1407 Graymalkin Lane.
I committed that address to memory decades ago, after memorizing every detail in numerous X-Men guides, trading cards and handbooks. That’s where the X-Mansion is nestled, right there in Westchester. And while Graymalkin Lane is fictional, North Salem and Westchester are real and thus give Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters one three-toed foot in the real world. Yep, you can find Xavier’s in Google Maps. I’ve wanted to visit Xavier’s since third grade. Actually, visit puts it too lightly; I wanted to live at Xavier’s, claim a spot on one of its antique couches, rummage through its massive fridge, wander the hallways in pajamas — and survive attacks from Mister Sinister, too. This fantasy played out in my head well into middle school, where I would write and draw my own comic (“X-Kids Unlimited) that starred pretty-much-exactly-me as a superhero living in the X-Mansion.
I’m getting all that context out of the way up top just to sell you on how absolutely remarkable it is that I’ve grown from a kid that built X-Mansions out of everything — from LEGOs to the free home architecture software that came with our Gateway PC — into an adult that gets to visit the real X-Mansion for work.
No, I haven’t retreated fully into my delusional X-Kids existence. I know the X-Mansion isn’t real, but I did get to do the literal next best thing: I got to visit the Parkwood Estate, a historic mansion situated in Oshawa, Ontario (500 miles northwest of the town of North Salem) that served as the X-Mansion in 2000’s “X-Men.” As a slightly more genial Charlie Brown, I can find the negatives in pretty much anything; I cannot, however, find anything negative about having a job that made a literal childhood dream come true.
My official assignment from CBR included a lot of firsts: international travel, using my passport, attending a destination press junket, getting to see an X-Mansion. For the event, Parkwood’s interior would be transformed into the X-Mansion via props (Nightcrawler’s crucifix, Quicksilver’s can of Tab) and costumes (jackets worn by Cyclops, Jubilee and more) from “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Interview opportunities with members of “Apocalypse’s” cast and crew — as well as archery, an optic blast photo op and a Cerebro virtual reality set-up — would round out the x-perience.
Towards the end of my trip, I realized that this entire press event (tied to the Blu-ray release of “X-Men: Apocalypse” on October 4th, wink) gave me an X-Men experience way more thorough than just visiting a film location and seeing some props; for one thing, it got me well out of my comfort zone (a.k.a. the United States of America). I’ve been to all four corners of the U.S. and plenty of spaces in-between, but I’ve never left the country. An integral part to most gathering-the-team X-Men stories involves culture shock as members from all over the world convene at one location (usually the X-Mansion). Just like Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus did in those early Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum issues, I too would soon be landing in a foreign city (Toronto) and in the middle of mutant mania.
But I had to get through customs first.
I would definitely have sweated more if I was going through customs while wearing an image inducer, or trying to prevent my nerves from triggering my weather powers. A metal skeleton would definitely have been a no-go. But I’ve never flown internationally, so I initially thought the customs forms were a questionnaire asking how enjoyable the flight was. They weren’t. I also got to go through a quick interview with a Canadian customs agent (as everyone did) where I had to disclose that I:
1. Am a “comic book journalist,” which always makes people think that I draw actual cartoons of current events.
2. Was traveling not to the actual city of Toronto, but to Oshawa — a smaller town outside of Toronto whose name I definitely did not pronounce correctly.
3. Was sent on this particular press event — because the customs agent needed to know why they sent me specifically — because I am “the biggest X-Men fan at work.”
I take a bit of pride in adding “told customs that I’m the biggest X-Men fan” to my list of accomplishments. I’ve also now watched “X-Men: Apocalypse” on an iPad in an airport’s baggage claim, although that’s way less boast-worthy.
I will, of course, brag about the Xavier’s School folder and admissions letter “signed” by Hank McCoy and Charles Xavier that I got in my welcome packet from the PR team. While my actual diplomas are who-knows-where, I’m seriously considering framing my “admissions letter” to a fictional school.
My first encounter with the X-Mansion came a few hours later, totally by surprise. The evening’s cocktail event for the press — who, just like the X-Men, came from all over the globe — was held in the Parkwood Estate’s backyard. Of course “backyard” is too plain a word for an expanse of land that includes a historically significant botanical garden and an Olympic-sized water fountain.
I recognized the mansion as soon as we circled the exterior. There it was — the setting of Rogue and “Bobby’s” (really Mystique) chilling heart to heart. I was standing right where the basketball court was — the basketball court that special effects caused to open up to let the Blackbird loose. In true X-Men tradition, the gathered press couldn’t resist taking a class/team photo.
The cocktail event’s also where I met my first X-Man. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate; I did meet (chase down) James Marsden (Cyclops) at a Nashville mall (where he was shopping) the week after “X-Men” opened in 2000. He was beyond rad, by the way. The second X-Man I’ve met is Lana Condor — yeah, Jubilee. I’ve gone on record as believing Jubilee is one of the most important superheroes of all time, so this was a big deal. My decision to wear an enamel Jubilee pin paid off because it led a Fox rep to introduce me to Lana — who flipped out over my pin. Never before have I met an actor and had them ask to take a picture of me.
But not only did I get to meet Jubilee, who was as cool and energetic as her X-Man counterpart, I got to watch her watch the deleted mall sequence from “X-Men: Apocalypse” for the first time as it played on a monitor next to us. I got to hear her tell stories about shooting the sequence, like how it was the first thing they all shot together, how the crew transformed half of a real mall into a retro playland, and how all the arcade cabinets worked and how the cast didn’t need quarters (or mutant fireworks) to play them.
After a sneak peek at the grounds the night before, my big X-Mansion day kicked off at the early hour of 7 AM. There’s an image-deflating and barely-contained giggle/cackle I do when I get excited; seeing Parkwood outfitted with new “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters” signs pulled one out of me easily. Sure, I was at this event as a professional member of the press, but I was also there because of my persistent X-Fandom. As the biggest X-Men fan, I had to let it out — otherwise I would have told that customs agent a lie.
The entire tour of the transformed Parkwood Estate did this to me. It was very easy to imagine this being exactly what the X-Mansion would be like were it a real place. Construction on the house began a hundred years ago, making it as old as undefined continuity suggests the X-Mansion is. The quirky juxtaposition of totally tubular 1980s pop culture artifacts against the well-preserved furniture and decorations of the time felt so X-Men to me; it really looked like the kind of place that a stuffy millionaire would open up and let kids crash in. The X-Mansion is a school, sure, but it’s a school within the confines of a home. Bedrooms are converted into dorm rooms while common areas become de facto classrooms. Xavier’s office, though, was obviously a study. The setup included some quintessential Xavier items, like a chessboard and super comfy-looking wheelchair, as well as a probably never read book on ethics.
A converted classroom was stationed on the bottom floor, just around the corner from Xavier’s office and past a row of battle suits from “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
We also had to walk through a wood-paneled hallway — complete with a for-real secret passageway — to get to the room, which was tricked out to mimic a burst of schoolwork-induced telekinetic panic. I eagerly volunteered to take a picture.
Upstairs, the makeshift nature of life at Xavier’s was made evident in Nightcrawler’s dorm, a room with dark ambience — and a bathtub and sink shoved in the corner. A “Thriller” poster slapped onto the wall next to an antique painting, even the pop culture in young Kurt Wagner’s was appropriately fun and spooky.
Down the hall, Jean Grey and Jubilee’s dorm room offered unfiltered ’80s energy. A boom box, Duran Duran poster, some scrunchies and pastel clothes of all kinds folded (or in Jubilee’s case, strewn about) on dorm beds gave the room a bright vibe. And while I could nitpick about the placement of pop culture artifacts from well past “Apocalypse’s” 1983 setting (Tiffany button, “Cocktail” cassette), I’ll No Prize them and say Jubilee also has deus ex machina time travel powers just like Kitty Pryde did in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
Quicksilver and Cyclops’ living arrangements were a bit more hectic. A pile of records here, VHS tapes and model kits there — a speedster with a quick attention span definitely “lived” here. The pizza dog prop used during the slow-mo X-Mansion explosion/rescue scene and Quicksilver’s leg cast flanked the mutant’s bed.
Probably the most exciting prop for me, though, was seeing Cyclops’ visor up close. This was the visor Tye Sheridan wore in the final scene of “Apocalypse,” the scene that saw him don a Jim Lee-inspired suit (a scene that made me freak out in the theater). I mostly just wanted to see what the reverse side looked like; it’s placement close to the wall prevented me from getting a close-up look, but still, that’s an angle of his visor that you never see!
A giant painting of polar bears hung over an unclaimed bed in the room. While it’s right at home in the room, it’s actually not from the ’80s (if it was, the bears would have Coke cans in their paws).
The bathroom adjacent to Scott and Peter’s dorm room also got a totally wrecked makeover, mimicking the destruction of Cyclops’ optic blast. And yes, “Scott wrecked the bathroom” jokes were made.
Yes, this part of the tour did include an optic blast photobooth — and yes, I did indulge myself.
— Brett White (@brettwhite) September 16, 2016
We took a trip outside to another expansive plot of land, different from where our cocktail hour had been the night before, which had archery set up for the press to try out (after signing a waiver, of course). I passed; turns out my bravery doesn’t extend past X-Men related photo ops.
With the whirlwind tour completed, I got to have a sit-down talk with Lana Condor. She immediately wanted to check if I was still wearing my Jubilee pin (oh, indeed I was) and I capped off the interview with something I now consider the crowning achievement of my journalism career: getting Lana to say Jubilee’s catch phrase from the “Night of the Sentinels” episode of the ’90s “X-Men” cartoon.
✨ Lana Condor saying Jubilee's catch phrase! ✨ pic.twitter.com/USUbSwpdyq
— Brett White (@brettwhite) September 15, 2016
I heard 2016’s Jubilee say a catch phrase from the 1992 cartoon while inside the mansion that was used in 2000’s “X-Men” film. There’s a lot going on here, and each bit is delicious — like a Molten Chocolate Cake from Chili’s. For more of my tour around the estate, you can watch my Instagram story (which explains the horrific-for-computer-monitors vertical video) in this YouTube video.
Faced with downtime after the interviews and lunch were wrapped, I wandered around the historic mansion to see it less as a stand-in for 9-year-old me’s dream home and more for what it really was: a piece of history. Summer 2016 has been my Summer of Historical Homes; I’ve visited both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s homes in the past few months, and Parkwood’s just a few decades younger than Sagamore Hill. That was evident by things like a telephone and a remote-controlled organ! Apparently the home’s former owner, Samuel McLaughlin, was a techie in the early 20th century. McLaughlin, the founder of General Motors of Canada, lived there with his wife and five daughters and made sure to trick out the house with extravagant decorations in order to impress world leaders and the wealthy elite. A hundred years later, McLaughlin also impressed a couple dozen members of the press who also ate bite-sized Psylocke Bacon and Blueberry Pancakes in his backyard!
Later in the afternoon I got to try the Cerebro VR experience, which involved getting hooked into a replica of the mutant-tracking device and having all sorts of gadgets clipped onto my head. It was a way less invasive procedure than the photo leads on.
From what I was told, the doodads measure brain activity and you play the game (stopping Apocalypse from arming himself with the world’s nukes) by concentrating. That’s what I was told; I couldn’t make out the instructions inside the VR goggles so I just sat for five minutes and watched as Apocalypse did…something. Still, I got to sit in a version of Xavier’s wheelchair! I also tried to pose with some dignity and gravitas, since it’d be super easy to make this particular photo op tasteless.
I left Parkwood soon after failing to stop a nuclear war with my brain. But that’s okay, because my time at the X-Mansion had unearthed both my latent telekinesis and eye blasts. I didn’t learn how to control either of them, but few mutants master their abilities on day one (just ask Rogue).
With the afternoon to myself, I did what I always do with free time: find a mall and wander around. See? I’m an X-Man.
And like a fish-out-of-water X-Man, I took in a few sights that bewildered me as a foreigner. McDonald’s logos have tiny maple leafs in them? Y’all call them “washrooms” instead of “restrooms”? There was a fast food Thai restaurant in the food court, too!
But surprisingly, the most “X-Men” moment of this entire mutant-themed trip came in the evening when ten of us press people (as well as the college-aged archery instructor; she’s studying robotics, too, which makes her a real-life Avenger) took over a steakhouse (in a strip mall!) for dinner. Our ages ranged from early 20s to early 40s, our experience ranging from YouTube celebs to seasoned journalists to the newly pro. All corners of America were represented, as was Holland, Mexico and Spain. A group of people from all walks of life (veterans and filmmakers to photographers and performers), with a unifying trait all assembled together at a massive mansion far away from home, all bonding, sharing stories and advice with each other over steak, crab cakes and lots of beer. That’s also what the X-Men are about, and what the X-Mansion facilitates: community and camaraderie. My experience wouldn’t have been the same, nor would it have been true to the comics, had I gone it alone. It turns out this is exactly the experience I wanted to have as a kid, when I just knew that I would find friendlier faces at 1407 Graymalkin Lane than the ones I saw in elementary school. I was right.
Xavier’s may be a fictional place, but I got the real X-Men treatment. And I have a signed certificate — and class pic — to prove it.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD on October 4th.
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