Chapter 6 - LaLa Land Take 2 and Back
The Balloon Ranch – Welcome to Colorado
Jane Bay and I were having a commuting/tel-presence relationship as I tried to work out where my work was going to take me. It was becoming spring and I made plans to go out to Colorado on a road trip. I can’t even remember why except it was an adventure and I was in between projects. Being on the road always stimulated my creativity, particularly in times of transitions like this.
I ended up in Boulder and met up with a woman through Peter Richardson that was buying stuff for a Balloon Ranch that was opening soon in southern Colorado. Her house was up Sunshine canyon and I remember thinking Boulder was beautiful. This would obviously come up again many years later.
Holly was headed south to the Balloon Ranch to deliver the stuff she had bought for them and they needed hands to help them get open. I followed her down and ended up in the San Luis Valley, also a sacred place of mine in the future. This new dude ranch was going to offer tourists balloon rides.
That was its pitch anyway. In between the manual labor I flew and crewed in a hot air balloon for the first time, and especially liked the night flights.
Those of us getting the place ready for its first visitors had fun, but then opening day came, and we were asked to leave.
I thought about driving back to San Francisco, but a phone call with Jane changed all that. She invited me to come to LA. Since I had no other plans, this seemed like a great idea to hangout more as a real couple. I also wanted to check out Hollywood again and she was right in the middle of it. Once I started driving I couldn’t wait to get there. I drove all night (with help from little white pills) and arrived as the sun was coming up. I found my way to her house. It was early. She answered the door in her bathrobe. We hugged and I went straight to her bedroom and fell asleep for 5 hours. I woke up to find her smiling face and breakfast. If I wasn’t already, this was love.
Jane would go off to work at Motown Films and I mostly lay out by her pool not knowing what was next.
Through Jane I met a bunch of film people and visited some sets. Filmmaking looked like fun, but as it turned out Jane was not happy in her job. Motown Films really were not making that many projects except The Wiz, the black remake of the Wizard of Oz staring Diane Ross and Michael Jackson. That film was uninspired. It was the most expensive musical ever made and flopped badly at the box office
It looked like I would be going back to San Francisco to produce more educational media. We began loosely talking about Jane coming with me. She would put her house up for rent and join the adventure. The only thing that was holding me back was that I had no idea what I was really doing for work and no real place to live. A couple of things that seemed important. However, this idea was in the wind for us.
We went to a lot of films while I was in Hollywood with Jane including the opening of Star Wars. We stood in line with everyone else not knowing what to expect. The film was getting a lot of positive word of mouth, particularly from sci-fi fans.
From the first frame, I knew this was going to be something new.
When I heard the filmmakers name was George Lucas, I remembered I had liked American Graffiti, one of his earlier films, but that was it.
In A Galaxy Not So Far Away
Jane came home a few days later and told me about a lunch she had with an old friend who was a high power agent and producer. She told him she was thinking about moving to San Francisco with me and he asked her if she wanted the best job in film in the Bay Area. At that time, the San Francisco film scene was small, really just Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Pictures and some small independent film producers.
That was about to change. It turned out that George Lucas was in town looking to hire a kind of chief of staff type to help him with the overwhelming response to Star Wars. Jane came home and said what do you think? I said George Lucas, the director that just made Star Wars, what is there to say.
She met George and they talked for a while. She found him very shy. What she didn’t know then was George made a decision that day and she was it. Jane knew the chief of staff for Francis Coppola and asked her what she thought of George. He had made a documentary film about Francis called "The Rainmaker." Francis had also been very supportive of American Graffiti when the studio initially didn't like it. At private studio screening, as the story was told, Francis told the Universal Studio ex off when he suggested he was less than pleased with the film. Francis was right. The film was a big hit. I remember seeing it in some small town in the mid-west when Sweet Pain was on tour. And here we were.
Mona told Jane it could be an interesting ride with Star Wars burning up the box office and all. George had told her to call him when we got back to San Francisco. She did, and he asked her to come out to Marin for what she thought was a second interview. I got a call later from Jane saying he had put her to work. She had the job. I remember thinking, well this is interesting.
Jane was the number 5 employee at Lucasfilm. George and Marsha his wife at the time were 1 & 2, they had a bookkeeper, that was 3 and an young film assistant that was 4.
Marsha, Georges wife at the time and one of the key film editors of Star Wars,
Jane and George at Skywalker Ranch
Lucasfilm offices were in a small house at the edge of the property that eventually would become George’s estate. The film was blowing up, money was rolling in and everything needed to be organized. Thus began a 40 year relationship between Jane and George. She became the gatekeeper for one of the new breed of innovative filmmakers and did it with style.. Much more to this story soon…
Singing on Commercials
In between record gigs as I was, I met some people in San Francisco that produced radio commercials. Art Twain and Ed Bogus became friends and when they had need of a singer I would do their radio commercial and get some royalties. Art produced and Ed did all the arrangements. It was studio work that I didn't have to take so seriously.
The gig that came out of that relationship that really made some money was VISA. (like in the credit card) Art got the national Visa account and put together some cleaver spots designed to promote how you could use a Visa card anywhere. I was part of a group of 6 singers. Three men and three women. For the first spot Art figured out a way for us to sing all 50 states in sixty seconds. It was hard work, but the royalties were off the chart. Our little group did the Visa national radio spots for two years. Here are two examples. The first one is 50 states in 60 seconds and the second one is "You Can Do It" It has a break in the middle where the disk jockey read the copy live. As I said... crazy.
Swimming with Whales
Being back in San Francisco I took up residence at a hip production house called Imagination and proceeded to organize new projects, some of them with the Imagination staff. While there I got a call from a friend saying the head of the World Wildlife Fund wanted to come by and meet me. I asked why. Apparently, he had heard the Wilderness America album and wanted to talk.
Chris arrived with Sylvia Earle and Al Giddings in tow. Sylvia was a world renown ocean scientist/explorer and Al was an underwater filmmaker who would later go on to do major movies like The Deep, The Abyss and Titanic.
Chris first said he was disappointed that the World Wild Life had not been included in the organizations that benefited from the sale of the Wilderness America album. I told him I had nothing to do with that part, but I asked him why he cared. Chris, Sylvia and Al explained they had big plans to compete with Jacques Cousteau on television. They had bought an old minesweeper that would be their home base and they wanted to kick off the campaign with a benefit concert and a big fundraising event. They asked me if I wanted to help.
I had been on the edge of some of the early work that was raising awareness about whales. I had artist friends that had created all kinds of environmental art to support them, including actual full scale sculptures of humpback whales.
I loved the ocean and when they told me they were going out to Hawaii to dive with whales and dolphins, I said I was coming. The first research into whale behavior was being done on Maui and they were going to document this work with the Humpbacks, plus Sylvia was going to walk on the bottom of the Maui channel in a new type of deep dive suit. Al was going to film it all.
They were open to me coming, but Al had one caveat. I would have to learn how to scuba dive. I said great… how? He said meet me at this pool and I will show you the basics. I got there and without a whole lot of instruction, he put a tank on my back, a mask on my face and a regulator in my mouth. He pushed me in the pool with one instruction. "Don’t forget to breathe." I thought this was strange as I hit the water, but immediately I got it. We’re trained to hold our breath underwater. I grew uncomfortable for a moment staring at the surface of the pool from underneath until I remembered to breathe… I took my first pull on the regulator. What a feeling of freedom. Even in this small pool I felt released from the weight of gravity.
Jane arranged for vacation and we flew out to Hawaii and met them on Maui. I first learned that Al moved very quickly. I would watch him race around getting the shoots organized with Sylvia staggering along behind him. He suggested I take a five day scuba course in the open ocean because we were not going to be working in a swimming pool. The course turned out to be tough, but useful. We dove in murky water where you could not see your hand in front of your face while navigating to targets. We dropped tanks at 50 feet and did emergency accents. I came home bone tired each day, but appreciative when we actually went into open water with all its tricky currents. Without this training I think I would have freaked out.
Lots of adventures ensued mixing it up with the humpback whales and watching Sylvia’s big dive off of Maui. A first for untethered exploration of this type.
It all went off without a hitch and we headed home. We ended up organizing the benefit concert with Paul Winter and Country Joe McDonald. Al and I collaborated on a piece that used his beautiful still ocean images against my music that was shown at a couple of fundraising events.
However, their dream did not get off the ground. They could not get the funding to buy the ship and pay for the expeditions. Al went off to Hollywood to work on the Deep with James Cameron. That project led to his work on The Abyss and Titanic later.
One last Giddings story. One day he came back from a shoot and said look at this. They were shooting great white sharks. Apparently, they were not finding enough sharks, so Al dumped a load of raw meat and blood in the water to attract them. Then he jumped right into the middle of them to shoot.
Al was always taking risks. He had blown out his ear drums on a very dangerous deep dive to the sunken passenger liner the Andre Doria.
He survived that and many other dangers racking up an impressive career. When I was in Hollywood later we would sometimes meet for lunch and he would entertain me with his stories. Sylvia went on to be an explorer in residence at National Geographic and was responsible for many advances in marine awareness. We would meet up again in 2008 when we created Google Ocean together.
With all of this activity, it still wasn’t clear what my next move was. In this state, I got a call from my old friend Herb Wright from the Universal mail room days. I told him I was drifting and he suggested I come to LA and help him produce made for TV movies at his company Delos. I told him I really didn’t know the first thing about producing films, but he reminded me that I had produced records, inflatables, ocean projects etc. and this was just that with some visuals attached. Well that was an bit of an overstatement, but I took a breath and headed off to Hollywood to develop films 5 days a week with the folks at Delos, and flying home on weekends to be with Jane.
At that point we had moved out of the city to Marin to live in what would become the pool house for George’s estate he was building. Through friends I found a cheap apartment in Venice Beach and settled in for what I thought would be the next chapter in LA making movies. It was, but not in the way I thought.
The Power of Film
For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to the power of stories. In this life they are where my curiosity has led in a variety of mediums. My story, others, the culture etc. I loved history and began to recognize that film in this time was a powerful storytelling medium that shaped much of what we imagined about the now and future for better or worse.
In film and television stories we got to play with all the best and the worst of human behavior and explore ideas that had not quite shown up in real life yet. Writing certainly was also that kind of predictive medium. Folks began writing about the qualities of democracy long before it actually emerged in the American Revolution. Certainly in this country we understand the power of the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that literally changed not just this country, but the world. These stories brought humans into an expanded field of intelligence of what was possible.
I am much more aware of the power of stories now then I was back then, but in 1976 something happened to me that illuminates my point. The first Rocky film was released, Sylvester Stallone’s boxing tome to the great white hope. In the movie, Stallone plays a down on his luck white fighter that through a set of circumstances gets a shot at the heavyweight title.
In the film we see him training and at first we don’t think he is going to make it. He perseveres however and there is a scene where he is jogging through town. As he runs he gradually increases his speed until he is running in full flow. It is the first sign that he is reaching his potential.
That scene had a powerful effect on me. I had trained during high school as a swimmer and water polo player so I knew what it felt like to feel your body come into that flow state. In that scene however, he was running. My brain went… you have to do this. Run? It is a natural part of human behavior and certainly as kids we ran a lot, but he was an adult. I was so smitten by this feeling I put on some old tennis shoes and proceeded to run around the block. I was huffing and puffing in about ten minutes.
You have to remember something about the timing of this story. There was no running craze when the movie came out. No running shoes, no races or marathons unless you were a professional athlete. Rocky didn’t bring this craze about by itself, but in the mid-seventies something new emerged around fitness and health and in particularly manifested in the “jogging” craze.
My brother and I did a lot of events together. Running shoes became available and there were some running events like the Bay to Breakers in San Francisco we could “train” for, a kind of a traveling party that soon 80,000 people would be participating in.
Bruce and I did a number of 10Ks (6, something miles) and a couple of half marathons. We ran in some unusual places like across the Golden Gate Bridge or through the forests of northern California.
When Jane and I moved to Marin, I reconnected with my cousin Ned who was younger and quite an athlete. He was running trails on Mt. Tamalpais that arose out of our backyards. I learned to love running on trails, although it was much more dangerous than the street.
Kept you in the moment for sure as you jumped over rocks, slid down steep slopes etc. We ran every weekend, sometimes in what we call “mud” runs in the pouring rain. We would run early morning and then go to breakfast. We became part of the healthy lifestyle that emerged in the seventies.
All this first imagined in a film like Rocky. Yes, films and television entertain us and distract us from the real world for a while, but they also shape our notions of what is possible. This would come up again in my documentary media work many years later, but as I look back to this moment, it is an example of how this awareness of the importance of our stories we are telling came into my life.
Jane and I continued to deepen our relationship. Her world at Lucasfilm was fascinating to me. When you get a hit like that, everything seems possible and she was part of building it from the ground up. We first lived with my then partner Peter Richardson, in a loft we re-built ourselves just off Polk Street in San Francisco. Lots of restaurants close by and the magic rhythm of San Francisco singing in the background.
As things progressed, I flirted with the concept of marriage for the first time in my life with Jane. Some of my friends had gotten married, but being a music artist, you just don’t seem grown up enough to actually take the plunge. Living with Jane however helped me grow up a lot and I was feeling like we should take the next step. I proposed, she accepted and we set about to planning the wedding.
A very young George Lucas….
Jane and I picked a 40’s theme. We both felt romantic about that time period. Since we were paying for the event, we set out to find a small music ensemble that could play 40’s music. We found an older bandleader that fit the bill and he organized about 7-8 musicians into our little ensemble.
We had a bunch of themes going on in addition to the 40’s. I wanted the wedding cake (to feed 200) to be in the shape of a Mayan pyramid. I was early into my tribal phase, and I loved that the Mayan’s had used the same sacred architecture calculations as the Egyptians had to build the pyramids. I specified the exact dimensions and it was clear that this was a huge cake, so we told the baker to build it around a hollow box on the inside. It would still easily feed all of us. We also included performers that Jane and I liked.
Our favorites were these Thai puppet masters that created these amazing stories with shadow puppets.
It was an artist’s themed event that represented everything we loved. We picked Scott Beach, a local celebrity actor and radio personality to marry us. It was in fashion to have “life” ministers like Scott take the place of real clergy. So, Jane and I were rolling along as the producers of this event when the weekend finally showed up.
Our out of town friends arrived led by Anita (remember her) and her current boyfriend Peter. He was a wealthy guy whose family owned a famous foundry in Santa Fe. Anita and Peter decided to host the wedding party the night before the actual ceremony. No bachelor or bachelorette parties for us. We picked one of our favorite restaurants and had at it. I was never a big drinker, although I did have my moments from time to time. It did not take much alcohol for me to sway. That night, Peter kept ordering shots and the 30 people at the table ended up getting very loud. As we headed home I realized my head was spinning and thought great, I am going to be hungover for the wedding.
The day arrived and we and our helper bees showed up at the wedding mansion. Things were arriving and getting set up. A whirlwind of activity. This went on most of the day until at 5 o’clock Doug, my best man, came to us and said… you guys need to get ready. Everyone will be here soon.
It was in that moment that Jane and I realized this was not an event we were organizing for someone else. We were the center of attention. We kind of pulled it together and were about to head out to get dressed when the cake arrived. I should say it was carried in by four people. I looked at them struggling with the weight and asked what the issue was.
For whatever reason, the baker had forgotten our instruction to build the cake over a hollow box. This Mayan pyramid was all cake. When I heard the amount of floor and eggs etc. that went into it I just had to laugh. At the reception we used about the first two layers and donated the rest to a homeless kitchen who used it as desert for weeks. The night was just getting started. More surprises were on the way.
First, Jane and I planned the whole wedding without help from our families. Hers, with the exception of her sister Kitty, were in Florida and that made some sense. Jane at that point also had a kind of standoff relationship with them. Not that there wasn’t affection, but Jane had labored to overcome her southern upbringing and re-invent herself. Her family, at that point, were kind of movie characters from the deep south.
On my side there were issues that I really didn’t think about until afterwards. My mother and father had been divorced for a while. Each of them had re-married and this wedding was going to be the first time they were actually around each other since they split. Both their spouses were reasonable people so there was little drama there, but the fact we had not included any of them or my brother and sister in the planning was just odd. I would remedy this later when I married a second time, but this wedding seemed to be Jane’s and my television show and I for one just spaced a lot of things out. Add to this, that I had old girlfriends showing up (Jessica for one) and women that were close friends of ours that were having affairs with married men who were coming with their wife's.
This spaciness was not a new thing for me. Or would it be the last time I was just floating in my own story, not very aware what was going on around me. I somehow wanted the story I was telling to be true and a number of times real life had other plans. I would think about it later and ask why didn’t I see that at the time. Jane had a version of this as well. We were deeply in love, and had our own little world that didn’t seem to include many others. We dressed for the wedding with this dynamic in play. It would be an interesting night.
My hangover had subsided some from the night before. I had gone out for a run to clear my head, but I am sure I was still somewhat fuzzy, living the dream. We got back to wedding mansion with everyone there. We entered the ceremony coming down this grand stair case from the second floor. As we turned the corner it was for me like a life review. Not only my family and friends from a variety of life chapters, but also some friends of my parents that we had grown up with. Plus my great aunts who I adored. All in one place and it was overwhelming. I don’t remember much about our vows. When I look at the pictures I mostly have a silly grin on my face. My being was overloaded.
The reception started. The food was great, the alcohol flowed (I am sure something was being smoked in the backrooms). My ex-band members were hitting on everything female that wasn’t nailed down. We had our 40s band start playing and about an hour later…the first of the drama’s showed up.
My best man came up from the basement dance floor and told me the leader of the band was really drunk. This was causing some issues. I went downstairs and the dance floor was filled. I made my way to the band, and true to form, the leader was hardly able to stand. Knowing something about the way bands work I looked to his first trumpet and asked if he would take over. Fortunately, he was not drinking and the band muddled through. I think the leader eventually went to sleep in the corner.
It was time to cut the cake. We went up in front of the gathered masses and as we began, my father interrupted. Remember, we had not included any family in our plans so the whole notion of doing toasts never occurred to us. It was a time honored tradition for fathers to say something, but in our independence I had not asked him. But here he was.
He explained who he was and proceeded to deliver a very heartfelt toast. He praised me and Jane (he liked her) and in that moment I understood the tradition. I hugged him when he was done and we went on, but that moment was made even more important when soon afterwards he announced to me he had cancer. That was the last time I really saw him completely well.
We partied on and Jane and I ended up in the bridal suite with our presents piled around us. Given the night before and the long emotionally exhausting party drama I was done. Jane was just getting started. As I rolled over and tried to sleep, she opened presents into the night. All’s well that ends well, and it was truly a couple of days to remember. However, I logged all of it and thought if I ever did this again (what a thought at that point) I would do it differently. A learning experience indeed.
My father was diagnosed with colon cancer. By the time they caught it, it had spread to his liver. In those days, there was not a lot of treatment options that could cure it. When he first told me, I didn’t know what to say. Do we talk about his death, even though he was still feeling ok? Or did we just pretend it was all right. There certainly wasn’t any need in me to try to find closure with him. I just didn’t know how to talk about his impeding death with him. By this time he had re-married to another Barbara with kids. He wasn’t out of my life, but I was definitely closer to my mother, brother and sister. For a while he did chemo and radiation, but in the end it made him so sick, he announced he was stopping. In life we are all under a death sentence, we just don’t know when. When he stopped treatment he knew it was only a matter of time.
We got the call from his Barbara that Dad had gone into the hospital and if we wanted to see him before he died, this was the time. I remember arriving and wondering why he wasn’t at home. Barbara and Dad had not been together all that long and there was a strange distance in her that I noticed. It was the first time I experienced all the choices one makes when death comes.
When we walked into his hospital room, I was shocked. He already looked like a corpse. He was in and out of conscious. The doctors told us his failing liver was poisoning his brain and not to be offended by anything he said in this state. Dad was in a cancer wing and the staff was very accommodating, allowing us to stay in the room with him overnight. Bruce, Jane and I took turns.
We had never been through a death before and we were young. Emotions ebbed and flowed in those two weeks. One night when I was the only one in the room with him, he came out of his coma and just started talking as if he had never left. He started with… “I used to make up stories…” and then went on to tell me about gardening and making up stories about the plants and the water etc. to himself.
Now, why this was shocking to me was that I had always felt somewhat of a creative outlier with him. Even though we had healed our relationship around my music, I never thought of him as creative in that way. Yet, here he was… holding out on me all those years. That feeling quickly morphed into a feeling of being connected to him. I truly was his son and all that entailed. It was a transforming moment for me.
After two weeks Dad was still hovering and we came to a conclusion that we were holding him there. He would come out of the coma sometimes quite agitated saying he wanted to go home. One night he ripped out the tubes in his arms and had made it to the elevator before they stopped him. It was really hard seeing him like this and our younger brains made the calculation we should go. He lasted about another two days and then we got the call.
Bruce and I went down for his memorial. We quickly realized we knew very little of his community work in Southern California. He had been a high ranking operative in Rotary International and had organized many projects of real benefit to people in need. It was obvious to me that all these people from Southern California really cared about him and were saddened by his early death. It was a bit weird, but understandable that my mother and sister did not come to the memorial. Old wounds were still open. I would think back on the experience and wonder whether we had done the right thing in leaving him. This would come up again many years later when our mother died.
Speaking of Mother
My mother spent four years re-imaging herself after she came north after the divorce. She really didn’t date, but in one case she did get set up with a man that would have a profound impact on our family. Patrick Doyle had grown up in Canada, was a big band musician in his youth and had spent his entire work life making his way up the corporate ladder at American Can.
The first thing I realized about Pat was that he was unlike my father. Not that he didn’t have opinions and his own baggage, but he was kind and a very calming influence on my mother and all of us. They were an unlikely couple from the outside, my mother the college graduate from Cal and Pat the scrapper from Canada, but it worked well for them. Pat became a real rock star in our family. He always took time to listen to our troubles even though he often didn’t agree with what we chose to do.
My mother and Pat shared 14 years as an adult couple, surrounded by our family and his two kids from a former marriage. Family dynamics are always challenging and Pat’s addition was no exception, but he brought a real sense of grace to us that I always appreciated. He was my mother’s love of her life. Not that she didn’t love my father and us, but in a sense her life with my father was the life she learned with and her life with Patrick was... her life after that.
Growing up on the front edge of the boomer generation we had seen all the scary anti-drug movies in school. All of that seemed far away from my existence. Certainly I got into alcohol in high school and we did have a few drunken adventures, but all in all pretty tame.
As we pushed into the later seventies, “the drug culture” became mainstream. Pot, acid and mushrooms in all there varieties flourished as a drug of choice. Yet, because I was into bands early, I didn’t imbibe much because I couldn’t play stoned. I certainly had a few off world experiences with acid and magic mushrooms, but like smoking cigarettes, I just wasn’t that drawn to it. That was until cocaine entered the mainstream in the later part of the seventies. Cocaine use had become rampant in Hollywood. Jane Bay, when she was the secretary to studio heads, kept a jar in her desk drawer at all times.
By this time I was not performing, so I was settling into more of a civilian lifestyle. The first time I did cocaine I thought… OMG what is this. Counter to the ”just say NO movies,” the first experience was heaven. Elevated euphoric state to be sure. It was unlike anything else I experienced. And the sex while on it was worth the price of admission for awhile. It became part of my playtime. I was fortunate (in some sense) that most of my major use was confined to wild weekends in San Luis Obispo with my college friend Cliff Branch.
It became part of long weekend binges. At first there seemed no end to its magic. I would write while stoned believing I had discovered the meaning of life only to read it later and realize it was gibberish. As time went on, we needed to do more and more to achieve the same state. And therein lies the rub.
I remember the night it changed for me. I was wired to the gills, but coming down. I realized I had to do more or go through the pain of stopping. By this time stopping was like an extreme hangover. The sex also had changed. Cocaine relaxes everything and after a while my sexual performance suffered. First time that had happened. Late that night I made a decision… no more. I was stopping. Fortunately, for me it wasn’t that hard. I did miss the wild states, but they had become too costly, so I stepped away. Many of my friends did not and paid the price. Cocaine was the only drug I ever really got into. It left an impression that I did not forget.
Married Life Through the Magic Pyramid
After we were married, Jane and I moved out to Marin so she didn’t have to make the drive from SF. We settled in a house that George had bought next to the original main home. Over the years he put together the big property that would become his Star Wars estate. It eventually would become the pool house to George’s mansion, but it was a cut above what we had in the city and we really appreciated George’s gesture.
Not long after that I started with Herb at Delos Films in LA. Traveling back and forth got old fast. I felt I should just leave my bag on the PSA plane. It was also weird that there were regulars on the flights that were doing the same thing. It became like this little club of vagabond travelers. I did not have much time to settle in before the first project hit. Herb was an acquaintance of Johnny Carson – the famous late night legend. At that time Johnny had a vanity deal with Paramount Pictures to turn out made for TV movies. These were two hour affairs with some decent budgets. Not feature film budgets, but that didn’t stop us from dreaming. Johnny didn’t really care either. It was just something the studio did to keep him happy. I met him once on the Paramount lot at his offices which were mostly empty.
Herb, being the writer he was had this idea for a kid’s movie about a present day boy going back in time and meeting the Egyptian boy King Tut. We loved all things Egyptian, the great pyramids etc. so it was a natural. It also was everything hard you can do in a film. A period piece with costumes, all kinds of animals like lions and horses, a faithful dog and the Egyptian sets that would have to be built. In some ways it was however, the perfect story for me to cut my teeth on. I was just thrown into the mix to help organize this epic. And it was crazy, but educational.
Somewhere along the way, Herb starting talking to the actor Ron Howard about directing. Ron had been a childhood star and as a young man (Happy Days) but wanted to direct. He had made one movie that was a car chase film for a low budget B producer. This story was clearly not a car chase so… What convinced Ron to do it was his father. Rance Howard had been a great character actor in his own right and saw himself as a script writer. So Herb agreed to co-write the script with Rance and Ron would direct. In the beginning it was just 10 of us that started organizing this monster. Later it would balloon to over 130.
I am not going to go into all the gory details, but we ended up shooting all the exterior desert scenes in the Red Rocks area of California in unbearable heat.
The interior sets were built on sound stages that would eventually become Sony Studios, but in this time they were in disrepair, but affordable. Because the boy in this story was on a football team in present day I had to find a junior high football team that we could dress for those present day game sequences.
It was a total education for me. Not just the actual work, but the politics of film crews. I was a low man on the totem pole so I was being buffeted about by everyone. Doing that one movie I learned how to run a film crew, breakdown scripts, and make production boards. I just kept asking questions. Herb had been partially right. It was like producing a music album with pictures. It would be a while before I used this knowledge again making a full film plus the movie making that was up ahead for me would be a whole different animal when it showed up.
The great thing about movies when you are on the road is that they are like the circus come to town. These little towns that we shot in would roll out the red carpet and allow us to do pretty much anything, until they really understood what “anything” meant. The locals would line up to be extras, excited about being in the movies until they ended up running away (literally) when they figured out they had to be in makeup at 4am and would be chased around the desert by stuntmen in chariots that didn’t care if they ran them over. Not glamourous.
Ron was a very methodical director so we were always behind schedule which meant we shot late into most nights. The other thing about this experience was the casting. The ABC television network that was funding the movie insisted Ron use TV actors that were on hiatus from their other series as actors. Unfortunately this meant many times, they were comedy actors. Ron was saddled with this and we would try to tell ourselves it would be okay until the New York taxi driver from the series “Alice” tried to say the lines of a serious Egyptian general in a heavy New York accent. We had a hard time holding our laughter. Ron was just mortified, but the show had to go on. The movie was almost unwatchable other than the production value we created in the Egypt scenes for very little money.
Socially, LA was a mess for me. When I was not working on actual productions I had too much time on my hands. Herb and his wife Elaine’s relationship was troubled. Herb lied his way through a number of affairs expecting me to cover for him. I eventually told him no, but somehow I was always in the middle of their drama’s. Herb became enamored with one of the extras from Magic Pyramid. She was extraordinarily beautiful, smart woman and they seemed like more of a couple to me than his relationship with Elaine. This all culminated with him moving out in the middle of developing these next projects. Elaine would call me up looking for him. I felt compromised not telling her the truth. Eventually, he would go back to Elaine and all of us that had supported him after he left Elaine got blamed for being bad influences. Go figure. Lesson learned.
Thornbirds and Supertanker
Herb had two big feature film projects in mind. For whatever reason he had gotten the rights to a bestselling book of the time, entitled “The Thornbirds” It was a kind of soap opera set in Australia over a number of years. An epic, multi-generational story. He had convinced the author (he was good at this) to give him the rights about five minutes before the studios tried to jump in. This was quite a coup, but Herb was an independent producer and the studios he needed to be involved were forever trying to cut him out of the process. Lots of ups and downs as a result.
The project was set up at Warner Brothers for literally three years. I was only around for the first half of that. The studio was enamored by the idea that Robert Redford would play the lead. At the time, Redford was getting ready to direct his first film, “Ordinary People” for which he would win an academy award. Anyone that was close to him said he wouldn’t do it, but studio brass just keep beating it to death.
The only funny story to come out of this laborious process was that the studio would send scouts to Australia to find locations as a part of the initial development. In those days there was no Google Maps so you had to do it the old fashioned way… in person.
I always thought it would be fun to go on one of these expeditions, but I was never asked. The team would come back with all these photo books and then realize they had chosen the exact same locations as a previous team working for someone else. My guess is that the studio was 5 million into the project before they eventually dropped it.
It eventually got picked up as a TV series shot in Southern California with TV actors in the leads. You might ask… how could Southern California pass for Australia. The answer is, it didn’t, but in those pre-internet days very few in the US knew what the outback really looked like. Some enterprising production manager got a kangaroo to run in front of camera in the hills outside of LA and wala.. Australia. When the project got dropped at Warner Brothers Herb’s option lapsed and it was over for us at Delos.
The other project was a script Herb had written called "Supertanker."
Supertanker shot by us off Long Beach from a helicopter
It was an action adventure film, with terrorists, secret agents and lots of combat helicopters. Herb and I tried to get some independent money to fund the initial development and then we would take it to the studios. We talked to all sorts of potential investors and production partners like the Navy. (It turns out if you portray them in a good light, they will give you all kinds of ships and aircraft for nearly nothing)
We shot test footage of a Supertanker anchored off of Long Beach and created a trailer for the film out of existing assets. Long effort with little return. We would get close and then something would happen. The other thing that was in play is that Herb was not being honest with me. I knew he had this side to him, every producer has a bit of smoke and mirrors in them, including me, but Herb lied a lot to other people about the status of the project and expected me to back him up. This was the uncomfortable field that was present when I went to a lunch that would not only change my life, but bring into focus the next big thing for me to do in Hollywood. The only issue was that these new storytelling medium really didn't exist yet.
Before we go on, you might ask what I learned. When you get involved in the film business you come into it with all these romantic notions of what it will be like. It is to be sure; better than selling insurance, but mostly just plain hard work, not glamorous at all. In my music and the inflatable work, I was used to being the creative force. It was my ideas that fueled the project. Producing films is mostly just an organizational job. That’s why everyone wants to be the film director. It’s the best creative job in the world.
I had learned in a year and half that most film and television projects are in endless development, with only a fraction of the projects actually being made. It doesn’t seem like that from the outside because there are so many movies and TV series around, but they are a small fraction of what gets developed. That’s another reason when you hear the stories that are told about a film that hits big, more times than not, it has been in development for years going through multiple studios, production teams, directors and actors.
For something to be made, even with big stars, all the planets have to align. That just doesn’t happen very often. So, as I took my lunch, that was in the back of my mind. I had friends that took the producer route and the ones that were eventually successful made a bunch of money, but it was never their story. I just couldn’t see myself in endless productions with little story input. What this Hollywood filmmaking fling taught me was that I wanted to be working on my own stories.
Into the Desert
A last LA note. One thing I liked to do outside of LA was accompany Herb in his old Landrover into the desert. The part of Herb I loved was his adventurer. He would stretch me to take more chances and I needed that. The Landrover was built to go off road so we would head out and turn off the paved highway at some point and meander through the canyons and dry river beds.
I had never had much experience with psychedelic drugs at this point because I couldn’t play concerts hallucinating on acid. I had done it on my own a couple of times, but I really wasn’t drawn to it. No revelations that others talked about.
In the desert however, Herb would bring along organic magic mushrooms. This was the real plant medicine used by natives for years, not the artificial stuff some chemist came up with later. This one trip was memorable. We had driven out late and made it into a canyon as it got dark. We slept and the next morning got up with the sun, took the magic mushrooms, loaded up our water bottles and headed out on a hike. At some point we both said we didn’t feel any different.
We turned back to camp puzzled and were walking along a dry river bed when we came upon a family trying to dig their jeep out of the sand. The husband was trying to lift the sand with a kids shovel. We must have been a sight. Herb and I just collapsed in uncontrollable laughter. At that point we realized we were way into an altered state and probably had been for hours. The desert is like that. I never wanted to take mushrooms in the city. It was to loud and seemingly artificial. The desert was where this plant medicine came from. It just seemed a better, more natural place to do it.
We helped the family dig their Jeep out. They kept looking at us like we were aliens. We made it back to camp and spent the rest of the day and most of the night tripping. Like starring at this wall below that was moving in colorful waves. You had to be there….
What did happen for me was an appreciation that everything seemingly solid was actually made of moving energy. I watched huge rock walls like the one above melt into energy patterns. It opened my mind to other possible states that were not limited by the rules of our everyday reality.
In all the time since, I certainly I have tripped into altered states at times and I do really appreciate the way it re-shapes reality, but later I would have some similar experiences meditating. I found I didn’t need the plant medicine any more to get me there. I will explore later where exactly... “there” was.