Thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” we return to Tinseltown in a loving, nostalgic, 50-year time capsule. Looking back on the landscape of 1969 definitely offers retro eye candy. But the facelifts to both Hollywood Blvd. and Westwood Village were not easy to pull off for production designer Barbara Ling (collaborating with supervising art director Richard Johnson, set decorator Nancy Haigh, and supervising location manager Richard Schuler).
“It’s getting harder to shoot period in LA because of what they tear down,” said Ling, who previously did a ’60s LA makeover for Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” “LA was never a preservation city, and they keep tearing down these glass towers. But LA has always been about rebuilding itself. They say it’s even tougher to find little corners to build facades on top of.”
The biggest challenge was getting permission to restore parts of Hollywood Blvd., which bringing in director Tarantino to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “We had to submit a plan, and this is where Quentin is fantastic. He was able to sit in the meeting, and his passion for Hollywood bowled them over,” Ling added. “He wanted to put back many of the things that made this city famous in that moment of time and capture it on film. But we couldn’t do what we originally wanted; we had to cut it in two sections and shoot one section after we did all the building, and then, a few months later, do the other section. It was just too big of a traffic problem for them to shut down.”
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That’s a result of booming tourism every day of the year, thanks to the Chamber’s successful redevelopment going east along the boulevard from the Chinese to the Pantages theaters. “We took that section of Musso & Frank [the New York-style restaurant and bar that has been an institution since 1919] for two blocks on either end and across the street, and then did the next section down at the Pantages Theatre a couple months later, so that we weren’t impacting the traffic,” Ling said.
“Quentin doesn’t block everything off. We put up pedestrian fences, but they could see what we’re doing, which, of course, was completely exciting for tourists to watch,” added Ling. Thus, we could survey the boulevard on car rides with has-been TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double/buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
The restoration included such bygone cultural fixtures as the Pussycat Theater, the psychedelic Aquarius Theatre (which opened “Hair” in 1968), and Peaches Records & Tapes. “Across from Musso was the original Pussycat Theater, so we took the entire facade, rebuilt it, piece by piece, with cranes, and put it back up with the neon sign,” said Ling. “Next to it was Larry Edmunds, the original bookstore, and we rebuilt that and the original facade of the Army Surplus store, and then redid their neon, and got it back to all its glory, with the little soldier on top. There were also facades for Orange Julius, the tattoo parlors, with real tattoos for sailors and army guys, and the tiki bars.”
Additionally, it was important for Tarantino to include burgeoning fast food places that still grace LA, including Taco Bell and Wienerschnitzel. But Taco Bell was one of the hardest makeovers for Ling and her team. “Location found a place down south, below El Segundo [near LAX],” she said. “A guy had closed a restaurant and was about to tear it down and open a [new] restaurant, and, instead, he let us renovate it back to an original Taco Bell. They were very good at letting us recreate their original signage and the Taco Bell man.”
Meanwhile, there was also a notable facelift to the Westwood Village sequence, in which Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) crosses the adjacent movie theaters, the Fox Village (now the Regency Village) and the Bruin, to watch herself onscreen in the Matt Helm spy spoof, “The Wrecking Crew.” Ling said both theaters were very cooperative. “The problem now is that they’re LED marquees where they’re backlit and you put the letters on,” she said.
“For both of them, we worked out a schedule, so, as they finished their last showings, we’d have two days to put back the original marquees on the front so that it could be 1969. The interior was very good at the Bruin. They even found some of the original traveling, deco-looking poster holders. They rolled those out of storage for us, and we recreated the original candy stand.”
Next to the Bruin, the team recreated the bygone Hamburger Hamlet. Across the street, though, the team restored the look of Stan’s Donuts (a fixture since 1963). “The family had no photographs of the ’60s, but we found one image and recreated the front of that,” Ling said. “It had a lot of striped awnings and little signs of Vienna Sausage, which almost obscured the name of the store.
“Stan, who’s still alive and in his 90s, came by and started crying when he saw how we brought it back,” Ling added.
Tarantino’s love letter to LA in 1969 was like a surreal flashback.