The first big fire I ever photographed was one that had a profound impact on Bakersfield. Woody’s Toy Circus was a landmark, legendary toy store right in the heart of downtown Bakersfield, and held fond memories for just about anybody who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Woody Bryant, the owner, was a celebrity who also hosted a popular children’s television program, “The Uncle Woody Show.” Woody’s Toy Circus was, of course, the place to go for toys in Bakersfield during those decades. (I believe the store existed for several decades before Bryant launched the popular television show.)
On December 22, 1983, I was nearing the end of my shift when around 10 pm I heard a call on the police scanner of smoke coming from the store. Woody’s was on Chester Avenue at 22th Street, just a few blocks from The Californian’s office. I jumped in the car to go check it out. When I arrived, ahead of most of the fire equipment that would soon respond, I saw smoke coming from the building, but it didn’t seem too bad. But the smoke intensified, then began billowing, and within minutes, Woody’s Toy Circus was fully engulfed in flames. I watched and photographed as firefighters desperately sought to contain the flames, but by the time the fire was brought under control, Woody’s Toy Circus was gone.
Investigators would determine that the Woody’s Toy Circus fire was arson. Lester Louis Hutton, Jr. was a salesman for Woody’s Toy Circus. Bryant began to notice portions of the store’s significant Christmas sales deposits were missing after Hutton suggested that he should take over making the store’s bank deposits as a security precaution. Bryant spoke to Hutton about the missing deposits a day or two before the fire. Employees left the store around 9:30 pm, a half hour before the fire, and reported that Hutton was the lone worker remaining in the store. About 15 minutes later, he purchased a soft drink, a gasoline tank and gasoline at a nearby 7-11 store. Hutton would be charged with arson and grand theft. He was found not guilty on the arson charge and was convicted of grand theft. This Justia U.S. Law summary provides more details about the legal case of Lester Louis Hutton. And this site, dedicated to The Uncle Woody Show and his Toy Circus store, provides some nice history, including an interview with Woody Bryant from December, 2012.
I also learned a bit of a news photography lesson that night. When covering a fire, don’t park your car right in front of the building that is on fire! Yep, I did that. I was a young, green pup back then. Fortunately, as the fire spread, I was able to move the car out of the way.