We cruised down Wisteria Lane, the idyllic California street from “Desperate Housewives.” It was surprisingly condensed: Tiny yards fronted fake-looking facades of homes.
When we pulled by the Psycho House and the Bates Motel, featured in Hitchcock’s 1960s classic, “Psycho,” the tram paused as an actor portraying Norman Bates staggered out of a motel room, carrying a body that he put in his car trunk. The tram slowly descended the hill as Bates teetered toward us, looking mighty creepy.
The tram ride was fun, if never quite frightening, but perhaps the better insider view of Hollywood was the theme park’s live stage show on special effects. The show explained “green screens” — used when actors perform in front of a neon screen, the backgrounds added later by computers. This is how much of Oscar-nominee “Gravity” was filmed. To demonstrate, audience recruits were put in front of a green screen and told to fearfully look up at the end of a neon green pole. Instantly, they were in a lush tropical forest fighting dinosaurs, and that pole was a T. rex roaring down at them.
Not surprisingly, Universal was more about big rides than a working studio.
A close-up of Warner Bros.
The next morning we hit Warner Bros. Studios. It was fairly quiet, the guide noted, with television shows still on Christmas hiatus, though the movie “Jupiter Ascending” was shooting on the back lot. (The tour guide never steered the stretch golf cart too close and we were warned against taking any pictures.)
But there was an excitement, too, he said, given the studio’s long list of Oscar nominations — announced the day before — led by “Gravity,” with 10.
The first stop was a building filled with memorable cars: Clint Eastwood’s Ford from “Gran Torino,” the Batmobile from “The Dark Knight,” the Weasleys’ flying car from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” the Mystery Machine van from “Scooby Doo.” In the same building, a continually running video showed the Harry Potter kids acting in front of a green screen, followed by the same clip from the movie which showed them deep in a forest. Warner Bros.’ own green screen is set up for souvenir photos; Hogwarts Express is added before you get back to the gift shop.
The studio is home to a massive props department, filling 200,000 square feet. In our walk-through, we saw fake arms, a replica of the piano from “Casablanca” (the real one is in the museum at the end of the tour), living room sets and an entire room of chandeliers. We pushed ourselves against a wall as a glass table was wheeled by on its way to the “Modern Family” set. The props building is also home to the “Friends” coffee shop set, where we lounged and pretended to order lattés.
Next we hit the stage where “Pretty Little Liars” is shot. None of us had watched the ABC Family show, but seeing the inside of a working studio was fascinating. We got up close to the generic breezeway, fake bricks and all, that serves for many of the outside shots, fake lockers, restroom doors that swing open to an empty wall. Faucets don’t work.
The back lot has a street scene for everyone: New York, Europe, the Midwest. We saw a courthouse and a gazebo, a little grassy park, a subway entrance. It all looked vaguely familiar. The back lot was also home to our only real celebrity sighting of the trip. Kevin Costner — or so my husband says — walked away from us, talking on his phone. I saw only his back.
Our guide also took us to Stage 1, now home of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” the toughest ticket in Hollywood. Even that, with its shiny wood stage, seemed flawed up close.
The same soundstage is where “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Cool Hand Luke” were filmed. More recently it was home to “E.R.” Yet within the walls, lined with mattress-like soundproofing material, there is no sense of that history. The only reminder is a plaque outside the door of each soundstage that lists its film and television productions.
For my husband, that was enough. “Casablanca,” he mouthed in disbelief outside Stage 7.
On the way back to our condo rental, we stopped at the Dolby Theatre, home to the Academy Awards. The theater is squeezed into a shopping mall on busy Hollywood Boulevard that has a Gap store, food court and bowling alley.
“I don’t remember the red carpet taking place outside a mall,” I commented to the guide. Everything, he explained, is cloaked. Store signs are covered for the Oscars telecast.
The half-hour tour included a backstage look at the green rooms and our own trip onto the stage. Tickets, the guide told us, are such a hot commodity that many members of the Academy don’t get one, and everyone must have their tickets on Oscar night. During one of the guide’s first years working at the theater, he was taking tickets and Francis Ford Coppola, recipient that year of the Irving G. Thalberg Award, told him that he didn’t have his tickets. The guide started to panic. This was Coppola; who was he to turn him away on his big night? “Just kidding, they’re right here” Coppola told him, reaching into his pocket.
At that point, I thought we were done with our Hollywood tours but Jordy, in particular, wanted another one.