Out of the Ashes : Universal Rebuilds N.Y. Set After Devastating Fire


The morning after the spectacular $25-million fire at Universal Studios last Nov. 6, Bill DeCinces, studio operations senior vice president, got direct orders from MCA-Universal’s chairman of the board: “Let’s rebuild.”

The command from Lew Wasserman put hundreds of wheels into motion--to redesign and reconstruct the historic New York Street set that the fire had destroyed.

Now, four months later, while the wheels of justice in the case of suspected arsonist Michael J. Huston, 40, of Tujunga, are still turning, Universal is ready to unveil its spanking new, old-looking New York set.

The feat is nothing less than pure Hollywood magic.

Built at a cost estimated by the studio to be in excess of $30 million, the new set covers seven acres and contains 11 different streets. “With a little bit of dressing, it can be used as stand-ins for London, Boston and San Francisco,” said DeCinces, a 46-year veteran art director (TV’s “Wagon Train,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”). In his experience, DeCinces knows of no other back-lot set in the industry that is more extensive. “It’s the largest continuous street facade in one location,” he said.

At its peak, about 500 people were employed in the construction that broke ground on Nov. 27--meaning that in just three weeks, DeCinces and such other art directors as Ted Haworth (“Sayonara,” “Marty”) and Bob Boyle (“North by Northwest” and “Fiddler on the Roof”) scrambled to come up with concepts, and architects rushed to set them to blueprints.


Overseeing the planning was producer-director Steven Spielberg, whose Amblin Productions headquarters is housed in a hacienda-style building not far from the New York Street.

“Spielberg was a source of inspiration and a lot of good ideas,” said designer Haworth. “He was particularly concerned in believability, especially in the Boston part of the set,” which Spielberg will use to double for London in his production of “Hook” for Tri-Star Pictures.

Haworth, who did the concept designs for the Boston section, which is just now under construction, said that the design utilizes the Georgian architecture of that city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. “It’s adaptable to foggy weather London scenes by simply adding exterior plumbing, and by turning around a Colonial church steeple in the background you’ll see Big Ben.”

During an interview as he stood next to a 20x20-foot model of the new set, DeCinces couldn’t keep from smiling as he talked about the rapid deployment of art directors, architects, engineers, craftsmen, technicians and construction crews who worked on the project. “Some said it would take two years to rebuild,” he said.

But the round-the-clock shifts paid off, he said. What’s more, the studio already had a green light from local government to build because it is private property with commercial zoning.

With the mandate from Wasserman, DeCinces coordinated the massive effort among the designers and builders. As soon as the art directors completed their detailing, the architects went to work. Then the craftsmen in Universal’s wood and metal shops went about creating the kind of rococo architectural features that are seldom, if ever, used in today’s construction.

In Hollywood, when plans call for brick walls, you only call in masons if you need real bricks. The crews in Universal’s own plastics shop can create vacuum-formed plastic brick siding and studio artists can paint them to look 100 years old.

The new sets were to be taller and more detailed and many would be more than facades--they would have interiors. DeCinces said that each building was designed to have its entire front removed and substituted with another facade, “in case a script calls for a car to go crashing through the wall.”

Unlike the set that burned, some of the new New York Street’s blocks are built with full rooftops, chimneys, parapets and skylights. One block even has alleyways.

By April 1, the Walt Disney Studios is scheduled to start using a portion of the New York streets to film its musical “Newsies.” After that, the set will be used by one film after another, including Spielberg’s “Hook.”

The “rentability” factor, as MCA vice president for facilities rentals Harry T. Smith put it, is a prime reason why the studio committed to rebuilding. “There’s not a better-looking New York street outside of New York. Over the years, it will pay for itself in rentals to outside productions,” he said.

Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox have New York settings on their back lots but they are limited in their flexibility and size, and Universal Studios in Florida also has a New York Street set, though it isn’t as fully detailed, according to Smith.

Smith said that in addition to saving money for film producers who won’t have to pack up and take productions to New York City to shoot, the Hollywood location also will serve as an attraction for the Universal Studios Hollywood Tour. On peak summer days, as many as 35,000 tourists visit the 450-acre studio daily.

Nowadays, while most of the expansion at Los Angeles’ major studio complexes involves the construction of office buildings and parking lots, the commitment by Universal to building a working set is regarded as the exception.

“You’ve got to have the facilities that support today’s larger production schedules,” said Jeffrey Logsdon, an analyst with Seidler Amdec Securities in Los Angeles. In the typical expansion of modern Hollywood, that translates to production offices, Logsdon said.

Yet there in the middle of the big business that is Hollywood, the back lot survives. In minutes, you can be in New York . . . Europe . . . Cabot Cove, Me. . . .