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.

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

I have mentioned the Coliseum Theater in Seattle in two former posts, filed in the “Memories” category, but have not yet spilled any ink (nor emitted any electrons) describing it. When it opened in 1916, it had the distinction of being the first theater in Seattle (if not the entire country) specifically designed for showing film. The secret was in the floor. The design called for a curve to the floor of a sufficient pitch that one had a clear sight line over the people in the row in front of you – not unlike the theory behind the stadium type seating that revolutionized movie theater design in the 1990s.

Another strange detail about its design – was the lack of stage space – it was tall and wide, but had no depth. The screen was mounted on that shallow back wall. (I understand from my research that this was a choice by the owner at that time – Alexander Pantages, who, though his was a vaudeville circuit, intentionally cut down on the scale to save on the number of musicians and stagehands he had to hire).

By this time – the mid-70s, there were no muscians (except for those neon ones up on the revolving sign above the marquee), and there was one lone stagehand. Or half a stagehand, as they shared one with my theater the Fifth Avenue up the street. (Again this was the redoubtable Walt Coy).

Gone for the moment were the big Hollywood productions from the Coliseum’s screen. Instead the invasion of violent Hong Kong Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation bombshells exploded daily in its auditorium. As a consequence the company thought it prudent to have a bouncer on hand to control any instances of patrons imitating the bad behavior of their favorites up on the screen. Into this latest incarnation of the Coliseum stepped my bride of just a few months.

[Aside – My uncle Bud was then the manager of the theater. She had worked for him when he was assistant to my Dad at the GCC Renton Village Cinemas. He knew what a great cashier she was, and hired her, no nepotism required.]

The box office in which my wife spent most of her time, was out in front of the entrance, situated at the corner of Fifth and Pike. It was literally all by itself – an island – cut off from the rest of the building. One gained entrance by stooping over and waddling through the low half door – the only way in or out.

All went well until the night the projector broke down. My uncle announced to the patrons inside that the problem could not be fixed and that they could repair to the box office and there receive passes for another day. They soon surrounded my wife, sitting in the glass fishbowl that was the box office. None of them wanted a pass. They all loudly demanded their money back. Strangely, to a man they all argued that they were from out of town and only in for the night, and would not be coming back any time soon. It felt to her like a riot was about to break out.

Before that could happen, the Coliseum bouncer stepped in. His name was Bobby, a black, ex-prizefighter from Chicago. (The rumor circulating the district had him on the lam from the Windy City, hiding out from a vindictive mobster). I had heard of the description “caulifower ear” before, but had had no concept of what that even meant – until I saw Bobby – and that vegetable like appendage attached to his head. Even then it was an afterthought to your consciousness, as he had an overwhelming presence. To call him “solid” is an understatement – more like a brick wall in motion. Yet for all his power and mass (and cauliflower ear), he had the sweetest and gentlest temperament.

He soon had things in hand, and when through, escorted my wife from the Coliseum to my theater.

My wife was shaken, understandably. And I did not object nor try to dissuade her when she decided to resign the next day. (She soon found a job at Virginia Mason Hospital, where she was the one weilding a knife when surrounded by carrots and celery).

We still paid an occasional call to the Coliseum. Shortly after this time, its bill of fare changed and a couple of back to back blockbusters settled in. That is where we caught The Towering Inferno, followed six months later by Jaws. The Coliseum was the only place to see them in the Seattle area.

And still under the protection of Bobby.

me and American Grafitti

me and American Grafitti

The summer of 1973 was coming to a close. I was still at the Renton Cinemas working as an usher and a doorman. Changes lay around the corner though, all of which I was happily unaware.

What I was aware of was my excitement for an upcoming release, booked for the Cinemas. The buzz out of LA and the GCC booking department was that a ground breaking film was going to light up the waning days of summer. They had screened a film by a young film student George Lucas. And they were high on it. The title was a little out of the ordinary, a puzzler actually – AMERICAN GRAFITTI.

The booking department was right. American Grafitti became a surprise sleeper hit. We simply did not have enough seats for all the people who wanted to see it. I saw it. Many times. And in many pieces. And its music filled the auditorium.

For it was a favorite to slip in on and catch a scene here and there. And indulge in the usher’s pastime – watching the audience. (A wise man once told me that there are three audiences – others; you, yourself; and the audience of One [God]). Here I was an audience to the audience. And I was enjoying their pleasure in seeing something for the first time.

The all time favorite scene to catch was the race at the end between Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (and the build up supplied by Booker T and the MGs – Green Onions). There was a built in excuse. An usher had to be on hand anyway, to open the doors and direct the customers out. Word had circulated that an in-joke had been included by the filmmakers when they made this film. The license plate for Harrison Ford’s vehicle read THX138, a reference to Lucas’ student film THX1138, which he later remade into his first feature film for Warners.

After hearing this, I went in to check it out. And the rumors were right. There it was in Technicolor. But I also couldn’t help but notice the license plate on the other car. GLD204. Did that mean anything?

Then it came at me in a rush. The GL must stand in for George Lucas; and after a puzzling moment I decided that the D must be for Director. And it all made perfect sense. Perhaps it is all only a coincidence, but…

In a town where you are only as good as your last project, film, or whatever; you are in competition with yourself, always having to surpass the one before.

Cue – All Summer Long by the Beach Boys.

Wild Assistant Managers I Have Known

Cinema 1 & 2 Renton Washington

Cinema 1 & 2 Renton Washington

Even though my Dad was the manager and was usually working when I was, I had more contact with his assistants when I was on the job.  As manager he had more important things to do than supervise the floor staff, i.e. the doormen and ushers. That chore fell to the assistant manager. The manager looked after the ticket and concession cashiers, the ones most responsible for the money coming in.

Many assistant managers passed through the Renton Cinemas. Some went on to become full managers, either for GCC as it expanded in the area (and elsewhere), or taking a position with the opposition. And some just couldn’t cut it, and moved on to other businesses, one with more humane hours.

Warren was an odd duck. Full of advice for younger people, though I don’t believe he was much older than thirty himself. He had a wife and a child, but he never brought them around the theater. In fact, in many ways he didn’t act married. He came by himself to company parties, sporting an eye-patch when it was a costume party, like the character from the Brenda Starr comic. He left employment under suspicion.

Mr Lambert wasn’t much older than a lot of us, and looked younger. He was a Marine vet, having done a tour in Vietnam. But what intrigued us most – he had been a member of a local rock band –  a one hit wonder, and as such had shared the stage with a big group as an opening act (I thought it was either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but have yet been unable to verify). We were glad for him when he moved on to a better job, but sad for ourselves, for he was fun to work with.

Then there was my Uncle Bud, married to my mom’s sister.  He came to show business after a twenty year career in the Air Force. Hailing from Rome, Georgia, my dad always called him Rebel. Of course in return he always referred to my dad as Yank. So there was a good-natured back and forth, as they bantered in the office during closing on weekends. To me he was more of a “Dutch uncle” who offered advice on life and did his best to push my girlfriend and me together – though he did tease her mercilessly at every opportunity.  He later became a theater owner himself down in Puyallup and then built a little twin cinema in Long Beach Washington. He’s gone now. I’ll always remember the missing man formation of C-130s that came in low and slow over his gravesite at his memorial service.

A few years later, I myself joined the ranks of wild assistant managers. But those stories are for another day.

Boeing Takes Off on Airport

Boeing Takes Off on Airport - top

Certain films had scenes which were fun for an usher to check out again and again. Not only to just enjoy the vibe, but also to observe the reaction of the audience to what for them was a brand new experience. I liked to slip into the back of the theater when Airport was winding down to its conclusion, when George Kennedy, as his character Joe Patroni adverted disaster by driving a stranded 707 out of harm’s way. He succeeds despite dire warnings that structural damage to the plane was imminent. The young man in the cockpit with him exclaims, “The instruction book said that was impossible.” To which Patroni replied, “That’s one nice thing about the 707. It can do everything but read.”

This remark brought the audience, in many cases, to their feet. Some even danced in place, a little victory jig. For you see, many of them worked for the biggest employer in Renton.

Historically speaking, Renton Washington had always been a transportation hub. The railroad tracks around town gave you a clue that it was once a railroad crossroads. Now, in the seventies, the railroad connection lived on in Paccar – a manufacturer of railcars, trucks, and a supplier for parts for the even bigger company Boeing.  Boeing’s Renton plant was turning out (they would argue, and the dancers agreed) the best commercial airliners in the world. All three models were churned out on their assembly lines – the 707s, the 727s, and the latest the 737s.

It is for this reason that Art Silber, the GCC West Coast film buyer, was keen for this Universal release, based on the Arthur Hailey bestseller.  He wanted to acquire it for the Renton Cinemas. And he did better than just getting one “leg” of a wide release in the Seattle area. He put up a guarantee of twenty-five thousand dollars for an exclusive run and got it.

And it seemed like the entire population of Seattle, near and far, tried to get into the theater its first weekend. (Don’t tell anyone, but my dad pulled the last show of Anne of the Thousand Days, playing in the other auditorium, and ran Airport on both sides.  All to accomodate all those people standing in the line wrapped around the building). Airport remained at the Renton Cinema for the next 20 weeks.

Boeing also looms large personally, with many family members who have been or currently are on their rolls. My brother (the racer) is a machinist there, in fact the lead in the prototype department. My sister’s husband for many years was involved in their “blackbox” projects. Two of my wife’s brothers have each been there over thirty years; and her dad, when there, had headed up their audio/visual department (aside – Jeff Probst, host of Survivior at one time worked for him).

Somehow I missed being swept up into the Boeing conglomerate. But then again it’s just like the saying goes, “There’s no business like show business.”

Boeing Takes Off on Airport - bottom

The Renton Cinemas Open

The Renton Cinemas Open

As I stated previously, having my father on site was a real boon for his company GCC. He kept an eye on things (like wrestling the safe through the completed lobby and into his office), and headed off potential problems before they happened, or became costly errors.
The cinema was built on the property of a shopping mall area called Renton Village just off Grady Way. The shopping complex wasn’t as big as Brockton, but well attended none the less. Right down the sidewalk from the theater was the Sheraton Renton Inn, a high rise hotel. At the far extremity away from the theater was Schumsky’s restaurant, with which my father horse-traded passes for meals. A Tradewell grocery store and an Ernst hardware were the main anchors.
The big circuit in the Seattle area was the Sterling Recreation Organization, and as such had the film market pretty well sewn up. But GCC beng a national chain wasn’t without some influence. There were a few distributors that were very glad to see a new player in the area. In those days, Seattle had its own”Film Row.” The distributors kept offices down on Second Avenue. In the main we played Columbia, Universal, Buena Vista and MGM, which were headed up respectively by Al Boodman, Russ Brown, Homer Schmidt and Connie Carpou.
That being said, the two opening bills for the Renton Cinemas were not auspicious. On one side was the feature Duffy from Columbia and on the other Secret Ceremony from Universal. I suspect no else in the area wanted to play them. Between the doormen and us ushers the code word for the latter was “Secret Garbage.”
Duffy, which starred James Coburn in the title role, is noteworthy in my estimation only tangentially, through a couple of the people associated with it. One was Donald Cammell, a rather unusual avant garde type who worked on the screenplay and would later co-direct with Nicholas Roeg the Mick Jagger film Performance. He pushed the envelope so far he shot and killed himself some say on purpose. The other was the director Robert Parrish, at probably the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. He was Old Hollywood, having started there as a child actor in the thirties (City Lights and the Our Gang comedies), and graduating to film editor (Body and Soul) and later director.
Not a thing did I know of any of this. Of all I was blissfully ignorant. Such information came as my interest in film grew. For the time being I probably had a feeling akin to Parrish’s old boss at Columbia – Harry Cohn, whose talented butt was his barometer to taste in film – if it wiggled in the seat it was no good.

The Renton Cinemas Open 2

Seeing the [Upper) USA in a Chevrolet

Seeing the Upper USA in a Chevrolet

It was early in 1968. We were still running the Sound of Music in Cinema 2 and my father was called to the box office to help the cashier with a difficult customer. It seems that he did not like “his” seats for the Julie Andrews movie. My dad gladly refunded his money, all the while the complainer continued to whine. After the disgruntled customer departed, a VP from GCC came in. He had been watching the whole encounter from the outside. He came up to my dad and told him that he could soon say goodbye to such treatment, for on the West Coast the customers were all a lot nicer. The company was offering him a new theater that was going to open in Renton, Washington that fall.
We were on the move again. Though not until summer. Dad didn’t want us to miss any school. Time to say goodbye to all my friends in Brockton – Dave D, John M, Jimmy S, and Joe G. I recently discovered the oversized card that they sent me off with. The envelope was decorated with unusual grafitti – song ditties or doggerel either in Russian or Latin – stuff we had gleaned from the classes we had taken together.
My dad bought a new car for the trip, a four door canary yellow 1968 Chevy Impala. And he made sure it had air conditioning. So come July we were all set to see the USA in a Chevrolet. Or the northern part anyway.
We must have travelled fairly fast. I can remember the NY Turnpike where it paralleled the old canal. But after that it was all a blur until we reached South Dakota. There we hit the Badlands. Why they call it the Badlands struck me as strange. It was beautiful, in an eerie sort of way. Though I suppose in the early days it would have been a terror to traverse. Those jagged hills and rocks, though pretty to look at, would have been daunting on horseback or in a horse drawn wagon or carriage.
Emerging from the Badlands, we made our way to the nearby monument, Mount Rushmore. I think that our expectations always suffer a set back when it meets reality, especially as regards visiting someplace you’ve only read about or seen pictures of. It’s a time like this when you realize that the writing or the picture was taken from a better perspective than what you experience at first sight. Old George, Tom, Teddy and Abe seemed small and distant. My Dad’s binoculars helped, but they also revealed the long grooves in the rock face, the “brush strokes” as it were of those that sculpted their visages from the rock.
The next memorable stop was at the site of Custer’s Last Stand in Montana. But probably most memorable because there wasn’t much to see – a small monument and a hill covered in sagebrush. We were all a little disappointed, and maybe us kids moreso. We had visions of marauding Indians dancing in our heads.
We were able to hasten on our way aided by the “reasonable and proper” [i.e. no] speed limit in Montana. We came into Washington through Spokane, crossed the state, traversed the Cascades and descended into the promised land of the Puget Sound area – the promised land of “nicer customers.”
Ha!

The Blue and the Pink

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Our uniforms weren’t the only things blue. Part of the General Cinema identity, or “brand” as it’s called nowadays, were the shadow box screens in all their auditoriums. Gone were the heavy drapes or curtains hiding the screens during the intermissions. Recessed rondell lights bathed these boxes and the screens in a cool blue, a shade or two lighter than our uniforms. And a blue colored film leader was run before each feature presentation in which an animation of the GCC logo, the letters G and two Cs grouped in a form mimicking a film projector, accompanied by a catchy drum bumper.

Hung above the entrance to each auditorium was the word CINEMA, followed by a Roman numeral.  In Brockton’s case this was only I or II. The numerals were on hooks, so they could be taken down and the auditoriums swapped, dictated by which film was pulling the larger crowd. You see, Cinema II was half the size of Cinema I.

That is until The Sound of Music opened. According to its contract it was a road show, or reserved seat engagement. To that end auditorium II was selected, and there it stayed, week after week after week. Each seat was given a small metallic plate with a letter for the row and a number for the seat. The center sections had one numbering system and the sides another. And ushers became more important than ever. The customers selected their seats at the box office, and we helped them find the right ones.

Though our run was subrun to Boston, it was exclusive for the whole Southshore area. And it seems the whole Southshore came. By October 6 of 1966, we celebrated the 50,000th person to buy a ticket (the winner received some passes to a future show). My Dad also made it a practice to pass in for free to The Sound of Music any nuns attending in their habits. Word got out and we soon had nuns sprinkled throughout the performances.

Some one came up with a brilliant idea for an item to sell at the concession stand to the Sound of Music customer.  To anyone familiar with the film, they will remember the scene with Captain Von Trapp, Max and the Baroness sitting by the lake sipping pink lemonade. This scene is just prior to the intermission. So when the lights came up and the people trekked out to the concession stand they had something else to drink besides “tonic” (Eastern speak for soda pop), something else to enhance their movie-going experience – pink lemonade. And it was just like in the movie.

The Baroness – “Not too sweet, not too sour.”

Max – “Just too, uh… pink.”

 

Sorry Sir, but you’ll have to leave your bomb outside

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I was all of  fifteen, and could now get a job. All I needed was a work permit which was no problem at all, and a job. And that was no problem either, for I wanted to work at the Cinema and my Dad was the Boss. At times this would prove problematic, but in the main it was overlooked.

There was a hierarchy – manager at the top of course, then assistant manager, door men and ushers at the bottom.  Concession workers came under another heading, though in busy times ushers were expected to throw in and help them too. The best concession workers moved on to be ticket cashiers. The projectionists were mysterious union people hidden away upstairs, and in a twin theater constantly busy (this was before automation and multigigaplexes).

The ushers uniform was the same as the doormen, black dress shoes, tuxedo pants with the black silk stripe down the legs, white shirt and a black bow tie (clip-on), and a bright blue blazer, later emblazoned with the GCC logo on the left breast. Our main tool was the flashlight. We were trained how to greet people and offer them assistance finding seats. You would snap the light on, place its beam at their feet and proceed down the aisle. Usually they stated their preference as to area, and we did our best to satisfy their wish.

If it were busy, and the auditorium was filling up, you were expected to be proactive and “make doubles.” Single seats could be scattered throughout a row, and you would ask people to move over to free up two seats together.

With the show in, our next chore required our other tools, a short handled broom and a dust bin also on a handle. Easier to use than chopsticks, we would police the lobby for spilled popcorn and other refuse.

Sometimes we helped the doorman tear tickets. If the show was a popular one, and the lobby was full of people waiting to go in, we would unhook the control ropes, thus opening another entry point.  We could get them in and seated in short order, perhaps with the bonus of not having to usher anyone after the show had started.

I learned that life at the Cinema held a million stories and most of them not on the screen.

One day the doorman, whose nickname was “Honey” became unsettled after a new show had been let in. Reports were circulating in the news media about a Mad Bomber at large, spreading terror and his explosive packages in Boston and the surrounding area. One of the ticket holders to Honey’s mind looked suspiciously like the reported descriptions of the bomber. He took his report to my Dad. And while the staff kept tabs on the individual he called the police.

They arrived in short order. We took them into the auditorium to where the suspect was seated. The police didn’t fool around. At the point of their guns they brought him out to the lobby for questioning.

It proved a false alarm. And thankfully the customer thought the whole incident quite funny. He rather enjoyed the attention.