Monday, May 27, 2013

Phantom of Sound Stage 28

By Courtney Sheets
When I was writing a short story set in Hollywood, I based one of my characters on the great Lon Chaney - loosely of course. Chaney was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces and was a pioneer in the field of movie make-up. I love history and most especially Hollywood history so when I was doing my research on Chaney I found some really interesting things.  (If I could be a film historian in addition to a writer, I would be the happier then fleas on a dog)

I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you some of the fun facts I discovered. However this blog isn't about him...per se. It is about Sound Stage 28 on the Universal Studios Back lot. I know what you're thinking, why the heck did you mention Chaney if you're going to talk about a sound stage. Well, I'll tell you, my little blog loves. You see Sound stage 28 is where they filmed The Phantom of the Opera. The 1925 Lon Chaney version of the classic Le Roux tale.

The sound stage is still known as 28 but also carries the name The Phantom Stage mainly because the much of the 1925 set still resides inside....and so does the ghost of Lon Chaney. (See now I have your interest)

Prior to the construction of sound stage 28, Hollywood sound stages basically consisted of a raised platform built outside with a muslin covering which could be pulled over the set to defuse glare. (Muslin is a semi-porous fabric that allows some light to shine through. It is used still for flats for theatrical and film productions because paint adheres well to it and it is relatively inexpensive to buy in bulk. I'm a nerdy theater girl. Give me a break) The Phantom stage was truly one of the first of its kind and the precursor to the modern sound stage. (Not the green screen sound stages but I digress) When Universal announced The Phantom, the biggest problem they had was the building an entire replica of the Paris Opera house. So the construction department built the very first steel and concrete sound stage to house the thing. It has since been renovated for talkies.
The chandelier the Phantom drops on the unsuspecting audience was an exact replica of the one in Paris. It weighed 16,000 pounds and measure 40 feet in diameter. Universal executives were a little weary about something so expensive being brought to a crashing disaster (not to mention the 3000 extras seated below the monstrosity) so the cameraman, Charles Van Enger, had an idea to film the fixture being pulled back up to the ceiling and then reversing it in editing. Viola. The Phantom kills a bunch of people and the 1920s ladies swoon at the carnage...and Chaney's scary Phantom make-up. (Honest to goodness, women fainted at the sight. Medical teams were kept in the lobby of many theaters showing the picture for that very reason)

The chandelier stood on the sound stage until 1965 when Alfred Hitchcock had it taken down and placed in storage. (It was in the way of his filming 'Torn Curtain) It has since disappeared. Seriously a 16,000 pound light fixture vanished. It might have been lost in the fire that swept through the studio or perhaps it was cannibalized for parts. We'll never know. It's not like it is something you can slip in your pocket and sell on Ebay without anyone knowing.

However, the seating of the Paris Opera house interior still stands as does the staircase that Lon Chaney appears on as the Red Death. Rumors abound that Chaney's ghost can be seen running through the catwalks high about the soundstage or even on the bus stop that used to stand just a few feet outside the doors. If Chaney is there it seems the best place for his spirit to call home as he immortalized the Phantom as no other actor has done.

Next time you take the back lot tour at Universal make sure to ask your guide about Sound stage 28. I've no doubt they'll be happy to share a ghost story or two about the historic building. And who might just catch a glimpse of the Phantom.

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