Business & Economy

Major prop shop auctions inventory before closing

Outside 20th Century Props in North Hollywood
Outside 20th Century Props in North Hollywood
Brian Watt/KPCC

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The bidding and buying started yesterday at 20th Century Props in North Hollywood. More than 90,000 set pieces from its vast inventory are on the auction block this week, as the prop house prepares to shut down after four decades in business. KPCC’s Brian Watt stopped by.

Brian Watt: At the loading dock of 20th Century Props, a giant skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex guards a gothic style chaise lounge from the movie Moulin Rouge. Off to the right, an 8 foot by 8 foot champagne glass that Beyonce danced in stands next to a pool of bright turquoise furniture from the movie The Mask. A lot has passed through this massive warehouse, but no one ever thought they’d see this:

Auctioneer: The figurine from Will and Grace and other shows. Who’s got $500 and go... [continues auctioning]

Watt: An auctioneer calls out prop after prop to a few handfuls of bidders on site and more than 1,000 online. Sixty-six-year-old Harvey Schwartz founded 20th Century Props about 40 years ago. But since he realized earlier this year he’d have to close it down, he says he’s been less a props supplier, and more of an actor.

Harvey Schwartz: It’s literally on the inside tearing me apart, but on the outside, I’m cheerful, and I want it to be a very successful sale so that everyone on the planet can have a piece of Hollywood, and so I’m keeping it up.

Watt: But he couldn’t keep up the payments to 28 employees at his warehouse. So he had to let all but 7 go. Business has slowed to a crawl, and Harvey Schwartz blames the writers strike, the threat of an actors strike, and runaway production – when films or TV shows move their shoots out of state for cheaper labor and tax incentives.

Schwartz: The past year, almost no one’s working in Hollywood. I’d say at least 45 percent of the drivers in Hollywood are out of work still.

Watt: Schwartz says he knows some truck drivers and other below the line workers who’ve had no choice but to follow the work.

Schwartz: Some of the town is leaving. They’re moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico where some of the runaway production is going. They’re moving to Detroit because they can get a job there. Even if it’s non-union, they’re kind of hiding under the wire, but whatever it takes.

Watt: Schwartz took me through the massive warehouse. In what he calls the space room, two aliens from the X-Files hang out by a bomb John Travolta set off in the movie Broken Arrow. Out on the floor, 7,000 chairs from every period you can imagine – and then what Schwartz calls the finest lighting department on the planet.

Schwartz: It’ll never happen again. You know we’re looking up over there, we see the first six chandeliers from Planet of the Apes, we see 27 chandeliers from The Aviator.

Watt: One of Schwartz’ competitors, Ken Sharp of Modern Props in Culver City, stops in to check out the items on auction. He’s not planning to buy anything – his shop has downsized, too. To Sharp, the demise of 20th Century Props doesn’t mean less competition, but more Hollywood jobs lost.

Ken Sharp: To see this business leave is tragic. The fact that California is allowing yet another business to fail because of their lack of action – it’s embarrassing.

Watt: Sharp has been pushing the state legislature to stop runaway production since 1999, back when Canada was luring away film shoots. Now 40 states offer tax incentives to movie and TV sets, and California has just begun to fight back.

State Assemblyman Paul Krekorian passed through 20th Century Props to share the results of the Golden State’s new tax credit program. He said for years, it faced opposition from legislators who saw it as a subsidy for an industry known for high-priced stars.

Paul Krekorian: The real entertainment industry doesn’t drive to work in a limousine. It drives to work in a pickup truck. The people whose jobs we’re trying to save don’t go to work with a briefcase. They strap on a tool belt.

Watt: On July 1st, the California Film Commission began taking applications for the new program. So far, 25 TV and film productions have signed up to take $67 million in tax credits and stay local. But Harvey Schwartz at 20th Century Props is in debt and doesn’t have time to wait for productions to run back to Hollywood.