It’s a cold and cloudy day in Southern California when we arrive a few minutes early at a massive, unassuming warehouse guarded by a chain-link fence at the end of a quiet street. We’ve double- and triple-checked the address (which is kept secret), and we stand by the gate until our appointment.
At 2 p.m. sharp, the driveway gate opens and Jeff Pirtle, a jovial gentleman with a slight Texas accent, welcomes us. Quickly, things get a whole lot brighter as we walk into the sprawling warehouse, passing stacks of boxes labeled with familiar titles such as Jurassic Park, suits with tags reading "Bud Abbott" and "Dan Aykroyd," and architect drawers labeled Psycho and Jaws. This is a movie lover’s dream.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Universal City this March, L.A. Weekly was granted rare access to the NBCUniversal Archives & Collections, which houses relics from Universal Studios’ storied past and present, from props and costumes to theme park artifacts and historic documents dating back to the company’s founding.
Among what seem like endless aisles of cinema-related items, we’re almost instantly reminded of the storage facility from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “We like that comparison in a way," says Pirtle’s colleague, Deidre Thieman, "but in another way we don’t because, I’d like to point out, in Raiders, the artifacts go there to be forgotten, and here they come to be remembered.”
“A lot of people say, ‘What do you guys do with all this stuff?’ We’re not an attic. We reference these items on a regular basis,” Pirtle says. “We also love opportunities to show off the treasures in the collection.”
As such, artifacts from the archives occasionally are lent to museums.
“We don’t collect just to collect, we collect to share,” Thieman says. “Movies are touchpoints in people's lives. … We’re very aware of the kind of magic of an actual thing that was used to do this or create that.”
Pirtle, NBCUniversal director of archives & collections, and Thieman, manager of production archives, were happy to highlight 10 of the coolest artifacts in the vast collection of L.A.’s longest continuously operating movie studio. Some of the items we got to see up close are so fragile that they cannot be handled too often.
Original Certificate of Incorporation of Universal Film Manufacturing Company (1912)
For Pirtle, who loves discovering everything he can about Universal’s corporate and studio history, this piece of paper is the crown jewel of the archives. “When we were working on the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures three years ago,” he says, “one of the first questions that came to us was, ‘What’s the date? Was it the date of the first movie release? Was it the date they first started distributing?’ So when we found this, April 30, 1912, we went with that. It’s the first document of Universal Film Manufacturing Company.”
Considering most of the major studios, including Universal, didn’t have official archives until the late 1990s, it’s rather amazing the 103-year-old legal papers still exist. Following the archives’ inception, the document was acquired from the studio’s record management group. However, before that department existed records such as these were kept wherever there was available space – including soundstage basements.
Originally based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Universal Film Manufacturing Company was incorporated across the Hudson River in the state of New York. It was the product of Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures merging with five other independent production companies. Just months after forming, its visionary president, Laemmle, moved the fledgling film studio out west to take advantage of the year-round sunshine, as did most of the East Coast studios.
After consolidating its ranch, located at what is currently Forest Lawn Cemetery, with its Sunset-Gower offices, the company founded its permanent home in 1914 just north of the Cahuenga Pass. Strikingly transformed from San Fernando Valley farmland, Laemmle’s new studio officially opened as Universal City on March 15, 1915, and has since been as symbolic of the movies as the Hollywood Sign, the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame.
Dracula Press Book (1931)
When Carl Laemmle put his son Carl Laemmle Jr. in charge of production in 1929 as a 21st birthday present, the young Laemmle decided to take the studio in a new direction. It was an attempt to remain competitive with the other major studios, which were already making “talkies,” building movie theaters and venturing into more imaginative genres outside of the Western or melodrama.
Other than a few lavish silent films, some starring bankable actor Lon Chaney, Universal had not invested much in horror pictures up to the time of Laemmle Jr.’s takeover, nor had any of the other studios. One of Laemmle Jr.’s legacies would also be one of the studio’s foremost signatures: a slate of iconic monster movies, the first being Dracula, starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi.
“When Dracula came out ... there had been a couple of other vampire movies, but [Dracula] is kind of what broke open the whole vampire movie thing that’s still continuing to this day,” Thieman says.
To market the film, this Dracula press book — a predecessor to the press kit — was sent to theater owners to suggest how to sell the movie to audiences. “One of the best things to see is how different marketing was done, but there are also a few similarities,” Pirtle says.
“It would kind of provide ideas of what types of posters and artwork were available for them to order for the theater,” adds Thieman, which is consistent with how movies are publicized today. However, this fragile piece of Dracula history also offers suggestions for creative audience engagement stunts in which moviegoers could compete to see the movie for free. This included “What Is a Dracula Kiss?” — which asks the theater to have patrons compose a short description of a Dracula kiss and how it differs from a mother’s kiss or a baby’s kiss. The person with the best description would see the film as a guest of the theater management.
Among the different posters and lobby cards that were available, all of which are quite rare and valuable today, were suggestions for other publicity gimmicks, such as a “Letter to Local Doctors.” This is where the theater owner might write to neighborhood doctors or hospitals asking them to consider that vampires could actually exist because of the ideas advanced by a new Universal Pictures release called Dracula.
Lon Chaney Jr. Life Mask from The Wolf Man (1941)
The enormous success of Universal’s first slate of monster movies — beginning in the 1930s and including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Mummy — ushered in a new wave of monster hits in the 1940s. The most successful was The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a man who's bitten by a werewolf and subsequently turns into one himself. It remains one of the most influential horror films of all time, inspiring An American Werewolf in London, The Howling and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video.
The Wolf Man also starred Universal Monster icons Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains, but perhaps the biggest star of the film was behind the scenes.
Jack Pierce was Universal’s famed makeup artist in the '30s and '40s — he created Boris Karloff’s classic Frankenstein makeup. Pirtle explains that the archives’ plaster cast of Chaney’s face from The Wolf Man, which can be attributed to Pierce, is significant since the iconic makeup man was responsible for some of cinema’s most well known monsters.
A “positive” of Chaney’s face (seen in blue silicone), made from this original plaster cast, would have been used by Pierce as a model to create the prosthetics for the Wolf Man makeup.
“We have other horror pieces, but they’re usually posters and press books,” Thieman says. "This is the premier 3-D horror piece that we have here."
Mike Vargas’ suit from Touch of Evil (1958)
Charlton Heston’s distinctive brown suit, designed by Hollywood tailor to the stars Acuna, was ordered specifically for the actor for Orson Welles’ seminal film noir, Touch of Evil. Heston said of the wardrobe in his autobiography, In the Arena, “Orson ordered a suit (the action in the film is almost continuous; there are no wardrobe changes) made by the best Mexican tailor in Los Angeles. A first-class Mexican tailor cuts a coat a little differently from his counterpart in London, or New York.” In a stroke of authenticity, it’s appropriate that Welles had the suit designed by a Mexican tailor considering that he played Mexican drug enforcement official Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas.
Universal’s wardrobe department occasionally will come across an antique costume from a classic film, and if the archives is lucky, the costume will have an actor’s name written somewhere inside. Even if the piece is easily associated with an actor, as was the Heston suit, the further challenge might be figuring out what film the costume came from. “We had a costume designer here looking at Heston stuff and she said, ‘I think that’s from Touch of Evil,” Thieman says of the brown suit on a mannequin. Thieman then went to the archives’ video library and compared the suit to the film.
“Men’s suits in black-and-white films can be very hard to identify,” she says. “You have no idea what color it was. You’re looking at pocket styles, you’re looking at the collar styles, you’re looking at how many buttons it has, and even that’s not always going to be accurate because it could have been altered in wardrobe later on.” The Acuna suit, however, was designed with a unique square pattern comprised of thin yellow lines, making it easier to verify.
Shooting in black-and-white, Welles surely knew how a suit of this type would show up on film. “We have a great still from Touch of Evil where Charlton Heston is sitting at a table with the suit on, with a liquor bottle in front of him, and what really stands out is that pattern,” Pirtle says.
Heston is wearing the suit in the famous opening of Welles’ film — a precise, continuous shot spanning 3 minutes and 20 seconds, which begins on a close-up of a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car and ends after the car is driven through a Mexican border town, exploding on the American side.
Taxidermied Owl from the Bates Motel in Psycho (1960)
A large wooden crate, labeled “FRAGILE” in bright blue stenciled letters, has been pulled from the warehouse and is waiting to be opened. “We don’t handle it very often,” Thieman explains. Upon further inspection of the box’s exterior, there appears an inscription in black permanent marker that reads “Psycho 1960.” Any artifact related to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is exciting in its own right, but being in the presence of an item from his horror masterpiece is as if you’re one step away from the man himself.
The front panel is removed and from the darkness of the crate, peering out, is a majestic great horned owl, completely still, perched on a branch with wings spread wide. The piece is instantly recognizable as one of Norman Bates’ prized stuffed birds from the parlor of the Bates Motel. For being 50 years old, the taxidermied bird is in great shape. “We also have the owl from the Bates Motel lobby from the 1998 Psycho, but this one is in better shape,” Pirtle says. “We theorized that they used arsenic to preserve this, which would now be illegal.”
As Patrick McGilligan mentions in his Hitchcock biography, A Life in Darkness and Light, the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has a late-night snack with Norman (Anthony Perkins), the introverted owner of the Bates Motel, is very similar to the scene from Robert Bloch’s novel, except that screenwriter Joseph Stefano sets it in an office parlor decorated with stuffed birds. Birds, which would be the driving force in the director’s follow-up film, play a metaphorical role in Psycho. Hitchcock would tell François Truffaut in the French New Wave filmmaker’s book, Hitchcock Truffaut, “Owls belong to the night world; they are watchers, and this appeals to Perkins’ masochism. He knows the birds and he knows that they’re watching him all the time. He can see his own guilt reflected in their knowing eyes.”
Hitchcock clearly associated the owl, a predator, visually with Norman by framing them together within certain shots — the dangerous motel owner in the foreground and the owl, wings spread just as they are today in the archives’ collection, looming in the background.
Atticus Finch’s Glasses from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
When you have the chance to see a hoverboard or original drawings of “Bruce,” the shark from Jaws, a small pair of tortoiseshell glasses might go completely overlooked in the sea of movie treasures that make up the Universal archives. However, you might do a double take when you learn that Gregory Peck wore these particular prescription lenses in his Academy Award–winning performance as Atticus Finch in Universal’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
A main theme of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and the subsequent film, Atticus’ glasses, which are specifically mentioned in the book, are not only a corrective accessory but also a meaningful symbol.
Thieman feels that the tortoiseshell frames worn by Peck in his most iconic role are an interesting and appropriate choice for Atticus Finch, the Deep South lawyer who, during the Depression, defends Tom Robinson, an African-American farmhand falsely accused of raping and beating a white woman. “These aren’t brown, and they’re not black, which for men’s glasses at the time would have been pretty standard,” Thieman says. “He’s going to defend [Tom Robinson]. In the context of the film, this is kind of out-of-step with what you might expect a man like this to be doing. The tortoiseshell glasses show that he’s a little bit different.”
Tony Montana’s suit from Scarface (1983)
“Everybody likes Scarface,” Thieman says, as she and Pirtle move a mannequin dressed in a dark blue, pinstriped suit. While it’s true that Scarface has gained appreciation since its release in 1983, certainly as a cult classic, Brian De Palma’s contemporary update of Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster film is one of those movies that people either love or hate.
“It was not originally a box office hit. It wasn’t until it came out on VHS and DVD that it really exploded,” Pirtle says. The ultra-violent crime drama, depicting Miami’s drug underworld of the 1980s, was originally condemned by Cuban-Americans fearful that it would show them in a bad light. It has been criticized for its excessive violence, mostly attributed to the film’s notorious chainsaw scene.
On the other hand, the film has remained incredibly influential. “It’s a perennial favorite amongst fans,” Thieman says. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars, it’s been honored on respected lists of the best films ever made, and it has inspired everyone from musicians to video game developers. “We get more requests for [pieces from] Scarface and To Kill a Mockingbird than most other titles,” Thieman adds.
Whatever your feelings about Scarface, no one can forget Al Pacino’s boisterous recital of the film’s most famous line. It’s in this suit that Pacino, as Cuban druglord Tony Montana, delivers the iconic dialogue while firing a grenade launcher in an attempt to protect himself from an oncoming militia of assailants. “It’s the only costume we have of his from the film,” Thieman says, “and how fortunate that it’s the ‘Say hello to my little friend’ suit.”
“I remember when we got [it], there was a piece of Trident gum in the pocket, probably from 1983,” Pirtle says, laughing. Also hidden in the waistband of the pants is a tag with the actor’s name written on it.
A striking characteristic of the suit is that its design harkens back to the classic 1930s gangster films. “The three-piece suit is more formal,” Thieman explains, but by removing the tie and adding an open, butterfly-collar shirt (not pictured here), costume designer Patricia Norris created a modern look based on a classic style.
Griff Tannen’s Pit Bull hoverboard and case from Back to the Future Part II (1989)
The year 2015 is not only the 100th anniversary of Universal City, it also happens to be the 30th anniversary of one of Universal’s biggest hits, the Robert Zemeckis–directed, Steven Spielberg–produced time-travel comedy Back to the Future. If you’re looking for an even more interesting parallel, 2015 is the year we were supposed to get hoverboards, as predicted in Back to the Future Part II. (Get it together already, hoverboard makers.) While we might not yet be able to fly around on the skateboard’s future counterpart, the fact that the archives has Griff’s Pit Bull hoverboard is good enough for us.
EBay is full of reproductions, but this Pit Bull hoverboard is the real deal. “This was a hero piece, and we can tell that because it’s quite heavy-duty and it’s actually made of wood and has the foot loops that the actor [Thomas F. Wilson] could stand on,” Thieman explains. The archives houses multiple versions of the hoverboards, this being the only Pit Bull, with some made of wood and some made of foam. “The stunt pieces that they would have used to swing around, or when they’re running — it could be dangerous if someone fell on it — those are made of foam,” Thieman adds.
If you’re wondering about Marty McFly’s pink Mattel hoverboard, Bob Gale, co-writer/producer of the Back to the Future franchise, has the foam and plywood versions in his personal collection.
Jack Swigert’s pressure suit from Apollo 13 (1995)
The pressure suit worn by Kevin Bacon as bachelor NASA pilot Jack Swigert in Apollo 13 is a testament to the detail captured in Ron Howard’s space-adventure masterpiece. The suit is made primarily of Beta cloth, a nonflammable material that NASA began requiring in all spacesuits following the launch rehearsal cabin fire that tragically killed the three pilots on the Apollo 1 mission. In 1967, at the time of Apollo 1, astronauts’ suits were fabricated with nylon.
While Bacon’s suit appears incredibly authentic, it's still a movie costume. Rita Ryack, the costume designer on Apollo 13, told the L.A. Times in 1995, “We couldn’t put our actors in real pressure suits because they’d be far too hot and heavy.” A padded layer was incorporated underneath the Beta cloth to convey what would have been the suit's realistic mass.
Still, the level of intricate detail — from the cloth to the metal locking rings for the gloves and helmet, down to the functional pockets — is something to marvel at. Thieman explains that you’re not meant to necessarily notice these elements on screen, but it all adds to the authenticity of the film. “There is a huge amount of work that went into this [costume] to make this film as detailed and as accurate as they could make it and to really bring you into the time that this was happening,” she says.
Cosette and Fantine dresses from Les Misérables (2012)
As manager of production archives, Thieman has the job of reading Universal’s green-lit scripts prior to production in an effort to identify items on the page that might later be worthy of inclusion in the archives. This could be anything that plays a significant role, from wardrobe to props to set decoration and beyond. In some cases, Thieman knows what items she’d like to request before reading the script.
“Deidre is cognizant of films that we know are going to be Academy Award contenders, and that are going to be highly requested,” Pirtle says. Such was the case for the Oscar-nominated costumes from Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Les Misérables.
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The contrast of the two costumes vividly represents how a designer must consider the look of an entire film, keeping in mind any progressions the characters go through. In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who has become a rich man, adopts Cosette, the orphaned daughter of factory worker turned prostitute Fantine. The dissimilar dresses of mother and daughter, worn in the film by Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, are examples of design in differentiating character, Thieman says. “If you had never seen Les Miz, if you knew nothing about it, you’d know [Hathaway’s character, Fantine] is downtrodden, she’s poor, she can’t afford good clothes. You look at [Seyfried’s wardrobe] and you know she’s pampered; she’s well taken care of.”
“We wanted to pull these [dresses] to highlight popular contemporary film,” and Thieman adds, frankly, “I wanted girls represented here.”
Jared Cowan is a photographer, camera operator and avid filmgoer living in Los Angeles. In 2002, he graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a B.F.A. in film and video production. See more of his photography at jaredcowanphotography.com and follow him on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.