The runthrough has just ended. We head off the soundstage, pushing our way through a heavy, metal door with a painted sign affixed to the outside of it saying, “Closed Set – Unauthorized Entry Prohibited.”
That always made me smile. An exclusively small number of people were permitted on that soundstage. The rest of the world wasn’t. I was. And, forgive me, but it always made me smile.
We emerge into the daylight. (It must have been summer. In the winter, when you came out after a runthrough, it was already dark, and your heart sank. People are home with their families. And, with a potentially lengthy rewrite ahead of you, the most challenging part of your day is only beginning.
Something catches my eye at the far end of the studio lot. Something startling and unexpected. It’s flames. A towering wall of orange, flickering high into the sky. Is it part of some “film shoot”? No.
The studio back lot is on fire!
I react in a manner consistent with the exclamation point at the end of the last sentence. And add a verbal supplementary, in case nobody caught the one I was thinking.
“The studio is on fire!” I exclaim.
Walking beside me, my boss at the time appeared unexpressive and unfazed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he mumbled, which was his habitual way of speaking when he wasn’t screaming. “It’s nothing.”
“Overreacting” is defined as “reacting more strongly than is appropriate.” My boss’s comparative calmness suggested that’s what I was doing. The immediate evidence, on the other hand, suggested I wasn’t, the evidence being,
There was a fire!
It was then explained to me why there was little need for concern. Apparently, on a regular basis, the studio hired professional fire setters to burn down unwanted portions of the back lot for the insurance, and to make room for sorely needed expanded parking areas.
The proof that the fire was prearranged and not the type that would destroy the studio and me as well if I didn’t skedaddle from that location poste haste was the fact that my boss predicted at which point precisely the fire would be contained, and it turned out that’s exactly where it was stopped.
Apparently, the fire setters were so skillful, they could not only surreptitiously set fires, they could terminate them on the spot! The redundant section of the back lot – standing sets no longer in demand, like a Parisian backstreet or something, went up in flames, while the rest of the lot was preserved, totally, and premeditatedly, untouched.
This, to me, was a metaphor of the entire business to which I had committed my energies and devoted my passion.
Something was happening “behind the scenes”, and considerably more often than otherwise, I was entirely oblivious to what it was.
(Come to think of it, this may more generally be a metaphor for my entire existence.)
The pre-arranged fire is the most dramatic example of what I’m talking about. The arena I was most specifically in the dark about – less colorful but ultimately more significant – was the financial one.
I was totally clueless. (And, shamefully, I did not entirely care, because I was extremely well paid, and I was concerned that, if I pried into things too deeply, that enjoyable arrangement might be terminated.)
Once I broke from tradition – and I emphasize the word “once”; I must have been particularly bored that day – and decided to read the Major Dad budget, curious to see where all the money went.
It was then I noticed – I am suddenly realizing what I am about to report continues in today’s blog post’s motif – I discovered that every episode of Major Dad – and undoubtedly every other series shot on the lot – was charged a not insubstantial fee for the services of the studio’s “on-site” Fire Department.
Universal Studios had its own Fire Department. Not an exhibit for its famous Tour, the real thing! (Universal also had an on-site Department of Motor Vehicles, which I loved, because they let me stand wherever I wanted to read the eye chart, and they gave me extra chances when I missed.)
As far as I knew, nobody ever used the Fire Department (other than for putting out fires that were deliberately arranged); nevertheless, the Major Dad budget was charged for it regardless. Week after week after week after week. For the run of the show, which was ultimately four seasons.
I do not recall any producers complaining about it. They figured they were all making big bucks. Why shouldn’t the Fire Department get in for a taste? (Except it wasn’t the firefighters skimming the Fire Department charges, it was the studio.)
Perhaps nobody looked at their budgets. If I hadn’t, I would never have known about it. And since I gave reading it half way through, perhaps – “perhaps?” – there were other budget-padding charges as well.
On a larger scale of fiduciary hocus-pocus, Major Dad has been off the air for twenty years, and every year, I receive a multi-paged statement, informing me that the show remains “in deficit”, which is important, because I am only entitled to royalty payments until it goes into profit.
Do I read the entire statement? No. I just look where it says we are still four million plus dollars in the hole, and I know there’ll be no “profit participation” checks coming my way any time soon.
Make that ever.
Once again, there were no questions asked.
It is not just that I was handsomely remunerated. My main incentive for not rocking the boat was that I was living where I wanted to live (no snow ever!), doing what I dearly wanted to do. The result was a long and satisfying career.
So when there were flames on the horizon, I just looked the other way, oblivious to the arson, and grateful for more available parking.