Earthquake! 20 Years After Northridge, How Disaster Hit Hollywood

January 1994

It may not have been the dreaded Big One, but for Angelenos who lived through the events of Jan. 17, 1994, it was plenty big enough. At precisely 4:31 a.m., greater Los Angeles shook for 10 terrifying seconds, sending millions fleeing their beds in search of cover.

Sherry Lansing, Mike Medavoy, Delia Ephron and other industry players recall that terrifying day.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It may not have been the dreaded Big One, but for Angelenos who lived through the events of Jan. 17, 1994, it was plenty big enough. At precisely 4:31 a.m., greater Los Angeles shook for 10 terrifying seconds, sending millions fleeing their beds in search of cover. The epicenter of the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake was in the San Fernando Valley, but the ground shook as far away as Las Vegas. Buildings pancaked, freeways collapsed and tens of thousands of homes were damaged as fires and blackouts gripped the region. TV and film production, meanwhile, screeched to a halt as Hollywood scrambled to assess the wreckage, with such Valley-based studios as Universal and Warner Bros. hit hardest. In the end, Northridge claimed at least 57 lives and caused $49 billion in damage. Twenty years later, several showbiz pros -- plus the former mayor -- recall a day they'd rather forget.

PHOTOS: The Northridge Earthquake 20 Years Later

Sherry Lansing, former chairman of Paramount's Motion Picture Group

I awoke in bed with [my husband, William Friedkin] to find our home severely damaged. After making sure everyone was all right, I headed to the studio. We found out that two films -- Billy's Blue Chips and a Steven Seagal film -- had been on the counter of Technicolor's lab, and the ceiling had fallen on top of the negatives and severely damaged two reels. I remember thinking, "Oh my God -- if the negative is damaged, that's the end of the film." In Billy's case, it was the basketball sequences, and they could not be re-created. I remember crying. I thought, "All this work, a film we all loved that tested really well." It meant the picture would never come out. We went to look at the damage, and there were white dots like snow going all over the negative. It looked irreparable. Billy was incredibly stoic during all of it and said: "That's fate. It's God's way, there's nothing we can do, and thank God no one was hurt." My response, I have to say, was more shallow: "All this work! This is terrible! This is irreplaceable!" Then there was a man at Technicolor who said, "Let me see what I can do." And he handpainted it, literally frame-by-frame. He just went in so slowly and took the schmutz out. And it's a masterpiece! It looks perfect. It took about three or four weeks until we knew what was going to happen. The cost was all covered by insurance. It was then I learned it was too dangerous to just have one negative. [Studio chief] Jon Dolgen and myself instituted a policy where we put one negative here and one negative in a vault in Toronto.

Mike Medavoy, former chairman of TriStar Pictures

I called [my then-girlfriend, now wife] Irena, who was living in Century City at the time, and I said, "How are you doing with the earthquake?" And she said, "Well, a lot of things broke, and it's kind of a mess." I said, "Why don't you get some clothes and come over and just move in?" And from that day on, we've been together for 21 years.

Delia Ephron, screenwriter

It was just terrifying. I grew up in Los Angeles, and it was the first time in a long time that I'd been in a really scary quake, where you really felt the rage of the earth shaking. I remember jumping out of bed and going to a doorway, and that's of course all wrong. After the earthquake, when you went to all the seminars, it turns out that's the weakest place in the room. I remember how much faster I got out of bed than my husband, because he wears glasses, and if you wear glasses you really can't think without glasses. We were sitting in the dark afterwards listening to all the car alarms, and suddenly I said, "If I die tomorrow, I want to die in New York." I was literally sitting in the dark afterwards when I said that. We had an apartment in New York within months.

Richard Riordan, mayor of Los Angeles, 1993-2001

It was like a bomb. It wasn't like a usual earthquake. It knocked me onto the floor, and I got up and realized something terrible had happened. So I went to the phone, but the phone wasn't working. My car phone wasn't working, either. So I got in my car with my wife-to-be, Nancy Daly. We went to the Santa Monica Freeway, and along the way we stopped at a condo where her mother lived. I dropped her off there, and I remember clearly two women saw me, gray-haired women, and they said, "Go to it, Mayor!" And that really lifted my spirits up. I got on the Santa Monica Freeway, driving myself. There were no lights on in the area, so I was -- as far as I knew -- the only car on the freeway. I built up to maybe 80 or 90 miles per hour, and all of a sudden I saw two headlights coming at me on my side of the freeway. I made a very slight swerve, went around him, and realized he stopped me from going off the bridge that had fallen at the La Cienega intersection. I turned around, followed this giant truck and made a beeline to the Emergency Operations Center four stories below City Hall.

STORY: Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan on the Northridge Earthquake

Willie Williams, our chief of police, stayed in his home until about 11 a.m. on the morning of the earthquake because his wife had panicked after a piece of furniture almost hit and killed her. I told [a staffer], "You go out and pick him up and drive him over here as fast as you can." Some members of the media had overheard what was happening, and I got them all together and said, "If you like L.A. at all, you will not report on it because we don't need people to lose faith in their leaders." And they never did report it, to their credit.

Armin Shimerman, actor best known for playing alien bartender Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

I was called into work at Paramount for filming at 4 a.m., which was the earliest call time I can remember. So when the earthquake came, I had already been glued into rubber prosthetics. There were five actors, which meant five makeup artists, in the trailer. It was a very strong earthquake, we all knew that. And there was an actor from New York who had never experienced one, and I just remember him sobbing, "Jesus, oh Jesus!"

Nobody was hurt because we were in the makeup trailer, which has shocks and wheels. I finally got a hold of a cellphone and found out that there had been quite a bit of destruction at my house. My wife was in turmoil. I started to leave the Paramount lot, but a crewmember stopped me and said that my contract forbade me from leaving with makeup on. I couldn't believe it. I told the guy he'd have to stop me himself if it mattered that much to him.

I decided not to take the freeway. All the traffic lights were out as well. I pulled into an intersection, and I saw a four-by-four turning left in front of me. And he caught me in his headlights, and what he saw, I imagined, was an alien driving a Ford Explorer. And all I remember, quite distinctly, was his jaw dropping and his eyes ogling in amazement, total amazement. For the rest of the week, I glanced at the National Enquirer to see if there had been any reports of aliens invading Los Angeles, but I didn't see any. When I got home, my wife took one look at me with my makeup on and started laughing. It broke the tension.

Jane Ayer, publicist

It was strange, but my business picked up after the earthquake. My office on the corner of 2nd and Broadway in Santa Monica was red-tagged. In the rubble I found a fax [inviting me] to work on the campaign for Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers. We continued to work with them for many years and became the go-to PR company for animation. The shaking also shook me into marrying [my husband]. The Santa Monica courthouse went down, so we had to go to East L.A. to get our marriage license.

Universal: $42M Losses, Spielberg Asbestos Fears

Tom Pollock, former chairman of MCA-Universal Motion Picture Group

We shut down Universal for a few days. There was some damage on the lot. If I recall, the tour closed, only for about one or two days. Other people were making bad jokes that it was time to remake Earthquake on our very own lot.

STORY: Survey Confirms Earthquake Fault Line Runs Through Planned Millennium Hollywood Project

Daniel Slusser, former president of studio operations

I got in the car, and there wasn't a soul on the freeway. I got to the studio quite early. It was a mess. We had about $42 million worth of damage. A number of soundstages had literally shifted off their base -- some of those date back to even before the 1920s. Our whole emergency team went in and took almost three days around the clock just inspecting everything and making sure it was all right. The theme park was back in action shortly thereafter. The studio was closed for about four or five days; again, it was an issue of caution because many of the filing cabinets had fallen over on desks. Many of the floors in some of the older buildings separated from the walls. There was some very serious damage that no one had ever experienced before. There were tremendous upgrades in the earthquake code after this, as far as how you had to fashion cabinets to walls.

The buzz about asbestos was very big. A lot of the talent was concerned about it. Hazmat people had to go in, a special group of people you hire to remove the asbestos. I must have had 25 or 30 meetings with production companies and different talent. Emma Thompson was one. Roy Scheider was another. Steven Spielberg was very concerned for everybody. The management, Lew [Wasserman] and Sid [Sheinberg], were unbelievably supportive. The statement was simply: "It's your call. Do what you need to do." They didn't balk. They didn't hesitate.

Christine Hanson, former vp corporate communications

As soon as the shaking stopped, the first thing I thought was, "I've got to get over to the studio." We even had a downed power line cracking along on the sidewalk! But as soon as it was safe and I could get out, I got in the car and I left. That's just how I operated. Go figure, right? You have to remember, I worked for Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg. There was a command post if there was any kind of a disaster, and that's where I went.

Additional reporting by Alex Ben Block.