HOUSE No. 85 has just come tumbling down, and the popular, hyper host of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," Ty Pennington, makes a surprising confession about his feelings toward his job: "I don't really know how to explain this thing because the worst part of what we do is a television show."
ABC's Emmy-winning series ranks 15th among most-watched shows and places 11th among the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds. So why does Pennington lament his livelihood?
"The greatest part," he added, "is that we get connected.... We get people to show up that volunteer for two hours and end up staying three days. This town is about this business and working on a TV show, but this is a show where you can go home to your kids and say, 'I was a part of that and it was so great.' You can be proud of that. It's not every day you can say that in this business."
For the first time in 13 months, the roving reality series that started in Los Angeles has come home for a two-hour episode that airs at 8 tonight and covers the construction of a new Redondo Beach house for Los Angeles Police Officer Kristina Ripatti, who was paralyzed in June when she was shot in South Los Angeles. (Her partner, Joe Meyer, shot and killed the gunman.)
In the wake of the incident, producers were inundated with letters and phone calls from Angelenos, including LAPD Chief William Bratton, nominating Ripatti and her husband, LAPD Officer Tim Pearce, for a larger wheelchair-accessible home. On top of grappling with her physical injury, Ripatti has struggled with the emotional pain of not being able to sleep in the same bed as her husband because her wheelchair did not fit in her bedroom doorway and her 21-month-old daughter's confused distancing. Ripatti, her mother-in-law and her nurse slept in the living room for four months.
But transforming the couples' 849-square-foot cottage into a 3,234-square-foot coastal haven with a 646-square-foot detached garage in seven days was not "Home Edition's" primary mission.
"The most important thing we're doing is reconnecting this family," said designer Michael Moloney. "Mother and daughter had a bit of a disconnect because Mom was injured in a chair and the baby was pulling back, and it just broke Kristina's heart. We also have a husband and wife who have only been married three years and have not been able to spend a night together for four months. So more than building a house, we're going to put this family back together and give her a fresh start and give her back her freedom."
"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" transforms neighborhoods into sets, uses communities as props, and showcases families as its central characters. On the morning of Oct. 13, about 200 South Bay locals gathered to observe the designers, local builder Cornerstone Construction Group and the LAPD SWAT team tear down Ripatti's house.
Normally, "Demolition Day" attracts thousands of looky-loos, but in a town where location shoots are as ordinary as traffic and smog, this is actually an impressive showing. While Ripatti and her family vacationed in Los Cabos, their block came alive when Pennington, in a helmet and goggles, yelled into his signature hand-held camera, "LAPD SWAT, let's do some demo!"
"Oh, my God! There he is! He is cute!" screamed one woman standing behind a barricade, 100 feet from the property because the police were about to set off explosives before striking the house with the department's battering ram.
"Ty, baby, I love you!" yelled another lady.
"I love you too!" the exuberant host shot back.
The ladies weren't the only ones going nuts over Pennington, as he and the SWAT team tore up window frames and busted the walls with chain saws. A powerful family show, "Home Edition" is the No. 1 show on network television among 2- to 11-year-olds.
"Ty's going crazy!" an elated little girl said, catching a glimpse of her hero through a living room window. "Run, run, run!" Pennington yelled to the police officers, as he rushed out of the house to wait for two explosions.
Then it was the battering ram's turn, followed by Pennington's amplified megaphoning, "Go! Go! Go! Yeah!"
In a matter of minutes, Ripatti and Pearce were homeless.
Starting from scratch
THE emotion of the demolition behind them, the designers quickly got to work. Maloney was in charge of Grandma's new quarters. Paige Hemmis met with Ripatti's physical therapists and worked on a recovery room for her. Paul DiMeo designed little Jordan's new bedroom, with a crib that opens from the side so Ripatti can reach in and pick up her daughter. Eduardo Xol landscaped and created two courtyards with fireplaces and waterfalls. Pennington concentrated on a new master bedroom and bathroom for the couple, with their love of the ocean in mind.
"The house is small, but the property is deep," Xol said. "It's not very wide, but it's long, so we've come up with a floor plan, utilizing the length of the lot and incorporating an indoor-outdoor feel since we're in Southern California and the couple loves the outdoors and they love traveling to tropical places. We want to give them a vacation at home."
Five days of nonstop work ahead of them, the crew passed out "Training for Life" T-shirts to honor Ripatti, a runner, circuit trainer, surfer, kick boxer and jujitsu practitioner.
"It's very ironic that she always said she was training for life, but she didn't realize that she was really training for the fight of her life," Maloney said. "We think she's incredible, so the crew is wearing these shirts to support her."
During a break in filming, Pennington retired to his trailer, where his creative energy was split between this project and a kitchen he was designing for a family in Utah. (Viewers see Pennington helping one family at a time on Sunday nights, but the only way for the show to build 25 homes a season is to use two film crews and design teams simultaneously, with Pennington flying back and forth between houses. "Home Edition" is building one home in each of the 50 states.)
"Most people don't even know I do all of this. They think I'm Ryan Seacrest with a megaphone," he said. "They have no idea that I do these rooms and I do the specs for the furniture in the shop. I used to hand-make the furniture myself, but now I design it and have other people make it for me.... If they took it away from me just to host, it would be ..."
His thought is finished with a barfing sound.
When the night unexpectedly brings rain for the first time in months, the schedule falls apart. First, the concrete takes longer to dry. Logistics become a problem when trucks and vehicles do not fit on the neighborhood's narrow suburban roads. Then come the technological challenges. Ripatti has been confined to a 20-foot area in the living room, the only space where her wheelchair fit, so the design team designed a harness system on a track to enable Ripatti to move from room to room to cook, exercise, go to the bathroom and care for her daughter on her own. But this requires expertise and brings more delays.
Falling behind by 24 hours, producers turn to the local media to plead for more volunteers.
"We went out on the news and just begged people to help, and they did," Hemmis said. "Our Los Angeles and Redondo Beach did not let us down. They came out here in the hundreds and helped us out, our little angels in Los Angeles."
An emotional day
IT'S "Reveal Day," the day Ripatti, Pearce, their daughter, and Grandma come home. The volunteers, who came from as far as Arizona and Nevada, spent the night landscaping, wallpapering and painting. Two hours before the family is due to arrive, volunteers are still hanging pictures, cleaning and moving furniture.
The front of the house is a sea of blue. Police officers from all over Southern California, including Chief Bratton, came to give Ripatti a hero's welcome. About 1,200 volunteers are scattered throughout the property, and several hundred onlookers are staged across the street. LAPD has offered "Home Edition" its bomb squad bus to park in front of the house for Pennington's anticipated "Move that bus!" moment.
"Everywhere we go in the country, the police and fire departments are our friends and they take care of us and they help us get things done and keep us safe," executive producer Denise Cramsey said. "They're really part of the 'Extreme' family. So it was good for us to be able to give back to them by building a house for one of their own."
Marjorie Dahnke, an elderly woman who has lived behind the couple's house since 1968 and let the workers use her property, gets a special treat from Maloney, who escorts her inside. No one else outside of the family is allowed to see what the designers and volunteers have pulled off this week until the episode airs tonight.
"Michael and I became friends so he showed me the living room, dining room and kitchen," Dahnke said. "It was so beautiful. It's a miracle. It just doesn't seem possible."
Pennington runs out of the house to cheers from the crowd. He runs behind the SWAT bus and gets the spectators going, "Move that bus! Move that bus!" A limo arrives, and the family gets out. When the bus finally moves out of the way, Pearce brings his hands to his face. Ripatti bows her head and cries.
"I was so overwhelmed with emotion," Ripatti said last week. "Just getting out of the limo and seeing everybody there to support us, seeing all the police officers there -- that really floored me and really got to me. When they moved the bus out, I saw the house, and it was so beautiful. I was so honored to have all those police officers there."
Ripatti and Pearce sleep together again. Grandma has forsaken the living room futon for her own bedroom and bathroom. Ripatti, 34, can move around the house independently and do much of her therapy at home. And most important, she said, her daughter is comfortable with her for the first time since she has begun using a wheelchair.
"I rack my brains trying to think of how to thank [the volunteers]," Pearce said. "A lot of people drive by to check it out, and so many say, 'Hey, I worked on your house.' And I can't wait to shake their hand and say face to face, 'Thank you so much.' It doesn't feel like enough, but it's the best I can do."
Ripatti said she's excited to watch her story on television tonight but warned, "You'll see, I'll be crying the whole show. A real tough cop, you know?"
She won't be the only one.
"I never cried as a kid, so it's great that I can finally get it all out now," Pennington half-joked. "When you open up your heart like that to millions of people, it's a little awkward because I don't even do that for my family. So it can be a little strange when you let people in like that. But that's what this show is: You meet families who let you inside them, so it would be pretty selfish if I didn't do the same and open myself up."