Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Contract Services

Once again, down the rabbit hole...

“I yam what’s I yam and that’s all what’s I yam, I’m Popeye the Sailor man.”

Popeye the Sailor Man

I finally stopped trying to postpone the inevitable and called Contract Services to sign up for their latest in an apparently endless series of mandatory classes for the “Safety Passport Program.” As expected, "A-2 Environmental Safety" was a three hour time-suck offering a similar wheat-to-chaff ratio as most of the others we’ve had to endure over the past few years -- meaning that 45 of those 180 precious, never-to-return minutes actually contained some useful information. The other two-plus hours consisted mostly of advice on how not get run over by paparazzi on location (look both ways before crossing), what to do during an earthquake (duck and cover 'til the shaking stops), and how to avoid colds and flu on the job.

I’m not sure why Contract Services felt it necessary to remind me to cover my mouth when I cough or sneeze, and that frequent hand-washing is a good idea during cold/flu season, but the A-2 class seems to be a stew pot of leftovers thrown together and brought to a quick boil before being ladled into the open mouths of Industry workers at the point of a bureaucratic gun.

It wasn’t a complete waste of time – the information on working in bad weather (lightning, in particular) and how to survive extremely hot or cold conditions was valuable, and I was glad to hear our instructor warn everybody else to ask before plugging their Iphone and laptop chargers into set lighting's Edison lunch-boxes. The instructor droned on, the minutes passed like hours, and by late afternoon I was finally released to stagger home through the 103 degree valley heat for a badly needed vodka-tonic.

A double, actually.

But it wasn’t the class that raised my hackles. Although the Safety Passport program has less to do with worker safety than providing a legal mechanism to shield producers and production companies from liability should a crew member get hurt on the job, our instructor did recite a statistic that accidents are down 25% throughout the Industry since the plan went into effect. This may or may not mean much, given the slippery nature of statistical analysis, but a glass-half-full interpretation points towards progress of a sort.

No, it was something else that pissed me off. Although the true raison d’etre of Contract Services continues to elude me, it seems to function as a vague sort of interface between the unions, producers, and rank-and-file workbots. When a prospective member seeks to join an IA local, it's up to Contract Services to verify his/her employment record to ensure the prospect has worked the requisite thirty union days. Beyond that, I have no idea what the purpose of Contract Services really is, other than to run the Safety Passport Program. But now that their operations have been fully centralized -- with safety classes in one wing of their expensive new building, and all the other mind-numbing bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo at the other end -- there is no escaping their institutional grasp.

The people out there behind those thick glass windows are all very pleasant, but I can't shake a sense that whatever the original intent behind creating Contract Services, it has now morphed into one of those self-perpetuating bureaucracies whose main purpose is to justify (and thus continue) its own existence. The time-tested method of achieving that goal is to continually identify (read: create) "needs" that can then be addressed by elaborate new initiatives like the Safety Passport Program, which looks good on paper, but -- for the workers, at least -- is largely bogus. Such self-serving institutional maneuvers are the sort that drive otherwise normal, mild-mannered people to become wide-eyed, spittle-flecked anti-government zealots.

Not that I'm one of them, mind you. Not yet, anyway.

So what's got this juicer’s tool belt all tied up in knots? Like every other active IA member in Southern California, I’ve been receiving letters from Contract Services every three years urging me to drop in and renew my I-9 (citizenship) status. Each notice carries a warning that “failure to comply may result in suspension of your roster status.” Since being suspended from the roster renders an otherwise paid-up union member ineligible to work union jobs, that's a serious threat. The first time I got one of these notices – not knowing any better – I dutifully went in and turned over all my identification. Having thus complied, I naively went on my way assuming that after proving who I was, I would not have to repeat the exercise.*

Wrong. Three years later, I got another notice, and in talking to other union members, learned that this triennial song-and-dance is what Contract Services does best. That it made no sense whatsoever only compounded my frustration. What could have possibly have happened in the intervening three years to change my citizenship status? Do the good people at Contract Services really think I might have had some kind of mid-life crisis that led me to renounce my American citizenship and flee across the border to live as an illegal alien in Mexico? Did I have a change of heart after suffering one-too-many bouts of Montezuma's Revenge, and hire a coyote to guide me back across the Rio Grande, then fight my way across the killer deserts following the siren call of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula? Did I cleverly resume living at the very same address, with the exact same phone number as before?

Does Contract Services seriously believe that I might now be un mojado, unable to legally live or work here in El Norte?**

And if not, they why the fuck should I have to repeatedly prove to them that “I yam what’s I yam” – that is, who I was is who I am, and who I shall forever be, ‘til death takes me down?

If this dog-and-pony show actually did some good – if verifying my citizenship/identity to Contract Services would allow me to forgo filling out the endless I-9 forms before each and every new job, then I’d be all for it. In these days of rampant identity theft, writing down one's social security number on five or six separate forms during the course of filling out a typical start packet is just asking for trouble. Reams of these forms have been found in studio dumpsters, tossed by some careless asshole in production after his/her show was canceled. Some have even turned up on other shows, being used as prop paperwork in an office setting. Clearly, such sensitive information is not always being treated with the respect it -- and we -- deserve. By helping to minimize this information outflow, Contract Services could at least do something useful for a change by reducing the risks of Industry related ID theft.

But no, that makes too much sense. Even if we dutifully report to Contract Services every three years, we still have to fill out all that ridiculously redundant paperwork every god-damned time. So it’s all for nothing, leaping through idiotic hoops simply to comply with regulations that have the very real potential to do much more harm than good.***

The only way I could resist this bureaucratic theater of the absurd -- to, in the words of Spike Lee, “fight the power” -- was by ignoring those letters from Contract Services as they arrived every three years. Since there’d been no apparent repercussions over my failure to report over the past fifteen years (my roster status was never challenged), it seemed I’d managed to score a tiny-but-meaningful victory against the tsunami of defeat that is modern life. But with Contract Services now having centralized operations, the moment I signed in for the A-2 class, I was directed to the next window to prove who I was.


So I did it – I surrendered my driver’s license and social security card for verification, and with that my plucky little island of symbolic victory was swept under by the dark flood. And now that it seems we’ll be forced to take an endless series of these “safety” classes as time rolls on, I’ll be doing the same stupid thing in another three years.

I guess we can’t really fight City Hall -– or Contract Services -- after all.

* Back then, Contract Services also administered a test at the same time to determine if we were color-blind. Not anymore.

** Mexican-Spanish slang for “wetback.”

*** And I say this as one who supports sane and effective government regulation of business and industry...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Followers

(Illustration by Kate Greenaway)

This blog lost a “follower” a couple of months back. Although the concept of having blog “followers” was flattering at first, then seemed maybe just a little bit creepy, I finally realized it was simply a time-saving device for readers weary of clicking “Blood, Sweat, and Tedium” only to find a stale post they’d already read, now curling up at the edges and turning yellow under the fierce Southern California sun. Signing up as a “follower” allows a reader to be notified whenever a blog puts up a fresh offering. So when my tiny flock slowly-but-steadily grew to twelve, that meant at least a dozen people out there were actually reading these posts. Although I never harbored any illusions BS&T would attract hordes of readers – not everybody is interested in the raw grist of a juicer's life below-the-line -- at least it was making progress out there in cyberspace.

But then I lost that “follower” –- one day the name was there, the next it had vanished from the list, leaving eleven where once had been twelve -- and my little house of cards built on a foundation of assumptions came tumbling down.* Maybe the reader finally got tired of my endless mewling rants about the indignity of working for cable rate, or my criticism of occasional incompetence in the production ranks, or perhaps he wanted more bitter, snarky war stories from the front lines of location filming.

Maybe he wanted me to name names.

But there are boundaries I cannot cross without the risk of winding up out on the street and on some secret Industry blacklist. These signs are becoming more common on sets all the time, as smart phones with cameras proliferate throughout society, and given the non-disclosure agreements we all must sign prior to employment, there’s only so far I can go in revealing what transpires on set. That’s why you won’t find the names of the shows I work on here, nor the actors who star in those shows. Unlike them, I am totally replaceable -- juicers really are a dime a dozen in Hollywood – so although I always tell the truth about my work, I seldom reveal the whole truth. When appropriate, I’ll name long-dead shows or movies I worked on in the past, but I try to avoid leaving too many clues as to my currently employment status. To do otherwise could be professional suicide, and if the notion of hanging up my gloves for good holds a certain appeal (mostly when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m.), I really can’t afford to be driven into the exile of premature retirement.

And truth be told, for all my carping, I'm still having fun at work -- on the good days, anyway.

Besides, being forced to the sidelines would leave me stuck writing a very boring and increasingly bitter blog about the miseries of terminal unemployment in Hollywood -- life amid the ruins under the Sixth Street Bridge -- and you don’t want to read that anymore than I want to write it.

Still, I must admit that having a "follower" vanish into the ether kind of gnaws at me -- why go to all the trouble of de-registering to become an ex- follower? Why not simply stop reading?

I guess the Hollywood Juicer is no Pied Piper after all.

But that's okay -- being a modern Pied Piper was never my intention. It’s impossible to please everybody in this fractious world, and the knowledge that at least eleven of you out there in the trackless wilds of cyberspace were willing to sign on – and stay signed on – means something. Without readers, this blog is just an empty soapbox on a sun-bleached sidewalk in a city with no shame.

I do appreciate your interest, so thanks for tuning in.

* So where'd you go, Frank?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Second Team

So close, but so far...

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Milton

In response to a reader's question, The Anonymous Production Assistant (TAPA) recently kicked a little dirt on the shoes of stand-ins.

“See, when the DP is lighting the set, he needs someone standing there to make sure the actors will look as pretty as they can be. Now, a normal person might think, “So, what’s the problem? Have the actor stand there.”
But that’s not what happens. What happens is, the production hires someone to… stand there. That’s all. Stand there while the crew works around them, and the actors rest in their trailers. During the actual filming of the scene, the stand-ins sit on lawn chairs at the edge of the set, reading People magazine.
And these people get paid as much as I do.”

TAPA was voicing an opinion based on his own experience in his usual snarky manner -- a style I happen to enjoy for the most part. Although actors were the real target of his response, he managed to deliver an elbow to the ribs of stand-ins as well. Although you could call it collateral damage, I suppose, it was nothing worth citing the Geneva Conventions.

But then he added this: "I’m glad to hear that Elyse wants to do real work on the set" (emphasis mine) -- referring to the reader, who was already working as a stand-in but wanted a job as a production assistant.

"Real" work? That's a rather low blow.

Over my first twenty years in the biz, I rarely saw any stand-ins at all. The ultra-low budget features I started out on couldn't afford to hire "second team" (as they're known on set), and the TV commercials and music videos I did later would simply shove the nearest PA in front of the camera whenever necessary. The first time I recall seeing stand-ins at work was on a steaming pile of cinematic crap (a biker flick) meant to mark Gary Busey's triumphant return to the big screen after a stint in rehab.* Accompanying the actors was a handful of stand-ins to help us light each scene. That's pretty much all they did, too -- stand on their actor's marks. Had that been my only experience with stand-ins, I too might share TAPA's low opinion of their professional skills. It was only much later when I began working on sit-coms that I gained a true appreciation for what stand-ins really do to help the production of each show.

Stand-ins occupy a nether-world that remains strange even by the notoriously loose standards of Hollywood, where the term "normal" can encompass an astonishingly wide spectrum of jobs and behavior. Their task is different on every production, depending largely on the DP and his/her preferences. Some cameramen want their stand-ins to plant themselves on the actor's marks like statues until the lighting is finished, while others like to see the them run the whole scene complete with action and dialog. On a multi-camera sit-com, stand-in's perform an essential, under-appreciated, and most definitely underpaid function. They study the script carefully to know who says what, when, and where in each scene, then pay very close attention to the blocking -– the actor’s movements within each scene -- during rehearsals. They have to know every one of their actor's marks, looks, and lines of dialog. Stand-ins for child actors (whose hours on set are restricted by labor laws and educational requirements) play out the role during extensive rehearsals until the kid is once again available. Before a pre-shoot (while the stars are in make-up and wardrobe), stand-ins often perform the entire scene with the non-star actors for full camera rehearsals.

As one stand-in told me: "I'm the understudy who never goes on."

Think about that for a minute...**

Every now and then a stand-in does get a small role in the show, finally giving him/her a chance to experience the adrenaline-fueled rush that comes from making two hundred and fifty people roar with laughter. Those are great moments to share, watching a stand-in who has spent so much time in the shadows finally have the opportunity to step into the heat of a brightly lit set in front of an audience. But it's a fleeting, bittersweet Cinderella-at-the-ball moment at best -- by the next day, he or she has already morphed back into a pumpkin, once more a stand-in.

My impression is that many (if not most) stand-ins start out in pursuit of an acting career. Working as a stand-in puts them on set right in the center ring of the Hollywood circus. A few manage to make the jump to acting careers, while others solider on, keeping the torch burning year after year. For many, the bumpy realities of Hollywood (and life) eventually douse that fire within. Some leave the biz altogether for better paying civilian jobs, while others settle in for the duration as professional stand-ins. Although severely underpaid compared to most below-the-line jobs, a stand-in who works steadily can make a living (if barely) that includes guild health insurance.

At some point, though, every stand-in must find a way to come to terms with what can be a very frustrating role. If your desire is to be an actor, working as a stand-in puts you tantalizingly close -- on set, in the lights, speaking the lines -- but in all the ways that truly matter (money, respect, career prospects, artistic fulfillment) you may as well be standing on the dark side of the moon. That must be a bitter pill to swallow, and in some ways can be counter-productive. One veteran stand-in told me he warns young aspiring actors to avoid the temptation of stand-in work, because doing the job right demands a dedication and discipline that will inevitably conflict with their ability to do auditions. It's hard enough to build a successful acting career under the best of circumstances, but an actor who can't make every possible audition is attempting to fly with one wing tied behind his/her back.

Just as not everyone is cut out to be a grip or juicer, working as a stand-in certainly isn't for everybody. Whatever your own limited experience or feelings on the subject, it's unfair to make the glib assumption that stand-ins don't do "real work." They might not heft hundred pound coils of cable or muscle camera dollies up circular staircases on location, but the stand-ins I've seen in my twelve years of toiling on sit-coms bring a level of concentration and effort to their job worthy of any grip, juicer, or production assistant. A film crew is a machine that can only run well when everyone is paying attention and doing their job -- we're all essential parts of that machine, and everybody counts. Good stand-ins are professionals who take their job very seriously, and in so doing, help make everything else on set run smoother.

And that deserves a little respect.

* We did the first painful six-day week on that feature before our DP got fired on a night that sent five cast and crew members to the nearest hospital. The new DP brought in his own crew, which meant we were out too -- but I can honestly that I've never been so glad to be fired off a job in my life...

** I recently stumbled across a blog by a professional stand-in -- One Red Cent Trying to Make Sense -- who takes her readers on set to show them what it's like to work as a stand-in for television shows. It's not an easy job, by any means, but Penny is a terrific writer -- and her blog is a great read.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hiatus Week

I've got nothin'...

The show is on hiatus this week, and so is Blood, Sweat, and Tedium -- but if you’re curious as to how hard times in Hollywood have reached all the way above-the-line, you can learn a little here. A link in that piece will take you to a TV Guide list that might surprise you as much as it did me. Oprah may still be the Lizard Queen who dominates the television landscape like Godzilla, but many lesser on-camera mortals are taking hits right along with the rest of us. Hollywood grades on the curve, though, which is important to remember when trying to work up a little sympathy for an actor who in these tough times must settle for making only a hundred times your weekly rate.

Still, you have to bear in mind that the viewing public – who does pay the bill, after all -- tunes in to watch the actors at work, not the juicers and grips. We’re just here to grease the wheels and gears of the Industry machine with our sweat, and are paid accordingly.

Such is life.

So we finally get a week off, free at last from the dark, cavernous, air-conditioned interior of the sound stage -- and now the weatherman says this lovely cool summer LA has been basking in is about to come to an abrupt thermonuclear end. The Heat is coming, which might make the residents of Malibu happy, but will render life miserable for everyone not fortunate enough to live along that thin, rich slice of coast.

If the weatherman's right, next week will be like taking a summer vacation in scenic Barstow.

Me, I'm off to the liquor store to stock up on supplies. If you can't live in Malibu, an endless supply of vodka-tonics over ice is the only way to beat the heat...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Must-Read TV

Life among the Lotus eaters...

There are two main reasons I read the LA Times television reviews. Number One -- for insights as to whether a new show might be worth watching, assuming it’s on a channel I can get, that is. The 500 channel universe includes a small galaxy of outland channels that lie far beyond my ability -- or desire -- to pay a cable provider. At this point, I'm resigned to the fact that I'll never be able to catch every good show on the Toob.

There are only so many available hours. Choices must be made.

Number Two -- the sheer exhilaration of reading smart, pithy prose, and in this realm, nobody on the Time's staff outshines Mary McNamara. In a review this week, she skewered the latest in Reality Trash programming, a steaming pile of rotting offal called “Bachelor Pad.” That shows like this remain popular says a lot about our modern culture -- none of it good, I'm afraid -- but here again it's important to seek out the silver lining within the stench of an otherwise dank, depressing cloud. If nothing else, televised garbage such as "Bachelor Pad" does a real service in providing such a rich treasure trove of material for writers as deft as Ms. McNamara to plunder.

And plunder she does, taking no prisoners with a vengeance I can only describe as "gleeful."

This is a fun, quick read. Do yourself a favor and check it out...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Sweet Spot

What a Difference a Day Makes

You've gotta love the prop department...

With four episodes under our collective belts, my little cable rate sit-com has finally started to feel like a real show. The first week was the usual heads-down, shoulders-to-the-wheel uphill push to get the great beast rolling, roughing in the lighting and massaging the inevitable bugs from the dimmer system. Weeks two and three were a struggle to shoot the first two episodes while continuing to refine the lighting, a task complicated by having to re-shoot big chunks of the pilot along the way thanks to the presence of a new cast member who’d replaced one of the original actors. We got the job done, but each week felt rough and messy, never quite hitting the sweet spot.

Week Four promised to be more of the same – yet another re-shoot from the pilot (the last, we were promised), with the added burden of grinding out the usual five-day episode in only four days thanks to Monday being a national holiday. Tuesday was a full-tilt sprint – we came in at 3 p.m. after the director and actors completed their rehearsals and the usual full run-through of the show, then hit the ground running, doing the “two minute drill” on into the night.*

There was much to be done, and we were behind the eight-ball the entire way, still trying to catch up. At one point, our dimmer operator (who is new to the world of sit-coms) leveled a glare at me from atop a twelve step ladder.

"I thought you said this was gonna be easy," he frowned, shaking his head.

He was right -- we'd all been working our asses off (for cable rate...) in a television genre known for being much more user-friendly to the crew. Thus far, this show had been a lot harder than I'd expected.

"Things should smooth out soon," I replied, with a confidence built more on hope than anything else.

We came in the next afternoon girded for the usual elbow-flapping frenzy, but overnight the atmosphere on set had completely changed. What caused this metamorphosis remains the deepest of mysteries, but suddenly everything was smooth as silk. The producers, actors, director, and writers were relaxed now, allowing our DP to calm down, which in turn dropped the blood pressure of the grip and electric crews considerably. The tense, harried expressions gradually melted from the faces of the crew as we settled into an easy rhythm, like a big cat loping through the jungle. Overnight, the show began to feel a bit like home for all of us – a second home, to be sure -- but this sound-stage and all the sets has finally become a very comfortable place to be.

Something similar has happened on almost every movie or television show I've worked on over the years, even the really bad ones. Fueled on ambition, adrenaline, and confusion, every long-running production (as opposed to a two-day commercial or music video shoot) burns rubber for a while before gaining any solid traction. When the smoke finally clears, it really is a beautiful thing to experience -- each crew member secure in their role and working at peak efficiency. Like any other team of professionals (baseball, football, whatever), it takes some time and effort to smooth off the rough edges, then hit the full stride of mid-season form.

Week Five continued the relaxed, easy pace. The actors began unleashing some seriously funny ad-libs during camera rehearsals, further lightening the mood and strengthening their bond with the crew. It reminded me of a fellow juicer's response to a civilian several years ago when asked what it was like to work on a multi-camera show.

"It's great," he shrugged. “We stand around and laugh all day.” Although a gross oversimplification, his quip was a measure of the sweet spot we'd managed to hit on that particular show.

Then came Week Six, and a new director -- a very experienced hand with hundreds of multi-camera episodes on his resume. Still, he was brand new to our show, and a new director invariably alters the on-set chemistry. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it isn’t. If you’ve been saddled with an incompetent and/or uptight jerk (and such malign creatures do exist in the DGA), a new director can be just what the doctor ordered. The flip side of that coin is watching a good director leave. Just when you’ve gotten used to working with one personality -- in tune with his/her quirks and sense of humor (or lack thereof) – somebody new and very different waltzes in to take the helm. The crew reacted with a cautious professionalism, meaning Week Six was much quieter than the previous five. The show went fine – at this point, we’re a well-oiled machine – but the atmosphere was definitely subdued.

The same director will be back for Week Seven. Hopefully the man will loosen up a bit -- but if not, it doesn't really matter because yet another new director will be in the following week to take us for a spin around the block. Bring 'em on, I say. At this point, we're ready for anything and anybody.

We're hitting the sweet spot now.

* A term borrowed from pro football, where the offense goes all-out to move down the field during the final two minutes of a game. In Hollywood, this usually means working hard and fast for a lot longer than two minutes...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shifting Gears

Driving The Mule

The Mule at rest, with two waiting tubs full of pain, er, cable.

After a solid month on the show, we finally reached our hiatus week, when the writers, actors, and crew get a break to catch their wind and recharge the batteries. I was looking forward to a nice slow week off, during which I could deal with the usual laundry list of tasks that can’t easily be accomplished on weekends. Monday was bliss. I slept late, got up without the “help” of a blaring alarm, walked over to the weekly farmer's market to get my fix of fresh strawberries from Ventura (picked that very morning), then rolled through the rest of the day at an easy pace. By late afternoon, this lovely week off felt like an old pair of well-worn and very comfortable slippers.

Then the phone rang.

Sometimes you just know. Call it a premonition or “sixth sense,” but at the sound of that ring, I had a sinking feeling that the bell was tolling on my entirely too brief sta-cation from reality. Sure enough, the studio rigging gaffer was on the line. With the television season finally ramping up in earnest, several stages needed to be prepped for a couple of big new network episodics.

"You want to work the rest of the week?" he asked.

Truth can be a slippery and dangerous thing. Given that I’d just weathered the assault of getting my own show off the ground, I really wasn’t – in body or spirit – ready for further punishment. What I was ready for was my god-damned week off, but with only fifty paid days under my belt this year (a pathetic pace even by my own increasingly anemic standards), I didn’t have the luxury of saying no.

"Sure," I lied, trying to sound cheerful. But we do what we must, so when the alarm dragged me from the warm embrace of sleep at 5 a.m. the next morning, out of bed I crawled, into my car I climbed, and off to work I drove into the bleak, gray dawn.

Working on the studio gang couldn’t be more different from doing a pilot or any up-and-running show. Where working a show calls for considerable patience, attentiveness, and a certain degree of physical and mental agility, working on the gang is a clinic in Newtonian Physics and the repetitive application of brute force. The gang is responsible for installing, powering, and setting up the big dimmer packs used to control most of the lamps on the show, while providing all the cable the show boys need up high -- and a big episodic uses a lot of cable. The dimmers would come later in the week, but on this day, our job was to send nine full tons of cable up to the catwalks.

After four weeks as a “show boy,” I had to rapidly shift gears to a very different operational mode.

Shifting gears like this is an essential skill for grips and juicers, most of whom have to take whatever work comes along, but it's never easy. Working the gang is a very physical job. All that cable is heavy, and even with the help of an electric hoist, getting it up high requires a lot of muscle. Driving the mule (running the hoist) takes practice to do right, and due to the ebb and flow of circumstance, I hadn’t handled a hoist in nearly two full years. Sending a two hundred pounds of cable forty feet up can be a tricky task (you really don't want a load to break loose and kill some unsuspecting carpenter working on the stage floor below), and since I hadn't done it for a while, those first few loads drew a sweat that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature -- which was hot and getting hotter with LA broiling under the season's first serious heat wave.

I dug deep into my memory banks to get up to speed – two loops or three around the rotating drum?* Which side to set the adjustable turret, thus determining what direction the drum will spin? Where to put the foot switch so it will be convenient, but not in the way? There are no hard and fast rules for such things (or official training in the art of running a hoist, for that matter), so you learn by watching, then doing. A four person crew is required -- two on the floor (one to load and retrieve the sling, the other to run the hoist), and two up high who pull the cable in, release it from the sling, then stack all those tightly wrapped coils in long neat rows along the catwalks. The person running the hoist has to watch carefully to make sure each load is properly secured as it goes up, then halt the rise at the proper moment before releasing it at the "sink it!" command of the high crew.

It’s a delicate dance that must be done right lest bad things happen. If you sink the cable too slowly, the high crew has to work extra hard to pull the heavy load in onto the catwalk – but release it too fast, and you risk dropping the load or (in the worst-case, nightmare scenario) dragging one of the high boys off the catwalk. As mom would say, no good could come of that... While I was running a hoist several years ago, something went way wrong at that crucial moment of transition up high, and two very heavy hundred-foot coils of cable fell like twin anvils to the stage floor. Nobody was near at the time, but losing that load scared the hell out of me. It also got the full attention of the construction crew working on that stage, who stayed well out of our way the rest of the day.

Hey, there’s a silver lining to every cloud.

With two years of rust to wade through, it took a while to get into a good working rhythm, a taks made the harder by the deafening noise of the construction crew. On most stages, the mule can only go in one spot – below the hang – which on this stage was near the elephant doors and surrounded by various power saws in constant use. The ceaseless screams of tortured wood and clouds of finely powdered sawdust were bad enough, but the din was compounded by the maximum volume music blaring from an industrial-strength boom box. Carpenters, it seems, are physically unable to work without being pummeled by the sledgehammer assault of heavy metal music. I finally had to resort to wearing earplugs, which made it harder to pick out the "sink it" cries of the high crew from the background cacophony, but at least lessened the chances that I'd go home at the end of the day with permanent hearing damage.

For the first fifteen minutes, I felt like a fish out of water – a show juicer suddenly back on the killing floor, running a machine capable of doing serious damage should anything go wrong. But as load after heavy load headed skyward, all the little tricks gradually came back to me. By the time we took a breakfast break, I was fully into the rhythm, at one with the mule and the rest of the crew. That was a good thing, because every one of those tubs full of cable lined up outside the elephant doors had to be empty before our day was done. And even though the young studs on the high crew did the seriously heavy work, driving the mule isn’t exactly a walk in the park -- I'm still sore in places that haven't hurt for a long while.

But work is work, as they say, and it all pays the same. Actually, this work -- being in service of a broadcast network show -- paid $4/hour more than my cable-rate show.** If I had to work a lot harder and sweat like the proverbial pig to make those additional thirty-two bucks a day, such is life in the big city.

Besides, it's always useful to reboot one's perspective, and there's nothing like a four day ass-kicking in the steaming cauldron of the LA summer to make me appreciate shifting gears back to my nice little sit-com on a cool, quiet, air-conditioned stage.

There's no place like home...

* To maintain full control over the load, I use the minimum number of loops around the rotating drum – in this case, two. Three loops will provide enough additional friction to make each heavy load much easier to lift, requiring very little muscle power on my part, but releasing that load on the “sink it” cue is a lot harder. Using three loops requires flipping one loop off the drum at the exact right instant -- and if something goes wrong, you can lose control. Using two loops, I had to work harder on every load, but was able to maintain full control, thus making the process easier on the high crew and considerably less dangerous for everyone else working on the stage floor below.

** A new episodic pays a dollar under full scale for the first season -- yet another giveaway on the part of our upstanding union leaders, few (if any) of whom will ever have to work under the terms and conditions they negotiate.