Fire at Universal Studios Destroys Famous Sets, Videos

Published June 01, 2008

| Associated Press

One of Hollywood's largest movie studios starred in a disastrous sequel Sunday as a fire ripped through a lot at Universal Studios, destroying a set from "Back to the Future," a King Kong exhibit and a streetscape seen frequently in movies and TV shows.

It was the second fire at the historic site in nearly two decades, leveling facades, hollowing out buildings and creating the kind of catastrophe filmmakers relish re-creating. This time around, thousands of videos chronicling Universal's movie and TV shows were destroyed in the blaze.

But Universal officials said that they were thankful no vistors were seriously injured — though several firefighters suffered minor injuries — and that the damaged footage can be replaced.

"We have duplicates of everything," said Ron Meyer, NBC Universal president and chief operating officer. "Nothing is lost forever."

The blaze broke out on a sound stage featuring New York brownstone facades around 4:30 a.m. at the 400-acre property, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said. The fire was contained to the lot but burned for more than 12 hours before the final flames were extinguished.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Damage was expected to be in the millions of dollars.

The iconic courthouse square from "Back to the Future" was destroyed, and the famous clock tower that enabled Michael J. Fox's character to travel through time was damaged, fire officials said. Two mock New York and New England streets used both for movie-making and as tourist displays were a total loss, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Darryl Jacobs said.

An exhibit housing a mechanically animated King Kong that bellows at visitors on a tram also was destroyed.

All three sites were either damaged or destroyed during another fire at Universal Studios in November 1990. That fire caused $25 million in damage and was started by a security guard who was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to arson.

Concerns for air quality due to the acrid smoke prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to send a chemist to take air samples at the scene, said spokesman Sam Atwood. Results were expected Monday morning.

Hundreds of visitors who had waited for hours outside the park gates were turned away after officials decided not to open the area. On a typical weekend day, about 25,000 people visit Universal Studios. NBC Universal said in a statement that the park would reopen Monday morning.

Universal CityWalk, a shopping promenade, was also closed. The MTV Movie Awards, broadcasting live Sunday night from the adjacent Gibson Amphitheater, went on as planned.

Mike Herrick of San Diego watched the fire on television from his hotel Sunday afternoon before deciding to return to Universal Studios for a second day with his wife.

"By gosh, we're going to go and get whatever we can out of it," Herrick said. On Saturday, Herrick had ridden the tram that winds around the studio lot, snapping photos of the King Kong attraction, among other sights.

The fire broke out along New York Street, where firefighting helicopters swept in for drops and cranes dumped water on the flames. A thick column of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air and could be seen for miles.

"It looked like a disaster film," said Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge.

Several firefighters suffered minor injuries. One firefighter and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy were slightly hurt when a pressurized cylinder exploded inside the building housing the videos.

The streetscape that burned recently served as a backdrop in such films as "Bruce Almighty" and television shows including "Monk," "Crossing Jordan" and "House," said NBC Universal spokeswoman Cindy Gardner.

Meyer estimated there were 40,000 to 50,000 videos and film reels in a vault that burned but said duplicates were stored in a different location. Firefighters managed to recover hundreds of titles.

The videos included every film that Universal has produced and footage from television series including "Miami Vice" and "I Love Lucy."

Universal Studios, nine miles north of downtown Los Angeles, has thrill rides and a back lot where movies and television shows are filmed, including scenes from "War of the Worlds," "When Harry Met Sally" and "Scrubs."

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