NORTH HOLLYWOOD - Approval of a Screen Actors Guild contract this week came a day late and too many dollars short for the entertainment industry's second largest prop company, which fell victim to the recession.
The owner of Twentieth Century Props said Wednesday he is closing after almost four decades in the business and his vast inventory that includes items used in some of the biggest movies and TV shows will be sold at auction in July.
Harvey Schwartz, whose company will have to lay off 28 full-time employees, said uncertainty in the industry over the past year because of a possible strike has hurt his business too much.
"I've been losing money now for over 12 months in a row, and I just have to cut my losses and run," he said.
The collection, which includes the 20th Century Fox Studio prop department that Schwartz bought in 1994, is a movie-goer's paradise. Among the items are facades from "Batman," "Independence Day," "Titanic" and "Terminator 3."
Schwartz, 66, said he had been struggling with closing the business for the last two months and finally made the decision Monday, the day before members of the largest actors union approved a deal that ends a year-long labor dispute with the major studios.
But Schwartz said that labor settlement doesn't stop the drain on companies like his nor does it signal an immediate turnaround.
"It's too late. I've lost almost $2 million now, and that's just too much to lose," he said.
"Even if everybody goes back to work, they'll go back to work slowly. It would be another 30 to 60 days before everyone gets up and running full, and then it would be another 30 or 40 days for everybody to start paying their bills.
"It'll be a long time coming, and I just can't last any longer."
On Wednesday, some of Schwartz's oldest clients stopped by his 200,000-square-foot warehouse near Lankershim Boulevard and Sherman Way to peruse the inventory for possible items to buy before the auction, which is scheduled for the last four days in July.
"It's a very sad loss to see this place close," said Hollywood set decorator Richard Reams. "Its closing will mean that we're not going to be able to find good period props when you need them.
"There's just so much history here."
Schwartz said the insured value of his thousands of props is $8 million but that a more realistic retail value is over $30 million.
Some furniture accessories were used in films recreating scenes from the 18th century, while others helped establish various periods, like those in the life of Benjamin Button from the film of the same name.
Other items are more contemporary, like a huge champagne glass in which Beyonce cavorted in a television commercial.
A few props are historic in their own right: an Art Deco style desk that Schwartz says belonged to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and was also used in "The Aviator," the biopic of Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
"I expect collectors will have a field day tripping over themselves for some of these things," Schwartz said.
But he said this with a sense of resignation: That a golden age of movie-making in Hollywood is gone and that many of his props had become background settings for lavish parties.
In recent years, Schwartz said, furnishing big parties accounted for as much as a third of his business.
"Until last November," he said. "With the economy going bad, a lot of big companies stopped having big Christmas and New Year's Eve parties."
Still, Schwartz said he had remained hopeful. He had endured other entertainment industry strikes and work stoppages and kept thinking this one, too, would pass.
"Last year at Christmas time they were supposed to vote and they put it off, and then they put it off in January," he said. "I was holding on in hopes but to no avail."
The last year, Schwartz said, has been the hardest of his life, especially seeing the business he started 40 years ago dwindle away.
"Just watching my 28 employees that I had to lay off, watching them go their separate ways and some not be able to find jobs and not knowing how some of them are going to have health insurance from now on, that's been hard," he said.
"A lot of them have been with me for years and to have to lay off all those people, a little at a time, it's been a real struggle."