Friday, 1 August 2008

Los Angeles Earthquake: The Movie

On 30 July 2008 there was a 5.5 earthquake in Los Angeles and someone said L.A. has "ducked the bullet" this time. The footage from the taping of a 'Judge Judy' TV show with everyone freaking out watching the studio lamps swinging above their heads was something I used to dread happening but was always prepared for.

As most people know the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake hit early in the morning on Martin Luther King day, January 17.

Back then I was assistant property master on the TV sitcom 'Full House' over at Warner Bros. It was fortunate that we had wrapped a show the previous Friday night and had all our prop stuff on deckers waiting to be sorted and returned. I expected to do all the returns and pickups after the Monday script reading for the shoot on the following Friday.

I think everyone will have their own stories about how the quake felt. Realising what was happening, I pulled my partner out of bed and dived under the Steelcase® ‘tank’ desks I’d salvaged from Lockheed in Burbank for $10 each.

We lived then on the top floor of a 1920 wooden/stucco apartment building on Occidental in Silverlake* and yep, I was terrified. The whole building swayed and whipped and shook for what felt like ten minutes but was a few seconds. Being on a hillside, our bedroom at the back was four stories above the ground. Every book and everything ceramic and culinary we owned came out of the cupboards and onto the floor. The refrigerator swung open then tipped over. Afterwards I could hear the sound of a broken water pipe flooding my downstairs neighbor.

The homestead. That '59 Fairlane was mine and how it came to be so should be another post one day.


The view. The light in evenings was glorious sometimes.

I had my trusty mini-maglight in my desk. We found some shoes and shorts and went outside making our way through all the broken glass to be greeted by the sight of one of my neighbors wandering in a daze stark naked.

Being a prop man, I went straight to my lock-up garage under the building and dug out everything I could think of that would help. Thankfully only one shelving unit had tipped over and yes, it was the paint…. I got out the first aid kit, furniture pads, gloves, tarps, trash bags, brooms and wrenches to shut off the water and gas.

I also dug out the camp stove and the billycans from my camping box. Being British, there’s one thing you always need to have ready in a crisis and that is a cup of tea.

I’ve dined out on the story that within five minutes of the earthquake, my partner and I had served everyone in the neighborhood their first cup of English tea. The neighbors I knew were OK and accounted for: the gang family (three out of five sons in jail), the LA Times writer, the 90 year old Lithuanian who had had built the house he lived in (his life would be several books) were all there. Although we were only on nodding terms, another neighbor was a Neighborhood Watch type and had a list of everyone’s names and house numbers and he organized us to make a check of every property on our block.

Bad news. We could smell gas around the apartment building. I’d shut off the meters so it must have been the main. I went and got my tent and an EZ Up and we put the tent up on the front lawn thinking this is where we would be living now. The gas smell stopped. Thank goodness the Arrowhead man had been and I had a stockpile of water bottles on my back steps which I took inside. The building had moved a few inches off its footings and tiles and stucco had fallen off in huge patches along the base of the building, we could see the studs and how rotten they were in places.

Then I realised it was time for work. I hadn’t had any messages on my pager so I drove onto the lot as usual to find the place busier than Times Square. Several fire engines with hoses were out by the truck gate. I think a sub-station had blown up. I got to my stage, number 24, next door to 'Friends' who we used to shoot hoops with at lunchtime.

Expecting the worse, we found that everything looked basically OK. We hadn’t lost any lamps from the perms because they were all safety chained and the cameras had been wrapped on Friday night. The set walls had remained standing although a few pictures had fallen, they didn’t have any glass in them so were OK and we’d wrapped all the chachkes but there was one problem. Everything had been soaked by the sprinklers. The famous Tanner couch leaked water when you sat on it. The video village monitors were OK because our sound guy liked to wrap them under the seats at the end of the night. The Fisher poles would need a bit of lubing but the carpet was shot.

The UPM came in as did most of the crew that came in early on Mondays. We swapped our stories and checked if everyone had heard from everyone. Most of the crew lived in the Valley and news started to trickle in how bad it was. Thankfully everyone was finally accounted for. The stage PAs were ringing round everyone to say we were still in business except that we had 400 wet seats and water everywhere. The week became a big dry-out job. We got busy with the wet-dry vac and the squeegees and rang around for dehumidifiers and dashed to Smart & Final to buy up cleaning supplies. The grips/electric crew came in and took down every lamp, checked them for water ingress and then re hung them. The fastest way to dry out a set of course is turn a lot of lamps on. All the water had washed out the trash that was under the seating, some call sheets from the 70’s, and god-knows-what in all those dark corners of the stage so the place got a thorough cleaning out of it. I and the set dressers took out every stick of furniture, every nic-nac, every practical lamp fixture (which had to be replaced) and gave everything a wash and a wax polish. Dulling spray and streaks-n-tips, as the show had been on for several years by then, had made a lot of stuff on the set quite sticky. I reckon one problem with filming in HD is that it will show how filthy everything gets on a set. We shot all the Miller-Boyett shows on 35mm Panavision ® and were told it was to protect them for HD in the future. Maybe reruns in the future will show how everything was held together with gaffer tape and done with fishing line and actors often had their lines written on their props.

At lunchtimes I used to walk around the lot. The giant stage 16, the ‘Batman’ stage, had lost some of its walls, the stucco had come down in a huge pile and I think there had been many other sprinkler floods. Everywhere people were piling stuff outside the stages to dry or taking stuff to the dumpsters but there wasn’t a lot of serious building damage apart from 16 and another stage and ironically the fire station, although some stages didn’t have power for several days. So those shows must have gone on hiatus. All the lot utilities had to be checked out thoroughly. Generator companies must have been making a mint as several stages now had them and banded was laying everywhere.

By the time Friday came we had got the sets dry although the carpet was still a bit damp and smelled funky but we couldn’t get hold of anything else. The prop houses had naturally been thrown into disarray and anyone unemployed in Local 44 was soon working on cleaning them up. We thought we had got an extra week which is why we later did a two-parter in one week.

I don't remember the name or the number of the episode it was and the air dates weren't always in the same order we shot them but the week before was the episode where Joey stood for the PTA. I think the 'Rippers' made an appearance there too. So, if mid way through the 94/95 season of 'Full House' you noticed that the Tanners got a new couch, now you know why.

At home, for the next week we slept in the middle of the sitting room under the dining table with flashlights, shoes and teabags at the ready. I could shower at the WB gym. My partner now had a two-hour drive to work in Santa Monica because the 10 freeway was down. It didn’t take us long to clean up our place. Open sack, shovel everything in, sigh and wish I'd bought stock in Williams Sonoma. The water heater had snapped its two earthquake bands so I put in four more. I went to every hardware store I knew to get the flexible pipe fitting to reconnect the water. Rompage told me they had sold over 500 of them the day after and there wasn’t one anywhere between here and Vegas but a truck load was coming in soon. As soon as I found one I bought two and put one in my earthquake kit.

I thought the building would be condemned but a few months later the landlord had some of his maintenance guys jack the studs back on their footings and patch the stucco. He moaned about the price of roof tiles now. You could walk alongside the building and see a wavy line where it had once been straight. The water had turned my downstairs neighbour's ceilings into mottled maps of the world in brown and ivory.

In October that year I moved to Vancouver where they have earthquakes too but I moved into a ten story brick apartment building (that frequently doubled for NYC). I shipped some of my prop kit from LA by Amtrak (a real bargain) and kept an earthquake kit in the flight case that was my coffee table.

When was a start-up in Seattle they used to have a company carpenter make every new hire a desk out of a door (better be solid core) and some 4x4 legs. It not only saved them a load of money but it served as an earthquake shelter.

Image courtesy of Time Magazine and the Wayback Machine.

Now I live in England where you don’t expect earthquakes but when I heard all my windows start to rattle on 27 February 2008, I knew exactly what was coming. I checked all the flashlight batteries were good and immediately remembered that night fourteen years earlier.

*the rent was then $500 a month. Last time I looked it was $2500

When I started this post my recollection was that it happened on 'Family Matters' but I realised from the dates that it had to be FH and then I found the photos. Gosh it was so long ago. I worked both shows and a load of others.

It's a cliché but kinda true, WBTV was like a family then but these sitcoms just run together in your head over the years. I once asked Bob Boyett what his next sitcom was going to be about and he said "two guys on a couch..."

Billy Wilder was once asked what was the one thing he would take on a desert island and without a beat he quipped "my key grip". I would agree with that or also, next time the ground shakes, stand near the prop master.

Please note, all images are copyright Nat Bocking/Pixlink unless otherwise credited. Do not copy or hotlink. Much obliged.

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