Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 24, 2015
Previewed during the 2014 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival and launched properly the following June, the TCM Movie Locations Tour is now a year old. Seats are available and all lights are green…
At some point at the top of 2014, back when a first class postage stamp cost only 46¢ and the the Confederate flag was flapping uncontroversially above the South Carolina State House, I was asked to join a team charged with putting together a bus tour of movie-related locations for Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles that would be the West Coast counterpart to TCM’s Classic Film Tour in New York. Tentative routes had already been researched and plotted (these would change) and talking points laid out (these would change also, right up until showtime) and all I had to do was think of things to say for approximately three hours.
Easy peasy Ken Kesey, right?
Being a seasoned freelancer, I was all thumbs up and “No problemo!” even though my guts slipped an inch within my abdominal cavity at the thought of how much research was going to be involved. The history itself was daunting, even though I am a devotee of California/Los Angeles/Hollywood lore, but what gave me the positive horrors was the thought that TCM would load up the bus full of know-it-alls just like myself, bona fide movie geeks who know this stuff cold, who live, breathe, and dance this mess around, and who would turn on me like the Berlin underworld turned on Peter Lorre that one time if I were to get even three-quarters of a factoid half wrong. But the damage was done, the die had been cast, I said yes, I think I signed some paperwork, and I was off and running. And by running I mean sitting on my duff reading volume after volume of Hollywood history and writing stuff down. Lots of stuff!
Hollywood history is American history and I felt a great sense of responsibility to sort out the facts from the fantasy, the legend, the lies, and the candyfloss spun by the PR machines of the film studios; weeding out the names of those who claimed Hollywood High School as their alma mater from those who actually did attend classes there was a job of work in and of itself! But what a journey this job took me on. I went back to the 19th Century, to the days when the San Fernando Valley on the far side of the Hollywood Hills was just a really bad place to try and do anything but fall off your mule and die while en route to somewhere else, when Hollywood was little more than a patchwork of citrus groves and strawberry patches and Methodist churches. A subtheme of the tour was a chronicle of the shift toward the automobile as the vehicle of choice for a nation rebounding after World War II and of how this sea change in mass transportation opened up heretofore nonviable sections of Los Angeles to private living and industry. Of course, the Hollywood studios had started the trend. Film companies who had migrated East to West for the novelty of year-round filming eventually spread out from their landing place in downtown LA to set up shop in such flinty municipalities as Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Culver City. The movies helped make Los Angeles the City of the Future, though at times this modernization was bad news for the past.
I once tried to describe to an out-of-towner the allure of living in Hollywood half a century after the heyday of the big studios and for me it came down to presence and shadow, to the feeling you get just by trodding on the ground where once stood something good and fine, be it the old Brown Derby Cafe (or one of them) or the Mack Sennett Studios or the Hollywood Canteen or the Charlie Chaplin Studio (which became many other things over the course of the 20th Century, including home base for THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and PERRY MASON TV shows and A&M Records before The Jim Henson Company moved in for good). The history of Hollywood is a hell of a story, and often a real heartbreaker, too, and it was impossible not to imbue the TCM Movie Locations Tour with a touch of this melancholy. But on top of that, so much glamour and splendor, so much triumph and spectacle, and through it all the thrill of passing landmarks that seem now to have always been there: Paramount and RKO, the Formosa Cafe, MacArthur Park, the 2nd Street Tunnel, Chinatown, and (and, seriously folks, we are just naming a few) the celebrated Music Box Steps where Laurel and Hardy had such a devil of a time moving that piano.
At some point, it came time to get the words off of the page and into the streets and so a hardy band of TCM staffers and myself boarded a bus and hit the road, snaking our merry way through Hollywood and across Wilshire Boulevard to downtown. To name even a few of the cadre of people who played a part in putting the tour together would be to slight the rest, as for every one person whose name was known to me from TCM or Starline Tours there were dozens (if not hundreds) of others toiling in the background, getting clearances for film clips, editing video footage together for the interstitial segments that would play between tour stops, and even retrofitting what was to my eyes the mother of all tour buses…
Driven all the way across the American heartland for the specific purpose of shuttling tour-goers around Tinseltown, this beauty has to be seen to be believed. The Landmaster from DAMNATION ALLEY (1977) looks like a Yugo GV next to this monster (sadly, this is the last time DAMNATION ALLEY will be discussed in connection with the TCM Movie Locations Tour). Comfortable and wide-open, the bus provides excellent sightlines for all tourgoers while the lay of the land and the history of Hollywood is disseminated with wit, humor, and painstaking attention to detail. (Plus, there’s trivia!) Stops along the way include the iconic Bradbury Building (with the demolition of Bunker Hill in the 1960s, the Bradbury remains film noir’s spiritual epicenter), Union Station (both filming locations for BLADE RUNNER, by the way), and the historic Olvera Street, where the reunion scene from Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID (1921) was filmed darn near 100 years ago. (Click here to read film historian John Bengston’s account of identifying this existing film location.) The TCM Movie Locations Tour is the fastest three to three and a half hours (depending on traffic) of your life and when it’s over you won’t want to get off the bus.
This promotional video for the TCM Movie Location Tour is, like the tour itself, a year old now… but it gives you a quick sneak peak into the experience.
It was only during the last dress rehearsal before the tour was opened up to the public that I understood how invisible my labor was to the end product — as they should be. The tour had been crafted, much in the way a movie is crafted from its raw story materials, into an experience that transcended my own efforts and the hard work and dedication of the people at Turner Classic Movies and Starline Tours. I think all of us who helped make the tour happen would agree that the tour was never ours to claim or slap a byline on. Like the movies themselves, the TCM Movie Locations Tour belongs to anybody who buys a ticket for the ride.
To learn more about TCM Tours (and/or to book your seat), click here.
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