Tuesday, March 26, 2019

20th Century Fox: Hail and Farewell

It’s hard to explain to anyone who didn’t grow up in my neighborhood how I feel about Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox studios. My home base from kindergarten through the time of my marriage was just south of the Beverly Hills border and less than a mile from the Pico Blvd. entrance to 20th Century Fox. It was always exciting to know that while I went about the business of being a kid, the glamorous folk were making movies not far away. Fox never went in for big public tours like Universal Studios, which eventually parlayed its Studio City back lot into a major theme park. So what went on inside the 20th Century Fox gates was mysterious, and therefore delightful.  There was a time that a distant relative with showbiz connections promised my family a private tour of the Fox lot. Of course I was thrilled.  And of course I dressed carefully for the occasion, half-convinced that some important so-and-so would stop our group and tell me I was just the girl he needed to feature in his upcoming production. (And of course, nothing of the sort happened. Which is the only thing I remember about that tour today.)

At various times, Fox was the home of Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Henry Fonda,  Betty Grable, and Sonja Henie. During the Depression, it was bankrolled by the success of Little Miss Shirley Temple. It’s where, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe was fired from her last film, Something’s Got to Give, and where (just one year later), the cost overruns on Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra almost threw the studio into bankruptcy. That’s why Fox sold off its fabled backlot, which became a massive business and shopping destination known as Century City. Fox did slightly better in the late Sixties, thanks to an unexpected blockbuster, Planet of the Apes. For me a special film of that era was Hello, Dolly!, the film version of the blockbuster stage musical. At a time when Hollywood’s philosophy was “bigger is better,” Fox brought in Gene Kelly to direct and cast young Barbra Streisand in a role that had been immortalized on Broadway by Carol Channing. Huge stretches of studio façade were turned into a so-called New York Street, with a turn-of-the-century brownstone look. For a massive parade scene, to provide a fitting backdrop for Streisand singing “Before the Parade Passes By,” the studio wanted literally thousands of extras. That’s why half of my neighborhood was recruited—including my mother, sister, and future mother-in-law—while my husband strutted proudly with the UCLA marching band.

I myself spent time in a Fox soundstage when researching the TV show M*A*S*H for Theatre Crafts magazine. (Today dozens of shows, including The Simpsons, use Fox facilities for their production needs.) I’ve also attended many a screening in one of the studio’s plush auditoriums. And I visit the Fox lot from time to time as an invited speaker for the Storyboard Development Group,where aspiring screenwriters analyze and argue over the scripts of upcoming Hollywood releases.  It’s always fun to see, on the sides of Fox buildings, the huge murals that pay tribute to the hits of days gone by: Star Wars, The Sound of Music, Young Frankenstein.

I’ve just read that in selling their artistic empire to Disney, the Murdoch family (hardly my favorite moguls) are holding fast to the Fox lot. For them it’s a business decision, not a nostalgic one, as an article in the L.A.Times makes clear. I just hope the lot remains a place where I can dream about Hollywood past, present, and future. 
Here I am on the lot, with the cast of Young Frankenstein looming large behind me.

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