I’m a romantic, and it is nice to know I’m not alone.
Nearly 15-years-ago I wore a polyester suit and tie, affixed a pseudo-brass plated name tag and peacock pin to the lapel of the jacket, and led a group of strangers on an $8.50 tour of the NBC studios in Burbank. Affectionately known as the “brown door tour,” most of what tourists saw on any given day were the closed doors of a working TV studio. Being a page is a rite-of-passage in the industry, and leading tours was an integral part of that experience. I used the word “was,” because tours are now in the past tense in Burbank.
Earlier this week a friend and former page posted on Facebook that the tours were coming to an end. Over the last few years NBC has been moving departments onto the Universal Studios facilities, and the historic Burbank studios, once home to The Gong Show, The Midnight Special, and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, are being mothballed. The facility itself has already been sold, and NBC is leasing it back for the duration of the transition. An era in network television has come to an end without fanfare or recognition, and some of us didn’t think that was right.
It turned out, more than a few of us weren’t content to let things end with a whimper. I suggested to fellow former pages that we should join the last tour, soak up the nostalgia, and heckle whatever hapless page had the misfortune of leading us on the tour. However, my idea was not original. I estimated 50 former pages (and romantics) showed up for the ultimate studio tour. People who had worn the polyester back in the 1970s (when it might have been considered fashionable) joined people who had only recently removed it for other entry level positions in the industry. Hundreds of years of Hollywood experience came together — to say goodbye.
The page program, we were reminded, wasn’t going anywhere. But the studio was. This tour represented the last chance many of us would have to set foot on a place that mattered to us. I spent five years, off and on, on the lot. What had once been Carson’s green room was my office for a good chunk of that time. I had a set of keys that opened nearly every door in the building. But more than all of that, I met and was privileged to work with people who had been a part of something creative, innovative, provocative, and entertaining. I have set foot on nearly every Hollywood studio and backlot, but none of them evoked the same feeling as NBC. If it was announced that CBS TV City was shutting down tomorrow, I just don’t think it would matter to me, and I once slept on that lot while working the Jerry Lewis Telethon. As a page I walked the halls of NBC daily; I got to know it better than almost anywhere else I’ve ever lived or worked. Leading tours gave me the opportunity to engage others on the lot, to network, and to transition out of the polyester and into the industry. The page program isn’t going anywhere, but the tours and the studio are. The experience of being a page will be lessened with their absence.
The final tour guide, Ben, did would he could with the loud mouths in the group, and by that I mean me. I probably knew about 15 or so of the former pages, some better than others, but we walked the halls and pointed and gawked at what remained of a once vibrant workplace, now practically a ghost town. We reminisced about the highs and the lows we experienced; some even brought their young children because — try though we might — it just isn’t possible to explain the inner workings of a TV studio to someone who has never seen it up close and personal. We journeyed to the Tonight Show studio, which was not where it should have been, and not hosted by who it ought to be hosted by. We passed the NBC commissary, walked along the virtually empty midway, then back into the main facility.
My one hope on the tour was to sneak into studio one, once home to Carson’s Tonight show (that was the right place and the right host). That hope was realized as we made our way through a side door, and I got to stand one last time where the greats once sang and joked and talked and laughed. Try all you want, you can’t take that away from me. I revere studio one in Burbank much the same way Catholics revere the Vatican. I never met Johnny Carson; he was before my time. But I walked where he walked and I worked where he worked, and I did meet a lot of people who worked with him. Fred DeCordova and Ray Figelski, both no longer with us but their spirit lingers as long as we remember. And even though studio one is now the home to Access Hollywood, those of us who know that building know what was. Try all you want, you can’t take that away from me.
Once we left studio one, my mind was no longer in the present but the past. Memories of things I didn’t think I remembered flooded back into me, people and experiences that don’t deserve to be forgotten. You often hear the word closure and how important it is. At apx. 2:45 p.m. on July 6th, 2012, the ultimate tour of the NBC studios in Burbank concluded. Closure.