A reflection after the studio fire at Universal Studios

FORT WORTH, Texas — The sad story in last month’s paper reminds me of happier times, when I was 23 and young and foolish and snuck onto the backlot of Universal Studios, chasing some Hollywood dream.

It was the summer of 1989 and I was halfway up Walton’s mountain on the tour tram when I decided to make my move. “Let’s ditch this cheesy tour and take a real look at the studios,” I thought to myself. It probably took me twenty minutes to screw up the courage to jump over the railing and run for the exit. Before I knew it, I was halfway down Walton’s mountain, sliding on my backside.

I passed an impromptu forest of make believe trees, all standing in their potted planters, waiting to be delivered to some movie set somewhere. I briefly visited the shed of Bruce the shark, from the movie “Jaws,” bane of my my childhood nightmares. I had to come face to face with him just once in my lifetime to make sure that he wasn’t really real. He was.

I kept on sliding down the mountain until I finally reached the bottom, crashing unceremoniously through the wing of what looked like a B-17 bomber. A prop for some movie set. It was made of balsa wood and flimsy is matchsticks. I don’t know whose movie that was for, but I probably set them back a day. Sorry about that, Mr. Director. I noticed boxes and props nearby with quickly stenciled labels, “Paradox.” It didn’t sound like any movie I had ever heard of. (Only later would I learn that this was the working title of “Back to the Future II.”)

At ground level, I found myself on the backlot of Universal Studios, the famous backlot. I made a quick tour of the “Psycho” house – just the outside, I was too afraid to go in. I did a quick walk of the cobblestone streets where Frankenstein’s monster once terrorized hapless villagers. I finally found my way to Town Square, USA. A little town square that was made to look like anywhere—or any courthouse square—in Anytown, USA. It has been dressed and redressed to represent small-town life in 100 different movies and TV shows, but more recently known as the set for Hill Valley, from the “Back to the Future” movies.

I was in Marty McFly’s hometown.

It was dressed like it was supposed to be Hill Valley of the future, from “Back to the Future II.” There was a movie theater that promised a coming attraction of “Jaws 13,” directed by Max Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s little kid at the time, who has now probably graduated from college. Nepotism lives on in Hollywood. Remember the flying skateboards? The fountain in front of the courthouse was dressed for the chase. There were futuristic parking meters and even a fake storefront where Marty McFly bought the famous sports magazine which changed his own history.

I spent the day there as a studio rat, wandering around, poking my head into places I shouldn’t have gotten into. It was a quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon. I was all alone, it seemed, with the props and façades and the whole studio backlot. I was the studio rat.

There were a few things lying around that I really wanted to take. There was a headstone that said George McFly on it… I think that was from “BFII.” It was light as a feather, made of Styrofoam. I really wanted that headstone and probably would have killed to get it, but I didn’t think that there was any way I could sneak out of a movie studio with a tombstone under my t-shirt. There were Penthouse pin-ups on the scaffolding behind the façades. It made me wonder what the teamsters do behind the scenes, laughing at the stars as they roll by with their million-dollar smiles.

At one point I heard a buzzing sound, like a toy airplane, as I was walking down the street. I whipped around to see a small security detachment cruising by—two rent-a-cops in an electric golf cart. I probably could have outrun them, but that would have blown my cover. Instead, I threw myself under the nearest thing that I could find: a tarp sitting on the side of the road.

I found myself sitting in the DeLorean from the movie, gull wing doors and all. I sat there as the security duo buzzed by with their high-pitched whine. They never saw me; if they did, they never stopped. Maybe they didn’t want to ruin a young kid’s dream. I stayed there for a long while after, just sitting in the DeLorean, listening to the silence of the backlot. My hands on the steering wheel. It was incredible. This DeLorean was set to fly. It was the one with the fusion reactor on the back. To this day, I often wonder if I had just pushed the pedals, could I have flown my way back home to Texas?

After leaving the DeLorean and daydreams behind, I did pick up one souvenir. See the attached daily call sheet that I found tacked inside a building. I think this was for a scene that never even made it into the movie, something behind the billboard from “Back to the Future II/III” (since both movies were filmed at the same time).

I left the backlot just as I came in, scrambling up Walton’s mountain on all fours. I must’ve come home muddier than a mud pie. I never noticed. Anyway, I had done it. Lived the fantasy for a day. And I had a piece of paper to prove it.

It was a silly, magical summer. I came face to face with my childhood nightmare and finally stared it down. I fell in love with a girl at Disneyland and never said a word to her. (There was a poem, though….) I left my name on a Norman Bates’ house, sure that he was gonna come after me. I saw Spielberg’s mom chainsmoking cigarettes behind her restaurant, The Kosher Dairy Restaurant, somewhere off Pico boulevard.

I oftentimes wonder what would happen to if I had decided to stay there and become a fantasy myself. How wonderful would that have been. What amazing things I would have seen? Movies in production. Dreams being made. Fantasies realized. Just me, the studio rat, hiding in the rafters.

It was a wonderful time to be young, alive and foolish.



Printed elsewhere as “Universal City the fire triggers flashback to future of 1989.” Fort Worth Business Press, June 9-15, 2008. Page 38.

One response: “Shawn, I thought it was great. Did you know that Steven Spielberg did the same thing as you? Except he actually walked into one of the offices in the bungalow area and met a producer or a director. I can’t remember who it was. Anyway, whoever it was decided to give Spielberg a one week pass to come to the studio and watch and observe. He used his pass and came everyday. He noticed that those who had permanent passes did not even bother to show them to the guard because he recognized them. So he decided he would get to be known by the guard. When the pass ran out, he thought he would see if he could just walk on in without a pass like the others, and it worked. He just waved at the guard and the guard waved back. He went everyday all summer long and got to meet some other directors and producers. He made some of his movies with his family and friends and came back to the studio and showed them to the people he had met. They would critique his work and he would do more. Finally one of them hired him and that’s how it all began.” – Bob



2 thoughts on “A reflection after the studio fire at Universal Studios

  1. You are the most amazing person in my eyes now! I cannot believed you did that! That would have been so much fun, but so scary to see the shark. Reading this I thought you were going to fall into the water in the Jaws part of the tram! This is awesome! You have made my day, just reading this made me happy! I love it at Universal! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for the kind comments. It means a lot to me that you would take the time to read this. It was definitely one of the best days of my life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s