ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
I lived in Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s. The idea was to create a career involving Art. Before the big leap to the coast, I was an artist living in Fort Worth, Texas. There I worked awful, dispiriting jobs with zero opportunity. After all, I was in a religious organization ( only later did I realize it was a cult) which discouraged higher education, careers, material possessions, etc.
The idea was to make good my escape to another part of the planet! The planet California!
At first, I lived in Cucamonga, at the foot of Mount Baldy close to the Kaiser Steel plant where my Uncle Wally “worked.” Notice the quote marks?
Wally was a union employee. Union regulations required Wally to simply BE THERE in case something went awry during the night. Wally loved his “job.” All day long he would frolic until time for “work.” Then, he’d arrive at the Kaiser plant, punch the clock and go down to the furnaces and . . .go to sleep!
Yep. He was paid an incredible salary to sleep. He got 6 weeks of vacation each year and mucho benefits! He was my hero!
I applied for many art-related jobs.
Hanna-Barbera animation studios, Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures and finally, art manufacturing companies. Did you notice the word “manufacturing”?
I was hired as a kind of hack artist working in a long row with other artists painting the same images over and over. Our paint was acrylic (water soluble) on canvas, masonite, and 3-dimensional sculptures attached to a canvas.
This was Production Art.
These paintings were sold all over the U.S. to furniture stores, Banks, health spas, corporate offices--wherever people with no taste could be convinced the artwork was “collectible.”
Was it “collectible”? Sure, the way dust on your furniture is collectible.
It was good-looking schlock!
However, I made great friends in that studio. These were friends who would last a lifetime.
In fact, the lead designer started his own legitimate art business and invited me to be his art production manager!
One proviso, however! I had to move from Cucamonga (smog infested suburb) to the South Bay on the coast of California.
Redondo Beach, for me and my wife and three children, was paradise on Earth compared to Fort Worth, Texas!
As the years passed, I progressed from a Master Inker in that Etching Atelier (RnR Graphics) to working in a Beverly Hills Art Gallery (Billy Hork Gallery) and finally as an art consultant in Culver City close to MgM Studios.
I was an art consultant with Creative Galleries where hundreds of celebrities from the movie industry passed through on a regular basis. This was amazing to my smalltown mind :)
Many remarkable experiences came my way.
One day, two men walked into Creative Galleries and came back to my office. They looked harried and slightly upset.
“Excuse me, I’m Joe Kroesser and this is my partner, Mel Johnson. We work down the street at MgM Studios as set decorators on the TV show, CHiPs. I hate to bother you, but could we please use your telephone? “
As you may have guessed, this was l-o-n-g before cell phones.
I handed him the phone and he handed it to his partner, Mel. As Mel spoke on the phone, Joe settled in and we began a cozy conversation.
“Our car broke down in front of a little used Auto place a couple of blocks away. We called the studio and requested another vehicle and waited over an hour and nobody showed up. So, Mel and I decided we’d walk down here and get done what we needed to get done; which is getting what we need for a scene the Director wants to shoot in the morning.”
I could hear his partner Mel shouting at some poor secretary in the background.
Joe continued, “It’s lunch time at the studio and nobody wants to do a damned thing because of Union rules! But--this has turned out great for Mel and me. The show (CHiPs) crashes a lot of cars as you might imagine, and it is a budget buster. So, I suddenly had this bright idea! I talked to the owner of that little car lot. I said to him, ‘Hey, how many cars do you have and would you like to rent them to the studio?’ And the owner tells me and we agree on a figure which is HALF what we’re spending!”
As it turned out, Joe Kroesser was a real hustle-bustle kind of guy. He had so many ideas for making money on the side he couldn’t contain them all!
Joe and Mel had set up several side businesses as a kind of 'broker." Here is how it worked.
They formed West Coast _____(fill in the blank)___ Corporation.
If they needed cars, for example, they’d rent old junkers for West Coast Car Rental Corporation. The cars were purchased by MgM Studios--NOT from the actual source--but from Mel and Joe unbeknownst!
Mel and Joe made a profit above and beyond their salary naturally.
Right then and there, Joe suggested to his pal Mel they start West Coast Art Sales Corporation.
They would buy the art from Creative Galleries and sell it to themselves. Then, they would pretend to rent it from their "front" company. After the art was used for the scenes they needed it for---they would return the 'rented' art to themselves and resell it.
They did this not only with art but everything else the show needed to set a scene.
I asked Joe if it was “legal.”
He crafted an amazing smile and proceeded to explain it to me.
“Everybody who works in the movie business has two jobs. First their own and second, a side business. The studios have “creative” bookkeeping to hide the millions and millions of dollars that cycle through from advertisers, product placement specialists, jewelry dealers, photographers, modeling agencies, talent agents--you name it. When a show like ours is a sudden success, a huge budget is awarded the line producer and he has to make all of it disappear! If he doesn’t spend his budget, the money is decreased for the next season.”
I felt like a kid at the circus talking to the Ringmaster about the highwire act as I sat and listened to Joe Kroesser.
His partner, Mel, was not as loquacious but he was just as friendly and real as Joe. For some unaccountable reason or another, the three of us became fast buddies. Joe liked working with people who could advise him in areas he didn’t know. My specialty was art.
In the course of three years, Joe referred his Studio pals to me, to acquire art from me as a commissioned sales Art Consultant. I started making pretty good money! I met all kinds of actors, Tv people, Directors, etc.
I met a wide range of people.
In no particular order, the ones who come to mind, Spielberg, Tobe Hooper, Cheryl Kearney, David Hardberger, Bo and John Derek, Tim Conway, Peggy Lee, Anne Ditchburn, Geoffrey Lewis, Tom Laughlin, Karl Malden, Richard Chamberlain, Paul Henreid, Harry and Susan Sukman, Robert Cornthwaite, Kenneth Tobey, Keenan Wynn, Gordon Mills, Robert Nelson, Dick Zimmerman, Alan Rich, John Travolta, Marylu Henner, Dustin Hoffman . . and I’ll remember more later but have blanked out for now :)
Most of these names won’t mean anything to people who aren’t my age. They meant something to me, however. I’m a fan--a maven--a kind of nerd who KNOWS these things. I could probably tell a separate story about each one of those people if somebody was fool enough to ask me :)
On my 35th birthday in 1982, Joe surprised me with a stretch limousine and chauffeur heading to MGM studios in Culver City, to observe in person an episode of CHiPS as it was shot on the soundstage.
Joe K. provided me with a V.I.P. pass.
My driver puttered up to the gate next to the guard shack. The electric window purred down and I flashed my pass. The guard gave me the once-over and nodded. We glided on down between the various shooting stages toward a very large barn-shaped metal building.
My little Fort Worth, small town kid inside was eye-popping at everything I had seen on the silver movie screen all my life till now--I was actually inside the dream bubble myself!
I was cautioned by Joe in advance. As a set decorator and he knew how the system worked. "Whatever you do--don't acknowledge anything said to you. Especially if you are told to get out. Looky-loos annoy the hell out of everybody. Professionals hate 'em.”
Joe had impressed upon me: “One false slip and they’ll have you tossed out on your ass or arrested. You don’t want that to happen on your birthday--right?” I nodded like a dental patient.
"When the assistant Director kicks everybody out--just stand there looking very important. You most likely won’t be challenged."
“Producers are like little gods in their own mind. They consider themselves indispensable and very important. To NOT be recognized is an insult. More than one A.D. has been sacked for crossing one of these self-important shits.”
With much trepidation, I sucked up my courage and followed his instructions to the letter.
Would it work? I was all by myself. Joe would not be with me to vouchsafe my passage.
Once inside the soundstage I looked around and it was teeming with Union workers everywhere in a spill of snakelike coils of wires, cables, lights, curtains, hustle-bustle, and noise.
Joe had advised me to stand about ten feet behind the line-of-sight of the cinematographer and to remain motionless. It was imperative I not cough, sneeze, make any motions or speak!
The A.D.(Assistant Director) was supposed to have been a friend of Joe’s named Denny Salvaryn. Yet, here on the set itself was a tough, no-nonsense woman with a utility belt and a clipboard, sounding like the Drill Sergeant in Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET. Was she an AAD assistant to the assistant director?
I had on a suit and I hid my trembling hands behind my back, had my eyebrows arched, and an insolent Elvis sneer on my lips. I stared imperiously at the A.A.D. and looked straight through her as she aggressively marched up to all the non-essential personnel and barked at them. I could hear “Clear out--clear the set for a take.”
Finally, she stopped, swung her body around like a territorial Bengal tiger might do and her eye landed on my solitary figure.
Big gulp! “Steady on big fella, you can do this. You can do this.” I advised myself.
I feigned boredom and attempted to exude jungle cat ferocity, but--I'll tell you straight out--my widdle heart was pounding away like a blacksmith with a hot hammer!
The A.A.D. eyeballed me non-confrontationally and never said a word. I’m guessing she knew from experience, anybody who wasn’t supposed to be there would get the hell out.
Was I about to be tossed out? I prayed it just wasn’t worth the marginal danger to her career to ask me if I was supposed to be standing here. . . was it?
Nope, she pivoted off to the right and passed me by within a comfortable zone of deference between us. She was as scared of me as I had been of her!
I WAS IN!!
The guest Director that week was John Astin (Gomez) of Addams Family fame. 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! Highway Patrol parties looked like fun!
The A.D. blew her whistle like a volleyball coach and deathly silence reigned supreme. I prayed I wasn't standing in the wrong spot.
Director John Astin nodded and the whistle blew again. It must have been the signal for "ACTION!"
The sound stage came alive with noise, movement, and a tiny Indian Runner motorcycle ridden by a "little person" in a CHiPS uniform. My eyes were as big as UFO's. The male star, Eric Estrada was dancing with Elvira and the scene was shot about five times in a row from several angles and distances.
Hurly burly and madness--silence--back on the marks--rinse and repeat. It was pure magic!
That was among my favorite all-time memories. It was a wonderful birthday present.
I was invited by Set Decorator Joe Kroesser another time.
It was in Agoura. This is where Joe himself lived. He told me Agoura flat and sprawling and 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.
Evel Knievel Jr. was going to do a wild stunt by jumping over a WWI biplane (flown by legendary stunt flyer, Frank Tallman) on his motorcycle.
There had to have been at least 200 people standing around waiting to shoot this scene. Why weren't they shooting already? What was the problem? The director was super angry.
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. Overnight, as they say.
It worked like dynamite!
Eric Estrada was launched as the superstar and the CHiPS budget was quadrupled!
Since Estrada knew he was responsible for all that money being thrown at the production, he took full advantage. He became the male Prima Donna!
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 Bimboesque (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!)
Frantically, make-up artists 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.
The biplane engine roared to a start. Evel Junior revved his engine on the motorbike. A practice run-through was commenced. The timing and coordination were choreographed to the half-second! Every single element was planned to perfection for the jump to work. The cycle had to hit the ramp at a 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. Then, he and his arm candy 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. Lesson learned. It didn’t matter what risk or details went into a scene; if it didn’t play that way onscreen--it was a waste of time and money.
TV productions burned money like you wouldn’t believe!
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. It was quite lavish. He was a lonely divorced man living alone in a sprawling ranch house. He threw parties and invited attractive women. He tried to live the Hollywood life and trade on his "fame."
Well, it didn't seem to do him all that much good with the ladies. Sure, he could get a beautiful date, but he’d oversold his connection to fame and fortune and you could easily see the expression on her face. She would search the room for Eric Estrada or somebody--anybody important!
You see, everybody who has even the slightest connection to Hollywood, the movies, TV, the studio will live in that magnified dream bubble of extraordinary expectations. If and when FAME arrives, it can disappear before they even know it has gone forever.
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.
Joe and Mel were parted when Mel Johnson died suddenly. Here and gone.
Joe became disconsolate and his drinking added a lot of weight to his already portly figure.
I didn’t hear from him for awhile. One day there was a message on my answerphone. I could hear the loneliness in his voice. He rambled on for a few seconds and said he’d call back. He never did. I left California in 1983 and never saw him again.
He went on to work on about ten more TV shows, but only one movie. He had referred to MOTEL HELL as a “major motion picture” on his business card and resume’ and I had to laugh at that.
He was a colorful character and I still think of him now and then.
Such are the people, events, and memories of my California days all those years ago!
I try and tell these stories from time to time just to remind myself of the details. It’s more for my enjoyment than yours, I guess.