Palisadian John Zabrucky Concludes a Four-Decade Career Making Science Fiction Props
By SARAH SHMERLING | Editor-in-Chief
You may not know his name, but you certainly know his work.
From “The Most Important Device in the Universe” to a futuristic dog house, Palisadian John Zabrucky’s prop warehouse has everything you need to save or destroy mankind in any science fiction film or show—and more.
Over the course of his 42-year career, Zabrucky has had a hand in crafting hundreds of science fiction props and organizing thousands of pieces of furniture and objects from Italy, all of which have been a part of television and film features.
“The Most Important Device in the Universe,” described as “dual generators with rotating neon lights inside an acrylic tube; light-controlled panel with knobs and buttons,” alone has been a part of “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan,” “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” “Alien Nation,” “Airplane II” and more.
“It was proclaimed the most important device by someone I don’t even know and I love the title, so now it’s become my favorite,” he explained.
Zabrucky designed well over 90% of his prop inventory, which was then handmade by a team of engineers and machinists. The Marquez Knolls resident, who used to have a warehouse in Culver City, moved shop to San Fernando after Apple made him an offer he “couldn’t refuse” and took over his building.
Zabrucky launched Modern Props in the mid-1970s, while on $32 worth of food stamps per month, after a chance interaction on a Warner Brothers movie set.
“I was teaching in northeastern Ohio,” Zabrucky explained. “I was teaching art at Kent State University and University of Akron.”
He taught for about four years when he decided to come west to Los Angeles with a girl he was dating who wanted to get into the movie business as a set decorator.
“I went from having a pretty good life to having a pretty bad life—I mean, I just couldn’t find work out here,” Zabrucky said. “I wanted to continue to be a working artist, but it was very tough.”
Zabrucky and his girlfriend broke up, but remained friends. During one lunch on set with her, the crew was working on a sci-fi scene, with an actor looking into a microscope. He recalled a big dome, which was lit up and very bright.
“The dome just melted because what they had done is simply put a big light bulb inside and it heated up too much,” Zabrucky said. “I sort of chuckled a bit and there was a woman nearby who heard me. She was offended and kind of snapped at me: ‘What are you laughing about?’”
Zabrucky told her that she thought it was a silly mistake.
“She had this edge to her and she said, ‘I suppose you could do better?’” Zabrucky said. “And I said to her that—I was angry at that point because I was kind of miserable—while I’m sleeping I could do better.”
The woman hired Zabrucky and the rest is movie magic history. He built his first 11 props in one year and then opened the doors to Modern Props.
Two of the first series that his pieces were featured on were “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” and “Quark.”
Zabrucky explained that the props are a combination of requests and things that his team created and loaned out to studios.
“For example, for a movie like ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Star Trek,’ they asked us to build a specific thing,” Zabrucky said. But when a director shows up and requests a bunch of changes and alterations, Zabrucky said that it can be a bit of a nightmare, because the deadline will remain the same, but Zabrucky will have to work unplanned overtime and through the night.
“It just became scary, and I decided they pretty much like everything that we’re doing, so let’s just make things, put them on the shelf and let’s see what happens,” Zabrucky shared. “It just worked, they took everything we made anyway.”
Zabrucky used the PKE meter from “Ghostbusters” as an example—people may think that it was crafted for the film, but in reality, it had been used in numerous films before.
“It was simply a shelf item,” Zabrucky said. “‘Ghostbusters’ called attention to it and made it famous.”
Zabrucky said that his stress level “considerably dropped” after making the decision to not do custom fabrication per request, except for a few choice clients that he knew well.
Now, more than four decades later, he is stepping away because at the age of 72, he is focusing on his personal artwork.
“I don’t have the energy that I used to have and everyone kept telling me, ‘Just stop,’ and I did—I finally did,” Zabrucky said. “I thought that I could keep it going forever, but it’s just too much.”
His personal artwork is currently housed in “Museo D’Arte Moderna Contenitore Marittimo”—the shipping container museum of modern art—a literal, orange shipping container that was constructed in 2010.
Zabrucky explained that he primarily works in aluminum, creating sculptures that he called “complications.” He starts with a block of aluminum, up to 400 pounds, and begins carving it down. Each piece takes years to craft.
“I mostly am very intrigued with devices, things that help mankind and things that hurt mankind,” Zabrucky said. “Ever since 9/11, I have been doing things that have to do with war and peace.”
Some of the complications Zabrucky has completed include a reversible zipper and a diptyque (two pieces that form one work or art) to represent the two bombs that ended World War II.
As Zabrucky works to clear out his warehouse, he hosted a handful of auctions to hand off the majority of the furniture. Any remaining pieces were donated to charity.
When it comes to the machines, Zabrucky is searching for an institution that would be interested in taking them.
“These have been in simply so many things and they go back to 1976,” he explained. “It really is a historical part of television and film history.”