On Location: Prop house carves out unusual niche
Several prop houses in Los Angeles County have been killed off in the last decade by the flight of production from Southern California to cheaper locales. But one local prop house has managed to survive by catering to Hollywood’s morbid obsession with death.
Vidal Herrera, a former deputy field investigator for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, has built a small but thriving business in East L.A. by supplying mortuary props to the film and TV industry.
An offshoot of his private autopsy business, Morgue Prop Rentals supplies everything from body freezers and crypts to autopsy tables, dissecting equipment and embalming instruments.
There is no shortage of demand for such equipment thanks to the popularity of TV crime dramas, more than a dozen of which are filmed in Los Angeles County.
Among the many to use Morgue Prop Rentals are the new NBC series “Prime Suspect,” “The Closer,” “Criminal Minds” and more recently the ABC crime show “Castle.” Even the out-of-state production “Hawaii Five-O” recently purchased and sent to Hawaii $80,000 worth of equipment, including 30 stainless steel gurneys, X-ray boxes and surgical lifts.
“Whenever there are police shows, there’s death and they need a morgue,’’ Herrera said in an interview at his office in a two-story gray building in El Sereno. “There are a lot of cop shows coming out, so we’re lucky.”
A burly man who wears black hospital scrubs, Herrera straddles two worlds. He has two full-service autopsy laboratories: one that is the real thing where daily autopsies are performed; and another across a courtyard that is a replica rented out to film crews for its props and is also used as a film location.
Despite the grim surroundings, Herrera keeps a sense of humor about his decade-old Hollywood business. The hallways of his building are decorated with miniature skulls, signs like “Bod Shop” and posters from B horror movies such as “Flesh Eaters” and “Dead End,” along with autographed posters from various films and TV shows he has worked on. A neon sign in his office flashes “Dead End Motel.”
“That’s what I call this building,” he quips.
There’s also a staff “rest room” with a couch made out of an actual coffin – another product line for Herrera. The 59-year-old entrepreneur got the idea when a set decorator for “True Blood” asked if he could fashion a couch out of a coffin for a scene in the HBO series. Using defective caskets, Herrera works with a local fabric shop to retrofit the coffins into couches, which he not only leases to film crews but also sells to individual buyers for $3,500 apiece.
Raised in Echo Park, Herrera apprenticed under then-Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi, known as the "coroner to the stars." He eventually became a deputy field investigator for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, but resigned in 1984 after injuring his back while attempting to move a 284-pound suicide victim.
Herrera then launched his own business -- 1-800-Autopsy -- with his wife, Vicki, in 1988. The company specializes in private autopsies, DNA tests and other forensic services, filling a void created when many hospitals cut back on autopsies for budget reasons.
His foray into the prop rental business happened by accident. As a hobby, Herrera spent years collecting cast-off mortuary equipment from hospitals and antiques such as dissecting kits from the early 1900s. Eventually he had enough to fill two garages in Burbank.
“I had my own living museum,’’ he said. “My wife said what are you going to do with all this junk.”
Herrera found a use for it eight years ago when a set decorator from the TV series “Crossing Jordan,” about a Boston medical examiner, paid him $10,000 to rent out embalming tables, X-ray machines and other equipment. “I said, 'Wow! Maybe we can make a business out of this,'’’ he said.
Morgue Prop Rentals soon began renting out equipment and offering technical advice to scores of other TV shows, including “Bones” and “Law & Order” followed by a spate of horror movies such as “Wolf Man” and “Saw II.” He also plied his experience by acting as a technical advisor on “CSI” and other shows.
While his main autopsy business remains brisk -- there are more than 60,000 deaths a year in Los Angeles County -- Morgue Prop Rentals, like other prop houses, has seen a sharp falloff in feature film work in recent years due to runaway production.
Herrera credits TV crime dramas for keeping his business, which generates a profit of about $100,000 a year, afloat.
“If it wasn’t for these police shows, we would have thrown in the towel a year and a half ago, “ he said.
NBC’s new series “Prime Suspect” recently filmed a scene at Morgue Prop Rentals and paid $74,000 to rent an entire room full of equipment for a medical examiner’s set erected on the NBC Universal lot, Herrera said.
“We just called them and asked for the full morgue package with mortuary tables, scales, cabinets,’’ said Rebecca Keeling, a set decorator buyer for the NBC drama starring Maria Bello. “It’s always important to be authentic and Vidal has the experience and the knowledge to make it as accurate as possible.”
Photo: Vidal Herrera, founder of Morgue Prop Rentals, which rents out autopsy and morgue equipment to various TV crime shows, at his company's headquarters in East Los Angeles. Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times.
-- Richard Verrier