Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, July 20, 1999


By Tim Ryan, Star-Bulletin
A lifeguard tower at Zuma.

On the Baywatch  duty

As Baywatch cameras start rolling in Hawaii,
L.A. County lifeguards cite the pains and
gains of sharing their turf with the most-
watched syndicated show in the world.

Related story in News

By Tim Ryan


MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- Don Rohr leans back in one of two matching easy chairs in the den of his modest -- though pricey -- South Bay home, close enough to the Pacific Ocean to hear tiny waves breaking.

Rohr, 63, former chief of lifeguards for Los Angeles County, is in beach motif: lifeguard logo T-shirt, surf shorts and flip flops. Sipping coffee from a thick mug, Rohr's bushy mustache, round and ruddy face, and piercing eyes give him a sort of Wilfred Bromley aura.

For six years Rohr, who retired in 1996, was the buck-stops-here guy overseeing some 110 full-time and 500 seasonal lifeguards who monitored 31 miles of L.A. County beaches along 70 miles of coast.

By Tim Ryan, Star-Bulletin

'I think we're the finest
lifeguards in the world, but without
the kind of exposure we got from
'Baywatch' and our savvy
L.A. County marketers, we
wouldn't have gotten this
equipment. It's a very
big deal.'

Don Rohr


During his reign and for several years before, TV's "Baywatch" filmed at Will Rogers beach north of Santa Monica using a real lifeguard headquarters -- "Baywatch Headquarters" -- as its "center."

"Baywatch," which this year begins a two-year run in Hawaii, did "only good for the image of life-saving professionals, not only in California but internationally," Rohr says.

The most watched syndicated TV program in the world also was largely responsible for the L.A. County Lifeguards getting a few million dollars in equipment from manufacturers wanting to be associated with "the Southern California lifeguard image," Rohr said. This included dozens of trucks, specialized racks, tires, even uniforms.

By Tim Ryan, Star-Bulletin
L.A.County lifeguards Sam Bertolet, left, and Capt. Fernando
Boiteux in front of the Baywatch Lifeguard
Headquarters at Will Rogers Beach.

But despite the goodies, some guards send a warning to local lifeguards and parks officials that the production, at least in its early years, was "a nuisance" to their duties, and "generally just pushed the limit."

"I know you always had to be on your toes," said L.A. County Lifeguard, Capt. Fernando Boiteux.

While Rohr agreed that there were "some bumps in the road in the beginning," he emphasized, "Any production is a major undertaking, just like it is when we have a major volleyball tournament," he said. "At least 'Baywatch' was about lifeguards, and it did a good job representing our profession."

Rohr said that some who've made disparaging comments about "Baywatch" "aren't ashamed to be driving around in new trucks.

"I think we're the finest lifeguards in the world, but without the kind of exposure we got from 'Baywatch' and our savvy L.A. County marketers, we wouldn't have gotten this equipment. It's a very big deal."

Overall, the dozen or so lifeguards, supervisors, and administrators interviewed by the Star-Bulletin said the show -- which began filming on Oahu yesterday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, was a win-win situation during its nine-year California run. Problems with the series were common to other film and TV productions at public beaches, they also agreed. According to Rohr; County Lifeguards Division assistant chief Russ Walker; and several lifeguards, "Baywatch" never hindered, or compromised a rescue.

"Not only was the production vigilant, diligent, and prepared, we always had our (lifeguards) on duty monitoring the situation," Walker said.

Star-Bulletin file photo
Kala'i Miller lends his smile to charity.

A shot with 'Baywatch' star

"Baywatch Hawaii" cast member Kala'i Miller will be a special guest at the charity fund-raising art exhibition, "Artists Hand in Hand," taking place 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Ilikai Hotel.

Miller will be posing for pictures with guests for a fee, with proceeds benefiting The Change Fund.

The fund was established in 1987 by Dale Madden, president of The Madden Corp. and Island Heritage Publishing, to offer educational opportunities and fund scholarships for underprivileged children in Hawaii.

Seven artists will be featured in the exhibition: Sonja Abel, Juergen Aldag, Lynn Cook, Don Hall, Jan-Michelle Sawyer, Alex Steelsmith and U'el.

There will be food, drinks, music by Makana (formerly known as Matt Swalinkavich, the Ki Ho'alu Kid) and opportunities to win original art and prints.

The event is being presented by Hawaii Art News & Directory. For more information, call 293-5683.

Another reason is "Baywatch" creator and executive producer Greg Bonann has been and continues to be an L.A. County lifeguard after some 20 years and "knows first hand how we work," Walker said.

"Lifeguarding is not an image Greg wants to sully," Rohr said.

The constant heard over and over again from lifeguards and their bosses is that once a problem was brought to Bonann's attention, the incident rarely happened again.

After the show moved from a remote area north of Malibu to the more populated Will Rogers beach area, crowding seemed to be the culprit. Boiteux and lifeguard Sam Bertolet said:

Bullet Production trucks were sometimes parked in the wrong place, or blocked lifeguard vehicles;

Bullet A lifeguard's view might have been compromised by production equipment location;

Bullet Over-eager production assistants pushed the envelope;

Bullet "Baywatch" actors and equipment were mistaken for L.A. County staff and equipment;

Bullet Boats operated too close to shore without immediate permission to do so.

"One time all hell broke loose when one of the 'Baywatch' guys took off in their boat that said L.A. County Lifeguards on the hull and blasted through a bunch of fishing boats ... it was just some guy not using his head."

Lifeguard Capt. Mickey Gallagher, 45, works out of another headquarters located at Santa Monica Pier, south of the "Baywatch" location. He's a friend of "Baywatch" producer Greg Bonann, who calls him "Mickadoo." He calls the producer "Bone."

"Frankly, sometimes having any production around is a pain ... ," Gallagher said. "It's either them trying to move people off a public beach to get a shot, or crew members hammering and banging around. It gets old real fast.

" 'Baywatch' was never a bother for me because I really wasn't involved with them ... but I'm glad I didn't have to sit up in the ("Baywatch") headquarters with (lifeguard) Sam (Bertolet)."

The two-story "Baywatch" lifeguard headquarters that was featured so prominently in the show sits atop a bluff a quarter-mile north of Will Rogers Beach, home of some of the world's best volleyball players. A Wyland mural featuring a whale and dolphin is painted on the mauka side of the building. On the south side of the building lifeguards have created an oasis of flowers, lawn, even banana trees where fruit is plucked by homeless people inhabiting the beach at night.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Extras wait yesterday for instructions on the set of 'Baywatch
Hawaii' as filming began at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

A trailer outside the headquarters holds a Baywatch Rescue Boat which for decades has been an important part of the L.A. County Lifeguard operations. Bonann named his show after them.

The lifeguards working here, including 30-year veteran Bertolet, landscaped the area then installed barriers to prevent "Baywatch" crews from replacing the garden with sand.

"Maybe it was our way to keep some of identity here," says Bertolet, 52, sitting in the upstairs observation area with its 20-mile view in three directions.

Before "Baywatch," the second story was just a look out, communications area and office for a lifeguard captain. The crew built enclosed sets on both sides of the look-out so sometimes the filming was right outside the polarized windows where real lifeguards were observing crowds.

The fascination of having a popular television production on site and being surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis wore off quickly, said Boiteux.

"In the beginning you're curious about it all, but it isn't long before the noise from our radio or telephone would go off and some crew guy taps on our window motioning us to shush up," he said.

Before "Baywatch" arrived, the beach was a quiet, family area. That also appealed to producer Bonann, who has spent most of his lifeguard career working the area. As "Baywatch" started to film here, a bike path was built outside the headquarters and the city of Santa Monica put it on a "places to see" list for visitors.

"Suddenly we have a full production company, people bicycling, roller blading, jogging and skating by us, and about 300 kids in our Junior Lifeguard Program all running around," said Bertolet. "Throw in the occasionally big swell and we're real, real busy."

On a few occasions, Bertolet recalled he had to slow down in his lifeguard truck, even with its red lights and sirens on, to drive through a crowd of extras who thought he was part of the shot.

" 'Baywatch,' for a time, even drove lifeguard trucks just like ours," Boiteux said. "They'd drive right by some incident and people would question why we didn't stop."

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

Baywatch headquarters is still under construction in Haleiwa..

Rohr said "a couple of inappropriate things" occurred with "Baywatch" trucks and uniforms so changes were made. Bonann instructed his transportation crew that "Baywatch" lifeguard trucks have their light bars covered when not in use. Bonann also had "Baywatch" uniform and patches altered

Once, on Catalina Island where "Baywatch" was filming, a crew member left the set wearing a L.A. County Lifeguard uniform.

"I guess he wanted to be the hero lifeguard in one of the bars and he was drinking a lot," Rohr said. "When I called Greg about it he fired the guy on the spot."

Then there was the busy summer day when the lifeguard headquarters' ringing phone ruined a few scenes.

"Some crew guy wanting to make points with the director shut off the bell without us knowing it," Boiteux said. "That was a big no no."

Assistant Chief Walker insists the county never compromised public safety for "Baywatch" filming.

"Baywatch" used L.A. County lifeguards as water safety advisors, or extras, including Mike Newman, a friend of Bonann, a regular cast member, and considered one of the L.A. County's finest watermen. Newman now works as a L.A. County fireman in Malibu.

"We knew first hand the ability of some of the people operating the boats, like Newman," said Walker, another Bonann buddy. "We did allow them to come a bit closer to the beach than usual, but we had special confidence in Greg and the guys working with him."

Gallagher, who has worked as a water safety advisor on other productions, but never on "Baywatch," knows firsthand how intimidating it can be to work with a production company.

By Tim Ryan, Star-Bulletin

"Frankly, sometimes
having any production
around is a pain ... ."

Mickey Gallagher


"Hopefully, Hawaii will assign safety people who are assertive," he said. "You have to have a person who's flexible, but who can say no. You can't just cross your fingers and hope no one gets hurt."

L.A. County lifeguards assigned to monitor "Baywatch" worked for the county, not the production, Gallagher said. Depending on the shot, the county might assign a rescue boat with the production picking up the tab.

"Lifeguards can't be involved in the show to be effective and ensure public safety," Walker said.

Gallagher is more blunt: "If a guy is hired by the film company, he's not on the public's side to begin with."

Lifeguards agreed that "Baywatch" is "very accurate" about their their operations and procedures, including rescues. The show uses a technical advisor and Newman and Bonann are always there to make sure it's done right. Bonann also used Rohr, Walker and Gallagher to review scripts and meet with the writers.

"I was amazed at how many rescues they made in an hour," Bertolet said, laughing. "But we also knew the incidents really do happen ... there's a lot of truth in the episodes."

Boiteux joked some of the rescues took longer than in real life but said "they are pretty accurate."

"When you're on the inside looking out it's easy to poke fun at the show, but people on the outside just think 'Wow, look at that guy jumping off the rescue boat at 30 mph,'" Gallagher said.

Rohr understands Bonann has "a story to tell."

"If people are going to just watch lifeguards go out and make rescues, then write up the reports, the show's going to last about a week."

The lifeguards have seen their professional image rise thanks to "Baywatch."

" 'Baywatch" has made the public aware that what we do is a year-round profession requiring a lot of technical expertise. It's shown that we take our profession seriously," Gallagher said.

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