This year is a big year for the movie industry with lots of anniversaries, including both Disney and Warner Bros. Studios turning 100. While Disney’s icons are of the less tangible, animated variety, Warner Bros. offers incredible studio tours that allows guests to step inside their most beloved films and television series. Way back in 2015 Patrick and I did the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, and a lot has changed between then and now, and we visited not once, but twice late last year. The second visit was for a friend’s birthday during the Studio’s “Holidays Made Here” event, so this post combines both visits.
There were actually seven total Warner brothers, out of 12 children, but it was four who built the studio we know today – Harry, Abe, Jack, and Sam. The quartette had been involved in the movie industry prior to the arrival of the roaring 20s, but it wasn’t until April 4, 1923 that Warner Bros. Studio was officially created. A year later the company would invest in Vitaphone, which would go on to revolutionize movies, when it was used in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson’s adlibbed line “Wait a minute, what a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Wait a minute I tell ya, you ain’t heard nothing” which became the first bit of dialogue used in a commercial motion picture. The very microphone used is now on display as part of the tours.
While Warner Bros. has been around for 100 years, they haven’t been in the same location for the whole century. The 1920s was a big time for movie making, with various studios in and around Hollywood, including First National Pictures founded in 1917. First National owned a group of cinemas, and in 1926 purchased 68 acres of farmland in Burbank, where they built their studio with soundstages and expanses of land to build large outdoor sets. In 1929 Warner Bros. bought two-thirds of First National Pictures, therefore acquiring their cinemas and studio land. Warner Bros. built new soundstages, other necessary buildings, and their first permanent backlot, a New York inspired street known as Brownstone Street, which is still used today. Over the decades the studio expanded to 110 acres, but those decades were not without tragedy, with multiple fires, including one in 1934 which took out some of the backlot, shops, and warehouses, as well as the film vaults.
By the 1960s many other studios either ceased to exist, or demolished their backlots with Universal Studios surviving by doubling down on the tourist element. While Universal Studios’ iconic Tram Tour features built-in “movie magic” such as the animatronic “Bruce” from Jaws, Psycho‘s Norman Bates chasing down the tram, and 3D simulation elements, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour gives visitors a much more realistic understanding and look at movie and television magic.
The tour starts in a room showcasing the studio’s history, along with artifacts from some of the most iconic films and shows. Then you are ushered into a theater, offering a recap of the many fantastical films and series that have been filmed here, and then you climb aboard a small tram (tour groups are much more intimate here, with a cap at 14 people per tour group) to take a whirl around the backlot, with a few stops along the way.
The tour is divided up into multiple portions, which include the backlot, interiors of sound stages (no photos allowed there), and a look at special effects, costumes, and props. For me, the backlot portion is always the most exciting. It’s amazing how these buildings have stood the test of time, and been used time and time again for movies and television. The wide range is incredible, from revered classics such as Casablanca and Rebel without a Cause, to B-movie homages such as Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. With television the hits continued decade after decade with Batman, The Waltons, Friends, E.R., Gilmore Girls, and, while not a hit, my favorite, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. I’ve mixed in some screencaps in some of the areas I was able to match up from Rebel without a Cause, Batman, Elvira, and Brisco.
A fair amount of the backlot is made up of buildings many associate with New York City, including the aptly named New York Street. The area, featured heavily in Friends, is also home to Gotham City Police Headquarters from the 60s Batman series, and its Embassy Courtyard would feature in early episodes of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. as the Westerfield Club.
There is another portion that today is referred to as Hennessy Street, but when it was built back in the 1930s, it was dubbed Frisco Street, as it was built for the film Frisco Kid, and was to represent 19th century San Francisco. But as the years went on it became more and more used for New York City gangster films. However, for The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. it would return as a stand-in for San Francisco in many of the episodes and again in 2003 for The Last Samurai.
One highlight was stepping inside one of the practical sets. While some of the buildings in a backlot are simply facades, others feature working spaces. I’m pretty convinced this space was used not only for the cafe in the Pilot for Brisco (among other interior scenes), but also the “King of New York” number in Newsies.
By the 1950s westerns dominated television, Warner Bros. was producing six at one point, and the film crews kept, literally, bumping into each other while filming, so they quickly expanded their western themed areas. Western Street was created in 1956, followed by Mexican Street, and then Laramie Street. By the 1980s both the Western and Mexican streets were demolished, leaving Laramie Street the only western set at Warner Bros. and one of the few in California. The 1990s featured a small resurgence of the western, and it is on Laramie Street that the majority of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (filmed during 1993-94) was filmed. But by 2000 the western was out of favor, and the area was demolished shortly after its final “appearance” in The Last Samurai, when the rooftops were given a Japanese treatment as they were just barely visible in the background of some shots. The area was replaced with a combo offices made to look like an east coast residential street.
While the big city is great, the backlot also features an idealistic small town that many have come to love over the decades, from The Waltons to Gilmore Girls, Midwest Street features quaint shops, civic buildings, and an iconic white steeple church. This area was used in both East of Eden, and Rebel without a Cause, and was the tight laced town of Falwell in Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. used it briefly in the Pilot as a hotel, when both Brisco and Socrates fall from a window.
Midwest Street served as Stars Hollow for Gilmore Girls, and if you love the show, not only is the studio tour a must, it’s a must during the holiday season. During their event “Holidays Made Here” visitors get almost free reign over Midwest Street which is re-dressed like Stars Hollow, and you can even go inside some of the sets, dine at Al’s Pancake World, grab coffee just outside of Luke’s and shop a variety of Gilmore Girls merch.
After viewing areas of the backlot visitors have a chance to look at various costumes, sets, props, concept art, and gain a deeper understanding of various special effects. There are several photo opts that fans of Friends and Big Bang Theory can’t miss. During our visits a portion was dedicated to My Fair Lady, however it is my understanding this area can change, as I believe a few years ago it had some Rebel without a Cause costumes on display, which I’m sorry to have missed.
The last portion of the Warner Bros. tour focuses on the recent heavy hitters from to the studio, the Harry Potter and DC films. Here visitors can gaze upon costumes and props from both franchises with plenty of photo opts that look like you’ve stepped right into Hogwarts. And then right before exiting through the gift shop, both Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart’s costumes from the end of Casablanca are on display.
There are a variety of tour options available. I’ve taken both the regular studio tour and the “Classics” one, and one of these days I’ll get around to the Deluxe one. For those interested in learning more about how movies and television are made, take a trip around the lot by booking one of the tours via the Warner Bros. Studio Tour website. Warner Bros. Studio is located at 3400 Warner Boulevard in Burbank.