When New York isn't New York -- Toronto, Hollywood backlots, and other places serve as replacements for the big city

For Hollywood fabulists, shooting a New York story hasn’t necessarily meant shooting in New York. Producers and directors have often found a kinder, gentler, occasionally cheaper Big Apple on West Coast backlots and in some out-of-the-way places: Toronto, Universal Studios Florida, even North Carolina.

Universal actually had four New York Streets until November, when a fire, allegedly arson, destroyed the block-long, multimillion-dollar sets in Universal City. Now crews are working around the clock to re-create New York Alley, Sting Alley, gritty New York Street, and elegant Brownstone Street, where Dick Tracy and, more recently, F/X 2 were made.

Paramount’s New York Street, built in 1927 and destroyed by fire in 1983, has been redesigned as a Bronx slum. It’s currently home to Soapdish, a soap-opera spoof with Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey Jr., and Carrie Fisher. Warner Bros. has an extensive New York Street — actually three sets, two of them dating from 1930, the third rebuilt in 1981 for the filming of Annie. Twentieth Century Fox’s version is turn-of-the-century. Gary Martin, who helped to build it and is now Columbia’s president of production administration, says, ”Expense is certainly one reason people would rather shoot here, but the big reason is control.”

There’s one other reason: The fakes can be more real than the real. For Harlem Nights, Eddie Murphy needed the hot Harlem of the Depression years, when nightclubs lined the streets. What he couldn’t find in actuality he found at Paramount. ”If you’re doing a period show, it’s very difficult and very expensive to do that in the city,” says Columbia’s Martin. ”Nineteen-thirties New York doesn’t exist in New York.”