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I gotta be honest: I haven’t exactly been a model alum. I missed my tenth reunion. Also my twentieth. In fact, I haven’t been back to Yale at all since the year after graduation. It wasn’t that I disliked college—I read some great books, made some good friends, inhaled like crazy, and even learned some stuff. But as soon as I left, Yale seemed to recede into the past, like school was now in my rearview and my eyes were on the road ahead, a long, winding road that took its sweet time getting me to where I needed to go.
Fortunately, Yale is a forgiving place, willing to cross a continent to make amends. Like Mohammed’s mountain, it appeared on my horizon this summer, holding out a welcome sign as it beckoned—this time from Burbank.
It’s early July, and Stage 14 on the Warner Brothers lot is filled with the whine of electric saws as a small army of workers labors to meet an August production deadline. A jumble of familiar structures is taking shape as plywood and fiberboard façades are plastered, carved, and painted to resemble stone walls and gothic arches. Wood-paneled hallways glisten, newly stained but waiting to be vigorously scuffed and scratched to mimic the abuse of countless careless shoes and errant backpacks.
A miniature Yale is being readied for an incoming freshman class of one: Rory Gilmore, one of the lead characters on the WB drama Gilmore Girls, who matriculates this fall. As I stand in her future residential college dining hall, I learn why Rory will be eating meals in Calhoun College.
“Calhoun was easiest to replicate. Plus, it has these high wood panels and stone arches that play great on film,” says my guide, Lauren Crasco, the young woman who orchestrated this flurry of construction and has developed a stickler’s eye for accuracy in Yale architecture. She’s been at it since Rory wisely decided to ditch Harvard, her previous first choice, after a visit to Old Blue. The story line reminds me of my own first visit, when an affable science major showed me his lab and then took me to dinner at his residential college. I realized right away that Yale was a special and friendly place, and—after I was wait-listed by Harvard—it promptly became my first choice, too.
Rory’s crucial visit was actually filmed at Pomona College, and despite the crew’s best efforts to avoid shots with palm trees, the classic Southern California architecture looked absurdly unlike New England. But with Rory slated to be a full-time student, it made fiscal sense to build a more authentic slice of Yale. (In fact, if you’re planning on putting four or more kids through school at the current bargain-basement price of forty grand a year, or $640,000 total, you may want to consider this option yourself. For just ten grand more you can build your Own Private Yale, provided you’ve got a big enough soundstage in your backyard.)
Of course, “authentic” in Hollywood is a veneer. Many of the walls in the Yale sets are made out of Celotex, an inexpensive bulletin board-like material used for soundproofing in the real world. The Celotex is plastered over, but even the plaster has a certain fanciful quality. Its gingerbread-house look comes from crushed walnut shells added for “texture,” according to Dwayne Franks, the construction foreman.
Where masonry is called for, molds are used for cutting individual bricks in the plaster, which is then painted. That’s actually a step up from most sets made for television, which use large plastic sheets already molded into a brick pattern. Crasco found these too uniform to adequately mimic Yale, where half-bricks seem randomly interpolated into the construction. To her mind, such inconsistencies are what “gives it character.”
Ironically, all that character can be misleading. The real Yale may look ancient, but its “Gothic” architecture was actually built in the twentieth century and artificially aged with acid washes and other techniques. In other words, the real Yale is something of a fake in its own right, which makes the Burbank Yale a fake of a fake. As a television writer, I find this oddly reassuring.
The Burbank Yale takes some liberties with reality. The primary locations—including an entrance lobby and stairwell in Durfee, a classroom, and various courtyards and hallways (no steam tunnels, though)—are all intertwined in a compact maze of faux interiors and exteriors. Since replicating the high ceiling of Commons was an obvious budget-buster, Rory will never be seen there. And the Calhoun dining hall lacks a kitchen: Its entire food service area is connoted by a doorway that leads nowhere. So if Rory takes a campus job, it’s likely she’ll be spared the indignity of scraping food residue off forks with her thumbnails, offset by the occasional reward of an untouched Boston cream pie, which I respectively suffered and enjoyed as a dishwasher at JE.
And then there’s Rory’s Old Campus dorm room, an expansive double that looks twice as big as any I ever slept in. The extra square footage, not to mention the removable walls, gives camera crews more room to dolly and lighting technicians more leeway to shine baby spots on dewy cheekbones. But knowing this doesn’t make it easier to wrap my mind around the pseudo-reality of it all. Maybe it’s the beige-painted walls, which will appear white on film while minimizing glare, but for me the set provokes a certain cognitive dissonance.
But then, Rory has yet to invest the room with her own energetic, optimistic, and hopelessly callow freshman essence, just as I did. That process will begin when the set is “dressed,” shortly before filming starts. In designing Rory’s dorm room decor, Lauren tells me, she had to rein in her mature taste and recall its beginnings—in her own freshman dorm room at Carnegie Mellon, which she remembers decorating with pictures from magazines, photos of friends, and “the ubiquitous Rothko print.”
My own print, I now recall, was a Velazquez, a colorful bullfighting scene. My room also boasted a cheap stereo system—my first—and a handful of classical records, which I would soon jettison in favor of Billy Joel, then Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and the B-52s, as my pop sensibility began to bloom. Years after graduating, I would start my own band; the impulse—like many that shaped the winding course of my adult life—no doubt had its beginnings in that dorm room.
To quote Lauren, college is where “we start defining ourselves.” Back in her office on Stage 12, where one of the primary Gilmore Girls sets is located, we muse for a few minutes about the meaning of college. It’s a chance, she thinks, to “be safe for four years.
“You’re still being graded, you’re still being given a very clear black-and-white image of what is right and what is wrong,” she continues. “But you’re also independent. For a lot of people, it’s the first time in their lives.”
Life after college seems decidedly less safe. Take Lauren, for example, who arranged to leave Gilmore Girls for a spin-off, only to see the spin-off cancelled. She shrugs, seemingly unconcerned, and says she expects to find work in television or low-budget features.
Just before I leave, she shows me sheets of photos of the real Yale, taken for her by university photographer Mike Marsland. I scan them, but most of the shots—wide-angle views of classrooms and dining halls, close-up details of architecture and furnishings—barely register. College feels very long ago. But then my eye lights on a photo of some kid’s dorm room, where, above a laptop—an anachronism in my time—I see a modern anachronism: a Bob Marley poster.
Marley was a staple of my record collection by the time I graduated. I played his songs on that same cheap stereo, along with the soundtrack to the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come, when I packed to go home for the last time. Reggae was my hit-the-road music.
Later, at home, I will pull out that same Jimmy Cliff album the jacket now split, play the first cut—“You Can Get It If You Really Want”—and decide that it’s as apt a guiding philosophy as you could take away from your college years. Even if, as it might turn out, it takes a lot longer than you expected to figure out what you really want. Even if, as it might turn out, you never really do.
But for now, I make my way back alone to Stage 14, where the workers are still racing to finish the Burbank Yale. Filming will begin not long before the real Yale’s freshmen arrive in New Haven for their week of orientation.
A boom box covered with sawdust and paint sits unattended in the middle of the pseudo-Calhoun courtyard, tuned to a classic-rock station. I hang out listening to a couple of songs—the Eagles' “Life in the Fast Lane,” then Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer.” The songs date me, but I don’t mind. For a moment, I’m back in the Pierson courtyard, lying on the grass as I study for finals, while someone’s speakers blare tunes out a window and Frisbees whisk overhead.
Maybe I’ll stop by the Burbank Yale again when it’s finished. On second thought, maybe I’ll stop by the real Yale. After all, my 25th reunion is coming up.
Coming up fast. Maybe it’s my turn to cross the country.
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