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, May 10, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 58

         Little Richard, posing for a photo with an upstart band of nobodies way back when.

I'll confess that for a very long time, I didn't fully grasp the appeal of Little Richard or appreciate the enormous impact he had on the music and cultural life of America.* He was entertaining, all right -- a veritable wild man on stage at the piano -- but in so many ways, I just didn't "get" it. Maybe that's what happens when you grow up way out in the sticks, milking goats every evening after school, in a family that didn't even have a television set until I was eight years old. Then one day I stepped off the school bus -- mine was the very last stop on that narrow, winding two-lane road -- and looked across the valley to see something astonishing: a TV antenna on the roof of our house.

This was a very big deal. It meant I'd no longer have to make the long, dark walk to and from our nearest neighbor's house every Sunday night to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, and that my family would now gather around this new technological hearth to enjoy The Ed Sullivan Show, The Honeymooners, Amos and AndyHave Gun: Will Travel, and Gunsmoke, among many others. Some of those shows were filmed and broadcast in color, but I didn't know that -- it would be ten more years before my folks had a color TV, and by then I'd have one foot out the door on a road that would eventually lead me to Hollywood.  

At some point (I really don't remember exactly when), I saw Little Richard perform "Tutti Frutti" on that TV, and didn't really know what to think.  

Thirty years later, I worked as Gaffer on a commercial for the game "Trivial Pursuit," a spot that starred DeForest Kelley ("Bones," from the original Star Trek series), Don Adams ("Maxwell Smart," from the series Get Smart), Evel Knievel, and Little Richard.  Having more or less come of age watching Star Trek and Get Smart, I was tickled to work with Kelly and Adams, and Evel Knievel had made a huge impression on me in my late teens, but truth be told, I still didn't know what to think of Little Richard.

So there we were, filming in a lovely house in the wealthy enclave of Hancock Park, and in came Little Richard, dressed to the nines and as flamboyant as ever. He sat at the piano and riffed for a while, then we got ready to do the shot. I kneeled next to the lens of the camera, holding a white bounce card to reflect light onto Little Richard, not quite five feet from the man. At the call of "action!", he hit a chord on the piano, then leaned right into that lens and yelled "A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" at the top of his lungs.

It felt like a bomb had gone off in that room. My jaw dropped as I felt the concussive power and focused energy of this man at very close range, and suddenly -- finally -- I understood in a very real way what a force of nature Little Richard really was, and why he'd been so wildly popular. That's a moment I'll never forget.

He was also a very nice guy, gregarious and friendly with everyone on set, handing each of us a little book of religious aphorisms, and always with a big smile.

RIP, Little Richard. You made your mark on music as few others have.


As the Covid Crisis grinds on, the death toll mounting by the hour, the question of when and how the film/television industry will return to work continues to reverberate through the industry. Everybody has ideas, but nobody has any answers yet, and it'll be a while before we know the shape of Hollywood's future -- but one thing seems certain: there will be no return to normal for a long time. This virus doesn't care what Trump or anybody else says, and will keep infecting and killing people until science comes up with an effective vaccine to stop it. If we're lucky, a medical breakthrough will occur sooner rather than later, but unless that happens, the oft-repeated best-case scenario for such a vaccine is eighteen months -- and that's if the testing, development, and production plans work out as hoped. If not, the wait could be longer.

There are only so many shows in the pipeline, and sooner or later, the broadcast, cable, and streaming networks will run out of new offerings -- and their paying audience will lose patience for re-runs, which means one way or another, some degree of production will resume. So will crews working on set look like this?

                                    (Photo courtesy of Movie Set Memes)

Or this?

                                               (Photo courtesy of Julian Terry)

I don't know, but here's an interesting piece from a guy who has a vision of our future. Some of what he says makes sense, but not all of it -- then again, it's all speculation at this point. It seems clear that the changes enabling a resumption of production will be cumbersome and unwelcome, and may be in force for a long time. In an industry that was still in the bruising process of adjusting to tectonic changes brought about by the digital revolution, this virus brings more unwelcome disruption. New opportunities and modes of filmmaking will doubtless emerge from all this, but the collateral damage suffered by those who do the heavy lifting on set will be immense as Hollywood struggles to survive the shifting sands of modern times. 

There's another alternative, of course, which should scare the hell out of anybody who has built a career working set. It's nowhere near ready for prime time in terms of replacing live action filming and human actors, but you can bet that a lot of money and brainpower is being poured into this kind of effort. Will it work? For some applications, yes, but not for the kind of television we're accustomed to watching nowadays, and certainly not for the big $200 million dollar tent pole spectaculars Hollywood has come to depend on.

Not yet, anyway...    

Stay safe out there.

* One of Little Richard's early bands was made up of the young Billy Preston, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix. That's one hell of a lineup,