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MTA to Roll Out Mobile Theater

The transit agency plans to use a $400,000 portable multimedia facility to hold free 3-D screenings of light-rail safety films.

October 25, 2002|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

After serving the entertainment capital of the world for so long, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority now wants to get into show business, too.

The MTA's board of directors agreed Thursday to buy a $400,000 portable multimedia theater, once used to showcase television's Power Rangers, to hold free 3-D film screenings across Los Angeles County.

But rather than candy-colored teenage superheroes, the stars of this road show will be the MTA's Blue and Gold line trains.

Agency staff members are planning to launch a new public education campaign on light-rail safety.

"Just sending out brochures and fliers isn't what makes an impression on the community," said Lynda Bybee, deputy officer of community relations for the transit agency, which hopes to begin the 3-D shows next year. "We want to get folks' attention."

The glitz and cost of the theater, equipped to blast wind and emit scents for dramatic effect, are raising some eyebrows.

It's a high-tech "Punch and Judy" puppet show, said transit advocate John Walsh of Hollywood. "It's an absolute waste of money."

But others believe it can be a smart investment in public safety.

"It sounds so L.A. to have such a show-bizzy thing. It makes me chuckle," said Roger Christensen, a board member of Train Riders Assn. of California. "But if it takes bells and whistles and smoke bombs to make kids aware of the dangers of rail tracks, it's all worth it."

The Blue Line, identified a couple of years ago by the California Public Utilities Commission as the deadliest rail line in the state, has had more than 620 accidents and 60 fatalities since it opened in 1990, according to the MTA.

Though some deaths are believed to be suicides, most of the accidents involve vehicles crossing the street-level tracks.

There has been one fatality this year on the Blue Line.

MTA officials believe that's due to their stepped up public safety campaign.

The Gold Line, which is scheduled to open next summer, will also intersect streets, prompting concerns that its trains could pose hazards to pedestrians and cars.

MTA staff members believe the 16-seat theater, which is inside a double-wide trailer, will take the agency's rail safety message to the next level by hooking audiences with hold-on-to-your-seat special effects.

They envision an extravaganza similar to Disneyland's now-defunct Captain EO ride, in which viewers wearing 3-D glasses, buckled into computerized armchairs, will move up and down and side to side in synchronous motion with images projected on a giant screen.

But instead of bopping with Michael Jackson through outer space, the MTA audience will feel the bumps of a train ride.

One proposed story line for the yet-to-be-written script: the suspense of a train coming to an emergency stop when a pedestrian or car suddenly crosses the tracks. There's no word yet on what train-related odor the MTA plans to reproduce.

MTA staff members believe the shows will attract children and young adults who might tune out conventional safety programs.

"If you look at what we need to compete against nowadays to get the attention of a young person, we're competing with Play-Station 2, with Xbox," said Yoon Ham, a senior community relations officer for the MTA. "[The theater] will be an effective tool to get the message across to young people that if you treat a train or rail crossing with disrespect, there's a chance you'll be killed."

Once staff members obtain board approval, they plan to develop a storyboard with scenes, Ham said.

The agency will likely hire a filmmaker to shoot footage from the inside and outside of moving trains, with camera angles that capture the sensory experience of being on the train and crossing the tracks.

The virtual reality den, custom-built 18 months ago by Chatsworth-based Provision Interactive Technologies, toured the country last year to promote the Power Rangers series and action figures.

More recently, the theater was a featured attraction at an air show, where riders took simulated fighter-jet flights.

"The kids went nuts when they saw it," said Jeff Vrachen, vice president of Provision.

The company, which has also done promotions for the Cartoon Network, estimates the cost of a new trailer like this one, now in storage in Lake View Terrace, exceeds $700,000.

The MTA already has funds from a safety grant to buy the multimedia theater.

"MTA's taken a lot of hits in the past for not being responsive to the community," said Kymberleigh Richards, spokeswoman for Southern California Transit Advocates. "This could be good for their image."

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