As it upgrades its production facilities and expands its theme park, Universal Studios is planning to demolish Stage 28, one of the oldest on the lot, while preserving a 90-year-old set housed in the space and used in the original 1925 silent film “Phantom of the Opera.”
Universal’s plans were unveiled in a newsletter sent to employees last week, but rumors of the soundstage’s removal have spurred a petition drive, with nearly 2,000 signatures urging the studio to save it.
The studio, however, said that the “difficult decision” to remove the stage, built in 1924, came down to logistical challenges. For one, noise is an issue, as it is located just next to Universal’s Transformers theme park attraction.
“It was determined that the amount of investment needed to upgrade this stage will be better used in the future to bring additional production capabilities to the lot,” Universal said in the newsletter. The area will be cleared to make way for theme park expansion.
Universal said that it was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar preservation effort to save the set from “Phantom of the Opera,” above, and move it to another location. The studio is in discussions with museums and institutions, hoping that it will be accessible for public view wherever it ends up. Universal says that 50% or less of the set is from its original construction, with sections altered from the ’30s to the ’60s.
“Initially, we were unsure if the set, with portions that are nearly ninety years old, could be removed and reassembled in a new home,” the studio said in the newsletter. “Now, with the help of a team of expert preservationists, our own archivists, forensics and some amazing 21st century tools like three-dimensional imaging, we have begun the delicate and precise work of ensuring that much of this set becomes accessible and a lasting part of film history.”
Stage 28 is not the oldest on the lot. Three buildings — stages 3&4, 5&6 and 16&17 — were constructed in 1916.
Studio representatives briefed officials from organizations including the American Film Institute and Hollywood Heritage Museum on their plans, and have contacted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which is planning to create a motion picture museum at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.
Bryan Cooper, president of the Hollywood Heritage Museum, said that their focus has been to save historic studio buildings from demolition, and asked if the stage could be preserved and the set featured as part of the studio tour.
But he said that, from his discussions with Universal executives, it came down to an issue of real estate as it remakes its property.
“I see both sides of it, honestly,” he said.
But he gave Universal credit for making the effort to save the set, a rare surviving set piece from the silent era. “The fact that they are taking the time to find a home for it says a lot,” he said. “They are spending a lot of money to preserve this. They could have easily dismantled it and be done with it.”
During the 1970s, studios razed many of their backlot sets, most famously MGM in Culver City, where sets for “Showboat” and the Tarzan movies gave way to residential real estate development. Universal has had reason to save parts of its backlot, as locations for movies like “Psycho” have long been part of the tour, though some facades have been moved to new spots on the lot.
Among the movies that also have shot on Universal’s Paris Opera House set are “Dracula,” a 1943 remake of “Phantom,” “Man of a Thousand Faces” and “The Sting.” Rumors of the planned demolition of the soundstage were posted on numerous blogs this week, including Inside Universal and the Studio Tour.
The studio said that it is investing $500 million on the lot over the next five years, including the recently opened Tom Brokaw News Center. Its expansion plans for its theme park include a the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, currently under construction and expected to open in 2016.
Universal has not announced a date for when the stage will be demolished, as it first will require asbestos removal. It also plans to put the set in storage in the interim.
The studio also is making a documentary on the preservation effort, which it says will be “an invaluable tool in helping future historians understand how film sets were constructed, used, and altered during the first six decades of Hollywood filmmaking.”