Monday, January 14, 2002

'Scrubs' set in real hospital

        NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — As we pulled into the parking lot from Riverside Drive, the first thing I saw was the huge sign: “Attention! This hospital is closed to the public.”

        Not everybody notices it.

        Los Angeles area residents who have used the emergency room at the old North Hollywood Medical Center, shuttered four years ago, still wander into the building, which provides the realistic setting for NBC's Scrubs comedy (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Channels 5, 22).

        “We've had people stumbling in looking for treatment, ” says Zach Braff, who stars as medical intern: John “J.D.” Dorian on the show.

        Sometimes it's hard to convince intruders that he's not really a doctor, he just plays one on TV.

        “The people look around, and see everyone in doctors' outfits with stethoscopes around their necks and they say, "What do you mean this is not a hospital?' ”

Adds authenticity

        Text:The four-story suburban hospital adds an authenticity not seen on TV series, most of that are shot inside huge stound stages at Warner Bros., Disney or Paramount studios. The setting, combined with hilarious scripts by Bill Lawrence (Spin City) and clever fantasy segments, has made Scrubs the second-highest-rated new sitcom this season. NBC renewed it last week for fall, along with Crossing Jordan and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

        “We're very lucky. One of the things that we wanted to do... was try and make it realistic,” says Mr. Lawrence, who created the show after hearing stories from two college buddies who became doctors.

        “When you're in the ICU, it's a real ICU,” Mr. Lawrence says. “We might end up looking like a silly sitcom if we tried to do (shows) on a sound stage.”

        Says Scrubs hairstylist Polly Lucke, a 1983 graduate from Cincinnati's School for the Creative and Performing Arts: “The cafeteria and admissions area benefit from the natural light, and cars going back and forth. You can't fake that on a sound stage.”

Only missing patients

        It's eerie touring the building. It looks exactly like a hospital —the beds, nurses' stations, small patients' rooms, operating room, conference room, pharmacy and doctors' lounge, where a sign posted over the sink says: “Your mother does not intern here. Please clean up after yourself.”

        Everything is here except patients. And the metal carts lining the hallways are not filled with pills, other medicines, syringes, gauze, bandages or surgical tape. They hold spotlights, cables, light stands, power packs and duct tape.

        Scrubs uses the first, second and fourth floors for hospital scenes, and the set for JD's and Chris Turk's (Donald Faison) apartment. Dr. Perry Cox's (John C. McGinley) penthouse apartment set is in the basement.

        The third floor is used for dressing rooms, wardrobe and makeup artists. Writers, editors and casting producers have offices on the first floor's west wing.

        “It's a little like being in high school. Everything is all here,” says Mr. McGinley, a film veteran (Wall Street, The Rock, Seven, Platoon) starring in his first TV series.

        For the actors, the days at fictional Sacred Heart Hospital are as long as real doctors or nurses.

        “We're here 12 to 15 hours a day, sometimes 18 hours a day, depending on how many fantasy sequences we shoot,” says Judy Reyes (nurse Carla Espinosa), my tour guide.

        Mr. McGinley spent 4 1/2 hours in makeup to look like the Grinch for a five-second visual gag, a trademark of the series. It took eight hours to film the 15-second Scrubs title sequence where the doctors morph into each other walking through the second-floor Intensive Care Unit.

Standout sequences

        On the day of my visit, the cast had been rehearsing an elaborate- but brief — West Side Story musical number with 10 professional dancers and a choreographer.

        Laughter is the best medicine, and Mr. Lawrence knows it must be delivered in distinctive packaging.

        “It's so hard to get an audience in today's (TV) landscape... Nowadays, you have to do anything you possibly can to separate yourself from the pack,” Mr. Lawrence says.

        The fantasy sequences “pay off for us now. I don't know if we're going to be able to keep it up forever. But it's certainly fun right now,” he says.

        Scrubs writers have benefited from consultations with top medical experts from coast to coast.

        “We've got a hundred different doctors that call us and tell us stories, and let us pick their brains, all with the unwritten promise that we'll never mention their name,” Mr. Lawrence says.

        Ken Jenkins, the Dayton native who plays strict chief of staff Dr. Bob Kelso, also gets plenty of free medical advice. Doctors greet him with “Hey, sport,” Dr. Kelso's favorite phrase, then “they tell me that their chief of medicine was much tougher than I am. I've heard maybe 150 chief-of-medicine stories,” says the 1958 Wilbur Wright High School graduate, who performed at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse Theater while attending Antioch College.

        As we toured the floors, Ms. Reyes points out how all the signage was changed to Sacred Heart Hospital. Patient medical records, blood test results and other forms were created by the art department. So were the posters, personnel announcements, job vacancies and lists of staff pager numbers.

Pictures on eBay

        Everything was fake except for the photos of stars Mr. Braff and Mr. McGinley recently sold on eBay, the online auction site. Mr. McGinley's picture sold for $18.75. Mr. Braff's autographed photo sold for $44.75.

        “It's a very surreal thing to me,” Mr. Braff says. “The prop guy came in one day and he's (saying) like, "You're on eBay' ... Which was very weird for me. Because I was a waiter (last) January.”

        Now he's ordering medicine on TV, not meals.

        “It's wonderful working here as an actor,” he says, “because you feel like you're in a hospital.”

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