While my time as a Stage Manager at KBMO in San Diego was memorable, and not to mention brief, it was just a short transition period in my career, leading me from San Diego State to my ultimate destination … Hollywood.
I had plans, you see. Plans that couldn’t be held within the limited confines of a small-market station doing live news and commercials day in and day out. No, that wasn’t for me. I had much bigger fish to fry … I was going to direct Soap Operas.
Okay, all of you, just stop laughing. Yeah, you … The guy running Windows ’98 on a Compaq Pentium V 500Mhz … Get a grip, it’s not that funny. (Besides, you’ve got your own issues.)
Soap Operas are an art … And remember this was during the whole Luke & Laura hysteria when General Hospital was at the height of its popularity. I’d been watching “GH” since the 5th grade, as it was on right next to my all-time favorite soap as a kid … Dark Shadows.
My next choice after that would have been directing sitcoms (I wasn’t going to be picky.) Plus I’d seen every episode of I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Gilligan’s Island, twice, so, hey, qualified!
After narrowly escaping the clutches of Bud Blue and Susan Dale, the evil anchor team at KBMO, I started looking around for jobs up the coast. As luck would have it, Metromedia Square was advertising for a lighting maintenance engineer … A job I was totally unqualified for, so, thinking that nobody gets jobs in Hollywood by sending resumes (something that has proven false time and time again in my career), I sent in a resume. About a month later I got a call from the Director of Production Operations for Metromedia Productions … Wondering if I could come in for an interview.
Needless to say I wound up in L.A. defying all speed records for the, normally, 2-hour trip.
For those of you not familiar with Metromedia Square, which stood for years on Sunset Boulevard just off the 101 at the eastern end of what you’d think of as Hollywood proper, it was once one of the busiest video production lots in Hollywood. Known as “the lot that Lear built”, owing to the number of sitcoms produced by Norman Lear there over the years (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Different Strokes, The Facts of Life, and more), it was a truly historic place. In 1984, while a bit past the Norman Lear sitcom heyday, Metromedia Square was still a thriving production hub operating on a 7×24 basis for much of the year. Shows in production at that time were Three’s Company, Gimme’ a Break!, Too Close for Comfort, The People’s Court, Jeopardy!, and more.
The meeting with the production guy went well … They weren’t interested in me for the maintenance position, but they were interested in my experience with the Strand-Century Light Palette lighting control system, an early, VAX-based, lighting computer which was state-of-the-art at that time, and something I had become bit of a guru about, thanks to my experience in the SDSU Theatre. It seems that there was going to be a large growth in production for the upcoming season, including a soap opera, and they needed a swarm of additional lighting guys. It was a foot in the proverbial door.
I moved up to Los Angeles right after the ’84 Olympics, which had pretty much shut production, and just about everything else in L.A., down for the duration, due to predictions of traffic nightmares during the games which never emerged. There was a late start on Fall production and the lot was in a frenzy.
Being one of the new kids on the lot, I got a couple of weeks of day gigs on set, which mainly consisted of sitting around waiting for something to go wrong, or striking lights after a shoot wrapped. These shoot days were coveted by crew, as it was usually a 15-hour day of not much work to do. Although sitting around on set got very monotonous, very fast.
To fill the void the crew used to do a lot of recreational … well, let’s just say it was the ’80s and it was Hollywood, and yes, from what I saw and experienced, most of the stories you heard about rampant intoxication of various kinds were true. Oh, man were they true. For the sake of not pointing fingers at behavior that, while once may have been tolerated but now is very seriously frowned upon, and so as not to earn the wrath of any litigious former co-workers who may still be around, let’s just say that the boredom at these times lead to us play a lot of darts on the lot … and off.
There was a back room at the Denny’s on Sunset across the street from Metromedia Square that was a bar. It was a perfect place to go after playing darts and have a few adult beverages before heading back to work after lunch, dinner (sometimes breakfast) or whenever. We spent a lot of time at Denny’s, or Chez Denois, as we used to call it.
On a shoot day you’d often find the lighting crew taking turns going up to the dimmer rooms above the stages to play darts. Nobody ever went up there and nobody outside could smell anything when we were playing darts in there, but just to be safe we’d have a lookout stationed nearby in case some production manager decided to nose around … A chirp on the walkie-talkies meant we had to put out our darts and get out of there. Not that it ever happened … and you could find used darts all over the floor in the dimmer rooms. So much in fact that if you didn’t have any darts of your own, you could probably roll a couple from what was there.
It wasn’t long before all of us new guys found ourselves on the graveyard shift … As I said, shoot days were highly coveted by the guys with seniority, and it really pissed them off when noobs got the day work. There was a fairly strict seniority-based caste system that dictated that kind of stuff, so after a few weeks of orientation, I found myself doing over-nights getting lights hung, rigged, and focused, for the next day’s shoot.
The schedule varied by show, but generally it meant coming in between 11pm-2am, after a set had been cleared from a stage. The two big stages, six and seven, had 3-4 shows on them every week, including a sitcom each. This meant rotating the sets in and out as soon as each week’s shoot was done. The lighting crew would come in first, hang all the lights on the pipes; the stages had a fly system so with an empty stage all the hanging could be done at ground level. Then the lights would be flown up so the grips could bring the sets in. We’d come back in the wee hours of the morning to hang any additional lights in odd places, or nail babies (1k lights) to the top of set walls … We nailed a lot of babies to walls on sitcoms. We also used to stick a lot of glass (diffusion material) in the babies. If you didn’t know the jargon, it sounded like a very violent and sadistic business.
Now hanging the lights was hard work, to be sure, but there was also a lot of down time between the hang, and after the grips were done putting the sets up. A lot of time in the middle of the night with absolutely nothing to do, except sleep … or play darts in the lighting shop.
We played a lot of darts in the lighting shop.
Back at this time, Metromedia was owned by a guy named John Kluge … One of the richest guys in the country. His Metromedia empire spanned television, news, billboards, and the emerging cellular phone market. The man was richer than god, which is all very well and good, except that with vast wealth can come vast excess … In Kluge’s case, one of these excesses manifested itself in his interest in art. The hang-on-a-wall kind, not the Garfunkel variety.
The Metromedia Square Building, and Kluge’s rooftop art. We used to tell people that it was an antenna to spare ourselves embarrassment.
Well, you might say that’s not a bad thing, as art forms the basis of our collective consciousness, our common soul, and has been at the center of human existence since time immemorial. You could say that, and it would all be true, except that John Kluge had, what was held by consensus to be, the absolute worst taste in art in the history of worst taste in art. Kluge’s art collection was, in fact, a standing joke on the lot … and presumably throughout the entire Metromedia Empire (and the outside World.)
Most of this stuff was horrible. Most of it would make you want to embrace Jackson Pollack for his upbeat use of color and form. Not to mention texture.
On the way through the front offices at the Square, there were corridors filled with pastel-art depicting the Holocaust. Certainly appropriate, and very thought-provoking, subject matter for viewing when at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum, but not the kind of material you want to get your head into right before taking a meeting with one of the producers of The Ted Knight show about merchandising rights for Cosmic Cow. Just not the right vibe. Besides, it was also hideous stuff.
Sculpture was another important part of the Kluge art collection that reflected the same sensibilities and tastes evident in his collection of paintings and illustrations. Hideous was an often-used description.
There was this huge erector-set-looking thing that was mounted on top of the main building at the Square extending out, and hanging over, the 101 freeway. People often asked what it was, and if this giant tinker-toy served any kind of functional purpose. Most of us just told anyone who asked that it was a TV antenna, rather than getting into a long, detailed, explanation about this huge piece of scrap metal, that the owner of the company probably paid millions for, which served no functional or aesthetic purpose whatsoever (although it would probably claim a number of lives on the freeway below in the event of an earthquake.)
On the main lot, there was a sort of portico leading into the studio that was all done in black granite. In the middle of it was a huge, I’m thinking 20 foot, chrome statue of some Greek god carrying what was supposed to represent some kind of radio wave (but looked much more like the stars that used to circle Wiley Coyote’s head whenever he got ganked by the Road Runner) to Mankind. Beneath the statue, in huge silver letters, read the caption, “All Honor To The Minds That Created The Medium.”
It was far from the most heinous article of artistic effluvia decorating the lot, but subject to no less derision than the rest of the collection largely because people had to walk by it on their way in to work from the parking lot every day … or night, as it was lit up with some high-power floodlights that insured it was visible, at least as far as Compton, after dark.
The Object of our late night plot …
One night, after we had finished doing the hang for a particularly light show, we were all sitting around in the shop. It was about 3am, and we had absolutely nothing to do until the lighting director for the show got in at 8am. An major round of playing darts ensued.
A couple of hours later, the lighting shop thick in a post-darts-playing cloud of smoke, the disjointed conversation turned to John Kluge, his art collection, and, specifically, the giant chrome Silver Surfer knock-off at the entrance to the lot. It seems that everyone had pretty much gotten sick of looking at this behemoth.
“It’s hideous!”, said one of the electricians.
“I’m sick of it!”, cried the board operator.
“Somebody oughta’ do something!”, said somebody else.
“Hmmmnnn. I got an idea”, chimed in the gaffer.
And right then and there, amidst a flood of outrage and boredom, and darts, a conspiracy was born whose repercussions would reverberate throughout the entire Metromedia empire.
The lighting director went over and pulled out a box of lighting foil … The thick, heavy, foil, a common enough staple in any gaffer’s bag, but for some reason this batch was silver instead of the usual black. It was probably ordered in error and had been sitting in the shop, largely unnoticed, until our guy pulled it out and started measuring suitability to mischievous task.
With an evil twinkle of glee in his otherwise bloodshot eyes, he began to construct a large cylinder from the foil … About 4 feet in length and probably close to a foot in diameter.
It was probably a half-an-hour, or better, into his manic crafting that we realized what he was doing. Everyone dropped their darts and stared in awe at the marvelous creation; It was a giant, glittering, chrome schlong, life-like in every detail, well, except for being chrome. It was a surreal penis of beauty.
Next, plans for deployment were made. Walkie-talkies were distributed and look-outs dispatched. One got the sense that if camo was available, we would have broke that out do … We were on a covert mission, and our very survival, or at least the survival of our careers, was dependent on stealthy execution of this maneuver.
The giant willy was attached to the statue with great care. High tension wire supplying the invisible underpinnings.
The monolithic tadger in place, the lights were re-focused on the giant’s new-found manhood, with tasteful sidelighting applied to provide an enhanced sense of depth (we were, after all, lighting professionals.)
Finally, all that remained was a slight modification to the caption beneath the statue, made with the aid of silver tape.
Afterwards, the entire covert missions team departed the scene, retreating to the safety of the lighting shop, undetected. Our mission a success, a round of darts was in order, as we waited for morning to come, along with the fallout from our escapade to begin.
That day, as hundreds of workers arrived at the lot, they were greeted with a new, and improved, statue displaying its massive tool for all the World to see, with a caption that now read:
“All Honor to the Minds that Created the Medium, the Large, and the Extra Large”
The teaming masses arriving on the scene just stood there, slack-jawed, ogling the freshly enhanced masterpiece. Some impressed, some appalled, none without something to say about the effort.
In the Brechtian sense, the win was thoroughly epic.
Now, studio management, who I suspect enjoyed this display as much of the rest of us, but having to feign disgust due to differing allegiances and agendas, promptly dispatched a maintenance crew who, even more promptly, emasculated said work of art, but not before a couple of hours of arriving workers, guests and visiting dignitaries had a chance to view the statue in its modified, Ron Jeremy-esque, form.
A call was made to round up the usual suspects and, after the usual inquiries were made, a promise was offered by management to find, and ultimately punish, the culprits responsible for this defacement of Mr. Kluge’s prized statue.
The tale of the statue and his prosthetic pecker went on to become a thing of Metromedia legend.
At the end of the ’85 production season, I left Metromedia, returning to New York for what I thought would be a six-month trip to attend to some family issues. I didn’t get back to Metromedia Square until 2001, when I found the facility boarded-up and gated off … a depressing specter of its former self.
Metromedia had sold off its production and television interests years before and Fox, the new owner, had moved to a newer facility, donating the property to the L.A. Unified School District. The lot, and everything on it, was demolished a few years later to make room for a huge new high school. The students of Los Angeles would be better for having it, although a huge piece of Television history would be sacrificed for the benefit.
To this day, everyone who worked at Metromedia Square back then will remember all those who “honored” the minds that created the medium … And wonder just who in the hell they were.
I’ll never tell.