Historic Sam Goldwyn Studio Suffers $2 Million Loss
Photo by Dave Carlson
Three sound stages were completely destroyed, a number of offices damaged, and the entire Samuel Goldwyn Studio complex in West Hollywood was threatened by an explosive, fastmoving fire, Monday afternoon, May 6.
Damage to the historic, half-century-old studio was estimated at $2 million. More than 250 Los Angeles County and City firemen using heavy appliances, aerials, elevating platforms, helicopters and some tough old-fashioned fire fighting prevented the fire from doing even more damage to the studio once owned by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charles Chaplin.
Goldwyn, owned by the late Samuel Goldwyn and his heirs for a number of years, is located at Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in West Hollywood which is unincorporated county territory. Since the L.A. City line runs through the south boundary of the studio, L.A. City units usually respond on initial action/mutual aid.
The old studio consisted of stucco and wood office buildings, a writers building, a complex of stages and a Southern California Edison power substation. Passageways were narrow between the stages and the adjacent buildings.
Shortly after 4 p.m. on the 6th, 60 men and women, the production cast and crew for NBC-TV’s “Sigmund and the Sea Monster,” were videotaping on Stage 5, the south portion of one of the industry’s largest stage complexes (300 X 500-foot frame and stucco complex). The north portion was divided into Stages 3 and 4 used for filming “Cannon” and “Barnaby Jones,” but not occupied at the time.
—L.A. County F.D. photo
—L.A. City F.D. photo
A large sea grotto set was in use on the east end of the stage which included a tunnel draped with plastic seaweed. As lights were illuminated, white smoke built up inside and rolled out the front. At first, all thought it was part of special effects, but then everyone realized it was a fire. Attempts were made to use carbon dioxide as the cast and crew fled, but the entire stage virtually erupted into flames following an explosion.
(County fire and insurance investigators have yet to pinpoint the cause, but indication is that the fire probably was caused by a hot bulb touching the surface, or a faulty connection or wire. The set apparently was constructed of a wood and wire frame covered with a spray-on urethane-type foam.)
A half-mile west of the studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, Captain Tom Snee of the County Fire Prevention Bureau was leaving his office in Station 8. He glanced east and saw a head of smoke erupting. It was 4:22 p.m. as he ran into the station and turned in the alarm. The station commander, Captain Ed Lamell, immediately responded with Engines 8, 208, Truck 8, and radioed for a full first-alarm assignment that brought Engines 7 and 58, Squad 7, and 1st Battalion Chief Frank Shaw to the scene. Two blocks from the station, Lamell sized up the billowing clouds of smoke and requested a second alarm that dispatched Truck 116, Engines 38, 214, Battalion 3 and Assistant Chief 1.
L.A. City units respond
At 4:24 p.m., the Los Angeles City Fire Department Westlake Alarm Center received numerous (at least 30) calls reporting a fire at the studio. Dispatched were Engine 41, Heavy Duty Task Forces 27 and 61 (three engines including a 50-foot elevating platform, a 100-foot aerial) and 5th Battalion Chief Dale Booth who was out of the area on official business. An acting battalion chief took charge of the initial operations. At 4:32 four rescue ambulances were dispatched in response to reports of injuries.
At 4:35 Chief Booth responding from his assignment with Captain Walter Wilmington, in charge of press information, came through Cahuenga Pass headed south toward the fire and saw embers in the air. He called for a helicopter to spot perimeter fires and Helicopter 4 was dispatched. Three minutes later two additional task forces, 4 and 58, were dispatched along with Division 1 Commander Douglas Culley. This immediate dispatch of equipment to back up the first-in County units was crucial to final control of the fire and limiting the damage to the stages involved and adjacent offices.
Access cut off
As Captain Lamell arrived with his units moving west through the main gate on Formosa, Engine 208 laid dual 3 1/2-inch lines and Engine 8 connected to a yard hydrant and used hand lines. As the units moved, paralleling the burning Stage 5 on the south side, the west wall blew out and collapsed, burying cars, spreading debris, and in effect, cutting off all access to the west side of the studio complex. It also limited workers in office buildings from getting out of the area.
—photo by Marv Newton.
Truck 8 set up a ladder pipe to protect the adjacent studio mill which was burning on top and hand lines were used to protect the substation and carpenter shop. First-in City 41 came through the west fire gate and aided in the protection of the mill by using a wagon battery directed onto the roof.
Elevating platforms used
The wind was blowing the fire to the north and east and City HDTF 27 took a position at the southwest corner of the stage and put Wagon 27 and its 50-foot elevating platform into operation as well as hand lines and appliances.
On the north side along Santa Monica, HDTF 61 set up operations, including use of the 50-foot elevating platform, the aerial and a monitor, to put water onto the burning stage complex. There are no gates or even entrances in that area. Soon the east wall of Stage 5 collapsed on the writers building and several cutting rooms, cutting off access to the east side of the burning stages. The critical point had been reached as the wind drove flames toward the two office structures and firemen could not work in the narrow driveways with any degree of safety. Other City units joined HDTF 61 on the north using aerials for access and additional City units raised aerials on the east side from Formosa.
Hand lines stop fire
The City crews then dragged hand lines through the lobby of the Formosa Building. They worked in thick smoke and in a confusing complex of offices that had dead-end stairways and limited access to upper floors, and with hand lines and a ladder pipe stopped the fire from spreading east. The brutal, demanding fight by these men saved the east end of the studio. The City’s air utility unit carrying oxygen bottles was completely exhausted three times.
Other County units attacked from the north and northwest and held this portion of the perimeter, although damage was extensive to some Santa Monica offices and the writers building. Additional City and County fire helicopters and a sheriffs helicopter joined in looking for spot fires to which units were dispatched as these blazes were discovered.
An army of Los Angeles Sheriffs deputies, City police and California highway patrolmen set up roadblocks that closed off Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, causing massive traffic jams on these heavily traveled arteries.
Studio executives and other observers praised the efforts of the combined fire forces for their successful battle in keeping the fire confined and limiting destruction under adverse conditions.
Combined operations lauded
In a letter to L.A. City Chief Raymond Hill, County Fire Chief Richard Houts noted, “The fire showed the excellent working relationship that exists between the City and County fire departments. Los Angeles City units remained at the scene as long as we needed them. Because of the proximity of their stations to the area, they provided invaluable service in keeping the fire from extending into the rest of the studio before our additional companies arrived.”
In addition to the initial City assignments, response included four task forces (two engines and an aerial), four engines, a salvage unit, two service utilities; two helicopters; Battalion Chiefs Smith and Milroy and Chief Engineer Hill.
County units responding after the second alarm—some from nearly 50 miles away-included Engines 3, 18, 2, 236, 17, 225; Truck 110; Deluge 105; Utilities 3 and 7; Helicopters 4 and 15; Fire Suppression Crews 9-1, 2-3, 8-1; Tractors 3 and 6 and Skip Loaders 8 and 17 (these for overhaul); Battalion Chiefs J. Munger, J. Hinton, E. Fordham, R. Riguad, J. Enright; Information Officer Richard Friend; Division Assistant Chief Paul Schneider; Fire Fighting Division Command Ben Matthews; Deputy Chief Stan Barlow and Chief Houts.
At 8 p.m., Chief Matthews, in operational command, declared the fire under control and the bulldozers then pushed debris from collapsed walls away from standing structures to permit the start of overhauling operations. Men and equipment remained on duty for 48 hours hosing down burning debris and wreckage.
One City fireman was burned on the neck, a camera operator on the stage was badly burned and another crew member was injured. Observers agreed that it was miraculous no one was killed or more injuries did not occur in the fire.