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Saturday July 4th 2020

Coming To America | 1988

Coming To America film location: South 5th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Coming To America film location: Akeem and Semmi's meagre accommodation in 'Queens': South 5th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn | Photograph: Google Maps

* During the current situation, we're relying more than usual on Google Maps images. We apologise and, as soon as travel restrictions are lifted, will return to posting original photographs. Meanwhile stay safe and travel the world online.

Eddie Murphy re-teams with John Landis after the success of 1983’s Trading Places, though filming reportedly put a strain on their relationship.

The ‘Zamundan Film Commission’ is impishly thanked in the closing credits although, as you might have guessed, the African kingdom is totally fictitious.

The ‘Zamundan’ palace interiors where Prince Akeem (Murphy) longs to be free from the control of his parents, King Jaffe Joffer and Queen Aoleon (James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair) was a studio set built in Hollywood, but we’ll get back to that later.

Akeem, hoping to choose his own bride, takes a 40-day break from the suffocating royal indulgence to visit New York, which is where most of the film is set.

Akeem, with his servant/minder Semmi (Arsenio Hall) and an endless entourage, arrives ‘discreetly’ at John F Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 7, then as now, operated by British Airways.

When the question of where prince is going to find a potential bride in New York arises, the obvious answer is Queens.

Coming To America film location: South 5th Street at Hooper Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Coming To America film location: Akeem and Semmi arrive at the "most common" part of 'Queens': South 5th Street at Hooper Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn | Photograph: Google Maps

Looking to live modestly and unnoticed, Akeem reasonably orders a cab driver to take them to the “most common” part of Queens.

As you can see, they arrive at the junction of South 5th Street and Hooper Street, at the time a fairly unprepossessing area, though not in Queens at all but Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The rundown apartment block, with the ‘My-T-Sharp’ barbershop at ground level, is 392 South Fifth Street on the southeast corner of Hooper. It’s safe to assume that in the intervening years, it would have been either demolished or gentrified and the good news is, it’s been neatly spruced up. That ‘barbershop’ now houses the South Street Gallery.

The ’McDowell’s’ burger restaurant (no connection of course with McDonalds) where Akeem and Semmi take on menial jobs to blend in with the community really was in Queens. It was a branch of Wendy’s, which – as the film correctly states – stood at 85-07 Queens Boulevard, at Broadway in Elmhurst. There’s nothing to see. The whole block has been replaced by a huge apartment complex. That promenade of shops nearby which sported the ‘Soul-Glo’ hair products billboard on its roof, has also vanished.

Smitten with the boss’s daughter, Lisa (Shari Headley), Akeem attends, as part of a double date, a basketball game at Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, Manhattan.

Won over by Akeem’s charm, Lisa begins to have second thoughts about her wealthy but crass boyfriend Darryl (Eriq La Salle).

When her father (John Amos), without even consulting her, announces her engagement to Darryl, Lisa slopes off with Akeem to take a walk.

They stroll through the Empire-Fulton Ferry Park, running along the East River between Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn. You’ll find the entrance at the end of New Dock Street at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Landis indulges a little in-joke here as the two down-and-outs to whom Akeem gives money turn out to be Randolph and Mortimer (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), the wealthy businessmen from Trading Places.

Akeem and Lisa end up in a smart riverside restaurant where, after a slow dance, they realise they have a serious connection. If you’re looking for a similarly romantic evening, the restaurant with those wonderful views across to the Manhattan skyline is the River Café, 1 Water Street at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Coming To America film location: Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Park Avenue, Manhattan
Coming To America film location: the King and his entourage stay in luxury in New York: Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Park Avenue, Manhattan | Photograph: Shutterstock / Tupungato

Alerted by Semmi to what is going on, King Jaffe Joffer and his retinue journey to New York to sort out the wayward prince.

They naturally stay in luxury at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, 301 Park Avenue, seen also in in Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Scent Of A Woman, Analyze This, and briefly in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.

Dismayed to discover she’s been deceived and that the humble floor-cleaner is a wealthy Prince, Lisa runs off into the rain, past the carwash on Queens Boulevard at 87th Avenue, with those cartoon murals (it’s just plain brick today), to the subway station entrance, which is supposed to be ‘Briarwood’, a little further along Queens Boulevard.

Coming To America film location: Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets Station, Downtown Brooklyn
Coming To America film location: Lisa and Akeem argue on the subway: Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets Station, Downtown Brooklyn | Photograph: Wikimedia / Beyond My Ken

Akeem follows and tries to explain. Despite the signage, both ‘Van Wyck Blvd' and ‘Sutphin’ – where Lisa exits the train – were filmed on the disused platforms of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets Station in Downtown Brooklyn.

The station was originally served by six lines, all on one level, only four of which are still in use. The two 'dead' outer tracks – visible from the still-used platforms – are now used for movie and TV shoots.

The station has been seen on-screen in Walter Hill’s The Warriors and in Martin Scorsese’s 1987 music video for Michael Jackson’s Bad.

On the ‘Sutphin’ platform, you’ll notice Landis sneaking in his trademark See You Next Wednesday movie poster.

Of course, the problems are eventually resolved, and Akeem and Lisa end up together.

Now, back to Los Angeles, where interior sets were built at Paramount Studios, Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.

Coming To America film location: Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles
Coming To America film location: Lisa runs to 'Briarwood Subway Station': Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles | Photograph: Google Maps

As is often the case when New York-set movies are based in Hollywood, a few locations were more convenient to film closer to the studio in Los Angeles.

The grounds of Zamunda’s palace, where Akeem and his father have a heart-to-heart among the elephants and zebras near the beginning of the film, are the Palm Garden of the Huntington Library and Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road in San Marino, east of Pasadena.

The house and grounds have been seen in plenty of other movies, including American Wedding (American Pie 3), The Wedding Singer, A Cinderella Story, Indecent Proposal, The Nutty Professor (1996), Memoirs of a Geisha and Serenity.

And that entrance to the ‘Briarwood Subway’ in ‘Queens’? It was constructed in front of 5661 Hollywood Boulevard at North Wilton Place in Hollywood, east toward Thai Town (if you were looking for ‘Marbo’s Appliances’ that was 5659 Hollywood Boulevard, currently standing empty.

Coming To America film location: South Muirfield Avenue, Hancock Park, Midtown Los Angeles
Coming To America film location: The McDowell house, in 'Jamaica Estates, Queens': South Muirfield Avenue, Hancock Park, Midtown Los Angeles | Photograph: Google Maps

One important location noticeable by its absence so far is ‘2432 Derby Avenue, Jamaica Estates’, home of the McDowell family.

The faux-Tudor half-timbering and red brickwork looks far more LA than Queens. And it is. The house is 555 South Muirfield Avenue in the swanky Hancock Park district of Midtown Los Angeles, now shyly hiding behind a screen of dense foliage.

As an added bit of trivia, the 1924 house once owned by Dan Blocker (‘Hoss’ Cartwright from TV’s Bonanza) was for several years the home of Rob Zombie, rock musician and director of The Devil’s Rejects, House of 1,000 Corpses and the 2007 reboot of Halloween.