One of my less productive minor obsessions is with the 1970s TV show “Emergency.” It began when a saw a bit of an episode set in San Francisco, which led me to buy a set of DVD that included the episode when “Emergency” filmed in San Francisco so I could learn the details of the episode. That required watching the whole episode, unfortunately, which was not fun (it is not outstanding television).
The DVD set included an episode about a plane crash called “Survival on Charter #220”.
As I watched the episode, I became curious about its “making of” story — huge explosions in the middle of a city aren’t common, even in Los Angeles. I knew that it was filmed in Compton, California (Los Angeles County), but how did they pick that location? Was it also a training exercise for the fire department? Were the buildings already slated for demolition?
The “Emergency” TV Show as a Demolition Crew
The Los Angeles Times archive was the natural place to start. I ran into a lot of dead ends — not able to come up with ideal search terms, there was a lot of next paging and ctrl-clicking. I built a list of a few articles and went to the UC Berkeley library to see the full text. One of the articles was exactly what I was looking for:
“Plane Crash, Explosion Startle Compton Residents — But It Was All Just for Play,” by Tom Gorman in the October 6, 1977 Southeast Edition. Here’s the beginning of the story:
Fire Chief Monroe Smith pointed to the man across the street and remarked, “That guy has bragged he’s burned this house down four times and nobody’s arrested him.”
A few minutes later the house was on fire for a fifth time, flames shooting skyward…
A field reporter for all-news radio station KFWB saw the flames and smoke and the crashed airplane and quickly notified his newsroom.
Within moments the news was broadcast on the air.
Indeed, the fiery havoc at the corner of Laurel St. and Willowbrook Ave., just a block from City Hall, seemed authentic.
But this was highly-staged flames and explosions, and carefully placed aircraft pieces, for a (not very good) television program.
The producers had searched hard for locations in Los Angeles County for the big booms and flames (not an easy task). They somehow connected with the Compton Community Redevelopment Agency, which wanted to demolish some buildings to make way for redevelopment. So it turned into a “win-win”: in exchange for demolishing the buildings, paying a small business license fee, and hiring extra police and firefighters, the filmmakers could use the site for their fires and explosions.
Ironically, the first step in the demolition was to spruce up the doomed buildings with new paint and new lawns, while fixing up interiors for pre-crash shooting. The crew did such a good job that passersby asked if the houses were for rent.
The shoot required 100 crew people, $80,000 in special effects (about $315,000 in 2016 dollars). More from the article:
After shooting some scenes, the crews returned, only to spend eight days destroying the same houses, trucking in several pieces of airplane fuselage to be placed on the wrecked structures, cutting down trees, placing demolished cars in strategic locations and setting up elaborate gas lines and other fixtures that would provide the necessary fire and smoke.
The piece de resistance was engineered by special effects man Dave Lopez: the placing of hundreds of gallons of gasoline, plastic explosives and dynamite in a two-story house to be blown up….a quick succession of three blasts sent a fireball more than 100 feet in the air.
The studio hired a glass company to be on call in the area in case of window damage. And it was a good idea, as windows in several houses and a church were shattered by the explosions.
The filming occurred at Laurel and S. Willowbrook in Compton, but that intersection no longer exists, as a section of Laurel was eliminated during the redevelopment and turned into an alley or driveway. To find the location on current maps, look to the east of this spot on S. Willowbrook in Compton near City Hall.
I was disappointed that the article fails to mention air pollution issues — the fires and explosions were created in the middle of the most the most polluted air basin in the United States, a region with a energetic pollution control agency (SCAQMD). Did the crew get permits? Are certain types of filming exempt from air quality rules? Were they fined for open burning as they were fined for the filming in San Francisco?
So there you have it: filmmakers wanted to burn some buildings and make things go boom; a city had buildings they needed gone.
Finally, here’s a fun fact about Compton: there is a short street named Cocoa a few blocks south of City Hall, along the southern border of Compton High School. It is a fully residential street, but perhaps someone is running a “Cocoa Street Chocolates” from their house.
“Plane Crash, Explosion Startle Compton Residents — But It Was All Just for Play,” by Tom Gorman, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1977, Southeast Edition, page 2.