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420 acres of make-believe.

"That is one of the oldest structures in the complex," says Al, the public-relations representative. "It was built around 1914 and used in many silent movies like the Tom Mix westerns."

We look at the sagging timbers and weatherbeaten sides of a woodend bridge spanning the flooded gorge. "It is still usable?"

"Oh, no!"

"I'd sure like to try it," ventures Walt, our driver. "I wouldn't take a tram across, but in this van I'll bet we can make it." He shifts into low gear.

"No, no," yells Bruce, our tour guide. "Remember the memo that came out just yesterday warning us about it?"

"I wasn't here yesterday."

"Trust me, there was a memo. ..."

"I think we can do it." And Walt gives 'er the gun as we begin the approach to this wreck of a bridge. What's the matter with the guy! Can't he see that one of the supporting timbers just fell into the water! Can't he see the pale gills of the passenger he is supposed to be entertaining! "See, it's as solid as the Rock of Gibral . . ."

Too late! The surrounding California mountains reverberate with screams of terror--our own. Our van suddenly drops through the bridge flooring. Then it pitches precariously to the right, eliciting another round of frenzied yelps, after which the bridge returns to normal, the van rights itself, the driver and guides fall into fits of laughter and our pulses return to almost normal.

Welcome to Universal Studio's Tours.

Once upon a time, as stories go, you had to know somebody who was somebody to get backstage in Hollywood. Not today. Not at Universal Studios, anyway. Its 420-acre back lot is open to the public and has been for the last 20 years. This year more than 3 million out-of-towners and international visitors will pay $11.50 ($8.50 for children 3 to 11) to see how and where movies are made. This makes Universal Studio Tours the fourth-largest man-made tourist attraction in the world.

Why is Universal the big draw? "Because we are the only game in town," says Herb Steinberg, vice president of marketing and public relations. "The only game anywhere."

Doesn't it disillusion movie fans to see what really happens behind the scenes? "We have developed a high degree of sophistication," Steinberg replies, "in being able to reveal all the secrets, what we do, how we do it, show all the tricks. And it hasn't hurt us a bit--it just piques a moviegoer's curiosity that much more."

The tours began on March 15, 1915, when Carl Laemmle opened a movie studio on a converted chicken ranch. With an eye for turning an extra buck, he began inviting visitors to the studio, charging them 25 cents for the first Universal tour. This included a box lunch which the patrons could eat while sitting in the bleachers watching the making of a silent film, cheering the hero and jeering the villain. Laemmle sold eggs to the spectators as they left.

If any eggs are being laid on the back lot today, we didn't see them. And lunch is extra. But come with us and the other 25,000 who pour through Universal's gates each day to spend some five hours getting the lowdown on the intriguing world of make believe. You still won't believe it. (Not even the parting of the Red Sea--right before your eyes. Or with Jaws practically in your lap.) Be warned, however, before finding a comfortable seat on one of the trams: If you try to take in all of the more than 500 outdoor sets and facades that you will recognize from classic movies and television shows, you may finish the tour slightly cockeyed.

Our tour guides do their best to keep our hearts from settling down to their normal pace. Al does most of the talking. Walt and Bruce come in mainly for the kill.

"Here the men are doing construction work on 'downtown New York City.' Over there is where they shot the original Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. And that is 'Chicago,' background for The Sting. At the beginning--where Robert Redford is looking out the window--that's the circular window up there. There's not a complete building in the bunch--they're all shells and facades. You'll notice the street lights are on little platforms and that cords run from them. Plug them in, turn them on and when you're through you just pick them up and take them away. You'll also notice, as we turn around here, that none of the streets end abruptly. They either curve off or feed into another street, making the area look a lot larger than it really is.

"The latest film shot here called Streets of Fire will be released this summer. It's a future fantasy with most of the scenes taking place at night. So what they did was put a tarpaulin over the whole area--you can still see it around at the tops of those buildings--and shot the nighttime scenes during the day.

"Now look at the doors on the building to the right. They have been scaled down to seven-eighths normal size so that an actor walking out will look much taller than he is. In the western area you'll see a set with huge doors that make a woman appear smaller. Back there is the carpentry department where they make special effects like breakaway furniture, set up explosives and things like that.

"That green building is the greenery department. We grow plants there to be used on sound stages and so on. They did a TV series here called 'Tales of the Golden Monkey' that was to have taken place in Bora Bora. Actually, it was shot on the backlot, with the plants and things grown here making it look like a jungle on a tropical island. This section through here is called Prop Plaza. During the busy seasons, like in summer and Christmas, this is a rest stop for the tour, with giant props of movies such as The Land of the Giants and The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

"We are now in the section called Pine Tree Row. It is used for many western scenes. It also was used for Counterpoint, a World War II film, in which it became a ski slope. They used white plastic shavings to simulate snow so the scene could be shot over and over. It worked well except for one slight problem. When you ski down plastic it tends to squeak. Now, we have an area where sounds are dubbed in. If an actor is walking in a gravel area, someone here will walk on gravel and the sound will be dubbed into the sound track. For the skiing scene, what they did was take a piece of Astroturf and a paper plate and rub the plate across the turf close to the mike. It produced a sound like the 'whooshing' sound you get when skiing down snow. Put that on the sound track, see them skiing and hear the sound and everything is normal.

"Here's where they do 'The Dukes of Hazard' and 'Fantasy Island.' And that large parking lot was used in our first Airport movie. They put down seven tons of plastic shavings to simulate snow and filmed it, with a mock-up of a 707, at 3 a.m. in the middle of summer. All the actors wore heavy coats and they all had to inhale cigarette smoke so when they spoke the smoke coming out of their mouths made their breath look frosted."

After the Collapsible Bridge and the Burning House we should have been prepared for Jaws. But the three villains in the van are casually discussing how scenes from the movie were shot right in this little lake and how the film people were thinking of doing another one called Jaws III--People O, when a man and the boat he is fishing from suddenly disappear beneath the surface.

"He's back!" they chorus. "Look, there he goes!" And sure enough, this yellow oil drum begins zig-zagging around the lake like crazy. "I wonder where he is now," Al says. "Maybe if we slide the van door open we can see."

With the door open, the van tilts sharply toward the water as this monster--it had to be 40 feet long, and half teeth--came charging up at us. And there we were, for one Right-Guard nullifying moment, eyeball to eyeball with Jaws.

Before our 2-1/2-hour tour is finally halted for lunch, we escape in turn an avalanche, a wall of water, a giant spaceship, a runaway train and a furious laser battle. Enough to spoil a man's appetite. But it didn't. There's no fakery at Womphopper's Wagon Works; their lunches are exactly as billed: "Outrageously delicious."

Then on to the "Screen Test Comedy Theater." Here, if you're the outgoing type, you can stick your neck out and volunteer to be made up, costumed and filmed in scenes involving everything from a bank robbery to escaping cowboys to a rip-roaring car chase to a side-splitting pie fight. All direct and taped by Universal professionals.

From here you can join a capacity audience at the electrifying "Adventures of Conan"--the sword and sorcery show, with Conan's beautiful companion, Red Sonjia. After 20 minutes of sitting through a battery of piercing lasers, scorching fireballs, hair-raising sword fights and a terrifying 18-foot tall, fire-breathing dragon as these magnificent body-building specimens battle their way out of the castle of the sorcerer, you'll find yourself shaking your head and exclaiming to anyone not too stunned to listen, "What won't they come up with next!"

Well, for one thing, Steinberg tells us they'll come up with a 6,200-seat state-of-the-arts concert auditorium, timed to open the day after the Olympics' opening ceremony.

"It is one facility in this town that's prepared for the international crowd coming to L.A.," Steinberg says. And he adds, "Some of the special things we are preparing for the Olympics will continue all summer-decorating the place with international flags, featuring ethnic foods, giving the tour in several languages."

But Universal Studios Tours won't have to be concerned with internationalizing some parts of its program for the Olympics, or any other time, for that matter. We refer not only to the Collapsing Bridge and that monster Jaws that tries to take a bite out of your tram, but some others we won't disclose, like the Burning House, the Runaway Train, the Flash Flood and the Doomed Glacier Expedition. After all, a scream is a scream in any language.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Universal Studios
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1984
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