Game Show, Gas & GoferJuly 24th, 2009 at 9:05
It felt like purgatory because, for my own sense of self-respect and not feeling like a quitter, I knew I had to go back to Los Angeles even though I was very uncomfortable there, hated the place in fact, if I would have been willing to admit that. It seems like most everyone I had encountered there was either scheming or scamming or otherwise had a precarious grip on their life in the city of angels. I had not encountered the solid thoughtful people there, like my “Feminist Aunts” back in Ann Arbor, who were anchored and could help me anchor myself. Of course I had only been there a month or so before I baled with my mono.
But I had to play out this path, this journey I had chosen for myself, and give it my best shot, before I could feel comfortable abandoning my half-ass dream and plan another path forward in my life. Though I had been through high school and college and had my degree, mine was more of the unschooler’s dilemma, (not unlike the one my own unschooled kids have to wrestle with now as young adults) since I was not really able to leverage my degree or most of my academic work to find a job. I was relying more on the skills and wisdom gained from my experiences outside of school, particularly in my youth theater group.
My parents probably bought me the ticket to fly back from Dayton to Los Angeles, but my own funds were severely depleted from the blood tests I had had to pay for myself that diagnosed my mono.
I was depending on my host Michael, to again give me free room and board in his house in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, which he graciously did. I was actually able to earn my keep to some degree my first months back, helping him by taking kids that he was managing out on their commercial auditions. Michael managed a handful of kids who were either working or trying to work in the entertainment industry. I was able to assist him by taking his youthful clients to their “calls” (auditions), and when they actually got work on a commercial or TV program, to be their legally required chaperone on the set.
Some of Michael’s clients lived out of town, and when they came to LA for auditions or to work, they often stayed at his house for a week or two at a time. The summertime was the busiest season, when they were off of school and could more easily spend the week in town doing their casting calls. I had returned from Dayton in February, and by April Michael politely suggested that he might need the room I was occupying for his clients soon.
This was still total purgatory for me. No job, money running out, Michael the only solid person I could connect to, but even he was caught up in the Hollywood game trying to play the game to get his kids work in “the business”. When I wasn’t helping Michael and his kids out, I spent a lot of my time in my little room reading books. I remember reading Lord of the Rings again, and resonating with Frodo’s uncomfortable odyssey to destroy the ring of power.
Though I was applying for entry-level entertainment industry jobs in studio mailrooms and as small production company assistant type positions, I was having no luck. Getting more desperate for work, I got a job as a sauté cook at a Victoria Station restaurant, which did not pay enough of a wage to live on my own, but enough for me to have some money in my pocket. With my prospects looking increasingly bleak, I was contemplating the complete end of my Los Angeles adventure, which was feeling so much like a total defeat.
Michael suggested that I try out for one of a number of game shows that were produced locally. In particular the show “Password”, taped in Burbank not far from his house, had a pretty good cash prize for successful contestants. So I called, came in for an audition, and demonstrated enough personality and skill in the game to be picked for the pool of contestants.
They “taped” their half-hour shows every other weekend, five on Saturday and five on Sunday. Right before each show, they randomly picked a new contestant from the pool to challenge the winner from the previous show. I sat through the taping of five shows on a Saturday, without getting picked, and went home. I returned the next day and again was not chosen. Luckily I could stay in the contestant pool as long as I was willing to show up for the subsequent tapings. So two weeks later I returned, knowing that I had to pull some sort of rabbit out of my hat or I would probably soon be faced with returning to Ann Arbor or my folks place in Dayton.
Finally, on the first show that Saturday, I was picked. As things go, I was fortunate to get the more skilled celebrity partner for two of the three rounds and I emerged the winner. In the “bonus round” (or whatever they called it) where the big money was won, I was somehow successful, and though I lost the next two-out-of-three game to a new contestant, I left the set that day having won $4400. I could not in fact believe it as I walked home from the studio where “Password” was taped back to Michael’s house.
Once the check came in the mail, a couple weeks later, I had the stake I needed to stay in Los Angeles, at least for a while. Somehow the universe had provided the means for me to play out my LA odyssey and continue this still very discomforting adventure. Adventures, as I have said before, are not always successful, not always happy, but should be a compelling narrative worth living (or at least later having lived) and sharing with others. I recalled five years earlier my backpacking through Europe, when I lost my travel companion and contemplated going home prematurely myself, but decided I had to go on, whether it would be enjoyable or not.
So in this car-obsessed city, the first thing I did to become a true stake-holding Angelino was of course to buy a car. I put a $1000 down (with $100 a month car payments ahead for four years) on a brand new red Chevy Chevette with manual transmission. Now thirty years later I can still remember that moment of exhilaration driving that shiny piece of machinery with its iconic new-car smell out of the Crossroads Chevrolet lot in North Hollywood. My youth felt finally over, for better or for worse.
I put first and last months rent down on a little furnished apartment in Hollywood, on Orchid Avenue just around the corner from Mann’s Chinese Theater. I went to Sears and bought myself a little black-and-white TV, bed linens and basic kitchen utensils. I thanked Michael profusely for his accommodations, got in my little red Chevette, and drove over the Cahuenga Pass to my new home in Hollywood.
So as the lyrics from that pop/rock song from the 60’s go, “It never rains in California, but girl don’t they warn you, it pours, man it pours”. Shortly after my move, equipped as I now was with “wheels”, Michael’s buddy Colleen, who I had worked for (for free) as a producer’s assistant that previous fall on low-budget movie, offered me a job at the small film distribution company, “Lone Star Pictures”, she worked for. I would be what was often referred to in turns derisively or affectionately as a “gofer”, one of the classic entertainment industry entry-level jobs (along with the mailroom). This time I would actually get paid, though just minimum wage, which at the time I recall to be about three dollars an hour. Still freaked out by this crazy megalopolis, I was nonetheless thrilled to finally have more of path forward.
I was hired in May 1979 during (and possibly because of) the gasoline crisis, when gas-rationing was instituted in California and people routinely waited two or three hours in line to fuel up their cars. It seemed like each day one of the several company owners, mostly big-ego Texans, would give me their car keys and send me out to find an open gas station, wait in line however long it took, and fill their car tank with the life-blood of this car-crazed town. Much of the rest of my time was filled with delivering the mostly six-reel 35mm film prints, in their heavy metal cases, to the vendor that shipped them out to customers around the country and the world.
So there I was, driving the big busy streets of Los Angeles in my shiny new red car, with its pert little stick shift, part of a cast of thousands of lowest level worker bees, that help keep this imagination factory (if that’s not an oxymoron) going. I still did not feel I belonged but was propelling myself forward hoping to find a compelling reason, either to leave or to stay.
See the next chapter at “Clinging so Tenuously to Durant Drive”.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Adventure