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Design : 420 Acres of Illusions : * In Universal Studios' back lot, buildings and surroundings are not what they seem.

September 24, 1993|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Vaughn writes regularly about architecture for The Times.

UNIVERSAL CITY — Universal Studios' back lot is an armchair-traveler's dream. Within the 420 acres, one can stroll from Paris to Boston without fatigue--the cities are separated only by the Red Sea and Denver--or visit ancient Rome, the 1880s Wild West and 21st-Century suburbia without aging noticeably.

The acreage is crammed with Alice in Wonderland architecture. Buildings seem real--monumental and solid. But their pillars are made of fiberglass, their bricks are vacuum-formed plastic, and their impressive "granite" facades are naught but humble plaster. Universal's back lot world is illusory, but such is the magic of Hollywood.

In 1915, filmmaker Carl Laemmle erected a modest movie studio on the grounds of a chicken ranch. Visitors were charged 25 cents to watch films in progress. Box lunches and bleacher seats were included in the fare.

Nearly 80 years later, Laemmle's enterprise has become the fourth-largest man-made tourist attraction in America. Its colorful sets attract up to 35,000 visitors a day, as well as countless television and film crews who hope to capture New York, Mexico or New England without leaving Los Angeles.

Each "street" is a separate kingdom, heralding a distant time and place. Six Points, Tex., for instance, is a tumbleweed-strewn thoroughfare, featuring rickety storefronts, a saloon and a church for God-fearing desperadoes. The area's coyotes, foxes, jack rabbits, deer, raccoons and opossum are surreptitious residents here.

European Street is a romantically mock-cobblestoned boulevard lined with old boutiques and pensiones. Scenes from "City Slickers" (1991) and "To Catch a Thief" (1955) were shot in its realm. North of the area is Spartacus Square, the focus of the film "Spartacus" (1960). A monumental Romanesque edifice, cast in un-Pantheon-like plaster, dominates the terrain.

Vigorous urban renewal is omnipresent throughout Universal's back lot, as though a billionaire developer lost his mind. Film and television crews routinely alter buildings to meet their shooting needs. A two-story house on Industrial Street might be Colonial one week, Tudor the next.

Few sacred cows exist among the back-lot buildings. Even the famous plantation-style Uncle Tom's Cabin, featured in the 1927 movie of the same name and built in 1926, is altered to meet cinematic needs. The powers-that-be at Universal don't even mind if their tenants blow up a front porch or crash a car through a window--just give them prior notice.

"We're in the business to make movies and television shows," says Bill DeCinces, senior vice president in charge of Studio Operations and a 49-year veteran of MCA. "So we do whatever we can to meet our clients' needs."

Currently, the Bates Motel from the 1960 horror classic "Psycho" is redesigned to resemble a Southwestern inn. Is nothing sacred, Mother?

On Nov. 6, 1990, tragedy befell the lot when an employee set a fire that swept across 11 acres, destroying historic sets in its path and causing an estimated $25 million in damage.

Gutted were Victorian-style buildings on New York Street, tenements on Brownstone Street, civic buildings on Courthouse Square (where "Back to the Future," released in 1985, was filmed), and the Romanesque set of "Ben Hur" (1959). Tours and productions were halted. Industry analysts grimly speculated that the damaged sets would take years to rebuild.

But nearly 500 art directors, architects, engineers, craftsmen, technicians and construction workers descended upon the lot, and within nine months fully restored Universal's colorful locales.

Universal Studios' tour takes visitors through parts of its historic back lot, past such film landmarks as the eerily Gothic Munsters House (used in the CBS series "The Munsters" from 1964-66) and Psycho House, and lets them experience a Homeric odyssey of catastrophes.

You can be attacked by a shark, caught in a flash flood, almost bitten by King Kong and held hostage in an exploding building. But between disasters, you can enjoy remarkably diverse architecture throughout the lot.

Crews are now erecting a lakeside set for "Beethoven II." Details are hush-hush; filmmakers want moviegoers to be surprised by the plot and its setting. But you can reasonably guess this: When we watch that unsaintly Saint Bernard, Beethoven, dash past the stucco, plastic, fiberglass and plaster-of-Paris buildings near the cement-floored lake, beyond the rubberized foliage that have been so accurately, painstakingly re-created, we will believe--if just for the moment--that they are absolutely real.

Where and When

What: Universal Studios Hollywood, Hollywood Freeway at Lankershim Boulevard. Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Price: $29 adults, $23 children 3 to 11 and senior citizens 60 and older. Call: (818) 508-9600.

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