Tag Archives: warner bros.

Occupy Chuck

(It’s customary in the media (and I guess a blog is technically part of the “media,” isn’t it?) to add our own “Auld Lang Syne” item to the list of things that went away during Millennium 2.011. Here’s a bubbly-raising post dedicated to an underappreciated television show that wrapped for good a couple of weeks ago.)

Imagine growing up loving – and I mean lovingGilligan’s Island. (Knowing no better, this was an affliction that many of us in Indiana once succumbed to, having spent countless after- school hours watching WGN reruns.)

Now imagine what it would have been like to have spent part of your working days as a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, occasionally dipping your toe into the lagoon.

Welcome to our world, sort of, or at least a portion of it, anyway.

For the past several months, both Kimi and I have seen our own worlds collide with the fictional setting of our all-time favorite television show, Chuck.

We both work on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where I give tours and she works in the studio protection group. Both of our roles call for us to interact directly with the shows on a regular basis. I lead three tours a day through the sets and Kimi works with the productions during filming as part of her set watch duties.

We can’t call ourselves long-term fans of Chuck. As a matter of fact, we had never even seen it until a few months ago when I started this tour-giving gig. I thought I’d better sample some of the programs made on the lot to know what I was showing off to the paying customers and borrowed the first season on DVD from a friend. After the first few moments of the pilot episode, Kimi and I uttered a collective “dammit,” knowing that until we had powered through every season, our sleep would be sacrificed nightly to feed our newfound “just-one-more-episode-of-Chuck” habit. We were hooked.

The humor, quirkiness, and infectious joy that Zachary Levi – the loveable nerd-turned-spy Chuck – and the rest of the cast brought to the screen immediately won us over. Although our addiction was new, it was strong.

The following mornings I would get to lead tours to the set of Chuck’s apartment on Stage 4, the fantastic “Buy More” set on Stage 17, and every so often to “the Castle” set on Stage 10.

A visit to the apartment set provided the added benefit of me getting to say hello to WB’s smallest celebrity: a cat named Smokey, who lived in the courtyard fountain when the stage wasn’t in use. (Smokey has another home next door on the set of Ellen and occasionally appears on the show.)

Sometimes, when the touring crowds were slight, I would stage sit at Chuck’s apartment for a few hours at a time, taking in the details of the sets. Someone must have taught Smokey how to high-five, because I was able to bond with the near-feral feline to the point that she would sometimes go paw-a-mano with me.

One thing you learn quickly in Hollywood is that if the star of the show is nice, niceness will permeate the entire production. (Sadly, the alternative is equally true.)

Since Zac Levi is the friendliest guy in Hollywood, the sets of Chuck were the most approachable on the entire lot. Comparable, in our experience, to the former sets of The West Wing, which because of the kindness and warmth of Martin Sheen, were congenial throughout.

I was never a Chuck insider – far from it. Smokey was the only member of the cast or crew with whom I was on a first-name basis.

Much of my interaction with the cast took place when I was leading a tram full of tour guests. We encountered Zac on several occasions, often atop a skateboard, wheeling himself from one soundstage to another between scenes. He would always say hello and offer a wave, no matter how busy he was. During one of these meetings he introduced himself to our tour group, apologizing because WB’s lot didn’t have 3D gorillas or thrill rides like Universal Studios, instead only having “schmucks like me.”

There were other Chuck cast moments, like the time I watched Joshua Gomez, who plays Chuck’s hapless best friend Morgan, practice karate moves on the apartment set. A couple of days later I got a shy wave and Australian-accented hello from Yvonne Strahovski. Another time, I turned the corner to see the entire cast walk by in bathrobes.

Kimi’s encounters with the cast were more substantial since she spent many hours with them during tapings over the past season. On once such night, the show was taping inside the parking structure just across from the lot on Forest Lawn Drive. It was the final night of shooting for an episode that Zac was directing. During a break, she asked him if he was having fun being the boss.

“Well …?” he replied with a knotted face suggesting that “fun” wasn’t the word he would have used. Then he smiled and commented that it was pretty stressful, but that he had a lot of support. Later that evening, he surprised everyone by personally renting two gourmet food trucks, which were made available to everyone on the crew, including Kimi. A sign was placed on both of the trucks which read, “Thanks for all your hard work. It’s gonna be great! – Zac.”

Despite having a rabid core of fans, the show never reached higher than #65 for a season, since for most of its run it was up against Monday Night Football. This season it was relegated to Friday night, which is where shows go to die, so everyone knew that it would soon be coming to an end.

In the weeks leading up to the final days of shooting, a visit to the sets was like seeing a friend who was terminally ill with no chance of recovery. Towards the end, even Smokey seemed to sense something was up and could often be found camped out on Chuck’s bed in an “Occupy Chuck” movement of one.

I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the cast because they were out on location for most of their final week. But Kimi did. She was walking past Zac’s trailer on their last day on the lot when he stepped outside. She extended her hand, telling him he would truly be missed at Warner Bros., and that it had been an honor working with him. She added that what he had brought to us was nothing short of magic.

Instead of simply shaking her hand, he embraced her, thanked her … and fought back tears. He apologized and explained that she had caught him at an emotional moment. When Kimi joined him in tears, they both laughed, and he wished her “a beautiful day.”

According to a young friend of ours at WB who spoke recently to Zac about his plans, his next stop is Broadway. NY’s gain is LA’s loss, most likely a temporary one, since anyone who has watched Chuck over the past five seasons, or has had the honor to meet Zac personally, champions this guy and hopes he makes it to his rightful place at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

I’m sure the rest of the cast will be okay too. Adam Baldwin consistently finds himself in fantastic, albeit short-lived shows (Firefly); and sweet and shapely Yvonne Strahovski, who recently appeared on the cover of a Maxim magazine, will have no trouble making rent.

The lot is quickly moving on. These days I pass by Stages 4, 10 and 17 and see the dumpsters outside filled with former Chuck sets. Three times a day I still see one of the Nerd Herders parked in the Transportation Museum and Smokey has moved back in full-time with Ellen.

A few months ago we were down in Studio City at the studio where Gilligan’s Island was filmed. The lagoon had been drained years earlier and replaced with a parking lot.

I know something will soon occupy Chuck’s former digs, and I imagine one day guests on my tours will see a line added to the brass plaques that don the sides of its former stages that reads “Chuck 2007 – 2011.”

Kimi and I will miss the cast and crew of Chuck, but we’ll be forever grateful to have been a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, and occasionally dipping our toes into the proverbial lagoon.

Kimi and I would like to thank the 86,511 “Deadwrite’s Dailies” readers who stopped by for a visit in 2011.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Eleven-Eleven-Eleven

This past week, there was another palindrome granted to us by the calendar gods (Do geese see god?)

Barring the creation of the immortality pill (Will you please get on this, Eli Lilly!), this will likely be the last 11-11-11 we will experience in our lifetimes. (Of course, at the rate I’m going, if I do happen to make it to November 11, 2111, I’ll just about be finished with my degree and the back yard).

This type of timekeeping symmetry is just what I needed to rouse me back to the keyboard to share updates on some of the “DD” posts for the non-palindromic past.

I promise you’ll hear from me again before 12-12-12.

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I’m giving tours at Warner Bros. these days. One of the places I like to point out (especially if I have a graying group along for the ride), is the intersection between the Mill building and Stage 16. This was the place where Pink Floyd’s iconic 1975 Wish You Were Here album cover was taken over 35 years ago.

As part of a new Why Pink Floyd? marketing campaign, last week EMI re-released WYWH as both a 5-disc “Immersion” edition and in a 2-disc “Experience” format.

Speaking of Pink Floyd, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon passed a major cultural milestone this past June when it charted on Billboard for the 1000th week!

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Speaking of milestones, Deadwrite’s Dailies will pass 75,000 views for the year sometime in the next day or so. Thanks to everyone who has stopped by for a peek.

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It’s a bit after the fact, but October 12 was the 40th anniversary of the passing of rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, who is buried in Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery. My family and I pass by this cemetery a couple of times a day driving on the Antelope Freeway and often call out a “personal Hi Gene” to the late legend.

I learned an interesting fact around the time of the anniversary. I had always thought that Gene had died at the Henry Mayo Hospital in Newhall back in 1971. It turns out, that hospital hadn’t been built yet, and thanks to some great investigative work from my friends Chris Bouyer and Tony Newhall, the real location was found to be what was then the Inter-Valley Community Hospital at 21704 Golden Triangle Road in Saugus. The place is known today at the Hillside Professional Center (and it looks kinda creepy).

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I don’t know if you caught this or not, but President Obama recently authorized the deployment of a small contingent of troops to Uganda to help fight a brutal guerrilla force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA, under the leadership of Joseph Kony, has been carrying out a campaign or murder, dismemberment, and kidnapping in central Africa for decades.

This was welcome news to African activists all over the world, including our friend The West Wing actress Melissa Fitzgerald, who has been campaigning for the citizens of Uganda for years. Well done.

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BTW – Congrats to the late, great cowboy hero Roy Rogers, who would have turned 100 on November 5.

Twenty years ago on November 7, Magic Johnson made the stunning announcement that he had the HIV virus. Magic, glad you’re still with us and going strong!

So long to the Western Black Rhino, which was due to poaching, was declared extinct last week. (When are we actually going to learn to live on this planet?)

On a personal note, my second book will hit the shelves tomorrow. It’s called Griffith Park and was co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. The book covers the story of L.A.’s “Central Park,” with tons of photos of some of the hundreds of films that have been shot there. Keep watch for details of upcoming lectures and book signings.


Busby Berkeley: Chaos and Complexity

Busby Berkeley, the man whose name has become synonymous with mammoth, kaleidoscopic, fantasy dance sequences, died thirty-five years ago today after a chaotic life that contrasted sharply to the well-patterned numbers he created for Hollywood.

Berkeley, born William Berkeley Enos in 1895, was a child of vaudevillians. His father died soon after he was born and young “Buzz” developed a lifelong obsession with his mother, who had for a time acted in silent movies.

He learned choreography in World War I where he trained troops to perform intricate marching routines. After a successful stint on Broadway, he came west to stage dance sequences at Warner Bros., where his geometric extravaganzas – famous for being shot with a single camera and for paying tribute to the female form – almost single-handedly kept the studio afloat during the darkest days of the Depression.

During his career, Berkeley staged over 50 huge musical numbers, like Lullaby of Broadway in Gold Diggers of 1935, where he directed 150 singing and tap-dancing young ladies. His unequalled imagination allowed him to turn lines of dancers into waterfalls, giant violins, and images from kaleidoscopes.

Famous for his “combustible personality,” Berkeley was most often unconcerned with the feelings – or the safety – of his dancers. Since his rants often took place during the many hours of preparation required to set up his sequences, working on a Busby Berkeley set was often described in the same manner as warfare: boredom punctuated by terror.

Berkeley was a heavy drinker, and his alcoholism resulted in the deaths of three innocent people one night in 1935 when he crashed his car while driving intoxicated. He was tried for second-degree murder in the case, but high-priced studio attorneys were able to get him acquitted.

High-living and alimony (he married six times) cost him his fortune, and after his beloved mother died, he attempted suicide. Work in Hollywood grew scarce when musicals fell out of fashion, and for a time Berkeley’s work was largely forgotten.

He successfully returned to the stage before finally retiring. He was able to see his work get rediscovered by the public before his death in Palm Desert on March 14, 1976, at age 80.

One secret that Berkeley may have wanted to take to the grave with him was that he couldn’t dance!

 


1/21 and Done

Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer

If you happen to be famous, you may want to stay in bed today.

Who knows? Maybe it was the stress of having just made it through the holidays and knowing that there were less than 350 shopping days until the next Christmas that did these folks in. Whatever the case, the 21st day of January has historically proven fatal to a large number of entertainers.

This dark trend began in 1895 when David Burbank died on this date. While not much of an entertainer himself, dentist and rancher Burbank owned the land that now houses the lots for Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and NBC.

The first film star to pass on this date was beautiful silent actress Alma Rubens (b. 1897) who died from complications from drug addiction in 1931. Canadian-born actress Marie Prevost (b. 1898) met a similar fate six years later due to alcoholism.

On this date in 1938, French magician and cinematic pioneer Georges Melies passed away in Paris. Twelve years later, British dystopian author George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903) died from tuberculosis.

In 1959, two Hollywood notables passed on the same day – one old, one young. The elder victim was epic film director Cecil B. DeMille (b. 1881) whose death overshadowed the news that day that thirty-one-year old ex-Our Gang member Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer had been shot during an argument over a hunting dog. The two were buried a few hundred feet apart in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Western actor Al “Fuzzy” St. John, who got his start in silent comedies with his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, died on this date in 1963. Actress Ann Sheridan (b. 1915) died four years later from cancer.

Death took a holiday until 1984 when the scythe again swung twice claiming the lives of actor and Olympian Johnny Weissmuller  and Soul singer Jackie Wilson.

Cecil B. DeMille

Actress Susan Strasberg died on this date in 1999, followed three years later by actress and singer Peggy Lee.

Other notables who passed on this date include baseball hall of famer Charlie Gehringer in 1993, Chicago television personality and original Ronald McDonald portrayer Ray Rayner in 2004, and Chi-Lites vocalist Robert “Squirrel” Lester in 2010.

January 21 was also the death date for two actors on the world stage. It was on this date in 1924 that communist leader Vladimir Lenin died in Russia. This happened exactly 131 years after King Louis XVI lost his head in 1793.


The Fifth Warner Brother

Bette Davis, and her famous eyes.

When Bette Davis first came to Hollywood in 1930 after being discovered on Broadway by a Universal talent scout, she traveled by train and was shocked on arrival not to be greeted by a representative from the studio. In fact, the studio had sent a man to meet her, but he left after failing to see anyone exit the train who looked like an actress.

For the next five decades, Davis would employ her unique look, as well as a willingness to play unsympathetic characters, to create one of the greatest of all Hollywood careers.

After her anticlimactic arrival in Hollywood, Davis would get her first role at Universal on the recommendation of a cinematographer who found her eyes to be striking. She quickly moved over to Warner Bros., where she got her big Hollywood “break” in 1932 when actor George Arliss personally chose her for the lead female role in his film The Man Who Played God.

Two years later, she earned critical acclaim in Of Human Bondage. When she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for the film, the ensuing uproar forced the Academy to change its nominating process. She won the Oscar the following year for Dangerous, but till the end of her life she would contend that the statuette was a consolation prize from the Academy for the previous year’s snub.

Along the way, Davis became nearly as famous for her legendary fights with studio chief Jack Warner, as for her body of work. In 1936, she tried to break her contract with the producer, believing that Warner was damaging her career with the roles he was demanding she play. Her case went to court in England, where Davis had fled, and was lost when her claim that WB kept her in “slavery” produced laughter in the courtroom when it was pointed out that her involuntary servitude was netting her $1350 per week.

During World War II, few actors in Hollywood threw themselves more valiantly behind the war effort than Davis. She once personally sold $2 million worth of war bonds in only two days, and in 1942, she, along with some other A-list friends, transformed an old nightclub into the “Hollywood Canteen,” a service club for men in uniform. She made it her personal mission to insure that it was staffed nightly by Hollywood stars who would entertain the fighting men on leave. Two years later, art imitated life when she played herself in Hollywood Canteen, a fictionalized account of the club. She was later quoted as saying that the founding of the Canteen was one of her proudest achievements.

Davis was a ubiquitous part of the Warner landscape for decades, making 54 films, and winning two Oscars along the way.

Even in death, the “Fifth Warner Brother,” who died on this date in 1989 at the age of 81, is said to keep an eye on things at the studio from her grave, which faces the lot from a short distance away.

Davis' grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.


The Untimely Death of Sam Warner

Producer and visionary Sam Warner.

Sam Warner, perhaps the most affable of the four brothers who founded the WB motion picture empire, was always thinking about the future. 

Schmuel Wonskolaser was born in Poland and came to the United States as a child with his family in the late 1880s. As a young man, he worked in several trades before going into the nickelodeon business with his two older brothers near their home in Youngstown, Ohio. Sam’s job, as the most technically-minded of the brothers, was to crank the projector. 

The boys soon moved into film distribution and added younger brother Jack to the business. Sam was able to get along well with all his brothers, and provided a buffer between the argumentative Jack and his other two siblings, Albert and Harry. This pattern would continue for the next two decades as the Warners moved into film production and settled in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” district. 

The four Warner Brothers. Clockwise from the upper-left they are Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert.

As second-tier producers during the early 1920s, the brothers constantly hovered on the brink of bankruptcy. Only the success of Rin Tin Tin films kept the young enterprise afloat. The brothers knew that to remain in business, they would have to make a big gamble, but they were rarely in agreement on what that gamble should be. 

Sam felt that the future belonged to sound

Silent films were entrenched into the fabric of Hollywood and few felt that the situation would change any time soon. Sam disagreed. He had worked closely with sound engineers from Western Electric setting up WB’s first L.A. radio station. (Jack Warner would later say that the call letters for the station, KFWB, stood for “Keep Filming, Warner Bros.,” but they were coincidental. The station still exists today and has a news/talk format.) 

Sam was given a demonstration for a new sound-on-disk process that Western Electric had developed and was convinced that it would save the company. But first, he would have to convince his brothers. It was a tough sell, but Harry, the WB president, agreed to buy the invention if Sam would only use it for background music. They named the process Vitaphone, to capitalize on their recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios. 

Hollywood had taken its first baby-step into sound production. 

Sam oversaw the production of several sound shorts, as well as Don Juan, the first sound feature, in 1926. The film had a recorded orchestra and employed a few crude sound effects. It was a huge hit, but was unable to recoup the massive investment that WB made in wiring their theaters for sound amplification. 

The brothers found themselves seriously in debt once again. They decided to push in all the chips and make a true “talkie” film; one where not only the background music would be heard on the soundtrack, but the voices of the actors as well. Sam was again put in charge of bringing this difficult birth to term. 

 

The result was The Jazz Singer, which was released on October 6, 1927 in Manhattan. The film set box-office records, and effectively put the silent era on life support. It also secured WB’s future and propelled the brothers into the ranks of the major film producers. 

Tragically, none of the brothers were in attendance at the theater that night to hear history being made. That’s because Sam, the brother most responsible for Warner Bros.’ and Hollywood’s new era of talkie films, had died 24-hours earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by the stress of bringing the film to the screen. 

That was 83-years ago today. 

Sam was only 42. 

 

If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.


“Burning Deal” Turns 35

The "burning deal" photo, taken on the Warner Bros. Studios lot.

I’m sure all of us have albums that were important to us at pivotal times in our lives. I happen to have several, but none more than Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which was released 35 years ago this week. The record is not only a true classic progressive rock album that gave me hours of listening pleasure over the years, but it actually served an instrumental role in finding me a wife.

The story goes like this: In 2003 I got a job at the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank. During my first few months there I spent lots of time exploring the studio during lunch breaks. One spot near the massive Stage 16 proved enigmatic to me. Whenever I stood at the intersection looking north towards the commissary I was struck with an intense feeling of déjà vu.

A few weeks later I was going through a stack of old CDs when I saw the Wish You Were Here album with the famous “burning deal” cover, which features two men shaking hands, with one of the gentlemen lit on fire.

That’s when it hit me. The reason it felt like I had been to the spot by Stage 16 was because I had been there before, mentally of course, every time I looked at the cover of the Wish You Were Here album.

I met a WB co-worker named Kim at around the same time and took her to the spot one day during one of our first commissary “dates.” As we stood in the approximate spots as the gentlemen on the cover, a guy walking by us started cracking up. I asked him what he was laughing about and he told us that the guy on the cover was named Ronnie Rondell who just happened to be his uncle!

He gave me his uncle’s phone number and I later gave him a call. Ronnie was very friendly and told me that he was paid $500 for the shot, and that yes, he was really set on fire. I asked him if he got lots of requests for autographs, and he could only recall ever signing one CD previously. I later mailed a poster of the album cover to him, which he signed and mailed back to me. Stuntman Danny Rogers, the other guy in the picture, later autographed the poster as well. To the best of their knowledge, it was the first poster the both of them had ever signed.

Kim thought it was all pretty cool, and the dates continued. Two years later we were married and today the poster with the two autographs hangs in the hallway outside of our bedroom.

Thanks to Pink Floyd, the world got a classic album, and I got a unique piece of rock and roll memorabilia, to go along with a perfect wife.

The same spot today.

For more history of the Warner Bros. Studios lot, check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.