The Golden Vanity – Chapter Eighteen

As a fifth grader, I would awaken at 4:30 am and leave the house before anyone else was up. Riding my bicycle along upper Lighthouse Avenue, which, at that hour, was illuminated by the moon and the occasional corner streetlight, I would stop at the Scotch Bakery – the only business open in downtown Pacific Grove, California, at five on the morning.

For a quarter, I would purchase one glazed raised donut. The lovely woman who worked the counter (and probably made the donuts) would always sneak six glazed donut holes into my bag, free of charge, arming me with enough sugar to feed a colony of bees.

I loved donuts. Just the smell of the icing made me swoon.

Fifteen years later, in 1986, I worked on a one-day TV commercial for Winchell’s donuts. We filmed at huge house, north of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, west of Los Angeles. The donuts were prepared offsite and transported to the location: hundreds of them, perfectly made, camera ready, and carefully laid out in metal pans, stacked on metal racks, inside rented cargo vans.

It was a warm day and the icing from the donuts melted and dripped everywhere.

By the end of the eleven-hour shoot, the stench of the icing permeated every aspect of my being. I had icing in my hair, in my ears, embedded in my clothes, under my fingernails, and in the intricate waffle pattern of the soles of my shoes. I’d unwittingly tracked the icing into my own personal vehicle and trampled the powdered sugar icing deep into the carpeted mats beneath my feet.

It was months before I managed to get the stink of the icing out of the car.

It would be another fifteen years before I could eat a donut without feeling nauseous.

*                   *                   *

After Boyd Jacobson died during his elective surgery, I found myself in a position not unlike the one in which Jim Mansen had found himself. That is to say, once I started working as a producer, I discovered that the people who had previously employed me as a production coordinator were no longer comfortable hiring me to work as their subordinate.

In a market as small as the San Francisco Bay Area, there were only a couple of dozen directors to choose from. And, in the game of professional musical chairs, most of those directors already had established relationships with their producers and first assistant directors.

Rudi Legname

Rudolfo “Rudi” Legname (rhymes with salami) was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1932. He was a gifted and accomplished still photographer who owned a small studio at 389 Clementina Street, south of Market Street in San Francisco. Rudi did a lot of food and beverage photography for advertising agencies.

For a number of years, Rudi had been partners with a producer named Stan Berman, with whom I had interviewed when I first got to town in 1987. Berman built up Rudi’s table-top tv commercial client portfolio. It was well-known around town that they had parted company on unfriendly terms and that Rudi owed Berman money.

Rudi was a hot-headed New Yorker of Sicilian American extraction. Short of stature and even shorter of temper, he was a tightly wound, paranoid, and suspicious man with a genuinely explosive personality. He was a character right out of The Sopranos or Goodfellas. Imagine a Sicilian Yosemite Sam, with a full head of silver hair.

Combative and scrapy, Rudi had almost no impulse control. His volatile mood swings could escalate to fisticuffs in seconds, without warning.  Those of us who worked with him were forever calming him down, like a bad-tempered dog, so that he wouldn’t “bite” anybody – especially his young wife, who was half his age (and not his first spouse).

Rudi was one of the great still photographers in San Francisco. His lighting was beautiful. He’d shot the covers of famous rock and roll albums and thousands of print advertisements. Still photographers are, by and large, control freaks. Accustomed to working alone, they usually don’t “play well with others,” and they’re frequently abusive of their assistants.

Rudi went through life in a constant state of agida – Italian American slang for acid indigestion, or a general feeling of upset. With a tendency toward the narcissistic and a sociopathic, Rudi lacked the calming bedside manner necessary for handling advertising agencies and clients.

*                   *                   *

In my first meeting with Rudi, two things were immediately apparent.

First, it was obvious that he needed a good producer to manage his business because the only thing he was good at was the lighting and the photography. He had little understanding of the motion picture process. He didn’t know how to bid a TV commercial. He didn’t understand the many different jobs on a film crew. His tightfisted nature had always prevented him from being able to compete with the best table-top shooters in the industry. Advertising agencies perceived Rudi as a poor man’s Elbert Budin.

Second, Rudi and I were simply not a good fit, personality-wise. I immediately recognized that his inability to manage his own experience – his volatile temperament – would sooner or later sink the ship. Furthermore, to hear him speak so punitively and unforgivingly of his longtime partner, Stan Berman, made it apparent that he neither respected nor valued his producers.

The truth was, what really irked Rudi – what always got his goat – was that a good producer could do something he could not.

Joe Stanley of Dailey and Associates

At that time, an advertising agency in Los Angeles called Dailey & Associates had the Sizzler Steakhouse account – the Taco Bell of steakhouses. And like most fast food corporations, they aired zillions of broadcast TV commercials to advertise their product.

I’d heard all the stories around town about Rudi’s reputation for ripping off his producers. It seemed ill advised to enter into a partnership with such an unpredictable personality. Consequently, I agreed to work for Rudi as a cash-and-carry freelance producer. I was paid a flat daily rate of $600.

I explained to Rudi that, with the proper estimate and presentation, we could land the Sizzler account. Rudi was skeptical. I drafted a thoughtful and thorough estimate and a brisk but achievable shooting schedule. Rudi felt that I was hiring way too many crew members and spending way too much money. I did my best to help him understand that, to get the best possible footage – to compete with the Elbert Budin’s of the world –one had to hire the best possible players and all of their assistants, and all of their gear – and pay them all top dollar and provide first-class accommodations.

He didn’t think we needed all those people and all those perks. He just didn’t get it.

A few weeks later, the Dailey & Associates agency producer, Joe Stanley, phoned to tell me that the job was ours. Stanley’s team came up with a catchy a cappella doo-wop jingle for the 1992 Sizzler broadcast campaign.

The storyboards were pure table-top – steak flips, broiler shots, steaming dinner plates, and fried shrimp flying through the air in super-slow motion. We hired veteran first assistant cameraman, Joe Ward, and the gifted gaffer, Jon Fontana, both of whom were specialists in this kind of tabletop work and who, remarkably, got along famously with Rudi – a testimony to both their equanimity and self-control.

In the 1990s, we used Bill Karp exclusively the a series of TV commercials we produced for Sizzler Steakhouse. He was the star of the show. Bill Karp was so good at his job we would literally schedule our Sizzler shoots based on his availability.

I still see that footage that we shot thirty years ago, often reused in commercials broadcast today – the set-ups were so difficult and expensive – and so perfectly executed by Bill Karp’s magic hands. (See the link at the bottom of this page.)

Bill had a certain gift for hand and eye coordination that was truly superhuman.

*                   *                   *

389 Clementina Street, San Francisco

Rudi could understand why I was renting the biggest (and most expensive) stage in town for a table top job. He didn’t get it – he thought it was a waste of money. But Rudi’s little Clementina Street still photography studio was much too small to shoot those Sizzler commercials. Even though we never photographed anything bigger than a tabletop, it was such a large production that we actually needed one of the biggest stages in town. So, we shot over at Colossal Studios on 24th Street, in San Francisco.

We hired Amy Nathan, one of the best food stylists in the Bay Area. Because of the number of camera set-ups and the pace at which Rudi and Bill Karp liked to work, Amy was under the greatest pressure on the Sizzler shoots. For her and her team, this job was simply a nightmare.

Five long days of preparation were involved. She’d set up a huge working temporary kitchen right on the soundstage, bringing in a half a dozen rented industrial-size refrigerators, propane stoves, ovens, and a dozen worktables.

On the first prep day, a one thousand pounds of beef was delivered to the stage and Amy Nathan and her crew of six assistants would begin hand-cutting hundreds of picture-perfect, suitable-for-framing, camera-ready, raw beef steaks.

*                   *                   *

Shooting a steak flip on a hot grill is kind of a special effect.

When you get it right, it causes the viewer to experience a carnivorous desire for meat. But when you get it wrong, it makes the viewer feel so grossed out, they lose their appetite. It’s a mighty fine line between appealing and unappealing. There’s a lot of hit and miss before you get a take that is a keeper – one with real appetite appeal.

Sometimes a close-up shot of a hunk of raw meat looks utterly disgusting and unappealing. Other times, unappetizing globules of fat splatter on the grill right in front of the lens, ruining the shot. Sometimes we’d have to shoot a dozen takes – or even a hundred takes, before everything would happen perfectly, and you’d hear the advertising agency guys applauding as they watched it on a tv monitor in a far-off corner of the large soundstage. And for each shot, Amy Nathan and her team would have to have another picture-perfect, suitable-for-framing, camera-ready, beef steak ready for the shot.

On most table-top shoots, you’re lucky if you can complete as many as five set-ups in a day. But working with the unflappable Bill Karp, Joe Ward, Jon Fontana – Rudi and the crew would fall into this brisk shooting brisk rhythm, like a team of circus acrobats.

With the camera mounted on a thirty-six-inch metal offset plate – an extension arm called a “Ubangi” – hovering above the surface of the hot steel grill, we’d shoot a half a dozen or more different sizzling steaks flips in an hour, putting Amy and her team under terrific pressure. Stuck in this filmmaking crucible, poor Amy could hardly keep up with the pace and was often (quite justifiably) reduced to tears.

To appease her I would offer to double her pay and to hire as many more assistants as she needed. But my words were of no consolation. It was the old “quality triangle” problem again: she was a perfectionist, and we were simply shooting too fast for her to maintain the standards of excellence on which she had built her reputation. Nevertheless, we kept her and her team working at full speed for a series of fourteen-hour shoot days. It was pretty brutal.

The Sizzler advertising campaign was a big hit, nationally. The TV spots were quite successful, and the doo-wop jingle was mighty catchy. The spots were all over the TV and everybody saw them. If you mentioned the commercials, people would respond by singing the words to the jingle, “I like the sound of a big juicy steak..” The campaign was a feather in Dailey and Associates cap.

Although the steaks served at Sizzler Steakhouse restaurants were of a very poor quality, the images seen in our commercials had terrific appetite appeal. It really made you want to eat dinner at Sizzler.

The client loved us. We had the account. If we played our cards right, we’d be making Sizzler commercials for years to come.

*                   *                   *

Rudi’s fee as a director/cameraman was at that time, $7,500 a day – a real bargain in a marketplace where more famous director/cameraman were paid tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Each commercial shoot cost around $250,000 – again, inexpensive by comparison to the cost of shooting with the top players in the tabletop TV commercial pantheon.

All the expenses in the budget were marked up 35%. This is how television commercial production companies make lots of money.

When all was said and done and all the bills and invoices were paid (including mine) – for every $100,000 of work that was awarded, $50,000 of that money – fifty cents on the dollar – wound up in Rudi’s pocket. In the first two months we worked together, Rudi’s profits from the Sizzler account totaled about quarter of a million dollars. He was paying me $600 a day as a freelance producer, so I was only paid for the days I worked bidding, prepping, or shooting the commercials.

Rudi was making a lot of money, for which, one might think, he was appreciative.

But he wasn’t.

He always had that sinking feeling that he was being ripped off. His paranoia knew no bounds. Deep seated issues of betrayal and suspicion eroded his capacity for trust or gratitude. Now, Rudi’s feelings of untrustworthiness were well earned. The many times he’d financially screwed his producers left Rudi feeling forever vulnerable that someone might do the same to him.

Rudi was a child of the Great Depression. It’s difficult to know what he’d lived thorough as a kid. Ironically, like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” Rudi seemingly had everything a man could want – riches, talent, fame, a full head of hair, and a hot young wife – the whole nine yards. But Rudi was ever ill-at-ease and insecure.

*                   *                   *

Rudi paid my invoices begrudgingly, nickel-and-diming me, and asking me to explain why I was billing him for so many days. Like many directors and photographers, he greatly overvalued his contribution and greatly undervalued his that of producer. Ironically, he never had any trouble paying the other crew members’ invoices – only mine –and they were paid overtime, while I worked for a daily flat rate.

Rudi never said thank you. In his state of perpetual narcissism, he perceived that the success of the Sizzler shoots was all his own doing. Meanwhile, our clients were profuse in their expressions of appreciation. They sent me hand written thank-you cards and bottles of eighteen-year-old single malt scotch.

The Dailey & Associates agency producer, Joe Stanley, trusted me and relied upon me to such a degree, he wrote in one of his thank you cards, “You’re so good at what you do – not only do you do your job well– you do my job well, too. When we’re on a shoot with you, it’s almost like a vacation for me.”

To make the shoot day even more pleasurable for the film crew and the agency guys (and they were all guys, mind you), I hired Jonathan Doff, a professional masseur to work on the set, giving everyone massages during the shoot day. We served cappuccino, espresso, and imported beer at teatime. Our lunches were catered by Donna Von Edelkrantz, the best caterer in the Bay Area. It was first-class, all the way.

Everything was going swimming well. We were riding the crest of the wave, making lots of Sizzler commercials and lots of money, when the inevitable occurred.

Rudi accused me of overcharging him on my invoice and he flat out refused to pay me – even though I had been working with him, in his presence, in the tiny Clementina Street studio, on each, and every day for which I was charging him.

When I attempted to reconcile this matter with equanimity, he flew into an apoplectic rage and came at me with his fists raised. His young wife had to intercept, quickly coming between us before he could strike me. I could see by the look in her eyes, this was not her first rodeo: she had been in this situation before. It appeared to be part and parcel of being Rudi’s wife.

“Can you do what I do?” Rudi screamed at me at the top of his lungs, the veins in his forehead pulsing and bulging, his face purple with rage. I seriously wondered if he was going to give himself a heart attack.

“No, you can’t! Can you light the way I do?!?” he bellowed. “No, you can’t!! Can you? Can you!?! You’re nothing – anyone can do your job. Anyone!!”

At this point, I’d had about all I could stomach. We were just days away from the next Sizzler shoot at the Colossal Stage and the production assistants and I had been working fourteen-hour days prepping the job. I was hungry, tired, and tapped. It was simply bewildering.  And so, in his toxic fury, Rudi fired me.

*                   *                   *

I imagined the look on Joe Stanley’s face when he and his associates showed up at Colossal Studios three days later for the Sizzler shoot and discovered I was off the team. I was incensed and angry – Rudi still owed me $5,400. Since I’d bid the job and prepped the shoot, I had an intimate knowledge of the set-up at Colossal Studios. And I knew that Rudi’s Achilles’ Heel was his short fuse.

On the first day of the next Sizzler shoot, I sat in my home office on Skyline Boulevard and printed a fax cover page with the words “Attention Rudi Legname” in large 48-point type. I then placed it and a copy of my $5,400 invoice in the fax machine and programmed the device to resend the fax every five minutes.

So, while Rudi and the crew were trying to shoot that first Sizzler spot without me, every five minutes the Colossal Pictures receptionist would interrupt the filming to hand deliver yet another copy of my faxed $5,400 invoice to Rudi. It was a cruel and effective tactic, as Rudi could not contain his anger and consequently, became increasingly enraged and couldn’t shoot, which affected the confidence of the crew and the ad agency.

With each new fax hand-delivered by the receptionist, twelve times each hour, Rudi became more and more apoplectic. This went on for four hours. I wondered, again, if he would have a coronary and leave the soundstage in an ambulance.

Around 1:30 pm my home phone rang. It was Bill Karp, the world’s greatest hand model, phoning me from the Colossal Studios soundstage, where he was working on the Sizzler shoot with Rudi. We’d done many jobs together. Bill was easy-going and personable. I always took good care of him and put him up at the Clift Hotel at Geary and Taylor Streets because, as he told me, “They have the most comfortable beds in San Francisco.” He was a very genuine person. He took no sides, as his loyalty was always to the shoot.

Bill said to me, “Adam: I don’t know what’s going on between you and Rudi, but you need to stop it now, because he’s so upset, we can’t even shoot.”

This was very satisfying news. I thanked Bill for his thoughtfulness and hung up the phone. But the cold metallic flavor of revenge was on my tongue and it tasted good.

The following afternoon I got in my car and made the 60-minute drive up Skyline Boulevard and Highway 280, to Colossal Studios in San Francisco. I parked my car a block away, around the corner, so as not to be recognized. I knew the layout of the stage like the back of my hand.

I surreptitious slipped inside the stage door and made my way through the darkness to the little darkroom where Joe Ward and his second camera assistant loaded camera magazines and canned up the exposed negative for delivery to the film lab at the end of the day.

I picked up six of the 400′ cans of exposed negative – the entire day’s work from that day’s Sizzler shoot. Then I slipped out the door, unnoticed, and sprinted to my car. Nobody saw me. If Rudi wanted his negative back, he was going to have to pay my $5,400 invoice or pay many times that amount to reshoot.

Breathing heavily, I climbed into the car, placed the film cans on the passenger seat, and took a long drink of water. The sunlight was streaming in the windows, warm and comforting. My heart was pounding. As the adrenalin in my veins subsided, I suddenly realized what I had done.

It was my Golden Vanity moment.

*                   *                   *

Illustration by Pamela Colman Smith, 1899, from The Golden Vanity and The Green Bed

The Golden Vanity (Child ballad #286) is an English folksong that has survived in the oral tradition for centuries.

The ballad is so widespread throughout the English-speaking world that, in Volume Four of his Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (1972), Professor Bertrand Bronson published over one hundred different melodies for this one ancient maritime ballad.

In the song, a ship is threatened by a foreign galley. The captain promises the ship’s cabin boy, “5,000 pounds and my daughter for his bride,” if the boy sinks the enemy vessel. The cabin boy dives overboard and swims to the enemy ship, bores holes in her side, and sinks her.

When he swims back to his ship, exhausted, the cruel captain refuses to bring him out of the sea.

The cabin boy tells him: “If it was not for the love I bear for your men, I would do unto you just as I had done to them – I would sink you in the low and lonesome sea.”

Instead of sinking his ship and his shipmates, the cabin boy surrenders to the sea and drowns.

A 1685 broadside of this song, published under the title, The Sweet Trinity, depicts Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) as the wicked captain – a good story, though not likely based on an historical event, even though Raleigh’s ship was called The Sweet Trinity.

*                   *                   *

Mississippi John Hurt was fond of saying, “Don’t die ’till you’re dead.” Engaging with crazy people can make one a little crazy. Rudi’s corrosive rage was indeed toxic. As I slowly came to my senses, I envisioned the consequences of my actions.

At the end of the long shoot day, as he always did, Joe Ward would put on his reading spectacles and prepare his camera reports for the film lab drop. That’s when he’d discover that most of the negative was missing.

Joe Ward is very meticulous about his job and had an excellent reputation. He didn’t make mistakes and that’s why I hired him. The missing negative incident would be a blemish on his otherwise perfect record. Joe and I had worked on dozens and dozens of jobs together. He was a mentor, a valued crew member, and a genuinely beloved friend. There was no way I was not going to throw him under a bus.

Donning my “cloak of invisibility,” I slipped silently back into the soundstage and made my way back to the darkroom. I replaced the film cans where Joe had left them on the darkroom table. Then, unseen, I slithered out of the building and drove home, feeling terrible about my conduct.

I was so ashamed, it was thirty years before I ever told anyone this story.

*                   *                   *

Working with Rudi had given me agita. I phoned Joe Stanley at Dailey & Associates, and explained the situation. He told me he couldn’t help me – that my beef was with Rudi, not with him or his agency.

Eventually, as a cat that grows tired of playing with a dead mouse, Rudi seemed to lose interest – after a couple of months of returning – unopened – my certified letters, he sent me a check for $5,000.  Left to his own devices, it was only a matter of months before Rudi alienated Joe Stanley and lost the Dailey & Associates account, and the Sizzler broadcast campaign.

They say the best revenge is living well. It was June and the weather was lovely. So, my girlfriend and I got in the car and took a six-week road trip, stoping at all the hot springs on the way to and from Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have lost at all.”

*                   *                   *

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Categories: I Am the Light, He is the Shadow.