Wednesday, August 9, 2017

JAWS

In 1976 I was in transition from higher education to the next thing and I was looking for a job that I found interesting...but not too challenging.

I had just come off the 3 job, 7 day work week teaching at ELACC, Managing for Basking Robbins and singing at Temple Baptist.

I hated to give up my cozy little place in Beverlywood and the West Side in general with its afternoon fog and insane people.

My pal Rosemary and I went one day to Universal Studios-the tour had opened in 1965 and I had never been out there.

It was no Disneyland but the studio in those days was still mostly a studio making films and TV on a regular schedule.

I let my Dad know that I would like to give tours at the studio, he let Elmer know, Elmer talked to one of the salesmen and the salesman knew George Flaherty who was the president of IATSSE (the 2nd most powerful union on any studio lot.

I got a call from Elmer with instructions to make an appointment with Ricky Bush in Tour Personnel.

It was shortly before Easter week and with the influx of tourists during vacations that was a big hiring season for the tour.

As I remember we had about 60 full time employees year round which swelled to a couple hundred for the summer season.

Properly attired in a blue blazer and khaki pants i braved the hot sun of the Cahuenga pass to meet with RICKY who turned out to be RICCARDA.

Ricki Bush was a fascinating woman with snow white hair in a sort of modified Pixie cut with an intense "locked in" gaze.

She had done many interesting jobs including being the coordinator of the Miss Universe Pageant and forming a care and protection organization for street kids in Quito, Ecuador...how she ended up as head of personnel for te tour I have no idea.

She escorted me into her cool, dim office which featured a glass "ginger jar" lamp on the desk full of actual POPCORN and proceeded to grill me on why I wanted to be a tour guide and wouldn't I rather work in FOOD SERVICES where I would make more money?

What I didn't know was: I was what they called "POLITICAL" that meant I had an in from a higher up person in the studio hierarchy and they pretty much HAD to take me on and in the position I wanted.

Many Movie Star offspring would pass through the tour, mostly as Tour Guides when I started Stacy Webb the daughter of Jack Webb of Dragnet fame and Julie London who was starring on EMERGENCY with her husband Bobby Troupe was a tour guide later Ceilia Peck and her brother Tony (Gregory Peck children) and George Peppard's son (who was a tram driver) among many others came and went.

So, I would have to start the week long training the next Monday-they gave me a large folder (loose leaf) that was the tour "spiel (narration); Ricki gave me one of those "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into?" looks and literally patted me on the back as the sent me out the door.

The spiel was daunting but what it called for was a "ROAD TRIP" so I grabbed Rosemary and we took off on a weekend drive To San Francisco during which she drummed the entire tour into my head.

I had learned Opera Roles and lengthy parts for plays but learning a narration for sometihing you had seen once was a differant animal than any I had known.

Rosemary had a great plan she first made me memorize the tour route first you do this then you go down a hill and then a right turn, soundtages, back through props and greens department across the bridge...I can still do the entire tour start to finish as it was in the mid 70s over 40 years later.

Once I had the route solid she filled in the facts and figures-almost 2000 acres founded in 1917, Carl Leammale, etc etc etc.

The hardest part for me was learning all the current TV shows-I watched very little broadcast TV (still don't) and I had no idea who the stars of ALIAS SMITH AND JONES were...BANACEK? BARETTA? KOJACK?

I could do all the monster movies that Universal was famous for-I used to have breakfast with those guys.

The STING had just been a hit, JAWS was making waves-movies were not the problem-most of the departments I knew from Dad and Grandpa-I knew what a wild wall was and the differance between a carpenter and a grip.

By the time we got back to L A on Sunday I knew the entire tour-all of it, word for word.



Monday I joined a room full of fresh young faces (mostly would be actors and entertainers not unlike myself) and we settled in to learn to represent a major motion picture studio.

Years later when I went to work as a cast member at Disney we had two evenings to get "trained" at Universal you had basically 3 days, the 4th day was testing and uniform fittings and the 5th day you gave your first tour with a trained guide to evaluate you (just in case).

Actually the "test" day was partly on the tram and partly on the walk thru portion at the sound stages.



When I started at Universal Easter Week of 1976 the actual tour was 4 hours so practically speaking you could do 2 tours a day one before lunch and one after.

During peak periods they would speed the whole process up to about 2 hours so you could do 4 tours.

We also had what were called Half tours-you could either do the first half of the tour from the tour center to the drop off halfway thru at prop plaza or you could go directly to prop plaza and pick up a load and do the back lot tour and back to the entertainment center.

During the first portion of the tour you would stop at the dressing rooms and sound stages where you walked your group through LUCY's dressing room )mock up) and through 4 sets on sound stage 32 Matte Paintings ( a really interesting presentation) The "Perry Mason" set where you showed people how settings are designed for filming, a Rear projection demonstration mostly audience participation for laughs and giggles and finally a MUNSTERS based haunted castle set with spooky noises, fire and very little else----these were changed shortly after to a combo set that included the interesting parts Matte shots and rear projection, The BIONIC WOMAN set and a silly presentation at the end based on the BIONIC MAN and that franchise-it included a machine that could show you the bionic parts that had been installed in a guests that got to participate-during training Mark Perillo managed to show everyone in the training class his "bionic Penis" (on a 6 foot overhead screen) that piece of equipment was modified to disallow such showings in the future.

In the busy season we had alternate dressing rooms (Julie London and Bobby Troupe) and an alternate sound stage 31 (we mostly used 32).

Now here's the thing: sound stage 32 was all the nice real sets for the tour 31 was set up for the busy season and might be anything-one year it was set pieces from a forgotten swashbuckler film starring
Robert Shaw (JAWS) called SWASHBUCKLER (how apropos).

You pulled up to the sound stage area and the "lead" would wave you to you first stop-usually in front of the dressing room.

Next you would walk your group through the dressing room and stop at the back-then through the various stops inside the sound stage and finally back out to pick up a tram to continue the tour.

Flashing lights let us know when we had a few minutes to wrap the spiel and then move when the light went out-each stop was about 12 minutes or so...12 minutes in front of the dressing room 12 minutes behind 12 minutes for matte paintings, 12 minutes for Bionic Woman `12 minutes Bionic BS and out to the pickup area where a tram would normally be waiting to board.

Except in the summer:

In the busy season they usually crammed TWO tram loads into one "shared" experience and the two tour guides took turns so the tour guide out front did the front of the dressing room stuff (where ya from, rehearsed jokes, what are we doing? Let's look at a dressing room) tour guide two would meet them out back form them into a mob (in the sun, no shade, no water fountains) and tell them what was filming currently and about who they might (never) see walking around the lot the the first guide would wave them over to the first set in the sound stage and so on till they were back on the tram.

TWO things were different the "stops" were now 3 to 5 minutes and there were many more of them.

You could stop twice before the front stop at the dressing room and twice or three times afterwards before getting to the sound-stage where they were whisked through only to find 3, 4, 8 stops outside to get back to a tram.

In the summer on the asphalt in the afternoons the temperature on the back lot could hit 110F or even 120F easily and because of the way the studio lot sat in a sort of bowl canyon there was little or no breeze.

Stopping hot thirsty tourists from Atlanta to yell BS at them was not real popular so we collected many mostly true "fascinating" anecdotes about MOVIES to share with our unhappy guests.

A truly fine tour guide could keep them happy and engaged all the way through the process-one guy named Steve Towsley was a genius-he had a square jaw, perfect white teeth and a sort of "handsome Kennedy Brother" vibe-plus a great voice for public speaking-he could keep them mesmorized heat and discomfort aside.

A sad event was a newish blonde surfer girl guide who just happened to get a large pod of French tourists on her tram-French Tourists were not our favorites in those days-they were delivered annoyed and would shortly become surly when they found there was no FRENCH speaking tour guide (preferably just for them) and downright mean when they insisted about 10 minutes into the tour they were done and wanted a full refund.

In the new girls defense she really THOUGHT she could speak French...after all she had almost a year of it in High School.

The French are very nationalistic, especially about their language.

Let's leave it at the FRENCH people got their refund and the newish tour guide spent the remainder of the summer in a shop that sold surf type clothing...rumors of blood and dismemberment are mostly exaggerated.

Mad Dog Mitchell (as he came to be known) was working the penny pincher in the entertainment area when he lost all control and BIT a female guest on her POH POH.

Exactly what portion of the guest was considered a POH POH was never revealed.

I myself on a particularly 120F summer afternoon while waiting over 1/2 hour to see the 3 minutes JAWS rubber shark attraction went sound asleep in the tour guide seat and drooled for my guests.

The only reason I awakened was the driver seeing the drool "popped" the clutch causing the tram to jerk.

He later told me he had hoped it would knock me completely out of my seat (the drivers were not entirely fond of the tour guides).

By the way in the slowest months-like January all the rush rush of the summer would turn into an enormous slow down and those 12 minute stops could become 30 minutes each.

On a rainy day the tram could be loaded with as few people as one family-I literally had a tour with 5 people on it on a cold rainy day-I never picked up the microphone-I sat on the from seat of the tram with them and acted like I was taking reletives through the studio-they all got to do everything and take pictures in the process-I even talked the driver into stopping the tram so they could get a family photo on Beaver Cleaver's front porch.

All joking aside the Universal Studios lot was amazing in those days and I always thought it should have been preserved as a National Landmark.



The beautiful Colonial Drive was a shady leafy avenue of homes from many famous shows like the Minsters, Marcus Welby, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (older folks might recognize Marnie, Harvey, Monster on the Campus and many many others).


We had a drive through of the prop warehouse and sets from Spartacus and the old horror films.

Among all these actual filming sets were a collapsing bridge, a rock slide, a flash flood-the famous red sea crossing where the tram drives through the lake putting the tourists at eye level with the waters surface and the avalanche tunnel.

In later years other attractions were added and some taken away-JAWS came along and was an "expensive" addition to the tour with a large rubber shark that sort of attacked the tram.

Seriously its first incarnation was pretty embarrassing and some guides refused to do the spiel as written opting instead for much funnier versions that were less humiliating.



Finally after threats of firings and having each tour guide "tested on their JAWS spiel-they did improve the attraction somewhat and it became a "camp" favorite for many years-they even built a more elaborate version at their Florida theme park.

By fall of that first year, since I was full time-I was offered VIP tours which were stressful but at the same time so much better than a tram full of 120 bored tourists.

We had a little "trolly" style vehicle with seats both inside and out and we could seat about 24 max-usually the VIP tours were 10 to 15 in the cooler months and might have a few more in the summer.

There were usually 2 a day, occasionally a special tour often presented in a limo or the front unit of a tour tram for larger groups might be added; in the summer 4 to 6 tours a day.

When you were on VIPs you also worked the info booth where they signed in for the tour, answered the info lines and above all got to spend the day in AIR CONDITIONING.

I met some amazing people over my years on VIP tours, Jean Genet the writer of many classic plays. Lotte Lenya and Signe Hasso two famous actresses who had both played lead rolls in the musical CABARET, Tip O'Neil, Jimmy Carter, Jane Fonda, Prince Faisel of Saudi Arabia, The king of Thailand---that one I can tell a little about.

Dana Wilson (a senior guide) and I were assigned to the king's tour:
The day started with us being strip searched in the locker rooms and then escorted to a highly guarded Tram unit which was crawling with armed security.

It was a slightly rainy day but away we went on the tour-Dana sat in the tour guide seat-I sat on the motor cover-the king was in the middle of the front row-my head refused to be lower than his and I couldn't sit on the floor of the tram so I had to slump to maintain protocol.

On either side of the kind were large red faced men with aviator sunglasses each with a portfolio in his lap and in each portfolio was one of their hands holding a gun-one pointed at Dana, one at me one at the driver and an extra one just in case.

All I could think of was one backfire and we're all dead.

The king was a jovial man who apparently spoke little English since a translator in the seat behind him maintained a constant dialog into his ear for the duration of the tour.

The remainder of the tram seats were his family members and staff all book ended buy guys with guns.

At the end of the event we were presented with gifts-mine was a bone handled knife wrapped in a $100.00 bill-so hazard pay was the name of the day.

I was at Universal from 1976 to 1979-I might have stayed longer if I had seen any chance for advancement-it was a fun job-you would think that having given the tour over 1,000 times it would have become boring but we found ways to make it fresh, there were always new shows and new movies to promote-we had some great perks like we got to see advance previews of new films in the screening rooms on the lower lot.



During a VIP tour where I had some people from Disneyland and some Imagineers I was offered a job doing tours at Disney-a business card and a number to call...it was a long way to Anaheim and I had other offers, the park wasn't hiring male guides at that time so I went in other directions.

My oldest nephew Jonathon worked at Universal using a recommendation from me (so he was political) where he worked on the JURASSIC PARK attraction.

The stories he told after he worked there were very similar to stories from my day-the Tyrannosaurus got cranky and threw up hydrolic fluid on a row of guests, some tour employee ran mad in the heat and was pouring ice water on random people, the French were not good guests...not much had changed.

One memory that I have is how wonderful Australians are as tourists-I was a favorite guide for OZZY groups, the tour escorts would ask for me by name and we always had a wonderful time-they were happy, jovial and fun loving-always just a little "lit" by 8am when they arrived but they took being on HOLIDAY seriously-if they liked you they would give yo little gold kangaroo stick pins-we would put them on the wide lapels of our ORANGE wool peacoats-I had over 100 kangas before they limited us-told us to accept the pins and then remove all but one at the end of the tour.

I was annoyed but it worked out well-if you only had one Kanga it needed friends so we got MANY more pins from our tour guests (even a KIWI or six) ad in 1979 I had over one thousand marsupials and 100 birds or so-in a cigar box...one of my favorite mementos of the tour.

My last day as I walked to the parking lot I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders but at the same time a deep sadness that a significant part of my life and career was passing-i kept many friends over the years from the tour days-Martin one of my good friends sold my house when I moved from Burbank to where I am now-he was a very funny guy and turned into a fine realtor.

Even now putting down these memories I would love to give one more tour of Universal-even as it is today-I could tell the people what they are missing and what use to be where....



For my friends who have heard other stories of the tour and find them missing-I think you'll understand why I have left them out and maybe they will show up in the "BOOK" version





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