We are hiking in the footsteps of Hollywood legends. Clark Gable was here, taking orders from Frank Capra for "It Happened One Night." Jodie Foster too, jogging around a Virginia lake at the start of "Silence of the Lambs." The infantrymen of TV's "Combat" battled across Europe, using as their base a dirt parking lot framed by enough nonnative trees to make Franklin Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains seem anywhere but here.
The canyon's proximity to Hollywood and a decades-old industry rule that encourages its use have led to dozens of films and television shows being made here since the first was shot "back in the teens," says Diane Isaacs, the docent who started the monthly "Hollywood hike" seven years ago.
"It's a simple hike and a little hometown," Isaacs says of the 90-minute trek, which has been known to stretch to three hours if hikers are willing. "It's an unassuming little walk with no bells and whistles."
Just a docent armed with a notebook of still photos and a park with a Hollywood past that goes back almost 90 years. The easy 2-mile hike meanders on pathways through native chaparral and mini-forests of cedar, redwood and fir, and around a lake.
The walk begins on a trail above the parking lot that saw World War II duty in "Combat," which aired from 1962-67. My family of four is part of a group of 10 listening to the docent give a detailed sketch of the canyon's ownership, which stretches from the king of Spain to the Doheny family and the Department of Water and Power and, finally, the National Park Service in 1981. It includes William Mulholland building reservoirs here to bring water to L.A. and the willy-nilly planting of trees in the 1930s by the Dohenys and the DWP.
Franklin Canyon's popularity as a filming site began to grow after the early 1950s, when the industry pushed for creation of a zone in which location costs--which can double a film's budget--would be exempted. The resulting zone radiates 30 miles outward from its center at Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. Diana Hartmann of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which oversees filming permits, says about 25 movies a year are made in Franklin Canyon. Most shoot for two or three days and can be big (this year's "Minority Report") or small (a lot of student films).
While taking in what was once the "Combat" set, my husband reveals that his brother's main motivation for studying German in high school was so that he could bond better with war movies. The kids' eyes roll.
But the docent mentions enough B-movie and TV fare--about 25 productions in all--to keep my kids, ages 14 and 10, mildly engaged. (When I called beforehand, the park ranger said the hike is recommended for kids 10 and older; Isaacs says it's more like 12 and up because "there are no gimmicks to keep kids interested.")
The kids perk up when they see where "Camp Nowhere" (1992) was filmed or hear about the water tower built to make the canyon stand in for Oregon in "Kindergarten Cop" (1990). They also are captivated by the shoots that went wrong: a car from the TV series "Hunter" (1984) that crashed into, then polluted the lake; trash from "The Great Outdoors" that was left behind, drawing small animals who died from eating it. (Cars are no longer allowed in the lake--only hulls--and nothing on a set is left behind or unattended.)
Really, though, this is also a nostalgia trip for adults who can remember watching a young Ron Howard amble down a trail with his TV dad on "The Andy Griffith Show" (1960-68), or relished "Thirtysomething" (1987-91) and "Twin Peaks" (1990). An appreciation for film history also helps--the famous hitchhiking scene in "It Happened One Night" (1934) was staged at the entrance to the canyon's Heavenly Pond.
"The editing intrigues people the most," Isaacs says. "They like the idea you can cut film together so that most of the film takes place in another part of the world. You can add a piece that's shot here locally and no one ever knows the difference.
"And they like the fact that they've walked where Opie walked or stuck their thumb out where Clark Gable hitchhiked, right in their own backyard."
The "William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom and the Movies" hike is the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. Meet at the Sooky Goldman Nature Center, 2600 Franklin Canyon Drive, Beverly Hills. No reservations needed. Free. (310) 858-9080.