HOLLYWOOD — If a veteran of the studio system of 50 years ago were suddenly found wandering in a commissary, circa 1997, he would be in for a culture shock. He might wonder if he were in a studio at all, or rather the dining room of an insurance company. Staring down the rows of “suits” dining at their tables, his confusion would be understandable.
The commissaries of the heyday of the studio system were much less corporate, most veterans agree. Instead of echelons of “suits,” there were more filmmakers in evidence and especially more actors and actresses, many of them in full makeup and costume, since they were all shooting films on the lot. There were also special tables for designated artists — the writers’ tables in particular were a studio staple, where intense debates would often be waged over the midday meal.
“The commissary tended to be full of actors and directors because they were all under contract,” says David Brown, a veteran producer who was a senior executive at 20th Century Fox under the Darryl Zanuck regime. The top executives, he says, tended to repair to the executive dining room where Zanuck himself held forth (never in a tie or suit). His guests might include anyone from Walter Winchell to Khrushchev.
In those days, Brown recalled, both cigars and whiskey were not uncommon in the executive dining rooms and were also prevalent in the commissary at Pinewood , which was also usually thick with smoke.
While stars today tend to eat in their dressing rooms, the top stars of the studio system often hung out in the commissary. John Wayne in his heyday was a regular in the Paramount commissary, downing a mammoth steak and trading stories with other stars. “It was a sort of a club,” one veteran screenwriter recalls. “It felt friendly and supportive, even if the food was lousy.”