...In Palos Verdes, however, a most remarkable set was constructed, a 2-acre park which looked as if it had been there
forever. Before Kramer's crafty construction specialists arrived, it had been a dreary, shale-covered promontory overlooking the Pacific.
When the cameras rolled, it was a grassy dell of flowers, shrubbery and 70 towering, full-grown sago and fan palms. The transformation cost
$40,000; the view of Catalina Island, 20 miles across the water, came free.
The previous paragraph is from the official 1963 souvenir program for the movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and it
describes the location of one of the movie's key elements, the Big "W."
If you haven't seen the movie, the rest of this article is a major spoiler. And if you haven't seen the movie, for god's sake,
stop reading this, go out and rent it and spend the better part of an evening getting to know this modern masterpiece of mayhem.
Why I thought a movie set would still be standing 13 years later, I don't know. Hollywood is notoriously lackadaisical, if not
downright indifferent about its history. Even the major studio back lots are not maintained until the next production with a budget comes along
to fix them up. But I had a gut feeling that the Big "W" was out there, and if it was, I was going to find it, or "kick the bucket" trying.
I had only lived in California about a year when I got this idea stuck in my head, so I wasn't that familiar with the territory.
I needed to recruit a like-minded guide. My friend, Randy Cartwright, a native Californian, became Ding Bell to my Benjy Benjamin. Only
we weren't headed to Las Vegas, we were headed to Palos Verdes.
Armed only with the descriptive paragraph above and a few photos from the same program, we set out. We went through San Pedro to
get to Palos Verdes. The climax of the last chase sequence that leads to the principals climbing up the condemned building was shot a short
distance away in Long Beach, but that's another story.
There's only one road that runs cliffside through Palos Verdes and that's Palos Verdes Drive, which also leads to the site of the now
defunct Marineland. Randy drove and I was the spotter. And spot I did. Seeing a lush backyard with many palm trees, I shrieked,
causing my guide to nearly have a coronary, which surely would have sent us "sailing right out there", had it not been for the fact that he was,
after all, only about 25 years old. He made a U-turn and found a spot along the side of the road, among a throng of beachgoers' cars.
Now, it's important at this point for any of you would-be explorers to know that this backyard I saw with the palm trees is private
property, so we weren't able to just walk into the little park. We hiked out to a point on a nearby curve in the road, where we could get a
side shot of the lawn. The shrubbery was too overgrown to get a clear view, but it was promising enough that we trekked on...or rather
down. There was a sloping path leading down to the beach that we traversed without incident. Once on the beach, we were able to get
directly behind the property in question. As I looked up, my heart began to race and just as it happened 13 years earlier on film, I froze like
Jonathan Winters, raised my hands and shouted, "It's the Big "W", I tell ya! The Big "W"!"
Although it was unmistakably the Holy Grail of movie sets, Monty Python notwithstanding, there was one thing wrong. One of the
trees was missing. If you were looking toward the ocean, the direction most of the shots in the picture are framed, the third tree from the
left was gone. I began calling it The Big "V-I", since that's what it now resembled.
A few years later, as things happen in Hollywood and you meet the right people, I wangled an invitation onto the property. The
front of the house is the very recognizable entrance to Santa Rosita State Park, where Phil Silvers runs his car into the post and Spencer Tracy
tells everyone they can ride to the police station in the two cabs. For those not from Southern California, Santa Rosita is a made-up town for
the movie. The Santa Rosita police station façade was actually in the aforementioned Long Beach.
Once on the grounds, I got to walk right out to "the" spot. Under the Big "V-I", which by this time, had become the Little "V"
– Big "I", as half of the first tree sheered off in a storm. They were down to 2½ trees. I should also mention that, as with
all objects movie-related, the trees, which appear so towering on the screen, are actually pretty small as palm trees go. The owners of the
property were very gracious and even pointed out another Mad souvenir. The crew had left behind an old metal pail. No, it was not
the one that Jimmy Durante planted his foot on. Painted on it, in very faint, but still readable letters was "The It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad
World Butt Bucket", craft services parlance for an ash tray. It was hanging from a tree to the side of the park area, where the cast and crew
had been set-up between takes. Stupidly, I didn't bring a camera, so I have no physical proof, but I can say that I was there. So can
you, but you would be lying.
The sad end to the story is that, as of 1991, when the documentary "Something A Little Less Serious" (an early working title for Mad
World) was made, there was only one tree remaining. The documentary states that the owners were planning to replant the other three trees,
but the owners told me the same thing back in the 80's when they only needed to replace 1 (and a half), so take that for what it's worth.
Well, now I'm going to go see my dentist, who I hate so much, I can't even tell you how much I hate him on Mark's website. I have
some Edible Seaweed stuck in my teeth.