Tuesday, February 5, 2013

He's here, the Phantom of the Opera...

When I was writing my short story "Casting Couch" I based one of my characters on the great Lon Chaney - loosely of course. (Be forewarned, it's a dirty like sex romp. You have been cautioned) Chaney was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces and was a pioneer in the field of movie make-up. However this blog isn't about him...per se. It is about Soundstage 28 on the Universal Studios Backlot. I know what you're thinking, why the heck did you mention Chaney if you're going to talk about a soundstage. Well, I'll tell you, my little blog loves. You see Soundstage 28 is where they filmed The Phantom of the Opera. The 1925 Lon Chaney version of the classic LeRoux tale.

The soundstage 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.

Prior to the construction of soundstage 28, Hollywood soundstages 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 theatre girl. Give me a break) The Phantom stage was truly one of the first of its kind and the precursor to the modern soundstage. (Not the green screen soundstages 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 soundstage 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 scarey Phantom make-up.

The chandelier stood on the soundstage 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 backlot tour at Universal make sure to ask your guide about Soundstage 28. I've no doubt they'll be happy to share a ghost story or two about the historic building. And who knows...you might just catch a glimpse of the Phantom.

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