By Margarita Plazas
Photos Demian Colman
I admit it – I have spent more time in front of a TV or movie screen than my parents would have liked. An inveterate lover of the stories of love and heartbreak that Hollywood has given the world over the last hundred years, I finally disembarked in Los Angeles and set out to come face-to-face with that parallel universe where I have spent my entire life. My must-see destinations were, of course, the Paramount, Warner, and Sony studios, all of which offer tours that allow fans to become part of the stories, even if it’s just once in their lives.
Visiting all three studios was definitely worth it. Each has its own strengths and charms. Each one reveals aspects —including secrets— of the process of creating and producing everyone’s favorite films and TV programs. Join me in discovering some of them.
Finding the studio was an odyssey in itself; we walked nearly the entire perimeter of a 445-acre lot to reach the entrance. Just like a pair of lovers who wait until the final scene to profess their affection, we kept ourselves in check until we finally spotted the guide. We’re here now and our story begins.
The first order of business is a tour of a small museum of props, photos, and sets from the studio’s most iconic films and series. We delight in our little discoveries: Men in Black and Ghostbusters are among the favorites. Drums echo in my head when I try my hand at the Jumanji board game but seeing the Tony Stark plaque makes me feel safe. The sight of the capsule where Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt slept for years in Passengers brings on tears. It is the perfect way to refresh our memories of these mega-productions just before seeing where they were actually filmed.
Of the three studio tours, this one provides the most information on the history of the place and the production process. Two hours of walking through the studios feels like a pleasant afternoon with friends. Sony studios has no giant outdoor backlots but it does offer a unique opportunity to get the feel of real sets, giving visitors a taste of what happens behind the scenes of the most-watched shows in the United States.
The guide tells us about what happened on each one of the streets we traverse and notes that Sony purchased what used to be MGM studios. We learn about studio construction, the water tower, and sound production. We turn a corner and happen upon a collection of cars as famous as the people who once drove them. A fire station sits next to the trailer from which Walter White emerged in his white underwear so many years ago.
The visit comes to an end and the guide gathers the group one last time under a rainbow that pays tribute to the Wizard of Oz. It’s time to click our heels three times and return home, even though we are not ready to leave.
The tour begins with a small museum of costumes and masks from big productions but what really gets our attention is the shiny gold of the awards collected by the studio. We walk among Emmys and Oscars. The guide asks who wants to hold one. Of course, my hand shoots up as I mentally rehearse my speech.
This tour is the most personalized one, letting us tailor the experience to our movie preferences. We start at the dog park visited by Sol from Grace and Frankie. We see the bench where Forrest sat to wait for the bus that would take him to Jenny. Even though we are riding in an electric cart in California, we seem to be in New York City.
Here are the subway, the fire escapes of the buildings, and the street corners I have seen all my life on the screen. I suddenly find myself in the middle of Mandy Moore and Milo (This is Us) Ventimiglia’s family drama, singing Rachel and Santana in a café (Glee), discovering a body with the CSI team, and falling in love in Elizabeth Town. The tour also reveals filming secrets and deconstructs the stages. You might think that discovering that the great New York buildings are no more than wooden façades would be the death of the film magic we have all chosen to believe in, but that is not the case. For me, walking through the sets under lighting reflectors and puzzling out where I have seen that street corner only served to feed the magic created by Hollywood.
The tour includes a visit to a parking lot with an enormous wall on one end that is used for productions that require an ocean or a flood, along with the opportunity to enter a real set with an intact interior. The decor depends on the series in production, since once a series goes on break or filming wraps up, the sets are returned to their original state.
The entrance to each one of Paramount’s interior sets bears a plaque that commemorates the TV and movie productions filmed there. It is hard to believe that so many varied programs were all made in the same place. We go through offices and dressing rooms and stroll the same streets where hundreds of stars walk every day, ending up in a museum with all sorts of exhibits. Optimus Prime bids us farewell. We walk away from the famed Hollywood sign and go out through the legendary arches, leaving the magic behind.
Warner Studios is undoubtedly the studio most visited by the general public, perhaps because it is the only one that offers tours in several languages, or maybe it’s the huge collection of props that can be handled by visitors. The truth is that Warner Bros. feels more like a tourist attraction than a production center for award-winning, globally-recognized films and series. But it is indeed a working studio.
As you might expect, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck greet us at the entrance. As we tour the property in an electric cart, we come across the water tower from which the Looney Toons greeted me every Sunday morning. Now promoting the remake of It, the water tower welcomes me to Derry.
Our first stop is the main square of a town. I’m no longer in Burbank, but rather in Star Hollow (Gilmore Girls). I feel an irrepressible urge to run toward the cottage to meet up with Rory and Lorelay, when I realize that I am also in Rosewood; I look toward the church, expecting to see A’s next victim. I wait for the girls to emerge from the junior high across from me and the school bus that takes Young Sheldon to his high school drives past. Walking around the square, we see a small red door in a blue house and are transported to San Francisco with Uncle Jesse (Full House).
Warner has two enormous museums, where visitors can easily get lost among super heroes and wizards, Batman and his batmobiles, Wonder Woman, and the fantastic beasts of Newt Scamander. We walk by large stage doors, all adorned with names of the productions filmed there. Of course, we cannot skip Studio 24, the set for Friends, the most successful sitcom of all time. Stage 3 is on a break, but you can feel Ellen DeGeneres saying: “Be kind to one another.”
The tour ends with the largest collection of costumes, sets, props, and information ever put together at a production house. Here we get to meet our favorite characters and even join them, sipping a beer at Bilbo Baggins’s house and climbing on Batman’s motorcycle and Harry’s broomstick. Just when I think there can be no more surprises, I come across Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment, where I sit down to eat Chinese food, knock three times on Penny’s door, and wander through Raj and Howard’s dining room (The Big Bang Theory). The only thing left was the highlight, the grand finale, the best place to meet friends: Central Perk. I ask my companion, who is as emotional as I am: “Should we get some coffee?” And, as expected, he replies: “Sure. Where?” In Los Angeles, dreams really do come true.