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, March 22, 2015

Part Five: Long Night's Journey into Day

Leaving Las Vegas
                                     Lessons learned…

(This is Part Five of the series -- the finale -- which means you really should read the other four parts first (starting here), lest this tale of youthful blundering and ignorance make no sense at all…)

Staring at the wrecked generator on the freeway in the dark Utah night as the occasional semi roared by… what to do next?  Being deep in the pre-digital Analog Age of the late 1970's -- no cell phones, internet, or any of the other digital baubles so essential to modern life -- our only recourse was to wait.

So we waited, pondering the string of near-disasters that had led us to this point.  This was bad, for sure -- a busted-up genny and no way to haul it back to LA -- but compared to what could have happened during any one of our three fateful encounters with reality this day, we'd escaped with the cosmic equivalent of a bitch-slap. The Gods of Karma threw just enough trouble at us to get our full attention, providing a vivid demonstration of how quickly the shit can hit the fan when an easily avoidable problem is ignored and allowed to metastasize -- but that's all.  

Maybe those Gods actually did have a heart, or at least a sense of proportion. 

It wasn't long before a Utah Highway Patrol cruiser pulled over to see what was going on. The officer surveyed the situation, then radioed for a tow truck to get the genny -- nothing but a road hazard now -- off that highway. Twenty minutes later the tow truck was dragging it to a barren field on the outskirts of a nearby town as we followed in the five ton. While unhooking the wreckage, the driver mentioned that he knew a guy with a forklift who could probably be persuaded to help us out.

"There's a U-Haul yard in town," he said. "If Vern can shoehorn this thing into one of their trailers, you just might get it back to LA."

That sounded like a plan. We found a hotel for the night, then got up bright and early the next morning to call Vern the Forklift Man, who agreed to meet us at the genny and see what he could do -- for twenty bucks. Then we hit the Uhaul office to rent a small trailer, and headed for the field. 

Vern turned out to be a genial, taciturn, and very capable fellow -- the kind of guy who says "no problem" to whatever the situation requires, then gets the job done without making a big deal out of it. He maneuvered the forks under the genny and lifted it into the air... but it was just a little too wide to fit inside the trailer.

"No problem," he said, then unbolted both wheels from the genny and easing it into the trailer, thus earning every penny of that twenty dollar bill. We shoved the wheels and what was left of the tongue in with the rest of the wreckage, and were more or less good to go. 

Granted, we were bleary-eyed with fatigue, running low on cash, and considerably more humble than we'd been just 24 hours before, but it was time finish this long, troubled journey.  

I'd been at the wheel most of the way thus far -- why, I really don't know -- and all that driving finally worn me down. Crashing hard from the combined effects of adrenaline, Jack Daniels,  amphetamines, and very little sleep, I surrendered the wheel to my partner in crime, then slumped in the passenger's seat to watch the scenery go by as we crawled through Utah into Nevada, and finally Las Vegas. Following orders dictated in Sun Valley ("Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke," were the Gaffer's exact words), we returned those thirty-six expensive FAY globes to the rental house in Las Vegas without mentioning that every single one was now burned-out and useless. The Gaffer would have to deal with the family shit-storm once his rental-house relatives figured it out -- which they would -- but our only concern now was to get this truck back to LA.

That final three hundred miles was one long, ugly grind. I slept much of the way, occasionally coming to in the endless dark, then falling back asleep. I finally awoke for good as we passed through the barren desolation of San Bernardino, watching the sky brighten as we rolled into LA. 

In contrast with Day One of our return journey, Day Two ended not with a bang, but a quiet whimper. The owner of the rental house  -- old, fat, and sullen -- stood on the loading dock with a few of his warehouse crew, watching in silence as we pulled into the yard, parked the truck, pulled our bags from the back, then threw them in the car.    

Nobody said a word: not us, not him, not them. That UHaul trailer hitched to the back of the truck -- where the generator used to be -- said it all. 

We were beyond caring at that point, hollow-eyed with exhaustion and done with this job in more ways than one. Fuck the genny, fuck the truck, and fuck the Uhaul trailer -- somebody else could deal with all that.  And apparently someone did, because I never heard another word about it.

It took me years to realize it, but I'd learned more life-lessons on that first distant location job than during my previous two-and-a-half decades on earth. This was only the start of my post-graduate education, of course -- the lessons would keep coming, one after another, as the years piled on. Truth be told, I'm still learning on set to this day, thirty-odd years later. If you're paying attention, the learning never stops.

We met the Gaffer for breakfast at a Denny's in the valley a week later, where he paid us each $750 in cash for those two hard weeks.  Fully rested and recovered by then, I was thrilled. Up to that point, the most I'd made in Hollywood was $65 a day on a cheap commercial for "Lee's Bar Stools," featuring a guy with a chainsaw sawing (what else…) a bar stool in half on camera to prove it was made of real wood.  

Classy, huh?  But you take what you can get when you're starting out, and back then, $750  was a king's ransom to me.**

I never heard any blowback about the generator we destroyed or the great FAY globe burn, and can only assume that the Gaffer and his relatives settled things their own way, within the family.**  Whatever -- that was their business, not mine -- but the lessons I learned on that Sun Valley adventure formed the foundation upon which my Hollywood education would subsequently take shape, and they've served me well ever since. Those were lessons learned the hard way, the kind you don't forget. Ask any industry veteran: one way or another, we've all been there at some point in our careers.  

I went on to work dozens of distant locations over the next twenty years (before retreating to the world of multi-camera shows on stage) and although each was challenging in its own way -- for very different reasons -- there's only one first time for everything.  

Sun Valley was my first, and like the song says, "there's nothing like the very first time."

I wouldn't want to do it again, but I'm glad I did it then -- and survived.

* Roughly $2,200 nowadays.

** A little google research and an inflation calculator revealed that the cost of those blown FAY globes back then would be well over $4000 in today's money. That's quite a burn.


Anonymous said...

Wow.. that was a great frickn read. You're right.. as the years slide past us, there is so much more to see in that rearview mirror. And from all our experiences, particularly in our industry, we do get so much better at how to stomp out those fires. Just like the forklift driver out there in Utah. I can just imagine all the situations he'd experienced before your call to him. Thanks for the memories. Loved this one. k

A.J. said...

Honestly, I'm a little bummed this is the last installment of this truely epic tale.

It was a fantastic read, Michael. Thanks for sharing it!

Ed (Sloweddi) said...

After a long absence I am back from the dead.
A wonderful read.

JB Bruno said...

As one of my mentors used to say - you can't make this stuff up.

It's nostalgic and real at the same time - a very special tale for all of us, especially those who can't appreciate the "analog" days.

We are in your debt. Thanks much, Michael.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

We all learned so much from those cool, calm, and competent adults who pulled our asses out of the fire when we were young fools. Glad you liked it, and thanks for tuning in…

AJ --

That's high praise coming from someone who tells such very good stories -- thanks!

Ed --

I was wondering where you went. Welcome back -- and thanks…

JB --

Hey, I was just following your lead -- long form, multi-part post story-telling is your specialty. Thanks so much for the kind words.

Jerry www said...

Years ago Tino Barzi called me to shoot stills on a show in Vegas, referred by someone I didn't know. When we hit the pay part his offer was a good day rate back then, but he said no, that it was the weekly rate, so I passed. His counter offer? You can charge whatever you want to your room, but I still said no. He then repeated "You can charge whatever you want to your room", since the film was being funded by the husband of the young female starlet, this was the guy who owned that not to be named here hotel. On the third or fourth repetition it dawned on me that "whatever you want" could include hookers, coke, "whatever", but I just couldn't afford to be out of town for an extended stay at a low rate. A while later I found out that Orson Welles was in the film, I still have the bruises from kicking myself in the ass for missing the chance to work with him. Live long and perspire indeed.

Michael Taylor said...

Jerry -

I know who you're talking about here, and that's one hell of a story. The closest I ever got to working with Welles was seeing him while on a visit to the old EDD office on McAdden in Hollywood -- back in the days when we actually had to wait in line twice a month to get our unemployment checks.

Sounds like you missed a great opportunity -- and man, I feel your pain. Free hookers, coke AND Orson Welles -- that's a cosmic trifecta.

I'd be kicking myself too...

D said...

Great story. I sometimes miss those days of sleeping on friend's floors in the Glendale Extended Stay, or seven hour drives to Wilmington, NC to start a show at a moments notice in a broken down pinto powered by cigarettes, beer, and the same Stevie Ray Vaughn tape playing over and over. Thanks for the memories.

Michael Taylor said...

D --

I sometimes miss those days too, but mostly because back then I was young and could tolerate absurd levels of stupidity, ignorance, and abuse -- and still have a great time. That kind of resilience is priceless.

Now I've reached the age where I have to think three times before doing pretty much of anything, and nothing is anywhere near as much fun as it used to be.

Bring me the needle, Nurse Rachett -- I'm ready.

Still, you can't go wrong with Stevie Ray Vaughn -- some things never change. And thank God for that.

Thanks for tuning in...