I was very excited to be a passenger yesterday on the very first TCM Movie Locations Tour in Los Angeles. The free tour begins today for the public and will be running daily for a month, leading up to TCM’s 20th anniversary on April 14, 2014.

tcmtourbusOur press group met in the historic forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (do I really have to call it the TCL Chinese now?) and boarded our luxurious StarLine Bus complete with huge windows, stadium seating, and a 65-inch high-definition screen. Throughout the tour, in addition to our knowledgeable guide, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz appears on the giant screen to tell stories about various neighborhoods in L.A. that we’re passing through and discussing his own family’s ties to the locations (his grandfather was screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz who co-wrote Citizen Kane  and his uncle was Oscar-winning writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz benmankwhose films include All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives). On yesterday’s tour, we were lucky enough to have Mankiewicz there with us in the flesh, providing extra stories and commentary. Watching old clips while passing through those exact locations is a great way to experience L.A.’s movie history — even if it made my already tenuous grasp on the present day even more shaky!

2-rooseveltAs we began the tour, we drove by the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the very first Academy Awards, and then passed Hollywood High whose famous students included Judy Garland, Carol Burnett and John Ritter. Remember the story about Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store? I knew that was a myth, but I didn’t know that she was actually spotted across from Hollywood High at the Top Hat Malt Shop.

2-chaplinstudiosOn La Brea we passed in front of Charlie Chaplin’s old studio, now the headquarters for the Jim Henson Company, looking very much like it did when Chaplin built it almost a hundred years ago. As we pulled up we saw newsreel footage from 1916 of the studio being built which then morphed to a scene from The Muppet Movie of Jason Segel and Amy Adams marching up to those very gates.

2-formosaWe passed the Formosa Café and watched a great scene from L.A. Confidential in which Guy Pearce mistakes the real Lana Turner for a hooker made up to look like the actress. This causes the imperious Turner to throw her drink in his face. We drove by the original Samuel Goldwyn Studios where films such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Wuthering Heights, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and West Side Story were shot.

player-rogerrabbitOn the corner of Orange and Romaine we watched a scene shot in that very spot with Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming from Cry Danger. We then passed the original Gilmore Gas Station, built in 1935, and saw a funny scene shot there involving Steve Martin getting “full-service” in L.A. Story. We drove by many studios, most of them still operating, and we were told about the many films and classic TV shows that once occupied the soundstages. As we passed the building that was briefly Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, we saw a great clip shot there for Robert Altman’s The Player in which studio head Tim Robbins is getting pitched by everyone he comes in contact with as he walks across the lot. And we drove by the unmistakable entrance of Ren-Mar Studios and watched a clip from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where it is the front gate for the bustling Maroon Studios.

paramountWe pulled up to the Paramount gate just as Norma Desmond appeared in a scene from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Riding in her exotic Isotta Fraschini driven by chauffeur (and former husband) Erich von Stroheim, I was finally able to experience my fantasy of hearing Gloria Swanson spew the line that I shout every single time I pass that gate. After being refused entry to the studio by a young guard who is corrected by an oldtimer who recognizes the actress, Norma Desmond hisses, “Teach your friend some manners. Tell him that without me there wouldn’t BE any Paramount Studios!”

thalbergs-graduateHeading east on Wilshire, we drove by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple (where many of the moguls prayed and where Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer got married) and the site of the recently torn down Ambassador Hotel (now a modern L.A. high school that at least still exists in the same footprint as the glorious Ambassador and incorporates the former Coconut Grove nightclub). We saw great footage taken in the Coconut Grove from the Jean Harlow movie Bombshell as well as many clips from inside the famous Ambassador including its role as the Taft Hotel, the illicit rendezvous point for Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. We passed the stunning Art Deco Bullock’s Wilshire while watching scenes shot there in 1937 for Topper and in 1994 for Ghostbusters (at which point our guide paid tribute to the late Harold Ramis).

2-drivePassing the Bryson Apartments, mentioned in Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, we watched moments from The Grifters and learned that for years the building was owned by Fred MacMurray. It was fun to drive by MacArthur Park while watching scenes shot there from a range of films including Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck in 1921 and Ryan Gosling in Drive in 2011.

2-bunkerhillAs we approached downtown, Ben Mankiewicz explained how war-time austerity led filmmakers to use many seedy downtown spots as locations for film noirs with titles such as D.O.A., The Killers and Kiss Me Deadly. We passed some relatively recent additions to the downtown landscape such as the Bonaventure Hotel, built in the mid-1970s where movies such as Blue Thunder, This Is Spinal Tap, High Anxiety and True Lies were filmed.

2-bradburyWhen we reached the beautiful Bradbury Building, we got out of the bus and headed inside, after watching scenes from Blade Runner and the more recent The Artist in which the Bradbury stood in for the silent movie studio where Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo worked. I remember going to an event at the Bradbury in the early 90s there attended by Billy Wilder who talked about filming scenes from Double Indemnity there.

funnygirl-losangelesBack on the bus, we toured the magnificent movie theaters that line Broadway. Though these theaters would later fall on hard times, in 1931 they included a total of 15,000 seats in downtown L.A. That’s an awful lot of popcorn, as our tour guide said. Many of these theaters have been used in movies. The former Warner Brothers Theater, now a massive diamond shop, stood in for the New York theater owned by Florenz Ziegfeld where Barbra Streisand’s Fannie Brice rose to fame in Funny Girl. The Orpheum Theater, where Judy Garland once performed as Frances Gumm, has appeared in all sorts of movies including The Front Page, Barton Fink, Ed Wood and Dreamgirls. As we passed the stately Los Angeles Theater, we watched newsreel footage of its opening night premiere of Chaplin’s City Lights at which Albert Einstein was an honored guest.

harold lloyd safety last 1We stopped at the building at 908 Broadway and saw the spot where Harold Lloyd dangled from a clock in Safety Last, possibly one of the most famous images in movie history. And we heard of movie-related events that happened in the buildings all around us such as Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith coming together in the Alexandria Hotel to form  United Artists Pictures. This is the same grand hotel where Tom Mix once rode his horse through the elegant lobby and which served as a film location for Se7en, Spider-Man 3 and Dreamgirls.

2-cityhallWe continued east to L.A.’s beautifully restored City Hall, once the Daily Planet building and featured in countless films set in Los Angeles including key scenes we saw from He Walked By Night and Cry Danger. Our second out-of-the-bus walk-through occurred at the spectacular Union Station, built in 1939 which was featured in movies such as Watch on the Rhine, Criss-Cross, Cry Danger, Bugsy and many others including its stand-in as the bank Leonardo DiCaprio robs in Catch Me If You Can.

musicbox-intoleranceHeading back toward Hollywood, we passed Angelino Heights and saw clips from films including Fast and Furious and Gangster Squad. We drove by Echo Park and watched scenes filmed there nearly a hundred years ago with stars such as Mabel Norman, Fatty Arbuckle and the Keystone Cops. Entering Silver Lake, we passed what are still referred to as “The Music Box Stairs” and watched the clip from The Music Box in which Laurel and Hardy attempt to drag a piano up the impossibly steep incline. This part of town was once home to Mack Sennett’s studios and we stopped on Sunset Boulevard at the spot where the gigantic set once stood for D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance. After losing a lot of money on that film, Griffith couldn’t afford to tear down the gargantuan set so the L.A. Fire Department was called in years later to burn it to the ground.

2-rebelAfter passing the spot of Walt Disney’s first studio, we looked up at Griffith Observatory while watching Natalie Wood and a tortured James Dean on the grounds in Rebel Without a Cause. Passing several more important Hollywood landmarks on our way back to the Chinese, including the Pantages Theater and Musso & Frank’s Restaurant, we finally ended our tour and I reluctantly returned to 2014.

tcmmovielocationstourThis is a one-of-a-kind tour laden with the expertise that only Turner Classic Movies could provide, and it is not to be missed. The good news is that it is FREE and it is being offered by TCM as a gift to its fans to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The bad news is that the tour mostly sold out within hours of its announcement. However, representatives of both StarLine Tours and TCM told me that because the tickets are free, many people made reservations but they’re sure a percentage won’t show up at their appointed time. Check here for information on availability and feel free to just show up before each tour is scheduled to depart and get in the stand-by line — there are sure to be extra seats.