The magic of the movies never ceases to amaze me—especially when it comes to set and production design. It is a big part of why I am drawn to locations. I’m fascinated to see what changes, if any, a set dresser or art director makes to a locale for a production. One transformation that absolutely blew me away took place on the backlot of Warner Bros. Studios for the film Million Dollar Baby.
In the Clint Eastwood-directed Best Picture winner, which celebrates its 10th birthday next week, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) stop at a small café named Ira’s Roadside Diner after visiting Maggie’s mother and sister in what is supposed to be rural Missouri. Maggie tells Frankie that her father used to take her to the café as a child and that it serves “the best lemon pie around.”
In reality, Ira’s is not a restaurant at all, but a small, wood-planked structure located on the shores of the Warner Bros. Studios Jungle at 3400 Riverside Dr. in Burbank. The Jungle was originally built to masquerade as the Cuban wilderness in the 1956 Alan Ladd film Santiago, and has gone on to appear in countless productions since. The centerpiece of the large outdoor set is a tree-lined man-made lagoon that can hold up to 250,000 gallons of water. The lagoon is where Kermit the Frog famously sings “The Rainbow Connection” in the opening scene of The Muppet Movie and where Doug Ross (George Clooney) saves a young boy from drowning in a culvert in the Season 2 episode of ER titled “Hell and High Water.” Situated around the lagoon are a roadhouse (which regularly masks as both Merlotte’s Bar and Grill on True Blood and the Lost Woods Resort on Pretty Little Liars), a barn, and a small 975-square-foot shack-like cabin. It is that cabin that was used as Ira’s Roadside Café in Million Dollar Baby.
Both the interior and the exterior of the ramshackle structure were utilized in the flick, and the set dressing on each was so incredibly realistic that even though I have visited the cabin in person countless times, I still have a hard time believing it is the same place where Maggie and Frankie eat pie onscreen. In real life, the cabin is situated on a small dirt path, is fairly tiny, surrounded by foliage, and pretty hidden from view. It would be easy to go past the place without even noticing it was there. For the movie, it was made to appear as a fairly large restaurant, complete with red leather booths and counter seating—a solitary structure on a lone country road, beckoning out to weary travelers. As I said, the magic of the movies is amazing!
You, too, can see the cabin, which is also where Wade Kinsella (Wilson Bethel) lives on the CW series Hart of Dixie, during a Warner Bros. Studios VIP Tour. Tours are given several times each day. If, like Frankie and Maggie, it’s lemon pie you’re after, head on over to another Burbank staple/popular filming location, Frank’s Coffee Shop and Restaurant.
Lindsay Blake is an actress, writer, celebrity admirer and Los Angeles enthusiast who contributes to CityThink each Thursday. Her true love is filming locations, and she founded the Web site IAMNOTASTALKER in 2007 to document her vast findings on the subject. For more “stalking” fun, you can follow Lindsay on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.