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Thursday, December 12, 2013


Sally Carpenter is a mystery writer who has worked as an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper. Learn more about Sally and books at her blog. Today Sally joins us to give a virtual tour of Paramount Studios.

Behind the Scenes of a Movie Studio

Tourists who travel to Hollywood, Calif., to find some “movie magic” will have to look hard to find it. Celebrities don’t actually live in Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevard, the main attraction, is mostly full of tacky souvenir shops. Two places that are worth a visit are the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and Paramount Pictures.

These two places adjoin each other, sharing a common wall. Legend says ghosts from the cemetery have walked through the studio back lot at night.

Many of the classic movie stars and noted directors are buried here, often with ornate and ostentatious grave markers. One actor even has a reflecting pool in front of his huge grave marker. Others, like Rudolf Valentino, have their urns tucked away in regular niches. My personal favorite is Mel Blanc’s simple headstone that reads, “That’s All, Folks!”
Non-celebrities are buried here as well and anyone can purchase a plot. Tourists can walk in and look around for free during business hours. Docent tours are available as well.

In 2000 I was hired as a page at Paramount. The pages gave studio tours during the day and ushered the sitcom audiences in the evening. The tour is different today, but I’d like to talk about what you might have seen on one of my tours.

I led groups of 15 to 21 people on a two-hour walking tour, rain or shine (yep, I was in the rain a few times with some hardy and determined guests.)

The Universal Studio tour is entertainment-focused, but the Paramount tour is educational in nature. As I led my tour group around the lot, I talked about the history of the studio.

A studio lot is rather bland in appearance. The lot is mostly comprised of enormous and nondescript soundstages where shooting takes place. Some of the sitcoms that shot on the lot would let the groups come inside and look at the sets when they were not rehearsing. Some of my best tours were during the winter hiatus (vacation) when the guests could see the sets for both Frasier and Becker.

A couple of shows, such as Bob Saget’s Raising Dad, let the groups inside during rehearsals as long as the guests didn’t talk or take pictures. We’d watch from the bleachers where the audiences would sit during the taping.

The Entertainment Tonight people let the guests stand on the actual set that was used for the broadcasts. Up close, a set is made of word and canvas and isn’t a bit glamorous. Once the ET people let my group go back into the control room.

Paramount has a huge back lot, several streets lined with facades (fake fronts) to resemble various sections of New York City (Castle is a modern show that uses this back lot). The “buildings” have nothing inside them except scaffolding to hold them up. The streets can be decorated with potted tree, fake street lamps and mailboxes. The windows of the storefronts can be repainted and decorated to suit the need. The streets are rigged for rain and snow effects.

The back lot was often used to make commercials, music videos and outdoor scenes for the sitcoms. During a shoot, the ends of the street were blocked off with sawhorses. Tour groups could stand behind the barricades and watch.

At the far end of the lot stood the mill where sets were constructed. A large garage-style door was usually open, and the groups could see the workers painting, molding plastic, or making a set.

The Paramount Theater, usually our last stop, was a state-of-the-art film theater used for movie premieres as well as screenings for directors, producers, and studio employees (the lot also had two smaller theaters for viewing dailies).

A full-time projectionist worked for the studio, and he often let my groups inside the projection room. He’d demonstrate how the 35mm film projectors work. Now that more shooting is done digitally, the projection room might be quite different today.

The tour ended by the gift shop so the guests could purchase souvenirs and videos/DVDs of Paramount shows.

I used my knowledge of the studio for my new book, The Sinister Sitcom Caper, a Sandy Fairfax cozy mystery. Sandy is a 38-year-old former teen idol who discovers that making a comeback can be murder! He’s the guest star of Off-Kelter, a corny family sitcom and the lowest rated show on the 1993 fall season. On the first day of rehearsal, one of the actors drops dead at his feet, and Sandy investigates the suspicious death with the aid of a dwarf and an animal actor. Along the way he deals with his ex-wife, tries to make amends with his estranged parents, and falls in love with a beautiful choreographer.

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Angela Adams said...

An interesting and exciting post. Thanks for sharing

Andrea Cooper said...

Great post. The closest I've been to a celebrity or TV/Movie set was a wax figure of Oprah in her chair ;)

Sally Carpenter said...

Hi Lois, thanks for hosting me. Andrea, my most exciting celebrity sighting was early on morning on the lot when Kelsey Grammar was walking toward me. Nobody else was around. As I approached I said, "Good morning" and he said "'morning" and passed by. I also saw Ted Danson, Leonard Nimoy and a quick peek at Tom Cruise.

Sally Carpenter said...

I also want to add that the photo you see here is the original entrance to the studio (a different entance with double arches is used nowadays). In the movie "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Shearer is driven through this gate. I always took the tour groups through this gate.

Kathleen Kaska said...

I've always wanted to take a movie studio tour. Thanks for the highlights, Sally. Best of luck with your series.

Sally Carpenter said...

Thanks, Kathleen and Angela. I forgot to mention that the gate in the photo is called the Bronson Gate (no, not named for the actor).

Karen McCullough said...

That was fascinating! I know very little about the motion picture industry, so I enjoyed your peek into it.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

My dad worked at Paramount as the head of the plumbing department and I got to see things that probably aren't even there anymore. An outdoor set down in the basement where they shot a lot of cowboy movies, and a big water tank on the back lot for ocean movies. It was even more fake back in the day. During movies we watched, dad would always point out things like toy trains, telephone poles where there shouldn't be any, etc.

Sally Carpenter said...

Thanks for stopping by, Karen. Marilyn, that's way cool that your dad worked at the studio too. The water tank is probably what is now used as a parking lot on non-shooting days. There's a permanent "big sky" background beside the lot that can be painted over according to the needs of the shot. The boat race in "Stuart Little" and the final scenes of "Star Trek: the Voyage Home" were shot there among others.

M.M. Gornell said...

Very interesting, Sally! Thanks for sharing.