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Having Fun Is the Real Prop in Entrepreneur's Firm

August 27, 1987|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

John Zabrucky, the youthful president of a company that creates radars, ghost scanners, incandescent orbs, laser guns and other authentic-looking gear for science-fiction movies such as the upcoming "Earth Girls Are Easy," is quick to point out that he did not attend the Harvard Business School.

Harvard might frown on a businessman spending more than $100,000, not counting labor, to renovate a building he does not own and does not intend to keep for long. They might also question the wisdom of serving free espresso and mineral water to employees. Or in outfitting them in freshly cleaned jump suits each day. Or in hiring live bands and dancing girls on their birthdays.

For Zabrucky, however, it is all a part of the cost of doing business his way.

'Want to Have a Good Time'

"I guess you could say that we are not flipped out about the bottom line," he said during a tour of his West Los Angeles company called Modern Props. "We certainly need to make money. But we also want to have a good time."

Zabrucky is apparently succeeding at both. Other people produce and rent props. But few do it as stylishly as the 40-year-old Zabrucky.

His 30,000-square-foot office, located near a poor residential section of Venice, is a high-tech fantasy land done up in bold strokes of red, black, gray and white and crammed full of weirdly engaging gadgets and futuristic furnishings.

The couch in his entrance way is stylish black leather. The state-of-the art machinery in the production shop is color-coordinated. So are the people. Everybody at Modern Props dresses in white, including the secretary.

"There is a basic design scheme here," said Frederick Lietzman, an employee. "No other place I know of is this clean and this pristine."

Stocked With Props

Zabrucky will not discuss company finances. But the privately held business appears healthy. Modern Props stocks nearly 4,000 pieces of merchandise, most of it created by Zabrucky, his business partners and their 27-member staff.

The company can make an exact replica of a NASA computer bank or a CIA briefcase with sophisticated radar gear and telecommunications to order. Companies looking to lend authenticity to a production set in the recent past or distant future can also find unusual stereos, televisions and other items.

Yet the most unusual thing about Modern Props is clearly Zabrucky's management style. The blond designer, who favors T-shirts and shorts when he works, seems to revel in the opportunity to violate convention.

"I guess I have a fear of growing up," he said. "This place is like a combination of Cape Canaveral and Universal Studios tour rolled into one."

Zabrucky apparently developed a distaste for the traditional ways of doing business early on. His jaw tightened when he recalled the days he spent working in a hot and dirty factory in his native Ohio.

"It was hellish," Zabrucky said. "I never understood why businessmen had to be so cruel."

Zabrucky, who has a design degree, decided he would do things differently if he had a chance. The opportunity came when his girlfriend, an aspiring actress, asked him to accompany her to Hollywood.

They were on a set one day when a prop melted under the hot studio lights. Zabrucky laughed and a company executive asked him if he thought he could do better. He said he could.

The remark lead to a free-lance prop job and by 1976, Zabrucky and a partner named Mike Ladish had opened a small prop business in Inglewood. They moved to West Los Angeles four years ago as the business grew.

Zabrucky said his idea from the start was to prove that a business could be run in an unorthodox but successful manner.

Recalling some of the European and Japanese work places he had seen as a tourist, he turned his leased office building into an architectural showplace loaded with posters from obscure science fiction movies such as "Teen-Agers From Outer Space" and dressed his employees in starched white jump suits with American flags on the sleeves.

One worker has the primary responsibility of serving gourmet coffees, teas, fruit juices and sparkling waters to the others when they are on their breaks. Company dinners are organized to promote fraternalism. And birthdays are celebrated with cake, champagne and sometimes even live entertainment.

Bob Dylan's "Union Sundown," a song about the deterioration of the American labor forces, blasted from the stereo speakers in the production shop as Zabrucky led a tour of the facility. His employees, stationed at various machines, freely traded barbs with the boss.

Zabrucky said that he has lost some employees to companies that offer higher wages, but added that most of the workers have been around for several years.

Steve Ladish, a supervisor and the brother of Zabrucky's partner, came on board in 1980.

Looking at Long Term

"We only hire somebody for the long term," he said. "We look for people who will fit in and who want to stay with us and grow with us."

Chris Cowan, a machinist, was hired when he was spotted walking around a science-fiction convention with a strange device that he had created.

"The company blew me away." Cowan said. "There is no other place like this."

Zabrucky said that his company is not making him rich. But it does seem to be making him happy.

He and his partners recently expanded into the Italian designer furniture business, opening a wing called Modern Times. They also hope to gain new business from the exposure their creations are receiving in recent films such as "Star Trek IV" and "Robocop."

Overall, however, Zabrucky, who spends most of his time thinking about futuristic prop concepts, does not seem particularly concerned about his own future.

"I'm not a businessman," he said. "This is like an accident."

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