Copyright © 1998 by Jim Hull
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
Like much of Hollywood, Warner Brothers Studios is in Burbank. Nothing in the Land of Dreams is as it seems, even its location. Warner has a few sound stages in Hollywood proper, but most of the action - "ER," "Murphy Brown," "Drew Carey," "Friends," and dozens of other film and TV projects - is at the giant Burbank lot, hard against the concrete chute of the Los Angeles River where it angles past the northeast edge of the Santa Monica Mountains. Nearby are several other studios, including Disney, Universal, and NBC. Though it creates shows, the Warner facility doesn't look like air castles or Oz. It's a factory.
And a huge one it is. A half-mile wide, it takes fifteen minutes to cross by foot, though most people prefer the studio shuttle or those little golf-cart jitneys that seem to be everywhere on the lot. But to call it a "lot" is like calling Los Angeles a "village." Row upon row of giant, warehouse-like buildings loom above streets marked off in an orderly grid: "A Avenue," "3rd Street," and so on. The place is well-kept, painted a businesslike dark beige, and hums with activity as workers erect scenery, trucks tote heavy equipment, and actors hurry to sound stages. Several blocks look like small-scale residential or business streets; these are exterior sets that reduce the need for location filming.
Of the buildings, 33 are sound stages, and
among these are several that house network primetime situation
comedies. Stage 10 hosts "Family Matters," the comic adventures of a
middle-class African-American family. The show has aired more than
200 episodes, making it one of the longest-running comedies of all
time. It was to the cavernous Stage 10 that I presented myself, at
9:30 on a Thursday morning in January of 1998, as "special talent"
for one of the sitcom's episodes.
That week, the writers on "Family Matters" had included a beer-hall scene that required the services of dancers versed in the polka. That's how I got the job: my ex-dance director, coordinator for this scene, recruited me. Twenty dancers - ten men, ten women - sat tensely, expectantly, alongside several other actors on bleacher-style seats that ran along one wall. They were filling out W-2 forms.
In front of the bleachers were four sets, each depicting a room in a building. On the left was a large, comfortable living room; next to it stood a modern, cozy kitchen; right of that was the beer hall, decked out in wood paneling, beer steins and a bandstand; and crowded into a corner beyond the right edge of the bleachers was a mock-up of a small bachelor apartment.
Between sets and bleachers lay a section of floor taken up by the machinery of television: three film cameras atop large dollies, a bank of TV monitors on wheels, microphone booms, scattered director's chairs, a dais or two. Rehearsals were in progress, and as each scene was finished the entire crew and equipment would pick up and roll laboriously to the next set, which would light up on cue. Sometimes room lights would come up as well, but for the most part the huge space around the active set was dimly lit or dark altogether.
In showbiz, an "extra" is someone who appears in the background of a filmed scene, or walks past as the "principals" (actors with speaking parts) interact, or lies as if dead on the ground in a disaster scene. Extras work at the bottom of the heap: they may toil 12 hours for less than $100, they must walk quite a distance to their cars, they may not use the stage phone, and they are generally ignored by other actors. In Hollywood, if you have lunch with someone distinctly below you in the pecking order, your career is presumed to be in a tailspin. In Hollywood, perception is everything. For this reason, extras are the "untouchable" caste. They consort with each other and with those crew members who must deal with them.
"Special talent" is a kind of glorified extra, but the pay is better and the treatment improves. Parking is provided, we can use the phone, no one busts us for scarfing donuts at the backstage buffet, and people are friendly.
The Assistant Director - a stocky, bespectacled, no-nonsense man of about 50 - herded us together in one section of the bleachers and introduced himself. "I'm a nice guy, but I've got a job to do, so I'll be blunt. I need two things from you: I want you to listen to instructions, and I want to to carry them out. So when I talk, I want you to look me in the eyes. That way I know you're listening. For instance, you--" he pointed to a woman who had turned away "--I can tell you're not listening because you're not looking at me." Thereafter she was riveted to him. "Okay. If you just do these simple things, we'll have a good experience here."
He led us down to the beer-hall set. The A-D's job is to prep a scene so the director can rehearse and film with a minimum of fuss. A lot of the work of a sitcom is done by secondaries: the A-D rehearses a crowd scene, stand-ins substitute for the stars until the last minute, and some of the crew laughs a bit too loudly during run-throughs, as if to simulate the audience that would arrive Friday night.
One of the actors, Darius McCrary - college-aged Eddie Winslow in the series - is a big, strapping guy who likes to come up behind crew members and tease them or give them bear hugs. He snuck up on the A-D as we rehearsed and made goofy faces behind him until the A-D turned. Then Darius said to us, "I'm warning you guys, don't listen to this man. He's crazy! We only gave him this job because we wanted to be nice."
Our scene involved a simple polka, some group cheers, and reactions to lines delivered by the principals. A few run-throughs with stand-ins and we were done. We then lined up backstage for costume-fitting. The wardrobe room is part of a two-storey office complex - a building within a building - that runs the length of Stage 10 behind the sets. While waiting, we idly poked at the table of donuts, bagels, fruit and vegetables, or poured cups of coffee, or studied a bulletin board cluttered with newspaper clippings about "Family Matters" and its stars. Our workday ended about 1 p.m. So far it was a simple job.
In Wardrobe, as I finished buttoning up my civvies, I noticed Jaleel White sitting alone on a couch. White plays "Steve Urkel," the dorky kid-next-door who had become the most popular star of the show in the same way Henry Winkler - "The Fonz" - had taken over "Happy Days" in the 1970's. Lamely I offered, "Good luck!" White said, "For what?" I said, "Well, you know, tomorrow's show." "Oh, thanks." A few moments later, as I gathered up my gear, Jaleel moved to the big floor-to-ceiling mirror, where he began rubbing and prodding vigorously at his eye. "Don't poke it out," I quipped brilliantly as I reached for the door. Jaleel said, "Look at the size of this!" and, turning, shoved a finger toward me. On its tip was a rather long eyelash. I stared, surprised, then said, "Yep, a big one!" Satisfied, he grunted and turned away.
My encounter with stardom...
Friday we reported in at noon. The director - a compact man with long hair under a baseball cap, a New York accent, and a gruff manner - was on hand, rehearsing each scene, getting the camera angles just so and, later in the afternoon, coaching the actors. First, though, stand-ins read from hand-held scripts. He'd interrupt, barking at a camera operator: "Frame! You missed that last time, too. It's about twenty millimeters off." Or: "No, it's a two-shot. I want 'em both in. The A-camera does the single waist-cut." (A two-shot is two people within the frame of the picture; a single is one actor. A waist-cut shows the actor from the waist up. The center camera is B-camera; the other two are A and C.) The pace was hectic, the expectations high. You needed a thick skin to survive, but the crew had that and competence to match.
From time to time the A-D would assemble the dancers and extras - "Background!" he'd bark, and we'd hustle over - to refine our work or make changes the director or writers had requested. The A-D taught us how to "wallah," or murmur, effectively: he had us turn to each other on cue and recite the alphabet. "Works really well," he promised. Sure enough, talking in letters created the sound of a lively crowd.
In our scene, dorky Steve Urkel brings beautiful Laura Winslow - his sweetheart, at long last - to the "Polkapalooza," the biggest polka event of the year in Chicago. Naturally, Laura is underwhelmed at first, but she learns that Urkel is something of a hero to the local polka crowd, and before long she finds herself caught up in the wacky fun. Our job, as "background," was not merely to dance but to react with goofy enthusiasm to everything that happens among the principals.
A few of us were veterans of a remarkably similar scene, filmed several years earlier at another studio, for the Just the Ten of Us comedy series. In that episode, a dorky guy took the babe-daughter on a date to a beer-hall dance, and she was off-put at first, but soon got into the swing of it. "Just the Ten of Us" went off the air soon thereafter. There was no sign "Family Matters" was on its way to that big Sitcom in the Sky - in fact, polka is a running gag on the show - but I wondered anyway whether dopey beer-hall scenes are a symptom of shows in their death-throes.
Soon enough the crew to turned its attention to us. Abruptly, lights blazed hotly above, grips rolled cameras into place, mic booms craned over our heads, and men pointed light meters at our faces. Stand-ins moved into position, and bits of colored tape were stuck to the floor at their toes. Crew members pulled measuring tapes from camera to actor. The director issued commands: "This is a three-shot, and then I want Camera B to pan from the band across to the food table." And to us: "Everybody listen up! If I have to repeat myself I'm gonna be unhappy. I want lots of enthusiasm in this scene, and really loud applause when Man One says, 'Wiener schnitzel!'"
And so on. At each run-through a loud klaxon would blare for about two seconds, the throb of the air-conditioning would cease, and the entire room would become quiet. The scene would run, the director would quickly change this or that, then the klaxon would issue two short blasts, the air conditioning would resume its hum, and the crew would hustle about.
At about 3:15 we got a one-hour meal break. One of the series assistants handed out tickets, and we trudged through the rain to the studio commissary. Well over a hundred people, from many sound stages, were assigned this hour to eat, and the room was noisy with conversation and clinking dishes. The food was pretty good, actually.
Back at Stage 10 we took turns in the cramped dressing room. I changed into a regulation dress-white shirt, struggled into the rather tight lederhosen issued to me, then pulled on knee-length stockings and dance shoes, and topped it off with a silly Bavarian hat. I checked myself in the mirror. Ja wohl.
The audience was streaming in. We gathered on the beer-hall set, which was now hidden behind walls on rollers. In fact, every set was so hidden. Just after 6 p.m. the show began. The "warm-up" - a balding, bearded man whom someone backstage claimed was also one of the show's writers - regaled the young crowd with jokes and stories, and generally pushed their energy level up several notches. I peered between the rolling walls: mostly teenage they were, mostly white, with a few Asians, Latinos and - strangely - only a scattering of Blacks.
The stars were introduced one at a time through a gap in the rolling walls in front of the kitchen. The kids applauded for each actor, then went wild as Jaleel White appeared. Even the star of the show, veteran actor Reginald VelJohnson (father Carl Winslow) got fewer kudos.
In the beer hall we now had the privilege of waiting, in costume, onstage, for about two hours as the crew worked its way through each scene - sometimes with retakes - and the audience watched, laughed, and applauded. For each take the klaxon would sound, the stage would grow still, the director would shout, "Rolling!" and a voice on the p.a. would intone, "Speed!" as the videotape decks spooled up, and the actors would perform. This time it was for real: the three studio cameras were now loaded with film and busily exposing 24 frames of it per second. (This film, when edited, would become the finished product to be transcribed and beamed over the CBS Network a few weeks hence.) At scene's end the director would say, "And... cut!" The klaxon would blare twice, the warm-up would find a way to amuse the audience, and shortly the next scene would be ready for filming.
In tonight's episode, Eddie Winslow decides it's time to move out of the house and get his own apartment. After all, if he's going to become a police officer he doesn't want Mom sending him off each day with, "Don't forget your sweater!" Meanwhile, neighbor Steve Urkel invites - at first without success - Laura Winslow to the Polkapalooza. Eventually she relents, and they attend the goofy event, where Laura warms up to the silliness and even finds herself rather in love with the gawky Urkel. In other scenes, Eddie must extricate himself from his dad, who can't quite let go, constantly visiting his son at the new apartment. They work things out, as all good sitcom families must, and the show ends with better relationships all around.
The story unfurls, scene by scene, before the studio audience. Finally it is our turn. Long buried in darkness, we blink as bright lights suddenly blind us from above. Equipment moves into position, actors take their marks, the director yells, "Rolling!" and the polka band plays. On cue we whirl around the dance floor, yipping and calling out in a German sort of way, until Man One yells, "Stop the music!" We gather around as he points out Steve Urkel and Laura. We cheer. A German character walks up to Steve and gives him a bear hug, then turns to Laura and says, "This skinny Bohunk saved my life. He gave me the Heimlich Maneuver when I was choking on a big chunk of bratwurst." Tearfully, he stammers, "I'll never forget what he said to me. 'Chew before you swallow!'" We turn to each other and nod sagely. Other characters also testify to Steve's many good deeds in the polka community and we are moved and inspired by these revelations. By the time Laura learns Steve created the Inner City Polka Clinics, she's awed: "Steve, you're incredible!" Steve shrugs, and in his falsetto voice utters shyly, "I'm just an ordinary guy with canvas pants and a crazy dream." We all nod. Someone says Wiener schnitzel will be served to Steve and Laura, and we burst out, "Wiener schnitzel!" and applaud vigorously.
Fanfare. It's time to announce this year's King Polka. And it's none other than... Steve Urkel! Pandemonium. Steve give an aw-shucks speech, then in a command performance he dances with Laura. We join them, and the scene ends in a swirl of polka. "And... cut!" Klaxon. Audience applauds.
Our biggest task completed, we trickled back to the dressing rooms and doffed our Bavarian duds. We could hear the remaining scenes being filmed and the audience treated to a curtain-call of the main cast. Backstage we were copping autographs, shaking hands, trading phone numbers, or munching leftover food.
We were called back briefly for "wild shots" - in this case, sound recordings of our crowd scenes - and we danced and pounded our feet and applauded and yelled, so the sound editor would have extra material to splice into the final product.
Our last duty was to complete our time sheets and turn them in, along with a proof-of-citizenship form. The A-D received this paperwork. On impulse I shook his hand. "Thanks. You treated us well. It was fun." He practically rose from his seat, beaming, and pumped my hand. "Thank you!" he said. Apparently his hard work often goes unrecognized. I'm told he probably makes over $10,000 a month, but a thank-you still seems to go a long way.
Outside, the rain was falling again, and people scrambled for spots in the shuttle. But I wanted the exercise, so I trooped all the way across the lot toward my car. It's not often I get to wander through a studio, and I craved one more look at all those buildings, now rising into the gloom and silent after a day's work. It's a dream factory. It's a place where our secret longings come to life as entertainment. It's where many American myths are born. Our dreams matter to us, and in that respect, Hollywood matters. Being inside the dream machine for a couple of days is a kind of backstage pass to our collective psyches.
I reached my car wet and happy. It had been a good experience, all told.
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