File cabinets with drawers labeled “U.S. Customs” and “Czechoslovakia” are among the first pieces of furniture in the 100,000-square-foot warehouse, followed by tall, metal shelves with accordion-style folders.
Rows of books, at least 18,000 volumes with some dating to the 1800s, are a few steps away.
This is the Warner Bros. archive.
And Leith Adams, executive director of the archive, spends his time here, preserving pieces of film history.
The Paris, Ill., native talked quickly and passionately about his work and love for film on a recent, exclusive peek at the archive, which is not open to the public.
Adams recalls when James Dean’s “East of Eden” premiered, and he was 8 when the Hollywood legend died in a car crash in 1955.
“In my mind, it was one of the first tragedies I experienced,” Adams said.
In high school, he wrote to the Warner Bros. office in St. Louis requesting stills from “House of Wax” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” two of his favorite films.
A few weeks later, a letter from Warner Bros. in Burbank arrived, stating they would happily fulfill his request for 25 cents per still.
In high school, at the University of Illinois and when he served in the Air Force, Adams worked as a projectionist.
His interest in film would take him to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He attended film school at USC, where Adams said he saw a student production he’d never forget, “THX 1138.”
“The production value was so incredible; it stuck in my mind,” he said. The creator of the 1971 science-fiction film was George Lucas.
Adams worked at the USC Warner Bros. Archive — called the “largest single studio collection in the world” — while at film school. The materials date from 1918 to 1968, with the bulk of the items coming from Jack Warner’s mansion, Adams said.
“Every day for the first 10 years I would open a box and just go, ‘Wow’,” Adams said. “There were Humphrey Bogart letters to Jack Warner; a William Faulkner story that was never produced; photos of James Dean.”
The quality of the photos and the fact that “Dean never took a bad picture” prompted Adams to write a book. After five years, “James Dean: Behind the Scenes” was published. Another book and film projects round out Adams’ resume.
Adams’ work at USC led to a Warner Bros. exhibit in Paris, France, in 1990. The night of the exhibit he would learn that the studio wanted him to work on an archive. Two years later, he was a Warner Bros. employee.
Guests on the Warner Bros. VIP Tour will see Adams’ influence at the studio museum. He and the archive staff select the scripts, costumes and prop exhibits — an array that spans time and genres.
More than 220 “Corpse Bride” puppets, a few gremlins and Martians from “Mars Attacks!” rest in a special refrigeration unit. A note reminds workers the ideal temperature is 42 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Row 24 holds artwork from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
And amid all the filmmaking history, Adams mentioned his quest for his first letter to Warner Bros. as a high school student.
“I keep looking for that letter,” Adams said, joking about his own perfect ending.