Friday, Feb. 4, 2000 | 10:35 a.m.
A group of firefighters in turnouts trudged to a fire truck parked outside the building that houses the Lear Motion Picture and Television Studios in Las Vegas.
Was there a fire? Or was this the end of a day's filming of "Backdraft II"?
In the Hollywood world, it's sometimes hard to discern between fantasy and reality.
The reality of this scene was that a group of Las Vegas firefighters had just completed an exercise in a make-believe environment. Wearing special dark shields, the firefighters simulated rescues from a vast smoke-filled room.
"They're my buddies," said Marilee Lear, the exuberant co-owner of the cavernous 180,000-square-foot building that until recently served as a frozen food warehouse. "I work closely with the Las Vegas Fire Department and they're always over here conducting exercises in our building."
Lear's relationship with the department gives firefighters a place to practice. And it gives her a list of contacts to help her clients that need a fire marshal present to film in her unfinished studio.
The reason a project to convert the warehouse into a modern studio is uncompleted, Lear says, is that she'd rather make her building available to motion picture companies that need it immediately than turn them away. But because much of the building has been gutted and wiring and sprinkler systems aren't in place, a fire marshal has to be present when any filming is being done.
Luring Hollywood industries to Las Vegas is a priority for public and private economic development organizations in the city and state.
The Nevada Film Office, a state agency with offices in Las Vegas and Carson City, and the Nevada Development Authority, a private organization that works to diversify the gaming-heavy economy, have made the film industry a priority in their recruitment efforts.
So has the non-profit Entertainment Development Corporation of Las Vegas, which has convinced Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman to make it an economic-development priority for the city.
Supporters say the motion picture business is a clean industry that is a perfect match for the city's claim to "Entertainment Capital of the World."
While all of the organizations have worked to recruit companies to use city and state locations in their movies, television shows, commercials and videos, they feel the next step is to develop a studio and production infrastructure to make the city even more appealing.
The companies that come in to Lear Studio don't mind the bare concrete walls, the uncarpeted floors and scattered piles of construction materials that some day could become seven sound stages.
Portable heaters can keep actors and actresses warm in a building designed to stay perpetually cold. Hollywood can turn a gutted warehouse into a casino with a little cinematic magic.
"When film companies come take a look at this place, they say, 'It's perfect,' and they want to set up immediately," Lear said. "I don't want to turn away business."
Lear said the former home of H&O Frozen Foods is perfect because the heavy insulation that protected food from the desert climate also keeps the sounds of the city out.
Part of the reason for that, Lear said, is that much of the building has a layer of foam beneath the foundation and along the walls. The other is that the structure at 41 N. Mojave Road, near Charleston Boulevard, is in one of the few industrial centers of the city that is not near a rail spur or an airport.
Filmmakers don't have to compete with train and jet noise and the nearest freeway exit is a mile away.
Lear takes particular pride in a freezer inside the building that has been converted to a sound stage. She calls it her "casting freezer" and has decided to keep the sealing door intact whenever she gets around to remodeling the place.
But when that will happen isn't clear.
Last month, Lear said farewell to the crew of "Luckytown," a feature film starring James Caan. This month, "Pay It Forward," with Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Jon Bon Jovi is filming at the building.
Other portions of the building house Lear's other businesses. She runs a casting service and produces a twice-a-year publication called the Nevada Players Directory, a photo album of of Nevada actors and actresses who will appear in films, as models and as stuntpeople.
Lear's two daughters, Jacqueline, a Portland State University business major, and Alli, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., firefighter, are listed in the directory and have Hollywood credits in their resumes. Lear herself had roles in the film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" and television's "The Real McCoys" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," under the name Marilee Summers.
Lear said while many casinos have accommodated Hollywood's requests for on-location filming, a sound stage with slot machines and table games is more desirable. The reason: Casino companies can review scripts to make sure they're cast in a favorable light for the movie. The company could ask that a touchy scene or dialogue that isn't flattering to the casino be rewritten or cut.
Besides, casinos generally offer their facilities at times that are convenient to them -- when there aren't many customers around. Film companies have to work around the casino schedule, and that often means late-night and early-morning shooting, which can throw off a production schedule.
Lear now has just about everything one would see in a casino, making it easy to set up a shot.
In her nearly 24 years as a Las Vegas resident, Lear has collected many things that may turn up in the movies and her collection is easily stored in the massive warehouse she bought for $1.7 million.
"Over there is a boxing ring that Mike Tyson once fought in," she said on a tour, pointing to a pile of canvas, ropes and framing.
The collection of props and the warehouse itself were acquired last year by Lear and her husband, John, a pilot with American International Airways, a cargo operation. Her husband's father, William P. Lear, owned the company that developed the Lear Jet.
Marilee Lear serves as chief executive officer of the studio and her husband is the chairman. Now that she has the land and a vision for the future, Lear wants to grow. She said the surprising demand from Hollywood to accommodate film crews immediately has made her rethink her initial plan of developing the studio in phases over three to five years.
Now, she thinks putting all the improvements in at once may be the best way to go.
Those improvements include finishing the sound stages, developing post-production facilities, building a gymnasium in which crews can work out and a commissary for on-site meals.
But financing that dream is a big hurdle. Lear said she has put out feelers for a partner or a lender "that sees the vision we see," but so far, there have been no takers. Lear believes it will take $19 million to get the studio open.
With more and more film producers seeing the building in their visits to Las Vegas, Lear is hopeful someone will seek out a partnership.
Other industry professionals sympathize with Lear's dilemma and hope she is successful in her bid to develop the studio.
Mimosa Jones, chief executive officer of the Entertainment Development Corporation of Las Vegas, said there's no denying that there's demand for sound stages in Las Vegas and that's why she refers calls from Hollywood to Lear.
"If I had six stages, I could fill all six stages," Jones said.
But Jones is cautious about giving an outright endorsement to the project because other members of her association are or will be competing with Lear on certain aspects of the business. She's also conscious that film companies are used to many amenities in Southern California and those aren't in place at Lear's building.
A potential rival to Lear's venture hopes she succeeds.
Doris Keating, owner of Studio Enterprises Inc., which last year attempted to develop Black Mountain Studios in Henderson, is still trying to find a site for her $200 million sound and production studio project.
Tonya Hunt, Keating's personal assistant and office manager, said Thursday her boss doesn't intend to give up on what has been a life-long dream. She said Keating hopes Lear is successful because she believes one studio could lead the way for another as local residents recognize the value of the industry.
When Henderson planners in May put Keating's plan in the Wagon Wheel Industrial Park on hold, she withdrew her application. In June, she said she would look for alternate sites for the studio. Today, Hunt said, the search is continuing.