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by Ben Glenn II

As a child, I always dreamed of magically entering TV Land and visiting the homes of my favorite sitcom families. This would be familiar territory -- after all, having watched rerun upon endless rerun, I knew my way around their houses as well as they did.

Good Times Season 5 on DVDNothing would have given me more pleasure than to lounge in the Brady's sunken livingroom, enter The Munsters' trap-door staircase by pulling the griffin-shaped newelpost, or park my blue Chevrolet convertible in the driveway of Samantha and Darrin's Cape Cod on Morning Glory Circle. Indeed, in many cases, the houses that TV sitcom families lived in are as distinctive as the shows themselves. This makes sense, given that a comedy centered on home life should, by definition, establish a strong sense of place for the viewer.

Today, as an adult, I am constantly struck by the fact that many people I talk to still believe that these houses were real, and that the shows were actually filmed inside them. And so, in true TVparty fashion, I thought I would "demystify" our television heritage a bit by leading us through a "where are they now?" of classic TV sitcom homes.

Most of the famous TV sitcom houses we know and love were located on movie studio backlots. Beginning in the mid-1950s, when television proved itself to be a profitable venture, movie studios established television production units and began generating series. Columbia and Universal appear to have been the most active in this arena, largely because they could use their existing facilities, rather than build new ones, to handle the production load. Among these facilities were outdoor sets on the backlot, built years earlier for motion pictures and still sitting there, ready to use.

Therefore, unlike earlier sitcoms such as The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy which were filmed before a studio audience in a theater-like setting with the action taking place largely indoors, movie studio-produced shows such as Leave It To Beaver were free to use backlot exteriors, allowing the action to take place out-of-doors and within a town or neighborhood. The studio audience was replaced with a laugh track, and interior scenes were filmed on nearby studio soundstages.

 

Outdoor sets such as the Bewitched home are known in the industry as "shells": that is, they generally are constructed of three sides and a roof, and often are missing the back wall and/or one of the side walls.

Inside, the interior is one big raw, unfinished space (no rooms!), and the structure's matrix of scaffolding, pipes, electrical wires and beams is fully exposed. Usually ladders are built into the structure, allowing actors to climb to the second floor to do a scene from an upper-story window or the roof.

When in use, the homes are "dressed" by adding front doors, window treatments and landscaping, and an L-shaped temporary wall is placed inside the front door to give the illusion of an interior. When not in use, however, the shells are usually stripped of their doors, curtains, and landscaping, and in many cases appear neglected and poorly maintained.

Not all studio backlot houses are facades. For example, several newer homes on the Warner Bros. lot are complete, with four sides and a roof. During inactive periods these structures are used to store lighting and other production equipment. It can be disheartening to see these old sets in person. They always seem surprisingly small and, as I mentioned, poorly maintained - studios fix them up only when they're about to be used.

A number of classic houses have been structurally altered over the years for use in other productions. Remember, Hollywood studios are not museums. In general, they maintain very little regard for history, and often have no qualms about altering or even destroying vintage sets for a project as fleeting as a network pilot.

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One need only watch the upsetting 60 Minutes segment documenting the demolition of the legendary MGM backlot - to make way for a housing development -- to understand. Therefore, you will be disappointed if, for example, you expect The Partridge Family house to look now just as it did in when the series was in production in the early 1970s.

PART TWO: Universal Studios in California

PART 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

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"Hi, my name is Louise Sherman. Your site is fabulous! I'm afraid it may get me into trouble here at work, but it's almost worth it!

"Just a couple little comments about the Mary Tyler Moore house. I grew up 2 blocks away from the house in Minneapolis - if I was just five years older that would have been me holding the flag on the crosswalk,helping Mary and the kids cross the street in the opening credits. That was my corner!

"When I was a youngster out playing, cars of curious Mary fans would always stop and ask where the house was. Tour buses even used to come by now and then - an amazing amount of attention for just one house! The woman who lived there hated all the tourists. She used to try to piss people off by hanging signs out of her second story window telling them to go away, and I remember she got political at one point with a big "Impeach Nixon" sign.

"The woman had no children, so none of us had any real reason to go into the house (we were also told by our parents not to bug her), but the neighborhood legend among the kids was that there was pink fuzz on the walls in the basement, along with a full swimming pool (I think that rumor started after some kid had one too many pixie stix)."

"The colorful apartment building which was Mary's pad later on in the series is actually low-income housing. It looks groovy from a distance, but I'm afraid it's fallen into some disrepair. In Minneapolis the building made the news a few years ago as the scene of a couple of murders. The elevators were always dangerously broken - the victims, presumably the losers in bad drug deals, were killed by being thrown down the elevator shafts from the upper floors."

"Again, thanks for a great site - and thanks for indulging my trivial memories!"

- Louise


Thanks to Gary Gilbin for his photos!  

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