Sunday, September 29, 2013

Breaking Up With ‘Breaking Bad’ Is Hard for Albuquerque

ONE afternoon last winter, a man with a shaved head walked into Twisters, a burrito joint in Albuquerque. He was wearing a yellow helmet and Hazmat suit and carrying a gas mask. He put on the mask, struck various poses throughout the restaurant and then sidled up to the counter to buy a burrito topped with French fries, one of the restaurant’s specialties.

At a different fast-food restaurant, the manager might have been alarmed. But this particular one had doubled as Los Pollos Hermanos, the chicken joint owned by a ruthless leader of a methamphetamine cartel in “Breaking Bad,” the AMC television series.

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Such fan fervor — in this case, impersonating the show’s main character, a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook named Walter White — had become routine. In fact, during one week this month, 117 fans from places as disparate as northern France, the Cayman Islands, Baton Rouge, La., and Kalispell, Mont., signed the hefty “Breaking Bad” guest book perched on the Twisters counter near the soda machine.


The show, which won three Emmy Awards this year, including its first for best drama series, began filming in 2007 in Albuquerque, a city long overshadowed in tourism by Santa Fe, its smaller neighbor to the north. Over the next six years, however, as the series showcased Albuquerque’s grit and high-desert beauty, the city became a star in its own right and an entire “Breaking Bad” economy sprang up.

But now, with the series finale to be broadcast Sunday night — filming concluded in April — the future is uncertain for the many businesses that have come to rely on the show for sales.

During the show’s run, the production directly employed an average of 200 people, said Wayne Rauschenberger, chief operating officer at Albuquerque Studios, the 28-acre facility where much of the show was filmed. Beyond that, there were lumber yards, antique stores, limousine companies, hotels, caterers and others performing ancillary functions. Residents were hired as extras, and homeowners and businesses were paid for filming privileges.

The set decorator Michael Flowers says he patronized antique stores when designing sets, recalling that he spent $20,000 on scrap metal at a local salvage yard while building the show’s meth-lab set. Mr. Flowers described his philosophy as: “Don’t shop at chains. Go to ma-and-pa stores; keep the money in Albuquerque.”

The series’ creator, Vince Gilligan, routinely incorporated local spots into filming. He has been widely quoted as saying Albuquerque became a central character in the show. As the show’s popularity surged — about 6.6 million viewers tuned in last Sunday — so did Albuquerque’s.

“ ‘Breaking Bad’ became such a phenomenon that it helped in other areas such as tourism,” says Nick Maniatis, director of the New Mexico State Film Office. “You wouldn’t think that would be the case for a show about meth. But it was shot so beautifully. They did such a great job showing different areas of our state.”

When tourists began streaming in, they sought out the aesthetically ordinary places they had seen on screen, like the Twisters restaurant and the house that serves as Walter White’s home. In 2012, ABQ Trolley Co. began highlighting such locations in a weekly tour that now runs from April to October; it routinely sells out. Earlier this year, two other companies began leading competing bicycle and limousine tours.

Many more fans make their way to the landmarks on their own. Fran Padilla, owner of the house whose exterior and swimming pool were used as the White family home, counted more than 2,000 gawkers outside her window in August and September. She keeps tabs on visitors by using a pair of binoculars to scour their license plates, and occasionally emerges to introduce herself.

Originally from Brooklyn, Mrs. Padilla has lived in the house with her husband for 40 years. When the show’s location scout knocked on their door before the pilot was filmed, “it was like winning a lottery,” she says. “With all the homes in Albuquerque, they picked ours?”

She declined to divulge how much the production paid out, except to say: “It didn’t make us rich, but it was nice. Extra money is always nice.”

The fact that four and a half of the show’s five seasons are available on Netflix allows it to continue drawing new viewers, beyond its huge TV following. That gives Mrs. Padilla and others faith that its drawing power for Albuquerque won’t be just a fad.

Others have doubts. Debbie Ball, who owns the Candy Lady, believes that the boom will fade in a year’s time. She has been churning out blue rock candy meant to resemble the special blue meth manufactured by Walter White in the show. The candy was used as a prop in the first two seasons of “Breaking Bad,” and she now sells it to tourists in what she calls “dollar dime bags.” She estimates she has sold 35,000 bags since August 2012.

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