The South Bay's only motion picture studio will die this week, much the way it came to life--with automotive debris and shreds of twisted metal piling up at an alarming rate.
Filmmaker Toby Halicki used his unnamed Gardena studio, and often the city's streets and sidewalks, to film epic car-crash movies that thrilled gearheads worldwide and made him a wealthy man. He was killed at age 48 in an accident on the set while filming the sequel to his big hit "Gone in 60 Seconds." The 1989 accident halted the studio's operations and led to its recent purchase by a salvage company that itself specializes in junking cars.
The transformation could only be considered appropriate for a studio that destroyed several hundred cars in the three movies it released during the 1970s and '80s.
The five-acre studio not only housed its own working junkyard and a movie set of a Western ghost town, but it also stored Halicki's collection of 150 classic cars and an antique toy collection valued at $3 million to $5 million. Halicki even installed a concealed door in his office that allowed him to pull in his favorite car of the moment and park it next to his desk.
"The place (reflected) his personality," said Denice Shakarian Halicki, his widow. "It lived and breathed Toby. Somebody even told me it should have been a landmark."
"Gone in 60 Seconds," which was released in 1974, jump-started the studio by wrecking 97 cars in its 93 minutes, and by grossing $40 million worldwide on a $300,000 investment, said Chip Giannettino, former general manager of the studio. In the film about a professional car thief, Halicki did everything from acting the lead role and doing stunts to car maintenance and any other aspect of film production.
Halicki's subsequent, less-profitable movies, "The Junkman" and "Deadline Auto Thief," showed no sign of a diminished thirst for trashed cars. "It was like we were going for some kind of record," Giannettino said.
The auto-wreck auteur began to find other markets for crumpled cars, making his expertise and his studio available for other TV and film directors. His stunts appeared in such shows as "The Fall Guy," a Lee Majors TV show about a stuntman.
Halicki often staged his elaborate smash-up scenes on streets near the studio without much hassle from the locals. "They would just say, 'Try to avoid Vermont Avenue, Toby's got some cars on fire out there,' " Giannettino said. "The local people seemed unfazed by that sort of thing."
Halicki landed in Gardena after he hitched a ride from New York with an uncle in the early '60s. "He went to Gardena High School, and after that he never went two miles from the school to live or work," Giannettino said.
Halicki set up his studio in town because he was down to earth and had no taste for Hollywood's method of filmmaking. Besides, it allowed him to devote two acres of studio property to his junkyard, Giannettino said.
His last film, "Gone in 60 Seconds II," was to have been the biggest demolition derby ever filmed. Halicki, increasingly leery of doing his own stunts, brought in the top stuntmen in the business and prepared for the planned chaos.
And, of course, he scoured local auto auctions for the necessary cars. "They had about 300 in stock for that one," Giannettino said with a chuckle.
But an accident during the filming of the movie cost Halicki his life. He was crushed while preparing to direct a stunt sequence by a falling pole rigged to crash as part of the stunt. His death meant the end of "the last true independent studio," as Giannettino described the operation. "No studio today is independent in the way we were back then," he said. "Toby was a one-man wrecking crew--he did everything."