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THE HOLLYWOOD ECONOMY

Show Business Fills the Aerospace Employment Gap in Burbank

The city lost 15,000 jobs after the Cold War ended and military spending shrank. But studios and their satellite firms help keep the city thriving.

January 18, 1998|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid the weeds and razor wire just north of Burbank Airport lies the hidden Hollywood.

Starting about 1990, aerospace jobs drained away from here like sand through a grate. Lockheed left. So did ITT, Weber Aircraft, Pacific Airmotive and countless small firms that supported them. Burbank officials calculate that 15,000 jobs were lost, a bloodletting that should have ravaged the city.

Instead, the dusty shops and warehouses have been quietly taken over by studios and the small, nearly invisible industries that feed on them. Burbank has gained as many jobs as it lost when the end of the Cold War sucked the life out of the city's traditional defense industry.

Bruce Burns thought this was just another gritty industrial district when he moved his sound company to this nameless stretch of low-slung warehouses two years ago. He changed his mind when he looked out his second-floor window one day and saw a dinosaur's head whip by--a mechanical model from the movie "The Lost World."

The activity here reflects a regionwide boom in entertainment that has made over communities from Culver City to North Hollywood.

"You are really talking about an incredible transformation over five or six years," said David Harding, a broker with CB Commercial, a real estate firm. "It's mind-boggling the number of good manufacturing jobs--really good community jobs--that were lost. But only a few years later . . . there is almost no vacancy."

Here one finds scrap metal, not stars; forklifts, not film crews. Companies in the area provide every service imaginable to the studios: script storage, printing, sets, directories, air conditioning, logistics for live shows, even medical equipment. Many of the companies are growing fast, often paying good wages, if sometimes without benefits or much security.

They serve a sprawling media business no longer limited to movie and video production but grown global to include theme parks, theme stores, restaurants, video games, casinos and entertainment-related merchandising.

From the street, it doesn't look like much. Many buildings are rundown. There is litter and graffiti. There are almost no restaurants; workers still flock into the street at noon to buy food from lunch trucks.

But here and there, odd elements stand out. Outside Sunrise Sets, there is a boat-sized model of a hot dog alongside old tires and machinery left to rust. Down the street, an office building has been redone to look like a castle.

And in the parking lot behind Axel Studios there's a Tiki-style cabana, complete with thatched roof and Polynesian statues. Famous pop singers relax here during rehearsals, cooled by mists while metal lathes roar in the shop next door.

Within these buildings there is growing wealth. Sales at Innovative Design, located in the castle, have grown from $250,000 four years ago to $12 million today. It has boomed, thanks to the growing number of theme parks, stores and restaurants that buy the company's wall-sized video screens.

Lexington Scenery & Props Inc. has nearly doubled its revenues to $15 million since the early 1990s. Four-year-old CenterStaging, a company that provides equipment and rehearsal space to big-name bands, has been growing at a rate of 30% per year, said President Johnny Caswell, 57, a former singer who switched to equipment "because I got too old to be a rock star."

Preferred Media Inc. stores scripts on racks in a climate-controlled warehouse, so that shows sold overseas can be dubbed in other languages. Business is growing at a rate of 15% per year, said President Jonathan Armytage.

The new companies have provided hundreds of jobs for people such as Alan Hartgraves, a 41-year-old former jig-and-fixture man for Lockheed. Hartgraves is now a metal fabricator for Lexington Scenery & Props Inc. He earns about the same $15 an hour that he did in aerospace, though without benefits.

"I had never even thought of the entertainment industry. But they hired me right away. I was surprised," Hartgraves said.

A brawny, sunburned Burbank native, Hartgraves has worked by turns as a repo man, exterminator and baker. He was laid off four times by the aerospace industry.

Asked about those times, he hesitates, then admits he's thinking of going back. "Entertainment is feast or famine," he said. "In aerospace, you at least get a year or two [of steady work]. Here, you're working along like a freight train for three months and then you look over your shoulder to see what's coming up next, and there's no work. I've already been laid off for like a month.

"I'm just trying to squeak out a living. . . . I want something that pays well and I don't have to worry about the bills. Just for a year or two. Just so I can get caught up. That's all."

*

Zelma Welcome, 41, has found a new life as general manager of Shades of Light Studios, a far cry from her old job as a car saleswoman.

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