You put on a show, and that’s great. But even greater is when that show includes a magical element, speaking to what show business is really about, going right back to cave times, where they imaginably first put on shows. Not long after which the first cave “impresario” began selling tickets to see them. It’s like the Internet – it started out being for free, and then “pricing” seeped in. And insidious advertising. Which is also not new.
“Tired of sharpening your own stick? Let us sharpen it for you. And all you have to do is to catch us some dinner. It’s as simple as that. We’ll put a nice point point on your stick and you bring us some food. And now – speaking of food – ladies and gentlemen, a man swallowing a live chicken. Ta-da!”
Two of the series I got on the air – Major Dad and Family Man – contemporarily localed. Exhilarating as it is to walk onto a soundstage and see the sets built specifically for your show, it not easy distinguishing one sitcom living room set from another.
On Family Man, we replicated our actual living room from our house, which was amazing. Still, it was a contemporary living room – walls, windows, doors and a staircase - uniquely “homey” but hardly unusual.
With Best of the West, however – the only half-hour western comedy I am aware of filmed before a live studio audience – Now that was different.
(Note: This is where my story of “pure show biz” and its accompanying excitement kicks in. But not to its ultimate degree, which I am reserving for the “payoff”, for I am nothing if not an adherent to traditional expectations, knowing that nobody enjoys their “payoffs” in the middle.)
As the audience filed into the bleachers of Soundstage 24 at Paramount Studios to see a Best of the West filming, they beheld before them, not sets depicting a typical living room and an appropriate “workplace”, but instead the simulated interiors of a “sod house” and a western saloon.
And they started to smile. ‘Cause it was different.
The filming began. And, during the scenes set in “Copper Creek’s” Lucky Chance Saloon, unobtrusively but clearly visible nonetheless, the audience saw live horses (and their riders) passing “outside”, through the saloon’s swinging doors and adjoining windows. (There was a narrow corridor between the standing “saloon set” and the concrete wall of the soundstage. It was a tight fit. I guess they just brought skinny horses.)
Real horses! Can you believe it? You never saw that on All in the Family. A horse’s ass, sure, but not actual horses.
The studio audience had never seen anything like it before. It was like going to the circus, but with hilarious punchlines.
The festivities began earlier in the day. Every Friday – when we filmed the Best of the West episodes – a couple of trailers would arrive, and wranglers in authentic cowboy attire – hats, boots, oversized belt buckles and jeans featuring splotches of horse dung – would climb out and unload several horses, brought in to amble past during the saloon scenes, adding verisimilitude to the proceedings.
It was quite the “eye catcher.” Heading back from their commissary lunches, studio employees noticeably slowed down to look at them. And they’d smile. Although possibly a long way from actual production, studio employees were aware they worked someplace special. I mean, how often do you spot a passel of ponies in a Law Office? (Answer: Arguably, never.)
But that was nothing,
Compared to the “payoff.”
In which one specific Best of the West episode called for “more.”
I no longer recall the story. I think it had to do with Copper Creek being snowed in by a blizzard, the desperate saloonkeeper attracting the cooped up inhabitants with “spectacular entertainment.”
Including a large, performing bear.
Do you remember a bear on Golden Girls? I do not believe they had one. In fact, I’m not sure anyone had one. If there was an Emmy Category: “Best Performance By A Visiting Bear”, we’d have won it by acclamation. I could see myself, delivering the “Acceptance Speech” on the bear’s behalf. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one, so I didn’t.
What was truly satisfying, however, was – yes, the live studio audience cackling delightedly at the onstage shenanigans – but even more rewarding was, earlier in the day, watching crowds of Paramount employees spontaneously mobilize, as if the president or some celebrity superstar were visiting the studio.
It started small. But then the word spread.
“There’s a bear on the lot!”
The crowd expanded and the giddiness increased. People were coming out of the woodwork, just to look at the bear. Prop men, studio bean counters, powerful executives, people who had seen it all, becoming, during their tenures, inured and blasé. Suddenly, they were kids again, joining the crowd to partake in the available wonderment.
The bear did a little dance, and the assemblage was miraculously transported, their worldly cares and travails melting harmlessly into the periphery.
This was the real show business – undiluted and restorative. This was the “fun part”, the feeling the studio employees had imagined when they’d signed on. The experience was exhilarating. Who wouldn’t enjoy a performing bear materializing at their workplace? (Except for “animal rights” advocates, bent on freeing performing animals into the wild.)
As they sing in Camelot, “… for one brief shining moment…”
Then the bear entered the soundstage, and it was back to the office.