Hollywood Prop Shop Going Out Of Business

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One of the largest movie prop shops in the world is closing. Since the 70s, 20th Century Props has been supplying set decorations for films from Moulin Rouge to Blade Runner. The economy, the last writers strike and productions leaving Hollywood for cheaper locations are all reasons why the shop is closing.


This morning in Hollywood, the gavel will drop on a huge auction of movie and television memorabilia. One of the largest prop shops in the world is closing its doors. Since the 1970s, 20th Century Props has been supplying set decorations for films from "Moulin Rouge" to "Blade Runner." Nate Dimeo sat down with the owner and filed this report.

NATE DIMEO: Harvey Schwartz, salt and pepper hair, several buttons open on his shirt, revealing a tan hard-earned over a lifetime of Southern California sun. Harvey Schwartz sits on a white leather booth from a diner or a beauty salon or wherever a Hollywood set director has in mind, and contemplates his kingdom.

Mr. HARVEY SCHWARTZ (Owner, 20th Century Props): I have the biggest collection of lighting in the world. I have the biggest collection of bedroom furniture in the world. I have the biggest collection of couches in the world. There is nobody that even comes close to the quantities that I have.

DIMEO: Forty years ago, Schwartz started collecting the past when the future let him down. He got laid off from a job designing rockets as an aerospace engineer and opened up an antique store near Beverly Hills. He collected what he loved. At first it was art deco and then rattan furniture. And then Hollywood found him. His deco collection was in the movie "Blade Runner." Set designers for "The Golden Girls" came looking for the rattan.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Golden Girls")

Ms. ESTELLE GETTY (As Sophia Petrillo): Fine, big shot. Handle it. See how far you get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BETTY WHITE (As Rose Nylund): I just remembered I know somebody in show business who can help us.

DIMEO: Harvey Schwartz's company became one-stop shopping for just about every set dresser in town. He says the key to his success hasn't just been that he has a lot of things. It's that he has a lot of the same things. You need an old timey barber chair? You can call anyone. You need nine identical old-timey barber chairs? You can only call Harvey Schwartz. Or you used to, anyway. He says designers have been calling him in tears since they heard he was closing.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: This town is going to really hurt when I'm gone.

DIMEO: He says he doesn't want to go, but between the economy, that writers strike a year or so ago, and productions leaving town for cheaper pastures, he can't make ends meet anymore. So now…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Everything must go.

DIMEO: Tens of thousands of lots will be auctioned off. There are some big ticket items. Major collectors and even museums want that "Golden Girls" furniture. There's a desk owned by Howard Hughes. There's stuff from "Titanic." And people still go crazy for stuff from "Titanic." And then there's just the stuff. The rotary phones, the vintage Christmas decorations. Someone will want it.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: You know, you look at TV shows like "Mad Men," and I'm really deep in '50s and '60s furniture and accessories. And I have the biggest '50s and '60s lighting department in the world. And there'll be a lot of really thrilled collectors when they see the lighting and the lamps that I have.

DIMEO: And Schwartz has his own favorites. There's a set of 15 foot tall art deco angels. They've been in "Batman" and a bunch of music videos. He knows Christina Aguilera's in one, but beyond that he's lost track. He's kept two of the angels. They're in his backyard.

And Schwartz will always have the movies. He can flip through the channels and spot a roulette wheel or a coffin that used to be his. But in a "Benjamin Button" DVD and see that hat rack or this umbrella stand, those typewriters, that ashtray - the ephemera of everyday life that Hollywood has borrowed from him to create illusions of the past, that make up his own past.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Dimeo.

(Soundbite of song, "Thank You for Being a Friend")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true. You're a pal and a confidant. And if you threw a party, invited everyone you knew, you would see the biggest gift would be from me and the card attached would say thank you for being a friend.


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