Morgue prop business alive and well

Vidal Herrera shows a prop available for rental by movie and television production companies for use in morgue scenes at Morgue Prop Rentals in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES -- Several prop houses in Los Angeles County have been killed off in the past decade by the flight of production from Southern California to cheaper locales. But one local business 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 sells and rents 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 "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. "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 reproduction rented out to film crews for its props and is 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 including "Body Shop" and posters from B-horror movies such as "Flesh Eaters" and "Dead End," along with autographed posters from various films and TV shows on which he has worked. 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.

Herrera apprenticed under then-Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi, known as the "coroner to the stars." Herrera 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 specialized 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 castoff 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 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.