Universal Backlot: Before the Fire.

The above photo is of the building that was used as the “Hill Valley Clock Tower” from the movie, Back to the Future. You’ll notice that the clock is conspicuously missing. That’s because the building, and the “Courthouse Square” set it is a part of, was being used in the CBS TV Show The Ghost Whisperer.

This picture was taken almost exactly one year ago today. One year before Sunday’s fire which destroyed this building and many other sets on the Universal Studios backlot.

This is what the area looks like today, one day after the fire.

My wife and I took the Universal Studios Backlot Tour when we were vacationing in Los Angeles in June of last year. The tour was one of my list of things I “must do” for my vacation. As a fan of movies, I couldn’t wait to see the locations where some of my favorite scenes were shot. The tour took us through the areas where the fire took place–the Courthouse Square, the Metropolitan Set, and the King Kong attraction. We took some pictures of the area, and I thought it would be interesting to provide a perspective on the damage for those of you who have never been there.

To the left is the “Metropolitan” set. This is commonly referred to as the “New York” set, but “Metropolitan” is more accurate. These sets have been used to represent many of the world’s major cities. It has duplicated San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City as well as New York.

From the above photo, it might seem that the fire destroyed a majority of the Universal backlot. But looks can be deceiving. The destruction only took up a part of it. The sets destroyed are cluster together in the middle of the lot. Granted, the “Metropolitan” set itself takes up about three city blocks, but this leaves a lot of area for Universal to continue having their tours.

To the right is another part of the New York/Metropolitan set. This building was used to represent the San Francisco bank that played a pivotal part of the first Dirty Harry movie. The “Do you feel lucky, punk” line was shot just a few feet away.

If my memory serves me correctly, these sets were smack dab in the middle of the backlot. We drove past them halfway through the tour. The Courthouse Square set is directly behind the New York/Metropolitain set, with the King Kong attraction nestled in between.

The King Kong attraction was housed in a gigantic soundstage. When the tram entered the building, the tour guide said we were going to see a “big star” filming a movie. Get it? “Big star”? King Kong? Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Once inside the building, the attraction took on the illusion of of New York City, and the tram “became” an above ground subway car. The fantasy was made more real as a helicopter plummeted from above us to the the left. The tram went on and then King Kong jumped out at us from the right. Below is the best picture I took of the mechanized ape:

Reports say that two fire fighters were injured when a pneumatic cylinder exploded on the set. I’d wager a bet that the cylinder was part of this attraction. The effects and animatronics in this attraction worked on pressurized air.

CNN.com is reporting that the fire started accidentally by workers using heating tools.

If you want to read more about the famous films shot on the destroyed sets, this article from the Los Angeles Times give a very good rundown.

About William Gatevackes 1962 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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