I was 23 years old, at loose ends, per usual, had hammed it up in Junior High School plays, my mother had been a showgirl during the 1940s, I looked okay and I lived in Los Angeles. Clearly, the cinema was aching for my presence.
I huddled with the General Manager of Universal Studios, a friend of one of my father’s cousins by marriage, to plot a career-launch strategy. After grilling me on what I thought about the symbolism in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and perusing my very short, unfocused resume, he had an eureka! moment and found the perfect job for me.
Next morning at 6AM I showed up for my first day as a member of Local 724 Studio Utility and Labor Employees of the Laborers International Union of North America.
Actually, it was not my first day in the union. It was my first day as a potential member of Local 724. You had to accrue thirty days of work to qualify for membership and I could work only when every single member of the union was working and extra help was needed; it could, conceivably, have taken over a year for me to get my thirty days.
But it was 1974, and production at the studio was in overdrive, the backlot busy, every soundstage a hot set almost every day. Weekly TV series production took up the bulk of the action but film production was beginning to return from the dead. Jaws was in production; excitement was in the air - and tension: Bruce, the damned animatronic shark, kept drowning in test waters. I earned my card in thirty-seven days.
First day on the job, I’m handed a broom. I am not by nature a braggart but I firmly assert that I was the best sweeper of sound stages the history of the motion picture industry. I was a human Zamboni, hustling that broom over the stage floor until the shine blinded, not a single dust mote to be found, and you could ice skate on it. I was so good, in fact, that I immediately got into trouble.I finished in three hours, very proud of myself, and went to the foreman. Like Oliver Twist, I begged, “please, sir, can I have some more?” figuring a ticker-tape parade was in my future as reward for a job well-done and ready for more with super-duper can-do! attitude.
I was gently chewed out (had I not had my connection I would have been thoroughly masticated, digested, and excreted) for making him look bad: He’d booked me for a full eight hours to sweep the stage.
A few days later, I was attached to the Greensmen and raked. And raked. Knocked that gig out in two hours. Again, I screwed up: who knew it took six hours to perform a nickel’s worth of work?
Having risked the future of international labor by my actions, I was, naturally, promoted, or, rather, moved into other labor that guaranteed that I would be fully occupied for my entire shift. I didn’t realize that sweeping stages was the cushy job for old-timers and spoiled kids with connections. The plumbers, the masons, the painters, the greensmen, the propmakers all needed laborers. My new assignments, at least in the beginning, were tests: “So, you think you’re a hustling hot golden shit? Try THIS!”
I ate it all up. I loved swinging a sledgehammer.
These were the blue-collar machismo years, when I was doing everything I could to escape being a nice Jewish boy, build my physique and physical confidence, and bolt from the class I was born into and my parents’ expectations. Always a bookworm, it was time to balance the books.
Early afterward, at 6:04 AM, I was cradling a sixty-pound jackhammer in my arms, working it sideways into one of the exterior walls of a stage; the source for a water leak needed to be found. By 6:10, it felt like I had scrambled eggs where my brain was supposed to be. By 9 I was a human milk shake. But the plumbing crew liked me, and I learned a lot.
I learned that where a water leak manifests itself can be a mile away from its source. By the time I was through, two days and thoroughly puréed internal organs later, I had jackhammered a seven foot gash, under the lead plumber’s guidance, into the side of the stage, three and a half feet parallel to the ground, to expose a section of suspected pipe. I learned that the source of this leak was probably in Pennsylvania and laughing at me.
It had heavily rained all night. Soundstage roof-leak alert. A large crew is mustered to attack the problem and we have to climb to the roof to begin work, which is to spread ourselves, shoulder to shoulder, across the length of the roof and gently, in four-inch steps with feet close together, walk across the roof, through the puddles, like we’re crime-scene investigators searching for evidence in field brush, checking for air bubbles underfoot, indicative of a breech in the roofing material. See bubbles, call out to the “pusher,” the labor crew captain, “leak here!” and he comes over and slaps a glop of roofing tar onto the spot.
You can pour through Anthony Slide’s essential reference, The Hollywood Novel (1995), and not find a single volume with a studio laborer as protagonist or supporting character. That's because we were invisible. Until we weren’t.
The Universal City Studio Tour, which began in 1964 as a rinky-dink tram ride around the lot, had begun to morph into its present state as theme park. New attractions were being built: the Collapsing Bridge (originally, The Safest Bridge in History, until I began to work on it); the Ice Tunnel, and other, now quaint in their simplicity, rides. The tour trams were now actually moving around amongst working outdoor sets on the backlot.
One morning we were told that we'd now have to keep our shirts on: The sight of sweaty, dirty, shirtless sides of beef in action was upsetting the tourists. I suspected it had more to do with executive concerns about family-image than anything else, and I was not alone in flouting the new rule - we were in the middle of a heat wave and as far as I was concerned, clothing was optional. I recall leading my comrades in toil in ad hoc work-chants of the “tote that barge, lift that bale” ilk, punctuated with deep grunts and sweat-swipes, all designed to delight, entertain, and, hopefully, appall the tourists, who we disdained. Costumed characters in a studio tableau we were not, and refused to become.
We worked for a living and, as often as not, felt like members of a voluntary chain-gang. Cool Hand Luke was fresh in our minds, and “What we have here is a failure to communicate” became our mantra regarding the Universal Studios Great Shirt Wars of 1974. The shirts stayed off - until the suits in the Black Tower buttoned-up and clamped down.
I’m with a paint crew, who are on a closed stage spray-lacquering the grey canvas skin on a full-scale size nose-section of the Hindenburg which will be used for the movie of the same name with, alas, the same disastrous fate. I’m wearing a mask to avoid inhaling the toxic cloud that has filled the stage. Most of the paint crew is not, the better to enjoy the inebriating effects of the lacquer, dissolving neurons be damned.
This is the happiest stage I’ve yet to work in but, then again, I’ve never worked with guys so thoroughly, merrily zonked yet upright.
Speaking of nose-sections, soon afterward the eucalyptus trees running along a stretch of the the backlot’s border like a bucolic colonnade needed to be pruned. We donned harnesses, were handed chain saws, and, on ladders, climbed into the trees as far as we could; we had to jungle-gym the rest of the way into the higher limbs where we’d secure ourselves, hanging from ropes twenty to thirty feet in the air as we pruned, the severed branches falling to the ground.
After five days, pruning completed, we descended from the trees, Lucy-like, to reclaim our lives as upright primates, which then involved sawing up the piles of felled limbs into manageable pieces and loading them into trucks to be carted away.
I had to deal with a large, deeply bowed branch. These cannot be sawn top-down; the chain saw will get trapped in the cut like the keystone in an arch, and jam-up. So, you had to carefully saw from the bottom, easing up as you reached the top of the cut so that the chain saw would not swing up into your face when you sawed-through.
Three-quarters into the cut, I hit a knot and threw in a little extra muscle to get through it. Too much muscle. The saw ripped through the knot, zipped through the rest of the limb, and kicked back into my face, full-force.
Chain saws in 1974 did not yet have safety triggers that instantly braked the chain to a complete stop when released. And so the saw, chain-drive still engaged, left an Abstract-Expressionist study in crimson upon my visage, my nose completely bisected, and the only thing preventing the saw tip from turning my left eye into bacon bits was the bridge of my wire-rimmed glasses which, thankfully caught the chain, prevented further damage, and went flying. Though my eye was saved, the saw had chewed up the upper edge and inner curve of its socket. I took twenty-seven stitches there and sixty-two to sew up my nose, a chunk of which had almost torn off, and ten very tense days elapsed before it was clear that circulation was adequate and the piece of proboscis in question would not slough-off, dead, leaving me to play character parts for the rest of my career.
For, by now, I was studying acting with Jeff Corey, the respected actor's-actor whose career had been ruined in the 50s by the Blacklist and who had, by need, become a legendary acting coach. I met Jeff Corey through Vincente Minnelli. I met Vincent Minnelli through Hector Arce. I met Hector Arce through my mother. I met my mother...
She was a friend of his. Hector was working with the director on his autobiography and kindly, without my knowledge, set the meeting up. Mr. Minnelli was extremely kind and gracious, his Beverly Hills home was elegant, and he got me outta there as soon as politeness and obligation allowed.
Now, I’m wearing a metal plate over my nose to protect it while awaiting fate’s outcome, and this, according to Jeff, lends a certain man-of-mystery-and-danger to my otherwise undistinguished performances in class. To the students at Otis Art Institute, where I’m concurrently posing for nude studies at night to earn extra money, with my curly hair and beard I’m like some kind of wounded Greek warrior, which I find amusing because who I really resemble is Lee Marvin, in his other role in Cat Ballou, as mean gun-for-hire Ted Strawn, the man in black with steel prosthetic nose, here sans black or anything else.
Jack Nicholson had been a student of Jeff’s and Jeff liked to tell this story: He had been unimpressed with what Nicholson was doing in class, and told him so.
“There’s no poetry!” he said.
“Well, Jeff, maybe you just can’t see the poetry in me.”
I knew there was poetry in me, too, somewhere but neither I, nor anyone else, could see it. I was doing my best to not let it show.
Later, assigned to the cement crew, I'm a hod-carrier, ferrying fresh cement in a wheelbarrow from the mixer to the work site, dumping it, and repeating countless times before lunch.
Next, back with the Greensmen, who, impressed by my tireless and goofy industry with a rake, asked for my services. Another guy and I dug two four-foot-by-six trenches in one of the sylvan corners of the lot, where a Viet Nam-themed episode of whatever was going to be filmed, I think for a flashback scene in The Rockford Files featuring a wacked-out veteran, wacked-out vets prime fodder in those days for dramatic exploitation. The Greensmen dressed the trenches as bamboo-spiked tiger-pits, threw a sheet of worn astroturf over it, spray-painted the mat Jungle Green, threw leaves over it, and that was that. I assisted the Greensmen at the nursery, where we harnessed full-size palm trees in chains, then had the crane operator hoist and carry them across the lot to the set to complete the illusion of Southeast Asia in Southern California.
May Kovar, “The Most Fearless Woman Alive,” performed a big cat act with Ringling Brothers circus, had survived the Ringling’s horrific big-top tent conflagration at Hartford, CT in 1944 but died a grisly death in 1950 when one of her cats leapt at her, caught her head in its jaws, and snapped her neck like a twig.
They befriended me, and soon, on my days off, I was feeding the big cats and shoveling manure for their little family circus - their three young kids were precocious aerialists - in exchange for trapeze lessons: Never know when that skill will come in handy; as an eternal boy scout my motto is Be Prepared. I'm still waiting for the opportunity but at this point I hope it never comes. “He flies through the air with the greatest unease, the foolish old man on the flying trapeze.” I don’t think so.
One of the performers they worked with had a breakaway swaypole act where he climbed atop a forty- foot white pole, and, while performing gymnastics, swayed back and forth in graceful parabolas to the audience’s gleeful astonishment. Then the big tease: As if a horrible accident had occurred, the pole would suddenly snap in half to the horror of spectators, who expected pole-guy to splat at the end of the pole’s 180-degree pendulous arc, but were relieved when - a miracle! - his head missed the ground platform by six inches, he survived, got off, and danced away to wild applause. He was retiring. Would I be interested in buying the rig? He’d teach me the act and make me a good deal on it.
•••Leon, a hard working, red pony-tailed and goatee’d fellow laborer, sensed that I had more upstairs than most of our working colleagues and wouldn’t give him the business when he told me that he wrote poetry. He wanted me to stop by after our shift, read it, and tell him what I thought about it. I, apparently, had foolishly let the poetry in me show.
He rented a little house in the low-rent district of Studio City, and worked while waiting for his father to die, when Leon would inherit the ramshackle hotel on the outskirts of Palm Springs that his father squandered every cent upon, and live a life of leisure.
I enter Leon’s place. There’s a revolver on the coffee table. I pick it up.
“Careful, it’s loaded,” he casually informs me.
“Why are you keeping a loaded pistol out on the table?”
“You never know.”
Great. I’m with a guy who keeps a loaded gun on his living room table and he wants me to critique his poetry.
End of Part One. Part Two.
Swaypole image courtesy Jean Monti - Hochseitartist.
Image of May Kovar, Jr. courtesy of The Circus Blog.