Paul D. Marks on the MGM backlot before it was demolished.
Paul D. Marks has the distinction of being one of the last people to film on the historic MGM backlot. It wasn't a goal he set out for. In 1976, he was just a young and enthusiastic filmmaker who had an idea for a musical. What place would be a better filming location for a musical than MGM, the same place that was once home to musical stars such as Judy Garland and Fred Astaire? Marks talked his way onto the MGM backlot and was able to shoot his film. In the following years the MGM backlot was sold off and demolished.
I had a chance to ask Marks, a Los Angeles native and author, about his experience filming on the MGM backlot, some of his memories of growing up in Los Angeles, and about his new novel, White Heat, a noir story set in Los Angeles. As you will see, Marks is full of great stories, such as the time he got a call from Cary Grant.
How did you end up filming on the historic MGM backlot?
Well, I was doing a musical – so when you think of musicals you think of MGM. Of course, it wasn't what it was in its heyday. And we didn't exactly have an MGM musical style budget. But I figured it couldn't hurt to ask. Kind of like asking someone out on a date – what's the worst they could do, say no. But they said yes.
What were you filming?
"Show Biz." A musical about a guy who wants to make a musical, but everyone tells him he can't. It's too big of a project. It was sort of autobiographical. But I had songs commissioned for it, found a choreographer, all that good stuff. The plot starts out in the present (the present of that time) and then switches to the past as the main character finds himself in a weird, magical land and he's not quite sure where he is. But it turns out he's on a movie backlot in the 40s.
The lot was pretty run down, but that was okay for my purposes. And with a little imagination you could see what it might have been. You could imagine Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire walking down New York Street.
A view of the MGM backlot from Marks' film shoot.
At the time, did you know you would be the last film crew to shoot on the MGM lot?
No. And it's bittersweet knowing that. They had already sold off their other lots I believe. And they'd had the big MGM auction where they sold off costumes and props and the like. Which I went to, but I don't think I bought anything there. But still, even though that stuff had happened I think there was part of me that hoped the studio might return to some of its former glory days.
I did, however, keep some souvenirs from the lot. A brick off the Andy Hardy street and a torch from the De Laurentis King Kong set that they were filming around the same time. I think I still have the torch. Unfortunately, my wife, wonderful as she is, made me throw away the brick, which she'll never hear the end of. After all, it was a famous brick.
What was your favorite part about the experience?
Walking on so many sets that I'd seen in movies and knowing Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy had been there. So much movie history.
I also liked the idea of being able to turn the corner and go from a mid-western town to a medieval village to a jungle to New York City, – which is just what happens in my movie. And it sort of freaks the guy out as he's not sure where he is or how he got there.
I believe we filmed on sets from "Singin' in the Rain" and "Philadelphia Story" and God knows how many other great movies.
In the following years I went to MGM's main lot many times but by then they had gotten rid of all the backlots. And, while it was a trip to be on the lot and in the Thalberg Building and on the stages and even see Sidney Portier playing handball against one of the soundstage walls, basically a soundstage is a soundstage. But a backlot, with its standing sets of brownstones, cobblestone villages, western towns, is unique, a fantasy world, as exciting to me as Disneyland would be for a little kid. And just like at Disneyland where you can go from Tomorrowland in the future to Frontierland in the past, that's what a backlot is to me. A magical world where you can turn a corner and go from mid-century New York to Middle Ages Europe in the blink of an eye.
You've done a variety of writing from screenplays to short stories to a novel. How did you get interested in writing?
I'm not sure I can say specifically. But what comes to mind is that as a kid moving my army men across the battlefields of my bedroom floor I often thought of them as being in a movie as opposed to being in a real "war". And I'd often set up TinkerToys as Kleig lights and make up dialogue and scenarios for them and play them out as if they were epic movies. So growing up I think I just transferred that energy to putting pen to paper so to speak – or at least fingers to keyboard – and I'm still just playing out scenarios only now on paper or a computer screen as opposed to on the floor. The problem is being a rewriter or optioning scripts that don't get produced you don't get screen credit so my dad still can't quite figure out what it is I did, which is one of the reasons I turned to writing short stories and novels.
I also like that romanticized Hemingway-Left Bank thing of sitting in a café with fellow writers tossing out witty bon mots kind of thing. But that never materialized…
You mentioned when you started out as a writer that you would send letters to everyone, including Cary Grant and Gene Kelly or anyone who would listen. How did that strategy play out?
When I first started out, I tried everything including sending letters to big stars, producers, directors. It's funny, but it seems like generally the bigger the star, the nicer the response.
I got Gene Kelly's address and sent him a pitch letter about a script. To my surprise he actually invited me over to drop it off and then to pick it up… When I got there, he invited me in to chat for a few minutes. And though he didn't want to do my project, he was very hospitable. Can't imagine doing this today.
I also sent a letter to Cary Grant, despite the fact that he had been in a self-imposed exile from making movies for many years. I thought, well maybe he'll come out of exile just to be in my little movie… (Yeah, right, but the naiveté of youth makes you do things you might not do later on.) At that time I dreamed big so I wasn't deterred or intimidated from contacting anyone. Then one day the phone rings and the voice on the other end says "Hello, is Paul Marks there?" The voice had that distinct accent and tone and my first thought was "okay who's pranking me and pretending to be Cary Grant". I thought it couldn't be Cary Grant because he sounded too much like him (as if he should sound like William Bendix or someone else in real life…) Once I regained my balance, we had a pleasant conversation and even though he ultimately turned me down and didn't want to do my movie, he was as gracious and debonair as his onscreen image. The irony of the story though is that I was talking to the most suave, sophisticated man in the world while I was on, shall we say, the "throne," as the phone was on a little hall table outside the bathroom door. A funny image and thankfully this was before Skype and video chats…
Others were nice as well, though didn't invite me to their homes. And I'm not sure I'd do this today as there's so much more security and you'd probably get arrested. Can't you get arrested for just looking at some stars in public these days?
Were there any other stars that you looked up to or maybe admired that you were able to meet?
If we're talking about stars from the classic period, well, of course Gene Kelly. Cary Grant on the phone. Phil Silvers. Walter Matthau. Some behind the scenes people like director Norman Taurog who was, I believe, the youngest director to receive an Oscar in that era.
And not a star, but a friend of mine knew a friend of Joan Crawford's. I think he was her publicist, but I can't remember for sure at this point. So she took me to his house in Beverly Hills and it was like a shrine or museum to Crawford. He had her dresses displayed on the walls, like in a museum. And all kinds of other little gimcracks of hers. Everywhere you looked were echoes of JC. It was a trip and kind of spooky in a "Sunset Boulevard," preserved-in-formaldehyde way. But also interesting and he was a nice guy.
Unfortunately a lot of the stars that I would have liked to look up had passed by the time I was doing all this. Bogart, in particular. And some others who were still alive, though I might have enjoyed meeting them, I didn't have a project for them so I didn't get in touch. But in retrospect I'm sorry I didn't even if I didn't have anything in particular for them.
I did meet a lot of people who were more current in the course of business, though you really asked about the more classic stars.
Of someone more current then, I did have an interesting encounter with Robin Williams, though I doubt he'd remember.
I was visiting a friend on the set of "Mork and Mindy" during a rehearsal and I freaked out Robin Williams. They were blocking. No audience. I was the only stranger there, someone he didn't recognize. He was nervous seeing a stranger on the set, having had some trouble with the tabloids.
He asked me if I worked for the National Enquirer. Strange question, I thought. But I can give as well as receive, "Yes," I said, joking. He freaked, though he didn't get nasty or anything like that, just uptight. I finally told him I was kidding. After the rehearsal he apologized. It was fun kidding the kidder though.
I also got to visit the sets of two great directors, Spielberg and Coppola. Of course, my luck being what it was, I was on for both of their worst movies, "1941" and "One from the Heart," respectively. But the "One from the Heart" set was really cool, a glowing neon Vegas on a soundstage. As was the 1941 set on the Warner's lot, though at that time I think it was called The Burbank Studios still (long story). They had a plane rigged up to fly down the middle of one of the backlot streets. But what I remember most was seeing Spielberg running around interviewing his actors with a small camera, like a kid in a candy shop.
On my post for the filming locations for the Joseph Losey film, "The Big Night," which stars a young John Drew Barrymore, you had mentioned that you had met him. What was he like? I thought he was great in that film and I'm surprised he didn't go on to have a bigger career.
Well, I hope I didn't make it sound like more than it was. I met him at a dinner or lunch – I can't even remember anymore – and though we talked for a bit it wasn't a relationship that developed. As I recall, he seemed nice enough but very distracted, I'm not sure by what. But I agree with you that he should have had a bigger career.
Who's the one star you would have liked to have met?
Probably Bogart……….if he was really like the characters he's known for. The problem is they're often not like their characters, though I'm not sure with Bogey. But to paraphrase from the [Jose Ferrer] version of "Moulin Rouge": "One should never meet a person whom they admire. What they do is always so much better than what they are." This might not always be the case, but often enough.
Getting back to your writing, you have a new book, "White Heat," that just came out. Can you tell us a little what it is about?
"White Heat" is very different from my musical. It's a noir thriller that begins where the Rodney King riots leave off. And I just learned that it got a good review in Publishers Weekly, which is a pretty cool thing. Duke Rogers is a screwup in more ways than one and now he's screwed up a case really badly and finds himself in the middle of South Central L.A. just as the riots explode. And since this is Dear Old Hollywood, one of the things he screws up is a case where a client came to him to track down an 'old friend'. The old friend turns out to be an actress and the client never really knew her. She ends up dead and Duke knows he inadvertently helped the badguy, the Weasel as he calls him, find the actress. This jumping off point is, of course, based on the Rebecca Schaeffer case from 1989. Only in "White Heat" the actress is black. Feeling guilty, Duke sets out to find the killer. And though the novel is a mystery on one level it's also a very harsh look at race and racism in our society on another level as Duke must deal with the racism of his partner, the dead actress' brother and perhaps his own, even while having an interracial affair with her sister.
You're a Los Angeles native so you would have been in the city during the L.A. riots. Did you think then this would make for a dramatic backdrop for a story and has this idea for "White Heat" been with you all this time?
I lived in West LA at the time, in Rancho Park, just west of 20th Century-Fox. The riots didn't quite reach that far west, but they did come pretty far west – farther west than previous disturbances of that type. And one could see the smoke and certainly see it on the news constantly. And it was in the air, so to speak, people talking about it. Worried. I think in realizing how much tension still existed under the surface – or maybe not even so much under the surface – I wanted to write about it, but not in a pedantic or didactic way. So it became a mystery, with a level of seriousness.
As a born and raised Angeleno, do you have any fond childhood memories of the city and surrounding area? You had mentioned to me before that you would visit the now gone Kiddieland amusement park on Beverly Boulevard and the Corriganville movie ranch?
When I was a kid, L.A. was like a large, spread out small town. People would complain about how overly polite the drivers were, if you can believe that. At one point, when living with my mom and grandparents, I could actually hear a rooster crowing and that was pretty much the middle of the city. There was also a windmill nearby. And still oil wells around. And, as you say, Beverly Park or Kiddieland was a favorite place. On one side of the parking lot was the little amusement park that supposedly inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland, though I don't know if that's true. On the other side was the pony rides. And, I believe, there were three lanes, fast, medium and slow, and kids couldn't wait to get up to the fast ponies… Lots of birthday parties at Kiddieland. Lots of movie stars there with their kids or grandkids on weekends – Jack Benny, Charles Bronson: it was known as a place for divorced dads, though I'm not sure if Benny and Bronson were divorced.
And Corriganville (www.corriganville.net) was a working movie ranch in Simi Valley, second in size only to the Iverson Ranch a few miles away. On the weekends Corriganville was open to the public. They'd put on shows and you could tour the sets. The coolest thing was that on the western street (sadly burned down) if you went into the saloon it was a cafeteria on the inside for the guests. For a little kid that was totally cool. Like you were really inside a western saloon…but with all the modern amenities. Plus you could wear your cowboy boots and hat and even holster with guns. Wouldn't be able to do that today. I think my favorite thing there was the fort where they filmed "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" TV series, which was originally built for the John Ford-John Wayne movie "Fort Apache". I've been back to Corriganville a couple times as an adult, once in the 80s for a chili cookoff, but really to see what was left of it. And then a couple years ago. It's now a state park. None of the sets are left, but there are still some foundations. And most of the ranch has been sold off for development, but the main 200 filming acres are still there. If you watch old westerns it shows up a lot.
Other things I miss are Pacific Ocean Park, an amusement park on a pier in Venice, which also burned down and then they tore down what was left of it. They had some cool rides, the roller coaster of course, and these bubble things, sort of like the skyride at Disneyland, but it went out over the ocean. POP also shows up in a bunch of old movies and TV shows. There was also a club called the Cheetah on the same pier as POP. It was one of those psychedelic places, with the bubbles on the walls and all that good stuff. Saw some concerts there. But before it was a hippie club it had been home to Lawrence Welk and before that was a swing ballroom in the 30s/40s. Lots of history.
I miss the 20th Century-Fox backlot too – and all the other gone lots; they always intrigued me with their magic and fantasy worlds. Most people probably don't know that all of Century City used to be Fox's backlot, stretching all the way from Pico on the south to Santa Monica Boulevard on the north. There was a bridge over Olympic Boulevard that spanned one side of the backlot to the other. I remember driving down Santa Monica Boulevard with my family as a kid and seeing the facades and sets sticking up over the fences. I'd much rather have a backlot than Century City. They say the Elizabeth Taylor "Cleopatra" forced Fox to sell it off. Maybe so.
In fact, LA was like one big backlot. There was even a studio where Sunset meets the ocean (before my time), studios, backlots and ranches were just about everywhere. In the city, in the valley. The surrounding areas. Amazing when you think about it.
Are there any Los Angeles attractions, restaurants, etc. that you remember that are now gone that you wish you could bring back?
All the above places, of course. But also the Helms Bakery in Culver City and the Helmsman. Their trucks used to come around and deliver baked goods. The best donuts in the world. And they had the first bread on the moon, literally.
Also the Wonderbread plant in Beverly Hills. The smell. It would waft out over the city. Nothing like the smell of baking bread. One night around 2am several friends of mine and I decided it would be a good idea to go there and ask for a tour – after all, they baked at night. And we were hungry. I guess we were doing something that gave us the munchies…. So we drove over there and went in and asked for a tour. They couldn't have been nicer – they gave us the tour and some bread to go with it, I think.
Dolores Drive in near La Cienega. Though my mom, who's also an L.A. native, remembers their other location up on Sunset. I guess it's all when we went through it. Tower Records which, of course, hasn't been gone all that long, but I remember when it opened and what a great place it was. Duke's in the Tropicana, lots of rockers hung there. Lots of restaurants. Probably too many to name.
When I was a kid my grandmother would take me downtown by bus. We'd go to lunch at the tea room at May Company or Bullock's, then she'd buy me a little toy and take me to a movie at one of those great movie palaces downtown. And then we'd take the bus home. To this day, every time I smell diesel exhaust I think of that. Though I think in those days some of the buses were still electric with overhead wires and all of that too.
And MacArthur Park when it was a safer place and there weren't junkies around. You'd go boating and have a picnic.
Some punk clubs, like Madame Wong's and the Starwood, tons of other places, too many to mention.
Now for three questions I like to ask everyone.
What is your favorite classic movie and why?
"Casablanca." It has everything, intrigue, romance. Terrific dialogue. All those great character actors. The anti-hero, which has influenced a lot of my writing. The Claude Rains and Bogart relationship. The giving up of the girl for a greater cause. And the most perfect script, everything plays off of everything else. "As Time Goes By." Everything. It's just a perfect movie.
Who is your favorite classic Hollywood actor?
Bogart, of course. And Cary Grant and William Powell, two great comic actors.
Who is your favorite classic Hollywood actress?
I have several: Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur. They all have a spunk and vivaciousness that I really like. Barbara Stanwyck. She can do it all, and she's the ultimate femme fatale in the ultimate film noir, "Double Indemnity".
Thank you for having me, Robby. It's been fun. And I love Dear Old Hollywood and check it out often.
This Saturday, July 28, at 2pm, Paul will be joining authors Sue Ann Jaffarian (author of the Ghost of Granny Apples Mystery series and the Madison Rose Vampire Mystery series) and Michael Mallory (author of The Mural and the Amelia Watson Mystery series) for a panel/discussion on "Things That Go Bump in the Night" at the La Crescenta Library. If you want to learn more about Paul D. Marks and what he is working on visit his site, Cafe Noir. For his new novel, White Heat, the paperback can be found on BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com or as an e-book exclusively on Amazon.