The history of movies and television shows filmed in Long Beach is as extensive as it is storied, and for the last 30-plus years, Long Beach native John Robinson has been at the center of all the action—both as a film coordinator-photographer for the city of Long Beach and through running his own location service for films: Long Beach Locations.
Name a spot in Long Beach, and John Robinson, at the drop of a hat, can tell you what has been filmed there. Take a spot in East Long Beach, Joe Jost’s, for example.
“‘License to Wed’ was there a week, ‘Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!,’ ‘Gone in 60 seconds,’ and a lot of beer commercials,” Robinson said. “‘The Bodyguard,’ with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, was also shot there—they danced in the entryway of Joe Jost’s.”
Sticking with the East Long Beach theme, Robinson recalls some films shot at El Dorado Park, including the White House in “Nixon” and the 1996 golf film ‘Tin Cup,’ starring Kevin Costner and Rene Russo.
Robinson even recalls the 1992 film “Man Trouble” for two reasons. It was shot on Shoreline Drive, and that’s also when he became friends with the movie’s star, Jack Nicholson. They went to The Pike and bonded over a game of Lite-a-Line, a combination of bingo and pinball, after the movie finished shooting one evening.
But before Robinson was socializing with Hollywood A-Listers and helping facilitate the efforts of bringing their films and television shows to the city, he was a local boy interested in photography.
“I grew up in the Bixby Knolls area,” Robinson said. “I went to Hughes Junior High School, Jordan High School, and then Cal State Long Beach. I got a degree in photography and started working as a freelance photographer. I got married, had a baby, and realized I needed a more substantial income than freelance work.”
Robinson says that, at the time, Long Beach was offering a job as a city film coordinator/photographer.
“I got the job, and the rest is history,” he said.
Robinson’s introduction to filming was the first “Lethal Weapon” movie in 1987, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
“This was after the ‘Twilight Zone’ helicopter tragedy with Vic Morrow, so after the Twilight Zone accident, everybody was concerned about helicopters and their safety filming. The opening scene of Lethal Weapon has an aerial shot of them coming down the coastline and then circling around the Long Beach International Tower building. No one died,” he added jokingly.
When Robinson was with the city, he coordinated the filming of the original “Baywatch,” which was in town weekly during its time on television. After accumulating a wealth of knowledge about film location work and meeting the location managers who worked on the productions, Robinson left his city position and opened his own film location service, Long Beach Locations, which has been running for 23 years now.
“Long Beach Locations came with the support of [location managers] John Panzarella, Kokayi Ampah and the likes,” said Robinson, referring to the “top tier” of location managers he has worked with throughout his tenure.
Whether at a residential, commercial, or industrial location, and everything in between, Robinson has had his finger on the pulse on where to film in Long Beach. Even now, Robinson is always trying to match the perfect location to a film set. He especially looks for empty banks, warehouses, and hangars—they are hot commodities when it comes to filming locations.
“There’s an empty bank right now on Bellflower Boulevard not being used that I really want to try and get for filming.”
When asked why time and time again location managers bring their productions to Long Beach, Robinson points to another familiar Long Beach name: Tasha Day, the Film Commissioner at the Long Beach Special Events and Filming Office. In the interviews with the location managers themselves for this issue, the two names that have come up the most in attributing praise for the film friendliness of Long Beach have been Robinson and Day.
“Tasha has made filming an easy process, a three-day turnaround for film permits,” Robinson said. “What makes it good on my end with filming is that I have a great relationship with the city and I know what it takes to coordinate filming, and that’s where Tasha gets it, too.”
Long Beach has created a one-stop-shop, where the film company contacts the film office, and then in turn, the film office works with local city counterparts to make filming happen.
“It’s truly the support from our city staff that makes it all possible,” Day said. “My job as Film Commissioner is to not only assist with filming in Long Beach, but also to work with Long Beach constituents to minimize impacts.”
Day remembers one instance where there was a shoot for a commercial for “Shark Week” and the crew had a mechanical shark in the water.
“We notified everyone in the area not to be alarmed—we had lifeguards and marine patrol there. Of course, me, of all people, sees the fake shark from a distance at another film shoot and thinks it's real! I was our only complaint for that filming.”
But above all, seeing the finished product is the most rewarding part of the job for Day.
“I am probably the worst person to watch television or go to the movies with because I’m constantly saying, ‘Bet you didn’t know that was Long Beach,’” she said.