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The Old Curiosity Shop

Business: Burbank firm provides hobbyists, schools, movie studios with everything from chemistry sets to animal specimens to fake blood.

December 12, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ira Katz wants to slit your wrist.

Katz is the 81-year-old owner of Tri-Ess Sciences, a Burbank company that has been providing hobbyists, schools, magicians and the movie industry with supplies for 46 years.

Budding scientists have been known to drool over his mail-order catalog, which is full of kits, chemistry sets, skeletons, bottled bodies of small animals for dissection, anatomy charts and a wide variety of laboratory equipment, from professional microscopes to test tubes.

Katz doesn't just sell the stuff--he uses it.

Through a door in the back of his shop is his well-stocked laboratory, where he invented numerous gizmos and special effects such as the richly colored smoke now commonly used in films and music videos. Taped to one shop wall, near thank-you letters from students he has helped with science projects, is a picture of Cher singing against a backdrop of his purple smoke.

In a high-tech era when most scientific research is a group effort requiring contributions from a host of specialists and data-crunching computers, Katz is one of the last in a long line of inventors who have worked wonders in back rooms, basements and garages, letting their curiosity and creativity lead them into whatever endeavor might strike their fancy.

"Let me show you something," he told a visitor. It's probably the most oft-repeated sentence he utters.

With a sly smile, he led the way into his lab. Pulling out a small pocket knife, he asked his visitor to bare a wrist.

"The movie people love this one," he said, reaching for a couple of unmarked chemical bottles. Using a Q-Tip, he painted a line of one potion across his intended victim's wrist. Then he covered the blade of the knife with the other. Both solutions were clear, leaving no trace.

"Imagine you are coming around a corner on a dark night and I jump out at you," he said, suddenly running the dull blade across the wrist.

Instantly, the chemicals reacted to make an absolutely convincing line of simulated blood. It would not take much acting to pretend the wrist had just been slashed.

"I call it 'A-B blood' because it takes two chemicals to make the effect," Katz said. With gusto, he described its use in a recent movie in which a woman scratched deep cuts into a man's face with her fingernails.

But the product is not limited to secular use. Katz also gets orders for A-B blood from fundamentalist church groups.

"They use it for their reenactment of the flagellation of Christ," he said. "Sells very well around Easter."

An assistant came to summon Katz to the shop, where a man was seeking advice on floor polishing compounds. Meanwhile, Katz's daughter, Kim Greenfield, offered a tour of the store.

On industrial shelves and in glass display cases were stacks of products that could be purchased by customers who visit the mostly unadorned shop.

There were some novelty items, such as ChemSlime, a "slippery, slimy" substance the store stocks for inexpensive holiday gifts. But most of the products have at least some serious intent.

"We try to find things that are based in science," said Greenfield, 40, vice president of Tri-Ess. "We don't want to load up on magic kits and things like that."

For younger students, there were kits designed to demonstrate the principles of solar energy, crystal formation, electric motors, weather forecasting, magnetism and telescopes.

For the older set, there were genuine science lab tools, such as electronic balances, flasks, hydrometers and forceps.

On one shelf were animal specimens for dissection and animal parts floating in a preservative. Whole bullfrogs were priced at $11.10 apiece, a fetal pig was going for $9.60 and a sheep's eye was only $1.

*

The tour ended in Katz's office. On the walls were pictures from several films that used his special-effects products, celebrity pictures autographed by the likes of comic Jay Leno and TV weather forecaster George Fischbeck, and commendations from several law enforcement agencies he works for as a consultant on training exercises (he creates the explosions for emergency drills) and bomb analysis.

Katz earned college degrees in chemistry and biology, he said, before opening his first business, a toy store, in 1950.

"I thought it would be fun," he said, shrugging his shoulders. It was the Hobby Shop in Atwater Village.

A few years after the store opened, students began to ask his advice about science projects. "The kids had been told by their teachers that they had to do a project, but they had no idea what to do," Katz said. "I don't think the teachers knew either."

After the Soviet Union put Sputnik, the first space satellite, into orbit in 1957, the United States put increased emphasis on science education. But supplies were still hard to come by.

"There was not a place in Los Angeles at that time where a kid could walk in and buy a single test tube," he said. "So I thought, 'This is a need that needs to be filled.' "

In the early 1960s, he devoted a section of his store to science projects. Eventually, it took over the entire operation and he changed the store's name to Student Science Services.

"Then we started to take on more and more industrial work and movie business," Katz said.

"The name didn't seem right for approaching those kinds of companies. So, you can see how we got the name we use now."

In need of more space as Tri-Ess grew, the company moved to its present location in 1981.

*

The one thing missing from Katz's lab and his store is a computer.

He doesn't like them.

"I believe in science, 100%," he said. "But computers, they make you lazy. They keep a kid from learning everyday, basic things. How to add up a column of numbers, for instance."

"This so-called sophistication, it's not always a good thing," he said. "When you get your head out of a computer, it can open up a whole new world."

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