Why This Back to the Future Set Looks Familiar, and Other Easter Eggs
For anyone who has taken the Universal Studios tour, it’s no secret that thousands of films and television shows have been shot on the studio lot, and many feature one of the most recognizable false-front landmarks on the lot, the “Clock Tower,” a courthouse set piece that figures prominently in the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future.
Courthouse Square, on the Universal Studios backlot, has been featured in hundreds of productions, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Gremlins, The Ghost Whisperer and many, many more.
In Back to the Future, in Marty’s time period of 1985, the courthouse is the Department of Social Services. There it is, behind Marty and his girlfriend, Jennifer, in an opening scene.
When Marty travels back in time to November 5th, 1955, it’s not yet the Department of Social Services, and the civic square out front is not yet a parking lot. It’s still the courthouse, the clock still works, and the bell still chimes.
Like millions of other movie fans, I’ve always loved Back to the Future, and found the idyllic character of the set charming. It wasn’t until I received the Twilight Zone box set as a gift, however, that I realized a connection between the classic science fiction series and the Spielberg/Zemeckis blockbuster that came decades later.
In the first official episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” aired on October 2nd, 1959, (there was an unofficial episode that came earlier that was aired on the Westinghouse Theater hosted by Desi Arnaz) test pilot and potential astronaut Mike Ferris, played by Earl Holliman, wanders around an apparently abandoned town, and there, just over his shoulder, is a familiar looking structure.
The courthouse set lacks the clock piece of the portico back then, but it’s still clearly recognizable as the structure from Marty McFly’s Hill Valley.
Here’s a better look, albeit through a chainlink fence. The appearance of the courthouse set changed over the years, sometimes due to the specific vision for a given production, and at least three times because it was damaged by fire–in 1957, 1990, and 2008.
The courthouse isn’t the only setting recognizable from “Where is Everybody?” and “Back to the Future,” two productions separated by 26 years.
On the street next to the courthouse, two familiar looking facades stand out.
And around the corner, a theater set-piece that made an appearance in both productions.
In the Twilight Zone debut episode, it’s called the Savoy Theater. In Back to the Future, the sign over the door has been changed significantly, and the theater renamed The Essex, but the arched entranceways and square columns are still recognizable. It can be seen in the background as Marty hitches a ride on the back of a pickup truck in 1955.
Interesting, right? Amazing how many times they can use sets like these over and over, with just a few changes to make them look new.
Now, while we’re on the subject of Back to the Future, here’s an Easter egg you may already know about, but it’s one of my favorites.
When Marty meets up with Doc Brown on that fateful night that eventually sends him back to 1955 in a DeLorean, he meets Doc in the parking lot of Hill Valley’s Twin Pines Mall. You know how the story goes from here. An unplanned encounter with Libyan terrorists finds Doc Brown shot, and Marty screaming across the parking lot at 88 miles per hour, sending him back in time to 1955, where he promptly crashes into a rancher’s barn. Upon discovery, the rancher chases Marty out of the barn at the end of a shotgun, and during his escape, Marty runs over a pine tree in the yard.
Just as Marty speeds away from the ranch–the Twin Pines Ranch–the rancher can be heard yelling, offscreen, “You killed my pine!”
Near the end of the movie, when Marty returns to 1985, he races to the mall to save Doc Brown from the Libyans, and the sign is a little different.
The Twin Pines Mall is now the Lone Pine Mall!
If you enjoy Easter Eggs like these, Back to the Future is a great movie, because it’s loaded with them. If you wanna check these out for yourself, The Twilight Zone and Back to the Future are both streaming on Netflix as of this writing.
Do you know some Back to the Future trivia? Leave a comment below.
Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.