U.S., California, Union Pacific, Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Amtrak: Los Angeles Union Station stars in the movies

It’s less than two months before Amtrak Day in May 1971; pictured above are the locomotives for Union Pacific’s famed Domeliner City of Los Angeles and Santa Fe’s San Diegan service at Los Angeles Union Station. The City of Los Angeles would not survive the beginning of Amtrak, but the San Diegans did, with an Amtrak name change years later to Pacific Surfliners, a highly successful service sponsored by the State of California. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on April 25, 2021 as the pandemic-era Oscars presentation ceremony telecast was held at Los Angeles Union Station. The article has been updated and photographs have been added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 3, 2022

Hooray for Hollywood; everyone there are all headed to 800 North Alameda Street in Los Angeles for the 93rd presentation of the Academy Awards, known as the Oscars.

The original Ticket Hall of Los Angeles Union Station (as seen is a still from the movie Pearl Harbor) was the primary space used for the 2021 Oscars telecast. The space has not been used for ticketing for decades and has often hosted special events and movie location shoots. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Yes, the ceremony is being held in a train station. Not just any train station, it’s Los Angeles Union Station, built in 1939.

A 2008 aerial view of the Los Angeles Union Station complex. If all promises are kept, the tracks shown behind the building will become run-through tracks, eliminating costly back-up moves into the station. As built in 1939, the station is a stub-end terminal. Wikipedia photo.

Here’s the quick Wikipedia version of the background of LAUS:

“Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) is the main railway station in Los Angeles, California, and the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States. It opened in May 1939 as the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, replacing La Grande Station and Central Station.

“Approved in a controversial ballot measure in 1926 and built in the 1930s, it served to consolidate rail services from the Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific Railroads into one terminal station. Conceived on a grand scale, Union Station became known as the ‘Last of the Great Railway Stations’ built in the United States. The structure combines Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

“Today, the station is a major transportation hub for Southern California, serving almost 110,000 passengers a day. It is by far the busiest train station in the Western United States; it is Amtrak’s fifth-busiest station, and is the twelfth-busiest train station in the entire country.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which carries through-cars for the Texas Eagle, is shown on a platform track at Los Angeles Union Station in 2005. The Sunset remains the longest operating named inter-regional passenger train in the country and its inauguration predated the 1939 opening of LAUS. In addition to the Sunset, LAUS is the southern terminal of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and the western terminal of the Southwest Chief. The Sunset is a descendant of Southern Pacific, the Southwest Chief is a descendant of Santa Fe’s Super Chief, and the Coast Starlight is also a descendant of Southern Pacific. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Four of Amtrak’s long distance trains originate and terminate here: the Coast Starlight to Seattle, the Southwest Chief and Texas Eagle to Chicago, and the Sunset Limited to New Orleans. The state-supported Amtrak Pacific Surfliner regional trains run frequently to San Diego and also to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The station is the hub of the Metrolink commuter rail system and is a major transfer point for several Metro Rail subway and light rail lines. The Patsaouras Transit Plaza, on the east side of the station, serves dozens of bus lines operated by Metro and several other municipal carriers. …

“… In October 2019, Amtrak and Metrolink shared 12 of Union Station’s 14 outdoor tracks, with 94 trains departing on most weekdays (95 on Wednesday, 96 on Friday).” Built as a stub-end station, after eight decades the station is slated to become a full run-through station with new construction.

LAUS is also slated to become a terminal for California High Speed Rail.

The news media has been obsessed with the glorious renovations taking place at LAUS since the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority took ownership of the property. Prior, it had been tangled up in the real estate ups and downs of the real estate spin-off of the Southern Pacific Railroad when everyone thought the SP was going to merge with the Santa Fe in the 1980s.

The bottom line from the failed merger proposal was a new company. Catellus Development Corporation was formed for all of the California real estate holdings of the Southern Pacific; at the time it became the largest private land owner in the state. Soon thereafter, Catellus purchased the Union Pacific’s interest in what was then still called Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. Catellus sold the station property to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2011. That’s when the renovations began in earnest.

In the mid-1960s, LAUPT was a magnificent place, but well on its way to being shabby. The Super Chief was still calling at the station, as well as the City of Los Angeles and the Sunset Limited and Golden State. The station complex was less than 30 years old, but maintenance was not a high priority.

The original space of the Fred Harvey Restaurant in Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. After closing in the 1960s, the space was used for special events and for movie location shoots, such as the 1973 Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford movie The Way We Were. In 2018 the space was rehabilitated and turned into the Imperial Western Beer Company (as shown above) but became an economic victim of the pandemic. Today, it has reopened under the same ownership as Homebound Brew Haus and beer garden with a sports theme. Much of the same furnishings from Imperial Western have been incorporated into the new Homebound. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Fred Harvey Restaurant was still in place, and, across the street, the Olvera Street Market was still in full flower.

Olvera Street is directly across from Los Angeles Union Station. From Wikipedia: “Olvera Street is a historic street in downtown Los Angeles, and a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, the area immediately around the 19th-century Los Angeles Plaza, which has been the main square of the city since the early 1820s, when California was still part of Mexico, and was the center of community life until the town expanded in the 1870s. Many of the Plaza District’s historic buildings are on Olvera Street, including its oldest one, the Avila Adobe, built in 1818; the Pelanconi House built in 1857; and the Sepulveda House built in 1887.” Wikipedia photo.

The station continued to operate, but the number of trains was dwindling, and on Amtrak Day in May of 1971, the number dwindled some more.

The July 1956 edition of The Official Guide of the Railways shows the Santa Fe was operating The Super Chief, The Chief, El Capitan, The Grand Canyon and six San Diegans in and out of LAUPT.

Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight, “The Most Beautiful Train in the World” had Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal as it’s southern terminus. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Southern Pacific was operating the Sunset Limited, Argonaut, Golden State, Imperial, Coast Daylight, Starlight, Lark, San Joaquin and Sacramento Daylights, West Coast and the Owl in and out of LAUPT.

Union Pacific’s Domeliner City of Los Angeles is ready to depart Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal in March 1971 just before the train would make its final run in a few weeks before Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971. Six locomotives power the all-Armour Yellow painted train on its route from Los Angeles to Chicago.Wikimedia Commons photo.

Union Pacific was operating the Domeliner City of Los Angeles, Challenger Domeliner, San Francisco Overland -City of St. Louis, Utah Parks Summer Service, Northwest Special, Yellowstone Special, Butte Special, plus some through car services in and out of LAUPT.

Pacific Electric’s Red Cars included Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal as part of their route system. Shown above are cars on the Santa Ana line in downtown Los Angeles circa 1940s. Wikimedia Commons photo.
1976’s Silver Streak was supposed to be about passengers on a fictional passenger railroad that just happened to sound very much like “Amtrak” that departed from Los Angeles Union Station and traveled to Chicago with various mishaps along the way. The movie starred the late Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh and Richard Pryor. Wikipedia image.

Pacific Electric was also operating local service in and out of LAUPT.

LAUPT has been a favorite location for movie shoots; it has been a consistent background from the year it opened. Even today a LAUPT platform can transform itself into any era.

Wikipedia picks up the background story of movies made in and around LAUPT:

“The facility served as a backdrop for the 1950 film Union Station, which starred William Holden and Nancy Olson. It has been used in many vintage motion pictures, many of the film noir variety. Movies that have featured Union Station as a filming location include:

• Blade Runner
• Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
• Drag Me to Hell
• Gable and Lombard
• Bugsy
• Pearl Harbor
• Chandler
• In the Mood
• Private Eye
(1987 TV movie starring Josh Brolin)
• Silver Streak
• The Way We Were
• Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth
• Under the Rainbow
• To Live and Die in L.A.
• Muppets Most Wanted
• The Island
• The Italian Job
• Cry Danger
• Union Station
• Garfield: The Movie
• The Dark Knight Rises

Official poster for Pearl Harbor, starring Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett. Wikipedia image.

When Pearl Harbor, the World War II epic was released in 2001, a scene was filmed of one of the major characters in the movie leaving on a train, headed east. The interior of the train car was correct for the period, the costumes for the actors were all correct, and everything seemed just right for the World War II era. What the movie producers let slip through was just visible across out the train car window and across the platform was the back corner of a brand new Amtrak locomotive that sharp eyes quickly recognized. No markings could be seen, but most aligned with the railroad industry could tell the difference between an early diesel locomotive, steam locomotive and a shiny new Amtrak locomotive.

The 1976 movie Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor is set on a fictional transcontinental train with a name strikingly similar to Amtrak. The movie opens with Gene Wilder’s character arriving at LAUPT and being greeted by a Redcap and Wilder says it’s the train to Chicago. Next we see Wilder boarding his train.

The front entrance to Los Angeles Union Station which has served as a movie prop since 1939, including for Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. Wikimedia Commons photo.

While Wilder’s character arrived by taxi at obviously LAUPT, the train itself actually departed from Toronto Union Station. Much of the exteriors of the film and all of the shots of the train – which was a Canadian Pacific consist – were filmed in Canada. The final “Chicago” scenes of the movie where the train crashes past the bumper post and into the station were also filmed at Toronto Union Station.

Train-loving Sheldon in the hit television show The Big Bang Theory is running away from home on a train from Los Angeles Union Station in Episode 24 of Season 7 in 2014, The Status Quo Combustion. Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons is talking with his best friend Leonard, played by Johnny Galecki. Internet photo.

Towards the middle of its television run, The Big Bang Theory which ran from 2007 to 2019 had a segment where train-loving Sheldon ran away from home and was found (to no one’s surprise) at Los Angeles Union Station where he was preparing to board an Amtrak train.

Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal had a constant stream of celebrities and movie stars entraining an detraining. In this vintage post-war photo, on the left is First Daughter Margaret Truman, and on the right is Bing Crosby standing next to Santa Fe’s Super Chief. Internet photos.

Not surprisingly when the station is used in movies for period scenes, such as movie stars or main characters of the movie are stepping off trains we see them with what appears to be The Super Chief with its all-stainless steel consist. Both Union Pacific and Southern Pacific painted their equipment exteriors to railroad colors and more stainless steel equipment exists today than UP or SP painted equipment.

Actress Kim Novak poses with her luggage for news and publicity photographers after detraining from a Union Pacific streamliner upon her return from Europe in the 1950s. Wikimedia photo.

Newspapers and newsreel studios of the day in the 1940s and 50s regularly stationed reporters and photographers at LAUPT to capture images and interviews of stars and celebrities either entraining or detraining. Of course, to “help” the news media, movie studios often would let the media know in advance the comings-and-goings at this famous train station.

The movies have always loved trains and train stations of all sizes. Los Angeles Union Station is now 81 years old and has a new lease on life. Thankfully.

1950s Union Station was a film noir detective movie starring William Holden and Nancy Olson. Much of the action of the movie took place in Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal with lots of detail, some real, some strictly for movie drama. It’s a fun Saturday afternoon one hour and 21 minutes. Wikimedia Commons photo.
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