By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
Had Elvis been around, it would have been the perfect time for The King to belt out, “All Shook Up.”
The Aug. 22 earthquake, which registered 5.8 on Mr. Richter’s scale, was centered in Mineral, Va., but felt from Atlanta to Ottawa, Ontario. Our own Rowan County was not left out of the mix. Fortunately, it amounted here to no more than getting the locals running to, not shelter, but Facebook.
When the rumbling began, not being clairvoyant, I found myself standing on a kitchen stool changing a light bulb in a ceiling fixture. The closed bedroom door across the hall began to rattle, and I immediately thought I had locked our trusted canine Phlee in the room.
Then I realized I hadn’t been in that room all day. It then dawned on me that we were having an earthquake. So off the stool I came, voluntarily.
I actually heard the rumble more than I felt it.
That was not the case back in 1994.
My friend, John, who is as insane about the movie business as I am, and I used to head west to the Los Angeles area two or three times every year back in the 1990s. Our trips were several-fold — pleasure and business.
A friend of ours promoted a celebrity/movie memorabilia weekend show in Burbank every quarter. We tried to do the one in January each year. This gave us a weeklong respite from the Carolina winters. John was pitching scripts at the time, and his agent would line up meetings and interviews while we were in town.
We filled in the rest of our time visiting friends, hitting the memorabilia shops in the area and meeting with other movie collectors we had flushed out. So it was a full week every time we visited Hollywoodland. The January 1994 trip was no exception.
The celebrity show ran from Friday night through Sunday afternoon at the hotel we resided in Burbank. I can’t recall many specifics about this particular show (we made 23 trips to Los Angeles) except it was when I met and talked with Hal Smith, best-known as Otis Campbell on TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show.” More on this later.
The day after the show’s closing was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Stores were to be closed, no script meetings were scheduled. We had planned to spend the day at our friend Karl’s house watching movies. We didn’t make it to Karl’s. Something happened.
A peaceful night’s sleep screeched to a halt at 4:31 that Monday morning. I was awakened to hear what sounded like the MGM lion standing next to me, bellowing at full volume. The room was shaking like crazy, like I had put too many quarters in one of those “Miracle Beds.” Before I knew it, the rumbling had bounced me onto the floor in the pitch-black room. Then, after what seemed an eternity, came the calm.
I could hear some people in the hall, some screaming. Electricity was lost immediately, so I fumbled in the dark for my clothes. I threw them on as quickly as I could. Sort of like dressing in a West Virginia coal mine. Then, I felt my way out into the hall and to the outdoors.
There was just enough light in the parking lot that I found John among the other hotel guests who had made it out quicker than I.
We got in our rental car to find a local radio station for a report of the quake. We learned that the epicenter had been in Northridge. Lucky us, Northridge was just down the street a few miles. Like winning the lottery without buying a ticket.
As soon as there was enough light, we headed in the Northridge direction to check out the situation. The streets were pretty much void of traffic. We passed several new fountains caused by burst water mains. Locals were already out sweeping up glass in front of their shops. Few buildings had windows intact. We passed an apartment building that had collapsed. Later we heard on the news that several people on the first floor had been killed when the top two floors caved in on top of them.
Before long, we were getting hungry, but there was no place in the Burbank area to eat. So we headed over the hill into Hollywood. Hopefully, something was open there.
Damage over the hill wasn’t as bad as that in the valley — some broken windows and cracks in buildings. That’s all we saw. It was close to 10 a.m. before we found the first restaurant open, a Subway.
There were folks lined out the door to get in. It looked like a coffee and sinkers line from the Great Depression. We took our places and finally had a hoagie for breakfast. I would almost have eaten the leg off the table.
We were then able to finally get telephone calls through to our families back in Carolina to let them know we were OK. Around 1 p.m., we headed back to our hotel in Burbank, happy to find the electricity restored. We went into the hotel restaurant. While there, we felt one of several large aftershocks. I remember the hanging baskets inside the eatery swaying with more rhythm than Ella Fitzgerald.
John and I quickly arrived at a mutual decision to head home. The area wasn’t going to be up and running for several days, so all of a sudden, cold Carolina weather sounded better than sunny California.
We telephoned the airline and asked how soon we could get on a flight to Charlotte. This was a time when the “friendly skies” were much friendlier than they are now. The airlines didn’t slap a customer with a $150 fee for changing flights. We obtained seats on the red-eye leaving about 11. Fortunately, the manager of the hotel was a friend (her mother, actress Beverly Garland, owned the hotel), so we were permitted to stay in our rooms until we left for the airport.
Around 9, we headed back over the hill through Hollywood and Beverly Hills to LAX. It was amazing how this vastly-populated area looked more like a ghost town in an old cowboy movie. Several times, I could swear I saw sagebrush blow across the road in front of us as we made our way to the airport. The red-eye was uneventful, and we were back in Charlotte by 6 the next morning.
We were fortunate we could leave the horrors of the day by getting on a plane. Millions couldn’t. According to Wikipedia, 33 people died in the Jan. 17 disaster, which had clocked in as a 6.7 quake. Some 8,700 people needed medical attention, and property damage exceeded $20 billion.
And back to “Otis Campbell.”
Hal Smith died 11 days after the earthquake. The 77-year-old actor suffered a fatal heart attack at his home while cleaning up debris caused by the quake. A sad way to lose a man who had brought so much enjoyment to so many people for so many years.
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