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Liking the cameras and action

COLUMN ONE

A cul-de-sac in Santa Clarita doubles as a TV Army base. Far from put out, residents welcome the shoots. Say, who's the actor in our hallway?

June 11, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

THE sun was setting in Happy Valley. Neighbors chatted with Paul Pedevilla, who was showing off a photo of his puppy. Two boys played with popguns. A toddler, father in tow, wailed as he wandered about the cul-de-sac.

A few feet away, an army of actors, directors, grips and gaffers prepared to shoot a shouting match between two mothers over their teenagers' romance. There were lights, camera, action -- and nobody in the huddle around Pedevilla, a TV location scout, batted an eye.

"We're used to it," said Larry King, whose house appears regularly on "The Unit," a CBS drama set on a fictional military base in Missouri called Ft. Griffith. "I feel like I'm part of the show."

Something curious has been going on in Happy Valley.

Thirteen homeowners on the cul-de-sac in this Santa Clarita community have welcomed generators, camera dollies and Star Waggons into their lives. During the second season, which wrapped in April, "The Unit" crew shot on 12 occasions, usually in the mornings for four-hour stretches but sometimes into the night.

The cul-de-sac rooted for Season Three anyway.

"Try doing something like this in Beverly Hills," said Vahan Moosekian, a co-executive producer on the show.

Hollywood has tried it there, and across greater Los Angeles. The response has been increasingly vitriolic complaints about noise, traffic, late-night klieg lights, faux bomb explosions and misappropriated parking spaces.

L.A. has been the world's television and movie production hub for decades, and much of its citizenry long ago reached the level of fed up.

But this is Happy Valley.

Here, the novelty of rubbing shoulders with TV stars -- and nibbling on Florentine sponge cake from the catering service -- hasn't worn off.

"It's not every day you get to see your house on a television show," King said. "It's exciting."

THE money helps, of course. In exchange for letting "The Unit" take over their driveways, frontyards and hallways, homeowners are well compensated, receiving fees totaling $1,500 to $20,000 per season.

Residents signed agreements stipulating daily compensation rates.

Renting a driveway for, say, a catering truck: $100 to $300.

Shooting the outside of a house: $1,000 to $3,000.

Using a parking space: $200.

Filming inside a home: $2,500 or more.

For "The Unit," the relationship with Happy Valley is downright heartwarming -- no matter the costs.

"It's critical to have a neighborhood like this," Moosekian said. "That's why we bend over backward and do everything we can to be invited back."

The one-hour action drama, recently picked up for a third season, has become a top-rated show for CBS.

Created by playwright David Mamet and fellow executive producer Shawn Ryan and produced by 20th Century Fox Television, "The Unit" follows a covert team of Special Forces operatives in undercover missions around the world. Much of the action unfolds on the Army base, where the wives protect their husbands' secrets from neighbors while dealing with the stress of raising children with fathers away for long stretches.

The show's base is a studio in Santa Clarita. To minimize transportation time and costs, Fox wanted to film street scenes nearby. The key assistant location manager, Rick Schroeder, scoured Santa Clarita before finding Happy Valley, a neighborhood about five miles from the studio.

With its middle-class tract homes, it could easily double for a Midwestern Army base. And Happy Valley had two other pluses: the absence of a homeowners association, "which adds another layer of bureaucracy and red tape," and a dearth of palm trees ("sky weeds," as Schroeder calls them), which tend to give away a California locale.

Schroeder narrowed his search to the cul-de-sac on Green Mill Avenue, which offered a large "elbow curb," as the industry calls it, allowing for wide-angle shots of the three "hero houses," the term for residences that appear regularly on a production.

Once the set designer approved the location, Schroeder sent letters to homeowners and met with each family.

To his amazement, no one objected. "They were excited about it," he said.

None of the residents want to divulge exactly how much his or her household is getting in production fees.

But Mike and Kathy Whamond (whose white-and-brick stucco house doubles as the residence of Mack and Tiffy Gerhardt, played by Max Martini and Abby Brammell), will say that "The Unit" financed a ski trip to Vail and part of their daughter's wedding.

King (whose house belongs on the show to Jonas "Snake Doctor" Blane and his wife, Molly, played by Dennis Haysbert and Regina Taylor) said he used his proceeds to help pay for a 2004 Mustang convertible and to take an Oregon vacation with his wife, Suzette.

The Kings have been rewarded with noncash benefits too, including new siding, trim and fencing. Their 25-year-old front door was replaced with a solid-wood make outfitted with a stained-glass window; it had to match the one in the studio in Santa Clarita.

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