Warner Bros. Corporate Archive
By Valli Herman
Screen history comes to life in the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive
The best of the best is preserved in a stunning warehouse
From the outside, the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive is just another warehouse in a non-descript Sun Valley industrial park. On the inside, it’s an ever-evolving, living history of the studio, of Hollywood and of the magic of movies.
For 23 years, the Warner Bros. archive has been where the best of the best is kept for posterity. It’s where the Batmobiles live—the versions from Val Kilmer to George Clooney to the latest with Ben Affleck that will be featured in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” In one area of the 120,000-square-foot warehouse, endless stacks of neatly ordered boxes contain legal documents, payroll receipts and scripts. A fleet of forklifts sits at the ready, in case a section of the “Friends” set or a hunk of gigantic props from “The Matrix” need to be dispatched for a promotional tour or museum show.
Yet for sheer impressiveness, few of the archive’s collections beat the costumes. They are arranged in 14 rows of three-story racks, each 100 yards long. More than 23,000 television and movie costumes are neatly cataloged and preserved, secured in custom-made muslin garment bags and tagged with the precious contents. Some are stored singly; many are in multiples, grouped by actor or title.
In just one section hang bags tagged with Sydney Greenstreet’s costumes in half-a-dozen productions, including Orry-Kelly’s designs for “Casablanca” and Leah Rhodes work for “That Way With Women” and “The Conspirators.” Arranged by collection—such as wardrobe, feature prop or art department—each item is assigned an asset number and location. The racks are more than numbers; they’re a three-dimensional catalog of design talent.
About 90 years of costume design is represented, across a wide range of genres and talent. There is Cecil Beaton’s unforgettable work for the 1964 musical “My Fair Lady” with Audrey Hepburn. Costume Designer Debra McGuire is there for the recent “Vacation” feature, while Janet Ingram’s costumes from the 2014 horror mystery “Annabelle” are hanging on a rack with a sign that reads “To Be Weeded and Inventoried.” A clothing rack sealed in plastic holds costumes by Kasia Wallace-Maimone culled from “Black Mass,” the upcoming crime bio starring Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger.
“We store and house all of our iconic or hero props, costumes and documentation from the studio. It’s a true archive,” said Lisa Janney, vice president of Corporate Services at Warner Bros. “We do many, many exhibits and publicity and junketing.”
The archive was formed in 1992 by Leith Adams, the now-retired executive director. The studios “saw the value of preserving Warner Bros. history and Hollywood history,” said Bonnie Fallone Otto, director of the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive, which also includes about 15,000 television props and about 20,000 feature props, not including the paper documents.
Like a museum collection, the archive aims to preserve and promote history and the people who contributed to it.
“This is an archive, but it is also a marketing operation. We support the promotional and advertising efforts of the company and we also support museums around the world,” said Fallone Otto.
She and her staff of archivists recently sent items to the “Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood” exhibit that opened in August at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. For the 20th anniversary of “Friends,” the archive loaned items to create a New York pop-up recreation of Central Perk. “They were lined up around the block,” Fallone Otto said.
A museum in Paris requested items from “The Great Gatsby” to illustrate uses of lace. The archive routinely loans to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising for its annual showcase of the year’s television and movie costumes.
“More and more, we have museums knocking on our door,” said Janney. Costumes, props and the associated Hollywood allure are “what draws people through museum doors.”
Verified hits from the past aren’t the only crowd-pleasers. At the latest San Diego Comic-Con, the studio displayed costumes and props from the archive’s “Batman v Superman” collection. For the not-yet released “Pan,” starring Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard and Garrett Hedlund as Hook, with costumes by Jacqueline Durran, the studio is planning an international tour to 28 countries, using articles from the sister archive in the United Kingdom, Janney said.
“They love to see the actual, real dress, or real suit or real shoes,” said Janney. Still-dressed mannequins from “The Big Bang Theory” are fresh from a display at The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. Otto Fallone wasn’t in a hurry to return the familiar T-shirts and hoodies to stock because the show is a popular draw to many kinds of exhibits.
The archive’s many treasures are meticulously kept and secured inside the massive warehouse, which is constantly monitored for unwanted guests—of the two-, four- and eight-footed kind. Security is enhanced by fences, guards and barbed wire and anonymity. The elegant Rolls-Royce from the 2011 “Arthur” and the array of Batmobiles are dusted and kept running by a full-time warehouse supervisor. The floors and racks are spotless–the place is wiped down daily.
While you’ll see archivists digging through racks to compile costumes that were meaningful to a movie or television episode, you likely won’t see a steady stream of students or researchers combing through the boxes and bags. Otto Fallone noted that the small staff can’t accommodate more than special requests for research.
“It really is for the industry, internally,” Janney said. “It is a great resource. Let’s say one of our designers is going to do some speaking. They know they can call us and ask, ‘Would you mind if I borrowed a couple of costumes to have on display to reference it?’”
The real value of the archive rests in the powerful associations its contents help forge with audiences. With the increased access to content online, on phones and on demand, fans can watch (and watch again) their favorites, Fallone Otto noted. That increased exposure is helping audiences appreciate the art, craft and allure of costumes, which for decades often were hidden away or forgotten.
Whether they are mounting a studio tour display of costumes and props from the winners of Best Picture Academy Awards, or loaning the Batmobile to a car show, seeing the actual item helps maintain the value of the original TV show or film because it creates new fans and retains existing ones.
Costumes, custom-made or tailored to fit an actor exactly, are often the most relatable, the most human aspect of a movie’s artifacts. “Fans love to have and to see the actual, real dress, or real suit or real shoes,” Janney said.
At Warner Bros., four archivists are assigned a set of TV series or feature films to monitor, said Otto Fallone. “It’s their job to get to know that title. With a film, you view it; you view it again; and you may view it again to know that’s a great costume, or she carries that handbag in just about every scene. In a TV show, you have to watch just about every episode to get a working, organic feel for exactly what we want to retain.”
The costumes are never for rent from the nonprofit archive, and museums and other nonprofit uses don’t pay exhibition fees. “We charge for our time and we charge for our expenses,” she said. Their costs can mount, considering the care required just to ship a costume.
The wooden shipping crate, display platform and often, the mannequin, are custom made. The crate is padded on all sides to contain the dressed figure.
“We are very careful how these costumes are exhibited,” Fallone Otto said. Exhibits must be protected from sunlight, camera flashes, food and theft. The archive doesn’t aim to restore costumes to perfection. After all, the screen-worn costumes are often the most desired and valuable.
“We’ll do a full condition report on it and photograph it. If we feel it needs some attention, we will call a vendor of ours who is a preservationist,” Fallone Otto said. “We have a Michael Keaton original Batman suit. It is falling apart. We need to call someone else in to restore that.”
A few of the frailest costumes are kept in acid-free tissue and boxes, such as the pink chiffon dress Elizabeth Taylor wore as Leslie Benedict in “Giant.”
Slipping on white cotton gloves, Fallone Otto opens a long, gray box, peels back layers of acid-free tissue and reveals a knife-pleated pink chiffon sleeveless dress. Along the back zipper is a label that reads: “Warner Bros. Pictures Inc. 7772 403 E. Taylor.”
“This is here because we preserved it and we can put it on display so a grandmother can say to her little girl, ‘Let me tell you about Elizabeth Taylor,’” Fallone Otto said. “She may not know that Marjorie Best was the Costume Designer, but someone else is going to know, and that is keeping Marjorie’s work alive.”