The University Campus of the Silver State
on the Silver Screen

by Karalea Clough

 

 

"Mother is a Freshman" 1949 Manzanita Lake tram with Lincoln hall in the background
Van Johnson and Loretta Young walking across the Manzanita Lake tram
Van Johnson and Loretta Young standing at the edge of Manzanita Lake
"Mr. Belvedere Goes to College" 1949 Clifton Webb and Shirley Temple outside the Student Employment Bureau
"Mr. Belvedere Goes to College" 1949 Stadium full of student extras
"Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble" 1944 Mickey Rooney with film crew
Mickey Rooney with film cast
"An Apartment for Peggy" 1948 Edmund Gwenn in Clark Library with student extras in the background
Edmund Gwenn in Clark Library
Students Skating on Manzanita Lake
Sketch by artist Craig Sheppard
The Sagebrush application for student extras
"Margie" 1946 Glenn Langan at front with Jeanne Crain looking at Alan Young
Jeanne Crain and Alan Young

The Campus and the Camera

A walk through the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) campus today might not generate any visions of a Hollywood movie set. Nonetheless, it was once a popular destination for motion picture production companies. During the 1940s-50s, the charming, traditional style of several campus buildings, including Lincoln, Morrill, and Stewart Halls, made UNR an ideal setting for filming several movies. With very little effort and expense, the campus could represent a college anywhere in the United States, making it a convenient backdrop for any regional collegiate picture. Hollywood film crews came to UNR to make eight movies:

  • Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble (1944)
  • Margie (1946)
  • An Apartment for Peggy (1948)
  • Mother is a Freshman (1949)
  • Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949)
  • Captive City (1952)
  • 5 Against the House (1955), and
  • Hilda Crane (1956)

Box office favorites, including Jeanne Crain, Edmund Gwenn, William Holden, Van Johnson, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Clifton Webb, and Loretta Young came to Reno to film scenes for these movies. Their presence generated excitement on campus and added to Reno’s reputation as the biggest little city in the world.

The nineteenth century eclectic style and brick façade of the campus buildings were assets for the movie producers. The buildings were aesthetically and architecturally representative of typical, traditional college campuses around the country. Temporary signage and the construction of inexpensive prop buildings, like the train station that was constructed near Manzanita Lake for Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, were among the film crews’ techniques in altering UNR’s campus to fit each movie’s storyline.

The Clark Memorial Library interior served as an ideal set for many scenes in “An Apartment for Peggy.”

Reno’s seasonal weather variations made it ideal for year-round filming. Although the weather might not have cooperated with filming schedules all the time, it really came through for An Apartment for Peggy. Director George Seaton needed snow on the day of shooting several outdoor scenes, and he got it. If Reno’s weather hadn’t obliged, the scenes would have had to be filmed without a background of snow.

Why Hollywood came to UNR

In addition to the iconic buildings and the attractive campus, the University’s students were also assets for film production companies. Along with members from the community, they provided a ready-made pool for casting extras for campus and classroom scenes. As World War II ended, thanks to the G.I. Bill, many returning veterans came to Reno to begin their college education. This boosted the University’s enrollment. Both the veterans and their wives were among the students willing to wait around and miss a class in order to earn money for being an extra. Using UNR’s campus to film scenes about college life was cost-effective for Hollywood production companies, and they flocked to Reno from California.

During the filming of Margie, 20th Century-Fox paid students for the use of period bicycles and cars from 1928 or earlier to ensure the film’s historic accuracy.

Often the weather or time of year was a factor in a movie’s storyline, making it necessary to film while university classes were in session. Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble was the first motion picture filmed at UNR. When work on it began in July 1944, most of the University’s students were gone for the summer or had already found jobs. Therefore, the studio had to hire high school students and housewives as extras to play college students. Margie, which was released in 1946, used UNR to depict a high school.

The Campus and the Studios

The two studios that came to UNR to make movies were 20th Century-Fox and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. During the shooting of the first few films, the university and the studios seemed to have a good relationship. It was exciting for the city of Reno and the people on campus to have movie stars and the film crews in the area. These glamorous visitors contributed to the local economy and were news-makers. In February 1948, in appreciation for the University’s cooperation during the filming of An Apartment for Peggy, 20th Century-Fox presented a free viewing of Miracle on 34th Street. During the filming of Margie, stars Jeanne Crain, William Holden, and Edmund Gwenn were honored at a party in the home of University President John O. Moseley. President Moseley was instrumental in facilitating a special premiere of Margie, which took place at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Reno. The movie’s western premiere turned out to be quite an event, with the Wolf Pack marching band leading a parade that included many of the students who were extras in the film.

After the first five films were made at UNR from 1944-1948, the university president and administration made some decisions about regulating the use of the campus for making movies. It had become obvious that having Hollywood film productions on campus was detrimental to the students’ academic responsibilities and disrespectful to the faculty. Students were all too happy to cut classes and get paid to be an extra in a movie, as evidenced by vacant seats in the real classrooms. Therefore, the university administration contacted studio officials and informed them about a change in policy. Although the studios could still use the campus as a location for their movies, they could no longer allow student participation to affect their class attendance. This reduced UNR’s appeal as a filming location because the studios would have to bring actors to Reno instead of hiring local students as extras for college scenes. With the loss of the convenient student population, only three more movies were made at UNR. Filming for 5 Against the House was scheduled on a Sunday in 1954, with the actors, movie equipment and crew to be gone by Monday. Even so, this prompted the Board of Regents to draft a new policy that restricted future movie companies to use of the campus only during university vacations. In 1956, Hilda Crane was the last movie filmed on campus. Future U. S. Senator Richard Bryan was a UNR student at that time, and he worked as an extra on the film. University President Minard Stout suggested that the studio should cast actual members of the Faculty Wives Club as extras. The studio did so. The women only worked for one day, but they treated their unique experience as a fund-raiser, donating all of their earnings to support the Faculty Wives Club’s campus projects.

Walt Disney Studios included some scenes along North Virginia Street near the UNR campus in its 1961 production of The Absent-Minded Professor, but Hilda Crane marked the end of Hollywood studios being allowed on UNR’s campus to film movies. Thus, a glamorous era came to a close for the University, but the feature films document this aspect of UNR’s contribution to popular culture, and we have a legacy of unforgettable memories from the time when Hollywood came to the campus.

Suggested Reading

DuVal, Gary. The Nevada filmography: nearly 600 works made in the state, 1897 through 2000. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002.

Variety's film reviews 1907-1996. S.l.: Bowker, 1997. Print.