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Old Rig Sets Firefighters' Hearts Aglow

August 21, 1988|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — Its life history mimics the American dream--hard, round-the-clock work followed by glamour, fame, parties and finally, museum honors.

The 1903 Metropolitan Steam Engine, a glistening antique fire rig that can still pump up to 900 gallons of water a minute, has had it all: An early career with the Sacramento Fire Department, roles in major Hollywood films, invitations to society parties and, now, a comfortable semi-retirement. But for all its star-dusted image, it was the Metropolitan's brassy charms and working-class origins that persuaded five Los Angeles County firefighters to co-sign a $75,000 personal loan last year to buy the horse-drawn steamer for the struggling county fire museum.

"If you could see the thing in operation, it's absolutely fantastic," said Bob Serabia of Simi Valley, one of the firefighters and president of the museum's nonprofit association. "First you smell the coal burning, then you hear the steam puffing, then the whistle--it's a delicate but very loud whistle. . . . It starts picking up steam and puffing more, and it starts jumping up and down. It's just a magnificent workhorse."

Runs on Meager Budget

Housed in a garage at the county Fire Department's training center in East Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles Fire Museum runs on a meager budget supported by membership and private donations. Other than the use of the garage space, the county lends no financial assistance. To pay off the steamer loan, the firemen are embarking on a fund-raising campaign which has thus far only nibbled away at their debt. They still owe about $65,000.

At this point, they do not even have the space to display the steamer, which is stored at a county fire station in Lakewood. Periodically the engine is taken out for show, such as last weekend, when crowds of admirers gathered around the steamer to watch it chug and pump at a museum fund-raiser at Paddison Farm in Norwalk.

The museum garage, open by appointment only, holds about six of the museum's 18 pieces of antique equipment. The rest, such as the steamer, are stored at scattered fire stations.

The association board hopes to obtain funding to lease or construct a building to exhibit the collection under one roof. Until then, said loan co-signer Capt. Bob Hancock of Bellflower, "we're kind of a museum on wheels."

The firefighters bought the steamer for $75,000 from American Eagle Productions, a Los Angeles company that stages theme picnics and parties and store promotions. The engine was among a huge collection of antiques amassed by the company's late founder, Ted Bowers, who used the items as period props for the firm's staged events.

Bowers' son, whose name is also Ted, said his father purchased the steamer and 61 other horse-drawn vehicles from 20th Century Fox studios in the early 1960s. Among its subsequent party appearances was a society fund-raiser in Beverly Hills, where it was stoked up on Rodeo Drive.

Lasting Fame

The steamer achieved a lasting fame of sorts under Fox's 4-decade ownership, when it was employed as a film prop by Fox and other studios.

For a few brief moments, part of the steamer shared the screen with Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind." It also appeared in "San Francisco" and perhaps some Charlie Chaplin movies.

In a "Gone With the Wind" firehouse scene, "you could see the steamer behind (Gable) in the next room," said Hancock, who can distinguish the Metropolitan from the other two fire engines that appear in the movie. "People who know steamers can tell," he said, noting that the models are as different as a Ford and Chevy.

Jailed by the Yankees in the firehouse after the Civil War, Gable--playing Rhett Butler--is visited by Vivien Leigh, who--as Scarlett O'Hara--attempts to pry a loan from him to pay taxes on Tara, the family estate.

Bought by Fox

The firefighters' research indicates that Fox purchased the steamer in 1924 after it was retired from the Sacramento Fire Department, which bought it new in 1903 or 1904.

The well-preserved steamer has needed some engine work, but not much else. Even the decorative, gold-leaf scroll work on the side rails is original.

Fueled with coal, the engine heats water to produce steam, which drives the pistons, which pump the water. Steam engines reigned from the 1880s into the early part of this century, when they were replaced by gas engines. But the modern fire engines have not replaced a certain affection for the heaving labors of the old pumper.

"When you just sit there and watch it and smell it and see it work--for a fireman, it gives you a sense of pride," Hancock said.

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