'Ally,' 'Practice' movin' on up

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. - Ally McBeal is moving into a dazzling $349,000 penthouse overlooking the lights of Boston.

The two-bedroom loft she'll share with roommate Renee boasts a terrace garden, a circular staircase and built-in bookcases. Not bad for a beginning lawyer.

And the legal gang at The Practice, flush with cash after several wins, is getting a snazzy paint job for the drab digs of Donnell, Young, Dole & Frutt.

Both shows are moving next week from the historic Renmar Studios in Hollywood to a new 14-stage studio here near the sea. It's owned by Walt Disney's nephew Roy.

It's the first California production studio built from the ground up in 50 years.

The move gave the producers not only the impetus to spruce up their sets, but also room to expand - something they say they couldn't do in Hollywood.

"We had no choice but to leave," says Jeffrey Kramer, the president of David E. Kelley Productions, which will produce Fox's Ally McBeal and ABC's The Practice at the Raleigh Manhattan Beach Studios. "We couldn't build new sets, we couldn't add new shows. There was no place to park. Hollywood has become too successful."

With six broadcast networks and scores of cable channels getting more active in original programming, many productions are bypassing Hollywood's booked studios in favor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Toronto and Wilmington, N.C.

Making a reverse move is The X-Files, relocating to Hollywood this summer from Vancouver at the request of star David Duchovny. 20th Century Fox is squeezed for space, too, but made room on its L.A. lot for its top income-generating show.

Moving vans transported the sets for agents Mulder's and Scully's apartments and their boss Skinner's office. New sets (hospitals, jails and the like) will be built on a weekly basis. Most of The X-Files is shot on location, however, so the show's space needs were minimal.

By contrast, Ally and The Practice spend virtually all of their time in their interior sets - courtrooms, offices, the bar where the gang from Cage & Fish goes after work, and that unisex bathroom where the characters discuss their innermost thoughts.

Boston street scenes - like shots of Ally bouncing down the sidewalk to her imaginary theme song - have been filmed at Paramount on its all-purpose "New York street" set. Those scenes will probably still be filmed at Paramount, Kramer says.

But despite the new beach location, viewers aren't likely to see Ally or The Practice's Bobby Donnell in-line skating by the shore. It would be difficult to make that classic California image look like the East Coast.

While Manhattan Beach is delighted with its new star power, not all of the beach communities around Los Angeles have been as welcoming. Next-door neighbor Hermosa Beach nixed Aaron Spelling's plans to film Beverly Hills, 90210 in a beach house there one summer.

But Manhattan Beach city manager Geoff Dolan says his office still turns down requests to shoot on its historic pier. "The pier is for the public, and they wouldn't appreciate us closing it down," he says. "But here's a self-contained studio, which doesn't create any problems. The community is very excited."

Only a true TV obsessive will notice in the credits that Ally and The Practice are now filmed in Manhattan Beach, so it's unlikely that hordes of tourists will descend on the town.

Dolan can't quantify how the move will affect the city economically, except to say that jobs will be created and "people will eat and sleep in Manhattan Beach." Richard Augustus, who runs the Current Events newsstand, says his sales of the industry trade papers are already up 20%.

"We have so many young actors and behind-the-scenes people who travel all over to work in the industry," Augustus says. "Now they'll maybe be able to work closer to home."

By Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY