Wednesday, November 7, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hollywood Landmarks Lost As Fire Guts Universal Sets


UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - The set where Warren Beatty flirted with Madonna in ``Dick Tracy'' and a city square from ``Back to the Future Part II'' were among the historic movie properties gutted yesterday in a fire at Universal Studios.

The blaze, which burned mainly in the backlot last night, also damaged the studio tour's earthquake ride and the King Kong attraction, where a 37-foot mechanical gorilla appears to shake tramloads of tourists.

Hundreds of firefighters backed by water-dropping helicopters put out the windblown flames about three hours after the fire broke out at the 420-acre studio, Hollywood's biggest and longest-running movie factory. Universal is visited by millions of tourists each year.

``It roared through the sets like a wildfire. It's like a blowtorch when the wind pushes the fire up against these structures,'' said Los Angeles County Battalion Chief Al Bennett.

Most of the damage was to the sunbaked wooden facades along the route of the studio tour, the third most popular tourist attraction in the nation.

``A lot of the streets are pretty well destroyed and are going to have to be rebuilt,'' Bennett said.

Among outdoor sets destroyed were New York Street, where parts of ``The Sting'' were filmed, Brownstone Street, and Courthouse Square, where Michael Fox rode his jet-powered skateboard in ``Back to the Future Part II.'' The ``Dick Tracy'' set also was gutted, county fire inspector Jim Gandee said.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. One firefighter was slightly injured.

Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman estimated the damage in the millions. Studio management planned to tour the $630 million theme park today to assess the damage. Ron Bension, president of Universal Studios Hollywood, estimated 20 percent of the studio's sets were lost.

``Everything looked like charcoal briquets,'' said Rusty Gilligan, who lives near the back lot. ``It was just a wreck.''

The flames, fanned by winds gusting up to 50 mph, were doused as they crept up to two film vaults. The Universal film library, which includes ``E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,'' ``Jaws'' and ``Twins,'' is worth hundreds of millions.

The film library is vital to acquisition talks between Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. and MCA Inc., Universal's parent. Matsushita has been discussing a multibillion-dollar buyout of MCA for several months.

The studio nestled in the Hollywood Hills 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles features a seven-hour journey through the backlot and includes a guided tram tour that takes viewers into sets and a simulated earthquake.

The King Kong building was closed today, but damage to the building was not severe, said Ron Bension, president of Universal Studios-Hollywood.

``There was talk that King Kong was in bad shape,'' Bension said. ``But Kong lives.''

The fire is not the first to strike Universal. In 1987, a stage used for the 1959 epic ``Spartacus'' erupted in flames. Damage was put at $2.5 million.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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