Where Hollywood magic is made

Melissa Burdick Harmon

For many movie lovers, Hollywood is a state of mind, a magical “somewhere” that creates the stories that define our collective lives.

Yet Hollywood is much more than that. It is bustling movie studios. It is big business with bottom lines to be met. It is a clutter of memorabilia from more than a century of film making. It is museums created to preserve past celluloid glory. It is footprints of the famous made immortal in the sidewalk cement. It is cheesy maps to follow where the stars may or may not actually live.

It is bawdy and gaudy, and tons of fun to visit. It is, quite simply, the imagination capital of the United States.

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Films have been rolling out of Hollywood for more than a century, dating back to 1911, when the Centaur Film Company of Bayonne, N.J., relocated to California and started shooting movies in a former tavern. The next step in the evolution of Hollywood can actually be experienced at the tiny Hollywood Heritage Museum, located in a circa 1895 barn just across the street from the landmark Hollywood Bowl. This barn was where some of the earliest silent movies were made.

The good news is that visitors can still actually get inside some of today’s real, big-time studios to see how the magic is made, day after day. Arguably the best, especially for grown-ups, is the Paramount Studios tour, where you can see filming, visit sound stages, perhaps catch a glimpse of a face you know only from celluloid, and learn a lot about the magic is made (“Titanic” was filmed here).

The Warner Brothers Studio Tour, in Burbank, is also excellent. You will ride past a pretty town square (once frequented by the Gilmore Girls), pass a lagoon deep in the jungle, ogle a big city streetscape, see the inside of a sound stage, and perhaps spot celebrities at work. If you have kids along, the place to go is Universal Studios in Universal City. This experience feels far more like you are in an amusement park than a working studio, yet the creativity that makes the movies magical has been extended to such marvels as a bizarre rollercoaster-esque tour through “The SimpsonsSpringfield, a hair-raising visit to “Jurassic Park,” and “Shrek” in 4D. It may not be about making movies, but it sure is fun.

For a more reality-based look at the world of the silver screen, don’t miss a visit to The Hollywood Museum, packed with some 10,000 pieces of movie memorabilia. Ever hankered to see the jail cell where Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) was imprisoned in “The Silence of the Lambs”? This is the place to go. You can look at the scripts used by the stars, take a good look at their costumes (we’re talking Marilyn Monroe’s unforgettable dress, Elvis’s bathrobe, and Boris Karloff’s mummy, among literally hundreds of costumes that will bring back thousands of memories for visitors). This “Official Museum of Hollywood” even has cars from the stars. Its location, in the old Max Factor Building on Hollywood Boulevard at Highland Avenue, keeps it right in the heart of the action.

Then there is the real iconic Hollywood, the stuff we’ve all seen in photos a hundred times. The Hollywood sign (never mind that its original purpose was a plan to sell real estate in the Hollywood Hills, in a development to be called “Hollywoodland”) never came to completion, but it is a major landmark and a nice hiking destination, although you can’t actually access the sign, which has been fenced off.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame—all those stars in the pavement along both Hollywood and Vine, two of the world’s most fabled streets—continues to grow, with a new star typically added on the third Thursday of each month, right at noon. It’s a great opportunity to spot celebrities. The newest star, as of June 14, is Jennifer Lopez, the 2,500th star to shine at Hollywood and Vine.

Then there are the great iconic movie palaces that tower like cathedrals over Hollywood Boulevard. The classic Egyptian Theater, renovated to the tune of $15 million, stands proud, shows superb films, and is open at select times for tours by well-informed docents. The former Grauman’s Chinese Theater, now called the TCL Chinese Theater , has also been spiffed up to within an inch of its life, and the footprints (not to mention Jimmy Durante’s nose) remain in the cement.

And perhaps the best, or at least tackiest, thing to do in Hollywood: buy one of the many available maps to the stars’ homes, get in your car and see what you can see (this writer once saw Lucille Ball coming out of her home, just exactly where the map said she would be). It’s fun, and it will likely take you through Beverly Hills and into extremely posh Bel Air. Even if you don’t see a single star shimmer, you we see some lovely parts of Los Angeles.