Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Hollywood Years


My first job at Paramount was as a Studio Page. This is truly the epitome of "entry level" work, and yet you had to have a college degree in some kind of communications area (or be close to being done) to even be considered. We worked 20-30 hours a week and I think starting pay was in the $5 an hour range. All of us had to have other jobs to survive. In an average year several hundred people applied for about twenty spots, and it was as good a place as any to start hearing the unceasing Hollywood mantra Do You KNOW how many people would kill for your job??


All this so you could walk around the lot in a grey knee length skirt with a white button down shirt and a navy blue blazer - all brought to you by the Polyester industry. There was also some kind of bow tie involved but I think I've finally managed to block out the specifics of that after all these years. If no one minds I don't think I'm going to try too hard to remember exactly what it looked like. Like most women who lived through 80's and 90's corporate fashion, I'm scarred and recovery has been a long time coming. I still twitch at the sight of shoulder pads, so forgive me.


We had two major job responsibilities as pages. The first was to act as guides on the studio tour and the second was to oversee the audience seating at the live television shows. There were other job duties outside of the scope of these two things, but this was the bulk of it. For today's post, let's talk about the tour angle.




The studio tour was an interesting proposition. Paramount's tour was unusual compared to most of the other studio tours. When I first started the only tour was a VIP tour. This had to be arranged through someone who worked on the lot, so it was basically a private tour. It lasted two hours and was limited to the number of people who could fit on a studio golf cart - which was seven plus the guide. Toward the end of my year as a page we implemented a public tour, which was a whole different kettle of fish. If you had $10 and were over 10 years old, you could make it onto the lot for two hours for a walking tour.



For the most part the tours were the same. We covered a fair amount of the fifty five acres and talked quite a bit about studio history. Most of the sound stages were available for us to go onto, and a lot of the shows were even receptive to (quietly) bringing the tour into the bleachers to watch a rehearsal or, more infrequently, a table reading. (This was entirely dictated by how smoothly that particular set ran. Some notoriously temperamental shows didn't need the general public to witness the rancor that was a dress rehearsal). We almost always had feature films shooting on the lot as well, so it was possible to park your tour group in an out of the way corner and let them check out the action up close.



The thing that never failed to amaze me the entire time I worked there was that Paramount was a little city unto itself. The goal was to make it so you never really had to leave the lot. A lot of the amenities (the gym, the childcare center, the post office) weren't things the public would really care about. But, in true cheapskate fashion, a lot of these things were incorporated into studio productions. Take the hospital, for example. It was a real working infirmary, complete with a nurse on premises and a doctor on call. There was even a golf cart ambulance. If you've seen Top Gun (and lots of other things) you've seen this hospital. The tours loved it. You haven't lived until you've seen a golf cart ambulance.


The tag line for the tour was that nothing was really scripted, so people had the opportunity to really see how a lot operated. And, while this was true, it was double edged. Most tourists are in LA in the summer. Most shows are on hiatus from the beginning of April to the end of July. This is when television stars who want to be in the movies get a chance to jump to the other side - however briefly. Cable has certainly changed this in recent years, but when I was there it was pretty cut and dried. Summer was Pilot Season, a time when everyone and their brother put together a pilot in the hopes that some network would pick up a run of the show, anywhere from five to twenty something episodes (the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - the full season pick-up). Unfortunately for us, a lot of the pilots didn't have "name" actors in them, and names were what out tour groups wanted to see.


We killed a lot of time in the summer. We'd go to the prop department and talk about props. We'd go to the backlot, where things were constructed, and show people how it was done. The big hit here was always "breakaway glass", the glass that you've seen shatter a thousand times on screen. It was made to shatter without sharp edges, so was supposedly completely safe. We'd ask for volunteers and smack them (carefully) with the glass. It would shatter, they would all get a piece to take home with them and everyone was happy. (How our legal department ever thought this was okay is beyond me. There wasn't a page on staff who hadn't at some point cut the hell out of themselves with this "smooth edged" glass, but, at least for me, the tourists were always safe).



A popular stop was always Lucy Park. This was the park that was built for Lucille Ball on the part of the lot that used to be Desilu, and it is featured one way or another in almost every Paramount television show ever done. From the Brady Bunch to Happy Days to Family Ties - there's the park - sometimes barely even disguised. The New York Street backlot was also a big hit. This was the set that was designed so outdoor city shots could be done in the controlled setting of the lot. It went on for a couple of blocks and if you've watched television even once in your life, you've seen it. See if any of this looks familiar...





But without question the number one attraction on all the tours - public or VIP - was the Cheers bar. (If the Star Trek:The Next Generation set had been open to tours it would have been a really close race. The reason they weren't open had nothing to do with temperament and everything to do with shooting schedules. To produce a one hour weekly show is much more complicated logistically than doing a half hour sitcom and they were always pressed for time. Thirty people standing on your set asking questions wasn't really feasible). It never failed with Cheers. We would lead them into a darkened soundstage, and even if we were the only people there, everyone would collectively inhale sharply as soon as they saw the set. In theory they would be seeing the set from the bleachers. In actuality (and completely verboten) some of the guides would let them sit at the bar. Actually sit there, in Cliff or Norm's usual seat, and rest their elbows on the edge. Those were some seriously happy campers until some page (who wasn't me, although it certainly could have been) got busted in the act and that was that. Back to the bleachers we went.


This set has become so iconic, by the way, that the entire thing is now on display in a Hollywood museum. I bet they don't get to sit on the seats now either.


The tour certainly lived up to the unscripted billing. Actors would jump onto the carts spontaneously, much to the delight of their fans. Entire casts would welcome them to their rehearsals. The tours would get to walk onto standing movie sets for current releases on real soundstages - and feel like they had an honest glimpse into a working studio. The tours were fun. They got old, but they were fun. People paid their money and took their chances on seeing the celebrity du jour, but always came out of it with a vision of what it was like on the other side of the gate. For the most part they left happy.


I wish I could say the same for the television audiences.

13 comments:

Corey~living and loving said...

What an interesting post. I loved reading about what the tours were like. What an interesting job, yet I can see how it could lose it's specialness over time.

Kaycie said...

I took one of those tours when I was still a kid, on vacation with my parents. It really was fun.

I remember my first interview suit. It was a navy blue glen plaid Brooks Brothers suit with a skirt (of course, we didn't wear pants to work interviews back in the day). I wore it with little silk shirts and horrendous scarf/bow thingys. And sensible pumps. Fugly.

laurie said...

the whole admiration of celebrity is a pretty interesting thing; is it mostly an american thing, do you think?

i never toured hollywood, but when i was in my 20s i went to a bar in Boston that was supposed to be the model for the cheers bar. you went down steps to get to the front door, which had the same typography as the CHEERS logo, though it was called something else. i can't remember now what.

but somewhere there is a picture of me standing next to it and smiling like a goon.

Sweet Irene said...

Interesting look into that part of life. Didn't know anything about it, but I am less mystified now. Does it take the magic out, knowing all these things?

I can't picture you as a patient page leading hordes of tourists around. You somehow don't seem the right type for this. I bet you make a much better ER nurse. That's more your cup of tea. Grace under pressure.

kathy said...

I wish I had taken a tour when I lived there. Now when I go back it's just to see friends and family. Jack's family since mine up and left.

Kelly Malloy said...

WoW! I feel like I actully went on the tour myself!

aims said...

We toured Universal two years ago and our tour was nothing like that! Rats!!

We drove around looking for Paramount Studio's famous entrance - but we never saw it - only the gazillion other cars driving around LA....

Thanks for the tour.

Akelamalu said...

Oh wow Correspondent that was so interesting!

ped crossing said...

I bet that feels like a life time ago. We went to the taping of a show once and it really took away the magic.

Potty Mummy said...

Shoulder pads. I mean, whoever thought they were a good idea? RC, I feel your pain - I too have work outfits that I would rather not remember. In fact, it was so long ago that I actually can't remember...

Amy said...

Ooo, a studio tour. Sounds fun. The behind-the-scenes stuff is so much more interesting than what goes over the air.

Eileen said...

My friend from college worked in tv production, and was always getting us on tours. I loved them. I still love them. My husband and girls love them too. When we are in LA or in NYC we always manage to get a studio or behind the set tour. You can take the ones at universal over and over and get a completely different experience each time. It is always so thrilling and interesting to me. It is definately a city within a city. Thanks for sharing this, blast from your past. What an interesting job you had!! I really enjoyed this post.
XOXOX

Jo Beaufoix said...

Wow RC, this is such a cool post. You really have had such an interesting life, even if the clothes were bad.
I would have been one of those enthralled tourists in the Cheers Bar. Fantastic.
And the ambulance golf cart is hilarious. Did you ever have to ride on it?