The Wisteria Lane of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” fame isn’t on any map, but elements of the celebrated street can be found throughout the country.
“We were trying to be a little bit retro in terms of classic conventional America,” says the show’s original production designer, Thomas A. Walsh. “(Series creator) Marc Cherry’s background is Oklahoma, which is true conservative America. We were trying to honor that sensibility and at the same time create an everyplace that was neither a red state nor a blue state.”
After an extensive location scouting process, which included Walsh viewing “Father Knows Best,” “My Three Sons” and other classic TV shows, the cast and crew of “Desperate Housewives” moved to Colonial Street on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood, where Edie et al. have been living ever since.
When they first arrived, they found structures — some built for the 1951 pic “Bedtime for Bonzo” and the 1960s TV comedy “The Munsters” — that were in need of repair. Home styles along the street were a mishmash, from contemporary to ranch to Victorian. The makeover by Walsh’s team included paint, landscaping and yard fixtures to transform the architectural potpourri into a single neighborhood.
The result was a place perfectly suited for a series where everybody’s dirty laundry is on display.
“One of the strengths of the show is that immediate connection from inside to outside,” Walsh says. “We refer to it as the ‘rear window’ effect where you can be in one room and look out the window and see what’s going on in the lives of three other households.”
That idyllic setting was literally blown away last season when the “Desperate Housewives” suburbia was savaged by a tornado. It was transformed again at the start of this season when the storyline moved five years into the future.
The trick for current production designer P. Erik Carlson was to update the look of Wisteria Lane but not shake things up too much.
“Tom had already created a fairly Utopian world, and we wanted to exaggerate and enhance it a little bit more, mostly through the use of color,” says Carlson, who started as the show’s art director early in the first season. “We didn’t want it to feel ridiculously futuristic or viewers would be jarred by the contrast.”
Bree’s house underwent the biggest structural change. The garage was converted into a test kitchen, thanks to the success of her cookbook business, and the dining and living rooms were remodeled.
“For Gabrielle, we went for the opposite effect,” Carlson explains. “Hers was really the only house that didn’t get painted because she was basically going in the opposite direction from Bree. If anything, we actually aged Gaby’s house a little bit, which is the first time we did anything like that on the street.”
In Walsh’s view, the look of the neighborhood goes a long way in telling the story of each of its residents.
“I’ve always felt that we’re there to support the story and not to upstage it,” he says. “Hopefully, at its best, all of the elements that go into the show are a rich ensemble of things that are feeding off of one another.”