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Art Imitates Life a Little Too Much When Film Set Is a Fake Skid Row

Merchants say that a homeless encampment built for a TV show in downtown L.A. was so realistic it scared off potential customers.

November 22, 2002|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The city's current skid row crackdown seemed too effective Thursday for merchants and shoppers in one Los Angeles neighborhood.

A homeless encampment -- complete with dozens of tents, cardboard shelters and shopping carts brimming with old clothing, cans and bottles -- suddenly materialized on a privately owned lot in front of upscale art galleries and restaurants in the downtown artist district.

"Oh, my God! They're sweeping skid row and they've swept the homeless into here," said Jonathan Jerald, a documentary filmmaker who lives nearby and is a member of the city's Historic-Cultural Neighborhood Council.

Police called to the grimy campsite in the 900 block of East 3rd Street, about nine blocks east of the main skid row area, were equally puzzled.

Until, that is, they discovered that the encampment was fake -- and was just a film set erected for the Lifetime television network's show "Strong Medicine."

News that it was all make-believe came too late for hundreds of art patrons invited Wednesday night to an exhibit of works by artist Tod Lychkoff at the Asto Gallery. Some took one look at the encampment and fled.

"I left at 2 p.m. Wednesday after finishing the installation, and nothing was there. I came back at 6 to open the show, and it looked like the homeless had moved in. I couldn't believe it," he said.

Gallery owner Nash Im said no one was warned that the mock encampment was coming. "We were all very shocked and upset," he said.

Although studios are required to notify businesspeople and residents before filming, it was unclear Thursday whether such notices had been issued along 3rd Street.

Officials of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which grants film permits, were briefly at the scene early in the day, but later did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Guido Ganschow, owner of the Cafe Metropol, said the incident was a setback for merchants, who have worked for more than four years to turn the neighborhood into a desirable place to visit.

"People coming from the Westside and other places for that gallery opening went away saying it's a nice gallery and there are cute restaurants. But they won't be coming back a second time," worried Ganschow.

Operators of R-23, a Japanese restaurant, said business dropped off sharply Thursday.

"I tried to tell customers not to be scared, that it was for a movie," owner Jake S said.

But the situation was not helped, he said, when a studio truck that arrived to post the site as a "hot set" blocked the restaurant's parking area during the lunch hour.

Studio officials posted guards at the phony encampment to keep real homeless people from moving in. Many had been rousted when police moved through downtown before dawn Wednesday arresting more than 130 people, including many ex-convicts suspected of violating parole. The sweeps continued Thursday evening.

Production workers said 3rd Street filming is scheduled for today. The prop tents, cardboard and shopping carts will be removed by 9 p.m., they said.

"Obviously, we weren't as sensitive as we should have been here," said Jim Weiss, unit production manager for "Strong Medicine."

He said he never considered using a real skid row encampment for the filming -- not when his set decorators can produce a realistic re-creation.

As if to prove Weiss' point, gallery visitor Francis Krahe of Corona del Mar walked past with several friends and gazed sadly at the tents.

"There's lot of homelessness in Los Angeles," Krahe said.

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