ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (A brief memoir)
For about two years, 1980-82, I worked for Creative Galleries in Culver City, California which was very close to MGM Studios.
Creative Galleries offered original art at wholesale, retail -- and (thanks to me) rented art to movie studios.
I had become friendly with two set decorators, Joe Kroesser and his partner, Mel Johnson. One afternoon their car broke down in front of the Antique Guild nearby and they wandered in looking for a telephone.
I chatted with them for over an hour and we quickly became symbiotically chummy.
They needed artwork and I needed to sell artwork.
Joe and Mel suddenly dreamed up a little business scheme.
Apparently I was being granted an inside glimpse of how Hollywood really works.
The two guys worked for MGM on the TV show CHiPS,
Joe and Mel set up their "side" business as a kind of 'broker."
The studio needed art for scenes in movies and TV shows.
Sometimes a one-time shot but more often, ongoing TV series.
Set decorators had long ago figured out how to enrich themselves by setting up for themselves a dummy corporation (WESTCOAST WHOLESALE ART) which they'd use to buy art wholesale from me / Creative Galleries, and turn around and "rent" from their dummy Corp at an inflated cost to the studio.
A successful TV series flowed green with cash budgets, you see.
They did this not only with art but just about everything else.
They paid themselves and kept everything.
This scheme, I was told, was originated by actor Hugh O'Brien from the 1950's TV series, WYATT EARP.
O'Brien set a business renting pistols for Westerns.
It was none of my business. As long as I sold art I received my commission. What the Set Decorators did on their end was their business.
As a result of being friendly with Joe and Mel, I began to meet and work with other Hollywood people.
I've told you those stories, so I'll move on with this one.
For my 33rd birthday, Joe Kroesser sprung a surprise for me.
On my birthday, Joe arranged for me to be picked up by a long stretch limousine and chauffeured to MGM to watch an episode of CHiPS being filmed.
I was going to visit the set of CHiPS to watch the way-in-advance shooting of a Halloween episode with ELVIRA, MISTRESS of the DARK and directed by Addam's Family actor, John Astin.
Joe provided me with a V.I.P. pass and a LIMO!
We drove up to the gate to the guard shack and I flashed my pass. The guard gave me the once-over and nodded. We drove on down between the various shooting stages in very large barn-shaped metal buildings.
I was cautioned by Joe (who arranged it),
"Whatever you do--don't acknowledge anything said to you. Especially if you are told to get out."
He was a set decorator and he knew how things were done.
Looky - loo's annoy the hell out of everybody. They hate 'em.
EXCEPTION: Studio Execs and Producers.
My task was to "look" too important to roust.
"When the assistant Director kicks everybody out--just stand there looking very important and you won't be bothered."
Damned if it didn't work!
The A.D. (Assistant Director) was a tough, no-nonsense woman with a utility belt and a clipboard, who sounded like the Drill Sergeant in Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET.
I was wearing a suit.
I had my hands behind my back with my eyebrows arched and an insolent Elvis sneer on my lips. I stared at the A.D. and looked straight through her. She went up to all the non-essential personnel and barked at them.
Finally, she headed my way.
I feigned boredom and malevolence, but--I'll tell you straight out--my widdle heart was pounding away like a blacksmith with a hot hammer!
The A.D. eyeballed me like a wolverine sniffs fresh meat, but she never said a word and passed me by within a comfortable zone of deference.
I WAS IN!!
The guest Director, John Astin (Gomez) of Addams Family fame was blocking a huge shot of the entire cast at a party.
(Episode: ROCK DEVIL ROCK)
It was a Halloween episode being filmed in January!! One of the guest stars was Cassandra Peterson (Elvira Mistress of the Dark) and the sound stage was filled with the weirdest assortment of actors and supernumeraries you could imagine! I don't know what any of that had to do with California Highway Patrol!
The A.D. blew her whistle like a volleyball coach. John Astin nodded and the whistle blew again. he signal for "ACTION!"
The sound stage came alive with clamor, movement, and a tiny Indian Runner motorcycle ridden by a "little person" in a CHiPS uniform. My eyes widened as big as UFO's.
That was among my favorite all-time memories. It was a wonderful birthday present.
I was invited by Set Decorator Joe Kroesser one other time, to
location shooting in Agoura.
This is where Joe himself lived.
Agoura was very flat and sprawling, so it had been used a lot in Westerns in the past. Among the TV shows shot there had been a favorite of mine as a kid, SKY KING.
On this day, a small airport was the scene.
Evil Knievel JR. (Robbie) was filming a wild stunt by jumping his cycle over a WWI biplane (flown by legendary stunt flyer, Frank Tallman).
Say what, Terry?
The biplane would swoop low and the motorcycle was ramped to fly OVER the biplane!
There had to have been at least 200 people standing around waiting to shoot this scene.
Why weren't they shooting already?
Joe told me.
Eric Estrada was holding production up!
He had a really big ego by this time. He acted like King of the World. All because of Saturday Night Fever's popularity.
The show's writers saw the extraordinary interest in Disco becoming a national sensation. So, they wrote a silly episode around Estrada in a similar disco dance routine as had made John Travolta a superstar.
It worked like dynamite!
Overnight, Eric Estrada was launched as the superstar and the CHiPS budget was quadrupled!
More money for CHiPS meant more for Joe and Mel (and subsequently ME.)
Since Estrada knew he was responsible for all that money flooding into the production, he took full advantage.
You're Nobody until you're Somebody.
Somebody can get away with anything.
Until . . . they become Nobody again.
On this particular day, about 45 minutes late, a limousine pulled up in the muddy ruts of the airfield. While hundreds of crew members stood with their jaws agape, Estrada and a very, very Bimbo-esque (worse for wear) blonde stumbled out as "Ponch" marched her in front of all the men's envious eyes. She was wearing high heels in the grass and mud and each time she pulled her heel unstuck she would--um--bounce a little. (Or a lot!)
Finally, make-up department ran over and seized Ponch and dragged him into a trailer. About half an hour later, he emerged looking exactly the same--but--in uniform.
Frank Tallman's biplane's engines roared to a start.
Evel Junior (Robbie) revved his engine on the motorbike.
A practice run-through commenced.
The timing and coordination were choreographed to the half-second! Every single element was planned out for the jump to work.
The cycle had to hit the ramp at the precise instant to gain altitude enough to clear the overshoot. The cycle would go over the top of the biplane exactly as it crossed low enough to the ground to allow it to pass.
Let me cut to the chase!
The signal to begin was a loud starter pistol. At the "Bang!" the clockwork stunt commenced, worked the miracle and ended before you could say, "Bob's yer Uncle."
Estrada had a single line on camera. A Brandoesque grunt or something. (I couldn't hear.)
Then, he and his bimbo-du-jour paraded once again back to their limo and zipped off to--each of us had our own imagined destination in mind.
When I watched the scene play out on TV some years later, it looked like nothing. In fact, it looked easily as though it could be faked. But--it wasn't!
A fortune was spent on all that nonsense.
Big Budget = waste, graft, and fun for the kids.
From 1977-83 Joe made a great living with his double-dealing "props for sale" side business.
It was great fun knowing him.
He invited me to his house; quite lavish.
He was a lonely divorced man alone in a sprawling ranch house.
He threw parties and invited attractive women, endeavoring to live the Hollywood life and trade on his "fame."
Well, it didn't seem to do him much good with the ladies.
We all know what happened to Estrada when his stardom turned to cow plop.
He became a self-joke.
He'd pop up in TV commercials as a parody of his CHiPS character. He was about 50 pounds heavier.
Well, this many years later now. I'm 50 pounds heavier!
Fun memories to share with my friends.