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 3, 2024

A Dark Day


From the first time I walked onto a soundstage, I liked going up high, where the work was always physical but relatively straightforward. The catwalks are a world apart from the clusterfuck of noise and confusion that so often infects the stage floor, where one or two loudmouths always seemed to be yelling about something. Some days were utterly terrifying, of course, but at least I knew that I was contributing in a meaningful way -- and in the process, earning every last penny of my paycheck ... and then some. Those days were very satisfying on many different levels.

Working thirty to forty-five feet or higher off the ground comes with inherent risks -- gravity has no mercy and takes no prisoners -- so you have to be careful, but the soundstages I started on at Paramount and Warner Brothers were in solid shape.  I felt safe on most of the non-union stages around town as well, although a few of the really old ones were decidedly sketchy.  My biggest worry when working up high was accidentally dropping a crescent wrench or screwdriver that might hit some poor bastard down on the stage floor. Still, most of those stages I worked on were built many decades ago, and time takes a toll on everything. Any studio that doesn't keep an eye on and maintain those catwalks is putting at risk the lives of crews who work up high. 

A terrible tragedy happened early last month at the CBS Studio in the valley -- "Radford" as it's known throughout Hollywood, which was my favorite studio and home lot for the last third of my career.  A  41-year-old lighting technician working a show on Stage 3, one of the oldest soundstages on the lot, was killed when the boards under his feet gave way with no warning. Exactly what happened remains unclear pending the investigation, but what matters is this: one moment Juan "Spike" Osorio was doing his job and the next moment he was falling forty feet to his death.  He wasn't out on the perms or doing anything remotely dangerous -- he was just doing the physical but routine task of wrangling cable up high, something every juicer does many times over the course of a career.  I spent countless days landing and dropping cable up high at Radford, although never on Stage 3, where Gunsmoke and many other shows were filmed way before my time in Hollywood. Never once in all those years did I worry about catwalk floorboards giving way like a trap door -- the possibility never entered my mind.  I'd spot occasional missing boards or a weak safety rail on the catwalks, and if I couldn't fix the issue right then and here, I'd report it to the studio rigging gaffer. Other than a few heart-pounding adventures out on the perms, I never felt in any danger up high, but it seems my confidence in the structural integrity of those stages was misplaced.  

The ripple effects of this tragedy won't be confined to Juan's widow and their families -- and here I speak from experience: nobody who was there will ever forget the sight and sounds of his violent death.  It's bad enough if you don't personally know the man, but if he was part of your crew and/or a friend, it's devastating. One way or another, everybody on that stage is a victim, and Spike's death will haunt them for a very long time.

Maybe I was just lucky during my years working up high -- I really don't know. All I can say for sure is that Juan Osorio didn't deserve to die on Stage 3: he should have finished his workday and gone home to his wife. There will doubtless be some kind of legal action and eventual settlement, but those things take time, so a GoFundMe has been established for his wife, who needs all the support she can get right now. I chipped in, but it was still short of the goal the last time I checked, so if you can help, please do.  If for whatever reason you can't contribute, please consider adding your voice to this online petition pressing for legislation to mandate that studios inspect, maintain, and repair sound stages. Let's do what we can to make sure what happened to Spike never happens to anybody else.


RIP, Spike.

I'd planned to write about other things this month, but shifting to another subject just doesn't feel right, so I'll save it for another day.



Debra Rowe said...

Oh Mike…I’m so sorry this happened. I’m grateful for the clear-eyed discussion you have brought to it.

I followed your links and reread your stories of working on the perms. I also saw the newer comments on your post describing the stunt fatality you witnessed. Those showed me the long tail these events have on all those left behind. Various therapeutic approaches may ease the trauma and time may ease the pain, but underneath, the question still looms. Why? Why do these things happen? Why am I still here and someone else not?

Thanks for the links to the fundraiser and the petition. My warmest wishes to all those suffering from the reverberations of this fatal accident.

Michael Taylor said...

Yeah, these things may fade with time, but they don't go away. Several more responses to that "Stunts" post came via e-mail, some from family members of the stunt man, others from people who'd know him. The memory haunts.

The kid I'm worried about was another of Spike's crew who was up high with him that morning. Apparently, he was working nearby with his back to Spike, then heard a "whoosh" ... and Spike was gone. I don't know that young man, or even his name, but I sure hope he's been provided with professional help to ease him through this rough passage. But a lot of these guys don't understand the power or utility of talk-therapy. I recall talking with one of the studio security guards a few years ago who'd had to cut down a grip who hung himself in the bathroom one day. He was clearly - and understandably - upset by that experience, but told me "They want me to talk about it, but what good is talking?" I told him it would help, but I don't know if he ever followed up.

Life isn't easy.

Thanks for tuning in...

Debra Rowe said...

Yet another horror I hadn’t considered.
I’m a firm believer in talk therapy but for some reason, it’s a really hard sell to others.
I’m looking forward to up your April blog. Hopefully we’ll all be able to be more upbeat (fingers crossed!)