The 1977 California Trip: Paramount Guns, Grease, and Little House

Paramount Guns Grease and Little House

And not necessarily in that order.

Our itinerary for this trip started with a visit to Disneyland. (I was a little nervous after locking the car and leaving it in the Donald Duck section of the parking lot, having it fresh in mind what had happened to us in San Francisco. No one bothered it. Passersby evidently had more things on their minds than our little Plymouth Arrow).

While Disneyland is always a highlight, I found my excitement building at the prospect of our pending tours of Paramount and 20th Century Fox.

Our destination the next day was Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. This was the era of Barry Diller, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Paramount. I was not acquainted with any of them (and they sure didn’t know me). Our entree into the studio was courtesy of Joe Vigil, recently promoted from booker to branch manager of the Seattle/Portland exchange, working out of Paramount’s San Francisco office. (I mentioned Joe in my Zefferelli post).

After passing the gate we were remanded into the care of an ancient security guard. (He reminded me of a skinny old codger from Central Casting. You know, the one you see in all those old westerns). We three made up our own little tour group.

Our route mimicked a big square, circling the inside perimeter in a clock-wise manner. First stop was a small set in its own little building. It was a western jail. And since it’s use was ubiquitous it may have been a permanent structure. The guard had us walk before him, and straight through the iron doors into the jail cell. With a chuckle he slammed the door behind us and locked it. While thus incarcerated he reminisced about other past denizens of the premises. He assured us emphatically that John Wayne himself had spent time on this set.

We journeyed over into the western end of the lot that had one time belonged to another film studio – RKO Radio Pictures. A whirl of activity had its epicenter in one of the sound stages along its main street. The stage was given over to a small film project just getting its start, Allan Carr’s production of “Grease,” being directed by Randall Kleiser. Judging by the size of the group crammed onto its floor, some kind of tryout or rehearsal was taking place.

At the end of this street an open sound stage door greeted us. Inside all was quiet and deserted. And cool, for not a single light was on. Farm tackle and wagon wheels were the order of the day. This sound stage was dedicated for interior work on the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” Filming for the fourth season was then underway, but more than likely all the action was transpiring somewhere off on one of the movie ranches for exterior work.

Our guide walked us through the “New York streets.” Nothing was shooting. So we got a good view of the various locations each street represented – SoHo, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, Upper and lower East Sides, etc.

Next he led us through an alley alive with flying sparks and the sounds of hammers on metal. I could call it “gasoline alley,” for several cars were being restored and fitted for use in the Grease production. Tail fins flashed their stuff.

Last stop – or the last thing I remember at Paramount – was a small building stuffed to the rafters with guns. Gatling guns galore hung from the ceiling; hand guns, rifles and machineguns were arrayed about the walls, (with firing pins removed, if recollection serves). On a return trip to the lot at a later date, I learned that this armory was no longer there, but had been moved off site in 1979.

We did not run into any “stars” on our journey, but we were nonetheless satisfied at our look behind the scenes.

Our aforementioned return to the Paramount took place in the fall of 2006, and I will cover that trip at its appropriate time, sometime in the future, so stay tuned, and Watch This Space.

Zefferelli at the Jewel Box

zefferrelli-at-the-jewel-box

It shouldn’t be surprising that I used to dream about my work. Probably every one does. But these dreams were the weirdest when it came to my job at Saffle’s Theater Service over on John Street in Seattle. In some respects they were like walking through an Ingmar Bergman movie.

In this particular recurring dream, the streets were empty, and I was wandering them alone. I moved in the silence, not a single person anywhere, and no vehicles either, just buildings and trees and other such landmarks. I would follow the familiar boulevard towards my workplace. But I stopped a block short, and took another street on a vector away from my goal. And then another turn brought me up a hill and over to Second Avenue. I felt awake and conscious – all was recognizable to me because it was the landscape across which I circulated for my job. And there was a deadline somehow involved in the logic of the dream, yet not binding, as time itself was slowed down.

My movements always came to an end over on a little section of Second Avenue between Bell and Wall Streets.  There all the film distributor offices were huddled together in one little section that was called “Film Row.” And there also was the focus of the “fun” part of the job, the screening rooms.

There were two main venues on film row, where the screenings for new films were scheduled. Fox was the only distributor to have their own in-house screening room. I have absolutely no recollection of this screening room (my boss must have covered the few offerings there). I have been told that it was tiny and uncomfortable, and every seat had a bad view of the screen.

The other venue was a different story. The Jewel Box was a gem. (The choice of name was a genuflection to that old favorite choice for a theater name. If you’ve seen those old theaters with the name Bijou above the marquee, you’re were looking at something akin to the same thing – ‘bijou’ is French for jewel). It was built in 1927 by B. F. Shearer as a showcase for his theater equipment company.

With only sixty seats one might say it was the size of a shoe box, (compared to the theaters of that day – not now), but it was comfortable. One center aisle divided two seating areas. At the front there were individual theater seats, but as you moved to the back there were a series of booths – bench seats with their own long tables upon which you could place your meals, ordered up from the Rendezvous restaurant next door (a side door of the theater led straight into it). One might call the arrangement with the booths an early example of stadium seating, for each pair of them had their own riser.

The summer of 1976, I spent a lot of time at the Jewel Box viewing films. Here are a few titles:

In May- Food of the Gods (AIP) Marjoe Gortner

             – Ode to Billy Joe (WB) Robby Benson

             – Eat My Dust! (Parnell) Ron Howard

              – Drive In (Col) a film made with Texas state tax incentives for the (what else) the drive in market

In June – The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (AIP) Lee Marvin

              – Special Delivery (AIP) Bo Svenson and Cybill Shepherd

               – The Outlaw Josey Wales (WB) Clint Eastwood

               – Survive (Par) about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mtns and cannibalism

                – Obsession (Col) Brian de Palma pulls a Hitchcock with Cliff Robertson and Genvieve Bujold

In July  – St Ives (WB) Charles Bronson

              – Squirm (AIP) man-eating worms

              – Gumball Rally (WB) Michael Sarrazin

              – Futureworld (AIP) sequel to Westworld

In August  – Moving Violation (Fox) Stephen McHattie and Kay Lenz

                – The Shootist (Par) John Wayne

                – Car Wash (UN) Richard Pryor

                – Winds of Autumn (Film Brokers) Jack Elam

                – Drum (UA) Warren Oates, Ken Norton

[These movie “dreams” may have impacted somehow my “dreamlife.”]

One night we had the Jewel Box all to ourselves or rather all to our families, mine and my wife’s. And some few choice friends. I had arranged to rent it for my wife’s birthday party. (We all had dinner at the Spaghetti Factory before coming to the Jewel Box).

But what would renting a theater be without a movie? So I arranged for that too. I contacted Joe Vigil, my Paramount rep (and friend) down in San Francisco and ordered up a film title by one of my wife’s favorite directors, Franco Zefferelli. You may be familiar with his Shakespeare films “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Along with our snacks and cake we sat down to watch “Brother Sun Sister Moon.” The film tells the story of the life of St Francis of Assisi.

I believe for a time this director’s films may have eclipsed Gone with the Wind as her favorite.

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

Walter Theron Coy

Union agreements required that the Fifth Avenue Theater employ a stagehand. I was not aware of this fact,  when I met Walter Theron Coy my first week on the job. I was behind the concession stand concentrating on something else completely when I looked up to see an elderly man emerge from out of the auditorium. It caught me off guard. He was rather shabbily dressed, giving him an unkept appearance. He put me at ease by explaining who he was and what he did around the theater.

His cherubic Irish face, resonant voice, infectious laugh and an enormous mass of keys jangling on his hip made for a memorable introduction. Gaelic charm oozed out of him as well as a stream of patter that he later confessed to be straight out of the days of vaudeville. (At the age of 13 or 14 [1921 or 1922] he had been a candy butcher who operated evenings among a group of three Seattle vaudeville theaters. Incoming acts came to rely on him for intelligence on what routines had been employed by the outgoing performers, so they could adjust theirs accordingly). And prior to high school he even performed on stage, singing popular songs of the day accompanied by the theater organist.

[Aside – In his autobio, Walt states that he learned a lot about show business from the consumate pipe organist Oliver Wallace at the Liberty Theater down on First and Pike. Wallace later went on to work for Walt Disney, writing music for shorts and then features, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” up through “Lady and the Tramp”].

The more I talked with him over the weeks that followed, the more his life experiences surprised and impressed me. By the time he was in high school, he was playing drums or banjo in speakeasys around town. His love of the banjo led him to share stories about the Banjo King, Eddie Peabody, (aka the Banjo Maniac and the Rajah of Rhythm) who had headlined many of the vaudeville acts at this same Fifth Avenue Theater, from 1927 through the early 30s.

But what really raised my eyebrows was his tales about working as an extra and a cameraman in Hollywood. He had gone down to LA when he turned 20 to try to break into “pictures.” He was an extra at the Chaplin studio on one of Charlie’s films. His description of the action made me think that it was his WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms,” but upon reading his autobio almost a decade later it proved to be something else altogether (stay tuned for my Research post this Monday).  He then lined up for extra work over at the FBO Studios (owned by Joseph P. Kennedy) for director Erich von Stroheim, who was hard at work on the infamous “Queen Kelly,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Walt found getting work as an actor a tough go. So he switched to the technical side of the business. He had always been adept mechanically, having built his own radios when a youth. He joined the Naval Reserve in Seattle to learn more about radios and sound equipment. (And to fly, for he liked planes). He made a trip down to LA and called on Gordon Sawyer, the head of the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios to learn all about sound reproduction on film. He used this knowledge to build and sell bootleg sound systems to small theaters throughout the Northwest. (The systems by Western Electric were all by lease only, and unaffordable given the small amount of business these towns generated).

Sometime in the 1930s, Walt joined Local 659, the Hollywood cameraman’s union. He served on the camera crew for Paramount’s production of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” with W. C. Fields and Zasu Pitts.

He wasn’t often down in Hollywood to my calculation, for he had many businesses in the Seattle area that he ran – a printing business in the early thirties, a film exhibition company (one theater to begin with) which he acquired in 1937, and the Seattle Motion Picture Studio, a commercial film enterprise that made sound films – advertising, novelties and gimmick offerings. During the Depression, he kept fingers in a lot of pies, for he said, you never knew what would keep you afloat.

At the time I met him (1974), his studio was closed, but he still had some of his gear. He had sound equipment, of course, but he also had a 16mm self-blimped Auricon camera, that did not need a sound recorder as it had the capacity to directly record onto the film stock. A custom built camera dolly which could be cranked up to a six foot crane rounded out his holdings.  And he allowed me and my cinema-struck friends to use them. We just needed to rent some lights. (We used the lobby of the Skinner building and the backstage area of the theater as settings).

I last heard from Walt in 1980, when he sent me a signed copy of his autobio “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me.” In telling his life story, he details his trials and tribulations with a vindictive IRS which twice sent him to prison. When people styled him as an ex-con, he disagreed, and said he was just a convicted tax evader, whose case was under appeal. The appeal he won, and the judgement was reversed.

Walter Theron Coy was a true one of a kind.

[Aside – Walt preferred to write his name as Walt T. Coy, but I spelled it out completely so as not to confuse him with an actor that came out of Seattle around the same time. That actor was Walter Darwin Coy. He was on stage and screen, and notably, played the brother of the John Wayne character in “The Searchers.”]

Dad and the Duke

Dad and the Duke

One of the perks of working in the theater business, besides watching films for free during the run, is to be invited to its premiere before it opens. Oftentimes they are a gala events with celebrities in attendance, be it the mayor or governor etc. But the ones that are really interesting to go to are those with celebrities from the film itself.

One of the more memorable events of this sort, at least for my Father and I, was one that was set for February 1974 at the 7th Avenue Theater in Seattle. The 7th Avenue was one of the old movie palaces in town, having opened in 1929. It was originally going to be called the Mayflower with decor to match, but the property was sold to another concern before it was finished and they did it over in Spanish Baroque (however they kept the Mayflower-like ship’s prows on either side of the auditorium that covered the organ pipes).

The event for which we were all gathered was the Northwest Premiere of the John Wayne film McQ.

The year before Duke had spent the summer of 1973 in Seattle (and the Washington coast) shooting exteriors for the film. He was all over the local news. Seattle Mayor Uhlman had declared the second week in that month John Wayne week, and the governor got into the act too by extending that honor throughout the state.

Little tidbits would pop up in the press about him, other cast members and the crew. Such as, during production Wayne was living on his yacht The Wild Goose which he kept at the Seattle Yacht Club and that he had brought his own chef along. Car ads popped up touting vehicles for sale that had been used in the film itself. And a flurry of stories swirled around the date of June 14, 1973. That was the date that his studio Warner Brothers had selected to hold the World Premiere of another Wayne film “Cahill US Marshal.” Also at the 7th Avenue Theater. We did not make this shindig, but it would have been really interesting if we had. Not only was the cast and crew of McQ on hand, but also those from “Cahill.”

[Aside – in attendance (besides the Duke) were Diana Muldaur, Eddie Albert, Robert Duvall, Clay O’Brien, Michael Wayne, Andrew McLaglen, Marie Windsor, and Jackie Coogan. Members of a third film dropped in too. James Caan and Marsha Mason from Cinderella Liberty were also shooting in Seattle at that time. Their director Mark Rydell came too, and for good reason. He had directed another recent Wayne film “The Cowboys”].

But at this World Premiere for “Cahill” some uninvited guests showed up. The tragic events at Wounded Knee were just two months old, fresh in everyone’s mind. And the American Indian community wanted it to remain there, so they rolled into town to protest this injustice by picketing the film and John Wayne himself, calling him the No 1 Indian killer.

At the time of the McQ premiere I was no longer at the Cinerama, but had switched over to the United Artists Cinemas 150 and 70, moving up to assistant manager. How I ever got a Saturday night off, I do not know, but I was there. I was on the left side section towards the back. My Dad had chosen a seat on the aisle that ran right next to the wall. I don’t recall if there were any other celebrities there that night, I had my eye on one only. And there was no mistaking that six foot four frame and the lumbering gait as John Wayne ambled down that very same aisle. Just before he came abreast of where my Dad was seated, Dad got to his feet and extended his hand to shake his. He was thrilled to have the Duke shake his hand. He had admired his films ever since ushering at the Paramount Theater in Salem, Massachusetts, and saw the likes of The Wake of the Red Witch and The Sands of Iwo Jima.

I asked my Dad about it afterwards. All he said was: “He had one helluva grip!”

Rebel Treasure fifty fourth post

Rebel Treasure fifty fourth post

INT. THE IRONCLAD BRIDGE
Two more SHOTS RING out. Abigail looks at Ben.

ABIGAIL
Think they all committed suicide?

BEN
No. I’ve a feeling the certified monster has taken over. We had better arm ourselves.

ABIGAIL
There was a fire ax below.

She turns to go, but Ben stops her.

BEN
Sorry, you’re not leaving my sight. We’ll stick here for now. There should be an arms chest around here somewhere.

They begin to scour the cabin. Ben crosses to the back bulkhead and raps on the wall. Hearing a HOLLOW sound, he moves to the moulding and feels around the edges. He presses against the panel, it depresses and slides to the side, revealing a large safe with three large dials.

BEN (CONT’D)
Jackpot!

ABIGAIL
The missing archives of the KGC?

BEN
A weapon or a bartering chip. I don’t care. Let’s find out.

He examines the dials. They are marked with letters rather than numbers. He takes the first and lines up the “J” with the other “J.” Then on the second, a “B” with a “P.” He tries the handle, but nothing.

BEN (CONT’D)
I just can’t remember any other letter combos that he used.

He takes a closer look.

At the bottom of the first dial an “R” has lined up with an “O.” On the second an “M” is over an “E.”

A grin splits his face from ear to ear.

BEN (CONT’D)
Lon. You left Romeo on guard!

He twists the third dial to line up the “O” with another “O.” He tries the handle again. This time the door moves, SCREECHING open on unoiled hinges.

A loud BANGING on the outside of the lower encasement echoes up from below. But Ben stares entranced by the sight of a red Morocco leather map-case.

ABIGAIL
What have we here?

He reaches in and removes the mapcase, while Abigail lifts out a Navy Colt revolver.

ABIGAIL (CONT’D)
John Wayne, eat your heart out!

BEN
I guess that leaves me with the ax.

The deck under their feet shudders and GROANS; and the ship commences to ascend. Ben checks his watch.

BEN (CONT’D)
This had better be a quick trip.

[next pt 55]