Samuel Goldwyn Studio Fire
By Dick Friend**
A fast-moving fire which started during the taping of a television show destroyed a large sound stage and damaged two large office buildings at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in West Hollywood on Monday, May 6, 1974. Damage: $2 million.
Action by combined forces of the Los Angeles County and City Fire Departments kept the blaze from consuming the entire studio.
Sixty men and women, the production cast and crew for “Sigmund and the Sea Monster, were in their first day of filming on Stage 5, occupying the south half of the 300 x 200 foot frame and stucco sound stage. The north portion was divided into Stages 3 and 4, used for filming of “Cannon” and “Barnaby Jones” which were not in use at the time.
After a rehearsal, the cast was in place on a large sea grotto set at the east end of Stage 5, which included a deep tunnel, draped with plastic seaweed. As lights were illuminated, white smoke built up inside the tunnel, and rolled out the front toward the actors.
“I thought it was a special effect,” said Actor Paul Gayle. “It looked like the CO2 they usually use. Then I saw a red flicker and seconds later flames started rolling out the front of the tunnel and up and over the set. Someone yelled ‘fire’ and people started running for extinguishers.”
Within minutes, Gayle said, the entire east wall was on fire and flames were spreading up walls and over soundproofing material used on the walls.
Some people fled out the south door. Others ran the entire length of the stage and departed from the southwest door and the west door, which also served Stage 3.
Actor Gayle said he was turned back from the south door by heat. A camera operator who did escape from this door received burns over 50% of his body. Gayle headed for the west door and as he started out: “There was a rumbling like an earthquake followed by a tremendous heat blast. The south wall blew out as I left the building,” he reported.
Ten blocks west of the studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, Captain Tom Snee of the Fire Prevention Bureau was leaving his office, located at Fire Station 8. He glanced east and saw a head of smoke just erupting. It was 4:22 P.M. Station Captain Ed Lamell immediately responded with Engines 8 and 208, and Truck 8 and radioed for a full first alarm, bringing Engines 7 and 58, Squad 7 and Battalion One, Frank Shaw.
Three blocks from the studio,, Lamell radioed for a second alarm, and Engines 38 and 214, Truck 116, Battalion 3 and Assistant One were dispatched.
At 4:24 P.M., the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s Westlake Dispatch Center received numerous phone calls reporting the fire and dispatched Engines 41, 27, 227, 61, 261, Trucks 27 and 61, Battalion 5, Dale Booth, and Rescue Ambulances 27, 61, 35 and 11. The studio is spread across the City-County boundary, but the entire fire was confined to the County’s jurisdiction.
Upon arrival, Captain Lamell ordered Engine 208 to lay dual 3 ½” lines in the main gate off Formosa Avenue. Engine 8 connected to a yard hydrant and used hand lines from the engine and additional lines from yard hydrants. The west wall was collapsing on Lamell’s arrival and the entire building was involved in fire. Truck 8 set up to help protect the studio mill, carpenter shop and electrical plant at the west side.
City companies laid lines along Formosa and went into water tower operations on the north and east sides of the studio. The three-story Writer’s Building was immediately exposed at the east end, and the two-story Santa Monica Building on the north. The two-story Formosa Building paralleled the Writer’s Building and was east of it, along the street.
By 5 P.M., all walls of the stage building had collapsed, trapping numerous automobiles. Portions of the burning timbers impinged onto the Santa Monica and Writer’s Buildings, causing fire to spread inside. Hand lines were muled through offices and windows to the Writer’s Building. There was no door entry on the “protected” east side and entry was through windows. Ladders had to be brought through the Formosa Building to gain access to the burning Writer’s Building, or hauled over fences. The now collapsed stage structure cut off all access from the west side. Two smaller two-story frame structures, film cutting rooms, were set afire when the stage walls fell.
Winds, from the southwest, caused burning brands to fly as far as a mile. A fire was started on a plating plant several hundred feet away, but was quickly knocked down by an incoming unit. Another fire was started on a roof 11 blocks to the east. Police and Fire Department helicopters were used to help spot these fires.
Adding to the problem was the lack of direct access to offices within the two buildings. Constructed in the 20s, the buildings had staircases. Most of these did not extend from floor to floor. Some of the outside entries bypassed the first floor. Others went to the first floor only. A large wall separated the Santa Monica Building from entry via the street, with only a few narrow openings.
At the height of fire activity, the City Fire Department joined the response. In addition to the initial assignment, Engines 4, 58, 26, 94, 68, 45, 13, 34, 82, 29, 22, 10; Trucks 4, 58, 26, 94, 29, 10; Salvage 52; Service Utilities 60, 66; Air Utility; Helicopters 4, 5; Battalion Chiefs 18 (G. Smith), 3 (B. Milroy), Division 1 Chief, Dough Culley, Chief Engineer Raymond Hill also responded.
The County Fire Department had responded. In addition to the first and second alarm assignments, Engines 3, 18, 2, 236, 17, 225; Truck 110; Deluge Suppression Crews 9-1, 2-3, 8-1; Tractors 3, 6; Skip Loaders 8, 17; Battalion Chiefs 3 (J. Munger), 13 (J. Hinton), 43 (E. Fordham), 33 (R. Riguard), 40 (J. Enright), Information 1 (D. Friend); Division Assistant 1 (P. Schneider); Division 1 (Ben Matthews); Deputy Chief Stanley Barlow and Chief Engineer Richard Houts.
At 8 P.M. Chief Matthews declared the fire under control. Fire Department bulldozers then pushed the debris from collapsed walls away from the standing structures to permit overhaul inside these buildings. Crews were on duty for an additional 48 hours hosing down debris.
An intensive investigation was commenced, and more than 50 persons were interviews to help determine the exact point of origin. The set apparently was constructed of a spray-on urethane-type foam, with a wooden and wire frame. Lights had been installed in portions of the “tunnel” to illuminate the interior. Preliminary investigation indicated the fire probably was caused by a hot bulb contacting the surface, or a faulty connection or wire. Studio employees attempted to extinguish the fire with CO2 extinguishers but it gained headway too rapidly, they indicated.
Extensive damage was done to the plush executive offices of Walter Mirisch, President of United Artists, and to Producer Caruth Byrd’s executive suites on the first floor of the Writer’s Building. This suite also house the dressing room for Actor Robert Conrad. Offices of Marty-Krofft Productions in the Santa Monica Building were badly damaged. There was considerable smoke and heat damage and water damage in numerous offices in all buildings.
“The fire showed the excellent working relationship that exists between the City and County Fire Departments,” said Chief Houts. “Los Angeles City units remained at the scene as long as we needed them. Because of the proximity of their stations to the West Hollywood Strip, they provided invaluable service in keeping the fire from extending into the rest of the studio before our additional alarm companies had arrived.”
** Reprinted with permission from the Los Angeles County Firemen’s Benefit and Welfare Association.
This appeared in Straight Streams, Vol. LXXIV June 1974 No. 6