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Even for Houdini, There’s No Escape

Times Staff Writer

If the magicians could wave their wands and make the problem disappear, the broadcasters would shout out the good news.

Too bad things are not that simple at the famous intersection of Sunset and Vine.

That’s where a fire in an underground power chamber spewed smoke into a Washington Mutual Savings and Loan branch, coating its money vaults, tellers’ counters and customer areas with toxic PCBs.

But the most far-reaching damage was in the bank’s basement, which houses the Society of American Magicians’ Hall of Fame and Magic Museum and the separate Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Museum.

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Toxic materials have contaminated exhibits and equipment that had been used by illusionists such as Harry Blackstone Sr. and Harry Houdini and collected over the last century by the magicians’ group.

In the museum, PCBs cover early radio sets, thousands of original broadcast scripts and transcriptions, and vintage equipment such as Bing Crosby’s personal microphone.

Since the Dec. 13, 2004, transformer fire, the two museums have been closed and sealed off along with the bank. Washington Mutual officials say that the branch’s cleanup cannot begin until the museums remove their displays.

Museum operators, however, said they cannot move their property until it has been decontaminated. And they said that neither group can afford the about half a million dollars that the cleanup and relocation would cost each organization.

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“We have thousands of transcriptions and tapes of old radio shows and old radios and technical equipment dating back to the 1920s. We have examples of the first TVs, thousands of old scripts, a huge collection of antique microphones, including Bing Crosby’s personal mike -- the one he felt made him sound so good,” said Martin Halperin, a vice president of the 500-member broadcasters group.

“These are one-of-a-kind things. They’re irreplaceable. We have broadcasters oral histories, the entire KFI scrapbook that traces that station back to its start. We have the original SigAlert radio. We’ve duplicated a complete working studio down there, with turntables and equipment. We have the very first audiotape machine -- the Ampex 200, serial number 1.”

Halperin is a retired broadcast and sound engineer who lives in Woodland Hills. He said he had jokingly asked the magicians to conjure up a solution to the contamination.

“I said, ‘John, can’t you pull a rabbit out of the hat and make this go away?’ ” Halperin said.

John Engman, president of the magicians’ local hall, said his society’s 8,000 members can only wish that they had a magic potion for that job.

“People are heartbroken about this. Members have been meeting every Wednesday night for 34 years building the stages and theaters for magic performances and museum rooms,” said Engman, a retired Alhambra attorney and part-time magician.

“We have displays using mannequins to show the development and history of magic back to 2500 BC. We have memorabilia from World War II USO magic shows, one-of-a-kind items like 1912 nightclub tricks -- thimbles and cards. We have the minutes from the society’s founding in 1902 -- we don’t know what condition they’re in from the PCBs.”

Among the contaminated exhibits is the Houdini handcuff display. It is a collection of bracelets that the famed illusionist obtained from those who had challenged his skills as an escape artist. Dozens of cuffs and key sets are mounted on black velvet boards, Engman said.

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The northeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street has lengthy ties to show business and broadcasting. For nearly a quarter-century starting in 1938, NBC network radio shows aired from a 4 1/2-acre studio complex that contained four 350-seat studio-auditoriums that were used for “The Fibber McGee and Molly Show,” “The Jack Benny Show” and other programs.

It was there that Halperin launched his broadcast career as a page several years before NBC in 1949 began television operations at the corner.

The distinctive, curve-fronted, green building was torn down in 1964 after being made obsolete by color TV studios that NBC built in Burbank.

In 1967 the bank building was constructed by Home Savings and Loan, which offered rent-free basement space to the museums. That arrangement was continued in 1998 when Washington Mutual acquired Home Savings.

Washington Mutual officials blamed an underground electrical transformer owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the contamination. They said that PCB-laced smoke from a transformer fire was vented through a subterranean conduit into the branch’s basement. From there, the contamination was circulated by the building’s air-conditioning system throughout the structure.

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were used as an oil substitute in electrical transformer cooling systems until 1977, when they were banned because of health concerns. Experts said older transformers may still contain fluids with PCBs.

Washington Mutual set up temporary trailers and resumed business at the corner on Jan. 28. Moon-suited workers decontaminated the bank’s ATMs and restored them to service March 12. But the branch’s main money vaults and its 700 safe-deposit boxes remained off-limits to employees and customers.

Tim McGarry, a Washington Mutual spokesman, said the bank helped customers replace passports and other documents that were in the inaccessible boxes until decontamination experts constructed a new doorway and a toxic-material-free passageway leading to the boxes. Customers regained access to the boxes, which he said tests had indicated were not contaminated, on Saturday.

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Once the entire building is decontaminated through an Environmental Protection Agency -approved wipe-down and high-strength vacuuming, officials plan to gut and replace the interior, McGarry said.

But as the museum operators and bankers have wrestled with the problem, DWP officials have remained silent about the venting of PCBs into an occupied building and the resulting damage.

Department spokeswoman Darlene Battle initially refused to discuss the contamination on grounds that the incident was the focus of a lawsuit -- an assertion that Washington Mutual, the magicians and the broadcasters said was untrue.

Later, Battle stated: “The department has declined to comment on any of your questions. That is our comment.”

Washington Mutual has offered to pay to box up the museums’ collections. But the magicians and broadcasters must find a place to move the material to, McGarry said.

Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters’ Halperin said his group is reluctant to have outsiders pile antique microphones and radios and thousands of fragile discs of vintage broadcasts -- including the complete CBS radio entertainment and news collection -- into boxes. “Anyway, what warehouse is going to take contaminated storage?” Halperin asked.

The magicians’ Engman said it would cost about $220,000 to decontaminate his museum’s artifacts and an additional $330,000 to move them. Things without hard surfaces -- the theater’s upholstered seating and the various display areas’ curtains -- would have to be thrown away. So would the hand-built stages and display rooms.

The magic museum operates on a budget of about $3,500 a year, he said.

McGarry said the museums would have to pack up and go because the bank was eager to regain use of the building.

“Leaving the property in place is not an option -- a building is not decontaminated unless all exposed areas and contents are cleaned,” he said.

Which means that the broadcasters and magicians need to pull a disappearing act. And fast.


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