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BLAZE ON THE BACK LOT

Tour of lot becomes reality show

June 03, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

The tram crammed with tourists snaked down the hillside road and through its first highlight, the gray soundstage buildings of Universal Studios Hollywood's front lot, as the tour guide recounted famed movies shot there: "Jurassic Park," "Jarhead," "Live Free or Die Hard."

As they began to round a corner, tourists saw a red firetruck parked beside the road. A few firefighters, amazingly realistic, walked by. Around the corner entire rows of fire engines appeared.

Then the group gasped. To the left were the burned-out remains of a town square, twisted and melted metal mixed with charred piles of wood. In the distance, a few building facades still stood in the smoky air.

Fingers flew to pull out cellphones, cameras, camcorders. The normally noisy tram made its first full halt and fell silent.

"You can see the destruction left in the wake of the fire," the guide said Monday. "Some of the world's greatest firefighters descended on Universal."

Visitors applauded.

As they say in showbiz, the show must go on, and a day after a fire gutted portions of the studio, reality and illusion blended on the lot even more than usual.

As firefighters continued to hose down rubbish piles, the first tour at Universal Studios Hollywood took off after the park reopened at 10 a.m. Monday. About 130 people from around the world boarded the first tram of the morning for a 45-minute tour.

"We're going to take you right up next to the devastated part of our lot and give you a close-up," said the guide.

The guide prodded the group into action at the wreckage scene, as if it were another movie set on display. "Go ahead, by the way; use your camera equipment as you see fit," he said. "Take as many photos or video footage as you want."

The guide explained to tourists from India, Holland and Denmark that they were looking at burned facades, not actual buildings. Fires were common enough to the studios, the guide said. In fact, in the 1930s a portion of a lot had been cordoned off and set ablaze intentionally for the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind."

A few minutes later, before the tour left the fire scene, the guide thanked firefighters who brought the blaze under control Sunday night.

"Gentlemen, thanks a million."

The next stop was a simulated car explosion modeled on "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift." With each fake explosion, flames -- controlled -- burst into the air.

Pointing to the cars as radiant heat warmed the metal tram, Steven Razo, 15, of Highland Park jokingly said, "I think this is how the fire started."

Foreign tourists visiting the park for the first time marveled at how staff rebounded after the fire, mounting tours and incorporating the fire into their newly scripted narratives.

"They have arranged so quickly for people to see it the next day," said Rajaesh Gupta, 68, visiting from New Delhi.

As the tour continued, it passed a set used to film "The Color Purple." Behind the empty buildings, visitors craning their necks got a small peek of the New York City streetscape, which was reduced to piles of rubble by Sunday's blaze.

The tram proceeded to more smoldering remains, this time a house ripped apart by an airplane. Luggage was strewn about and white smoke rose from the blackened fuselage. Had a plane gone down Sunday too?

Not quite. It was a set for the Tom Cruise science fiction thriller "War of the Worlds."

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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