It’s dusk and Huey Lewis & the News’ “Power of Love” is playing as Marty McFly skateboards into a blue-collar, suburban neighborhood, passing between two distinct markers, one on either side of the street. A regal stone lion is perched atop each sign and in bold, block letters they announce that he’s entering Lyon Estates.
The signs are two of the most significant set pieces in the Back to the Future trilogy, lending visual cues that indicate what year Marty and Doc Brown are visiting. “The signs are always there to keep things constant in this completely crazy, changing world that [Marty] is experiencing through the movies,” says Ken Kapalowski, an organizer of We’re Going Back, last October’s 30th-anniversary Back to the Future fan event.
Joe Walser, Kapalowski’s co-organizer, says, “Everyone knows the name of Marty’s subdivision, even though you only see [the signs] two times in the movie.” (Three, if you count a nighttime shot in silhouette.) Walser also led the team responsible for the magnificent blood, sweat and tears restoration of the hero DeLorean from the original film – aka the “A car.”
You might recall that, until Marty notices the signs in front of a vacant piece of farmland that would later become his neighborhood, he believed his time-travel displacement to 1955 was a dream. “We needed to do something where Marty and the audience would say, ‘Wow, this is what it looked like before it was built,’” says Bob Gale, co-writer and producer of Back to the Future.
“It’s an iconic kick in the gut, like, ‘You are not in Kansas anymore,’” Walser adds.
For a number of years, two signs that were used onscreen were on display at Universal Studios Hollywood as part of the studio tour. Until a couple of years ago, the signs, which were used in Back to the Future Part II and Part III, could still be seen on the backlot before they vanished — “erased from existence,” as Doc Brown would say.
“They basically decomposed,” Walser says. In fact, you can Google “Lyon Estates signs” and you’ll see images of them in various physical conditions. He adds, “Movie props are not built to last, they’re built to get the shot. The fact that they were on display at Universal for 25 years is actually in itself a huge thing.”
In the end, Walser surmises, the signs succumbed to the elements and were too difficult to restore.
Recently, a brand-new pair of officially licensed, screen-accurate Lyon Estates signs has surfaced under the radar. “They are literally standing on the footprints of their predecessors,” Walser says. “The [old] signs sat in that spot for so long that the sun physically baked the profile into the street. … The new ones are placed right on those marks.”
Before the signs were given to Universal, they would stand at the end of Marty’s street in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Arleta during We’re Going Back. Therefore, Walser and Kapalowski insisted on building the best screen-accurate replicas possible. It would not be an easy undertaking, however, because there were neither blueprints nor another pair of signs to use as guidance.
For Walser — a movie art director who, like many, related to Marty McFly when he first saw the film as a teen — the Lyon Estates signs had to be perfect or they weren’t worth building. “There’s something in me that forces me to go big or go home,” he says.
“I love guys like [Walser],” Gale says, “because I was sort of like that, a lot of us in the film business were sort of like that when we were in high school. You’re just a fanatic about some movie, or some book, or some TV show and you want to immerse yourself in it.”
“Inception, planning and building was 100 percent Joe,” says Kapalowski, who was coordinating certain aspects of We’re Going Back from his home near Toronto.
Walser was certain of one thing: He wasn’t going to re-create the signs that stood on the backlot. For the casual viewer, the signs in the first movie and subsequent films appear to be the same, yet they “are wildly different,” Walser says. His plan was to concentrate his efforts on the signs from the original film.
But to understand his devotion to the re-creation of the signs simply for the love of the movie, we have to set our time circuits back over 30 years. The original Lyon Estates signs were discarded as soon as the scenes in which they appeared were in the can. It was 1985, prior to the existence of an official archives department at Universal Studios — eventually created in the late ’90s — and before anyone knew the film would be a huge hit.
After talking to various members of the art department and digging through the studio archives, Walser couldn’t locate any blueprints for the original signs; he’s almost positive they weren’t available when the sequels went into production. Furthermore, he determined the signs seen in the first film and the sequels differed in scale and design. The only pieces that appeared to be the same were the artichoke-style finials. The biggest difference is that in the first film the lions’ mouths are shut and in the latter films their mouths are open. “It’s one of those things where nobody noticed. I never noticed until I started researching this,” Walser admits.
A lengthy online search for the lion led Walser to a statue in the L.A. area that appeared similar. Upon seeing it in person, he was astonished to discover that it was of the same exact design as the lion from the original film. He then tracked down the manufacturer, which had been in operation since the early ’80s, and the mystery of the contrasting lions became clear. There, Walser met an employee who recalled a conversation about a Back to the Future sequel.
The manufacturer apparently granted the makers of the first movie permission to make casts of the lion and to use its likeness onscreen. However, it seems it wasn’t as easy the second time around. “The first time they [the manufacturer] were like, ‘Back to the what? Yeah, sure, whatever.’ The second time they were like, ‘Back to the Future?! That’s a huge movie. So this is how much money we’re going to need for legal clearance.’” As a result, Walser discovered that the filmmakers declined and sculpted their own lions.
Walser, with the crucial elements in hand, was able to deduce the scale for the rest of the signs, which, in 1985, was likely another reason the originals hadn’t been saved. “People don’t realize how enormous the signs are until they stand next to them,” he says. The replica signs, like the originals, are made largely out of wood and skillfully painted to appear like concrete; each weighs 1,000 pounds and is 9 feet tall and 11 feet long.
The Lyon Estates font also had to be re-created from scratch. Walser explains that had there been a straight-on shot of the signs in the film, the font would have been easier to reproduce, but the signs were always placed at an angle and shot in perspective. “It wasn’t just something you could type and print,” he says. “The font didn’t exist. It was something that the art department fabricated.”
The letters also lacked consistency, which was done presumably for legal reasons, since certain fonts are copyright-protected. “It was a really, really long process,” Walser says.
As the pieces came together, he and an engineer friend, Mark Dehlinger, created an assembly manual, which Walser dubbed the Lyon Estates “Ikea” instructions. This 15-page document of precise measurements, hardware and assembly diagrams was the guide used by the prop company Walser hired to build the signs.
Construction of the new Lyon Estates signs was — as one might assume — pricey. “These things cost almost $10,000 to build a pair,” says Walser. Revenue generated from We’re Going Back went toward building the signs, making them a fan-funded gift to the filmmakers and the studio. About 150 fans that donated extra funds have the honor of seeing their names on a plaque affixed to the side of one of the signs on the backlot.
The license from Universal also granted Walser and co-organizer Kapalowski permission to build a second pair, which they did for an for an even greater cause. They were auctioned off and the proceeds went to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
There are some generations today who didn’t grow up with Marty and Doc and sadly may have no idea what Back to the Future even is. When Back to the Future: The Ride closed in 2007 to make way for The Simpsons ride, fans had reason to feel as though a part of their favorite movies was fading away like Marty McFly’s siblings in a photograph.
The reemergence of the Lyon Estates signs on the Universal backlot serves as a reminder of one of the studio’s greatest legacies. “These were built with the goal of lasting … For another twenty years, hopefully longer, the signs will be there,” says Walser. “We were just trying to get [our heritage] back. We were trying to not lose these things that actually mean something to the fans. We can’t control everything, but we can control this.”
You can see Walser in action in the documentary Outatime: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine included in the 30th anniversary Back to the Future DVD and Blu-Ray collections. Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.