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, August 4, 2019


                                       "Fickt nicht mit dem Raketemensch"                
                                      From Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Anyone not holed up in a dark, remote cave for the past few weeks has been reminded -- repeatedly -- of the first manned moon landing that took place fifty years ago. Some great documentaries were broadcast in the week leading up to this anniversary, most notably Chasing the Moon, a riveting six hour film produced by the team at American Experience for PBS.

This was a mesmerizing walk down memory lane for me, but I can understand how those who weren't around in the 60's might have a hard time understanding just how momentous the events of the late 60's really were. They've grown up with those grainy images of astronauts walking on the moon as part of the cultural background noise -- in essence, wallpaper -- along with the assassinations of JKF, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, the four students killed by National Guard troops at Kent State, race riots that torched large sections of many American cities, and of course, Woodstock.* Those were all major events in my world at the time, but I don't suppose any generation can fully grasp the tectonic impact of history that unfolded before they were born.**

The mid-to late 60's sure as hell weren't "a more innocent time," not with four hundred young Americans coming home in body bags every week from Vietnam. There was a very real sense of tumult in the air, of the old order being challenged by the new. In many ways it was a dark, chaotic, bloody era of societal, cultural, and political upheaval, but there was some good as well. Although the lows were gut-wrenching, the highs were spectacular, as best exemplified by the music and the space race.

Having come of age back then, I've always felt bad that the kids who followed didn't get to experience those moon landings first-hand. Sure, they had the space shuttle, a wonderful versatile  craft designed to help construct and support the International Space Station, but traveling to, landing on, and returning from the moon was something very different, especially with the relatively crude technology of the 60's. It was an astonishing, thrilling era to live through. Although it's become something of a cliché, the world really did feel different for a few days, with millions of people around the globe united by watching (on live television) the jaw-dropping spectacle of a human being -- one of us -- walking on the moon.

At the time, I had no inkling I was destined for Hollywood.  Inspired by the early days of the space race, I was fascinated by rockets, and soon began building my own -- not the safe-and-sane prefab model rockets that would later become available at hobby stores, but rockets made down in the basement from steel and aluminum tubes, powered by a variety of fuels.  Ever-hopeful that I might be on the road to becoming a scientist, my dad supported these projects, buying the chemicals I needed: powdered zinc, sulfur, and potassium nitrate, among others.  Some of those rockets were duds, while others blew up, but a glorious few flew straight and high into the sky, which was satisfying beyond words.  For several years I corresponded with rocket clubs all over the country via snail mail, exchanging photos and stories of our successes and failures. In some ways, that might have been the most exciting and creative period of my life.

So... you're probably wondering what the hell does any of this have to do with life in Hollywood or working on movies and television?  There's a connection, however oblique. While pouring over the few books on rocketry in my elementary school library, I came across accounts describing how UFA (one of the German production companies) hired rocket expert Hermann Oberth to help design of the moon rocket for Fritz Lang's film Frau im Mond (Woman on the Moon).

There's a history of rockets and space travel in the silent film era, offering futuristic (albeit highly fantastical) visions of how space flight might work. Later films would portray more sophisticated versions of space flight, and by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968 -- just one year before the first moon landing -- the space race had infused us with a sense of what was possible. The notion that humans might someday travel to other planets no longer felt like a Buck Rogers fantasy.

I followed all the moon missions: the second lunar landing with Apollo 12, the harrowing near-catastrophe of Apollo 13,  then Apollo 14, 15, and 16, during which NASA sent cars to the moon with the astronauts -- essentially, high tech dune buggies that vastly extended the range of their lunar explorations. Although imminently practical, this was also as purely American as you can get: flying a quarter million miles through space to land on another world, then hop out and drive around in a car.  Amidst all that, along came Alan Shepard and his infamous lunar golf shot.

With the Apollo program ending in 1975, and the first space shuttle launch not due until 1981, there were no more televised launches for a long while. Although two Viking spacecraft would successfully land on Mars in 1976 (I still recall seeing that newspaper headline), public attention moved on. I was busy too, finishing up my thesis film, chasing pretty girls around the sleepy little college town of Santa Cruz, and preparing to embark on a journey of my own -- one that would land me on the decidedly alien world of Hollywood.

You know the rest -- and if you don't, it'll all be in the book.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing was the most astonishing thing I ever witnessed. Maybe I'll live long enough to see people walk on Mars, and maybe not, but it will probably happen anyway, generating an unforgettable moment for the young generation of the day. Still, there's only one first time -- you can't catch the same magic twice. Landing on Mars will be something very special, but I doubt it will equal the global moment humanity shared when the first man set foot on the moon.

* Well, not so much Woodstock. We heard about it out here on the Left Coast, of course, but with no internet or instantaneous social media reporting at the time, none of us could fully appreciate that legendary happening until the documentary finally hit theaters. Instead, I went to Altamont, which was supposed to be a West Coast bookend to Woodstock, but ended up a very different experience...

** I touched on some of this in another post a few years ago, after the death of Neil Armstrong.