All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
For some time I have been besieged with requests to describe some of the moments I spent in the 1950s on the major studio stages as an extra. It’s my intent to reminisce about those times in these blogs.
It’s hard to explain just how I felt when I entered the studio enclosure in the 1950s. As you know the major studios were surrounded by walls so you could not look in from the street. When we were booked on a show, we went to a special gate for extras. At MGM for instance there was a barred window like a bank teller window facing the street. We appeared in front of the window and gave the person inside our name. He checked to see if we were booked. Then he buzzed a gate that let us push it open to enter the fairyland of the studio. Inside the gate the streets were beehives of endless activity. Little powered carts running in all directions delivering people or materials to the sound stages. Around each stage on which filming was occurring, red lights stood at all four corners. When the lights went on, all activity and sound within sight of the light came to a screeching halt. As I walked to the stage which I had been told to report to, I passed many stars and day players. But we never stared at them or approached them unless they began a conversation with you. This was simple studio etiquette. Oh yeah, it was also an SEG no no rule. 🙂
Still shot from The Student Prince. I’m at left.
Many extras I knew where sitting outside the stages they were working on. As time permitted I would stop and chat with them to get the latest scuttlebutt. All the extras on the lot would relate to each other the latest rumors surrounding the stars.
Much of the charm was seeing so many people in different costumes depending on the movie they were acting in and then at lunch time, the commissary was always filled to overflowing with a mix of famous stars, extras, and all the other workers at the studio, like a big family gathering.
By contrast the studios of today have the lost the fairy tale charm of the 1950s. For instance when I work at Sony Studios which is the old MGM, it is very sad to walk in the narrow alleys between the stages and remember all the good times and friends I had there in the golden days. Because the studios are mostly in the stage renting business today you no longer have the family feeling of belonging that enveloped us before. Much of that was due to the 1940-50s studio contract system so the same group of stars shared the stages for years… kind of like working for a single employer. Now because there are so many individual production companies coming and going through the lots no one fraternizes to any degree. The annual Christmas party at Four Star Productions for all the employees on the old Republic Studios lot is just a fond memory when Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, Ida Lupino and, David Niven took time to chat with each of us employees and regular stand-ins like myself.
Let me get started on a few blogs to see how it plays. I will then return to this summary with a more in-depth discussion. I was most active in the studios from 1953 to 1963. I was indeed lucky to have been a participant during what most agree were the golden years of the major studios.