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, September 11, 2016

Winds of Change

The "Extra Guy"
                                       Pay phone just off Hollywood Blvd

Autumn leaves have begun to fall, as much due to five years of sustained drought as the subtle shift of seasons here in Southern California. Still, it's a lovely time of year, when the clear, hard light of the low-hanging sun, cool breezes, and deep blue skies herald the coming of change. Summer isn't quite done with us yet, of course -- October will bring back the heat with Santa Ana winds howling down from the rugged mountains along our northeastern flanks. Then will come the fires, great raging infernos driven by those fierce winds to a blowtorch intensity that will incinerate hillsides, homes, and anything else that happens to be in the way.

It's happened before and will happen again. Such is the cost of living in this crowded entropical paradise, and the price of change, which -- according to the wisdom of the ancients  -- is our one true constant in life.

Change is in the air, and as the "extra guy" on the show I helped rig a few weeks ago, my new role is to wait for the phone to buzz with an incoming text message whenever they need a little help. It's rarely a last-second thing -- if they want me on Monday, I'll usually get the text on Friday -- but unless and until I hear from the Best Boy, I don't know if the next week will bring any work at all.

In this oh-so-tribal business, I'm now a man without a tribe -- and that's a very strange feeling.

It's ironic that after nearly 40 years in the biz, my mode of securing employment is much the same now as when I first started out, except in those days the work calls usually came via an answering service staffed by actual human beings. Back then, I'd hand out business cards with my home phone and answering service number to anybody and everybody who would take one -- if I was out when someone called, they'd dial the service and leave a message. When on a job, I'd call the service from a pay phone (back when they were plentiful, clean, and actually worked) to see if any messages were waiting, then I'd call in again after getting home. At the time, this was standard operating procedure for free-lance workbooks trying to stay alive and get ahead in Hollywood.

Needless to say, the world -- and this town -- moved a lot slower in those days.

The advent of telephone answering machines in the early 80's sent those answering services the way of the Dodo Bird and Passenger Pigeon, then along came pagers and flip-phones to shove answering machines to the back shelf. Now those too have a been relegated to the trash heap of techno-history, supplanted by the ne plus ultra in 24/7 personal and professional connectivity -- smart phones.

I'm not sure any of this marks actual progress, but what I think doesn't matter. The new reality just keeps steamrolling along, leaving those who refuse to adapt behind to fight off the buzzards, hyenas, and other carrion-eaters.

This show usually gives me two days a week -- the heavy-lift of Monday and the show-wrap on Friday night. Things are busy enough in town these days that I could probably fill up my weekly dance card by calling the local and going "on the books," which would doubtless generate calls for all-night condor duty, ball-busting 6:00 A.M. rigging calls (at cable rate), and whatever other scraps fall from the employment table of Hollywood.

Twenty years ago, I'd have done exactly that, but not anymore. My days as a front-line soldier in the Set Lighting infantry are over and done -- like an old mule, I'm too old and broken down for really heavy lifting now -- so I just take two of these every night…

…. and wait for those Mondays and Fridays.

This is as good a situation as I'm likely to find at this point , and if three days a week would be a whole lot better, two days will have to do. After all these years in LA, I've got plenty of wheat to sort from chaff as I consolidate what should accompany me north in my post-Hollywood life, and what will have to find another home.

That takes time -- time that I now have.

Still, such a limited work schedule takes some getting used to, and I'm not quite there yet. As the eight-hour guy (meaning that's both the least and the most I'll be paid for on any given day), I come in with the rest of the crew for the Monday afternoon lighting call, where it's up-ladder, down-ladder, move-ladder-and-repeat as we rough in the lighting for two or three swing sets. Although we rarely work the full eight hours, we don't stop for much, either -- the work is steady, fast, and hard. By the time I get home -- and the next morning -- I really feel those Mondays.

Friday -- show day -- is very different. I'm there to help the two juicers and Best Boy with the post-show wrap, and nothing more. That means taking a late afternoon call rather than coming in at 10:00 in the morning with the rest of the crew. But since Friday traffic in LA is absolutely brutal, I'm always early.* One benefit is getting to partake in the pre-show crew dinner, but by the time I arrive, only a few stragglers remain.

The food is good, but eating alone at the table, I'm again reminded of my tribe-less status.

After dinner, I find a place to read for a while (note to self: always bring a book on Fridays…), then wander over to the stage between five and six p.m. The show is well underway by then, but the core crew has it covered -- they don't need or want me out on the floor, so I watch from the shadows for a while, then head back to the Gold Room and wait for wrap. When it finally comes, we'll kick in the afterburners until the Best Boy tells us all to go home.

I look forward to that -- working hard with the team to get the job done -- but sitting around doing nothing has never come easy for me. Still, it's all part of being the "extra guy." I'm here to serve the needs of the lighting crew in whatever capacity they require, not lead the charge up Mt. Suribachi as a first-string juicer anymore, and if I'm not entirely comfortable with that role, tough shit.

They're not paying me to be "comfortable," but simply to do my job.

This is just one more transition as I move towards a very different life, a time when the ground is shifting under my feet on all fronts. The bell tolls louder with each passing week bearing a message impossible to ignore -- and suddenly I understand why so many of my former crew-mates were reluctant to retire when the time finally came. They talked a good game beforehand about how great it was going to be once they quit, but as the day drew near, it was obvious they had mixed feelings.

Me too. It's no easy thing to walk out a door that I worked so hard to kick open forty years ago.  Whatever path you choose in Hollywood, it's always difficult for an outsider to break in -- and once you do, you still have to work your ass off every single day to prove that you really do belong. The paying of your dues never stops, because it's all part of earning -- and keeping -- your tribal stripes.

A sustained ovation from the audience signals the curtain call, and the end of tonight's show. I strap on the tools of ignorance and head out onto the stage floor, where I run into one of the make-up girls -- a woman my age who I haven't seen for a while. We worked together on some god-awful low-budget, non-union features way back in the good old/bad old days, and now she too is preparing to retire. A stunning blonde beauty back then, she remains so today -- and how she manages to look so good, I'll never understand.

I look in the mirror these days and don't even recognize the old man looking back.

It's good to see her again, and remember the days when working on crappy movies was fun and everything seemed possible. Now that all of our youthful energy and enthusiasm has long since crashed and burned on the hard rocks of Hollywood reality, it's nearly time for her to retire with her third husband to the Carolinas, and me to my shack in the woods.

"Tempus fugit," the Roman poet Virgil warned -- and he was right.

But her work day is over, while mine has only begun. With one last wistful smile, she turns and is gone. I pull my head out of the technicolor past, then don my gloves, grab a ladder, and join the rest of the crew wrapping those swing sets. Getting the work done is what matters now -- and for the first time all day, I'm finally back in my comfort zone.

Maybe some things don't change after all...

* As the extra guy on Will&Grace for the final two seasons, it once took me 90 minutes to drive six miles to the studio one Friday night -- so I don't take chances anymore


Anonymous said...

Big respect for someone who does what it takes to show up on time.

I can't say I've always been perfect (just out of college I struggled with this).

I am curious about the retirement side. IATSE has pension plan(s) - so with the time you've got under your belt and assuming something like a 2.5% pension credit and relatively full time work - that can end up being a reasonably good number if you can make it to 65 and avoid the reduction factor of early retirement. Combined with social security, and if you can do some side work non-theatrical (ie, wouldn't cause a suspension in benefits) - it's could be a good life in the sunset on the finance side.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

The IA pension isn't great for anybody, but retirees who put in 30+ years and accrue the full 60,000 hours -- when combined with their SS payments -- will be in reasonably good shape so long as they watch their spending. I didn't get my IA card until I'd already spent 15 years working non-union and NABET jobs, and thus have less than half the hours required to qualify for the full pension. That means I won't be living high on the hog in retirement as I stumble towards the grave.

On the brighter side, this business beats us up so badly that retirees tend to die off pretty fast, which means I probably won't run out of money before that final call of "wrap."

So there's that...