The 1977 California Trip: Hello Anxiety, the Fox Tour

The 1977 California Trip Fox Hello Anxiety2

The day after our exciting day on the Paramount lot, we were looking forward to our next studio – 20th Century Fox.

We went through Westwood on the way to Century City and saw the Avco Center Cinemas owned by my first employer, GCC. They were playing Star Wars to blockbuster business. (The film was then in its third or fourth week, piling up record grosses all across the country). We were tempted to brave the crowds later, but held off. (We had seen it already).

The entrance to the studio back then was off Pico Blvd on a long side street that lead to the visitors’ parking area.  Lining that street was a three story standing exterior set that was immediately recognizable. We could not help but rubberneck to take in the location where a song and dance number was performed and shot for Hello Dolly.  [The facade must be gone now, as it is not visible on any of the satellite map sites I checked].

I do not recall where it was exactly that we reported to begin our tour, nor do I remember who it was that took us around. I have the distinct impression that we were on our own exploring the lot. But then again some one had to have been with us to tell us what we were looking at.

We made our way through the rest of the New York set that branched off of the street we came in on. Past that we came out on one of the studio streets that ran by a series of four stages on our left, and a rather odd looking building on our right. Some big rig trucks were parked parallel to it, sitting idle. The building looked like an exterior mock up of a train station, including a raised platform in front of it. (In fact it had been used as such, see the following article). It is probably the oldest building on the lot (and may have been moved from its original position). Tom Mix, the cowboy star who appeared in Fox westerns, kept his horses in this “barn.” He was the original owner of the ranch it sat upon. Fox purchased this property when their older studio lots in Hollywood proved too small. (You can find a series of pictures of the site over time in this article).

With the exception of one film, not much was going on in the studio that day. We took a right and walked by some more stages, up to the area of the Tennessee Avenue gate. The bungalows kept for stars working on the lot were situated there. It looked for all the world like a neighborhood street from the thirties. That’s probably because they date from that period. A larger one on the corner was then the medical clinic for the studio, but had been the bungalow for the pint-sized savior of Fox during the Depression – the singing and dancing, cute as a button dynamo, Shirley Temple. (Another article)

At this point of the tour, the lunch hour had crept up on us, for the next stop was the commissary (aka Cafe de Paris). I ran across a picture recently that was taken after a remodel in 1976, the year before our visit. It’s exactly as I remember it right down to those two big planters.  The studio heads Dennis Stanfill and Alan Ladd Jr. were nowhere in sight, so they must have been in the executive dining room.

As I mentioned above there was one film in production – Mel Books’ High Anxiety.  It just so happened that at the end of April they had been doing exterior work up in San Francisco and in the Hyatt Regency in particular, the very place we had visited just a few days prior. Now Brooks was set up in Stage 14 for interior work, which was on the other side of those NY standing sets.

I had located a history that put the lounge song number from the film on that stage (the scene in which Brooks sings the title tune to Madeline Kahn). That was not the setup we saw that day. It was very quiet as we walked down the alley to the open studio door. A quietness that whispered everyone was taking a siesta. As we looked through the door a simple setting of furniture was arranged against white walls – a glass topped coffee table in front of a sofa. Though there was probably no one within, I could not shake off the feeling that people were there in the shadows holding their collective breaths waiting for us to go away.

Come December when High Anxiety was released I finally understood what we had seen on Stage 14. It was the comic scene played out between Cloris Leachman (Nurse Diesel) and Harvey Korman (Dr. Charles Montague), in which the camera shooting up from under the coffee table attempts to follow the two as they converse, only to have its view blocked by their movement of the cups, saucers and plates across its glass top.

A little bit of film history. Alright, minuscule. But we didn’t need to see “stars.” Just being there was a thrill. (We did have a brief encounter when we returned to the lot in 1985, but that’s a blog post for another day).

So stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Painting Stars and Falling Knights

Painting Stars and Falling Knights

For Howard Kazanjian, the day started before 6AM. He had to be on the Warner Bros. lot and look in on the two stars of the production, Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. They had appointments to keep with the make up people each day at 6:00 sharp. If they were in place, he could check two items off his list.

They each were given two hours for the process.  Vanessa kept her appointment in the make up department itself. She had her hair tended to for the first hour – washed etc., then make up took up the second hour. Harris had his make up done in his dressing room. Howard would bounce back and forth between the two, asking if there were anything at all that they needed. And he had it as his responsibility to keep a vehicle on hand at all times for them, even if they decided to walk to the set afterwards.

[Aside – The terms bungalow and dressing room are often thrown about without reference, so it might be important to understand the difference between them. The bungalows were little cottages, built right on the studio lot. Harris and Redgrave had ones right across from the tennis courts (now gone).  (David Hemmings also had one). They were for daytime use (naps etc), and could only be used overnight by permission of the studio guards. The dressing rooms were located right on the sets themselves or just outside the stage doors. They were little 10’ by 10’ wooden structures on wheels. They were spartan, containing little more than a mirror and a cot, a little hideaway retreat when not needed for a shot. Make-up would get a touch up when there and they only could be moved by the transportation department].

In the pre-production phase, Howard was present for some of the costume and hair tests on Camelot. These were important to keep all the production departments in the loop, especially the art department. Howard cites an example of what can go wrong if, say the wardrobe and art departments are not communicating. On an indie production on which Howard was executive producer, an academy award-winning actress appeared in a red dress at a funeral parlor with red flocked wall paper – with the result – all you could make out was her face.

If stuntmen were needed for a shoot, Howard had to put them on his call sheet the morning before also. He would also list what they would need for wardrobe and equipment. Here again the wardrobe and art departments would take note. Armor came within the purview of the Wardrobe Department.  There were two types of armor used in Camelot. Metal or rubber. The horses were always in the rubber version. And depending on what was being filmed, people were in metal ones for close ups, and the lighter stuff for action or battle scenes.  Extras in the BG were usually in rubber. (Their swords were rubber too as can be seen by too close attention to that area of the screen during the battle sequences). The Wardrobe Department  would age them governed by the cues gleaned from the script, i.e. before battle or after battle.

One of the major sequences requiring stuntmen was the jousting tournament between Lancelot and three of the knights who disliked him. These stuntmen came on early in the production to work with the co-ordinator and the Art Department. Joe Cannutt and his brother Tap were two of the main stuntmen. (Hal Needham of Smoky and the Bandit fame also worked with them – all three had recently worked together on another medieval period film – The War Lord with Charlton Heston).

A lot of planning went into it.  The jousting scene was a wire gag. They would rehearse the gag beforehand. The jousting field was scheduled for an exterior location, listed on the call sheet as Devil’s Gulch, a special area in the backlot.  The dirt in the jousting area was combed through and any rocks removed. Consulting with the Art Department they picked a structure upon which to anchor the wire, paying close attention to the height at which it was attached.

The wire would be attached to the back of the stuntman and of a measured length so as to yank him off at the desired distance – coinciding with his being struck from the front by his opponent’s lance. (Howard – “Any sign of the wire would be blurred or erased using vaseline on the glass plate in the printing process”).

Howard was only involved directly with the stuntmen after the camera was turning. In one of the screen captures of the joust that I sent Howard to identify, he said that he was one of the figures in the frame running to check on a minor accident. Any time anyone hit the dirt, he had to check them out.  In this particular incident, one of the stuntmen had fallen and hit the rail that separated the charging knights. A center section of the rail was balsa wood, but not all of it.

Howard was making sure that the falling knight had landed on the right section of the rail. Thankfully he had, and he was uninjured.

Join me next week for the next installment in the Adventures of Howard Kazanjian – “Howard’s Friend Joel Freeman.”