These Movies Filmed in L.A. Trick Almost Everyone Into Believing It's a Different City

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed in Rocky
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed in Rocky
MGM/United Artists

Since the early days of cinema, when the pioneers of the burgeoning industry moved their business interests from the New York area to Southern California, filmmakers have been using the L.A. region to stand in for other cities and towns.

Take D.W. Griffith’s controversial classic silent picture from 1915, Birth of a Nation. Set during the Civil War and Reconstruction in Washington, D.C., and parts of the South, it was filmed on location in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

In Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the hard-rock group that "goes to 11" toured all over the United States and Japan yet never left L.A.

Even European cities have been duplicated here. For The Prestige, Christopher Nolan successfully re-created 19th-century London on studio backlots and practical L.A. locations.

In many cases, before tax incentives initiated by other states and countries began luring productions away from L.A. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was cheaper to film here than to travel to a distant location. (And let’s be honest, L.A. had and still has the greatest craftspeople working in the business.) Not only that but locations found in SoCal, from downtown Los Angeles to the beach, from the mountains to the high desert, can substitute for almost any type of American landscape.

Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) says, “You can do anything you want in Los Angeles. I mean, we have every kind of climate and microclimate in between contained here. So it truly is an amazingly flexible place.”

For an astute moviegoer, and especially for residents of the region, it’s no surprise when L.A. pops up in a movie as another city.

But are there certain cases when Hollywood sleight-of-hand has left you completely fooled? L.A. Weekly recently spoke with the directors of some films we believe crafted truly successful doppleganger cities within L.A.  “We use L.A. for a lot of things,” director Joel Schumacher says. “Sometimes you can tell it’s L.A. — and sometimes it really works.”

The Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena doubled as the Philadelphia Spectrum in Rocky.
The Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena doubled as the Philadelphia Spectrum in Rocky.
Photo by Jared Cowan

Los Angeles as Philadelphia in Rocky

INT. ARENA – NIGHT
It is the night of the Bicentennial fight. … The location is the Philadelphia Spectrum. —From
Rocky by Sylvester Stallone

Los Angeles and Philly are two cities not often mentioned together. Currently, the most these cities have in common is that the Dodgers acquired a few of the Phillies’ star players in recent years. So it's a surprise for many to learn that the film most often connected with the City of Brotherly Love, whose story was set there by Stallone, was shot nearly entirely in L.A.

When Rocky's Academy Award–winning director John G. Avildsen traveled to Philadelphia to scout locations for this tale of an underdog South Philly boxer who gets a million-to-one shot to take on the heavyweight world champ, Avildsen tells the Weekly, “I took pictures of all the places and told the producers that everything was looking good, and they said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We can’t shoot in Philadelphia because it’s a very low-budget movie [it came in just under $1 million] and we can’t afford to bring a [union] crew to Philadelphia.’”

Since the story was set in winter, Avildsen, known for his keen eye for realism, wanted the actors’ breath visible on film when they spoke. A producer tried convincing Avildsen that you could see your own breath in the early winter mornings by his pool in Beverly Hills. Perhaps, Avildsen told him. “But we can’t build a model of Philadelphia next to your pool.”

A compromise was struck and parts of the film, mainly grim urban exteriors, were shot in Philadelphia in November 1975. The producers agreed to hire a non-union New York crew with whom Avildsen had worked before. This created problems with the Teamsters and forced the film back to L.A. early. Avildsen says he shot only 10 days in Philly, which was just over a third of his 28-day shooting schedule — shocking for a film that we identify closely with cheesesteaks and the Liberty Bell.

The iconic first date between Rocky and Adrian was originally set in a Philly café but changed to an ice skating rink because Avildsen felt that people yakking in a restaurant wasn’t at all interesting. “We found an outdoor rink in downtown Philly, which was like a poor man’s Rockefeller Center, and we could fill it up with non-union extras and we’d shoot the first date there,” Avildsen recalls.

But they were sent packing to L.A. by the unions before they could shoot in the ice rink, so the filmmakers squabbled over whether they could afford a West Coast skating rink filled with extras — or get stuck with a restaurant scene. Avildsen suggested the rink could be "closed early" for Thanksgiving and empty of skaters. Stallone liked that idea and rewrote some dialogue. “As a result, I think the scene was much more romantic and unique,” Avildsen says.

The interiors, except for a Philly pet shop, would be shot in Los Angeles with an IATSE crew, full production support and proper catering – back in Philly, the cast and crew were lucky if they got pizza.

Many of Rocky’s Los Angeles locations no longer exist or have been completely revamped.

They include the Santa Monica ice skating rink, now home furnishings store H.D. Buttercup at Fifth and Broadway; a church boxing ring where East L.A. native Oscar De La Hoya later trained; the Main Street Gym downtown; the Culver City Meat Co. on Robertson Boulevard, which later became a strip club; an office on the MGM lot belonging to Rocky producer Irwin Winkler; and Rocky’s Skid Row apartment, which, according to Avildsen, had a palm tree showing outside the window. The crew blocked the non-Philly tree by placing fake brick panels outside the walk-up apartment's window.

Some sources incorrectly claim that the Grand Olympic Auditorium at West 18th Street and South Grand Avenue doubled as the legendary Philadelphia Spectrum, the venue for Rocky’s thrilling, 15-round match with Apollo Creed. Avildsen confirms to the Weekly that he did scout the Olympic Auditorium but ultimately used the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena at Exposition Park, the one L.A. location that today looks almost exactly as it did in Rocky.

Though most of Rocky was shot in a city nearly 3,000 miles from where the drama unfolds, it’s still a Philly movie. “Unless you’re a real student of the movies, you just accept the fact that it was shot in Philadelphia, which was our intention,” Avildsen says.

Would there have been anything as epic as Rocky’s triumphant run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had the film been shot entirely in L.A.? Avildsen doesn’t think so. He quips, “We could have made it an animated cartoon.”

The Harvard dorm exterior in Legally Blonde is the Bovard Administration Building at USC.
The Harvard dorm exterior in Legally Blonde is the Bovard Administration Building at USC.
Photo by Jared Cowan

Los Angeles as Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Legally Blonde

EXT. HARVARD DORM — DAY
Pale, studious LAW STUDENTS clad in earth tones move into their dorm, carrying in their spartan belongings (coffee makers, books, computers). In the distance, a HAPPY POP SONG (perhaps “Heaven Tonight” by Hole) is heard. As it gets louder, heads turn to see – a silver, convertible Boxster driving up, Elle at the wheel, MUSIC BLASTING. —From
Legally Blonde by Karen McCullah Lutz & Kristen Smith

After a successful debut on the international film festival circuit with a short musical comedy, Australian filmmaker Robert Luketic came to L.A. to direct his first feature, Legally Blonde. The movie takes place in part at fictional CULA, where Elle Woods, an L.A. fashionista played by Reese Witherspoon, is studying fashion merchandising. When her boyfriend, Warner, who’s heading to Harvard Law School, dumps Elle because she’s not “serious” enough to fit in with his East Coast family or political aspirations, Elle transfers to Harvard to prove Warner wrong.

The film’s Los Angeles scenes were shot in L.A., and the hope was to shoot the rest in Boston. But Luketic says that didn’t happen because Massachusetts' tax incentives weren’t what they are today. “There was no upside or tax benefits, so to speak. The place to shoot at the time was Canada, and that didn’t work out,” Luketic tells the Weekly. “Remember when everyone wanted to shoot in Toronto?”

They decided it was cheaper to make the entire movie in L.A., aside from some establishing aerial photography of Boston and a few minutes at the end of the film, which were shot in London due to the actors’ schedules.

Before making the aerial shots for Legally Blonde, Luketic had never been to Boston, so he  took the opportunity to visit Cambridge. “The first thing I did was wander around Harvard, wander around all the quads, and walk past some of the residences and just sort of absorb life in Cambridge, just in terms of what life would be like, what people would be wearing, what people would be carrying.”

He also relied heavily on production designer Missy Stewart, who four years earlier did Good Will Hunting in Boston. “She sourced things here in Los Angeles that kind of had that Ivy League look to them,” Luketic says. “It was so fresh in her mind. She knew exactly what she was looking for, and she actually got to work in the location.”

They scoured L.A. County to find locations with somber, Gothic features that would contrast the golden, vibrant look of the film’s opening Los Angeles scenes. “It was a challenge. I’m not going to say it was easy,” Luketic admits. “I’ll be very honest, it was just a fact of what we could afford” — an estimated budget of $18 million, according to IMDb. “So whatever we chose we had to either get for free or very cheap.” 

Legally Blonde’s Harvard was a masterful combination of UCLA, USC and Pasadena’s Rose City High School and McKinley School. But it wasn’t as simple as showing up on campus and shooting. “We ended up re-dressing some of the dorms at USC to make them look more East Coast Ivy League,” Luketic says. Among their tricks, they dressed trees and bushes with fall-colored leaves. Crew members would hide in trees off-camera and drop leaves into frame. Even coffee cups from Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ Donuts can be seen in students’ hands. (Dunkin’ Donuts, at the time, was a solely East Coast phenom.) Says Luketic, "You have to be very inventive and creative.”

The film used Alverno High School in Sierra Madre for Elle’s CULA sorority house, Monrovia for Neptune’s Beauty Nook salon, Santa Ana for courthouse exteriors, and All Saints Episcopal Church and the historic Pasadena Central Library for additional Harvard scenes.

Had the director been able to shoot at Harvard, there would have been a greater sense of geography. “We could never do sort of big, wide shots. In that regard, things had to be somewhat contained and a little bit restrained.” Luketic himself poses the question as to whether the film would have been more successful had he shot in Boston, but answers, “No, I think these are things that only the filmmaker obsesses with, and I don’t think anyone else looking at it really has those concerns.”

Audiences didn’t mind; the film went on to gross almost $100 million domestically.

Colin Farrell as Stu Shepard in Phone Booth
Colin Farrell as Stu Shepard in Phone Booth
20th Century Fox

Los Angeles as Manhattan in Phone Booth

NARRATOR: This is the telephone booth at 53rd and 8th — perhaps the last vestige of privacy on Manhattan’s West Side. It is the last booth of its type still in regular operation. Up to 300 calls daily originate here. This location has been burglarized 41 times in the last six months. Verizon has scheduled this structure to be torn down and replaced with a kiosk as of 8 a.m. tomorrow. Hardly two blocks away, meet the man who is to be the final occupant of that booth. —From Phone Booth by Larry Cohen

Replicating New York City in downtown L.A. is not an easy feat. While most audiences probably won’t think twice, the cities have evolved over the years, and residents of both N.Y. and L.A. are pretty adept at recognizing the streets of their own towns. Besides, it takes more than a few buildings and the removal of blue street signs to successfully create New York in L.A.

So how does a director convince sophisticated moviegoers that a film shot in downtown Los Angeles takes place in the Big Apple?

“Look at Phone Booth,” director Joel Schumacher says lightheartedly of his 2002 film. Colin Farrell plays a no-good New York publicist who walks into a phone booth near Times Square to call his mistress and ends up being held hostage by a mysterious sniper on the opposite end of the line. The film’s action, which was shot in sequence, plays out in real time, and 72 minutes of its fast-paced 81-minute duration takes place in and around the phone booth.

To set the tone of a New York movie, Schumacher shot for one day in Times Square. “It was freezing,” says the director, who also made the 1980s teen horror classic The Lost Boys and the L.A. thriller Falling Down, "and I didn’t want to do the movie with people wearing overcoats.” As a result, all of the actors and background artists — “I don’t like to call them extras,” he says — braved the freezing New York temps for the day, without jackets.

While it may not have been ideal to shoot in the cold weather, it just happened that the schedules of the actors and creative team aligned during the early winter of 2000. “It’s that thing when suddenly everybody says ‘yes’ and it falls into place. In movies you sort of just go, because if you pass that moment, it may not happen again,” Schumacher says.

The Manhattan phone booth actually stood at 211 W. Fifth St. in downtown L.A.
The Manhattan phone booth actually stood at 211 W. Fifth St. in downtown L.A.
Photo by Jared Cowan

The remainder of the film’s astonishingly short 12-day schedule would shoot back in sunny California on one block in L.A. just before Christmas – a season that's notoriously difficult for shooting downtown. The L.A. film office gave the production a choice of just three streets: Fifth, Sixth or Seventh streets just off Broadway. Production was required to wrap at 4 p.m. so the street could open for rush hour. After scouting, Sixth Street was chosen to double for Manhattan’s 53rd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, where the phone booth would be set. Permits were granted and the art department began prepping the block.

But an obstacle appeared as the shoot date neared. The 2000 Democratic National Convention held in L.A., coupled with an unusual 30-day transit strike, had badly hurt businesses in downtown earlier that year. Vendors on Sixth Street planned to make up the lost revenue during the holiday season.

“It was the Jewelry Mart [area], so the owners of the jewelry stores said, ‘If you try to shoot here, we’ll all lie down on the street and you won’t be able to,’” Schumacher tells the Weekly. “In all fairness, you know, it’s Christmas, and they sell jewelry, and we don’t want to interfere with anyone’s business, so we moved overnight.”

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The business owners one block over gladly welcomed the production. The phone booth was relocated to 211 W. Fifth St., at the corner of Frank Court. Schumacher says, “It actually worked better, because there was an old marquee, which looked like a subway station.”

Passing cars were given New York license plates, existing storefronts were turned into strip clubs similar to those a block from family-friendly Times Square, and banners for New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art were hung from street lamps. The film also partnered with Verizon for product placement, so it’s no coincidence that the actual phone booth is owned by Bell Atlantic — the East Coast company that became Verizon the year Phone Booth was filmed.

The film’s detailed art direction, combined with its roving camerawork, quick editing, use of split screens and authentic performances, all helped to convey the fast-paced, multilayered New York life. L.A.’s New York set was so believable, in fact, that New York native Schumacher says, “There are certain people in the media who live in New York who have told me that they’ve been on that street; they know that street in Manhattan.” 

Couldn’t Phone Booth have been about a phone booth in Los Angeles, saving him from turning L.A. into New York? “It just felt like New York,” Schumacher says. “Phone booths were part of [that culture].”

The Inglewood spot on La Brea Avenue where Stan Mikita's Donuts from Wayne's World once stood
The Inglewood spot on La Brea Avenue where Stan Mikita's Donuts from Wayne's World once stood
Photo by Jared Cowan

Los Angeles as Aurora, Illinois, in Wayne’s World

WAYNE: Let me bring you up to speed. My name is Wayne Campbell. I live in Aurora, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. Excellent. –From Wayne’s World by Mike Myers and Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner

Wayne’s World tells the story of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, Aurora, Illinois’ local head-banging celebrities, who broadcast their public-access TV show from Wayne’s parents’ basement, then get exploited by a sleazy Chicago producer. 

Wayne’s World director, Penelope Spheeris, tells us that there was never any discussion of shooting the film in Aurora. “From the very beginning, it was slated to be shot in Los Angeles.” Spheeris suggests that was probably because other states and countries weren’t offering tax breaks as they do now. She adds, “It was most practical to shoot [in L.A.] because that’s where the resources and crews and actors were.”

Wayne’s World actor-creator-writer Mike Myers had the freedom to take the characters, who originated in skits on Saturday Night Live, outside the confines of their makeshift TV studio. “Mike Myers’ fixation was to make sure that his world was specific, unique and different,” Spheeris says. “I never really disagreed with any of Mike’s suggestions.”

One location, however, did take some time to pinpoint — more than Spheeris felt necessary.

“The location scouts would bring in books and books and pages of photos of houses that all looked exactly alike,” Spheeris says. “I remember we had to go around looking for the damn house that [Wayne] lived in for days, and they all looked alike, so I don’t know why we settled on the one we settled on." After being reminded of a comment she made on the Wayne’s World DVD commentary about ending the discussion by choosing a house near where she lived at the time, Spheeris bursts out laughing.

The director recalls that this was indeed the case. “I didn’t make any money in the movie business until I did Wayne’s World, so I was probably living in my shitty house in Laurel Canyon.” All these years later, Spheeris still receives emails from eager Wayne’s World fans asking where the house was.

“Please, will you tell the fans where the fuck it is,” Spheeris pleads with us, lightheartedly.

While we don’t want to share the exact address of the house, we will say that it was a quaint three-bedroom home near Sherman Way and White Oak Avenue in Van Nuys. Only architecture buffs might notice in the film that it doesn’t have storm windows, which are rare in Los Angeles but common in the Midwest.

Most of the downtown Aurora shots were filmed around the intersection of North Citrus Avenue and West College Street in Covina, where signage had to be adjusted to reflect what you’d find in Aurora, a Chicago suburb. Wayne and Garth pick up their drunk friend Phil at a bus stop during the famous “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence, finding him sitting on a bench that displays the official Aurora logo with the town’s nickname, “The City of Lights.” Wayne and Garth’s 1976 AMC Pacer, aka the Mirthmobile, pulls up to a white Rolls Royce at the intersection, where Wayne spoofs the Grey Poupon commercials of the 1980s and ‘90s. A bank nearby is named Aurora Bank & Trust.

The film included second-unit photography of the Mirthmobile driving around the actual Chicago area with Wayne and Garth doubles, as Myers and Dana Carvey had returned to work at SNL. “If you intersperse a little bit of visual from the actual location that you’re trying to sell, subconsciously the viewer assumes it’s all there and that’s what they have in their head, and it is virtually impossible to un-convince them that it was shot mostly in Los Angeles,” Spheeris explains. 

This's what happened during probably the most iconic location shot in Wayne’s World. Stan Mikita’s Donuts, the glass-walled restaurant named after the celebrated hockey center for the Chicago Blackhawks, was dressed with every kind of Blackhawks memorabilia imaginable, so believable as an Aurora donut shop that Aurora locals thought they'd been there. “When I tell [fans] that Mikita’s Donuts was a closed-down florist shop on [La Brea] … they will argue about that,” says Spheeris, laughing. “They will maintain that it’s definitely in Aurora. I’m like, ‘Really? Well, send me a picture of it ‘cause it ain’t there.’”

Other Los Angeles–area locations in Wayne’s World include the Universal Amphitheater in the San Fernando Valley for Alice Cooper’s Milwaukee concert; Cassell’s Music Shop in the small town of San Fernando, as the shop where Wayne is denied permission to play “Stairway to Heaven”; the Los Angeles County Arboretum near Pasadena, for Cassandra’s Amazonian music video; a tiki bar on Pico Boulevard near Robertson Boulevard, an adult daycare center in Van Nuys, doubling as the Aurora 10 public-access TV station; and industrial buildings in downtown L.A.

Classic lampposts topped with acorn-style glass fixtures were incorporated into a number of these locations to visually unify the somewhat geographically separated L.A. locales that made up Aurora.

Almost 25 years later, Wayne’s World is still a fan favorite, and Spheeris says many people come to town just to follow in the footsteps of Wayne and Garth. “They get here, and they don’t know which the hell house it is, and they want to know where Mikita’s Donuts was,” Spheeris tells us. While she knows it’s all in good fun, she asks, “Really, guys? Plant some flowers in your yards; you’d be doing a better thing in the world. What are you doing looking for locations from Wayne’s World for?”

The most appropriate answer we can spew? “It’s Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World, party time, excellent!”

The gym of Lennox Middle School was used in Teen Wolf.
The gym of Lennox Middle School was used in Teen Wolf.
Photo by Jared Cowan

Los Angeles as Nebraska in Teen Wolf

SCOTT: I'm sick of it, Boof.  I'm sick of being so average. And it's not just basketball. It's the school. It's this town. It's everything. —From Teen Wolf by Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman

Teen Wolf, the 1985 film starring Michael J. Fox as an average high school student who suddenly becomes the most popular kid in school after discovering he’s a werewolf, takes place in the small, fictional community of Beacon Town. In the film, it appears to be any quaint, Midwest neighborhood with a main street, high school, liquor store and bowling alley. However, upon closer viewing, you'll see small details such as University of Nebraska bumper stickers and Nebraska license plates, suggesting it's set in the Cornhusker State.

Teen Wolf director Rod Daniel, whom we tracked down on vacation with his family, confirms that the story is set in Nebraska, but Beacon Town had no particular statehood until Daniel struck upon a peculiar form of directorial decisiveness. “This is a true story,” Daniel says in a Southern drawl. “I got a map of the United States; I remember doing it. I put it on the wall and threw a dart at it. That’s the God’s honest truth, and it landed right in Fremont,” a town of about 26,000 near the eastern edge of Nebraska.

That blind toss would set the tone of the movie, which pitted Fox’s character, Scott Howard, a kid aching to break out of his own skin, against the popular girl he desires, her arrogant jock boyfriend and a conservative school principal. “I think if it was Oregon it wouldn’t have been the same, or Washington,” Daniel says. “Look at the politics of Nebraska. … That’s where these old-timers are, and they sit around the stove — and all this bullshit. You say 'Nebraska' to somebody, you get something on the skin. You get a value that you wouldn’t have gotten someplace else.”

Though Daniel would spend a couple of days in Fremont to explore small-town teen life, and though he wanted to shoot on location there, the film would actually shoot in a place that might horrify some Nebraskans — Los Angeles. “It would have been prohibitively expensive [to shoot in Fremont]. You have to understand, we had no money,” he explains. “I think what we wound up with, with a couple of exceptions, was pretty good.”

Daniel shot a lot of Teen Wolf in leafy and pretty South Pasadena, a frequent go-to choice for filmmakers looking for Anytown America within a short drive of the studios. Teen Wolf's hardware store, owned by Scott Howard’s father, was shot inside long-gone Balk's True Value Hardware near the intersection of Mission Street and Fair Oaks Avenue. Mission Street provided the setting that Howard, as the wolf, car-surfed to The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari.”

Especially watchful fans might notice palm trees reflected in the multiple storefront windows early in the film as Scott and his friend Boof walk along Mission Street to the hardware store, which is now a design shop called Reimagine Your Home. But it hardly takes away from the movie. “I kept it fairly tight on the lens so we didn’t see too much,” Daniel says, “but we’ve got a palm tree in the damn movie! But you know what, no one seemed to care. It gives you something to talk about.” 

While Daniel was shooting with Fox at a house on Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena, another crew stopped by to scout the home for a movie no one had yet heard of — Back to the Future.  Daniel says he didn’t have time to meet the filmmakers.

The house, which was attractive to Daniel because it was fully furnished and almost film-ready, is one of those classic Craftsman-style homes found throughout Pasadena and South Pasadena.  However, the uniquely Gothic windows set it apart. So somewhat incredibly, the same house belonging to Fox’s Teen Wolf character would later become the home of Marty McFly’s mother in the time-travel comedy classic.

Teen Wolf  opens with Scott Howard playing basketball in the Beacon Town High School gym, actually the gym at Lennox Middle School, in a seriously gang-riddled unincorporated area of South Los Angeles a couple of miles from LAX’s south runway. “I OK’d it and said, ‘We can shoot here.’ We had to do some looping [re-recording], but I loved the look of the place — kind of funky and old,” Daniel says.

The gym had its original flooring and bleachers from 1953. (It has since undergone a $1 million overhaul, as the floor was considered unsafe and other schools weren't allowed to play there.) The high school exterior and hallways were that of John Burroughs Middle School several miles north in upscale Hancock Park, the same school used in Pretty in PinkA Nightmare on Elm Street and many other movies. In fact, so many movies were shot at the circa 1924 Georgian Revival–style building that Burroughshas  installed permanent film lighting in the ceiling, Daniel says.

Other prominent Teen Wolf locations include Sherman Way in North Hollywood (more car-surfing), a liquor store in Tujunga and tiny eight-lane Montrose Bowl in Glendale — a 1936 jewel that still uses a manual scoring system and is heavily booked for private parties.

In many ways, using L.A. as a stand-in for Nebraska gave Daniel a freedom he feels he may have not had otherwise. “[Fremont] is much tougher,” Daniel tells the Weekly. “I really got to idealize this place.” 

Knott's Berry Farm's replica of Independence Hall was crucial to the making of 1776.
Knott's Berry Farm's replica of Independence Hall was crucial to the making of 1776.
Photo by Jared Cowan

Los Angeles as Philadelphia in 1776

ENGRAVING – CHESTNUT STREET (PHILADELPHIA), CIRCA 1750
ARTWORK of the street, as it appeared then. The scene depicts the raising of the Liberty Bell (as it is known now) to the belfry of the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall, as it is known now). —From
1776 by Peter Stone

In 1969, a musical about the Founding Fathers’ struggle to start an independent nation opened on Broadway to rave reviews and echoed many Americans’ sentiments about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. 1776 was nominated for multiple Tony Awards and won Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical for Peter H. Hunt. It wasn't long before it was turned into a feature film.

When legendary producer Jack Warner picked Broadway veteran Hunt to helm the screen version of 1776, Hunt had never directed a movie before and wanted to shoot on location in the birthplace of American independence. Most of 1776 unfolds inside Independence Hall’s Assembly Room, where members of the Second Continental Congress passionately argued over seceding from British rule. “I had initially very much wanted to do it,” Hunt says of shooting in Philadelphia. “I went back and photographed [Independence Hall] over a period of several days in all different lighting conditions and weather conditions, just to get a sense of the room.”

Hunt’s desire, however passionate, was not meant to be. The main drawback to shooting in the very room where icons of American history such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin hammered out the blueprint for American independence came down to a solid, metal barricade. It had been installed by the Park Service to keep tourists from entering and potentially damaging artifacts related to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

“It cannot be removed,” Hunt says of the barricade. “In the television series John Adams, they just left it in and people just assumed that was part of the room,” he tells the Weekly, laughing. But for Hunt’s film, which required full use of the original room, shooting around the railing was impossible. “That really was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It’s also likely that Warner wanted to keep his first-time director close by. So the Assembly Room, as well as Independence Hall's center hall and tower stair hall, were reconstructed in Burbank. "I was nervous, because I didn’t think I was going to get something quite so exact and quite so perfect,” Hunt says.

It just so happened that the film’s art department didn’t need to travel to Philly to research the Georgian-style building. “We found out that Knott’s Berry Farm had built a replica of Independence Hall, and they had done a tremendous amount of research,” Hunt says. That replica, still open today in Buena Park, debuted on July 4, 1966. “It was inch-for-inch exact. The wood was the right wood; the paints were the same paints. Everything was identical,” Hunt says. Hunt, Warner and production designer George Jenkins paid a visit to the late Walter and Cordelia Knott, known as great patriots, who agreed to lend them their detailed plans for the replica. “This was just a fortune in research handed to us,” Hunt says.

Most of Independence Hall’s first-floor interiors were constructed on a soundstage at Columbia's original Hollywood lot on Gower St. Though Hunt still considered shooting exteriors in Philly, Jenkins was confident he could build everything but the bell tower and steeple, which would be incorporated as a matte painting should they need to show movie audiences the entire building.

They built an exceptionally realistic Independence Hall exterior in just a few weeks — atop a water tank at Columbia Ranch on Hollywood Way in Burbank, now Warner Bros. Ranch — and constructed five blocks of Colonial-era Philadelphia streets with full cobblestone surfaces, using asphalt and a patterned roller. Today, there's a parking lot where the impressive set once stood.

Looking back, the director says he wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. “This was the best decision [I] ever made. We were able to pull walls out when we needed to … a lot of things we couldn’t do on location,” he says. “We would have had to deal with city noise, which would have meant looping an awful lot of dialogue, and I think that could have harmed performances a bit. It turned out to be a great thing to have the set.”

The Griswolds' house from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
The Griswolds' house from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Photo by Jared Cowan

Los Angeles as Chicago in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

EXT. GRISWOLD HOUSE — NIGHT
A fine upper middle class dwelling. The lights are on. The Taurus’s in the driveway. The giant tree is resting on its rootball in the front yard. —From
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation by John Hughes

When you hear the name John Hughes, the city of Chicago almost immediately comes to mind. Setting personal stories of relationships and families in his Midwest hometown made Hughes' films and characters relatable to a wide audience. “That’s how John worked,” says director Jeremiah Chechik. “His movies were very much about the iconography of these environments in which he shot. They were meant to be universal even though they were in Chicago.”

Every picture Hughes directed, from Sixteen Candles to Curly Sue, was shot entirely or in part on location in the Chicago area. Hughes, who died much too early, at age 59 in 2005, was also a prolific writer credited with more than 40 titles on IMDb. And a few of those films, some of which had great input from Hughes as a producer, were set in Chicago — but shot in Los Angeles by other directors.

One of those is the third installment of National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise, perhaps the most quoted of the series. Notably, the wintertime setting of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation evokes a sense of Chicago more than its predecessors. Though a few scenes from Christmas Vacation — including the opening sequence when the family station wagon gets trapped under a lumber truck, and later during Clark Griswold’s disastrous sled ride — were shot in Breckenridge, Colorado, the rest of Christmas Vacation was shot in L.A. during the spring and early summer of 1989 in order to make a Christmas release date.

Chechik, the director of Christmas Vacation, says there were a few practical reasons that the suburban Chicago neighborhood exteriors for the film were shot at the Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank, aside from the fact that it was a Warner Bros. picture.

“There were a lot of things going on in the neighborhood" in the plot, Chechik says — "shutting down a whole suburban neighborhood and controlling it, and lighting it, and making sure the snow is consistent, and making sure the neighbors aren’t complaining” were just a few examples of what they faced. Chechik says he also was adamant that the film have a quintessential Norman Rockwell feel. “I needed to control the look of the houses, the paint, the color, the tone and all of that.”

Anyone, even those of us who grew up in wintry environments, would be hard-pressed to say that the set doesn’t feel like a genuine Midwest street during the holiday season.

It might surprise people to know how some of the snow was created in Los Angeles. The road slush and the beautiful white stuff blanketing the neighborhood were created with various materials, including several types of artificial snow — but also crushed marble, which was soaked in water to turn it slushy. The glistening icicles on the gutters dripped, and the bare trees blew in the wind. It all added up to the classic look the director wanted.

The Trax record store from Pretty in Pink is nowhere near Chicago.
The Trax record store from Pretty in Pink is nowhere near Chicago.
Paramount Pictures

Los Angeles as Elgin, Illinois, in Pretty in Pink

EXT. BUNGALOW. DAWN
A run-down, one-story bungalow. The sun is just breaking the horizon behind the house. A couple of old cars in the driveway. AN ALARM CLOCK SOUNDS. —From
Pretty in Pink by John Hughes

A few years before Christmas Vacation’s release, John Hughes wrote a very different story, about a working-class teenage girl who desires one of the rich boys at school but struggles with the idea that their social circles won’t allow them to be together.

An opening shot that reveals a street sweeper with the word “Elgin” stenciled on it immediately sets Pretty in Pink in Elgin, Illinois, a suburb about 40 miles outside downtown Chicago. (Elgin is also the name of a street-sweeper manufacturer based in the town.) Director Howard Deutch says that although the film didn’t have the financing to shoot outside of L.A., it was still important to set the story where Hughes wanted it. “I think people have a perception of L.A. that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to be the blue-collar, universal American experience. New York and L.A. are considered, I think, separate countries, and everything in between is America.”

A huge benefit to shooting a film like Pretty in Pink in Los Angeles is that for a story dealing with social class boundaries, the city can easily provide every type of neighborhood and reflect any income bracket. Pretty in Pink’s main character, Andie Walsh, played by Molly Ringwald, lived in a 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom bungalow that the filmmaker found in, yes, South Pasadena. A ritzy seven-bedroom Hancock Park home, today worth 10 times as much as that bungalow, was chosen as the abode for the film's arrogant “richie” played by James Spader.

Pretty in Pink featured a record store based on the real-life iconic Chicago music shop Hughes frequented, Wax Trax!. Wax Trax! was where Hughes supposedly discovered many of the songs he included in his films’ now-classic soundtracks. The name of the store was shortened to Trax and it was re-created in a storefront at the corner of Broadway and Third Street in Santa Monica, now Café Crepe.

A website dedicated to the history of Wax Trax! mentions that the movie location was designed with materials from the Chicago store. “[John] wanted it to be as close as possible to looking like Wax Trax!,” Deutch says. During the building of the set in Santa Monica, Deutch, directing his first movie, attempted to include some design ideas of his own. “I had once put telephone poles within the store. I thought it might be a cool kind of urban street look, and John hated it, so we lost that,” the director recalls, laughing.

Though Pretty in Pink didn’t include sweeping shots of downtown Chicago or Chicago sports team references — in fact, it has hardly a mention of Chicago — all we needed to see was the name John Hughes and we were instantly carried to the Windy City, even if we were still in Los Angeles.

Jared Cowan is a photographer, camera operator and avid filmgoer in Los Angeles. See his photography at jaredcowanphotography.com and follow him on Twitter at @JaredCowan1. Special thanks to location managers Douglas Dresser, Ned Shapiro, production designer Bruce Alan Miller, first assistant director John Hockridge and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library for their assistance.

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