Its hosted two summer Olympics and the very first Super Bowl but today this beautiful old arena has another job: to make magic when the movies come calling
Deep inside the first Super Bowl stadium, another illusion becomes reality. This happens regularly at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. And so tonight a new group of Green Bay Packers stand on the sideline that Vince Lombardi prowled in Super Bowl I. They lurk in a shadowy, backlit fog, wearing yellow Packers helmets, green Packers jerseys and yellow Packers pants, and looking to all the world like gladiators of the apocalypse.
Only these Packers are not real. Their uniforms are props pulled from a Hollywood stockroom. The fog is a mist churning from a clattering machine next to the stands. Even the tunnel from which these pretend Packers will run is a plywood stand covered with plaster to look like the side of a stadium wall.
From the gloom a voice shouts: Action!
And the fake Packers burst through the make-believe tunnel, on a mission to sell America more cans of soup.
The first Super Bowl stadium has history. LAs Coliseum is the only place to host two summer Olympics. This is where Sandy Koufax once pitched in the World Series, where OJ Simpson slashed through UCLAs defense, and where Evel Knievel jumped 50 cars on a motorbike, landing with nary a broken bone. In a few months, the NFL will return for three temporary seasons. Butabout 40 times a year, the stadium that is USCs home football field lives a secret life as Hollywoods only 93,607-seat sound stage for movies, TV shows and commercials.
When the phone rings, you never know who is going to be on the other end, says Joe Furin, the Coliseums general manager. You never know who youre going to come across. You never know who youre going to run into every day.
Maybe its Clint Eastwood or Katy Perry, or a famous director with a peculiar request. Theyve all been around in recent years. Here is a partial list of the titles that have been filmed in the Coliseum and the 16,000-seat Sports Arena next door: Rocky, Forget Paris, Blades of Glory, The Last Boy Scout and Money Talks.
Over 92 years, Hollywood has filled the Coliseum with zombies of death, murderous football players and deranged terrorists hell-bent on destroying the world. It has made winners out of losers and has tried to find The Biggest Loser. It has saved lives and stopped criminal masterminds. It gave Buster Keaton a pole vaulters pole and placed a revolver in the live, warm hands of Charlton Heston then let him pull the trigger.
But mostly the stadium serves a more utilitarian purpose as the anonymous backdrop for ads and photo shoots. Whenever a script demands a stadium or a field, one of the first calls a location scout makes is to Tina Boonmag, the Coliseums events manager who handles filmings. They ask to bring trucks filled with cameras and lights down the buildings great, long tunnel and make the stands or field or concourses their own for a day. Almost always, the object is not to make the Coliseum the star but to conceal its true identity, rendering it whatever the director wants it to become.
The illusion can be anything. Last fall, the TV show The Goldbergs had to make believe a section of the Coliseums stands was actually at a baseball park. Earlier this month, another sitcom created a fake Janet Jackson concert. Whenever Hollywood needs, a team of Coliseum workers will scramble to help.
Much of our job is turning creativity into reality, says Matt Hollan, the Coliseums sports turf and grounds manager.
The plot of the commercial being shot tonight is simple: the viewer follows a fictitious player though his football life from pee-wee ball, to high school, to college and eventually the NFL, while his mother stands by his side, cheering him on. Scenes for the pee-wee and high school years had been shot the day before at a nearby high school. But the college and pro segments needed a big-league facility, which is how the fake Packers wound up here.
To sell the notion that the college and pro years arent set in the same stadium, the schedule calls for separate shootings: one the afternoon with the player and his team-mate clad in the rusty maroon uniforms of a college called State and the night-time taping of the same player as a Packer.
When the director rang location scout Greg Campeau looking for places to film the commercial, Campeau immediately thought of the Coliseum. Most in his business usually do. Over the years, the stadium has earned a reputation of being easy for film crews to work with. The downtown location near two freeways and its massive tunnel makes for easy access, and the fact that in recent years the primary tenant uses the field for just six games a year leaves gaps in the schedule.
Its a go-to place because its here, says Ben Herndon, a Hollywood journalist and historian, who watched all the movies filmed in the Coliseum for the Guardian. Its cheaper than CGI and you can have zombies in the Coliseum. Its the best-dressed set in town.
Often directors dont even want the Coliseum or a stadium at all. Instead they need to shoot a scene in a large bathroom or film a quick image of a turnstile and find it easier to drive across town to the Coliseum rather than build a set themselves. The Coliseum, it turns out, is a gold mine of obscure filming locations, something its workers would have never guessed. Once, Hollan once took a film crew to a run-down shed on the stadiums grounds, a place so dreary he didnt even want to step inside. The film crew made it a corporate boardroom.
You have no idea how much theseum is on your televsion. Many of the Dr Pepper college football ads have been shot here as have commercials for Coca-Cola and Verizon. Several of the State Farm scenes of Mayhem have taken place in or around the Coliseum. In 2012, Chrysler ran a Super Bowl ad in which Eastwood slowly walked down a dark tunnel lamenting the decline of American ingenuity. Most watching assumed the tunnel was in Detroit, but Eastwood was in the Coliseum. The telltale sign is the unique concrete pattern of the tunnels walls, visible in the opening scene.
I drive my kids nuts when I walk by the TV and say: Coliseum, Coliseum, thats the Coliseum, Furin says.
Hollan came here three years ago from Iowa. He arrived with an extensive understanding of sod and seeds and watering patterns, but knew nothing about making films or commercials. Aside from a certain baseball diamond in the middle of cornstalks, there havent been many movies made on Iowa sports fields. Building backdrops for Hollywood productions was the last thing he expected to do.
But it has become one of the biggest parts of his job. He spends hours assessing requests from directors, consulting with his staff about the demands of each shoot. His office, tucked behind a sliding steel door under the stadiums west stands is filled with the normal groundskeepers tools: tractors, hoses and even orange end zone pylons and 10-yard chains for game days. More and more it also includes props for movies.
You can usually begin to predict things, like, for instance, a football filming you can predict what they will want, Hollan says. But theres usually one thing that will catch you off guard and make you say: I never heard of that before.
Remember the Buffalo Wild Wings commercial where the bartender pushes a button to make the cooling fans behind the players bench blow a field goal wide? That was filmed at the Coliseum.
In the ad, the row of cooling fans blows towels off heads, onions off a hot dog and sends equipment flying. But in reality the 10 sideline fans could never generate that kind of force. The Buffalo Wild Wings people needed something with far greater power. So they brought in the motor from an airboat like the kind alligator hunters use on the bayou.
I just happened to be walking in and the whole thing was a wind tunnel, Furin says with a laugh. They had that large fan blowing and someone was throwing papers into it. Stuff was flying all over the place.
Until the NFL barged back in last week with one and maybe two new temporary teams for next fall, the Coliseum had the time and space for Hollywood. Once the building and its neighboring arena were the center of LA sports: the home field for the NFLs Rams, then later the Raiders; USC, UCLA and for four years, baseballs Dodgers. Then, slowly, the teams moved away to their own fields. Basketballs Lakers played in the Sports Arena from 1960-1967 and the Clippers from 1984-1999. Both buildings were rendered dinosaurs in an era of flying saucer stadiums and space-age arenas.
After the Raiders left in 1994, several proposals were made to transform the Coliseum into a modern football palace, but the stadiums designation as a historic landmark and the fiercely protective Coliseum Commission that oversees it fights against radical change. What is left is a magnificent old horseshoe stadium, with 90 rows of seats. It looks almost the same as when it opened in 1923.
The white stone peristyle, with its graceful arches and the Olympic torch remain, still glowing like Greek ruins in the afternoon sun. But aside from USCs football games, the field has hardly seen sports over the last two decades. It is an impractical building for professional sports. The same is true for the Sports Arena, with its ghostly-dark stands and perfect concert acoustics rendered useless in todays world of luxury suites and club sections.
In 2013, USC took over the daily operations of the Coliseum and Sports Arena, and Furin, a one-time Coliseum worker, was brought in to plan the buildings future. Lately, that future has been Hollywood.
The non-ticketed, non-public event we have been searching for, says Furin.
His introduction to showbusiness came when he was a student at USC in the late 1980s. For extra money he helped out at Clippers games and did odd jobs around the Coliseum. Among the first of those was to run the stadiums scoreboard during an Italian suit commercial starring Carl Lewis. Furins primary responsibility was to post the logos of each suit company on the scoreboard. The shoot lasted eight hours and since everyone but he and Lewis spoke Italian, Furin spent much of the afternoon chatting with an Olympic champion.
It was great, he says.
Now, as the man in charge of the Coliseum, Furin encourages production companies to call, but he never advertises this part of his staffs services. Everything is word-of-mouth, which in Hollywood is pretty much how business works anyway. One of his newest ventures is luring huge concert tours to spend two weeks using the Sports Arena as a practice ground, fine tuning lighting, setting up and taking apart stages and loading and unloading the huge trucks that haul equipment across the country. He offers free rent to anyone who promises to book a show.
In recent years, several big concert tours have practiced in the arena, filling the corridors with the mid-day rumble of electric guitars. Even the last two Super Bowl shows were rehearsed in the Sports Arena with Katy Perry swirling around the empty stands and Bruno Mars singing into the stillness.
I still cant believe I had the left shark outside my office for two weeks! Boonmag says.
Over the years, the Coliseum has seen all kinds of entertainment. Not all of it the kind of you boast about on the official website. A series of raves held at the Coliseum before Furins tenure were banned after a 15-year-old girl overdosed on ecstasy and died in 2010. Two years later, it was revealed that in 2001 a different kind of Hollywood production had been shot on the Coliseum field. The Gangbang Girl #32 does not appear on any official lists of Coliseum movies but it was clearly filmed late one night in the stadiums stands and on its turf and the uproar over this discovery simmered though several Los Angeles news cycles.
Coliseum workers joke that as a result, a police helicopter always appears above the stadium within 10 minutes of their tuning on the lights.
They say this just as they are about to switch on the stadiums light banks for the fake Packers commercial. Almost on cue, a roaring can be heard as the lights slowly come to life. Everyone swings their head to the west side of the stands where a police chopper climbs above the stadiums rim. Apparently, pretend Packers emerging from a man-made fog does not interest the copters pilot and soon the helicopter rumbles into the darkness.
Change is coming, however, and soon the Coliseums glamorous double-life may temporarily halt. Furin is hoping to receive permission from the Coliseum Commission for the Rams to play there the next three seasons, and the Rams may soon be joined by the San Diego Chargers, suddenly making the Coliseum a very busy place from August to early January. Giving the field to a production company for even an afternoon seems unlikely. After that, the field will probably need time to recover.
When the NFL leaves, Furin hopes to begin a renovation that will add suites and other modern stadium amenities. The goal is to be finished well before the 2024 Olympics, which may well wind up in Los Angeles and inside the Coliseum for the third time.
By then, the Sports Arena will have long been gone. The building where John F Kennedy was nominated in 1960 was given a death sentence last spring, not long before it turned 56. Furin longed to save it, but years of neglect had rendered a renovation to be too costly. This spring, just after Bruce Springsteen closes the arena with a concert, it will be torn down and replaced by a new home for the MLSs Los Angeles Football Club. Time goes on.
Furin gazes around his office, located for now in the doomed Sports Arena, and he smiles.
This is a great old hall for sweaty rocknroll, he says.
Outside, the fake Packers stand on the Coliseum turf, surrounded by fake fans who seem glad to have fluffy green Packers blankets on an unusually-chilly Southern California night. The fog spills across the grass as workers adjust the glow of the Coliseums lights.
And with the peristyle and the Olympic torch glimmering more than 100 yards away, the first Super Bowl stadium looks every bit a great, beautiful relic that could live forever.
Thanks to the magic of Hollywood, it will.
Read more: www.theguardian.com