Seeing Stars: The Studio Tours


4000 Warner Boulevard,
Burbank, CA. / (818) 846-1403 or (818) 954-1744


Only a handful of Hollywood movie studios offer tours. Fortunately, Warner Bros is one of them - and it may well be the best overall studio tour available to the general public.

Unlike the Universal Studios tour, guests here aren't herded aboard monster trams by the thousands, and driven through theme park rides.

At Warner Bros, the VIP tours are far more personal, limited to small groups of twelve people. And the studio back lot that you see is the real thing.

However, the tour is also one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets.

Where Universal processes millions of tourists each year, only about 120 people a day discover the Warner Bros tour.

You and your tour guide ramble about in a small tram resembling a golf cart; you are allowed to stop and get out of the tram to inspect many of the sets up-close, and your guide is always nearby to answer any questions you might have.

The tour is much more extensive and authentic than the superficial, indoor tour at NBC Studios. And although the WB tours last two full hours, you don't have to spend all of that time on your feet, as you do during the Paramount Studio walking tour. The Warner's back lot is also a lot more colorful than the Paramount property.

The drawback, however, is the cost. Warner Bros charges $49 each for this special VIP tour (which is more a few dollars more than the competing studio tours), in addition to a parking fee. But it's worth it.

When Warner Bros says "V.I.P.," they're not kidding. This tour originally began as a way to show some Very Important People around the studio back lot. When you run a Hollywood movie studio, you never know who is going to drop by. In October of 1954, Queen Elizabeth paid a backstage visit to Warner's and the toured the set of their movie, "The Pajama Game." Then there were the visiting politicians and corporate sponsors who expected to be shown around the studio when they came to Hollywood. Eventually, Warner's decided to expand the VIP tour to include members of the public as well.

The tour begins at a small visitors center where you check in and get your tickets - you can spend you're waiting time checking out a handful of exhibits on display, such as the troll from the first "Harry Potter" movie, and props from TV shows such as "Smallville" and "ER".

Before the tour, guests are shown a 15-minute film chronicling the history of Warner Bros Studios, from the first talkie ("The Jazz Singer") through today's "Matrix" movies. The promo uses scenes from countless Warner Bros' classics, as well as rare bloopers.

Then you hop aboard the small carts, and ride to the new Warner Bros. Museum, which houses a treasure trove of movie memorabelia. At last word, the upper level was devoted to the first two "Harry Potter" movies, WB's most popular movie franchise. Visitors tell me, however, that they don't give you enough time to spend in the museum as you might like - only about 15 minutes.

Then it's out to the carts again, to settle back for the tour. These trams seat only two across, so everyone has a good view as you roll through the vast 110 acre lot.

During the tour, you are surrounded by Hollywood history at every turn.

Remember the line from the classic "Casablanca," where Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman, "We'll always have Paris" ?  Well, those Paris flashback scenes from "Casablanca" were shot on a mock "French Street" here on the Warner Bros' back lot, a set which is still in use today. You'll see it on the tour.

Remember the 1938 classic "The Adventures of Robin Hood," starring swashbuckling Errol Flynn? You'll visit a wooded glen on the back lot that was used as his "Sherwood Forest" in that film. Those same woods were home to "Walton's Mountain" in the popular TV series "The Waltons." In fact, the old Walton house and lumber mill are still standing.

Remember "Tarzan" with Johnny Weissmuller? This same wooded area passed as a jungle for those films. It even appeared as Ireland in "Finian's Rainbow" (with Fred Astaire), and as the backwoods on the TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard," and was the location of scenes in many other productions such as "Camelot," "High Sierra," "Fantasy Island" and "Bonanza."

If you've ever seen "The Music Man" (with Robert Preston), you'll remember the classic song "Trouble"

You've got trouble, folks! Right here in River City!
Trouble with a capital T,
and that rhymes with P,
and that stands for pool!

(You can watch the scene here!)

That famous scene was shot on Midwest Street, the largest permanent set on the Warner's back lot, a town square that was originally built in 1943 for "Saratoga Trunk" (starring Gary Cooper). The quaint white church in this town square was also used in "The Waltons." Other movies shot here include "Damn Yankees," "The Pajama Game," "Bonnie and Clyde" & "Gremlins".

Part of Midwest Street is a residential avenue of period Victorian houses, built for Ronald Reagan's best movie: "Kings Row," but used for many other films and TV shows. Here, you'll recognize the Seaver house from "Growing Pains" (with Alan Thicke & Kirk Cameron), as well Marion the Librarian's (Shirley Jones) home and the mayor's house from "The Music Man." They also filmed the TV series "Gilmore Girls" there.

The oldest section of the back lot at Warner Bros is New York Street, a mock city block, built in 1930 for the gangster movies that made Warner's famous - starring the likes of James Cagney and E.G. Robinson. One part of the street resembles New York ("Lois & Clark" was shot here, as were the "L" train tracks from "ER"). The other side resembles San Francisco. It was here that they shot portions of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Batman Returns" (it posed as Gotham City), and the sci-fi classic "Blade Runner." And it's here that you'll find the facade of the 'St. Gregory Hotel', from the TV series "Hotel."

In between, you'll see the gas station from "The Dukes of Hazzard," the lake where they docked the boats each week in "Fantasy Island," and the School for the Blind which 'Mary Ingals' attended in "Little House on the Prairie."

You also learn a lot about movie-making during your tour.

You'll see trees and boulders on wheels, so they can be moved about easily... You'll discover how a single street can be used for both modern and period pictures. You'll learn that they created a jungle and waterfall inside a huge sound stage here for "Jurassic Park," and find out that Audrey Hepburn was told about the JFK assassination on a set here, while she was making "My Fair Lady." And you'll learn that actors such as Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and Steven Seagal have offices here at Warner's.

Visitors don't spend all of their time on the tram, either. The trams stops and they let you get off to explore at various points along the way. That used to nclude a stop at a Western town set (called Laramie Street), where they shot series like "Little House on the Prairie", "Cheyenne" and "F-Troop," and where you could snoop inside the old saloon and other mock buildings, walking the same dusty streets trod by stars such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott...

Alas, in 2004, Warner Bros tore down the Laramie Street set. Apparently, it wasn't being used much, since not many Westerns have been made in recent years. It has been replaced with a new set called "Warner Village", which consists of exterior facades for 11 two-story homes, forming a faux, upscale residential neighborhood they can use in future films. Hidden behind the home exteriors, though, is 40,000 square feet of studio office space. So the new development serves a dual purpose. The upstairs offices have rear entrances and aren't visible from the front of the houses, so producers can film on one side and writers can do their business on the other. According to the Hollywood Reporter, they have already shot a few productions there, including "Ocean's Twelve," and TV's "Joey," "Cold Case," "Gilmore Girls" and "Commando Nanny."

After your tour of the back lot sets, the tour next moves into the "front lot," a busy area crowded with dozens of giant sound stages, offices, and post-production buildings. They'll confiscate your cameras at this point of the tour, and lock them away (don't worry, you'll get them back at the end of the tour).

The tour makes several stops in the front lot. You may go into "The Mill", a studio factory that actually builds the numerous props needed for the movies - everything from furniture to giant Oscar statues. Here's you may see the giant clock used in "The John Larroquette Show," a life mask of Michael Keaton (from "Batman"), a mock gun from "Lethal Weapon," or an exact replica of a Presidential "soap on a rope" from the movie "Dave."

The room is filled with plaster of paris molds and statues; hanging from the ceiling are large scale models of airplanes used in filming "Memphis Belle" and Mel Gibson's "Forever Young."

You may also go inside a prop warehouse, where a veritable junk yard of assorted items are stored, from garage sale knick knacks to a genuine set of Presidential china (purchased at a hefty price from the Bush Administration, for the movie "Dave"). Other stops might include athe costume department or the foley room (where they make sounds to go with the movies). It varies from tour to tour, depending upon what is available at the time.

The little tram will take you through a huge industrial factory building where they do welding for the studio. They have also used this location to shoot scenes from such series as "Lois & Clark" and "Life Goes On." And if you remember the scene from "Dave," where he extends giant mechanical arms and says "I caught a fish this big!"... well, they shot that scene here too.

You'll be allowed to go inside one of the giant sound stages, and see the set from a TV show. Once, we visited Stage 6, a closed set where they filmed "Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman," and saw the suite used by the villainous Lex Luthor. They really let you get up-close on this tour. We were even allowed to knock on the fake walls and peek inside the windows of adjoining sets. (Now that "Lois & Clark" is gone, other sets you might visit on your tour include the sets for "ER", "Drew Carrey", "Gilmore Girls" "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "Friends.") Sometimes it will be a movie set instead. One 2003 visitor tells me they were taken to the set of the movie "What I Like About You".

You have a chance of seeing a star in the flesh along the way. Readers who have taken the tour have reported seeing George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Rob Lowe and Alexis Bledel ('Rory' from "Gilmore Girls"). Another reader, from Switzerland, writes to say that during a 2000 tour, he spotted director Steven Spielberg outside a sound stage where he was filming "A.I." But don't count on it - it remains a bit of a longshot.

Inside the high-tech post-production labs, you'll be shown the "additional dialogue" areas where actors re-do spoken lines after the film has been shot, and you'll visit the room where an orchestra adds the musical scores while watching the film on a huge overhead screen. (If you come at the right time, you'll actually be able to watch and listen as the orchestra records the musical soundtrack for a film.)

Warner Bros tries to include some filming whenever possible, and if you're lucky, you may get the chance to see a star rehearsing his or her scenes. Exactly how much action you encounter, however, is more or less the luck of the draw, and depends upon when you happen to arrive. Mid-April, for instance, is one of the worst times of the year to see shooting at the studio - almost all of the shows are "in hiatus" (a sort of summer vacation), and action at the studio is minimal then.

And now there's a major bonus for tour-takers - the final stop on the tour.

In 1996, the studio opened the brand new Warner Bros Museum, filled with classic Hollywood memorabilia from the studio's glory days. Among other items, you can see Sam's piano from "Casablanca" and the original Maltese Falcon. But the museum is open only to those who take the VIP Tour.

The tour itself lasts exactly two hours. It's recommended that you buy your tickets in advance, online, at their website.

No one under age 10 is admitted on the tour. Dress casually, and wear comfortable shoes. You can bring a (still) camera, but you can only use it on the back lot - not during the other half of the tour.

Parking: $5. Do not enter the studio gates - follow the directional signs to Parking Lot N (Gate 6). The lot is right around the corner from the main gate, on S. Avon Street.

Admission Price: Tour of studio costs $49 per person, regardless of age (minimum age is 10). Tickets are available online. All adults must present current government issued photo identification upon registration and persons under 18 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.

(A special five-hour deluxe tour is offered once each morning, and costs $250. It tends to sell out a month in advance, so reservations are a must.)

Hours: Tours are given all day, Monday through Friday from 8:20 AM to 4 PM (longer during the peak Summer & Spring tourist seasons. There are limited tours on Saturday, and none on Sunday. The Saturday tours usually sell out in advance, so advance reservations are strongly recommended, and tickets are available online. Reservations are only accepted for the first three tours of the day. (Their schedule is subject to change - phone first to be sure of hours. (818) 972-TOUR.)  The Deluxe tours depart at 10:20 AM.

 Getting there: The studio is located at the intersection Olive Avenue, Pass Avenue, and Barham Boulevard, in Burbank, just a few blocks southeast of NBC Studios and Disney Studios, and northeast of Universal Studios. After parking at Gate 6, go to the new VIP Tour Center (at 3400 Riverside Drive), just outside the studio entrance at Gate 5.

From Universal Studios, take Lankershim Boulevard half a mile north to Riverside Drive. Turn right (east), and take Riverside Drive east (about a mile and a half) to Hollywood Way. Turn right again (south), and take Hollywood Way to the studio gate. Follow the signs to the parking lot. / From the Ventura (134) Freeway east, take the Pass Avenue offramp. Turn right on Pass Avenue and follow it southeast for about one half mile, to where it intersects with Olive Street at the Studio. Look for the giant movie posters - you can't miss it.


[For more information on this subject, you can access Warner Bros' website at:
http://vipstudiotour.warnerbros.com
.]



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Copyright  2014-Gary Wayne
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