Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Five


I parked in the Gower structure, then crossed the street to enter Paramount Studios, pausing -- as always -- to glance over my left shoulder at that big white Hollywood sign high in the parched brown hills above Los Angeles. There's no escaping the sense of cinematic history here at Paramount, which always has a fresh coat of paint, but never went in for the massive steel-and-glass reboot of the sort that turned so many other major studios into cold, modern, corporate entities.* The echoes of movie history surround you at Paramount: walking down those narrow alleys between the production and casting offices, you can feel it, with the buildings named after luminaries of our cinematic past -- the Gloria Swanson Building, Marx Brother's Building, Bing Crosby Building, Bob Hope Building, the Joseph Von Sternberg Building, and more, including this one:

Like I said, history.

Squinting against the blinding LA sun, I pushed through the heavy double doors into the cool, dim sanctuary of Stage 25, where -- after a moment for my eyes to adjust -- I beheld a scene as old as Hollywood itself: seventy young male and female dancers warming up and stretching out their muscles in the audience seating area. The sight of so many lovely young women clad in form-fitting dance outfits stopped me in my tracks. One in particular caught my eye -- a classic hollywood beauty with wavy blond hair and a taut, athletic body that just wouldn't quit.

The blazing fires of youth may be but a distant memory for this aging juicer, but the embers still smolder -- hey, I'm not quite dead yet.

Galvanized by a sharp command from the choreographer, the dancers filed out of the grandstand onto the stage floor, where they continued to limber up, all the while talking and laughing with each other. None of them seemed to have a care in the world, but like so many things in this town, that was an illusion.  However genial this group seemed, they were about to engage in a series of elimination rounds to determine who among them would make the cut for the shows one big dance number. With seventy dancers competing for just fourteen spots, the vast majority of these smiling, enthusiastic young people would end this day on a sour note of disappointment -- and they all knew it.

The zero-sum equation of show business is undeniably cruel, but it forms the foundational pillar upon which our industry stands: many knock on the door, but few get in. It's the nature of the beast.

Soon they broke into sections of twenty or so, each group preparing to perform for an audience of three who held the power of decision. It wasn't quite Busby Berkeley, but still very impressive -- these kids could really move.**

I've never been a big fan of dance, modern or otherwise, but when any activity is done exceptionally well, it's obvious even to those not predisposed to appreciate it. These young people -- "hoofers," in the archaic jargon of Old Hollywood -- were dancing their hearts out to win a job. Watching them work so hard, I could feel the presence of a bygone era when mastering the skills of dance was essential for those who hoped to climb the ladder of success in Hollywood. It's not that way anymore, but watching these skilled young dancers go through their paces served as a tangible reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Unfortunately, that brief glimpse was all I had time for -- duty called on Stage 26, where the lighting for three more sets needed attention. On my way out, I passed a couple of young female dancers waiting their turn.

"Good luck," I nodded, and meant it. In a fair, just, and happy world where unicorns frolic across rainbows, they'd all win spots on the show -- and Busby Berkeley himself would emerge from his desert crypt to orchestrate another kaleidoscopically hypnotizing routine -- but ours is not such a world. All too aware of that, the young women offered quick smiles in return, then went about the serious business of warming up.

Because that's what this is -- show business -- and nobody knew that more than these young dancers.

We toiled late into the night before heading home. Arriving back on stage the next day, I ran into the 2nd AD, and asked how the winnowing process had gone.

"It was tough," she said, shaking her head. "We had thirty in final group, and they were all just terrific. Any of them would have been great for the show, but decisions had to be made -- then I had to deliver the bad news."

On the main set, the lucky fourteen -- a diverse group of white, black, brown, and asian men and women -- were busy working out the kinks in the big show-closing number under the critical eye of the choreographer… and there among them was that stunning blond from the day before. I wasn't surprised that she made the cut -- the combination of beauty and talent has always been a winner in Hollywood.

Some things really are eternal.

Still, I couldn't help thinking about all the other dancers who didn't make it. They were probably back at their day jobs, working as waiters, waitresses, or Uber drivers, the heady excitement of yesterday's mass audition just a memory now. But losing out on a job -- and learning to handle the disappointment -- is all part of the process. They'll be scanning the trades and checking their phones soon enough, ready to hit the next audition -- and the one after that -- hoping for their chance to break through. Because once that happens, who knows what might come next? After all, this is Hollywood, where hope springs eternal and the sky's the limit.

But that was enough philosophical musing for one day. With yet more lights waiting to be hung, powered, and adjusted, it was time for us to get to work.

On with the show.

Next: Pilot Season, Part Six

* For the most part, anyway.  The old Western Street back lot has long since been replaced by modern office buildings -- but the entire west side of the studio is pretty much as it was fifty years ago.  

** If you've never seen Berkeley's epic Gold Diggers of 1933, you've missed out. Is it corny as hell?  Of course -- hell, it was made more than seventy years ago -- but it's also utterly astonishing…

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