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VALLEY WEEKEND

Tour Offers Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse of Working Studio

Don't expect stunts or special effects, just a realistic look at the Warner Bros. operation, possibly including the 'Friends' and 'Murphy Brown' sets.

August 29, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a brontosaurus on sound stage 22.

The Warner Bros. tour guide doesn't really know what it's doing there. Even if she did, she probably couldn't tell the dozen spectators she has in tow. Never know who might be a spy from Disney, after all.

But this is the backyard of the house that Jack built, and such bits of movie--and TV--magic routinely leak out of the warehouse-size sound stages.

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour has been open to the public since 1974 and remains the most realistic glimpse available into the workings of a modern studio. Universal Studios Hollywood, with its Jurassic Park ride and WaterWorld stunt show, is flashy and entertaining. But non-tourists know going in that it's a theme park, not a studio.

Unfortunately, Warner's realism means a lot of location shooting for movies and a long summer hiatus for TV. Upshot: Don't expect to spot the cast of "Friends" hanging out sipping coffee.

There's a lot else to see, though. The tour, which is designed for adults (children under 10 aren't allowed), requires a certain amount of fondness, if not absolute nostalgia, for the movies in Warner's archives. The tour begins with a 15-minute film collage of Warner movies. And while Denzel Washington and Kevin Costner are played up, it's James Cagney and Errol Flynn who remain the real studio heroes.

The first stop is a new addition to the tour: the Warner Bros. Museum, which opened in June. The current display includes a shrine-like exhibit on the films of James Dean (all three of which were made at Warner Bros.) and other displays on landmark films from the studio's first 50 years. Some of the museum's least conspicuous displays are the most fascinating: the video clips from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" show why the film-rating system was begun. A scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire" illustrates changes that resulted from a protest by the Catholic organization the Legion of Decency.

Then it's off to the back lot. What's open to visitors varies from day to day and there is no set route. Each guide zips around in a tram with a dozen visitors, stopping at anyplace from the staff shop, where backdrops are painted, to the sound department, where films are dubbed and scored. This is the time to speak up if you've got a request--say, the costume shop, prop department or the set of "ER." Granted, there are 60 years of history and 110 acres at Warner Bros.--you can't see them all. But, like Mom always said, it never hurts to ask.

Guides usually stop at several of the exterior sets, which include a western town, a New York street and a jungle area. Each has been in thousands of films and TV shows--creating some amusing juxtapositions. Fellow reporters Lois Lane and Murphy Brown are neighbors on a strip of brownstones, for example. The jungle was a location for the John Wayne film "The Green Berets" and "Fantasy Island."

The maze of streets surrounding Warner's 33 sound stages can turn up mixed results. These days several of the stages seem occupied with elaborate sets under construction for "Batman and Robin." (No cameras allowed around here. You know, spies from Disney and all.) Stage 24 is the set for "Friends" and stage 4 is home, office and bar for "Murphy Brown." Also notable is stage 16, the tallest in the industry, which was home to film scenes--from "The Old Man and the Sea" to "Eraser."

Other stops can vary. The costume shop is an unbelievable collection of clothing from every era, all tagged. More shoes than Imelda Marcos could dream of--33,000 pairs--line the walls. The prop department claims to have the largest collection of antique furniture west of the Mississippi. And there are more of the same excesses in the studio garage--home to vintage and luxury cars, including the Batmobile.

The Warner lot is a small city and the two-hour tour exposes some, though not nearly all, of its secrets: the half-painted backdrop, the facade that passed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the snow made out of plastic shavings. Yet somehow, in demystifying the filmmaking process, it somehow becomes more amazing.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Warner Bros. Studio Tour.

* WHERE: Enter next to Gate 4, at the intersection of Hollywood Way and Olive Avenue.

* WHEN: Tours leave every half-hour, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

* HOW MUCH: $29.

* CALL: (818) 972-TOUR.

* FYI: Reservations are recommended. No children under 10. Tours are conducted hourly, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., beginning around the end of September.

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