A company town

I first posted this back in December 2018, but in light of current events and the effect that COVID-19 has had on the entertainment industry, it’s worth the reminder: a good part of the economy of L.A. is powered by the entertainment industry, which has been shut down — and attempts to start it up again have not always been successful. It’s also an appropriate reminder for Labor Day.

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Studio City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I work in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!

The Saturday Morning Post #29: The Rêves, Part 7

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Paperwork

Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.

She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.

She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.

The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.

“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?

She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.

And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.

She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.

They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.

She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.

Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.

Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.

Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.

She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.

Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.

Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.

This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”

And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.

Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”

When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.

“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”

It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”

“Stop! They might hear you.”

“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”

“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.

The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.

But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.

It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.

By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.

Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.

So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.

Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.

After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.

Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”

And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.

* * *

Tailed

The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.

It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.

The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.

But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.

Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.

Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.

“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”

They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.

The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.

Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.

Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.

“Did you — ” Simon started.

“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.

Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
LEO?: NO

“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”

“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.

“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.

“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.

“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”

Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.

The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.

“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.

“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.

“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.

It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.

She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.

But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.

“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”

“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”

“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.

“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”

“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.

“And how would that one know?”

“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.

“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.

“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.

“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”

“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.

“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”

“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.

“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”

“Next week,” Simon replied.

“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”

Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.

Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”

In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.

* * *

Friday Free-for-all #25

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Where are some unusual places you’ve been?

Most of the unusual places I’ve been to revolve around entertainment, although it’s not that they’re so much emotional, per se, they’re just places that a lot of the general public doesn’t get to go.

I’ve stood on the stages at South Coast Rep, the Mark Taper Forum, and the L.A. Theater Center, was produced on the first and performed on the third. I’ve also been all over backstage at SCR and LATC, and they are fascinating places.

They’re also a huge contrast to the backstage areas of the many smaller theaters I’ve performed in, where you’re lucky if the booth is bigger than a closet and if there’s anything resembling a dressing room.

Backstages at the big theaters are usually much larger than the stage and lobby combined, at least in area although not necessarily in volume. A big regional theater will have everything back there — lots of dressing rooms, a full costume shop and wardrobe department, set design and construction, a prop department with its own workshop, offices for all of the designers, producers, and other creatives, and quite frequently storage for costumes, props, and set pieces to be ready at hand if they need to be repurposed to the next production.

The thing that really impressed me about LATC, though was the sheer size of it. To the public, it’s a five story building, although the entrances to the theatres are only from the lobby, the second floor, and the basement.

Behind the scenes, though, there are two floors up with rehearsal rooms and the like, but the really amazing part is what’s underneath that first basement.

It’s five floors up and five floors down, and although I never got to fully explore those basements, that was where a lot of the construction work was done. It was also where the dressing rooms were, on two separate floors. The amazing perspective was how those various floors connected to the theaters, which revealed the true art of deception.

What people didn’t realize is that several of the theaters, while appearing to be no more than one level below ground actually went far deeper than that. It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, there were entrances to the mainstage from both the 4th and 5th basement levels, although the latter did have a ramp up. But you could still get to the stage from the 2nd basement.

But the even more unusual places were working film and TV sets, and especially studio backlots. Now you may or may not have been on the Universal Studios tour at some point and it’s fun but, of course, it’s mostly centered around taking people through the various attractions hidden all over the place, with views of the backlot just a bonus.

My POV of that backlot is entirely different because I spent over a year on that lot in a writing program, and when we were on breaks, we were pretty much free-range writers. I used to love to just wander all over that backlot, and one of the most fascinating things to me was the enormous difference in scale and the deceptiveness of the layout.

We had all gone on the tour at the beginning of the program just for fun, and it makes the backlot seem enormous compared to how it’s really laid out. But once I started wandering around it, I realized that everything was much closer to everything else. The New York Street set is right next to Courthouse Square from Back to the Future — although that’s kind of obvious from the tram. But… the fake suburban streets, the Psycho House, the European Courtyard, and the Five Points western set are all pretty much on top of each other.

From the tram, this detail is basically hidden by the fact that the back of an outdoor set looks pretty much like the back of an indoor set — plain wood, beams, and slats, so one is indistinguishable from another. The only difference is that the backlot buildings do have volume, so the other side of back wall you’re looking at does look like the real interior wall of an actual building on the other side.

I should mention that actually walking into one of these buildings when it does have practical (working) doors is pretty surreal, too. They’re built so that what can be seen looks real, but otherwise, it’s all just scaffolds and c-clamps.

Over my lifetime, I think I’ve been on just about every major studio lot in town — Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, CBS Radford, CBS Television City, ABC Prospect, Dreamworks Animation, MGM, although I don’t remember what studio it was known as at the time, and Jim Henson Studios, formerly A&M Records, formerly owned by CBS, and built and founded by Charlie Chaplin.

Universal Studios fun fact: back in the day, it was easier to sneak from the touristy parts onto the backlot than the other way around, at least if you knew where the door was. That’s not the case anymore, of course.

That’s kind of true of all of the studios. Before 9/11, once you got onto a backlot, you could pretty much wander around at will. Sure, it took a little bit of confidence and attitude, but if you looked like you knew where you were going, nobody would question you.

Why? Because of that old Hollywood fear of not realizing that the person you were confronting was someone important who could get you fired in an instant.

One of my favorite moments happened at Paramount. I’d been sent up there by my day job to get a signature on some union-related paperwork from a TV director. Mission accomplished, I figured I’d take a bit of a stroll, so I’m wandering past the soundstages with a file folder in my hand.

It’s the middle of a weekday, so they are actively filming, but as I turn down the road between rows of stages, a guard is coming my way, and he starts to approach me with that, “What the hell are you doing here?” look.

But… as luck would have it, the red light outside of the soundstage we’re in front of comes on right as he’s about to speak. In case you don’t know, that light means that they’re shooting inside, so everyone outside needs to stay quiet.

Perfect timing, because before he can say a word, I point at the light and give him an annoyed look and he meekly shuts up and goes along his way, to let me go along mine. I didn’t stick around too long after that, but I felt vindicated.

My absolutely favorite studio experience, though, was at one you’ve probably never heard of and, in fact, one that didn’t even really look like a studio, despite having the word in its name.

It was the Santa Clarita Studios, in the town of the same name, and it looked like an industrial park. However, on the inside was where they housed the standing sets (as well as built the temp ones) for a little show called Melrose Place.

Although the writers’ and producers’ offices were down in Mid-Wilshire, I got to go up there quite a lot for production meetings, but I’ll never forget my first visit when they took me on a tour of the set.

I’d always just assumed that the actual Melrose Place Courtyard was a real apartment building somewhere, but nope. It was a full-scale, two story, permanent structure, detailed inside and out, including the swimming pool. Most of the apartments were practical in the sense that they also served as shootable interiors thanks to “wild” walls that could be removed for camera access.

What really sold the whole thing was the massive trans-light opposite the courtyard entrance that curved around and partway along the side walls. A trans-light is basically a gigantic photographic slide — think a few stories high and really, really wide — which is illuminated from behind and creates the illusion of actual scenery behind it, in this case the Hollywood hills.

They could do day or night with that thing, and even in person it was as convincing as hell, so that walking into that courtyard was like being outside.

The rest of the sets were just as impressive, as were the layouts. One of the things that always amazed me was that the two major standing business sets — Amanda’s ad agency and the hospital where several other characters worked were actually built back-to-back. You could literally walk through a door at the end of the hospital and right into the offices, or vice versa.

And I know there were more sets hiding in there, but it’s been a long time. What has always stood out, though, and makes it a truly unusual place is… well, it’s two things.

First is what an absolutely wonderful experience it was. The people were amazing — creators, crew, and cast — which made the idea that every character in the show was a back-stabbing bastard even more amusing. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. (Well, with one exception, but karma got that one big time for being a bit of a lunatic.)

But the second is that being at that studio and on those sets felt like stepping into the television for a while, and it made it all feel real even though I knew that it was all make-believe at the same time.

Somewhere, I have the cast and crew photos or each seasoan I worked on the show, and by tradition we always took them in that courtyard set, with people at ground level, on the stairs, and on the balcony. And that’s an unusual place and a bit of TV history that will always be a part of me, as I will always be a part of it.

Image: © 1999 Spelling Television,. author’s personal copy. Melrose Place final season cast and crew photo.

Momentous Monday: Media madness

I’m still surprised, even in this modern era, how naïve most people outside of the entertainment industry bubbles are about how it all really works.

I started out in my early years interning for network TV, then moving to a studio writing program before going on to TV production, finally ending up in film/animation production, staffing, home media, and then back in TV production via the talent and website end of it.

And what I can tell you is this: People who’ve never worked in any aspect of the industry have absolutely not a clue how it works at all. But I already said that.

When I interned for network TV, it was for a company that produced game shows at the latter end of the wave before they briefly died, but judging from all of the fan mail we got, one thing was very clear: People in places outside of major media centers — meaning Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, seemed to think that whoever it was they saw hosting that show and holding the mic actually produced and ran everything.

So every single letter was addressed to the host of the show, and way too many of them were sob stories about how, “We’re so poor, if you just put us on, you could change our lives!” Since one of our shows was on a network that also had a popular soap opera at the time, it wasn’t unusual for us to receive mail for the stars of those shows, but addressed via our show, and it was the same damn thing.

Yep… direct appeals to the people onscreen who had fuck-all to do with actually creating the content on those screens.

In the case of game shows, there are entire staffs of people who do nothing but audition and select contestants and, with rare exceptions (Jeopardy depending upon Alex Trebek’s current health status, for example), the host of the show has nothing to do with it except for those taping days which, depending on how they schedule it, could be as little as two days a week to tape five shows, or five days a week to tape an entire season in a month.

Bring it up to modern times with total scams like America’s Got Talent, and every damn thing is manipulated and controlled from beginning to end — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I got to the studio writing program, I learned something else: Executives will pay lip service and bend over backwards trying to support… whatever. In my case, I was supposedly part of their push for LGBTQ representation. Another colleague in that program was meant to represent older women, and we had several POC as well.

And what happened? When we tried to write our stories, they were mostly ignored because they were “not what we’re looking for right now.”

Okay, so then why were you looking for us in the first place?

When I finally got into TV production for a primetime series or two, that was actually fun. I only ever wrote one episode for the second show I worked on, but otherwise, we were a great staff, and worked with fun people. Still, the fan mail was totally buggy because, again, the great unwashed just assumed that the actors they saw onscreen created everything on the spot and were in control of it.

So… god forbid that the producers created a story line that the fans didn’t like, because then the actors in those roles would get hate mail, and it was totally stupid.

Oddly enough, I never saw this problem while working for animated features, or in home entertainment, but that probably makes sense. However… what I still see to this day, especially in people having the misguided impression that anybody can become a billionaire superstar overnight on social media is exactly the same as I saw back in those days of analog broadcast media with rural fans begging the hosts to make them rich.

And I hate to break it to people, but all those big pop stars they adore? Yeah… every single one of them was discovered and then exploited by a major media company. Yes, they may be talented — or may be propped up by a team of really talented people — but, otherwise, they are all just smoke and mirrors.

You can certainly enjoy their stuff, of course, but don’t mistake the artist for anything more than the product, and don’t think that they’re solely creating it, in the same way that your favorite actor on your favorite TV show is creating that.

Sure, there are some who get lucky enough to finally take the reins. Prince is a good example but, don’t forget — there was a point in his career where he was so controlled by Warner Music Group that he rebelled by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and identifying himself by an unpronounceable symbol.

At the time, outsiders thought he was nuts, but there was method to his madness. By making the change, he made it damn near impossible for Warner to easily publicize his product — and he was holding back his best stuff, just putting out the bare minimum to fulfill his contract.

The second that contract expired, boom. Prince was back, and he started releasing new and amazing material immediately.

Other exceptions include the obvious, like Oprah, but of course it took her years to get to that position. Another is JK Rowling, who was about the only person Warner Bros. gave final approval to, although she may have finally scuttled that deal by going full-TERF.

For game show examples, Simon Cowell is directly involved in the production of his shows, as Alex Trebek is with Jeopardy, being a very hands-on producer but also a very nice guy.

But these are the rare exceptions.

Otherwise… every last act you see mentioned in the mass media, or listed on Billboard charts, or popping up on the trending lists on sites like Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever, is just a packaged product being sold to you, good or not. And, like it or not, they really have little control over which of their product actually gets out there.

Why? Because it’s a money game, run by mostly rich white men who are the gatekeepers of media. Play along, you get to be a playa. Don’t fit their marketing model? Then you get to be a poor artist. Who gets picked is a total crapshoot — or an absolute calculation.

Go look up the history of One Direction, or any boy band, for example.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, step one is to stop consuming crap from artists being sold to us by major media companies and, instead, to seek out local indie artists and supporting them. Second… go make your own art, or find your friends who do, and then tune out anyone being sold to you by a major record label, media company, movie studio, or etc.

Photo © 2018 Jon Bastian, Emmy Statue, forecourt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, North Hollywood, CA.

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

Due to a personal family situation that I may or may not write about here later, here is a flashback of a popular article that was originally published in November 2018. Rest assured that I have not been to the Magic Castle during lockdown, since it’s not open anyway.

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!