Columbia Pictures, MGM, and Sony Tour


When reflecting up on the major film studios of the Golden Age of Hollywood, one of my favorites is easily MGM. Boasting it had more stars than there were in the heavens, it was one of the top studios with some of the brightest cinematic stars. Combining their history with Columbia and, now, Sony Pictures, the early days of the studio, its output, and stars make this a hallowed ground for fans of classic cinema.

I took the Sony Pictures tour in October of 2018 and had a tour guide who did a fine job of catering the tour to my interest in classic cinema, in addition to the interests of other members in our tour group. As we strolled through the studio grounds and learned about its past and present use, I thought about how phenomenal it was to be able to walk in the footsteps of some of my favorite stars and to stand in soundstages where some of my favorite films were shot. This article focuses upon the history of classic cinema and how it is highlighted in the current Sony Pictures Studio Tour.

Once I checked in with the guard and was greeted by my guide, I received my pass and joined the other individuals on the tour in a small museum area. There, they had a variety of props, costumes, and the Seinfeld set on display. My favorite pieces to see were some of Rita Hayworth‘s costumes.

When our group was assembled, we began our walk through the grounds. Due to restrictions and the need to avoid spoilers, I was unable to photograph inside many of the soundstages. Nonetheless, there are some I would like to point out due to the caliber of productions that were completed in them.

Stage 15, or The Gary Martin Soundstage, named after the legendary Columbia Pictures Production Executive, has been revered by producers for decades. Measuring 42,000 square feet, Stage 15 was once touted as the largest soundstage in North America. Inside these walls the yellow brick road wound towards Oz in the 1939 classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz and again in the film Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). Its immense scale makes it ideal for feature films and the perfect setting for large live broadcast audience events and music performances.

Stage 27 was where The Wizard of Oz (1939) was filmed. Its concrete floors cover just under 32,000 square feet. The unique split grid, measuring 50’ on the low side and 80’ on the high side, creates an arena-like atmosphere. One could still see some of the original Yellow Brick Road inside but only if he or she took up the floor.

One of Sony Pictures Studios’ largest stages, Stage 30, covers 31,000 square feet and reaches 50 feet high. Its large tank is well-known for providing the water settings for classic movies from Esther Williams, as well as watery scenes in current films and television shows. The multilevel tank’s deepest depth is 30 feet, and it has been used for the subterranean placement of staircase settings, and gimbals for large, moving sets.

As we strolled the grounds and learned about the history behind some of the stages, I was delighted to see the names of some of my favorite stars represented on many of the buildings.

Our tour group also visited the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage. One of my favorite moments on the tour was being able to stand where my favorite star, Judy Garland, once stood when she recorded “Over the Rainbow”.

Another favorite site for me to see was the MGM schoolhouse. MGM built a white plaster and Mediterranean-tiled school house on the studio lot, where young contract actors—Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Garland, Mickey Rooney, and others—studied together in one room.

As we wandered through the property, it was interesting to see different aspects of studio life at work, in addition to the massive rainbow–a clear tribute to one of the most iconic films made there.

Once the tour started to wind down, we had some time to shop and take some photos as the group reunited with their souvenirs. I took some time to chat with my tour guide and discuss the Capra Building in addition to the eventual opening of the Academy Museum.

Due to my comments about the new museum and interest in classic cinema, the guide took me over to the Scenic Painting Building to point out a few more pieces he thought were very special and suited to my interests.

The Scenic Painting Building is a massive building built to fit the huge backdrops required for films. The top floor of the building displays backdrops from prior releases, include backdrops from North by Northwest (1959) and The Sound of Music (1965). The studio also owned one of the backdrops to The Wizard of Oz but it is already situated at the Academy Museum.

When visiting California and looking to learn more about studio history, I would strongly encourage a tour at each of the major studios that offers a public tour. I took on the basic package for this particular tour and was very pleased with their ability to link it to the interests of each guest. While Sony is by far the busiest studio I have visited, visiting it with an awareness of its long history certainly makes the tour worthwhile.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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