A couple weeks ago there was a man on fire running across Marjorie Douglas’s yard.
“Don’t worry, he was laughing and having a great time!”
Marjorie, who is 90, tells me that the stuntman was doing a commercial for a well-known company. Neither he nor Marjorie seemed the least bit concerned that he was engulfed in flames.
Scenes like this are par for the course for Marjorie, who—together with her late husband, Henry, who died in 2006—has been living in and running the Douglas House, a sprawling three-story home 18 miles outside of Manhattan in Rockland County. The house was specifically designed to host film and television crews, and has been doing so for 36 years.
Using real homes for film shoots is nothing new. I’ve seen the outside of the cul-de-sac home in New Jersey used for Tony Soprano’s family, the now-iconic Full House Italianate Victorian in San Francisco—I even went to school with the kids whose family’s house was used for the TV show Ed. There’s something exciting about getting to see these movie homes in real life. But living in and operating one? I thought that was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard.
Mention the Douglas House to any seasoned crew member on any film set, and chances are they have worked a job or two there and will comment on how lovely it is. I first discovered it many years ago myself working as an extra on a short-lived television show. My first day on set, a crew member showed me a “magic wall” that slid in and out, creating additional space for cameras and other equipment. He told me he had worked on countless productions there, explaining how the owners had specifically renovated the house to accommodate film crews.
I had no idea that the home was more than just a normal—albeit beautiful—residence. It’s similar to the way that you can drop in and eat at a restaurant where Sex and the City filmed: I felt that same sense of intrigue knowing that I’ve been inside a home used for a show, and marveled at how it looks in person versus on-screen.
Now years later I wondered again: What would inspire someone to turn their home into a film set? Did the Douglases love movies and television as much as I did and simply find an ingenious way to parlay that interest into an income-generating enterprise? Did they dream of being actors? Or did they simply enjoy being on a movie set?
I pepper Marjorie with all these questions as she walks me through her sprawling, three-story home. It’s mostly Dutch Colonial in architectural style, but for the sake of filming needs, has varying touches that allow it to look like different locations if needed.
She tells me that she once overheard a crew person assuming that she must have been a failed actress who never “made it”: “I have never wanted to be an actress,” she laughs. “This was meant to be a hobby that just turned into a business.”
The Douglases first got a taste of production life when they were living in Bergen County, New Jersey, when, on a whim, Marjorie answered an ad in a magazine looking for a filming location. Her kitchen setup was ideal for shooting, and word got around quickly. When neighbors complained that the Douglases were violating a local law that prohibited doing anything in a residence that could provide monetary gain, Marjorie had an idea. She asked Henry, whom people affectionately called Doug and who worked in the automotive industry, if he thought it might be a good idea to invest in buying a new place and remodeling it in a way that would be film-friendly. He enthusiastically agreed. Henry and Marjorie, who was a mother and homemaker at the time, thought it could be a fun pursuit to fill some of her spare hours. Later, after Henry retired, it became their full-time project.
They spent a year searching with a realtor before stumbling upon what would ultimately become the Douglas House. It was a two-room Dutch farmhouse built in 1756 on eight and a half acres that had unfortunately been destroyed by a fire. The property wasn’t listed anywhere, but Douglases had gotten a tip that the owner might be willing to sell.
Marjorie’s first viewing of the house was in an unofficial capacity. She and Henry climbed in through a window and saw that it was in bad shape: extensive burn damage, graffiti, missing stairway spindles. Still, they both felt that they could turn the house into something special. So they gutted it down to the studs, put in heavy duty wiring and extra plumbing, fixed the elevator, and went about remodeling it into what has become a popular set for commercials, television, and film shoots. Crews for brands like Country Crock, J.C. Penney, Fisher-Price, and even a Girl Scouts Cookie Oven have filmed at the Douglas House, while beloved shows like Law and Order: SVU, Saturday Night Live, the Netflix hit Daredevil, Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, and Showtime’s The Affair have also shot scenes there.
Justin Rosini, a location scout and manager, explains that the Douglas House is a place that gets looked at all the time by colleagues. “It’s sort of a known entity,” he says. “With filming being so prevalent in and around the city in the 30-mile zone, we share information all the time about where we’ve been. After you’ve been around for a while you end up going to a lot of the same places. I do feel like they’re still pretty popular.”
He admits that the Douglas House was even included on a list of locations he was recently considering. “It’s really a remarkable place, and I hope to film there in the future,” he says. Location managers typically have a stable of places at the ready depending on what a script calls for, whether that’s a large kitchen, pool, or foyer. One of the most important consideration is whether equipment can fit comfortably in a location in order to get the shots needed.
But the Douglas House is unique in that the entire place was built in order to accommodate filming needs.
Regular homes are not typically constructed to take into account whether ceilings are high enough for lighting panels and grip equipment, or for boom operators to adequately work. They also don’t have holes in the doors for cables to easily be connected throughout the house. And they’re certainly not equipped with a magic wall that slides inside another wall at a moment’s notice to enlarge a bedroom or bathroom. And because film productions require more electrical power than is typical in the average home, generators are usually brought in to provide the extra juice. Plus, owners typically have to get out of the way or move out completely during long shoots.
That’s not the case at the Douglas House. Marjorie (and Henry, until his death) lives on the third floor of the house in an apartment whose floors the couple soundproofed so that if they were moving about upstairs or watching television, the noise wouldn’t disrupt any filming happening down below. And because the home is residential but zoned for business, there is no need for permits. There are also several entrances to the house of varying styles, giving the illusion of six different porches, front steps, and front doors all in one location. For example, the largest facade and porch out front is Dutch Colonial, but a back entrance was constructed in the Victorian style, while other entrances fall more into the vein of what Marjorie describes as a middle-America look—which to me looks like it could pass for any suburban house I’ve seen in Illinois, New Jersey, or Indiana. The kitchen can also be easily transformed to display cabinetry in three different colors: white, black, or wood.
Today, Marjorie and her daughter Heather run the business, while Heather’s husband Noel, a builder, has taken over building upkeep and maintenance since Henry’s death. Heather has kept careful records of every project that has filmed there. Flipping through just a few pages of her notes I see listings of classic SNL sketches with Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, as well as later ones with Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon; CBS promos for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert; commercials for Geico, Target, Sensodyne, Cheetos—the list is seemingly endless and goes back all the way to the house’s inception in 1981.
Its popularity is easy to understand. It’s a home that offers all the things a film production holds most dear: efficiency that saves time and money while looking good on camera. No permits are necessary; neither are there additional fees for shooting on the weekend. There’s plenty of parking and space for equipment and crew, and no need for generators, because there’s 400 amps of electricity available through boxes in the basement and on the second floor. The kitchen features appliances that are easily moveable, and walls that can disappear and reappear at a moment’s notice.
“We’re at 1,885 shoots,” Marjorie says, smiling. The math seems to work out to about one shoot a week for the past 36 years, but Marjorie reminds me that the number of shoots doesn’t necessarily equal the number of days the house is booked. Most shoots last multiple days, making the number of days booked at the house more than double that figure of 1,885. She does tell me that business has slowed down a bit in recent years, however. Commercial directors say the house has been seen a lot, so Marjorie and Heather are always updating the bedrooms and living room areas to keep the look current and different to attract new productions.
“I think if the crews were doing the booking[s themselves], we’d get a lot more, because they say we make it real easy for them.” She laughs and nods when I comment on all the conveniences she provides. “It’s fun for me. I have a good time doing this.”