Friday, July 29, 2011

The Day I Taught Kunte Kinte About His Roots

Not sure how I got on this "the day I" kick, but whatever. Oh, and btw, this may turn out to be one of those "long road to hoe" stories, so apologies in advance.

In about 1980, producer Susan and I had the dream job. We were given free rein by Golden West Television to "come up with the next Scared Straight" (with which we'd been peripherally involved). Over the course of several months, we shot hours and hours of film for what she envisioned as a documentary about how and why our society is effing up its children.

Along the way, we encountered this cool character named Barney, an old white guy helping kids in Watts and Compton. Two things about Barney instantly come to mind--one, he drank a lot of water, and why? So he'd wake up all night long, climb into his van and patrol the streets looking for youngsters who shouldn't be out. Two, he EMPLOYED kids on weekends to clean up (paint over) the graffiti around town. Sure, they only made a couple bucks, but we're talking six year olds...eight year olds...making their own money while providing a service. Great training, huh?

Yeah, Barney was a gem.

Too bad he didn't make the cut in our film which ended up being about child abuse.

Then one day, as Susan and I sat eating our lunch and catching up on the news (Variety for her, L.A. Times for me), I stumbled across an Op-Ed piece about the tragic death of a guy named Barney.

My hands literally shook as I read the article. Poor Barney. Stabbed to death in his van one night by persons unknown. Susan and I couldn't believe it.

And then it came to us...we already had all that footage of him...why not assemble it into some kind of tribute? All we needed was some interviews with people in the community and a host to narrate the story.

Well, remember. This was 1980. Roots had aired in...what...1977? Somehow we got ahold of LeVar Burton who instantly said yes. (Squeee!) In short order, there we were...driving him in Susan's Honda down to Watts for a day of shooting intros and outros.

Okay, confession time. I've never seen Roots. (Sorry!) I was in graduate school when it aired--no time for TV viewing, so I'd sorta missed the hoopla.

But as soon as we set foot on the sidewalks of didn't take long to realize I was in the presence of a ROCK STAR. Crowds of people gathered. Young girls drove by shouting, "Kunte Kinte! Kunte Kinte!"

Yeah, it was a memorable day.

Later in the evening, when we'd finished shooting and driven back to Hollywood, the three of us had dinner at Denny's across the street from KTLA. (Yeah, big budget--we took our star to Denny's.) It was then LeVar told us he'd never been to Watts before.

Actually thanked us for introducing him to another side of his "roots."

Our half-hour film Barney aired locally on L.A.'s channel 5 and eventually garnered a local Emmy nomination. We invited the two young men who'd been Barney's right-hand aides to attend the awards ceremony with us, but they didn't show up. Later they explained that "going over to L.A." was too much of a hassle. How telling, I thought, that they didn't perceive themselves as living in L.A....

We won the Emmy that night, and I was always sorry they weren't there to "bask in the glory." And I wonder, thirty years later, what ever happened to them.

LeVar, I know, kept on being a really cool guy.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Explaining the Natalie Wood Reference

So in an earlier blog post, I mentioned that Natalie Wood's death caused one of the most frenetic workdays of my life. Hate to put it that way since...y' was SUCH a tragedy and definitely not "all about ME."

Having said that, here's what happened.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, remember? On Sunday, word came from Catalina Island she'd somehow drowned while anchored on the Wagner yacht off Isthmus Cove.

When I heard the news, my first thought centered on how young she was. Too young to die. Too beautiful.

My second thought?

Holy crap. Natalie stars in the Noxema commercial we have running on Tuesday in just about every market in the country. WORSE, in it she utters the line: "This is the last moisturizer I'll ever use..."


Obviously, this was BACK IN THE DAY. Y'know...the day when we didn't have email or faxes, i.e. INSTANT communication. Plus, there were (still are) legalities about how you do stuff when it comes to commercials.

So there I was, bright and EARLY Monday morning, armed with a ton of coffee, ready to spend hours on the phone.

First up: confirm with the advertising agency that they indeed wanted me to pull the commercial. Oh, yeah. They did. (Way to go, New York--smart call!)

Next...okay, you young people prepare yourselves...I sent something called a T E L E G R A M to all the stations carrying the show. See, it had to be uber-official. With a paper trail. And it wasn't like I could just send one to NBC because we weren't a network show, we were SYNDICATED. Meaning that in Boise we might be on the local NBC affiliate but in El Paso we were on ABC. And in Des Moines we might be on an independent.

And the way Western Union worked? I had to read off the full address of each TV station, one at a time. There were about 190.

Alas, it all worked out...with only a couple exceptions, the commercial didn't air.

And that, ladies and gents, is how the death of Natalie Wood impacted by job nearly 30 years ago.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Come Join the Party!

It's over at Carol Kilgore's where I'm guest blogging today "Under the Tiki Hut."

Drop by for a cocktail, some munchies, and great conversation about characters in novels, traveling, and...well...whatever else happens to come up!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Night I Danced With Christopher Reeve

Yep, it actually happened. Well, kinda.

According to IMDb it must have been 1980 which sounds about right. I was eating lunch on the KTLA lot with Sally and her friend Gay--an entertainment reporter for one of L.A.'s all-news radio stations. Gay had an assignment to cover a premiere that night and she was trying to talk Sally into going, but Sally was busy so she turned to me.

I looked down at what I was wearing--a plaid wool skirt topped by a belted sweater. Yeah, early 80's. Clearly not a glitzy Hollywood premiere ensemble.

But Gay shrugged it off. Said she was going in what she had on--which wasn't much fancier than my outfit.

"You're sure I shouldn't run home and change?"

"Nah, you'll be fine. I'll swing by and pick you up around five."

Yeah, well you can guess how that turned out. By the time Gay swung by to pick me up, she'd magically changed into a sexy black jumpsuit (again, early 80's). I felt just like my heroine in Lights! Cameras! Love! Ordinary, plain, and definitely not dressed appropriately, but oh well. Too late to do anything about it. Lesson learned.

We entered the theater and took our seats. Immediately behind me (behind me!) sat Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. (Sidenote: Eerie to realize now that within one short year, she'd be gone and her death would cause one of the most frantic work days of my life, but I'll leave that story for another post...) An emcee announced the Wagners had seen a screening the night before and loved the movie so much they'd come to see it again.

Anyway, the movie turned out to be FAME, and I echoed RJ's and Nat's sentiments. LOVED it. All those talented young hopefuls getting their big breaks in a story ABOUT big breaks.

After the movie ended, we were directed outside to the party. (Later in life, I dated a guy who provided the rentals for these shindigs but at this point, I was simply amazed by the surroundings, the food stations, the bars, the people...and I was soooo horribly self-conscious in my school-girl outfit. Reliving it makes me positively shudder!)

And, y' wasn't like I could blend in and make the best of it. Oh, no. 'Cuz remember, I'm with Gay--of the sexy black jumpsuit Gay--and she's on assignment. Within minutes, she dragged me into the VIP circle where I found myself hobnobbing with the cast and crew. (I have to say, though, I give credit to Gay for not shoving this embarrassing creature--me!--into the background. Or were we both young and insecure??)

Anyway, Gay KNEW people from having interviewed them. So right away, she introduced me to Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and I mean, wow. Be still my beating heart. I play the piano and had all their sheet music. (And thank God that meant I could actually hold an intelligent conversation with them, horrible plaid skirt and all.)

Next I found myself chatting with the cinematographer. By then I'd ingested enough cocktails to think I was holding an intelligent conversation. Oh, yeah. This green newbie to the film world was full of heady opinions. All I remember now is that either the man was very kind or I was good at the technical schmooze thing, cuz he didn't run away.

Finally, a band began to play and...well, you know sexy black jumpsuited Gay--once again she dragged me into the inner circle of VIP dancing.

And there he was. Not only Superman, but the hero I'd fallen in love with at a screening of Somewhere in Time. Christopher Reeve in all his 6'4" blue-eyed glory.

Dancing next to me.

Our eyes met. He smiled. And for one moment, for that one moment, this somewhat naive 27-year old in a wool plaid skirt danced with Christopher Reeve!

Looking back, memories of that night conjure up a variety of emotions. Sadness for what the future held for Natalie and Christopher, surely. And nostalgia for a career I eventually left. But a sense of gratefulness, too. Appreciation for having had the opportunity to sample that lifestyle even if just for a few moments, a few years.

Which is also why I turned to the setting I did for Lights! Cameras! Love! There's a little bit of me in Daphne...although I didn't make her wear the wool plaid skirt. And she may not get to dance with Christopher Reeve, but there's this guy named Josh....

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Night I Saved Richard Simmons' Bacon

Let's all jump in the way-back machine and return to 1982, shall we?

Time: About 11p.m. (I'd probably just finished watching Dynasty.)
Place: My condo in the Valley
State of mind: Just ready to lay my head on the pillow for a nice snooze, when...


A brief debate ran through my mind--something like, did I give my number to that annoying guy at the bar last night? After deciding the coast was clear, I picked up and found myself speaking to someone who identified herself as Richard Simmons' publicist.

Oops. Sidebar. In case I haven't mentioned it before, I used to work for the company that syndicated The Richard Simmons Show.

Anyway, said publicist calmly announced that Richard had moved out of his suite at the Waldorf Astoria. That he was now happily tucked in at the Helmsley Palace.

Which wouldn't have made a bit of difference to me...except for the fact I had arranged for eight of New York's biggest ad firms to attend a lunch/preview of Richard's nightime show the next day in his suite at the Waldorf.

"Just thought you should know," she said cheerfully before hanging up.

I remember sitting there, letting the shock ooze in. Ticking off the ways I was so screwed. First, because my boss was on a red-eye to New York, so no contacting him. Second, because our NY sales person was on the same flight, so no "local" person to call.


I was on my own.

Do you know how hard it is to cancel and re-book an event like that from the opposite coast in the middle of the night?

Trust me. I was NOT happy.

I mean, it's not like those types are on-duty twenty-four/seven. (And by types, I'm referring to the people you need when trying to pull off an elegant lunch followed by a TV screening.) Plus, what with the time difference, it was about 3 o'clock in the morning. I made about a million calls setting up a new menu, arranging for audio/video equipment, you name it. Lots of details.

Then, about 8 a.m. New York time, I paged my boss and our salesperson at the airport. Yeah, right. Like they were gonna hear it.

About 8:30 a.m., I began phoning all the advertising agencies to advise the change in venue.

About 9:00, I CALLED RICHARD IN HIS SUITE to confirm the new plan.

"Oh hi," he says blithely. "What can I do for you?"

"I want to confirm you're in the suite at the Helmsley," I grit out through clenched teeth.

"Yeah, I had to ditch the Waldorf. Someone died in that room."

I blink. Really? Euw. "Oh," I say. "Well, then...I don't blame you."

All right, YES. Call me STUPID. CALL ME NAIVE. It was YEARS before I realized no one actually DIED in Richard's suite. He was simply referring to the decor.


Well, all's well that ends well. It was now 6 a.m. in the Valley and time to get ready for the daily trek into Hollywood.

The lunch went off without a hitch, the ad agencies bought into the nighttime show, and everyone made a lot of money.

I'm still waiting for my thank you note from Richard and his production staff.