Historic fires at Universal Studios

A fixture in Hollywood for decades, the backlot is primarily designed to let filmmakers shoot New York, London, Paris and other places without having to leave Los Angeles. At Universal Studios, visitors can catch a view of the four acres of backlot on Universal’s behind-the-scenes studio tours by tram. The New York Street, which consists of 13 city blocks of buildings, have been the setting of commercials, television shows and feature films.

All the major studios have had fires at one time or another, but Universal seems to have had more than their fair share. What follows is a brief history of fires at Universal Studios over the years.

March 25, 1913

Universal fire at Gower and Sunset location. (click on image to enlarge)

Before Universal moved to their present location, they were at Gower Street and Sunset Boulevard. Early in the morning, the studio was destroyed by a fire that began in the film storehouse and was believed to have been caused by spontaneous combustion.

Several outdoor stages, dressing rooms, outbuildings, offices, the scenery storeroom and other buildings, all made of wood, were burned to the ground. For a time, the Hollywood branch office of the Sunset Telephone Company, and near-by residences were threatened.

September 29, 1917

A fire started from an unknown origin in the dry grass and spread to a two-story building on a western street just a short distance from the wardrobe building. Members of the Universal fire department and every able-bodied man fought to extinguish the flames. Sparks from the burning buildings were carried to one of the stages and set fire to many overhead diffusers. Actors helped to put them out.

Sparks also fell on the roof of the new electric light studio, which was constructed only a few weeks earlier, but a group of men quickly put it out. For a while, it was feared that the $4,000,000 studio would be seriously damaged, however, the loss was estimated at $10,000.

Not to waste the opportunity, cameramen trained their cameras upon the fire scenes which was placed in stock for use in future films.

June 3, 1919

A stubborn fire aided by a strong wind blowing into the San Fernando Valley was intent on destroying the Universal back lot. Unfortunately, being in an unincorporated district, the nearby Hollywood fire station declared Universal City to be beyond its jurisdiction. Actor Harry Carey, who was filming scenes for Rider of the Law (1919), gathered several cowboy actors to help fight the fire. They hauled a hose from the studio to the crest of one of the hills where there was a huge water tank and sprayed the hillsides from there. The blaze destroyed sets and equipment on three of the hills; damage was set at $5,000 and might have been more had not Carey and the other men acted so quickly.

May 25, 1922

A short-circuited electric wire, which whipped through an open doorway of a cutting room, ignited more than 100,000 feet of film. The huge coils of film flared instantly with flames sweeping through the room endangering near-by buildings. Padlocked metal boxes of film exploded with the heat, showering the vicinity with steel splinters that were embedded in the walls.

The explosion, smoke and fire caused a near-panic among the hundreds of studio employees. Actress Priscilla Dean rushed up a flight of stairs to the burning room, intent on saving the film of her picture, Under Two Flags (1922), which was being completed. She tripped on a flowing oriental robe (part of her costume) she was wearing and sprained her ankle.

At a loss of four cents a foot, more than 185,000 feet of film was destroyed including Under Two Flags and the footage for five other productions.

Tod Browning, who directed Under Two Flags, was about to leave for his home when the fire started. Irving Thalberg, director-general of the studio; Julius Bernhein, Leo McCarey and Arthur Ripley (film editor), all tried to reach the cutting room but were forced back by the flames.

Thalberg estimated that the property damage from the fire and the loss of film would amount to more than a half-million dollars.

December 23, 1922

Seven months later, another fire ravaged the studio under similar circumstances when an electric lamp short circuited and ignited more than a million feet of film. An explosion shook the building, knocking down a woman standing fifty feet from the source. Fortunately, the fire was prevented from spreading to the adjoining scenic shop where copious amounts of paint, chemicals and inflammable materials were stored.

The fire broke out at 3:50 pm and was battled by fire-fighting apparatus on the premises. Special effects man, Edward Bush and actor Norman Kerry, who was still dressed in his Austrian costume from Merry-Go-Round (1923), rushed into the building ahead of the fireman. However, both were overcome by fumes from the burning film and were carried out unconscious. They were attended to at the Universal City Emergency Hospital. Actors Herbert Rawlinson and Art Acord were among those who also aided in fighting the flames.

The studio was not seriously damaged, but a total of 1,100,000 feet of film was destroyed. This was footage for between thirty-five and forty films which was being edited, including One of Three (1923) from the Yorke Norroy film series starring Roy Stewart. It was estimated to cost approximately $250,000 to reshoot the pictures. The destroyed film was valued at about $100,000.

February 26, 1923

A “prop” fire became a genuine blaze and damaged a cabin set, singeing every actor in an episode of The Phantom Fortune (1923) serial. William Desmond suffered slight burns and minor lacerations when he dragged Cathleen Calhoun from the burning cabin with her costume ablaze. Esther Ralston suffered scorched hands, arms, and back. Robert F. Hill, the director, was burned about the neck and ears. Cameraman, “Buddy” Harris had his right hand severely burned. Three electricians and a property man also sustained minor injuries.

The fire was caused by flares used to simulate flames that ignited the woodwork of the set. All the injured were given emergency treatment at the studio hospital and sent home.

August 27, 1925

A fire broke out on the set of The Midnight Sun (1926) starring Laura La Plante and Pat O’Malley. Five hundred extras went into a panic, many of them trampled underfoot and two were slightly injured when a gigantic set of the interior of the Petrograd Imperial Ballet was swept by fire. Director Dimitri Buchowetski immediately jumped on the burning stage and shouted directions to the frightened extras.

The cause of the blaze was a sputtering, overhead-arc light, which came in contact with a huge drapery, part of the decorations imported from Paris for the production. Three days of shooting had to be reshot because of the destruction of the draperies which could not be duplicated. The estimated damage to the set was $15,000.

April 8, 1927

A fire started in an editing room when a lamp burned out and a spark flew into a stack of film. The fire, which threatened to spread, was confined to the single building, but the building was destroyed.

Many thousands of feet of film had to be reshot. Among the films destroyed was Reginald Denney’s Fast and Furious (1927). The loss due to the fire was estimated at $10,000.

January 7, 1931

A blaze started in a frame structure used for cutting short-length films. The cutters narrowly escaped when the room burst into flames. They were slightly overcome by fumes generated by the burning film but were revived in the studio infirmary. The studio fire department confined the fire to the one building. Damage was placed at $10,000 to the film and $5,000 to the building.

October 25, 1932

A brush fire broke out in the woodlands behind Universal and swept through fifteen acres of land destroying two film sets valued at $10,000. While the main stages and sets were not in danger, the sets destroyed were used in Frankenstein (1931) and the William Wyler film, A House Divided (1931).

Two uniformed men up front spray water on the Universal backlot fire while a line of men continue to pull a hose up the hillside toward the fire raging behind a veil of smoke. (September 1937)

September 8, 1937

A brush fire fanned by a stiff breeze burned over twenty-two acres on Universal’s back lot, destroying three houses used as a motion-picture set. A score of wild animals caged near a jungle set and several hillside residences were also in danger of the blaze.

One of the destroyed houses was an old type Spanish ranch that had been used in hundreds of western films. The other two were a part of what was known as the “Swiss Village” and were originally built in 1922 for a John Barrymore picture.

The wild animals included Universal’s famous black panther, the trained chimpanzee “Skippy,” and numerous lions, leopards and other animals. The collection was valued at $50,000.

The estimated damage to the back lot was $10,000.

December 23, 1954

A fire broke out on the set of One Desire (1955) starring Anne Baxter and Rock Hudson. The script called for Baxter to throw a book at Hudson and knock over a kerosene lamp. She did, and the flames swept up the drapes, however members of the crew were unable to contain the blaze as it whipped to the ceiling of the sound stage. The heat opened sprinklers over an adjacent stage and caused damage to other sets prepared for the same film.

September 25, 1957

An acre of permanent street-scene sets was destroyed by a fire that broke out on Universal’s back lot shortly before 5 pm. None of the street scenes involved in the fire was in use. A complete theater set on “New York Street,” a landmark for twenty years, was consumed in the fire. The heat melted and twisted the steel girder frame of the building that had been used in numerous films. The last film to use the set was the remake of My Man Godfrey (1957) starring David Niven. The damage was estimated at $500,000.

May 15, 1967

A fire started in a barn on the “Laramie Street” set and spread north and east over twelve acres of movie and television sets. At times, flames leaped more than 100-feet into the air. The “European,” “Denver” and “Laramie” streets were burned to the ground by the fire which roared out of control for more than an hour.

Wind-blown sparks showered upon the nearby Warner Bros. Studios causing at least one minor fire on the roof of the old casting building. Embers were carried as far as NBC Studios, two miles away and across the river to the Lakeside golf course.

Movie sets burn in a $1 million fire on Universal Studios’ backlot on May 15, 1967. Firemen battle roaring flames that raged out of control in studio structures. (LAPL)

The “European” set was originally built in 1930 for filming of All Quiet on the Western Front and had been used for countless films since. The destroyed “Laramie” set was used for the television show Laredo and the “Denver” street for The Virginian series.

The damage was set at $1 million.

 

November 6, 1990

A spectacular fire ravaged four acres of the Universal back lot and destroyed the New York Street; an adjacent alley set; Brownstone Street; a portion of the Courthouse Square where Back to the Future was filmed, and the Dick Tracy Building. Also, heavily damaged was the “King Kong” and “Earthquake” exhibits on the studio tour.

The New York Street set was used in the films The Sting (1973), and Dick Tracy (1990), among others. Beside the Back to the Future films, the Courthouse Square set was used in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The fire was set by a studio guard who was later sentenced to four years in prison. Damage was estimated at $25 million.

September 6, 1997

Improperly stored chemicals were blamed for a fire that destroyed the northern side of Courthouse Square. Once again, this building was spared.

June 1, 2008

A studio set is engulfed in fire at Universal Studios, June 2008.

A fire erupted at 4:45 a.m. on New York Street — a location that played host to scenes for such films as Batman and Robin and Austin Powers. Fueled by highly combustible facades and lumber, the fire rendered a sprinkler system on outdoor sets nearly useless.

The flames churned through the open-air wood and plastic construction and to the adjacent sets, incinerating the 30-foot animatronic “King Kong” tour exhibit, and damaging Courthouse Square, which played a prominent role in Back to the Future, To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind. The blaze also engulfed the videotape warehouse, containing archives of television shows and movies dating to the 1920s.

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