The Darkroom from “The Big Picture”May 24th, 2013 | By Lindsay | Category: Movie Locations
Sometimes I think Mike, from MovieShotsLA, and I are one brain living in two different bodies. Case in point – one of my most beloved movies of all time is the little-known 1989 sleeper The Big Picture, which I saw with my mom shortly after it originally came out almost two-and-a-half decades ago. In the years since, I had never met anyone who had ever even heard of the flick, let alone loved it as much as I did. So imagine my surprise when, during one of our first stalks together in 2008, Mike and I drove by the historic Vista Theatre in Los Feliz and he mentioned that it had been featured in one of his favorite films of all time . . . The Big Picture. Yep – one brain, two bodies. It was not until last year, though, that the two of us decided to track down the many locales used in the movie, the most important of which (for me, at least) was the extremely unique Indian restaurant that appeared in one of the opening scenes. The trek was far easier said than done, though.
The Indian restaurant in The Big Picture boasted a very unusual, camera-shaped façade. Figuring that an eatery matching that description would be an easy find, I did a quick Google search for every permutation of “Indian restaurant shaped like a camera” that I could possibly think of, but none yielded any sort of result. I then ordered I Killed Charles Bronson’s Cat, a book written by The Big Picture’s location manager, Barry Gremillion, hoping it would provide a lead. And while the tome did prove to be a fascinating read and proffered information about several of the movie’s locales, maddeningly not a word was mentioned about the Indian eatery. My next step was to track down Barry himself, which I managed to do via Facebook. I sent him a message asking about the restaurant location and, amazingly enough, he wrote back less than ninety minutes later! Barry informed me that while the eatery was no longer in operation, the camera façade could still be found on Wilshire Boulevard. From there, tracking it down was a snap. And ironically enough, it was a place I had actually been to before!
The programmatic/Streamline Moderne-style camera-shaped storefront was originally designed by architect Marcus P. Miller sometime during the late 1930s. (There seem to be differing reports about the exact year of construction everywhere you look online, varying from 1935 to 1936 to 1937 to 1938). The site, not surprisingly, originally housed a photography supply store named The Darkroom. Miller assembled the whimsical façade, which consists of a nine-foot-tall replica of a 35-millimeter Argus camera, complete with a shutter speed indicator, winder and dual rangefinders, out of black Vitrolite glass.
A porthole window comprises the camera’s lens, on which, according to the book Images of America: Los Angeles Art Deco, newsreels were at one time projected to passersby. (I absolutely love the photograph below in which a reflection of Mike taking my picture is visible in the porthole.) The Darkroom, the façade of a which is a Los Angeles Cultural-Historic Monument, became so iconic and synonymous with the Miracle Mile area of L.A. that it inspired replicas at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, Disney Studios Paris, and Universal Studios Orlando, all of which you can see photos of on the Yesterland website here. And you can check out a historic picture of The Darkroom when it was still in operation here.
Sometime during the mid-80s, an Indian restaurant named Sher-e Punjab opened at the site. It was during that time that The Big Picture was filmed. In late 1999, the fine dining establishment La Boca del Conga, which was owned in part by Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, Paul Rodriguez, and Sheila E., moved into the space. It was there that I attended a party back in 2000. Today, the property houses a Tex-Mex restaurant named El Toro Cantina and it looks pretty much exactly the same as it did during the La Boca del Conga days, which explains why I did not recognize it. Most of the façade has, unfortunately, been hidden behind foliage and a large awning and, as you can see below, has been rendered inconspicuous. You can read an interesting story about what became of The Darkroom signage here.
In The Big Picture, budding filmmaker Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) dines at Sher-e Punjab with his girlfriend, Susan Rawlings (Emily Longstreth), and friends, Emmet and Jenny Sumner (Michael McKean and Kim Miyori, respectively), after winning a prestigious student film award.
The interior of the restaurant was also used in the filming.
That interior looks quite a bit different today.
And for some odd reason, there is currently a fish tank covering the inside of The Darkroom’s iconic porthole window.
Sher-e Punjab also made a very brief appearance in 1993’s Falling Down. In the movie, William ‘D-Fens’ Foster (Michael Douglas) walks past the eatery before heading to the “Swap Meet” next door to purchase his daughter a snow globe.
Be sure to check out more Big Picture locations on Mike’s website, MovieShotsLA.
Until next time, Happy Stalking!
Stalk It: El Toro Cantina, aka The Darkroom, aka Sher-e Punjab from The Big Picture, is located at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles. You can visit the Cantina’s official website here.