South Bay Studios Is Music to Ears of Video Producers


It’s understandable if entrepreneur Richard Gamarra still gets a little star-struck. After all, how many people who run a business in an industrial complex in Carson have rock stars knocking at the door?

Gamarra, who has spent more than five years preparing cars for television commercials and slick magazine spots, is suddenly renting his 12-stage studio complex to the likes of Paula Abdul, Belinda Carlisle and Donny Osmond.

“Some of the stars are like my heroes,” Gamarra gushed. “I usually don’t bother anyone. But the ones I grew up with, like (Daryl) Hall and (John) Oates, I’ll go up and talk to. And Don Henley (of Eagles fame)--It’s like, ‘Geez, Don Henley.’ ”

Three years ago, Gamarra transformed an empty warehouse into an $18-million studio complex. With sound stages, a film lab, supply store and two editing bays all under one roof, South Bay Studios is said to be among the largest facilities of its kind outside Hollywood.


Music icons like Anita Baker and Luther Vandross have shot videos at Gamarra’s electric-blue quarters, which not only offer music video producers significantly lower production costs but a staff willing to work long hours without grumbling and, occasionally, scrub toilets.

Gamarra, a 33-year-old, pony-tailed businessman from Whittier, can barely contain his enthusiasm when he points to the signatures of dozens of pop celebrities that adorn two walls of his massive studio complex.

“I had Stevie Wonder in here driving around in a little cart with a guy next to him saying ‘Turn right, turn left.’ (Wrestling star) Hulk Hogan was walking around with my kid on his shoulder,” Gamarra rejoiced. “Donny Osmond started our stage on fire--pyrotechnics or something like that. He was shooting his ‘I’m on Fire’ video.”

Producer Krista Montagna of Limelight, a commercial and video production company in Hollywood, said just about the only thing wrong with South Bay Studios is that it’s in Carson. “If you can get around the fact that it’s not in Hollywood, that no one likes to drive out that far, then it works for our purposes,” Montagna said.


In addition to music videos, the studios are rented out for television commercials and promotional videos. (The city of Carson plans to hold a telethon at the site to raise funds for a Tournament of Roses float entry.)

Gamarra’s multimillion-dollar enterprise began in 1986 with a $30,000 loan from a friend, which enabled him to set up the car preparation business in a small garage in Paramount. That company, Focus on Cars, works with advertising agencies to detail cars for commercial filming and dealership brochures. The firm became so successful that in December, 1988, Gamarra purchased the Carson warehouse to open South Bay Studios.

Initially, the studios were exclusively used for car ads. But in the last year and a half the complex flourished into a music video production site as producers fled Hollywood in search of cheaper, if less flashy, studios.

“Focus on Cars is what made it all happen,” said Michael G. Davis, vice president of South Bay Studios and a former hairstylist who once managed a hair salon owned by Gamarra. (“I didn’t know anything about the film industry when I first started here. I had to go out and buy a dictionary of terms,” Davis said.)


The car firm, based in a section of the studio complex, is still an integral part of Gamarra’s business. There, Hollywood meets Detroit: Shiny new and prototype automobiles are cut in half to display interiors, engines are yanked out, wheels are added and bodies repainted. After tedious weeks and sometimes months of shooting, the cars are hauled away to a junkyard.

“I know--kinda makes you sick,” Gamarra said.

But cars have proven less fickle than celebrities. Once, when rhythm-and-blues singer Vandross objected to the condition of a new bathroom at one of the stages, Gamarra and studio coordinator Terese Molloy took to scrubbing the toilet.

“Now that’s what I call service,” Molloy said.