Friday, June 12, 2009

California Dreamin’

Spring 1973, Los Angeles, California

I had cousins in California, well Uncle Jim Wheat and Aunt Cathy and their kids. They actually lived in Portland for many years before going to Orange County, where we stayed.
It was my eighth birthday too, and I got one of those cool transistor radios that looked like a Lichtenstein soft sculpture, a little oblong O shape, and the small end of the loop swiveled to reveal the radio dial and controls on one of the big circular ends, and a little speaker on the other. It looked like a cobra sitting there rocking out Right Place, Wrong Time no. 3 on the Billboard Charts Dr. John the Night Tripper.

We took the car everywhere and saw as much as we could. First stop was Sunset Strip to see all the crazy people there, the hookers and street hustlers, the homeless people lined up under the palm trees. Me and my sister pointed and laughed as we drove toward the big Hollywood Sign in the distance. We stopped at Universal Studios to go on a tour.

There were many things to do and see at Universal Studios. We rode on a little boat into a fake harbor and the mechanical shark from Jaws came up alongside, menacing us with his bloody moving teeth. Everyone screeched, and I was put off going into the ocean ever again.
We went through a trailer that had once been Lucille Ball’s dressing room. The usual paraphernalia, as if she had only just left to shoot a scene with Ricky on bongos, white face powder still hanging in the air. I grew up on her later TV show, so I thought she was really funny.

We went to a set for the cop show Adam 12. It wasn’t the actual set, but a simulation, and people sat around in a little pavilion to watch how something could be filmed for TV. There was a stage with a bar, a mock dining room, and the front half of a black and white police car off to stage right. People with headsets shuffled around or waited and we settled onto our wooden bench, the whole family ready to go Behind the Scenes.

The Adam 12 theme song started playing and a man in a Hawaiian shirt and a white golf hat came bounding out from stage right. He was whipping the microphone cord behind him as he leapt to the front of the stage with a big hello welcome to Universal Studios Adam 12 I am your host Billy Wilder and you Are BUSTEEEDDD!! The cop music dah dum de dummm….We laughed and looked at my dad. Then the guy in the Hawaiian shirt looked at my dad too, and called out to him. He needed people to be in the Show, and my dad was the first of six men and women who went down to the stage.

We were all sitting there wondering what the heck was going to happen. My dad was really funny, always made us laugh, and we were already giggling out of control just watching as the guys in headphones chatted with him for a bit, getting a profile, and then placing him directly on a barstool. He was going to be the drunk, perhaps blurry eyed witness to the crime.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was explaining what was going to happen in a few minutes but first told us to take a look at the story up to now. They put on two TV screens so we could watch the real actors too, playing part of a real episode of Adam 12. After a few minutes he’d come back and talk a bit more while the actors They even had the dramatic background music rumbling our seats. All the while the guys in headphones are prepping the seven actors, including my dad. They are expected to improvise the dialogue, but after huddling together, it seems they all have their roles straight. Two men are placed in police uniforms, another in rags like a bum, and then they sit poised and ready to shoot the scene, waiting for the set up from the man in the Hawaiian shirt. Neither the other actors nor the crowd in the pavilion know that there amongst them are two professional actors who work for Universal Studios.

The scene is set into motion. A man wipes down the bar, my father hangs his head. Beside him another man, looking nervous, checking his watch every two seconds. Suddenly another guy comes in and orders a whisky and beer back. The two men go to a little booth off to the side. In hushed whispers they discuss the big heroin drop that’s going down at Macarthey and Lymon at 10.30. Stoppard shouldn’t know about this one, its all taken care of, the rat is in the cage. The other one says okay but not like last time all right, I got my people to think about.
Meanwhile, the bartender shoots discreet glances toward the men and my dad remains motionless in his plaid pants drooping heavily on the bar stool.

A hand held camera shot from behind the bar, we were watching it on the two screens on either side of the pavilion. My dad’s face was in close up, and then the camera shot back as he fell off his barstool with a thud on the ground. The two hoodlums went to help him and he dizzily stood back up, the men gracefully scooping him off the floor by the armpits. They rested him back on the barstool, paid the bill, faced the pavilion and walked off camera.

Me and my sister were watching the screens and then looking down at the set. It was strange, our dad was like the star of the show. When he suddenly came to life and spoke to the bartender, we thought it was like some secret weapon he had hidden from us all these years.

We’d better call Adam 12, right away…dum dum dummmmm…..
Turned out the guys in headsets told my dad he was supposed to be an undercover cop, faking like he was drunk to overhear the conversation. The falling down part was improvised.

The rest of the show I didn’t pay much attention to until the end. My dad was still sitting off by the bar, now watching the rest of the actors, chatting with a pretty crew member in a headset. I figured she was offering him a future in Hollywood.
When the bust finally went down, they filmed the cutaway cop car with the two actors inside. It was like an amusement park ride, the car actually moved on springs, and the screen behind it was synchronized with the sudden jerking of the cops in high speed chase. When you watched the TV screens, it looked like a real car chase and then you knew how they did it.

The cutaway car came to a stop and Adam 12 got out and kneeled down, shielding themselves behind the police car doors, guns drawn. In the little kitchen, the two hoodlums held a mother and baby hostage, shooting out from behind calico curtains at the two cops. One of the hoodlums screams that he’s gonna make a run for it, grabbing the mother and baby and busting through the door. The cops tense up, but in a heroic moment, the 23 year old housewife from Great Falls, Michigan bites the hoodlum on the wrist, breaking free and scurrying back into the house. The hoodlum fires one round toward the cops, a long pinnnggg is heard through the speakers, then Adam 12 get off three quick rounds, contortions twisting the man to the ground, a red stain appearing near his heart. There was a murmur from the crowd, that something wasn’t quite real here.

As it turned out, one of the cops and the dead hoodlum were the real actors. They had to synchronize the shot perfectly, there was actually a radio transmitter in the gun which exploded a small cap in the other actors chest, releasing a mini bag of fake blood underneath his white shirt. After the final theme had finished and the moral of the tale had been told by the real cop actor, the man in the Hawaiian shirt came back to thank us all for our participation and a special thanks to Jim from Minneapolis for his fine performance. The audience gave a smattering of applause before getting up to scatter on to other park attractions.

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