Friday, May 22, 2015

"Studio Daze"


A photographic Art Fair returned me – along with my family – to the venerable Paramount Studios (established in 1912) where I had once worked – although not quite that far back – and on whose premises the photographic exhibit was currently being presented.  (The numerous soundstages were available to serve as galleries, because the productions that were filmed on them were on seasonal hiatus.)

How did it feel going back to a glamorous venue where had I once had an office and a parking space and I was greeted cheerfully by the Security Guard as I drove unimpeded through the studio’s hallowed front gate, and I was no longer doing any of that anymore?

I believe there are indictors to my reaction in the previous sentence.

But I went anyway.  Because we were invited – due to the beneficence of good friends, there were free entry passes involved – and because my family wanted to see the photographs.

As we – “we” being myself, Dr. M, my daughter Anna and her husband Colby – stepped onto the first “Studio Street”, I immediately initiated my personal newsreel:

“On the right is where the Taxi and Best of the West offices were.  They shot Taxi on (nearby) Stage 23, and Best of the West on Stage 24.  (Though in truth, it might easily have been the other way around.) 

You see that grassy area over there?  That’s where I used to play catch with (the late) Gary Goldberg (the genial mastermind behind Family Ties.)  And once, when I was just throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, (former Rams defensive end) Fred Dryer came down (POINTING THEM OUT) those stairs, after auditioning for the lead role in Cheers – whose original incarnation featured a bar-owning ex-football player – he said, ‘Toss me the ball’ and I played catch for a couple minutes with him.  I asked him, ‘How do you think you did?’  He said, ‘I don’t think I got it.’

Right there is where the studio barbershop used to be.  And over there, where there’s that lower-level parking area?  That was big water tank where, before CGI, they would fill it up with water and float miniature models on top of it, to use in “battle scenes” for TV miniseries (The Winds of War) and in movies.  

(POINTING) That’s where they stationed the live bear we used on an episode of Best of the West.  When the word got out that there was a bear on the lot, normally blasé studio employees raced out of their offices to see him.”

At that point, we had been there less than five minutes. 

(Note:  Earlier this morning, I asked Anna to assess my demeanor being back there again.  “You looked proud”, she reported.  It’s important to check out these things, because, although it might appear likely to be otherwise, you are not always the most accurate evaluator of your behavior.  In this case, for example, I myself was considerably “off.”)

After viewing various photographic exhibits – my favorite being the magnificent selection of Edward Curtis early 1900’s pictures of Indians – Anna insisted that we make a pilgrimage to my old office.  (At Paramount, the studio office structures are named after iconic actors and actresses.  My office was located in the {silent movie favorite} “Clara Bow Building.”)

The direction I led us in was accurate.   However, I actually passed our destination before Anna, reading a sign on the wall, shouted, “This is it!”  No excuses.  Though it had been more than a decade since I had been there, they had not, in the interim, moved any of the buildings.  I’ll give myself part marks, for getting close.

We climbed the steep staircase to the offices located on the Second Floor of the two-story structure.  The stairs’ carpeting, disreputable when I was there, looked like exactly the same carpeting.  It was like the studio president had debated, “Carpeting, or more money for me?” and had decided, “More money for me”, and they just left the old carpeting.

After several missteps on my part, Anna helped me identify the right office. Unfortunately, it was locked up, so we were unable go in.  We noted a makeshift sign taped to the door saying, “Clear”, meaning that my old office was unoccupied.  I momentarily wondered if, after I had left, they had shuttered it permanently as a personal tribute, the way they retire certain superstar ballplayers’ uniform numbers.  That was probably not the case.   

As we headed for the exit, we passed an office whose door was wide open.  We stopped to say hello to a young writer (who could easily have been me, forty years ago), his feet resting comfortably on his desk, an identifiable signal of a more relaxed, pre-production hiatus schedule.

I expressed sympathy for his having to work on a Saturday, keeping my pangs of visceral envy under control.  I wished the young writer good luck, and we exited the building. 

And then it was over.

Any residual emotions after I got home?  Surprisingly few, the passing years mitigating the loss.  I once worked at that studio.  But those times are long over.

Still, if the Photographic Art Fair becomes an annual tradition?

I would not mind if they put it in an alternate location.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Bubble Boy"



I was going to write about a writer I know whose unquestioning belief in the career success that has to date eluded him has, either consciously or unconsciously, insinuated itself into his work, resulting in screaming implausibilities in his storytelling.

But I can’t do that.  I have betrayed too much of his predicament already.

Instead, I shall, once again, betray the only person whose predicament I feel comfortable betraying…

My wonderful self.

So here goes.

I have lived in this Land of Opportunity – no sarcasm intended, except, perhaps, for the capitalization – for forty-one years.  The belief is that I remain the untouched Canadian-born Good Guy that I was when I arrived.  Not long ago, however, I was discomfited to realize that this may not entirely be the case.

Why do I say that? 

Because I recently found myself thinking like an American.

On my last trip to Toronto, I was visiting with my longtime, very good Canadian friends and I brought up the issue of the Los Angeles branch of the actors’ union that had recently voted to continue being paid a tiny stipend for performing in 99-seat local theaters, only to see their parent, national organization over-rule their decision, requiring instead that the Los Angeles stage actors be paid minimum wage (which currently here at least, sits at $9 an hour.)

I imagine myself an independent thinker with a welcomingly open mind.  This intellectual magnanimity does not mean that I do not lean in a certain direction on issues.  However, in this above-mentioned circumstance, I came to realize that I was leaning further in one direction than I had imagined.

Actor Tim Robbins, an active participant in local theater productions, although a recognized “Lefty”, wrote an op-ed article in the newspaper arguing against paying the stage actors minimum wage. 

The local Los Angeles theater world, he explained, is more subsidized charity than a moneymaking situation.  The increased salary demands – minimal as they are – could seriously damage, and possibly even destroy, an (artistically if not financially) flourishing enterprise.  

This unfortunate outcome would not only be a loss to L.A. audiences hungry for live theater, it would also be a loss to Los Angeles actors, especially those who are  currently unemployed, who need a place to work on their craft, while at the same time gaining exposure to film and television personnel who might see them in a play and hire them for well-paying jobs, and the possibility of stardom.

Fueling the argument further, a friend of mine who has had a play produced in a 99-seat theater agrees with Tim Robbins.  It would be devastating, he believes, if producers were forced to pay the actors minimum wage.

Bowing to their wisdom and personal experience, I agree with the position of Tim Robbins and my friend about not paying the actors.  I also find myself righteously indignant that a national union has overruled the desires of its local affiliate, which, to me, feels like big government intruding on issues that are better understood and should therefore be handled at the local level.

Wait, did I just say that?  (This is my first signal that I may possibly be on the wrong track.)

Yes, I did say that.  Big government – big union – they don’t seem to get it.  (As you can see, I am not entirely ready to throw in the towel.)

Consider the following:

We are talking about a unique situation here – the Los Angeles theater scene, which differs significantly from the local theater situation anywhere else in the country. 

Major movie and television producers and talent scouts are unlikely to be sitting in the audience at a mounted production of Our Town in Schenectady.  (Oh, my God!  I spelled that right without even looking it up!)  Yes, those actors absolutely need to be protected. 

But if rising costs cause local theater to disappear, where will the L.A. actors go to be discovered?  Including the ones who arrived here from Schenectady?  (Nailed it again.)  Where also will these actors get an opportunity to hone their abilities?

Here’s another thing.  If the national actors’ union is concerned that the Los Angeles decision will trigger a groundswell of similar actions across the country… I mean, what are they worried about?  It seems highly unlikely that actors elsewhere will follow Los Angeles’s lead, demanding that they too not receive minimum wage.

Leading to my final point.  We are not discussing a living wage at Walmart here.  It’s nine dollars an hour, for a few actors irregularly participating in a handful of local productions.  If the producers say they can’t afford it, and the local actors say, “We don’t want it”, what’s the big deal in simply leaving things the way they are?

The big deal is that it matters. 

And I used to know that.

It’s very simple.

You do a job –

You are supposed to get paid.

(And other participants in local theatrical productions – musicians, the lighting guy, etc. – actually are.

What’s different about the actors?

America is a large and resonating culture.  But it is also a bubble.  It is hard to escape from a bubble primarily because you are unaware you are inside one. 

RICH PERSON’S CHILD:  You mean, poor children don’t have everything?

is my prototypical example.

Thank…whomever for my regular infusions of Vitamin “C” – the “C” standing for Canada.

Where they’ve still got their heads screwed on straight.

I need to get up to that place more often. 

Before I find myself fulminating,

“The gub’mint awta keep dey damn noses outtah aw bid’ness!

In an accent that is entirely foreign to my mouth.

Spouting words that were once alien to my thinking process.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"A Little Personal Perfect Storm"


An incompetent doofus, a machine, and Canadian solicitude – a volatile recipe with diabolical consequences.

The plane lands in Toronto.  I proceed through “Immigration”, collect my luggage, pass perfunctorily through “Customs” and enter the airport concourse.

My first order of business is to procure Canadian money.  Though I had retained a couple of slippery twenties from an earlier visit – yes, Canadian paper money is slippery; it’s a surprise the Queen’s picture doesn’t slide right off of it – being no better a driver north of the border than I am south of it, I knew I would be taking a lot of taxis on this trip – and as it turned out, the subway as well – and I would therefore require more disposable spondoolix. *  (* 1930’s slang for money.)

I find an ATM machine on the concourse.  I am not afraid of these machines.  I have been using them since I was fifty.

I slide my bank card into the machine.  From the available language options, I judiciously select “English”.  I punch in my identifying PIN number.  I select “Withdrawal.”  I ask for three hundred dollars.  There is a question concerning, “Do you want ‘conversion’, or don’t you?” and I am not sure what they are talking about.  I arbitrarily respond that I want it.

There is then a message on the screen,

“Thank you for using the blah-blah company’s ATM machine.”

And I am given a receipt for my transaction.

I wait, like, ten or fifteen seconds.

And no money comes out of the machine.

I am now officially confused.  Having already been “Thank you’d” and receipted, my assumption is that the machine has somehow skipped a significant step in the procedure –

The step where I am supposed to receive the money.

What do I do now?

Being me, I assume that, perhaps the machine but more likely – recognizing my well-documented technical ineptitude, myself – have made some kind of mistake during the ATM money-eliciting procedure.

So I try again.

(As I typed the above, abbreviated sentence, the Ren and Stimpy imprecation, “You Eediot!” began ringing in my ears.)

Why did I try it again?  I needed that money.  I am Figuring there was just a glitch in the procedure, and that this time, I will succeed.

Even if I do things exactly the same way.

Or maybe a little differently, offering a different response to the “conversion” question.  Maybe that’s what the problem was. 

He imagined, illogically.

I work my way through the procedure: “English”, PIN number, “Withdrawal”, “Three hundred dollars”…

The screen says, “Thank you for using the blah-blah company ATM machine…”

And provides me a (second) receipt.

Then I wait. 

And once again…

Not a single penny comes out of the machine.

I am understandably frustrated.  I am following the precise procedure that I follow and home,

And, as Mick Jagger famously lamented,

I can’t get no satisfaction out of this machine!

Rather than trying it a third time, I decide a take a hopefully ameliorating hiatus.  I walk over to a nearby (“Old School”) pay phone, and I call my brother, to inform him that I have arrived.

During our conversation, I feel a polite tapping on my shoulder.  A young man is telling me that there is a stack of money over at the ATM machine, and he believes that that money is mine.

I hang up with my brother, and I immediately race back.  In the interim, however, I am informed by the young man’s young companion that, after some programmed “Delay Period”, my stack of Canadian twenties has receded back into the machine.

Meaning – again – no money for yours truly.

What do I do now?

I scream inwardly at my predicament. 

I then request the two young fellows to stay with me…

As I make yet another attempt at using the machine.

Why not?  I appeared to be getting closer.

This time, after receiving my “Thank you” and my receipt, I wait attentively by the ATM machine, having determined that, in Canada, they are so eagerly solicitous of your patronage, contrary to my experience at home, they thank you before delivering the money.

Which, on my third attempt, dutifully arrives.

I am finally in possession of the funds I have requested.  Less happily, however, I now hold three receipts for a single transaction.

The question is…

Will my bank account be debited nine hundred dollars when I only actually received three hundred dollars?

On the bright side, the exchange rate on my American money is sensational.

And you know what?  Being me, I am actually relieved to have received anything.

Postscript:  The day after I return home, I visit my bank, carrying two receipts from that single transaction, the third receipt having been temporarily misplaced.  I detail my difficulties at the Toronto airport – “You know, in Canada, they say ‘Thank you’ before they give you the money?” – requesting an appropriate adjustment in my account.  To their credit, the bank eliminates one of the debited withdrawals.

Later at home, I discover the third receipt in my “carry-on.”

But I am too embarrassed to go back.