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Hey, Batman, This Cave Looks Familiar!
By Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer
Article appeared in the Los Angeles Times May 8, 2003

Hey, Batman, This Cave Looks Familiar
An old Griffith Park rock quarry has been a favorite movie and TV backdrop for 80 years. Not everyone can find it. But everybody's probably seen it. That's Bronson Canyon for you, the hidden Hollywood landmark that has a rock-solid reputation as one of the city's most reliable movie backdrops. For generations everything from blockbuster hits to lead-bottomed duds have been filmed there. Old-fashioned Saturday matinee serials, high-tech sci-fi adventures and rough-and-tumble westerns all have unfolded against its jagged backdrop. 

Only a few acres in size, the canyon is actually an old rock quarry that sits at the southern edge of Griffith Park within sight of the Hollywood sign.

What distinguishes it from other abandoned rock pits in the foothills around Los Angeles is the tunnel-like cave that has been carved into one of its granite outcroppings.
And what a cave it is.

For 80 years the cave's four entrances have crawled with giant spiders, glacial monsters and space aliens, cowboys and Indians, futuristic crime-fighters and cavemen, and medieval knights, pioneer settlers and swashbuckling pirates.

The quarry is a short trip up Canyon Drive from most Hollywood studios. Since filming permits are easy to come by from the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the place is irresistible to movie and television producers.

Unknown western using the entrance to the Bronson Canyon cave.

The finale to director John Ford's 1956 masterpiece western "The Searchers," where John Wayne pursues Natalie Wood to the entrance of a cave, was filmed in Bronson Canyon. So were parts of 1962's "Ride the High Country," Frank Capra's 1937 epic "Lost Horizon" and "The Sword and the Sorcerer," released in 1982. The Batmobile roared out of one of the cave's openings in the title scene of the 1960s "Batman" TV series. Episodes of "Gunsmoke," "The Lone Ranger," "Rawhide," "Bonanza," "Little House on the Prairie," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Bat Masterson," "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," "Star Trek Voyager" and "Wonder Woman" were shot there.

The classic 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" owes part of its look to Bronson Canyon. So does 1941's "The Adventures of Captain Marvel," 1938's "Dick Tracy Returns" and the 1933 version of "The Three Musketeers."

Some contend that the "B" in B-movies stands for Bronson Canyon.

Creatures from 1957's "Attack of the Crab Monsters" roamed the cave. It was turned into a mine shaft for 1958's "Return of Dracula." A diving-bell-hooded gorilla stomped through the tunnel in "Robot Monster" - a film shot in 3-D entirely in the quarry over a four-day period in 1953 for $16,000.

Cast & crew on unknown western in Bronson Canyon, with the Hollywood sign in the background. 

If Bronson Canyon welcomes low-budget filmmakers, it embraces those with no budget too. 

That's the category that "The Mummy's Breath" falls into. It was being filmed last week at the cave by fledgling director Michael Schmitt of Pasadena and a volunteer cast and crew.

Pith-helmeted Kenneth Gould of Thousand Oaks, Eric Bender of Newbury Park and fez-topped David Springhorn of Lake Balboa were being pursued from the cave by gauze-wrapped Mark Sellin of Mount Washington.

Except for Springhorn, none of the khaki-costumed actors were experienced performers. Instead, each had taken the day off work as systems analysts and engineers to help Schmitt, a telephone company technician. They are part of a hobbyist movie-maker cooperative called Group 101 Films that hopes to produce mini-digital video shorts that will air at Halloween on cable TV's American Movie Classics.

Bronson Canyon is reached by a short walk over a bridge and up a gated driveway on the east side of Canyon Drive's dead-end.

Griffith Park visitors who happened upon "The Mummy's Breath" crew stood out of camera range when filming took place. One onlooker was recruited to hold the sun reflector that helped light the scene.

Movie-makers always restore Bronson Canyon and the cave to its original appearance whenthey leave. That means fake gold-mine doors or snow made from soap suds are cleaned up and carted away.

"I was up here the other day and they'd built a wooden structure at one cave entrance that resembled a spider web," said visitor Frank Kysor who, with his father, Jack, often walks his dogs in Bronson Canyon.

"Twenty years ago I helped build a set at the entrance to one of the caves for a movie called 'Commando Squad.' We put up a headquarters and a bunch of huts and guard towers. This place has a lot of texture," said Kysor, now a Hollywood insurance man.

Bronson Canyon is usually closed when professional film crews are working. But not always.

Glenn Erickson, a Larchmont Village video editor and Internet video reviewer who writes under the name "DVD Savant," recalls the time in 1991 when a guard invited him and his family into the tunnel after it was converted into a mock ice cave for a "Star Trek" movie.

"The place is so generic looking. And it has the ability to look big when it's really small," Erickson said. "The tunnel is short but goes into three branches, and each has a different look."

Erickson played detective to find Bronson Canyon the first time. He matched the terrain beneath the Hollywood sign with some old movie still photos from the remake of "Lost Horizon" to figure out its location. 

"Finding it was very exciting. As I walked up, I recognized movie after  movie," he said. "I'm a filmmaker - I pay attention to detail."

Although the quarry was operated by the Union Rock Co. from about 1903 into the 1920s, there are differences of opinion about the origin of the cave. Erickson suspects it may have been constructed for the 1922 movie "Robin Hood," starring Douglas Fairbanks.

"You don't drill a 200-foot tunnel when it takes a half a minute to walk around the hill to get to the tunnel's other side," he said. "The tunnel doesn't really go anywhere."

But Griffith Park Ranger Mark Renteria said the cave was left behind from the rock-mining. And the tunnel's insides went everywhere.

"The rocks were used for everything from roads to railroad tracks to the breakwater at San Pedro," he said.

By Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

Most recently Bronson Canyon was used for the made for TV movie, 'Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam & Burt' 

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