Culver City Fire Department

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Fire Deparment in 1920sThe histories of our city's fire department and the studios' fire overlap in early years. In the city records, one might find first mention of the CCFD as City Resolution #50, adopted in 1919, when Manuel "Sy" Saenz was appointed as Fire Chief for $10 per month. Saenz had a garage at Washington and Ince where the fire truck was kept. According to a 1947 Evening Star News interview of Arthur G. Withrow, one of the few living original firemen, Saenz recruited volunteers as needed on the way to the fire. Volunteers were paid $1 for false alarms, $3 for chemical fires, and $4 for a fire where a hose was used. Legend has it that so much junk was in the way of the truck, the firemen were often late to fires, and Mayor Clyde Slater's garage burned during one of those episodes. 

The fire truck was moved from Saenz' garage to Earl Bobier's garage, at Washington and Irving Place. During these early times, L.B. Minnick, the Fire Chief at the Thomas H. Ince Studios (now The Culver Studios), was appointed Acting Chief. According to Withrow, "It was October 6, 1922 that the first organized fire department blessed the taxpayers of Culver City." Frank Wilcox became fire chief and recruited volunteers, including Withrow, who worked for the city, Jack Burns, the head mechanic at the Hal Roach Studios, Harry D'Arcey and Seeley R. Barton, also Roach employees. Early stories like the fire truck running out of gas and the hose sending the mayor's hat into flames, were material for comedies. 

By 1927, the construction of Fire Station #1 was underway, concurrently with the City Hall at Culver and Duquesne. After annexation of the west end, Station #2 (since relocated) was located on McConnell 1927, a gift of the water company because that area was under-served. The third station was later built at Berryman and Segrell. 

Ray Moselle worked for the Culver City Fire Department from 1937 to 1972. He told me recently, that when he was first on CCFD there were only two shifts, with four firemen at Station #1, and two firemen at Fire Station #2. MGM had its own fire department with 6 firemen on duty on the lot. It was separate from the city. At one time, MGM's Fire Department was larger than the city's fire department. MGM had an old United Fire Truck, a 1,000 gallon pumper, which later went to the city as a reserve rig. Some studio firemen, like "Doc" Gordon Donovan, worked for MGM first (1939-40) and went to work for CCFD later. Retired Battalion Chief Moselle pointed out that many local firemen welcomed the opportunity to work on their offtime in standby jobs for filming. He remembered working on Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles, when they had to turn off the fire sprinklers on the stage to film, not a comfortable situation for any firefighter. Ray said all the off-duty firemen worked on Gone With The Wind, when they "burned Atlanta" on the backlot at Selznick. He also worked on the first Mutiny on the Bounty, with Charles Laughton, where they rocked the boat in a tank. 

Historic Fire Department PhotoOne of the most remembered studio fires was about 1925, when a fire on a DeMille Studios (now The Culver Studios) stage spread to the paint shop, carpenter shop and another stage. Culver City was joined by Los Angeles units and together they battled the blaze for 16 hours together. Another frightening studio fire took place at MGM, when the sets from The Good Earth went up in flames in one of the Scene Docks. MGM's fire department was phased out by the early 1960s. Sony Pictures, who took over the old MGM Lot #1 in 1990, still has a fire truck, although they rely on the Culver City Fire Department regularly and for off-duty firemen while filming.


Culver City history provided by Julie Lugo Cerra, official Culver City Historian.