Home Sweet Homer: The Strange Saga of the Real-Life Simpsons House in Nevada

Courtesy of FOX
Courtesy of FOX

At first glance, the two-story stucco house located on Red Bark Lane in Henderson, Nevada, looks very much the same as the neighboring homes located in the South Valley Ranch community. Neutral exterior paint covers the sides and attached garage. A rock garden has been spread over the soil. A cement walkway leads from the driveway to the front door.

Look closer and the irregularities begin to appear. The house has protruding bay windows and a rounded front entryway, which are both unusual for the prefabricated construction on the block. A chimney juts out from the roof, though Nevada residents are rarely in need of a wood-burning fire. Around the garage, some of the light-colored paint is flaking, revealing a cornea-scorching bright orange underneath.

The exterior of the 'Simpsons' replica home as it appears in 2018
Courtesy of Private Owner

Once upon a time, the house on Red Bark Lane wasn’t just another address in a sprawling suburban development: It was originally built as a nearly exact three-dimensional replica of 742 Evergreen Terrace, the Springfield residence of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson. Working on a short schedule, architects and builders de-fictionalized the home featured in The Simpsons for a 1997 giveaway that was intended to leave one lucky fan with the ultimate in cartoon memorabilia. No detail was spared, from a food dish for their cat, Snowball II, to Duff beer cans in the fridge.

But controversy soon erupted in this faux-Springfield mock-up. The homeowner's association wasn’t keen on having a cartoon house that broke conformity requirements by being painted solar yellow. The sweepstakes winner rejected it outright. And the current owner had to learn to live with the property being a source of perpetual curiosity for fans of the show who brazenly turn her doorknobs and peer through her windows at all hours of the day and night. As it turns out, the reality of living in a fantasy can get a little complicated.

 
 

Heading into its 30th season in the fall, The Simpsons is the longest-running primetime scripted series in television history, surpassed in overall longevity only by daytime soaps, Sesame Street, and late-night institutions. Despite criticisms that the show has exhausted its potential, it remains a profitable empire for the Fox network, with no announced end in sight.

In 1997, the show’s future was less certain. Sales of tie-in Simpsons merchandise had fallen off from its high in the early 1990s, where it had raked in roughly $2 billion during a fevered explosion in popularity. Revenue had waned and so had licensee interest: The number of companies producing Simpsons goods dropped by 75 percent. In an attempt to reignite awareness, product merchandisers for the show planned a major rollout for best-of VHS tapes and a CD-ROM titled Virtual Springfield that would allow users to explore the family’s hometown and interact with its regulars.

What the network needed was a promotional vehicle—something to drive interest in both the show and its ancillary products. That idea came not from within Fox, but from an outside marketing expert who saw an opportunity for some corporate synergy. Jeff Charney was responsible for marketing at Kaufman and Broad, a home builder looking to promote both its brand and a new housing development in Henderson, Nevada, about 16 miles southeast of Las Vegas. While brainstorming in the shower, Charney got the idea to erect a replica of the Simpsons' home. He brought it to Kaufman and Broad’s builders, including project manager Mike Woodley. After determining it was feasible, the company pitched it to Fox, who gave their approval to proceed.

A look at the design of the Simpsons' kitchen
Courtesy of FOX

“It was a big deal for Kaufman and Broad because it meant all kinds of exposure,” Woodley tells Mental Floss. "The house itself was a pretty simple box-on-box design with a garage. I think I sketched it out in a day.”

There was some precedent for the stunt. In the 1970s, Kaufman and Broad chairman Bruce Karatz had agreed to build a house on top of Au Printemps, a department store in Paris, with the idea that it would intrigue people enough to visit the store’s upper floors. When they reached the summit, a Kaufman and Broad salesperson was waiting to pitch them on buying one of their homes.

The gimmick was hugely successful for both the builder and Au Printemps—it attracted more than 500,000 visitors in the four months it was open, and cemented the company as one that thought well outside the standard marketing boxes. “Bruce was an innovative guy,” Simpsons house architect Manny Gonzalez tells Mental Floss. “The easiest way to get publicity is to build a special house.”

 
 

Once the project was approved, Woodley and Gonzalez pored over 100 episodes of the show and storyboards on loan from the production to try and discern a layout. “We took a floor plan we already had and did things that still had to meet building code but was reminiscent of The Simpsons,” Gonzalez says. “We never would have put in a rounded door or windows in the spots they were in.”

The team’s goal was to be 90 percent normal, with occasional lapses into cartoon continuity. Door frames were widened and lengthened to accommodate Marge’s hair and Homer’s girth. The stairs leading to the second floor were slightly steeper than normal. The downstairs floor was poured and painted concrete rather than hardwood or carpet, the better to mimic the show’s flat colors. Bart’s treehouse was erected in the backyard.

“We knew someone had to live in it, so the kitchen was a little bigger than it is on the show,” Woodley says. “It had to be a real house.”

A look at the Simpsons' house living room
Courtesy of Rick Floyd

Construction was only part of the illusion. To get that lived-in look, a Hollywood production designer and photographer named Rick Floyd came in and accentuated the home with details that would impress the critical eye of series creator Matt Groening and die-hard fans alike. Floyd hung corn cob-patterned curtains in the kitchen; Bart’s bedroom closet held a row of identical shirts and shorts; mouse holes were painted on the walls near the floor; Lisa’s saxophone leaned against her bed. He even painted an oil stain in the driveway, a nod to Homer’s lack of automotive maintenance. He also flagged down a vehicle he saw while driving and offered the surprised owner $700 for it. Painted purple, it was a perfect match for the Simpsons' iconic wheels.

“We essentially disguised a regular tract home to look like The Simpsons home,” Gonzalez says.

As the house neared completion in August 1997 after just four months of work, local Kaufman and Broad employees sometimes came by for a look. “I drove by it when I was pregnant with twins,” Danielle, then a secretary for the company, tells Mental Floss. “Honestly, I declined to go in, because I wasn’t a fan of the show and it was too hot.”

By this point, Fox and Kaufman and Broad were arranging tours for locals and tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the interior. Groening came out for an appearance and spray-painted some Bart graffiti on the garage before signing his name in the front path cement. Lines with wait times of more than two hours twisted around the block, and visitors were expected to wear surgical-style booties to avoid tracking in dirt from outside. Surprisingly, there were few attempts at swiping the decor.

“We glued a lot of stuff down,” Gonzalez says.

 
 

Fox kept the home open for tours that fall, all for the purpose of promoting the sweepstakes being advertised via Pepsi products. Buying Mug Root Beer, Brisk Iced Tea, or Slice would net consumers a numbered game piece. If it matched the one broadcast during the fall premiere of the show, they’d be the winner of the replica home, which Kaufman and Broad valued at $150,000. (First-place prize: a one-year supply of Mandarin Orange Slice.)

On September 21, 1997, those in possession of the game piece watched “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” an episode that was later pulled from syndication for a brief period after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks due to images and references to the World Trade Center. During the broadcast, the winning number was flashed onscreen.

Nothing happened.

A dresser sits in a replica of Lisa Simpson's bedroom
Courtesy of Rick Floyd

Whoever held the winning game piece (number 9786065) never stepped forward to claim their prize. The back-up plan was to choose at random one of the raffle forms that consumers could also submit via mail. In December 1997, it was announced the form chosen belonged to Barbara Howard, a 63-year-old retired factory worker from Richmond, Kentucky. She lived in an area so rural that Fox’s dispatched limo couldn’t get down the dirt road to her home. The network flew her in—her first time on a plane—with her two daughters and grandson. She gambled a little at the casinos and posed for photos with a ceremonial giant key to her new home. She told the press she was still trying to process her good fortune.

That December, with the adrenaline of defying the odds having worn off, Howard came to a decision. She didn’t want the house after all.

“She took the cash,” Gonzalez recalls of the sweepstakes outcome. “You had the choice of either the house or a cash prize, but the cash was substantially less than the value of the house.”

Howard accepted $75,000, which some observers found curious. Why ignore the property value? Why not keep it open for tours? The reasons were simple. Howard lived on an ostrich and tobacco (not tomacco) farm in Kentucky with her husband, was perfectly comfortable there, and had no motivation to relocate. Opening it for tourism was more or less prohibited; the homeowner’s association wanted the orange and yellow exterior repainted as soon as possible. She did briefly broach the possibility of having Kaufman and Broad move the house to her property, but the logistics of that made it implausible.

“I don’t think she was as blown away by it as her daughters were,” Gonzalez says. “I think she felt a little overwhelmed. There were all these photographers and writers. She was just a simple country homemaker.”

 
 

That left the fate of the house to Kaufman and Broad. Having sold over 100 homes in the development—which was eventually renamed Spring Valley Ranch from Springfield Spring Valley Ranch—the property had already served its purpose in marketing exactly as the Au Printemps roof house had two decades prior. “We were the fun home builder instead of the production home builder,” Gonzalez says.

Groening floated the idea of blowing the house up on live television, which seemed unlikely given its residential location. It was repainted in muted colors to appease the homeowner's association. As it sat vacant, Kaufman assigned 24-hour security so no one would ransack its contents. But by the second year, the guards' attention had waned, and people had managed to sneak in and swipe several of the design elements. Glue traces marked where Simpson family “photos” had been pried off the wall. Snowball II’s cat food dish was no more.

Kaufman and Broad considered tearing the house down or retrofitting it to conform to the neighborhood and attract conventional buyers. But the most cost-effective way was to simply sell it, even if it was below market value.

A look inside Bart Simpson's bedroom
Courtesy of FOX

One day in 2001, Danielle—the secretary who had previously shrugged at taking a tour—was browsing their inventory when she came across the address. At first, she didn’t associate it with the cartoon house she drove past four years prior. But the price was right, and she was in the market for a larger home.

“I asked how much, they told me, and so I bought it,” she says. “As is.”

With her husband and two boys, Danielle became the first—and only—occupant of the Simpson house. While the outside had been repainted, the interior was a dizzying palette of primary colors.

“They had put in flooring, but the paint was original, so no two touching walls were the same color,” she says. “The master bedroom had a lavender ceiling, pink moulding, and four different-colored walls. It was like being in a Crayola box.”

Someone had even stolen a tree from the backyard. Several doors that looked like pantry storage opened into a wall. “That was the state it was in,” she says. “People have said, ‘Oh, I would have just left it how it was.’ It would have made me nuts.”

Danielle—who prefers not to use her last name for reasons that will shortly become clear—repainted walls and repaired missing chunks of drywall where looters had pried off portraits. She replaced carpeting, exposing the red floor underneath that her sons wanted to keep exposed. (She declined.) She has to repeatedly remind the tax assessor that the house doesn't really have a fireplace.

Giving the home a makeover hasn’t deterred Simpsons fans from taking a pilgrimage there. Once, a group of drunken college kids were banging on the door, yelling to be let in. Danielle’s sons started chatting with them from the upstairs bedroom window. People will check to see if the door is unlocked. Many snap photos or video, then upload their pilgrimage. Few of them seem to stop and consider the intrusive nature of their sightseeing.

“We’ll be sitting watching a movie and someone will be yanking on the door,” she says. “We’re vigilant about keeping the doors locked.”

A look inside Marge and Homer Simpson's bedroom
Courtesy of FOX

After getting divorced, Danielle refinanced the home and bought out her ex-husband’s equity, leading some internet sleuths to determine the property had somehow sold for $14,000. (It didn’t.) When Danielle remarried in 2014, she told her new husband that kind of scrutiny around the property would be par for the course. “I kind of signed up for it," she says. "It’s not really a big deal. Most people are cool.” Because the family has Ring, the camera-equipped smart doorbell, she sees people come and go. One man came with a giant stuffed animal and sat down with it in front of the house. “That was a weird thing.”

The house also gets mail addressed to the Simpson family, a likely consequence of fans having some harmless fun. “I once got a letter addressed to Homer from the Salvation Army,” she says. “There have been shampoo samples for Marge and a flyer from PetSmart for Santa’s Little Helper.”

 
 

Even though it's gotten a facelift, the home doesn’t often get attention from potential buyers. “I’ve never really had an offer on it,” Danielle says. “People look for certain features, and they see a lack of closet space, no first-floor bathroom … it’s a fun idea but it doesn’t get far.”

The house’s legacy seems to have persisted beyond the giveaway. Kaufman and Broad briefly considered doing a house based on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas; Woodley, who was not a regular viewer of the series, continues to be surprised by the attention The Simpsons receives. “I didn’t realize how big a thing it is for some people. I looked at it as a design challenge. I didn’t think of it in terms of the grandness of it. When people today hear I designed The Simpsons house, it’s like, ‘Really, oh, my God.’”

A look at Maggie Simpson's nursery
Courtesy of FOX

For now, Danielle says she’s very happy in the neighborhood and only occasionally bothered by curious fans. (It’s better if you don’t stare into her windows.) And though she’s still not a huge fan of the show, she does acknowledge the looming yellow shadow she’s elected to live in. “My neighbor’s dad is actually a pastor,” she says. “It’s too easy to go there with a Flanders joke.”

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER