A major event occurred on Feb. 28, 1983, that has never been duplicated. The finale of the television show “M*A*S*H” garnered nearly 106 million viewers; a record for that time that has been held until today. That is a lot of viewers, considering the population of the United States only had 239 million in that year.
That would mean nearly half of all television sets in the country were tuned in to watch the final episode for a series that had lasted 11 years. Yes, the iconic depiction of doctors and nurses working at the 4077th lasted eight years longer than the Korean War did.
The show’s finale brought an end to one of America’s most-watched and beloved television series but didn’t end its popularity. “M*A*S*H” is still one of the most popular reruns on television. It is shown about 15,000 times per minute around the world. Once the series ended in 1983, it was picked up by various networks — FX, Hallmark Channel, TV Land, AMC, Sundance Channel, MeTV, and the little-known and nonexistent Beyer’s Byways Network
One Sunday afternoon, I was channel surfing and caught an episode or two of the gang from “M*A*S*H.” I laughed at their jokes and then thought of some possible research that could be accomplished.
I looked over at Laureen, who was busy doing something while sitting on the sofa.
“I wonder where ‘M*A*S*H’ was filmed.” I queried.
“Ask Mr. Google,” she responded. She’s ever-so-helpful sometimes.
And soon, a trip was planned for the following Saturday to Malibu Creek State Park.
An iconic television series
According to the Conejo Valley Guide, 20th Century Fox produced “M*A*S*H” from September 1972 until February 1983. Eleven seasons, producing 256 episodes at the park. The film studio sold the area to the State of California in 1974, expanding the acreage of the park.
The park is huge, stretching more than 8,000 acres between Calabasas, Agoura, and Malibu, featuring hiking trails, bicycle trails, horse trails, walking trails, and trails within trails for those who cannot make up their mind on their desired mode of transportation.
In all transparency, when I looked up information on where the television site actually was, I was lazy and only viewed one description. It seemed a person could drive into the park and see the “M*A*S*H” location in the parking lot.
I was wrong.
“You have to hike three miles to see it,” the ranger told us at the front gate of the park.
“Huh?” I replied.
“Yeah, we get that a lot,” he said. “Nice thing though, it’s a good trail with only about a 200-foot elevation gain. Real doable.”
Laureen and I had dressed for Malibu, not hiking. Our plan was to see the “M*A*S*H” thingy and then venture toward the coast to hob-nob with the celebs who live there. We don’t know any, and probably wouldn’t recognize them anyway, but having a nice lunch while viewing the blue waters of the Pacific had seemed like a fine idea.
“Now what?” Laureen asked.
“Plan B,” I returned. “Time to go shopping for cooler hiking clothes. It’s 93 degrees outside and I’m wearing going-to-Malibu-for-lunch clothes.”
We returned for the hike within an hour, dressed properly but a bit poorer after shopping in some galleria that I couldn’t pronounce.
Water bottles in hand, large brimmed hats on the head, and hiking shoes on feet, we were ready.
The ranger had been correct. The trail to the “M*A*S*H” site is wide, well-graded dirt, with a few spots here and there with tall green trees offering the adventurer a bit of a respite from the overhead rays of the sun.
It was hot — in fact, one woman was carted out from the trail by another ranger in his official ranger truck.
“My wife, she can’t deal with the heat,” her husband said to us, as he started to climb into the truck beside his spouse. “I think she has sun stroke.”
I nodded then said to my lovely heat-sensitive spouse, “Take a sip of water, we got another mile and a half to go in this heat and then the return trip.”
“You are one considerate man,” Laureen said. She never fails to recognize my gallantry. Quite a woman I got there.
A bit of Hollywood history
20th Century Fox Studios bought 2,000 acres of vacant land in 1946, to be used as a “shooting ranch.” It wasn’t only “M*A*S*H” that has been filmed there — dozens of movies and television series have used the location.
In the early years, before it was owned by 20th Century Fox, the lands were used for silent black and white films such as the 1919 film “Daddy Long Legs” starring Mary Pickford, the 1936 film “Tarzan Escapes” starring Johnny Weissmuller, and the 1938 film “Blockade” starring Henry Fonda just to name a few.
Then as time moved on, so did the movies shot here in the Malibu Creek area: “Planet of the Apes” in 1968, “Dr. Doolittle” in 1967, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969, “Pleasantville” in 1998 — just to name a few.
This whole area has Hollywood history written all over it — like a script. And, many of the locations are easily located for those movie buffs who want to walk where great movies were made and film stars tread.
But, even if films aren’t to a person’s liking, there is so much to do in and around the park. Camping is even permitted, which would give a lot of opportunities to investigate everything there is to be seen.
We were on a mission though. And that mission was to step foot where the crew of the 4077th had walked.
We hiked. We talked. We hiked. And we did so more hiking until, finally, just northwest of the trail came a glimmer of an American military ambulance from the time period of the Korean War.
“That is so cool,” I stated.
Laureen stopped, took a sip of water, and said. “I have to agree, and up yonder is another one.”
We had made the trek in less than an hour, and that is with stopping here and there taking in the beautiful scenery along the way.
We wandered here and there reading various signs that explained which scene was filmed at this spot or that spot with photographs for visual guidance.
Memories of ‘M*A*S*H’
The view that caught our attention right away was looking eastward toward the tops of a few hills which had been used in the opening scene of each episode. Radar, played by Gary Burghoff, is filmed staring toward two helicopters approaching the 4077th with wounded soldiers flying low over the Goat Buttes. You could almost hear the sound of the choppers preparing to land.
We climbed up a short hill to the west of the set and visualized where the portable hospital had stood, the Swamp was located (this is the quarters for the senior surgical staff), the latrines were placed, and other features of the “M*A*S*H” set. There was the iconic sign stating mileages for various places around the world; Burbank, Toledo, Seoul, and other cities.
In addition to the re-created set, there are a couple of ambulances, a jeep, a truck, a picnic area covered in camouflage netting, and other items that allowed us a chance to go back in time to when this series was filmed.
“It’s as though the actors are still here,” Laureen stated.
No, those days are gone. But there was a sense in the Santa Monica Mountains canyon where “M*A*S*H” was filmed that something special had been created. Perhaps that is what Laureen had meant and I felt it too.
As we returned to our vehicle, we bumped into another ranger who said, “It’s really strange, I see people hiking over to the ‘M*A*S*H’ site wearing fatigues, hospital attire, and other outfits from that time period. Of all ages and you know, it’s pretty cool.”