Today, July 15th, we offer our congratulations to Universal Studios Hollywood on 50 years of their world famous Studio Tram Tour and the genesis of their theme park operations. You provided the masses with a chance to peek backstage at a real movie studio and there is still nothing quite like it. What is even more remarkable is how much change has come to Universal City since 1964.
During the time that I have been trying to get you to buy The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream, I have been writing another book with another incredibly long title. The new book, due in mid-November is Universal Versus Disney: The Unofficial Guide to America’s Greatest Theme Park Rivalry.
A Functional Test of the Studio Tour
To get started, Albert Dorskind asked for $4 million to design trams, build a food court, parking lots, and restrooms. He assured his bosses that the tour would fit in with the other branches of MCA/Universal and would appeal to a worldwide audience. He suggested the various technical crafts and studio assets could be mobilized such as art directors, special effects experts, and the props, and the studio already had all the talent they needed on hand to create something memorable.
Lew Wasserman agreed so long as the tour was based on three basic principles. First, the tour could not interfere with studio production. Second, Wasserman wanted the guests who visit to “leave as our friends, thinking well of us and identifying in a positive manner with our products”. Finally, he said, “Although we must charge, it is our policy to give top dollar value in our entertainment.” Dorskind got the green light and preparation for the tour could begin.
Although almost half of Universal City was vacant land, much of that was the hillside that attracted Laemmle to buy the property in the first place. Dorskind needed to find a place to put the tour facilities that did not interfere with production. Back in 1960, he needed to create more room for new production facilities and sold 700,000 cubic yards of hilltop to the State of California at five cents a yard. The dirt was used as fill for the Hollywood Freeway. For the Studio Tour, he did the same thing. MCA removed 50,000 cubic yards to create a nine-acre parking lot with room enough for 1,000 cars. To make room for the future tour center, an additional 450,000 cubic yards of dirt was removed.
The tour’s first general manager was Barry Upson. He said, “My original task was to put [the tour] together physically, staff it, operate it, and oversee it”.
Upson had been working on the 1962 Century Exposition in Seattle the previous five years and was looking for his next opportunity. He had met Buzz Price on a couple of occasions at the fair and Price recommended him to Dorskind as the man for the job. Upson said, “Apparently, [Price] decided I was young and cheap and he could recommend me to Dorskind”.
Dorskind and Upson began to experiment with a single two-car tram in the spring of 1964. Movie publicist Herb Steinberg drafted the first script along with help from Upson. Bud Dardene from Mini-Bus, Inc. built the prototype tram. The tram was equipped with a six-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. The seats faced out toward the side instead of the current configuration of facing forward. If you wanted to see something on the other side of the tram you would be unable to do so.
The secretaries from the MCA Tower were invited to take the inaugural tour. As the tram left the lower lot and slowly crawled up the steep Firehouse Road toward the construction site for the new tour center, it broke down. The tram could not move forward and it could not back up. As a result, 60 angry secretaries had to walk back to their offices on the Front Lot. The six-cylinder engines were replaced by a V-8. Further tests proved to be more successful.
On June 17, 1964, the Universal Studios Tour was opened to the public with the official grand opening on July 15, 1964. Dorskind and Wasserman would not allow any advertising. Barry Upson called the opening in 1964 “a functional test to see whether it was a business or not. Everybody thought it was going to be a good business”.
The new commissary building served as the tour center for the first year while construction for the Studio Entertainment Center took place. Those first guests purchased their tickets at a trailer parked along Lankershim Boulevard. The offices were in a Quonset hut nearby. The opening day staff consisted of a ticket seller, two guides, two trams, and two tram drivers. Admission was $3.50 per adult.
Goodwill For An Industry That Needs It
Tourists boarded a futuristic looking custom-built tram designed by Disney Imagineer Harper Goff, who was responsible for much of the design for Main Street USA and Adventureland at Disneyland. He was also the Art Director for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Captain Blood, and many other films. The attractive trams were called GlamorTrams and had a distinctive profile that gave the impression that they were leaning forward.
Bud Dardene and Mini-Bus, Inc. built three three-car GlamorTrams at a cost of $30,000 each. Each tram was painted orange and white and carried 67 visitors, also known as “rubberneckers”. Learning from the past, the trams were stocked with a more robust drivetrain.
Dorskind joked, “The projections were that we’d be lucky to break even. We built our first three passenger trams with engines that could fit into our regular trucks if the idea didn’t work”. Unknown to many people was MCA was hedging their bets and had feasibility studies under way to determine if Universal City would be the appropriate site for a World’s Fair in 1968 or 1969.
The first Universal Studios tour guide hired in 1964 was Tommy L. Mack, who would set the standard and was named the tour’s personnel director a year later. Mack was also African-American. This was at a time when Disneyland restricted African-American Cast Members to backstage or performer roles. Disneyland’s policy changed in 1968.
When the tour was over, the trams returned to the Commissary. Down in the basement was a make-up show and a costume exhibit. Herb Steinberg suggested the make-up demonstration. Upson hired the legendary Westmore brothers, Bud, Percival, and Wally. Known for their trademark white jacket, white pants, and white shoes, twice a day one of the brothers would select a lucky person whose name was drawn from a glass bowl to sit in a gold chair with a gold cloth around her neck and be made up as a glamorous star. Nearby was an exhibit of costumes by Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head.
According to Bob Rains, a publicist at Universal, on the first day of the tour Jules Stein went to Lew Wasserman and told him that he now believed that the tour would make the company money. “But we do have a serious problem,” Stein added. He removed an admission ticket from his pocket and said, “Look at this! Nobody took my ticket after I purchased it.” He complained, “If something is not done to correct the situation, people will be giving their tickets to others once they leave the tour grounds. Think of the money we will be losing”. Wasserman told Stein he would take care of it right away.
One of the first visitors taking the new tour was the influential syndicated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. After the tour, she hurried back to her office and wrote, “For years I’ve been howling for the [Hollywood] studios to do something for millions of tourists who come to our town expecting to see how pictures are made”. Their only option was “looking at a bunch of footprints in concrete” and she wondered, “It needn’t have taken a great brain to know that giving a movie fan a look inside never-never land could be a money making proposition and also generate good will for an industry that needs it”.
Hopper scolded the Hollywood community for sitting “on their minds and hands”. The only man she applauded was Walt Disney “who up and built himself a Disneyland that turned out to be one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. It must have given Jules Stein food for thought”. According to Barry Upson, her column is what launched the tour in the public’s mind.
Philip Scheuer of The Los Angeles Times was also impressed. He said, “It’s about time – or, better late than never”. On September 28, Universal notified theater owners that they had “been experimenting with an extended tour program at Universal City Studios, designed to give all visitors to Southern California an intimate look into the production and glamour of our industry”. They encouraged the exhibitors to visit as their guests and to tell their patrons about the new attraction. Attendance that first year was 39,000 visitors. The tour may have lost money the first year but that was okay for now.
For Wasserman, the successful launch of the tour meant it could help MCA to avoid the inevitable volatility of moviemaking. Biographer Connie Bruck said Wasserman was “a firm believer in diversification, he had started to follow Disney’s amusement park lead, with the Universal City Tour. He was determined to take advantage of the real estate potential of the 420-acre Universal Studios property”. Buzz Price agreed, “Universal Studios is the giant that woke up some 8 years after Disneyland. It effectively and aggressively leveraged some sleeping assets: a great location, a large interesting site, a great brand name, and a great library of intellectual properties”. Bigger things were just around the corner.
Please join us in wishing Universal Studios Hollywood Tram Tour a happy anniversary in the comments below with your memories, thoughts and favorite elements over its 50 year run.
If you enjoyed today’s article, you’ll probably want to pre-order my upcoming book on Universal Studios history:
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