Guffaws all around. We were at the East Gate of MGM studios, roughly between the Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly buildings. The guard was a tall, trim black man with a leading man's profile and was doubtless carrying a newly-minted SAG card and waiting for his break.
Pleased with our reaction, the guard said, "I've been collecting Hollywood light bulb jokes to try at the Comedy Club next week. Maybe I'll luck out and Robin Williams will be there."
"Better hang on to your joke wallet," Chris advised. "They say he's a bigger thief than Bob Hope."
His rejoinder was interrupted by a tinny horn beeping and we saw a canopied golf cart tooling along Main Street in our direction. "There you go," the guard said. "It's the Chief. Told you he wouldn't be long."
The guard hadn't been guarding us - as MGM employees we had every right to be there. He'd just been keeping us company while we waited for the Chief to show up at the appointed meeting place.
The head property master stopped in front of us and got out. He was a big man - at 6' 2" he'd be about Chris' height. And burly, with a barrel chest and thick arms, sleeves rolled up to show several Naval tattoos: anchors, a mermaid, and a heart, labeled "Courage" with a dagger through it.
He stuck out a meaty paw for us to shake, then after introductions, waved us into the cart. I eyed the machine doubtfully. With the three of us it'd be hauling upwards of 700 pounds. The Chief caught my look and laughed, kicking a tire. "Don't sweat it," he said. "I liberated a bigger motor for her and had Transportation beef up the springs."
The guard called after us: "Remember me to your casting director. You got my card, right?"
I patted my shirt pocket, showing that I did, then we clambered aboard - Chris riding shotgun, me squeezing into a little bench seat behind the Chief. He took off, smoothly evading a big open-bed truck filled with lighting gear, then diving into a warren of sound stages and drab office buildings with signs bearing the names of old MGM stars: the Clark Gable building, the Myrna Loy building, the James Stewart building and so on. Years before the studio publicity department had famously boasted that at MGM there were "More Stars Than There Are In The Heavens."
The Chief said, "You boys are at that new Robert Urich water show, right?" It was refreshing to hear him refer to our star as Robert, instead of the Hollywoodeese - Bobby. As mentioned before, the denizens of La-La-Land favor terms of familiarity, whether they know the guy or not.
"That'd be us," Chris said. "It's called Gavilan. Sort of a cross between Mission Impossible and Sea Hunt, is how they sold it to the Suits."
The Chief said, "That's what I heard. And it's a water show. Toughest kind."
Chris agreed. "Everything on water takes fucking forever," he said. "But I don't have to tell you. What were you - Chief Bosun's Mate, or something?"
The Chief gave Chris a quick look, then smiled. "Guess the tats gave me away."
"Yeah. Also all those tats told me you couldn't be an admiral," Chris said, chuckling. Then, "How long were you in, Chief?"
"Did my twenty for Uncle Sam," he replied. "Came here to work with my dad. He was the head prop master then." He sighed. "Now, I'm about done the second time around. Retiring next week after twenty five years."
I said, "So you've seen this place shrink to almost nothing."
The once grand studio had been downsized by Nevada zillionaire, Kirk Kerkorian, who had sold most of the studio off for real estate. Helping him oversee the studio's demise, was one, John. T. Aubrey, known as the biggest son of a bitch in Hollywood. Which, in a town overcrowded with sons of bitches, was really saying something. In my newspaper days my reporters had covered those events.
The Chief grimaced, saying, "Hell, I was here the day they auctioned off the costume department, right down to Judy Garland's ruby red slippers." He shook his head. "Shit, they even sold the steam boat to some fuck. An actual paddle wheeler they used in Showboat and which was still steaming around our lake carrying folks on the Studio Tour."
He glanced over his shoulder at me. "It's too bad, but they filled in the lake for condominiums," he said. "You guys could have really used it on your show. You'd save a bundle in location fees and travel costs. But, don't worry. We still have lots of facilities for water shoots."
He indicated a sound stage that was dead ahead. "Like over there. Wait'll you see."
We parked at a side door, noted the red warning light was off - nobody was filming - and entered. Entrances to sound stages are like air locks - you enter a small dark hallway, then have to shut the door behind you before you can open the next, which leads directly into the building. Its purpose, logically enough, is to keep out errant light and sound.
I've described sound stages before in previous Misadventures, and this one was much like the others. But bigger. I'm talking 747 Airline Hangar huge. Well over 42,000 square feet. The roof was so high that in the right conditions you could get weather, like a brief rain. At least that's what I was told by a wise producer who was occasionally known to sort of tell the truth. Except when he was in the hot tub, doing - you know.
The place was dimly lit, with small pools of brightness scattered here and there. Thick electrical cables snaked off into the darkness, coming together in big metal gang plugs, then snaking off again. Strange machinery bulked silent, giving only vague hints to their purpose.
The Chief flipped on some lights. We were greeted by a gleaming white set, with white tiled floors, and big banks of prop computers. Long desktops, with monitors and controls, were grouped in aisles.
"This was the Command Center for your boss' new movie, War Games," the Chief said. He was speaking of Leonard Goldberg, exec producer of our TV series, who was also a big time movie producer. War Games hadn't been released yet, but as most of you know it became a huge success.
"They finished this part of the shoot," the Chief said, "and we still haven't broken down the set. Maybe it'll fit into something on Gavilan. If it does, let us know and we'll hold off."
I made a note and sure enough, many weeks later, a portion of the set was used in one of the episodes of the short-lived series. (A quick aside: Gavilan was helmed by our old buddy from the Hulk - the late, great Nick Corea - so for a change we'd landed a decent staff job.)
"But, that's not what I wanted to show you," the Chief said, shutting off the lights, then drawing us deeper into the gloom.
After picking our way over cables for some distance I smelled the distinctive odor of long standing water. A moment later the Chief flipped on lights and we found ourselves at a edge of an indoor pond. It was rectangular in shape and many times the size of an Olympic pool.
"Take a look at those babies," the Chief said with a note of pride. He was indicating several banks of miniature ships and boats, parked and piled up like a little indoor shipyard. They ranged from aircraft carriers and battle ships, which were about rowboat size, to Chinese junks and luxury yachts, which were about half that size. Except for one extra large yacht that sported a helicopter pad, complete with remote control helicopter.
"Well, shit and fall back in it," Chris said in awe-struck tones. He was especially impressed because he'd taken up his father's old hobby of creating miniature objects - mainly militaria, like soldiers of different eras and nations. It was amazing to see him at play: a big man, with large hands, and thick fingers, delicately painting the minute details of uniforms with brushes the size of a few human hairs.
Pointing toward the far end, the Chief said, "Got a wave machine down there. If you want a storm, all you have to do is turn it on and maybe bring in a rainbird. The boats are weighted, so they look natural when they roll. Plus, they dump vegetable oil on the water, so the waves look big and heavy like they could do some damage."
He pointed to a big crane device overhead, with immense hooks hanging down. "They crank up that sucker to raise and lower the flooring. So, you can cover over the whole thing if you need more room for sets. Or to make the ocean smaller. Only takes a couple of hours."
We circled back, taking a slightly different route. Near the exit we came to what looked like a portion of a house sitting on immense bedsprings.
"That's for earthquakes," the Chief said. "Right now it's set up for a living room and kitchen." I could see a couch, pole lamps and even a TV set through the windows on the right, and kitchen appliances on the left. "If you want an earthquake, you just get your cast in the house, and some big grips grab those poles over there." He indicated big metal bars inserted through the springs on either side of the set. "And they rock the set back and forth, knocking people all over the place. Looks a lot more real than just shaking the camera."
Next on the agenda was the MGM water tank - also known as Stage 30 - a must for anyone doing a water show. But the Chief called it by the name that is still used today. "This is the Esther Williams tank," he said as we pulled up. "It's where they shot all those old Esther Williams musical extravaganzas. Bathing beauties with Esther in the center, coming up out of the water. Fountains shooting all over the place, and all in glorious, Technicolor. Reds so bright they'd burn your eyes out." A sad shake of his gray head. "That's how they made them back in my old man's day. What a thing to see."
The tank was many stories high, and was set in a hollow core, as we soon learned when the Chief opened wide double doors and led us inside. There, we found a ramp with narrow parallel tracks set into it that curved up to the top. We started the climb and almost immediately we came upon a series of thick glass portholes, that looked out into the water. It was like Seaworld, but without any fish.
The Chief said, "The rails are for the camera. And the windows go all the way around and all the way up. So, the cameraman can run his Mitchell along the rails, shooting at any angle or depth that he wants. A lot of Sea Hunt was done here. And Flipper. Then they could second-unit places like Crystal Springs and Catalina and save a bundle."
Finally, we reached the top and exited, blinking in the sunlight, onto a wide cement platform that circled the Esther Williams Pool.
"Get the camera down low," the Chief said, bending down, "and you've got yourself a horizon view. Looks like nothing but water for miles and miles. You can do castaways, or lifeboats, or lazy days of summer fishing, or anything else that comes to mind."
More note-scribbling, then I asked, "How much water does it hold, Chief?"
He straightened, scratched his head, then said, "Near as I can remember, it's about eight hundred thousand gallons."
I blinked. That's a hell of a lot of damned water.
The Chief caught my thinking and nodded, saying, "Takes over a week... maybe two... to fill her. And then, maybe another week for the shit to settle out of the water. Especially if you got a sandy bottom and you want to shoot SCUBA stuff, like I know you guys do. I mean, just a little bit of foreign material fucks up your camera big time. Right now, she's full, so you're okay there. But soon as you add some sand, and decorate it with plastic plants and rocks, why you've got minimum of a week of settling time before your shoot can start."
He gestured at the pool. "Of course, you can save time and do your surface stuff while you wait for the water to clear. Slide in any canvas backdrops you want: sunny day clouds, stormy day clouds, empty blue skies, blue skies with an island off in the distance... anything your imagination can come up with."
He frowned, then said, "One thing to watch out for, though, is disgruntled crew members. They can break your balls - and budget - big time. There was this shoot last year, for instance. I won't mention the show. The exec producer is a real asshole, so you'd probably know him by reputation. And his whole team consisted of assholes as well.
"Anyway, they kept fucking with the crew. Even pissing off Teamsters, and you know how stupid that is. So, there was this one lighting guy they were really screwing with. Telling him that he and his guys were no talent jerks and they were gonna fire them if they didn't start doing things right. Well, lunch came around and the head lighting guy buys himself a little old container of milk. You, know, one of those pint-size deals?"
We nodded that we did and he said, "So, just before the lunch break was over, he wanders to the side, pops open the milk, and tosses the whole container in. Now, it might have been just a pint of milk, but it spread through the water like the dickens. By end of day the cameraman couldn't see shit and they had to close down the set."
The Chief gave us a look. "You remember what I told you about light refraction, right?" We did. "And you remember how long I said it takes to empty the tank, then fill it, then let things settle out."
We remembered - three weeks. Minimum. The Chief nodded. "Yep. Three weeks down the shit hole. What they had to do was, move the whole thing to Catalina Island and finish the shoot in the old Sea Hunt cove."
"Must've cost a fucking fortune," Chris said.
The Chief laughed. "You got that right, soldier."
We heard a crackling sound coming from the handi-talkie on the Chief's belt. (In the barbarian, pre-cell phone days of yore, Motorola handi-talkies provided mobile communication via short wave radio.) He grabbed it, keyed the mike and there was a fast exchange.
He re-clipped the device, then said, "My boys need a little help, and I guess we're about done, here. Come on. They're down by your office."
We trooped down the ramp, climbed onto the golf cart and a few minutes later we were pulling up to a flat-bed truck, filled with what looked like a small mountain of rocks. Next to it was a pickup truck, also heaped with rocks.
Two large men - duplicates of the Chief, but younger and without any visible tattoos - were hoisting rocks out of the pickup and dumping them into the flatbed. As we stopped, they were grabbing hold of a huge gray boulder that looked like it weighed a ton or more.
"Holy, shit," Chris said in stunned disbelief as they lifted the huge boulder like it was a toy, carried to the flatbed, and dropped it in.
We looked at the Chief with more than a little increased respect. "That's my boys," he said proudly.
"You got some kind of secret government program going on here?" Chris said. "Breeding supermen for the Army? Sorry, Chief, I mean the Navy?"
The Chief laughed. "Oh, I have big boys, that's for certain," he said. "But they're far from supermen. Here let me show you."
He strode to the truck and grabbed a piece of granite the size of a beach ball. He lifted it without strain, turned, and tossed it to Chris. Surprised, Chris braced himself, caught it, and almost hit himself in the face when the expected weight didn't materialize.
He gaped at the Chief, cradling the rock in his arms like a baby. "God damn, Chief," he said. "Can't be more than a few pounds."
"Movie rocks," the Chief said with a huge grin. "Made of some kind of paper mache material and painted to look natural." He thumped the side of a boulder. It sounded hollow. "You get some Steve Reeves actor in a Hercules getup, and he picks this up over his head and throws it at the bad guys and squashes them flat. Director calls, 'Cut!' and the guys get up, dust themselves off and get set for another take. Movie magic, my man, movie magic."
Chris and I laughed like schoolboys. Then we set up a rock bucket brigade with the Chief and his sons, grabbing rocks and tossing them down the line and into the flatbed. There were rocks of every size and shape imaginable, from fist-sized rubble, all the way up to huge boulders.
When we were done, the Chief thanked us for the help, then said, "Now, when your art director starts making up the Esther Williams tank to look like the bottom of the sea, have him give me a call."
Puzzled, I said, "But I thought you were retiring next week, Chief."
"Sure, the hell am," he said. "Then I'm starting my third career. As a rock wrangler."
We said, what the hell, over. And he patted the side of the flat bed. "This here's my fortune, boys." He jabbed a thumb at his sons. "And their fortune too."
We continued to look confused, so he explained. "It's like this. A few weeks ago they had an auction to get rid of the rest of the stuff in the prop department. They sold off Roman swords and shields. They sold a couple of old cannons and even a stage coach. Finally, there was nothing left but these fucking rocks.
"And there was not one damned bid. Not a soul wanted them. Of course, it wasn't just these rocks, but a whole field of them, piled around the nursery in a big rubbish heap. Maybe, six, seven truck loads. So, anyway, I said I'd take them off their hands. Wouldn't charge them a cent for all my hard work and my boys' hard work."
He gave us a wolfish grin, then turned and pointed at the hills above the studio, where Loyola Marymount University stood. "Right over by the college," he said, "just off PCH... me and my boys own a big vacant lot. I was thinking about paving it over and making a parking lot. You know, LAX is just up the road. But then I got these rocks, so, all I needed was a big fence to keep the kids out."
He could see that we still didn't get it, so he said, "In short, I cornered the damned movie rock market, guys. Only two or three places in town that stock any, and they don't have enough to do diddly, except maybe a little old rock garden. Hell, me and my boys can make you a avalanche. Make it look like you are bringing down a fucking mountain."
He picked up a small rock. "I rent one this size for five bucks a week." He put it down, then knocked against one that was about the size of a beach ball. "Fifty bucks for this baby." Patted one that was even bigger. "A hundred for this." He slapped the side of a boulder. "And I get maybe five hundred a week for one of these. Bottom line, as my accountant likes to say... A nice under-the-sea grotto for your show will cost your art director six, seven thousand dollars. And that's if he's nice to me."
"Shit!" Chris said, with heart-felt admiration.
The Chief laughed and said "That's what all those sons of bitches are going say, son, when they go looking for rocks and they have to come to me."
Then he said his goodbyes, and he and his sons drove off in a little caravan: the flatbed with its mountain of movie rocks in the lead, the empty pickup behind it, and the golf cart bringing up the rear.
We looked after them. Awestruck.
And Chris said, "There goes an old salt who really knows how to get his rocks off."
NEXT: TOWTRUCK BOOGIE AND THE EATANTER