It has withstood fires, earthquakes, the birth of talking pictures and the ever-increasing encroachment of studio tours. But Universal Studio's Stage 28 is best remembered for one very famous star's performance in a classic film. The star was Lon Chaney, and the film was "Phantom of the Opera."
While many studio stages have been home to some of Hollywood's most popular motion pictures, Stage 28, or The Phantom Stage as it is better known, stands alone in Hollywood history because no other stage on any studio lot has ever been named for one particular picture. Even the other Universal stages where they filmed such classics as "All Quiet on the Western Front," "My Little Chickadee," "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man" never received such a familiar denomination.
Just when The Phantom Stage got its name is unclear. Old-timers at Universal don't have an explanation, and film historians, even the former head of the studio's research department, cannot give a definite date to the naming of this famous stage. The best guess is that it was first called The Phantom Stage during the making of that classic picture. This theory is supported by Charles Van Enger, the cameraman for "Phantom of the Opera" who stated in a 1973 interview that, "we always referred to it as The Phantom Stage during production. As far as I know that's where the title came from."
But the stage itself is the thing that makes a Hollywood legend. Prior to its construction in 1924, the stages used for early Hollywood productions were simply raised platforms built outside, with a muslin covering which could be pulled over the set to defuse the glare. By 1916, many of these outdoor stages were being replaced by stages built out of glass and wood, protecting the performers and the sets from rainy weather, but which were far from comfortable during the summer months. Fully enclosed stages began cropping up on studio lots by the early 1920's, several of which are still standing.
When Universal announced their plans to film "Phantom of the Opera," the biggest challenge to Universal's construction department was how to erect a stage that could house a complete replica of the interior of the Paris opera house. No existing stage in Hollywood could handle this enormous set, so Universal built the first steel and concrete stage in Hollywood (the stage measures 360 feet long and 145 feet wide). After the concrete foundation was poured, the Llewellyn Steel Company started construction on the steel frame.
The walls and roof were covered with corrugated metal (which still serves as the outside shell of the stage today), and the whole outside was covered with wood. The largest order for lumber, a total of 175,000 feet, was placed with the Hammond Lumber Company of Los Angeles. Taking advantage of the free publicity, Universal made sure each truck dispatched from the lumber yard carried a banner proclaiming, "the largest shipment of lumber for the upcoming production of Phantom of the Opera." The interior of the stage contained scenelofts, trapdoors and other mechanical equipment found in an opera house, which not only lent a touch of authenticity, but allowed the filmmakers to stage a true opera. While many historians thought only the interior of the opera house was filmed on The Phantom Stage, according to cameraman Charles Van Enger, the sets for the Grand Staircase and the giant statue of Apollo that adorns the roof of the opera house were also filmed on this stage. Eleven sculptors and scenic designers were hired to create the various statues and decorations that adorn the Grand Staircase and the opera boxes.
The chandelier, which the Phantom cuts loose upon the unsuspecting audience, was an exact replica of the one in the Paris opera house. Weighing in at 16,000 pounds and measuring 40 feet in diameter, the chandelier was an impressive sight and, no doubt, probably caused a few extras in the audience to question the strength of the chain holding it in place (the set could seat up to 3,000 extras). When it came to filming the crash of the great chandelier, Universal was obviously not thrilled with the prospect of letting a very expensive set decoration be destroyed, not to mention the potential hazard to the extras seated below. Cameraman Charles Van Enger solved the problem by having the chandelier lowered to just above the extras' heads. When the cameras started cranking away, at a very slow speed, the chandelier was pulled back up to the ceiling. The shot was reversed in the developing lab so that when it was projected at the proper speed, the chandelier appeared to come crashing down upon the audience, yet the extras and the huge ornament emerged without a scratch!
Both the opera house and the Grand Staircase sets were photographed in the two-strip Technicolor process. Many of the ballet scenes were photographed in this recently developed technique, but, unfortunately, these scenes were discarded during the frantic editing sessions which took place in order to meet the deadline of the New York premiere on September 6, 1925.
Unlike the wood stages which could no longer be used after the birth of sound, The Phantom Stage got a new lease on life. The wood siding was stripped off, and the interior of the stage was padded to keep out unwanted noise while making talking pictures. It was about this time that the term "sound stage" became a part of Hollywood's vernacular. The stage could now serve as either a theater set or filmmakers could use the back end of the stage to build other sets. For over 40 years the theater set on The Phantom Stage has been used in such Universal pictures as "The Raven," "One Hundred Men and a Girl," the 1943 remake of "Phantom of the Opera," "Torn Curtain," "The Sting" and numerous television shows, including the quickly forgotten series "Sixth Sense" (which heavily featured the famous stage throughout one episode), and most recently it was the home of "Sea Quest DSV." Interestingly, Lon Chaney's 1957 biographical film, "Man of a Thousand Faces," used the stage extensively. Not only did it serve as several different theaters in the picture, but the re-creation of the famous un-masking scene was also shot on this stage. Some say it was rather prophetic that the first and last days of production of Chaney's film biography were shot on the stage where he made one of his most famous pictures. But this famous stage was destined for some changes.
In 1965, when Alfred Hitchcock used the stage for "Torn Curtain," the chandelier was taken down for good and placed in storage at the studio's prop warehouse, where it has since disappeared. Shortly after the chandelier's removal, the audience seats, curtains and backstage materials were also dismantled, and a false floor now covers the vacant area where the audience seats used to be.
In the mid-1940's, a plaque was placed on the stage commemorating the making of Chaney's classic film. Chaney's son Creighton, "Hunchback of Notre Dame" co-star Patsy Ruth Miller and several other co-workers attended the event, but unfortunately the plaque has long since disappeared. The plaque which is shown in the opening credits of "Man of a Thousand Faces" was merely a prop for the picture, although James Cagney and Dorothy Malone did place a commemorative marker on the stage prior to the first day of filming; but that, too, has disappeared. In the 1980's, a painting of a rather poor version of Chaney's now-famous Phantom make-up adorned the sides of the stage, and studio tour guides used to point out the famous stage to visitors, or occasionally take some lucky tour guests on the stage, depending on production schedules. The huge eucalyptus tree which had stood just outside one of the entrance doors to the stage since 1925 has recently been cut down to expand the tour facilities, and today The Phantom Stage sits next to the tour-related effects stages without so much as a whisper from tour guides about its famous lineage.
Despite the recent changes, The Phantom Stage shows no sign of disappearing. And if you're lucky enough to visit this old venerable stage, find a secluded spot and listen. It's been reported one can occasionally hear voices from the past. And why not? The Phantom knows a good place to haunt when he builds one.
copyright 2000 by Michael F. Blake, all rights reserved
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