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!

A company town

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!