Movies: Keeping Hollywood's magic alive
BURBANK, California: Hollywood is notorious for abandoning its past, but luckily there are people like Bob Burns around to pick it up, put it in a cardboard box and take it home.
Burns, who lives on a tranquil, tree- lined street here, has a fair share of Hollywood's institutional memory stashed in the crowded back room of the tidy white bungalow he shares with Kathy, his wife of 50 years.
Bob's Basement, as the collection has come to be known to horror and science-fiction fans (though it has never actually been stored in an underground room) may well be the premier film museum in the Los Angeles area, though it is not open to the public and has no regular hours. People phone and just drop in, drawn from around the world by the glorious clutter of Burns's heaped-up holdings.
In Bob's Basement, for example, you can meet the biggest movie star in the world: the original King Kong, or at least the only surviving 18-inch, or 46- centimeter, armature that the sculptor Marcel Delgado created for the special effects wizard Willis O'Brien, whose painstaking, frame-by-frame animation brought Kong to life in the 1933 film. Kong is a bit slimmer these days, having lost the foam rubber padding and rabbit fur coat he wore when he climbed the Empire State Building.
Today he stands as a marvelously intricate metal skeleton, fashioned out of nuts, bolts and forged steel. His soulful eyes are empty sockets now, but somehow Kong's personality still clings to this totemic object.
When you have in your hand a prop from a movie that's in your psyche, there's a strange emotional connection that is made," said the director Joe Dante, some of whose most famous creations now live in Bob's Basement, including a few versions of the cuddly Gizmo character from "Gremlins" (1984). "Somebody who's into books might have the same feeling in the presence of a manuscript by Charles Dickens."
Burns, 71, is retired from a series of jobs, from film editor to gorilla impersonator. He does not guide his visitors through the collection as much as turn them loose among the mounds of props and costumes and models and matte paintings that he has amassed since he was a boy and became fascinated by the mechanics of movie magic.
Here are the embroidered tunics worn by some of the most famous superheroes of the Republic serials of the 1940s, including Captain America, the Spy Smasher and, suspended in a swooping pose from the ceiling, a dummy wearing the leather flying suit worn by the stuntman Dave Sharpe in "King of the Rocket Men" (1949). Here are the giant black clodhoppers worn by Glenn Strange when he played Frankenstein's monster in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).
There, on the floor, is a melting pink mass with Jeff Goldblum's face, a transitional effect from David Cronenberg's 1986 film "The Fly." A lineup of space helmets includes everything from the ridiculous headgear worn by George Barrows in the endearingly awful 1953 "Robot Monster" to the convincingly high-tech plastic helmet worn by Sigourney Weaver in "Alien."
Almost everything is hands on, ready to be poked and prodded to reveal its secrets. For young special effects buffs hanging out at Bob's has been a way of learning a craft that was not taught in schools. Dennis Muren, now the senior visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic, got his start helping build and run the neighborhood Halloween shows Burns began in 1969.
Rick Baker, who has won six Oscars as a makeup artist, was a shy 13-year- old from Covina, obsessed with makeup and a faithful reader of Burns's magazine Fantastic Monsters of the Films, when he asked his father to call Burns to see if he might pay a visit.
When Baker won the first Academy Award given for makeup, for John Landis's "American Werewolf in London" in 1982, he offered some of the used props to Burns; the huge wolf puppet he created, along with an artificial arm that grows werewolf fingernails when a rod is pressed, retain pride of place in Burns's collection along with three of the alien masks Baker created for the canteen sequence in "Star Wars" and other bits of Baker's work, including the Bela Lugosi mask Martin Landau wore in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood."
Burns was a boy when his family moved to Burbank, which was also home to many technicians and office workers who labored at the nearby movie studios: Warner Brothers, Universal and the vanished Republic.
"I lived next door to a gal who was Roy Barcroft's secretary," Burns recalled, referring to the character actor. The secretary arranged an introduction, and Barcroft invited the 10-year- old Bob Burns to visit Republic, where Barcroft was playing the title role in "The Purple Monster Strikes."
"That day changed my life," said Burns, who now counts Barcroft's Purple Monster costume among his treasures. Later a friend's father turned out to be Ellis Berman, a special effects technician at Universal. He had kept the silver wolf's head cane ornament that Claude Rains used to kill his lycanthropic son in "The Wolf Man" in 1941. Seeing how fascinated the boy was by the prop, Berman offered it to him.
That "silver" ornament is exactly the sort of material manifestation of the special effects artist's work that is rapidly disappearing, as the mechanical effects of yesterday are gradually replaced by digital effects. Baker, who once kept a machine shop busy turning out costumes and props, now does much of his work in the virtual world.
"The best approach is still a combination of the two methods," Baker said. "But the big machine shop is kind of useless now."
Today's special effects will be stored on discs and tapes, not here. But maybe that's just as well. Bob's Basement is filling up.