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Welcome to Bonanza: Scenery of the Ponderosa

RKO Forty Acres
Desilu Studios
Culver City, California

The lovely backlot in "False Witness".

       The backlot and Western Street was selected for five "Bonanza" episodes by production manager Kent McCray. The reason was the ninth season became a Western which followed for two more seasons through 1970. The trail town stories that took place away from the Ponderosa had to simulate being distant in nature, without using the rented street at Paramount Pictures. At the rear of the backlot was where the Western Street was created with Ballona Creek and Baldwin Hills behind it.

Joe and Hoss at the backlot.

Joe rides in the main entrance onto the Western Street on the backlot.

       The Forty Acres backlot was dotted with sycamores, willows and tules, framed by high grassy knolls on all sides. Rising just above the floor of a sleepy little town, the backlot was a perfect and idyllic setting that served as the capitol for Hollywood's motion pictures and filmed television.

The barn at the upper end of the street with
Baldwin Hills coming down on the backlot.

Rear of the backlot with grassy knolls.

       In September 1967, the first episode filmed on the Western Street was "False Witness" during the 1967-68 season with David Canary as Candy. For the 1968-69 season, the production returned to the Culver City backlot for "Catch As Catch Can" and "My Friend, My Enemy", filmed the summer of 1968. In December of 1968, the production filmed on the backlot again while making "The Clarion" and the final episode at the backlot was "The Running Man" made in January 1969, including the opening act where the house facade is burned down on the backlot.

History of RKO Forty Acres

       Known as Forty Acres even though the actual acreage is just over 28 acres ( the backlot and Culver City studio sites cover approximately 40 acres ), this primary backlot for RKO Studio ( another one existed in the Encino community in San Fernando Valley ), came into existence in 1926-27. The history of the Culver City Studio backlot goes back to September 1918, when Thomas Ince purchased the property from Henry Culver. The Ince Studios were in business from 1919 to 1924.

       In 1925, Cecil B. DeMille acquired Ince's holdings. To film his "King of Kings", DeMille leased 28-1/2 acres of land close to the studio. This property became known as Forty Acres backlot. On this property, DeMille built the biblical city of Jerusalem. In 1928, RKO was created and took over the ownership of the Culver City property for the film "The Bird of Paradise". They built a jungle and native village and the Jerusalem gates can be seen in the feature film "King Kong".

       Joseph Kennedy served as one of the studio heads during this time. It was during his tenure here that he had his famous love affair with leading lady Gloria Swanson. Legend has it that Kennedy built her a private dressing room as a gift. Only much later, after the affair ended, did Swanson discover Kennedy used her money to pay for it. The bungalow still stands and is used as an office for writers and producers.

       In 1935, David O. Selznick leased the property from RKO for his Selznick International Pictures. On the backlot, he constructed the town of Atlanta, a railroad station, and the Tara mansion for "Gone With the Wind". Portions of the Jerusalem sets, including the gates were burned to the ground. Portions of the Atlanta sets were later used in the television series "The Andy Griffith Show" as the town of Mayberry. To see where the Mayberry portion of the set was located, view the film "The Magnificent Ambersons".

The Atlanta sets in Gone With the Wind.

        The Selznick film "The Garden of Allah" in 1936, had the remaining Jerusalem sets redressed into an Arch village. The set was used in the RKO Tarzan films.

       Across Ballona Creek from the main backlot, the lake and jungle for the Tarzan feature was created. It was here that Sol Lesser recreated the MGM treehouse, but only one-half of it. The right portion was a matte painting.

       In 1948, millionaire Howard Hughes bought a controlling interest in the studio. His micro-management of RKO studio would become its downfall. Hughes was considered impossible to work for. Under his rule the few movies he did make were flops and contracted talent left the studio in droves to escape his tyrannical ways.

       Through his systematic disruption and dismantling of the studio by 1955, he split it up into two entities: RKO Pictures, Inc. and RKO Theatres Corporation. He then sold RKO Pictures to a subsidy of General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955.

       In 1954, the RKO movie ranch that was located in the community of Encino was closed and purchased by the Encino Park housing development. The 89-acre backlot was bulldozed with plans to adjoin it to the growing community's needs.

RKO Movie Ranch at Encino.

       Portions of two films in 1938 were filmed at the Encino backlot: "Stagecoach" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". In 1946, filmed portions of "It's a Wonderful Life" were filmed at the backlot at Encino. The set of Bedford Falls covered four acres north of Burbank Boulevard and on both sides of Louise Avenue. The set included a main street of 75 stores and buildings, a factory district and a large residential slum area.

       Back to Culver City, RKO Forty Acres was slowly becoming a ghost town. The name changed again to RKO General, Incorporated. RKO General was notable not for what they produced, but what they released, a massive backlog of movies and shorts that were all sent to television stations in Los Angeles. After the last film was out the door, the studio was up for sale again.

       In 1957, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who owned Desilu Productions, purchased the ownership of the main studio and backlot. Over the next decade, television emerged as the primary business conducted at the studio. Desilu Productions new ownership of RKO in Culver City also included the physical property of RKO's other studios that were located on Cahuenga Boulevard and Gower Street in Hollywood, right behind Paramount Pictures.

The mansion at Desilu Studio in Culver City.

       Desilu would rent the backlot to television productions such as "Ben Casey", "Lassie", "My Three Sons", "The Untouchables", "The Adventures of Superman", "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.", and "The Andy Griffith Show". Later classics such as "Peyton Place", "Hogan's Heros" "Batman", "The Green Hornet" and "Mannix" ( which Desilu bought in 1967 ), were filmed on the main Desilu backlot. Desilu Studios was very successful and had this little Mom and Pop feeling that accompanied all who worked there. By 1964, Lucy realized she was struggling against the big movie studios as television was growing up and began ordering television pilots to boost her studio profits and stay in business. Lucy would buy two television pilots that would change the face of television. The first one was named "Star Trek", created by a bright young writer and producer by the name of Gene Roddenberry.

       On December 12, 1964, producer Gene Roddenberry filmed his first "Star Trek" pilot "The Cage" at Stages 14, 15, and 16 at Desilu in Culver City. They went over and it took 12 days to shoot it, just a few days outside the normal range for filming a 50 minute pilot film. The following year in 1965, the network that he was trying to sell it to for a television series, NBC Television, rejected the pilot.

       A second pilot script was written, along with two others "Mudd's Women" and "The Omega Glory", but Roddenberry went with "Where No Man Has Gone Before" to film as the second pilot with filming starting on Monday, July 19th, 1965. The pilot shoot would wrap 8 days later on July 27th, 1965. Filming was once again at Desilu at Culver on Stages 15 and 16 and by spring of 1966, the pilot sold to NBC.

Aerial view of Desilu Studio in Culver City.

       For the television series, Roddenberry moved back to Desilu on Gower Street in Hollywood, since he didn't like the stages at the Culver lot, in particular Stage 15 had a three-foot drop on one side of the cement floor, which ran through part of Stage 16 and the stage walls were not soundproofed. Note: He had planned on filming the pilots at Desilu-Gower, but for some inexplicable reason, he was ordered to shoot them at Desilu-Culver, which cost more time and money.

       Stages 9 and 10 on Gower Street would serve for "Star Trek's" interior set filming at Desilu in Hollywood. The Culver City studio and backlot would be used for some stories in the series such as "Miri" and "The City on the Edge of Forever" and others. The series began filming in May 1966.

Desilu-Gower in Hollywood, California.

       The other series Lucille choose was "Mission: Impossible", created by brilliant producer Bruce Geller. The pilot was filmed in 1966 at Desilu-Culver lot, with the interiors filmed on Stages 7 and 8 at Desilu-Gower, which was right next door to the "Star Trek" soundstages. "Mission" would use the main studio and backlot in Culver City for many episodes through the 1968-69 season. Also, the stalag in "Hogan's Heros" was filmed on the Culver City backlot.

Aerial view of Desilu backlot in Culver City.

       In 1967, Lucille Ball was being courted by Charles Bluhdorn, a vastly successful financier who in 8 years had amalgamated 65 companies into a conglamorate called Gulf and Western Industries. Bluhdorn had just acquired Paramount Pictures and saw commercial possibilities in making Desilu into Paramount's TV division and consolidated the adjoining studio lots into one.

       Lucy, who saw that the days of television and independents was drawing to a close, carefully considered Bluhdorn's offer and finally sold the studio for approximately seventeen million dollars. In July 1967, Desilu Productions officially became Paramount Pictures TV.

       The walls dividing the two lots were torn down. The Desilu soundstages were all renumbered and repainted along with the other buildings, and the grounds on the property were repaved. Stages 7 and 8 that rented for the "Mission: Impossible" interiors were renumbered Stages 29 and 30. For "Star Trek" production, Stages 9 and 10 were renumbered Stages 31 and 32.

Hoss and Candy ride in the main entrance onto the Western Street.

The Sheriff and his men ride onto the Western Street.

       Actor George Takei recalled, "A lot of sprucing up being done. It was a more spacious feeling to be able to expand to the Paramount side. When Paramount took over, they repainted the buildings and repaved." Not everyone was happy with the changes; some felt that Desilu had lost its Mom and Pop feeling.

       In 1968, while the industry was suffering, Paramount Pictures sold the property to Perfect Film and Chemical. In 1969, OSF became the new owners. In 1976, the Forty Acres backlot was bulldozed and turned into an industrial park. On the opposite side of Ballona Creek, a fire station occupies the area of the jungle.

       By the late 1970's, the once lovely studio had become a dilapidated wreck and remaining that way until 1986, when it was purchased by the joint ownership of Grant Tinker and Gannett Company. They completed a $26 million restoration which created new state-of-the-art television stages and updated all the existing facilities.

       More importantly, the construction restored much of the studio's original luster and beauty. The process meant gutting and renovating the mansion, bungalows and Selznick wing. It also meant tearing down Ince's old glass and muslin stage 1, and excavating and old plunge behind the mansion to make way for an underground parking facility. The restoration was so successful, it has served as a model for other studio projects.

       Walk through any of the restored buildings and there is a feeling of another era. Over the years, unsubstantiated rumors of studio hauntings has circulated among the studio's staff. Stage hands high in the catwalks have reportedly been confronted by a ghostly figure resembling Thomas Ince. It's rumored late at night--a spirit--that of Gloria Swanson--roams the halls of the mansion. While there is no proof of these sightings, eerily similar reports occur year after year.

       More recently, the studio has been the site of such films as Raging Bull, ET, City Slickers, The American President, Armageddon, Contact, The Red Corner, The Story of Us, Wag the Dog, What Women Want, Galaxy Quest, City of Angels, and Stuart Little.

       Many recording artists have used the studio's private atmosphere to rehearse ( Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Don Henley, Janet Jackson ), and to shoot music videos ( Ricky Martin, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Luis Miguel ). The Culver Studios is also the birthplace of Baywatch, Mad About You and The Nanny.

       In 1991, Sony Corporation bought the studio and sold it in 2004 to PCCP Studio City Los Angeles.

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Some essays and photos courtesy of Jerry Schneider. Written
permission must be obtained for any usage of the above contents.

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