©2022 By Burt Kearns
(On April 29, 1992, jurors in Simi Valley, California acquitted five Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Los Angeles citizens responded to the news with a display of widespread civil disobedience and destruction that became known as the Los Angeles Riots. The evening the violence began, Burt Kearns, a producer of the syndicated nightly tabloid magazine series, Hard Copy, was sharing a pizza with correspondent Rafael Abramovitz at Santopietro’s restaurant. Thirty years later, the following is adapted from his memoir, Tabloid Baby.)
We were over the hill in Studio City, Raf and I eating pizza and watching television along with everyone else in the middling Italian restaurant and bar on Ventura Boulevard owned by Vanna White’s husband. The expressions of nausea on the faces of the all-white clientele could not be blamed on the food. On the screen, a white man was being dragged out of a semi-truck by a group of young black men. The LIVE chyron hung in the corner of the picture as Reginald Denny was bashed about the head with a cinder block and fire extinguisher.
Our acquaintance, Johnny Roastbeef, a star of Goodfellas, supped with a group of actors from Who’s the Boss. He patted his lips with a napkin and shook his head. “This is very fucking bad,” he said. “This would never happen in New York.”
Hours earlier, in another valley, a jury of ten whites, one Latino and an Asian acquitted five Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King. All around Los Angeles, African American citizens and their sympathizers were responding to the verdict.
“It’s a fucking riot mate,” I said to Raf. “Should we drive down into it?”
“No,” Raf said. “We’re not working, so we stay away. You don’t be a tourist on something like this. Remember that.”
We left the restaurant and stopped at a nearby sporting goods store to pick up some socks. The manager rushed from the back and met us at the door. “I hope you’re not looking for guns, ’cause we’re all sold out!”
“Mate, you should see this! Shopping centers are on fire. People are running around with guns, looting.” The next morning, Raf was phoning from a car taking him to the airport, an inadvertent tourist to the riots as he headed back to New York. “It’s amazing !”
I was in Peter Brennan’s office in the Hard Copy building on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. The promo guy was crying. He was in the office, on the couch, to discuss show advertising, but as he watched the continuous live television coverage, it all became too much. He removed his granny glasses and pressed the bridge of his nose. “Boo hoo hoo,” he said.
Onscreen, local news helicopters followed mobs of Angelenos moving from one shopping center to another, smashing through display windows and taking what was inside. With each helicopter news report that police weren’t stopping the thievery, more people switched off their TV’s and joined in. The promo man watched and sniffed.
I wished Rafael good luck and looked toward the door with everyone else. “Who’s they?” Brennan and I said together.
“The — the looters! They’re two blocks away!” It was a usually quiet producer in a literal sweat. He was supposed to begin editing a sweeps piece, but was more likely to hit the road at any moment. “We gotta get out of here! We could be in danger!”
“Joe,” I suggested calmly. “You’ll be in an edit room in the basement of a building in the middle of the guarded Paramount lot. I don’t think anything’s gonna happen.”
“Can you guarantee my safety?”
Neal Travis puffed his pipe and stifled a laugh.
There was panic. A few blocks away, bands of festive neighbors stepped over shattered storefront glass on Western Avenue and wandered off with couches and the like.
Chief Daryl Gates and his criticized police force had proven their point by letting the riots get out of control. By afternoon, Paramount had been shut down and the usually quiet producer was sent to a safe edit house in the Valley as the city prepared for a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Brennan and I drove west along heavy Melrose Avenue traffic and into a scene out of a bad apocalypse movie. Merchants hammered plywood over storefront windows in haste. Women sobbed inside locked BMWs. Cars sped from service station pumps with the nozzles left hanging from their tanks. When a lone Black driver attempted to wedge into traffic, everyone stopped to let him through.
We made it to the Sunset Strip, left our cars with the Bel Age Hotel valets and walked to the back of the restaurant with the window beneath which the Los Angeles basin was laid out like a game board. With our feet up on the windowsill, we watched as portions of the city burned below us. To the east, past Dodger Stadium and south toward Compton, entire blocks raged unchecked, the smoke rising black with hints of orange flame. The outbreak spread like forest fires, where embers drift for hundreds of yards on the winds before settling at random and exploding another distant patch of dry wood. As the arsons neared the Beverly Center and the West L.A. aristocracy, they’d be extinguished quickly, the black smoke turning papal white as if the lawman had drawn an imaginary fire line at Pico Boulevard.
Visible through the restaurant windows was a billboard on the corner of Sunset and Larrabee, advertising a radio station with a painting of Marvin Gaye and the question, “What’s Going On?” Sly Stone’s answer raged before us. There was a riot going on. Brennan and I drank soberly, brushing the ashes from our Stoli and tonics, fiddling while our new home burned.
Burt Kearns produces nonfiction television and documentary films and writes books, including Tabloid Baby, The Show Won’t Go On (written with Jeff Abraham), Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy (available for pre-sale on Amazon.com), and the recently-announced Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel.