Fire strikes Uni backlot

Digital vault damaged, Court House Square and 'King Kong' destroyed

An early-morning fire broke out on the Universal Studios backlot Sunday, destroying important cityscape but no soundstages.

The fire was contained within a few hours, and the nearby Universal theme park and other studio facilities were spared any serious fallout. But the lot's famous Court House Square — used in films including "Back to the Future" — and its New York Street cityscape were destroyed.

A backlot attraction based on the film "King Kong" also was destroyed, but no tour tram lines were damaged.

Little production had been taking place on the backlot, in part because Universal and other studios have been going slow on greenlighting projects while management hammers out a new SAG contract.

The blaze started on the backlot at about 4:45 a.m., fire officials said. At least three firefighters were injured in the blaze, the cause of which was under investigation.

The MTV Movie Awards were allowed to proceed at the nearby Gibson Amphitheater on Sunday night, and most studio employees were expected to report to work as usual this morning.

Universal had aimed to open the theme park and the adjacent CityWalk retail complex by midday Sunday, but at the request of fire officials both remained shut. They were expected to resume normal operations today.

"We are very lucky today," Universal Studios president Ron Meyer said at a Sunday morning news conference. "It could have been worse."

Contents of the studio's video-library vault were damaged, but it contained only digital copies of more than 40,000 film and TV titles. No negatives or film masters were affected. "Fortunately, nothing irreplaceable was lost," Meyer said. "We have duplicates."

"Ghost Whisperer," a CBS series that regularly shoots on the backlot, appeared to be the only major project immediately affected. But the series will still get its new episodes on the air as planned by the fall, a spokeswoman said.

An unspecified commercial shoot also was affected.

All in all, damage and disruption appeared relatively contained despite the dramatic initial TV broadcast scenes of the fire showing thick plumes of black smoke.

"It looked like a bomb had exploded in the San Fernando Valley," Los Angeles city councilman Tom LaBonge said. (partialdiff)