Thursday, July 21, 2011

Where's the History? There's the History.

At Ralphs a few days ago, I found a glass bottle of Hubert's Lemonade. Mango. I decided to try it not because of the lemonade, but because mango is Lisa's favorite fruit, and I should see what it's like in many different combinations.

I had it tonight, and I liked it. I don't drink lemonade often, but that tasted fresher than most lemonades usually do. But what struck me wasn't so much the taste, but the story of Hubert's Lemonade on the back of the bottle, starting with the headline "WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS, YOU GET A BIG TRUCK.":

"In 1935 Hubert Hansen did just that. Armed with a truck full of his homemade natural juices, he drove around studio lots sharing his delicious goodness with rising stars."

1935. I read a lot about 1935 Hollywood when I was in middle and high school. I read about the stars, the directors, the screenwriters, and costume designers like Edith Head. There may have been a few editors too, and I was always fascinated and awed by the power that such studio heads as Louis B. Mayer held. Whenever we went to Fort Lauderdale, to the Main library branch of the Broward County Library system, I looked at those long shelves fairly sagging with movie books on the second floor, wanting to take them home.

Having backed away from movies considerably after I ceased to be a film critic, and finished writing What If They Lived?, I'm still interested in directors, but not so much the details that I used to crave. I do want to read that biography of Louis B. Mayer that I heard about, to see what MGM was like from his perspective, but the fights on the sets, the rush to get scripts done and movies produced, I just like to watch the movies now. I don't need to know everything. But I do want to know about Hubert Hansen. Was he on the MGM lot in 1935? Did Clark Gable try his lemonade, if it existed back then too? Hansen is the type of person I want to know about in Hollywood at that time. What about the cooks at the commissaries? How about the secretaries in all those front offices? What was the daily work schedule like for the carpenters, the cameramen that weren't the directors of photography, the accountants in the payroll department? I'm sure there are some paragraphs given over to them in books about the studios, but I want more. There should be more. The industry may have run on star power, but it didn't successfully exist because of that. I want to know of those who weren't as well known as even director Victor Fleming or screenwriter Robert Riskin, who wrote It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, among many others.

It sounds like a possible writing project for me. But my three presidential books come first. That's what I'm more passionate about right now. But it could be something to find out about. I don't think the far less famous names of those that helped Hollywood run as well as it did back in the '30s should disappear entirely.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Quiet California

Despite my total, years-long distaste for the Santa Clarita Valley, there are parts of Southern California I will remember fondly. Not enough to visit them again some time after I leave, but I think they kept me sane enough as this valley was slowly driving me crazy.

I remember the South Coast Plaza mall in Costa Mesa, the bridge between buildings. If you wanted to get to Borders or Paul Frank or McDonald's, you walked that covered bridge, that pause and peaceful silence before more purchases. There are conversations on that bridge between others as they pass by you, and you might be having your own while walking that bridge, but it's enough just to watch the cars pass under the bridge, to see all the other buildings in what looks like a consumer district. You look out as far as you can, and you can sense the ocean somewhere nearby, the ultimate peace in this state, which I never visited often, but the times I did remain memorable, such as that Santa Monica sunset near the pier after an awful advance screening of The Producers in 2005, and being on the pier itself, on that ferris wheel as the sun set further.

The most recent complete peace happened while Mom and Dad were in Las Vegas and Meridith and I eventually had 10 days at home. On one of those days, we took the bus to the nearby Ralphs, had lunch at McDonalds, and then walked to where the Italian sub shop was, which took us past Meridith's old high school, Valencia High. But before that, we came upon what is usually considered cookie-cutter housing, a development with row upon row of houses of varying design in the front, but generally with the same purpose: Porches. No matter how small the porches seemed on those houses, there was always room for a chair, a sense of relaxation, a thought that the world could stop right here and rest for a while. I loved those houses. I wanted the designs of a few of them for myself. I'm getting all of that in a different way with the apartment we're going to be moving into in Henderson, but then, I just needed to know that the world still cherished calm, and it did there. It was the kind of place where dog crap on the sidewalk doesn't seem so bothersome. Inconvenient if you step in it, but you only have to look and be careful. This was the kind of development that encourages you to slow down and look closer at the lives around you through the houses, the cars, the moments that tell you that life should not always be a race for something that could very well be unachievable after years of straining so hard for whatever it might be. That's not to say one should not take risks, but care should be taken in what's pursued, as it relates to you, as it might satisfy you.

While we walked closer to the Italian sub shop, I saw Valencia Ice Station, which contains two ice rinks. I had to go in because it had been years since I'd been there. I never skated there, but I remember going in with either Mom or Dad (or both) to pick up Meridith when she was there. I had to go in to see what it was like this time.

The large right-side rink had skaters on it, and the left-side rink had hockey players practicing. To stand there and watch the skaters and then go across the way and watch the hockey players, they're interesting contrasting microcosms. There we were, it was almost noon, and here they were, skating and hoping to win the next game. And that was enough. That's all that was needed in those lives at that moment.

All I needed in my life came when we went to the arcade on the second floor (We were in the second floor, watching the skaters and hockey players from long balcony seating) and Meridith and I found not only a working air hockey table, but also a Galaga arcade machine for myself. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and after ducking into the restroom for necessary action, Meridith and I played air hockey on a surface that was much smoother than what we usually have at other arcades, such as the one at Ventura Harbor Village. It's not slick enough, and the thin puck sometimes just stops and drifts in the middle. This puck moved across that surface as if it instinctively knew the surface, that it would be the fastest puck ever made. It was a more intense game than I'd had in years, and every time Meridith scored every goal to an eventual win, a cluster of multi-colored lights on the top would spin around. She liked that a lot.

When I played the Galaga machine, I played it as intensely as I did the one at Ventura Harbor Village, weaving and ducking as if the aliens were firing directly at me. When I get into that game, I'm gone. I am that ship, banging on the buttons to fire fast and often. I've gotten as far as level 12, but no further. I aim to change that when I find another Galaga machine somewhere in Las Vegas, possibly even at the Pinball Hall of Fame, the next time I go, this time with Lisa, who's game for it, since it'll be the first time in years she's played pinball, and her favorite video games are all arcade machines there, such as Mario Bros. and Centipede. See? I've finally figured out the secret to a happy life: My beloved pinball games and the most beautiful woman in the world. I wouldn't be surprised if all this makes me live to 150 years old. And I'd be happy with that, because it means more time with her.

I don't think I ever got used to Southern California because it never felt like it offered constant, wide-ranging pleasures. I need that in my life. That's how I live. I don't believe errands should feel like errands. There should be fun in everything. And I never felt that here, not with grim-looking freeways, not with some supermarkets lit so dimly as if to hide the prices inevitably encountered. I feel that constant pleasure in Vegas, and it's where I belong now. I've always wanted to live somewhere that thrives on hedonism. This is it. But at least I found pieces of it here, enough to help during long stretches of days when nothing particularly interesting happened. Sure, there are books, and I had those, but that's not always enough for life. So at least there was all this here. And in some way, it helped me figure out who I finally wanted to be and what would make me happiest. That's fine, but just visit here if you'd like. Never live here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

When You Meet a Great Man, You Know It Immediately

Great experiences are fairly uncommon in the Santa Clarita Valley. The ones that you do have are either only one-day affairs, such as the Food Truck Festival that celebrated the remodel of Auto Row (where all the car dealerships are), or you have to go out of the valley to find them, which is usually always the case. And then you find someone here who lives here, but is not affected by the day-to-day activity of this valley because he's doing so much else for his career that he doesn't have time for the piddling little instances of plastic living prevalent here.

Sy Richardson is that man, a man who loves acting such a great deal that he'll go anywhere to find it. Movies, television, commercials, stage, he's done it all and continues to do it. I first noticed him as the ever-suspicious coroner on Pushing Daisies and contacted him on Facebook to express my highest compliments on his role, and also how much I still miss the show. This led to an occasional correspondence on the site, with Richardson suggesting that we meet some time. But on what day? And for what reason behind it? Not that I didn't want to, but Richardson is a busy man (His most recent appearance is on a Denny's commercial that has just begun airing on TV), and rightly so because he's one of those actors, who, when you see him in anything, you know you can trust that your time will be well spent, that you will be curious about the circumstances of his characters.

The time to meet came on Friday, July 1, the day Larry Crowne opened in theaters. Richardson had a small part in it as one of Crowne's (co-writer/director/star Tom Hanks) co-workers at UMart, the big box store that's not only a commentary on the machinations of corporate America, but also of the economy as it stands now. He was going to see the movie at Edwards Valencia 12 at 5 p.m., and looked forward to meeting me.

I have had some great experiences in this valley, but they didn't come very often. In nearly eight years, they've been spread widely apart, such as Ninja supplanting Viper as my favorite rollercoaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, or discovering those few books at the Valencia library (formerly of the County of Los Angeles, and one that I will not revisit in its new form) that I needed to hold close to me for the rest of my life, or finding not only a decent air hockey table for my sister and I to play on at the arcade at Valencia Ice Station, but also a Galaga arcade machine, my favorite video game. I place the experience of meeting Sy Richardson at the top of that list.

On Facebook, on that Friday morning, he told me he'd be outside the theater at 4:30 p.m. This was huge for me. I was going to meet the one man who was just as much an important part of Pushing Daisies as Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Kristen Chenoweth, Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene, and especially creator Bryan Fuller. I was hoping for stories related to the filming of Pushing Daisies. I was looking for him to autograph my season 1 and season 2 DVD sets. My season 1 DVD set was studded with autographs from when I went to a Paley Center event at the Cinerama Dome in April 2009 that was screening the final three episodes before they aired on ABC. Barry Sonnenfeld, executive producer and director of the first two episodes, was there. Writers were there. Other actors were there, such as Gina Torres, who played Emerson Cod's dog-trainer girlfriend. Most importantly, Bryan Fuller was there, and when he came onto the stage, I immediately stood up to applaud and inspired the standing ovation that quickly followed. He deserved it for the vision and the magical life he brought to television. But on that Friday morning, as I looked at those autographs from that event, I saw that that DVD set would not be complete without Richardson's autograph. There he was, always being handed a bit of cash to keep quiet about what Ned, Chuck and Emerson were doing in their investigations, and always following up the explanations by them with a suspicious, "Mmm-HMMmmmm." The one thing to understand about a Bryan Fuller show is that even the characters who don't appear as often as the leads are just as important. Fuller sees to that, casting actors who are distinctive in many ways. And Richardson was one of those esteemed actors.

Comes a little before 4:30 p.m., and Mom and Dad drop me off at the curb, next to the sidewalk that leads directly to the theater, so I don't have to cross the street to get there. I walk up a few steps, then to the theater, passing the circular concrete fountain that's nearby, looking for Sy. He spots me first, waving at me from where he's sitting, at a table with one of the location's standard umbrellas opened up, this being summer and all. I walk over, shake hands with him, and express my gratitude not only at meeting at him, but also of the honor that it is to do so. His wife is there with him, and I immediately think of Lisa, because his wife looks like she's not only supported him with good cheer all these years, but has enjoyed the experience as well. And in fact, before I go to get my ticket for Larry Crowne, I talk briefly about how wonderful Pushing Daisies was just for me to watch, and his wife says that it was a wonderful experience.

After I get my ticket, I sit down near Sy and we talk for a few minutes about this and that, about how long I've lived in this valley, about What If They Lived?, the book I co-wrote with Phil Hall. It's getting a little uncomfortable in the heat, so Sy decides that it's time to head in. And we do, into welcome air-conditioning, but before we head to the auditorium where Larry Crowne is showing, we stop in line at the concession stand. A small bag of popcorn for Sy's wife, and a large raspberry iced tea that she and Sy share during the waiting for the movie to start and during the movie.

While in line, Sy asks me if I write any film scripts. I say no, but mention that Lisa has been at work on a script for a long time, about her experiences living in the Kings Point senior community with her mother, as well as the real estate agents she met when they eventually ended up at the Southampton condo in Fort Lauderdale. "A comedy of errors," as she described to me, but I'm not trying to pitch it to Sy. I'm not one of those people, particularly since I gave up film reviewing last year. I don't like the cycle of the year, that the films put out for awards contention are jammed together in the final three months, rather than being spread out through the year so there's more to consider seeing. I don't like how it eventually felt like I was just running in the same circles over and over. I wanted something different for my life, and I found it in writing that book, finding Lisa, and coming up with more ideas for my own books, as well as a few plays, and a possible novel. I'm much happier like this.

Sy is one of those great men in that you can't quite tell if he's listening, but he is. He takes in everything around him with equanimity. And as he, his wife, and I walk to our auditorium, he looks at the posters of what's coming to theaters. What is he thinking about? Are these movies he may want to see when they come out? Is he considering the characters on each poster, wondering if he could have been in a film like that? You never quite know with Sy, but that's what makes him a lot of fun to spend time with. Because he doesn't reveal everything right away. If you want to know, you have to make the time, if he's willing to give the time, as I was so fortunate enough to get.

As we reach the auditorium, Sy tells me that he had no idea how big Tom Hanks actually was. He not only does all this work as an actor, writer and director, but Sy also says that he attends all the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) meetings and participates in the events of other organizations in any way he can to help fellow actors. I tell Sy that the breadth of his fame was apparent with the back-to-back Oscars he received for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), but I had no idea how good he was to other actors, though it could be seen when he made a surprise appearance on Letterman when Julia Roberts was on, having already been on himself a night or two before. And the promotions he did on various other shows, including one on a Spanish news station here, indicated how good-natured he still is after all these years.

We reach the auditorium and as we begin to climb up the steps to the end of one row about four to five rows down from the top, he tells me that he just saw his Denny's commercial today. I ask him what he thought, and he says he liked it. I sit on the end, next to the steps, Sy sits next to me, and his wife sits next to him. A cupholder armrest goes down between them for the raspberry iced tea, and his wife has the popcorn. Sy doesn't partake in that.

On the screen, there's interviews and a clip package going on for Rizzoli & Isles, and Sy tells me that that's one of his favorite shows. I show him the cloth bag I brought with me, and tell him that I've got the DVD sets for him to sign, and in his own way, without moving much, I understand that he'll sign them later. Here, in the auditorium, it's not the time. As a commercial for some new technological advancement in phones plays, he asks me if I'm planning to write any other books and I tell him about the three presidential-related books I'm doing research on. He returns the volley with news that he's up for a film to star Melissa Leo, about a priest who was a rapist and a murderer in Boston. He would play the Cardinal of Boston, who wasn't such an upstanding man either. I tell him it sounds like a great role for him since it gives him a lot to chew on, and he'll undoubtedly bring the same great skill to it as he has to his many other roles. He also tells me that he's going to Louisiana next week to begin work on a stage production of Inherit the Wind. Sy goes wherever the work takes him. He is the true definition of a working actor. The money is most welcome, but you can also tell in him that he does it because he loves all of it.

The screen goes wider and the trailers begin. Trailer after trailer after trailer. Soon, the green MPAA "Approved Audiences" thing for the next trailer, the 8th trailer, appears, and I lean over to say and ask, "You did make a movie with Tom Hanks, right?" He laughs.

Larry Crowne finally begins, and Tom Hanks' directorial style is most interesting. He races right through the opening credits, interspersing them with clips of Larry hard at work at UMart, dedicated, enthusiastic. Sy is seen in one brief scene, giving Larry a price on a camera, and that's it. That's his only scene. I look over at Sy, and there's no visible disappointment. Chances are he might have experienced this before, and Hanks' reason seems to be that he wants to move along right to Larry's firing from UMart, to begin the purpose for this movie. He's not one of those directors who enjoys extraneous scenes, at least not until later, and then it's for the atmosphere of the film, to keep up the feeling that has been established, hence George Takei getting some screen time as the economics professor at the community college. Sy seems to agree with me after we see what Hanks has done that he wanted to move the story along. It's a 99-minute running time, after all.

There's many good laughs, and then it's over. Then Sy points something out to me that shows the kind of man Hanks is in Hollywood. We see his name at the beginning of the end credits, and he tells me that there's names of other actors in the movie who didn't even appear, who were part of other UMart scenes, and Hanks still credited them. Hanks evidently appreciates those who worked hard for him.

Sy's wife gets up during the end credits to wait outside the theater for us. Being an actor, Sy is a natural credits-watcher, especially on this movie, but I am as well, from not only my years of reviewing movies, but also from being into them since I was 7. During the end credits, Sy tells me how impressed he was with what he thought was Hanks' first film as a director. I tell him that Hanks' first one was That Thing You Do! from 1996, no doubt parlaying his immense fame into getting that opportunity. He tells me that he'll have to see it some time. The credits end, and I see the old Universal Studios theme park logo on the screen, which I didn't think anyone used anymore. Well, only Hanks. Other directors don't have any reason to use it, but I like that Hanks did, and it shows he has a sense of history about Hollywood.

On the way out of the auditorium, I say to Sy that maybe he'll appear in the deleted scenes on the DVD. He explains to me that there was a whole subplot in UMart in which it was thought that his character was going to be the one to let go, and there was a going-away party for him in response, but then it turns out that Larry was the one to be fired. As he continues telling me this as we walk out of the auditorium, we go the wrong way, not toward the front of the movie theater, then turn around and walk to where his wife is waiting. I have to pee really bad, but I'm not interrupting the rhythm of this day. I will gladly follow Sy wherever he goes.

As we pass the posters we saw on the way in, Sy tells that he has worked with many, many directors, but still not Spielberg, although he almost did once. He was up for the role in Jurassic Park that Samuel L. Jackson played, but they chose Jackson because, as is known even if you don't pay much attention to what goes on in Hollywood, it's all about money, what can bring in the big cash from ticket sales. I don't mind that I hadn't heard anything about his experiences on Pushing Daisies. I remember Meridith saying that I should get a picture with him on my cell phone camera, but it's not that kind of tete-a-tete. With Sy, you just go wherever the conversation goes, and that's the best way for it.

Outside of the theater, we go back to the table we were at before the movie, only now it's occupied by a mother and a kid, waiting for the husband/father and the other kid to bring back hot dogs. Sy asks if we can have the other half of the table just for a minute, and she agrees. I pull out the DVD sets, indicate to Sy where to sign (especially on the front of the season 1 cover, along with all the other autographs there, and on the front of the season 2 cover, where his signature will be the only one), and I show his wife the sets as well, explaining the Paley Center event that I had been to. She tells me that it was such a pleasure to work with Bryan Fuller.

Everything signed, I put the season 2 booklet away in the case, close it up, and put the DVD sets back in my bag. Sy thanks the woman, and just as we walk away, the husband/father and other kid return with the hot dogs. What timing! I express my lamentation to Sy that the industry doesn't seem to give much opportunity to Fuller these days, what with his workplace sitcom script about a no-kill animal shelter and an hour-show adaptation of Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs not going through. I mention that it's good Fuller has that furniture store going with his partner in West Hollywood, but television needs him back badly. Sy tells me that he's at work with Kristen Bell on what I think is that long-announced new version of The Munsters. After I get home, I find that Bell is now on a Showtime series called House of Lies. How much longer are Fuller fans like me going to have to wait for him to return to where he so desperately belongs?

Sy tells me that it was nice to meet me, and I indicate the same, also expressing my appreciation to his wife about meeting her as well, "the inspiration behind the man," as I put it. I wish Sy the greatest of luck with Inherit the Wind in Louisiana, we shake hands again, I shake hands with his wife and they're off to wherever the rest of the day takes them.

I call Mom and Dad to find out where they are. They're at Pavilions, in the shopping center that's in front of our old apartment complex. Walk on over! I've still got to go badly, and so I begin my way back to what I knew the first year we were here, marveling at how what I remember hasn't changed all that much. I see it sometimes anyway when we drive by, but not this close. I'm changed though. I've reached the pinnacle of the time in this valley by meeting Sy, and it's with that that I can say my time in this valley has ended. There is nothing else that can top it. Now I can move to Las Vegas, satisfied that I've done everything I could possibly do in this valley, and begin a major new life with Lisa.

Friday, July 1, 2011

One of the Biggest Days I'll Have in This Valley

Today. 5:00 p.m. Larry Crowne at Edwards Valencia 12. It's one of the movies I knew I wanted to see during the summer, and planned to, but I thought I might see it over the weekend or a little later. Not a chance.

An actor named Sy Richardson is going to the same showing. You might know Sy. Remember the Super Bowl FedEx commercial with the huge frickin' pigeons flapping about outside, and crashing a car through that high-rise office window? He played the boss in that one.

Better yet, remember "Pushing Daisies" and the ever-quietly-suspicious coroner? That was him! And that was how I met him on Facebook.

I found his profile and sent him a message conveying my highest compliments of his role on that show I still love and still miss so dearly. He is one of the genuine decent actors living here in the Santa Clarita Valley. He's not fake, phony, or hollow. And a few months before Larry Crowne came out (he has a small role as one of the employees at the big box store, thereby having the distinction of having been directed by Tom Hanks), he suggested the notion that I finally meet him when it comes time. Well, today's the day. And I'm bringing my season 1 and season 2 "Pushing Daisies" DVD sets for him to autograph (The season 1 set is studded with autographs from Chi McBride, Barry Sonnenfeld, many of the writers from "Pushing Daisies", the woman who played Gina, Emerson Cod's dog-trainer girlfriend, and a few others, all gotten at the Paley Center event which screened the final three episodes before they aired). I'll let you know how it went. I'm really excited about this!