the wardrobe department was located; some storage buildings; the commissary; and New England Street, did you actually come into contact with any of the Western sets. When I was first there in 1967, they had recently completed two new sound stages which had eliminated the entire New York Square. The side of one of those new stages became a dead end for Dakota Street. To make things work out, the construction department added a few false fronts to the side of the stage, and voila, a new cross-street – or so it would appear on screen.
The studio acreage had been host to Revue Studios before CBS took possession; Four Star had also been there for a time. Prior to that, it was Republic Pictures. The old lot had been through several other owners even earlier, but I will always remember it as Republic, just as many other Western fans do.
When I was a little boy in the early 50s wearing my Hoppy double-rig with my matched Texan Jr’s strapped on, my Aunt Bette and Uncle George lived just around the corner from Republic. Every time our family drove over from Whittier to visit them, my brother Bobby and I would take off then walk along the street that paralleled the studio. Back then, Radford Avenue dead-ended at the Los Angeles River (today it’s a through street). Standing there at the fence, Bobby and I were able to peer down into the lower back lot. When I was working there, the lower back lot ended before it reached the river, which was all concrete by then. But in the 50s, it was still a natural wonder – grass-covered, with the peaceful L.A. River meandering through its verdant surroundings. I remember one time when Bobby and I were visiting, an entire Indian Village had been laid out down by the river. There were painted tipis, fluttering feathers and colorful ribbons, plus buffalo hides galore. No Indians though – we were there on a Sunday.
By the time I started working there, Western Street – that’s the one seen under the opening titles of the color episodes of Gunsmoke – had been extended with a cross street at the eastern end (later used for Cimarron Strip). Back in the old Republic days Western Street ended abruptly, with a couple of building facades blocking it on the eastern end. They had been put there to hide a Studio City residential area, as well as the Colfax Avenue traffic some seventy yards away.
Some of the buildings on Western Street were actually small sound stages with Western facades and wooden boardwalks. That allowed a director to shoot an interior scene while real outdoor action took place outside in the background. Another sound stage, disguised as a livery stable, housed the very recognizable Republic cave set. Nearly every Republic serial, not to mention numerous B-Westerns and TV Shows, always seemed to have several scenes taking place inside a cave. They were still using the cave set in the 1960s and ‘70s. We shot one episode of Dundee and the Culhane inside that cave set; but the incident I remember best was a Wild, Wild West episode where Jim West (Bob Conrad) fights a bunch of evil-doers in that cave – and wins. Several of my stuntmen friends worked on that Wild, Wild West segment playing those nasty villains. After the fight scene was completed, they showed up at the Backstage, the cowboy bar across the street from the studio. All of them nursed ugly scrapes and bruises. We downed quite a few doubles that night to help those poor guys sooth their injuries. As the story went, the stuntmen had rehearsed the fight scene with Conrad with full pads under their wardrobe. When it was time to shoot the sequence for real, Conrad (who did his own stunts), with a somewhat sadistic sense of humor, decided that the bad guys should all go shirtless. Boy, were those guys in agony. That old cave set had been constructed out of gnarled plaster held together with chicken-wire, nails, and scrap lumber. I’ll bet it felt like steel-enforced concrete with razor-sharp edges to those boys when Conrad slammed them up against those scraggy cave walls.
Across the street from the livery stable cave set was what everyone called Hacienda Square. This was the set where so many of the Gene Autry and Roy Rogers Westerns were filmed. Spanish-style architecture distinguished this beautiful compound from the rest of the Republic sets. It was hidden behind a couple of buildings so it couldn’t be seen when shooting on Western Street. On occasion the Hacienda Square set was used with a foreground entrance arch in the establishing shot. At other times, it doubled as a fort, a Texas Ranger Garrison, or a prison. Close your eyes and remember those wonderful Republic fiesta sequences, with all the lovely senoritas in their Spanish dancer costumes swirling around the courtyard while Gene or Roy sang Mexicali Rose and El Rancho Grande.
Attached to Hacienda Square was a small Mexican Street. A cantina with several adobe arches instead of support posts is the one set I remember the most. I see it all the time today when I watch the old Republic shows on the Western Channel. Many a good Western with scenes supposedly taking place below the border was filmed on that dusty Mexican Street.
Brazos Street, which backed up to both Dakota Street and Mexican Street, was recognized mostly by its log structures and an old swayback barn. Brazos Street was used in countless Westerns, not only as another small town, but as a ranch-yard and log fort as well.
Continuing on from Brazos Street, and then passing both the New England Street and the Suburban Street at their northern ends, there was a one-sided residential street opposite the wardrobe department. On this modern-day avenue, there was one house that was definitely shaped like a barn. In the later color shows, it was used by the My Three Sons television series as the family’s home. A barn shaped house, you ask? Well, at one time not so long ago, that same area had been Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. One of the mid-western homes on the street was originally the ranch house, and with a little artistic maneuvering, Gene’s barn became the home for My Three Sons.
Beyond the residential street, a small road led down to the lower back lot. During the time I spent there, this area contained what had once been the Gilligan’s Island Lagoon, and a two-sided ranch and barn set called the Duchess Ranch – used by the Gunsmoke series and many other shows as various homesteads, cattle ranches, and farms. There was also a large mansion which belonged to the Barkley family on The Big Valley; plus several tree-lined dirt roads where short chases and other outdoor scenes were staged.
I drove by the studio several months ago and was surprised to see many more sound stages had been added. Even the extra acreage on the northern side of the river, once used as a parking lot for employees, is now covered with sound stages and other modern structures. A bridge over the river connects the two parcels.
I Googled CBS Studio Center when I got home using the satellite map they offer so I might see what the back lot looks like today. That was a mistake. It’s all gone – replaced through change and progress. There’s nothing left – nothing but my memories. I just thank God those old Republic movies still survive.