Monday’s marvel: The unsinkable Cynthia Cohen

I started a new Monday thing of spotlighting my talented friends. Check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Those covered a triple-threat actor, improv artist, and impressionist; a filmmaker, editor, and writer; an artist, writer, and actor; and a dramaturg, teacher, and mentor, respectively. This time around, we’re going to meet an old friend of mine who managed to make her way as a single mother with a career who still raised an amazing daughter.

I first met Cynthia Cohen when we were both practically embryos, right after I joined the Golden West Playwrights, the core group of which is still going to this day. I tell the story of how I wound up there elsewhere, but the short version is that very early in my first serious day job in an office after college, I met a much older woman named Lou Tappon, and she found out I was a writer.

She happened to be a member of a playwriting group that met on Saturdays, and she invited me to check it out. That group was run by an amazing man, Jerry Fey, who never charged us a cent, which is astounding, if you think about it.

He had started teaching playwriting in a UCLA Extension class and while he discovered that he loved teaching, he hated academia, which is why he took his show on the road. Lou was one of a couple of students from that class he invited to come along, and Cynthia joined up shortly after he’d struck out on his own. I’m pretty sure that she’s the only holdover from his first adventures in teaching on his own.

I actually turned out to be the first big success of the group and Jerry got to see my premiere full-length production at a major LORT theatre, South Coast Rep, but, sadly, he didn’t live very long after that.

Cynthia was standing right next to me on the morning we all showed up for class and Jerry didn’t. I was somehow nominated to call him on the lobby payphone, and whoever answered the phone told me, “I’m sorry. Jerry died last night. Liver cancer.”

Now I didn’t have to say a word on hearing that before Cynthia just let out an “Oh no.” She knew me well enough even then to know that I’d just heard really bad news. And yes, all of us in that group have wondered two things since that day.

First, did Jerry know he was dying when he set off to teach for free, and this was his way of giving back to the world in the time he had left? And, second, was it really liver cancer, since a certain other disease was ravishing the artistic community even in the early 90s?

But what his legacy created was the Golden West Playwrights (GWP), a group that kept on meeting and growing without him but in his memory. Although we eventually drifted away from the regular meetings, we kept in touch, and there are about ten of us who are still in contact to this day.

After Jerry died, we all sort of nominated another amazing writer in the group, Babs Lindsay, to take up the leader mantle, and I wound up as sort of her permanent Vice Scribe, or whatever you want to call it. She moved to Seattle years ago, but whenever she comes back to L.A., we try to make it a point to all get together.

Meanwhile… Cynthia and I have been orbiting each other constantly since back in the day. We’ve never lived far really apart physically, but we also have that connection where, even if we lose touch for a few years, reconnecting feels like it’s only been minutes.

I was at her wedding, and I was there (along with the Golden West Playwrights) when she told us that the father of her daughter wasn’t going to stick around. I won’t go into too many details other than to say that this was one of those moments that showed her true character, strength, and resilience.

I know that the rest of the GWP and I just wanted to strangle that asshole for what he did to her. Cynthia, on the other hand, proceeded to do what she had to do in order to raise her daughter, give her an excellent education, and guide her to grow into the amazing, talented, and intelligent adult woman she has become. She is going to be as successful — if not more so — than her mom.

Oh, right. I mentioned that I was the first breakout success from the GWP, but the great irony is that I started at the top and worked my way down. Meanwhile, Cynthia managed to work her way up.

She is, in fact, the person who got me my first TV job, which also led to my one and only actual credit as a TV writer. She wound up working as script coordinator on the original Melrose Place, but when she got promoted to writer, she reached out to me and offered me the job and I said yes on the spot.

That was really one of the best gigs I ever had in terms of co-workers, absolutely interesting work, and really nifty perqs, annual bonuses, and swag.

And all of this fun happened because Cynthia trusted me enough to make the recommendation. The biggest irony was that I’d never watched the show before I worked on it, but that really didn’t make a difference in catching up and catching on.

Hey, I didn’t know shit about Medicare when I started my current job, and look at me now. Yay…?

Our Melrose days were actually before her marriage days, but since then I’ve been around for the birth of her daughter, and that daughter becoming bat mitzvah. I also sat shiva when Cynthia’s father unexpectedly died. And Cynthia has always been around for me.

If you were to ask me what one word I would use to describe her, it would be this: “Survivor.” Life has tossed some weird curveballs at Cynthia, but she has never not taken up her bat and hit them out of the park in response.

And she’s adaptable. I know her work very well from the GWP days, and how her sensibilities don’t always line up with what she’s gotten paid to do for TV, but I’ve been in the same boat.

And something I didn’t know until today. She’s also got some advice for all of you.

Nu! Who knew?

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.