Linda Hamm Conte & Bonnie Sinclair are throwing a “D.E.A.D.” (Disneyland Entertainment Art Department) reunion party this August. I’ve been thinking about all of the crazy antics and wonderfully nutty peeps we worked with back then. I think my favorite story from my 5 years @DEAD was the very 1st story: Getting Hired.
Besides, it’s July 17th. Disneyland’s 61st birthday. What better day to share some DEAD Memories!
I worked as an assistant art director at NBC for a while. Ed Swift ran the place. He spent a bunch of money on an early AutoCad system and a giant pen plotter which nobody really wanted to use, Good thing is that now you have many places to find school supplies, learn how to buy a staple gun which is one of the most used.. So I played with it. I drew and printed a gigantic plan of the gigantic Days of Our Lives sound stage with sets. It was pretty sloppy, but I’d pulled it off in 2 days and I was proud of it. I forget what show Jack Forrestel was working on back then, but he looked at my big drawing and said it sucked. I said, but it only took 2 days. He said it still sucked. So I spent the next 2 months actually learning AutoCad and doing a ridiculously detailed drawing of, at the time anyway, the largest television sound stage in the world, the Santa Barbara stage. So named for the soap that shot there. When Jack saw it he said, now you’re talking! I felt pretty good.
I forget who referred me to whom, but when art director Sy Tomashoff left the CBS soap Capitol to startup a new soap, The Bold and the Beautiful, his assistant Jon Gary Steele was promoted to art director. And Gary hired me to be his assistant. So I moved from NBC to CBS. After a while Jack Forrestel got hired to work on another CBS show and so he moved from NBC to CBS too. When he arrived, art director Jack Hart said, oh, two “Jack’s”? You should change your name to “John”. At which Jack Forrestel had a small explosion:
No! I used to be John, and I changed my name to Jack because there were two John’s at [some other production company] and I’m not changing it again!
CBS was a little weird. For all the art directors: Gary, Me, Jack, Jack, Sy, and all the others, there was just a single phone number. When someone called for any art director or for any soap, sitcom, or game show, a receptionist answered that line “Art Directors.” But for every single set decorator there was a separate number to dial. When someone called one of those numbers, the same receptionist who had dryly said “Art Directors” now had a sparkle in her voice as she answered the phone “Jay Garvin’s office, how may I help you?”
Another funny thing at CBS was that for every day’s setup of the soap – typically a soap sound stage has room for half a dozen different sets or so, and the art directors use combinations of existing sets, mashup new settings, and occasionally constructing new sets, to fit the action in that day’s script, and then lay those sets out on a giant stage plan that the stage hands can setup from, the set decorators can decorate for, and the director can block shots from – you had to give your individual set drawings to the camera department to shoot film positives of your drawing to tape down on a giant ground plan of the sound stage. You had to give camera at least 24 hours to make your film positives, and when you didn’t have that much time, you had to beg and be really nice to them. I asked if we couldn’t just put clear acetate in the office copier and print the drawings on that, you know, in a minute? Well that idea was verboten because we’d be putting the camera guys out of work!
Speaking of “getting hired”, or of “first day on the job,” I got a haircut the day before I started at CBS. The stylist went on about how awesome it’d look if she permed my hair. I actually didn’t even know what a perm was, but I said ok. Well, she way, way overprocessed my hair. I’m surprised it didn’t just all fall out. But somehow the kinked, broken nubs stuck to my head. The next day I showed up at CBS for my 1st day as the new assistant art director on Capitol. I’m sure nobody at CBS actually cared what my hair looked like, but I just felt ridiculous. I remember staring in the mirror in the CBS men’s room. I wanted to cry.
From time to time you’d get thrown a bone like doing network promos. You sort of watched a small insert sound stage during your normal day and didn’t do much and got another day’s pay. At one point they asked me to art direct CBS’s coverage of the Rose Parade on January 1st. I designed this trippy 3D CBS eye that would be the broadcast booth. I got a pat on the back and they told me there wasn’t actually a budget for that but that the old set would be fine and I could knock myself out making the big chrome CBS eyes I’d designed and post them around where I liked.
We were on Colorado Boulevard for a week or so setting up. NBC mounted a microphone on a railing right in front of the CBS ground level broadcast booth. Everybody complained about this all week. Peeps kept saying that they’d talk to the Tournament of Roses officials and get NBC to move their microphone. The microphone kept not getting moved. Finally I said, hey, I know the NBC guys, do you want me to go talk to them? So I went down to NBC and they were all great and happy to know about my career adventures and about 20 minutes later the microphone was out of CBS’s shot.
Anyway, unfortunate perms notwithstanding, Capitol was a great experience. Gary was an awesome and talented guy to work for. And then Capitol was cancelled. Gary spent the last weeks of the show mostly out of the office looking for work. I decided not to even bother looking for work, but just to take those last weeks as a chance to learn as much as possible.
And then look for work.
Art Directors in Hollywood
As I’d eventually learn, the amount of praise a Hollywood art director gives your portfolio is inversely proportional to the amount of work they have for you. I’d show my portfolio to people who went on and on about how great it was, then I’d call a week later and they’d say, Yeah, I’ve got nothing for you.
Others would seem bored by my work and barely say anything. The next morning they’d call and ask if I could work on a project.
And then somewhere I learned that Phil Dagort was the production designer for an upcoming film project, so I went to go show him my work. I don’t really remember what Phil said about my stuff, but when he saw that I’d worked at CBS, he got excited and told me that he’d worked there too. He asked me,
Wasn’t it weird the way set decorators were treated like royalty at CBS?
Phil’s question was one of those rare epiphany moments you have. Of course I’d realized it was weird at CBS, but I didn’t have the nerve to actually think it. Or the experience to really know if it worked differently elsewhere. At CBS they’d fed me some BS about how set decorators had to interact with a lot of vendors and that was why they had private lines and the art directors didn’t.
An earlier epiphany was in Ed Brokaw‘s film editing class at UCLA. Ed taught Theater Arts 154A, B, and C, “Motion Picture Editing”. Or as Ed was fond of saying,
The UCLA catalog is actually incorrect. I don’t teach “Film Editing,” I teach “Filmmaking, from the Editor’s Point of View.”
For no particular reason that I could discern, Ed was incredibly supportive of me. In his lectures he’d make some arcane point, then gesture to me, and say “you know what I mean.” Ed always believed in me. Always encouraged me. Back then I foolishly imagined it was, somehow, just me. I’d later come to learn how many different future filmmakers Ed had helped will into existence. Anyway, one day Ed was talking about projection and he said,
…like the Cinerama Dome: you can never get far enough away from that screen.
I like to sit really close in movie theaters. Row 6 is ideal. Except for Hollywood’s crown jewel, The Cinerama Dome. Indeed, you could never get far enough away from that screen. I knew this, but I’d never had the nerve to think it, until Ed gave me permission.
As a kid, my dad had taken me to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey at the Cinerama Dome. Years later I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception there. Actually I saw Inception on opening day at the 5pm show. Apparently 2 hours later Nolan himself was there for an opening night screening and the projector failed halfway through the film. They never managed to fix it that night. The most famous theater in Hollywood sucks. I knew it. But Ed had the nerve to say it.
When Phil Dagort asked me about CBS, suddenly it all came clear. Phil explained that the manager of the CBS art department had been a former set decorator, and that it was under his leadership that art directors had been marginalized, and the set decorators, who theoretically worked for the art directors, had been elevated to royalty.
Phil and I had a long, great talk. Before I left he said that I really ought to show my portfolio to Clare Graham down at Disneyland, that Clare hired a lot of designers.
When I spoke to Clare Graham on the phone, he suggested coming down with my portfolio, and also bringing a friend. Clare could look at my work, and as long as I’d driven all the way down, a friend and I could go play in the park after.
Later working in the art department, I don’t recall hearing Clare make that offer to anyone else. Maybe he made it because I dropped Phil’s name? IDK. Anyway, Clare looked at my work and commented,
You have usable skills.
“Usable skills” kind of sounded to me like a polite way of saying your work sucks. But I decided to stay optimistic anyway. It wouldn’t be till after I’d worked at D.E.A.D. for a year or so that I’d fully realize that Clare only ever said one of two things in response to someone’s portfolio:
You have usable skills.
You’re not quite ready yet, but here’s what I’d suggest you do…
and then he’d give them some advice about keeping a sketch book and so on. It would turn out that “usable skills” meant pretty good, or at least as good as I’d ever hear him comment on anyone’s work in the 5 years I was there. But on that day “usable skills” didn’t sound so promising. Nonetheless, he told me and my friend to go play in the park and come back and the end of the day and he’d see if he had work for me.
So we played.
A little too long.
When we returned, Clare had gone home. So I left without work. And called him the next morning.
When I called the next morning Scott Sinclair answered the phone. He said that Clare wasn’t there. I said that Clare had said he’d have work for me. Scott seemed to shuffle a few papers on the desk and then say that he didn’t see anything for me, but that if I left my number he’d have Clare call me.
I called a day or two later and Scott Sinclair answered the phone again and we did the same dance again.
And Clare didn’t call again.
Scott is just about the most talented artist I know. When I finally did get the job, I remember one day Scott, who by then had moved out of DEAD’s main “Rehearsal Hall” space and off-site to DEAD’s “Olive Facility”, came to the rehearsal hall around 3pm or so, gave Clare a rendering, and left. As Scott walked out, Michael Reedy muttered under his breath,
I hate him.
Michael was a nice, soft spoken guy. It was such a surprising thing for him to say. I turned and asked, Why? Michael explained,
Because Clare just gave him that rendering at lunch today and he’s already finished and it’s better than I could have done in a week.
I don’t know anyone, not even the legendary and brilliant Stanley Meyer, who is as facile with a pencil as Scott. He uses a pencil like mere mortals use words. In design conversations, in the same amount of time it takes you to describe something, Scott has already illustrated the thing, probably 3 different ways.
For the premiere of Three Men and a Baby, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution wanted to put giant figures of Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg & Ted Danson on top of the marquee in front of the Crest Theater in Westwood.
DEAD had it’s own scene shop, but we also had so much work, that we used lots of Hollywood scene shops and gave them lots of work. I have to admit, I never really liked the Cinnabar guys. Somehow they always made me feel swindled and it was always a hassle to get what you actually wanted out of them. You had to have crazy amounts of detail in your drawings to nail them down, or else get something you didn’t really want. One day Dennis Despie called Clare and said, hey, Steve Serrurier has a scene shop up in Pasadena. He’s a pretty good guy, maybe you’d like to check him out sometime.
So one day Clare sent me to check out Serrurier in Pasadena. I think I might have met Steve for a minute, but I mostly talked with his shop supervisor Ralph Hudson.
I’d eventually learn that Ralph was the opposite of the Cinnabar guys. With them you could draw excruciating details and still not get what you wanted. With Ralph you could draw anything and he’d build better than you’d thought of. Ralph was the nicest, easiest to work with scene shop guy I’d ever dealt with. And he did the best work. Today he’s got his own shop, Ironwood, in Glendale, right across the street from Imagineering. Back then he did a fantastic job of running Serrurier. Although he was just a little bit bitter about the Dennis Despie thing. Apparently for that one phone call to Clare, Serrurier paid Dennis more “finders fee” money than he paid to Ralph for a year’s work.
So DEAD contracted with Serrurier to build and install giant Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg & Ted Danson figures on top of the marquee at the Crest Westwood. Ralph brought in their licensed civil engineer who looked at the drawings and inspected the Crest and said that Tom, Steve, and Ted would not make the Crest marquee come crumbling down. He embossed the drawings with his seal to say so.
And then one day Scott and I were hanging out on the sidewalk on Westwood Boulevard watching a giant crane move huge Tom Selleck around. And the manager of the Crest Theater was freaking out. Apparently Buena Vista or whoever was supposed to have given him all the details, didn’t. Somehow I think I felt like it was my responsibility to make sure this thing got installed whether or not the Crest manager really wanted it. I tried not to tell him any more than I really had to. Maybe I just put a lot of faith in Ralph’s engineer’s fancy emboss.
But Scott just explained the whole project to the manager. All the anchors and gory details we’d be bolting to the top of his marquee. All in that calm, dry, Scott sort of way. The manager got a lot redder. It looked like he was going to pull the plug on the installation. Scott didn’t really care. He just told the truth and whatever happened was fine with him.
I learned honesty from Scott that day. Just tell them the truth. Whatever happens, happens.
In the end Tom, Steve & Ted did get installed on top of the marquee and we pointed lights at them.
I spent a lot of time on the sidewalk of Westwood Boulevard those few days. At one point I walked into a Carlton Hair on Westwood Blvd. and had Jeffrey Castel cut my hair. Besides that awful perm person back in the CBS days, I’d had lots of people cut my hair. And by far, Jeffrey was the best ever. I paid him for my haircut, and later I asked him if he’d be interested in trading hair services for design services. He said definitely! Jeff cut my hair for the next 25 years! He moved from Carlton on Westwood to Linear at the Westside Pavilion Mall. From Linear to Jacques Michael on Pico. From Jacques Michael he started his own salon, Xperience, on Westwood. Xperience eventually closed and Jeff returned to Jacques Michael. I followed Jeff from Carlton to Linear to Jacques Michael to Xperience and back to Jacques Michael. Along the way I designed logos and business cards and postcard mailers and holiday cards and everything we could think of to keep me busy.
Jeff was really grateful and I think maybe he felt like just cutting my hair wasn’t enough, so at some point he said, why don’t we put some color in it. My hair was solid black back then. Jeff’s been coloring if for so long that I never even saw the grey come in, it just snuck in, unnoticed, under Jeff’s color. Except for the one time we tried platinum blonde, Jeff’s colors were very subtle, just easy red tints and such. I once asked him about blue, but he said they didn’t have blue. Back then I didn’t know the difference between permanent colors and semi-permanent, aka “fashion” colors. So I forgot about blue.
After cutting my hair for a quarter of a century, Jeff finally ran out of things for me to design for him, and so a couple of years ago, our very successful barter agreement came to an end.
As long as Jeff wasn’t cutting my hair anymore, I figured I might as well not schlepp out to Westwood for haircuts anymore. But I also thought nobody in Rosemead was likely to do fun hair. So I settled on a salon in nearby Pasadena, Union Salon. Union Salon had a fancy website and a page with all their stylists on it. Most of the stylists were women and most of them looked “cover girl perfect.” They had testimonials that said things like, she styled all of my bridesmaids and we all looked perfect and it was the greatest day of my life. So I knew these were not the stylists I was looking for. And then there was this one stylist who had all these tats. Obviously she was the one to do my hair. So I made an appointment with Jennifer Lopiccolo.
While she was cutting my hair Jennifer asked me how I’d come to make an appointment with her, and I explained about viewing the Union Salon website. She laughed. She told me that in all the years she’d worked there I was only the second person to make an appointment with her based off of that stylist page. Apparently cover girl perfect beats tats most of the time.
Out of all the people who’ve ever cut my hair, for sure Jeffrey was the best ever. And Jennifer was the 2nd best.
After decades of free services from Jeffrey, I finally found out how much you can pay for this stuff. Jennifer’s bill came out to $200. Isn’t that the same price that Bill Clinton’s scandalous haircut cost? You remember, back before Monica Lewinsky, when people thought the price of the president’s haircut was a big deal.
After I left I decided to ask Jennifer if she might like to barter hair for design. In the interim since I first started with Jeffrey, print, and web and almost everything else had become irrelevant. If you do hair, Instagram is what counts. So I don’t know if Jennifer would have been interested or not. Somehow I forgot to get in touch with her for a few weeks. And then it started to be a while and I wondered if she’d even remember who I was. And then I just let my hair grow kind of long.
And then I really needed to cut my hair. But it seemed way too late to barter with Jennifer. And I’m not really a $200 every 6 weeks kind of guy. So I somehow decided I could just buy some shears and some dye and do in my old age what teenage girls had been doing for generations: play with my own hair. I’d seen Jeffrey color my hair for years. And I’d seen Jennifer play with it once. And the checker at Target with the awesome blue hair assured me that it really wasn’t that hard.
Where was I?
On Westwood Boulevard.
Learning to be honest.
Even if it might mean Tom Selleck isn’t on top of the Crest Westwood on opening night.
After I left DEAD, Cindy Spodek Dickey was kind enough to refer me to an art director at Buena Vista Home Video who needed some design work for a display case project at Euro Disney.
Pilar Valdez is actually the name of a sculpture grad student at CSU Long Beach. So I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the name of the art director at Buena Vista Home Video. But ATM I can’t recall Pilar’s last name. So I guess I can substitute “Valdez” for the purposes of this story. Anyway, Pilar the sculptor doesn’t use “Valdez” anymore, she goes by Pilar Elizabeth now. So we might as well call Pilar the Buena Vista art director Valdez, at least until I can remember her actual last name.
So Pilar hired me to do her display case project. And I hired Scott to do illustrations. Since Ironwood didn’t exist yet, I hired Serrurier (Ralph) to build them. I have no idea what I paid Scott, but it was probably a lot less than he’s worth. I don’t think he really cared what I paid him. Scott helped me get my post-Disney career started.
So Scott’s the most talented illustrator I know. And he’s honest. And generous. But I think it’s also fair to say, he can be a bit dry.
Of course when I was calling DEAD for the work Clare theoretically had for me, I didn’t know that this guy who kept answering the phone was just sort of dry. And probably he wasn’t even really trying to say drop dead, nobody needs you, but perhaps through my own insecurities I came to take his phone voice that way.
I waited till the next week and decided to call one last time. If I got this “dry” guy again, I’d just forget it. No work for me there. Move along.
As it happened, on my very last call, Clare did answer the phone. I don’t think I knew it, but I’d called fortuitously early. Probably before anyone other than Clare was there. So he answered the phone. I explained that we’d met last week and that he’d said he might have work for me. I don’t think Clare really knew who I was, and he said,
right, um… I don’t know… let me see… I don’t know if I have anything… well… um… I don’t know… maybe… um… can you start first thing tomorrow morning?
“Tomorrow morning” turned out to be 5 years of fulltime (plus) work at DEAD.