A ‘Big Bang Theory’ Tour of Pasadena

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Earlier this week, Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek declared Thursday, February 25 to be “Big Bang Theory Day” to commemorate the 200th episode of the long-running series, which is set in the city and references many local landmarks.

The proclamation reads in part “Whereas the talented cast, producers and crew of The Big Bang Theory … have portrayed the City of Pasadena as not only a city of advanced education and pop culture sophistication but also home to the occasional unexpected ‘Bazinga!’ to countless viewers worldwide; Now, Therefore I, Terry Tornek, Mayor of Pasadena, on behalf of the City Council, do hereby congratulate and commend the cast, producers and crew of The Big Bang Theory, and proclaim February 25, 2016, in the City of Pasadena as The Big Bang Theory Day.”

As it happens, I’ve lived in Pasadena for most of the past 30 years, so I thought I’d provide a little guide to some of the landmarks of the Big Bang Theory’s hometown. I’ve created a Google Map showing the relative locations of these places.

We’ll start with Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. This is a little tricky because the producers have deliberately fudged the geography; the address given in the series, 2311 N. Los Robles Avenue, doesn’t exist (Los Robles ends at Woodbury Road, in the 2000s), and if it did, it would be about three miles north of the City Hall building visible outside their window. Incidentally, Pasadena’s City Hall building is better known for its role as the Pawnee City Hall on Parks & Recreation, though it has also appeared in several other TV shows and movies, often appearing as the capitol building of various foreign countries (on Mission: Impossible and Dynasty, among others) going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

You can see the dome of Pasadena's city hall outside the window, which is the main clue as to the building's location.
You can see the dome of Pasadena’s city hall outside the window, which is the main clue as to the building’s location.

I knew approximately where the apartment ought to be, based on which side of the City Hall dome we could see and what buildings are around it, but couldn’t pin it down exactly without help from Google. According to a 2012 series of forum posts by “JamesPMiller” at the-big-bang-theory.com, the scene outside the window was photographed from the top floor of the Community Bank parking structure at 790 E. Colorado Blvd, the southwest corner of Colorado & Hudson, about six blocks east of City Hall and a block south. The photo was shot with a telephoto lens, making it appear much closer to the city hall building. The show has occasionally referenced a Chevron station across the street from their apartment, but the nearest Chevron station on Colorado is at Hill Street, about a mile away.

The zoom-out shot from Howard & Bernadette's wedding puts the building a few blocks further away.
The zoom-out shot from Howard & Bernadette’s wedding puts the building a few blocks further away.

To complicate matters a little more, in the episode where Howard and Bernadette get married on the roof of the apartment building, the satellite photo shown in the episode puts the apartment building at 215 S. Madison, about three blocks east and four blocks south of City Hall. The photo is heavily edited, with a couple of buildings changed, a park added, and part of a freeway removed.

According to a couple of posts in the previously-linked forum discussion, the interior of the building’s lobby and stairwell are directly modeled after the Brookmore Apartments at 189 N. Marengo, which is a block west of City Hall. Formerly a run-down older building in a bad neighborhood, the Brookmore used to house students, aspiring actors, and even some CalTech professors; it has benefited from the renaissance and gentrification of Old Town Pasadena in recent years, and is now touted as “luxury living at its finest.” If we disregard the view of City Hall as being chosen strictly for its photogenic appeal, The Brookmore, as it was in the ’90s, was very much like the building where the gang hangs out.

Raj's apartment in a converted watch factory.
Raj’s apartment in a converted watch factory.

Raj’s apartment (“the Raj Mahal”) is described as being in a converted watch factory; most of the former industrial spaces in Pasadena are south of Old Town on Raymond Ave., Arroyo Parkway, or Marengo Ave. There are also former industrial buildings in east Pasadena, mostly north of Colorado Blvd and east of Allen Ave., but they are more modern, dating from the ’60s and ’70s; in the show, Raj’s building is said to have been built in 1951. It’s also a brick building, suggesting that it’s more likely close to Old Town; I’d expect it to be between Del Mar and Glenarm on one of the aforementioned streets.

Furnished in "Jewish Mother Kitsch," the Wolowitz family home looks like it was built in the '30s and decorated in the '70s.
Furnished in “Jewish Mother Kitsch,” the Wolowitz family home looks like it was built in the ’30s and decorated in the ’70s.

Howard and Bernadette now live at the house he grew up in, somewhere in the hills of Altadena, an unincorporated town due north of Pasadena. This puts him close to his job at JPL, the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory. From what little we see of the front porch and living room, the house was most likely built early in the 20th century, based on the sort of Craftsman-Colonial exterior and the vaguely Victorian handrail on the stairs. There are a great many homes of this vintage all over Altadena, but I’m guessing it’s supposed to be north of Woodbury and west of Lake Avenue.

Bernadette's apartment set, featuring a retro dinette-counter.
Bernadette’s apartment set, featuring a retro dinette-counter.

Bernadette’s apartment appears to be a product of the ’60s or ’70s, given the dated-looking kitchenette and the large picture window. To me it looks like one of the post-WWII buildings along one of the streets west of Lake between Green and California; I’ll go with Hudson just north of Del Mar.

Amy’s apartment appears to be about the same vintage as Bernadette’s (not surprising, since they’re actually the same set) but a little more recently remodeled. I’m placing it in one of the buildings along California Street near El Molino Ave.

The Cheesecake Factory on TV is pretty plain.
The Cheesecake Factory on TV is pretty plain.

Until fairly recently, Penny worked as a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory, which is located in the historic Dodsworth Building at the corner of Colorado and Fair Oaks. The interior looks nothing like the set used on the show, leaning more toward that fake-Mediterranean style favored at the swankier casinos in Las Vegas.

The real Pasadena Cheesecake Factory is a lot more swanky. Photo from The Happy Hour Tour.
The real Pasadena Cheesecake Factory is a lot more swanky.
Photo from The Happy Hour Tour.

Bernadette and Penny both work for biotechnology companies, Bernadette as a researcher and Penny in sales; Amy also works in biological research. The most prominent of the biotech companies in Pasadena are part of the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative, a business incubator in East Pasadena. There are also several companies along South Fair Oaks in the vicinity of Huntington Memorial Hospital, along what was once promoted as “Pasadena’s Biotech Corridor.”

Comics Factory is my favorite comic shop. Tell 'em I sent you.
Comics Factory is my favorite comic shop. Tell ’em I sent you.

The guys spend a lot of time at Stuart’s comic book store, The Comic Center, which burned down in the season 7 finale and was later rebuilt; according to the now-defunct website for the store (thanks, Wayback Machine!), it’s located “on Green Street near PCC & CalTech.” As it happens, Green Street ends at Hill Ave., the western boundary of Pasadena City College, which is two blocks north of CalTech. It picks up again east of the campus. As it also happens, there is a comic book shop just north of Green near Hill Street; Comics Factory has been a fixture in Pasadena for about 20 years, and it also served as the basis for the comic shop on South Park, Komik Faktory.

Stuart’s biggest competitor, Capitol Comics, could be the other Pasadena comic shop, Collector’s Paradise, located at 319 S. Arroyo Parkway.

For all your model train needs (you DO have model train needs, right?), go to Pasadena's Original Whistle Stop. Sheldon does.
For all your model train needs (you DO have model train needs, right?), go to Pasadena’s Original Whistle Stop. Sheldon does.

Sheldon’s second-favorite destination after the comic shop is his favorite model train store. The Whistle Stop has been part of the Pasadena landscape since 1951, currently located at 2490 E. Colorado Blvd.

The Chandler Cafe at CalTech is a whole lot nicer than the cafeteria on the show.
The Chandler Cafe at CalTech is a whole lot nicer than the cafeteria on the show.

The characters eat a lot of take-out food, and occasionally dine at the Cheesecake Factory, but their favorite dining establishment is the dining hall at CalTech. The real Chandler Hall is a lot nicer than the perfunctory cafeteria seen on the show.

In the 14th episode of the first season, “The Einstein Approximation,” the gang visited the Moonlight Rollerway, a vintage roller skating rink in nearby Glendale, which turns up in a lot of TV shows and films.

In at least two episodes, “The Wheaton Recurrence” and “The Scavenger Vortex,” they visit a bowling alley; the longitude and latitude coordinates given in the latter episode are for Bowlmor Pasadena, which was called “300 Bowling” at the time the episode was filmed.

Sheldon called it "Pasadena's favorite Irish watering hole," but it's actually an English pub.
Sheldon called it “Pasadena’s favorite Irish watering hole,” but it’s actually an English pub.

“The Irish Pub Formulation” features Pasadena pub Lucky Baldwin’s; there are two locations, one in Old Town at 17 N. Raymond, and the other in east Pasadena at 1770 East Colorado Blvd. The same episode also mentions the retro-cool Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake about 10 miles west of Pasadena. Lucky Baldwin’s is named after a 19th century local real estate tycoon, whose estate eventually became the city of Arcadia. He reportedly earned the nickname when he returned from an extended world tour to discover that his holdings had quadrupled in value during his absence, but other accounts suggest it was more likely for his uncanny ability to escape through a bedroom window minutes before an angry husband discovered him.

I’m sure there are dozens of other locations I missed. If there’s one you know of, add it in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “A ‘Big Bang Theory’ Tour of Pasadena

  1. At the end of Episode 4, Season 6, The Re-entry Minimization; dejected Astronaut Howard is finally recognized and offered free pie at a lunch counter that I believe is Pie n Burger on California Blvd and S. Lake.

  2. It doesn’t especially resemble the interior of the real-life Pie ‘n Burger, but it’s a classic scene for another reason: Lurking in the back corner is the real-life Howard Wolowitz (after whom the character was named), as he mentions in the foreword to The Science of TV’s The Big Bang Theory.

  3. Disneyland (where the girls go and dress as princesses), Vasquez Rocks (where the guys go to take pictures in their Star Trek costumes), Big Sur (where they take a two car road trip for a symposium), and Carlsbad (where the theif of Sheldor lives).

  4. Brilliant , really enjoyed . I’m from the uk and have just arrived in LA to visit . Massive Big Bang fan , any tips of what to see whilst here ?

  5. Do you have any idea where the gang gets their food, especially the pizza? I know that Giacomo’s doesn’t really exist, but the pizza is fairly distinctive: it’s square, and it comes in a white box with a red design on the lid.

    I suspect that this is probably just from the Warner Bros cafeteria, or somewhere around Burbank, but I’m having a hard time pinning it down, and I think it would be fun to have the same pizza they have on the show. Alternately, if any of the other restaurants are based on real places, I’d enjoy going to them as well.

  6. I believe Big Bang theory needs a outsider from the getto. My name is Roland I’ll be perfect UCLA Educational Advisor. Major Basketball

    1. I think the link might have gotten broken during the recent redesign of the GeekDad site. I’ll see if I can reconnect it as soon as I can.

  7. What about the “Colonial” movie theater in the Indiana Jones episode? Existing (Pasadena) theater or studio backlot?

    1. The Theater looks like any of a few now-gone theaters in the area. The central box office in front is similar to the State Theater, formerly on Colorado Blvd near Hudson, across from what is now Target. The State has been gone for over 20 years now, and the box office went away in a remodel. Another former theater a few blocks west at Madison & Colorado has the Art Deco decor, but not the box office kiosk. It became an educational supplies store years ago, but it’s been vacant for some years now. Even further west in Old Town, the former UA at DeLacey is now a Tiffany’s; it had some of the Art Deco Stylings of the theater in the episode, but not as extravagant.

      Of the theaters that are still theaters, the Laemmle on the north side of Colorado is probably the one that looks the most like the set in the show, but it doesn’t really look much like it at all.

      I suspect the episode was probably filmed on the Warner lot, not at an actual theater. If they had wanted to film in Pasadena, they would probably have needed a time machine to get back to the 1980s, before those theaters were repurposed and remodeled.

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