In the early 1960s, Bill Maley was the first person in the Northern California to provide motion picture equipment for rent, including a fully loaded grip truck for a daily flat-rate. He started Film Producers Services in an industrial park north of the Golden Gate Bridge, at 34 De Luca Place in San Rafael, California. When film production companies came to shoot in Northern California, Bill Maley not only provided the equipment – he also provided the crew.
When Keith Mason bought his own grip truck, Bill Maley was furious: “There’s isn’t room for two,” he insisted.
“Bill started everything here,” Dick Dova told me. “He was ahead of his time. He foresaw the possibilities of Film Producers Services, back in the sixties, when I was still a local 16 apprentice.
As an apprentice, Dick couldn’t pick and choose who he worked for, rather the local 16 office assigned him to jobs. Bill Maley told Dick Dova, “Once you pass the journeyman’s test, I want you to work with me.”
When Dick reached a certain level of seniority, the union hall sent him to Alcatraz Island (the prison had closed in 1963) to work on a feature film called Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn. Dick remembered, “Just as I’d felt backstage in the theater, I knew that working on films was exactly what I wanted to do.” And he just went from one feature film to the next for thirty years.
By 1967, Eddie Powell, one of the officials at the local, was aware of the increasing number of motion picture shoots taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area. He told several of his local 16 apprentices, including Doug Freeman, Keith Mason, and Jim Pointer, that they were being trained specifically for the film industry.
In 1972, Quinn Martin Productions began shooting a TV series called The Streets of San Francisco. The first year, they sent a second unit crew to San Francisco to shoot a few exteriors, but the rest was shot in Los Angeles. The second year, the production company rented a warehouse near Fort Mason and began building sets there. Each year they brought fewer and fewer crew members from Los Angeles. Bay Area crews called the Angelinos “Geese,” as they always flew home after the season wrapped. Soon, out-of-town production companies stopped bringing crews from L.A. because San Francisco crew were considered first rate.
Dick Dova credits Bill Maley with having taught him everything he knows about the craft of making motion pictures. And that’s quite a statement, coming from Dick Dova, whose credits include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), just to name a few.
Local 16 had sent Dick Dova downtown to work on a job at a movie theater. Later that day, he got a call informing him he’d been assigned to a two-week job at Lucasfilm in San Rafael, on Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. The two-week job lasted two decades. Dick Dova worked with George Lucas on a series of iconic and popular movies, becoming such a valuable player, they say he’s still on the Lucasfilm payroll, even though he been retired for more than a dozen years.
For a scene in Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) that was filmed on location in San Francisco’s city hall, Dick and his crew worked for a week covering the windows in the rotunda with gel. There’s a shot of Karen Allen and Harrison Ford coming down the staircase, with the sun coming through those windows. Instead of generators and big arc lights, Dick achieved this effect by using mirror boards to bounce the sunlight into the reflectors, which in turn, were focused on the actors – a trick he learned from Bill Maley.
Dick Dova told me that nobody working on the crew of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones movies, imagined that the pictures would become classics. During each long day of filming, the work at hand required 100% of each crew person’s concentration. Dick Dova said that he was so caught up in the day-to-day work – the disjointed and out-of-sequence execution of each scene in the film – he was quite surprised when he would sit in in a comfortable theater seat and view the finished film for the first time with an audience.
“There’s no other way of knowing how good a movie is going to be,” he explained. “It’s a wonderful surprise to see the finished product – like painting a house when you’re not the one who has to paint it – you don’t get the same feeling when you do it yourself. It’s more profound when you show up and just see the finished product.
“A great deal of care was taken on these motion pictures. Each job must be filled by the right person –even the assistants – even the caterer – every aspect had to be top of the line and it was. That’s why they were produced so perfectly.”
Dick still finds himself watching films looking for mistakes – it’s a very hard habit for career crew members to break. He told me that he loved every day of his film career – except for working in the rain.
* * *
“Bill Maley was a genius,” Dick told me emphatically. “He saw things that were over everybody else’s heads. Consequently, some people found Bill to be aloof.”
Bill Maley was certainly one of the Old Masters. In a pinch, he could make do with just one lamp and a few reflectors – and make it look great. Out of years of necessity, he had mastered minimalism in lighting design.
“Look at these assholes,” he would mutter, watching a crew of young electricians unloading dozens of lamps and stands. “Pulling all this shit out of the truck – gimme a break!”
Bill Maley didn’t need all that equipment. “He could use two lights and make it look like ten,” Jon Guterres assured me.
“Bill could do more with barn doors on a light than I could do with four flags,” Dick Dova concurred. Barn doors, which are suspended in front of the lens of the lamp, consist of a flat metal ring with four adjustable, hinged metal panels attached to it, one above, one below, and one on each side, allowing the gaffer to widen or narrow the beam of light. Other gaffers would set up five or six century stands, all supporting flags, around each light, making it crowded and hard to shoot. And Bill did it with all barn doors affixed to the face of the light, elegantly leaving the floor clear for the camera dolly and the lamps unencumbered by stands.
Bill Maley was the gaffer on George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Universal Pictures approved a small $700,000 budget, so they couldn’t afford the big, heavy arc lights (descriptively called “brutes.”) So, Bill climbed up onto the roof of a building and stood on one of the grip’s shoulders, so that he could reach up with a broom handle and adjust the lights attached to the billboards, focusing them on the automobiles in the streets below.
* * *
Thirty-five years ago, I worked as an assistant to the TV commercial production designer, Barry Gelber, in Los Angeles. He told me the story of how he once asked the gaffer on a film set to explain the difference between a “gaffer” and a “key grip.”
The gaffer replied succinctly, “Well, I am the light, and he is the shadow.”
The chief electrician on a movie set or television show is called a “gaffer.” This individual is the leader of the director of photography’s illumination and electrical department, assisted by a team of electricians and the “best boy” – a job title for the gaffer’s “first-mate” that survives from the days before film-unions and gender-neutral pronouns, as in “I need another man for this task, lend me your ‘best boy.’ ”
The gaffer’s counterpart is the “key grip,” the leader of the director of photography’s rigging department. Grips handle shading, filters, nets, flags, or other objects in front of lights, as well as setting up large frames that hold giant pieces of cloth to block or filter the sunlight. They also wrangle the camera dolly and the track upon which it travels. Grips can build or rig practically anything – that’s their idea of a good time.
Fishermen use something called a gaff pole – a long rod with a rounded hook securely attached to one end, to land big fish.
In the earliest days of the motion picture industry, the camera department was just one person, who served as cinematographer, film lab technician, and projectionist. The second job on the camera crew was the gaffer, so-called for the fisherman’s gaff pole said to have been used to adjust the metal “barn doors” attached to the front of the lamp.
In the circus world, the gaffer is the manager of the show.
The word “gaffer” predates the motion picture industry – and even Edison’s patent for the first incandescent lightbulb – by three centuries. In the sixteenth century, “gaffer” described a respected older gentleman. It’s likely a contraction of the word “godfather:” one who sponsors a person at baptism (not the head of an organized crime family.)
When I produced television commercials, three decades ago, Jon Guterres, among the most in-demand key grips in Northern California. He was almost always our first call. Once, on a particular day when everyone else in town was already booked, I naively asked Jon if he wouldn’t mind working as our gaffer. He wasn’t interested.
“Gaffer?” he replied quizzically. “Too much ‘what if?’ ”
There’s a great deal of wisdom in Jon’s succinct answer. Things are pretty-well defined in the grip department: set up a stand or position a flag, lay down so-many-feet of dolly track, or fly a 20′ by 20′ canvas. Things in the lighting department are far more ethereal and undefined – so many different possibilities and, indeed – a whole lot more ‘what if?’
* * *
According to his youngest son, Sean, William “Bill” Edward Maley was born on January 5, 1930, in Kern County, California, and came to San Francisco where his father worked for a law firm.
I have no reason to doubt this information, however I can’t find much in the historical record to support it. There’s a John A. Maley, born around 1877, who lived in Bakersfield after the turn of the century and that’s about it. Perhaps the last name was spelled differently.
I do find a William Edward Maley II, born in Hennepin, Minnesota, on January 5, 1930 – Bill Maley’s birthday. This Bill Maley was the son of Edward Maley, age 20, and his 21-year-old-wife, Margaret. The couple only been married a year when their first child, William, was born and they lived with Edward’s father, the baby’s grandfather and namesake, William Edward Maley, a professional steamfitter in the building trade, who was born in the “Irish Free State,” in 1878. His wife, Sarah, was ten years his junior. Perhaps these are Bill’s forbears.
Doug Freeman remembered that Bill Maley had once either owned or managed a camera store on Castro Street. Bill’s experience in the darkroom would prove invaluable in his career in motion pictures. Bill attended the University of San Francisco and started as a stagehand at the San Francisco Opera House, in the early 1950s. The Opera House was ostensibly the show business university attended by anyone who wanted a career in theater or film in the Bay Area. It was (and is) a very nepotistic institution, so one wonders how Bill managed to get in the door.
Bill liked to tell the story about one of his first jobs as a stagehand, working for stage manager Edmund Baylies at the Alcazar Theater, on O’Farrell Street, between Mason and Powell in San Francisco.
The fifty-three-year-old Broadway star, Tallulah Bankhead, was touring in the hit comedy Dear Charles, which opened at the Alcazar in May of 1955. Ms. Bankhead was the daughter of William B. Bankhead, a Republican politician from Alabama and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Speaker of the House. She had a reputation for swearing like a sailor and drinking like a fish. A lifelong bisexual, she was known for throwing herself at attractive young women and men who, more often than not, were gay.
Ms. Bankhead is affectionately remembered as “The Mother of all Train-Wrecks.”
She was a championship-level alcoholic, renowned for her ability to polish off a fifth of bourbon in under thirty minutes, who chain-smoked pack after pack of Craven A cigarettes, and snorted copious quantities of cocaine –usually clad in nothing but her birthday suit, her preferred recreational attire.
Ms. Bankhead distinguished herself from the New York and Hollywood drinking elite by openly delighting in her excessive indulgence in all manner of pleasures.
“The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it,” she once said. “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”
Chico Marx, the eldest of the Marx Brothers, suffered from an addiction to gambling that left him perpetually broke. He was a narcissistic and notorious womanizer whose casual sexual liaisons numbered in the thousands. George Jessel quipped, “Chico didn’t button his fly until he was seventy.”
Chico was extremely up front when it came to propositioning women. He met Tallulah Bankhead at a party in the 1930s, before she became a famous actress – back when she was still known as the daughter of a conservative southern politician.
Aware of Chico’s reputation, the host of the party had pleaded with him to be on his best behavior and to refrain from making any crude sexual comments. Inevitably, Chico and Tallulah encountered one another at the punchbowl.
“Hello, Miss Bankhead,” Chico said politely.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Marx,” she replied courteously. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Then Chico leaned in closer and looked her right in the eye. “You know, I’d really like to fuck you.”
“And so you shall, you old fashioned boy,” Ms. Bankhead replied, “And so you shall.”
* * *
At the age of twenty-four, young Bill Maley’s job at the Alcazar Theater in San Francisco was to go on stage a few minutes before the curtain rose, and fill all of the vases and glasses on the table with bourbon, so Ms. Bankhead could surreptitiously swallow liquor throughout the show.
He found her pleasant enough to work with. One day, while climbing a ladder behind her, he observed that she didn’t wear any panties during rehearsal.
Dear Charles played in San Francisco for a month. The June 19, 1955, issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported that Ms. Bankhead, “…performed the last four nights with a broken rib – but as far as anybody could see it didn’t slow her down.”
In December of 1968 – in the middle of winter – at the age of sixty-six, Ms. Bankhead, the Grand Dame of Debauchery, died of pneumonia, contracted while wandering around nude in her poorly heated Philadelphia dressing room.
Her last words – a final request – were “codeine, bourbon…”
* * *
Dick Dova was tired of the incessant traveling. Now he had a family to support. In 1966, he quit the Ice Follies and spent the next five years working full time at the San Francisco Opera House.
The Opera House had an asbestos curtain, situated immediately behind the proscenium arch, to prevent fires starting on stage from spreading to the auditorium and the rest of the theatre.
One day, Dick happened to be on the stage behind the asbestos curtain when it was suddenly raised, revealing the hundred-piece orchestra in the pit, playing the overture. The acoustics in the opera house are astounding. The conductor signaled the drummer to strike the big bass drum – creating an incredible stereophonic sound in the theater. It was a moment he would remember for the rest of his life. “There’s nothing like a live orchestra,” he’d say.
Bill Maley appreciated opera but didn’t listen to it at home. He usually had the radio in the truck tuned to a country music station.
Dick was several years into his Opera House apprenticeship before he was sent to work backstage at Winterland on Ice Follies. He was surprised to discover than all the stagehands at Winterland wanted him to get them hired on a movie.
* * *
One wonders – who were Bill Maley’s mentors?
William Irving Kemble was born in San Francisco in 1890. He was a sophomore in high school when the Great San Francisco Earthquake stuck in 1906. A tall man with brown eyes and brown hair, he worked as an electrician at the Presidio, and for C. J. Holzmueller theatrical lighting at 1108 Howard Street, south of Market Street. By 1930, he’d joined local 16 as a theatrical electrician and was working at the Opera House.
His wife, Gertrude Esther Haas, was born in Oakland. Her father was a German immigrant who worked replacing track for local street cars. She worked as a local 16 costumer.
William and Gertrude had one daughter, Marion. When she married William Jones Freeman, Jr., in 1938, her dad got her husband a job at C. J. Holzmueller. Their son, Doug Freeman, was born in 1946.
Kemble was a confirmed alcoholic who lived at the Alder Hotel on Sixth Street and Natoma, south of Market. He’d get so drunk at the Opera House they take him to San Francisco’s French Hospital for three days of drying out. He’d sober up and come right back to work.
Old William Kemble was still working at the Opera House when young Billy Maley became a local 16 apprentice in the 1950s. Then approaching seventy, Kemble mentored Bill in many ways and was one of his lighting teachers. Kemble was killed by a streetcar in San Francisco in 1961. He was such an influence on Bill Maley, that Bill kept several of Old Kemble’s tools in a drawer in his desk at his home Mill Valley, until the day he died.
* * *
“Bill Maley was a sharp guy,” Dick Dova told me. “He learned a lot at the Opera House.”
One of Bill Maley’s mentors was Mike Kane (1935-2021), the master carpenter and head of the stage department at the San Francisco Opera House. Kane was a member of the San Francisco I.A.T.S.E. – the International Alliance of Theater Stage Employees – local 16, for fifty-eight years. Dick Dova started working for Mike Kane while he was still with the Ice Follies – working at the opera house by day, and at Winterland at night.
George Pantages (1918-1991) was the son of a Greek immigrant who worked as a cook in San Francisco. He was the chief lighting technician at the San Francisco Opera House and was one of Bill Maley’s mentors in lighting technique. The word genius is frequently over-used, but people still refer to George Pantages as “a genius.”
George Pantages began his thirty-five-year career on the opera house electric crew in 1953. A few years later, he became the master electrician with chief responsibility for production lighting. George met his wife, Evelyn B. Crockett, backstage at the opera house, where she worked as part of the opera management team for twenty-eight years.
George and Evelyn’s son, George Michael Pantages – whom we called “Mikey-Pan” – was a gifted lighting man, like his father, and an Opera House lighting crew alumnus. He worked as a gaffer on films and TV commercials in the Bay Area, including George Lucas’ More American Graffiti (1979) and Phillip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988).
Mikey-Pan took great pleasure in giving me a hard time whenever I hired him – merely to amuse himself, like an incarcerated convict testing the prison guard’s boundaries, pushing the limits in his anarchistic manner to see what he could get away with. He was a high maintenance crew member and sometimes hard to work with: impulsive, belligerent, and opinionated, but so talented, that when you looked at the beautiful footage from the shoot, you tended to overlook his personality issues.
Of medium stature, with a tussle of brown hair, a formidable mustache, and bug eyes, Mikey-Pan was a really good gaffer, but his real ambition was to be a cinematographer.
There are a lot of gaffers in the industry who want to be cameraman, but few make the transition successfully. To make it as a director of photography requires more than talent and a great eye – one must also have a gift for politics, diplomacy, communication, and leadership, as well as intimate knowledge of the laboratory and printing processes.
Many career camera assistants and gaffers are simply unemerged cinematographers – it’s a common condition in the film industry.
Back in 1990, a bay area tv commercial director with whom I was working liked Mikey-Pan and got along with him despite Pan’s caustic personality. There’s no accounting for chemistry. The director told Pan that he’d give him a chance to work as his cameraman. Pan was elated. But before this offer could be consummated, the director died unexpectedly at the age of forty-seven.
I had the delicate job of notifying the members of his crew of his untimely death. One evening, after supper, I phoned Mikey-Pan at home and gently shared the bad news.
He let out a plaintiff, heart-wrenching, primal scream – “Fuuuuucccckkkk!!!!”
I held the phone away from my ear. He screamed for thirty-seconds. It was chilling: the sound of Pan’s rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Years later, I heard that Mikey-Pan’s corpse had been found in his home, seated in a chair, with a liquor bottle clasped tightly in his cold, dead fist. He was forty-seven years old.
* * *
Another of Bill Maley’s mentors was the award-winning San Francisco based photographer and filmmaker, William Read Heick, who lived in nearby Mill Valley, not far from the Maley’s. Bill worked as his gaffer. Heick was a Quaker, born in Kentucky in 1916. He liked Kentucky whiskey and fine cigars. Back in the 1950s, Heick and Dave Myers were among the few cameraman in the Bay Area. Heick was the cinematographer on three feature films, all directed by Frederick Hobbs: Troika (1969), Alabama’s Ghost (1973), and The Godmother of Indian Flat (1973).
In the 1950s and 60s, Bill Heick worked as a producer, director, art historian, and cinematographer for the worldwide engineering firm, the Bechtel Corporation. From 1956 to 1964, he was involved with C. Cameron McCauley in the American Indian film project on which he worked closely with Alfred Kroeber and Samuel Barrett.
Perhaps because there wasn’t enough film work in the Bay Area at that time – or maybe just for recreation – I heard that Bill Heick and Dave Meyers started a landscaping business together. Meyers was one of the best handheld cameramen on the West Coast and is remembered for his cinematography on Woodstock (1970) and The Last Waltz (1978), as well as dozens of other documentary films.
Bill Heick’s photographs are found in the permanent collections of a number of museums including the Smithsonian. He began his career as a naval intelligence photographer in the Pacific during the Second World War. He studied photography at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where his teachers included Ansel Adams and Minor White. He was lifelong friends with Dorothea Lange and Imogene Cunningham, the two photographers who most influenced his photographic work.
Near the end of his life, isolated and infirm, Heick was stuck in a nursing home. He just hated it there. So, he quietly plotted his escape, hell bent and determined to get back to his house in Mill Valley.
When they finally intercepted him, he was marching home along Highway 101. You know – he nearly made it.
* * *
Northern California’s motion picture history is largely forgotten today.
In 1880, the former governor of California, and notorious railroad tycoon, Leland Stanford, wanted an oil painting of his thoroughbred in full gallop. The painter, John Koch, was unsure of the actual position of the horse’s legs. Stanford had a theory that, at full gallop, all four of a horse’s hooves were off the ground at the same time.
To test that theory, he hired the English-born photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, who had a studio in San Francisco, to come thirty miles south to Stanford’s Palo Alto estate. Muybridge had developed a method of synchronizing twenty-four cameras with stop-action capability, to snap their shutters in sequence by a means of attached tripwires, triggered when the horse galloped by.
These were the first motion pictures ever made.
A fledgling American film industry developed. By 1897, producers had begun selling prints of movies outright.
In 1903, Harry, Herbert, Joseph, and Earle Miles, four brothers in San Francisco, organized what was perhaps the first company in the United States to rent films to exhibitors. They’d buy film prints from producers and lease them to exhibitors for 25% of the purchase price. In 1905, the Miles Brothers built the first film studio on the west coast, in San Francisco.
On April 14, 1906, just four days before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, Harry J. Miles mounted his hand-cranked his 35 mm Bell & Howell camera on the front of a cable car as it travelled down Market Street from 8th Street, in front of the Miles Studios, to the Ferry building. (The video – A Ride Down Market Street – is now on YouTube.)
A few days later the Miles brothers were en route to New York when they read about the San Francisco earthquake in the newspaper. So, one of the Miles Brothers sent the negative of A Ride Down Market Street to their New York. When they returned to San Francisco, they discovered that their studios were destroyed.
So, they reshot the Ride Down Market Street, capturing the damage from the earthquake and subsequent fire, a week or two after the catastrophe. The two historical films allow one to compare, and contrast the condition of the city, before and after the earthquake.
The quake put the Miles Brothers out of business. But their film distribution business model was widely adopted. Within a year, American film producers increased their weekly output from 10,000 to 28,000 feet of film, and still could not meet the increasing demand for motion pictures. By 1908, there were about twenty motion picture companies in the USA, including the first film studio in the East Bay, build in a car barn Grove Street in Oakland.
Turn of the century visitors toured the majestic Muir Woods redwood forest via gravity-powered railroad cars on Mount Tamalpias, conveyed on what was called the “Crookedest Railroad in the World.” In 1898, Frederick Blechynden attached a motion picture camera to the front of one of the gravity-driven railroad cars – the first car shoot on Mt. Tam – and the first movies made in Marin County. These motion pictures were owned and copyrighted by Thomas Edison, of Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey – the most powerful and predatory film producer in America.
In his long career, Edison held more than 1,000 American patents, many of them pertained to technologies used in filmmaking. In 1908, Edison organized all the other film-related patent holders into a consortium called the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC).
The MPPC controlled everything from film stock to film projectors and would only sell these to MPPC members. Edison was a real gangster. His MPPC – known as “The Trust” – hired mob-affiliated thugs to enforce the MPPC patents by means of violence. This motivated a lot of independent filmmakers to get as far away from New Jersey as possible.
Cross county travel was expensive and time consuming for both gangsters and federal marshals. Independent filmmakers found that judges in California were less inclined to uphold patents controlled by Edison and the east coast MPPC.
There’s a story that shortly after the turn of the century there was a black-market industry in San Francisco: making bootleg copies of the earliest silent motion pictures. When these film pirates were tipped off about raids from Thomas Edison’s MPPC hired thugs, they would flee with their contraband movies to Mexico. Along the way, they are said to have discovered Los Angeles, which had a surplus of cheap labor, and considerably better weather than the San Francisco Bay Area, with many more days of sunshine and very little rain. And it was a lot closer to the Mexican border.
They say that’s how Hollywood was discovered. It’s a good story. I’d love to know if it’s true.
* * *
In 1903, the Edison company produced The Great Train Robbery, often considered the first motion picture Western.
The Essanay Film Company, formed in Chicago in 1907, produced the first in a series of westerns featuring Gilbert M. Anderson as “Broncho Billy,” the following year. On May 31, 1911, Essanay relocated to San Rafael, California, in Marin County, which then had a population of 5,000.
Before the First World War, a stagecoach route still ran on the dusty dirt road between San Rafael and Fairfax and then over Mount Tamalpias to Bolinas. The surrounding mountains, Tamalpias, Pine, and Loma Alta, protected Sun Valley from the ocean fog and rain – it was a perfect place to make westerns.
The first film Essanay produced in San Rafael was called, The Outlaw Samaritan (1911). Broncho Billy Anderson played the part of “Jack Mason the Outlaw,” who singlehandedly holds up the express train. This was filmed alongside the old train track between Fairfax and San Rafael.
The production company, headquartered at 448 Grand Avenue, rented four houses on present day Second Street and Palm Avenue, in San Rafael. Essanay Studios took up an entire city block. They left their portable stage sitting outside in the middle of the playing field in the Eastside Ballpark on Irwin Street without informing the San Rafael Colts. The Colts star infielder, Roland H. Totheroh (1890-1967) showed up for practice and remembered, “It was a bunch of cowboys and Indians and horses all of the field.”
Totheroh joined Essanay the following year, becoming a camera operator, when the production company relocated to Niles, California (population 1,400), a small town in Alameda County, near the present-day city of Fremont, California.
In 1915, Essanay signed the twenty-six-year-old British comedian Charles Chaplin for the then-unheard-of salary of $1,250 a week – plus a $10,000 signing bonus. Chaplin only appeared in five films that were shot in Niles. Chaplin didn’t like being out in “the boonies” of Alameda County and preferred working in Los Angeles. Totheroh was the man with whom the mercurial Charles Chaplin would have the longest working relationship, other than his older brother, Sydney Chaplin.
Charles Chaplin was quite vain about his appearance, and this self-consciousness was exacerbated by the aging process. Rollie Totheroh always was there to make sure Chaplin looked his best on camera, avoiding unflattering angles and informing the start when there were, “too many double chins.” He continued to work as Chaplin’s cameraman on every film, through Monsieur Verdoux (1947). On Limelight (1952), Karl Strauss replaced Totheroh as director of photography and Totheroh was demoted to “photographic consultant.”
* * *
Leon Forrest Douglass (1869–1940), a founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company, developed a system he called Naturalcolor – arguably the first color motion picture film – and showed a short test film made using the process on May 15, 1917, at his home in San Rafael. The only feature film known to have been made in the Naturalcolor process, Cupid Angling (1918) — starring Ruth Roland and with cameo appearances by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks — was filmed in the Lake Lagunitas area of Marin County.
Crew members in the Bay Area still believe that real filmmakers stay in northern California. Many think that once you get south of Santa Barbara, the sharks begin to circle, and it changes the way the work is done, adversely affecting the creative product.
Crew members in southern California still believe that the finest and the best filmmaking talent – the real innovators and experts – are found in and around Los Angeles, and that San Francisco is, in fact, a “second city.”
It was simply a matter of prejudice and point-of-view.
“Filmmaking in Hollywood broke down, because of too much rule breaking,” according to Dick Dova, “People were still playing by the rules up in San Francisco. And as the industry grew, sooner or later they figured out how to cut every single corner, until there was no meat left on the bone.”
It has been said that we’re only as good as the people who trained us.
The San Francisco Opera House provided each local 16 apprentice a real journeyman’s education – everything from start to finish – preparing them for careers in film or theater. Many of the best grips and electricians I hired in the Bay Area all seemed to have in common that San Francisco Opera House background. When Dick Dova worked for George Lucas at ILM, he’d phone the union hall for a couple more crewmen, and as soon as they walked in and start working, he could tell if they had Opera House training or not.
As Dick Dova put it, “The Opera House was the West Point of the industry.”
* * *
Born in San Francisco in 1946, Doug Freeman’s family moved from San Francisco to Tiburon in 1959. Doug was still in Cub Scouts when he first met Bill Maley – the encounter triggering his first asthma attack. Doug commuted daily to Abraham Lincoln High School at Twenty-Second and Quintara, in San Francisco because his mother wanted him to grow up with “city smarts.”
Doug Freeman’s father was a gaffer on TV commercials. His brother was a stagehand. His grandfather worked at the Opera House. His grandmother was a costumer. They were all local 16 members. Doug joined the local as an apprentice while still in his teens. But he found himself forever in violation union rules and regulations, and repeatedly had to pay fines.
Jon Guterres grew up in Antioch, California. His father, Johnnie Joseph Guterres, ran the On Broadway, a legitimate theater in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Although his father was a cabinet maker, Jon Guterres found he didn’t have the patience for fine woodworking. But he loved helping build the sets backstage at his dad’s theater.
There, standing in the wings, young Jon first heard the roar of the applause and experienced the thrill of working on the stage crew.
He’d flirted with the idea of becoming a history teacher (and he would have been a good one). When he returned home from serving in the U.S. Army, his sister’s husband – a San Francisco I.A.T.S.E. local 16 member – steered Jon toward the local.
In 1967, Guterres. joining the stage crew at the Opera House. Because of his construction experience, Jon Guterres. was scheduled to work in the construction shop from March to August, and then in August he was sent to the Opera House for the remainder of the season.
He told me it took him three years to learn to like opera.
It was a union job. Local 16 sent Doug Freeman and Jon Guterres out to work in the props department on a job for Ned Kopp. Bob Primes was the cameraman and Ken Phelps was the key grip. The spot, which was shot on location at the Richmond Country Club, starred Althea Gibson – one of the first black athletes to cross the color line of international tennis, and three other professional women tennis players. After a three-hour lighting set-up, Ned Kopp called for Jon Guterres to fill the coffee cup and the juice glass on the breakfast table, before the camera. Jon carefully poured the coffee, remembering to vigorously shake the orange juice before he poured it. But he neglected to tighten the cap and the juice flew all over Ms. Gibson’s sweater, the “hero” color-corrected breakfast cereal box, and the table setting. The usually unflappable Guterres exclaimed, “I can’t handle it! I’m out of here!” Someone facetiously commented – rather prophetically – that Jon may not be a great proper man, but “he had potential as a grip.”
After he had three years of training, he was sent out to work as a lamp operator on his first motion picture job, Dirty Harry (1971), starring Clint Eastwood. Jon Guterres’ mother’s people came from Andalusia, Spain. The production company was at that time trying to hire minority crew members on Dirty Harry, and the Spanish surname “Guterres” helped get him the job.
Jon also worked on Magnum Force (1973), American Graffiti (1973) and (without a screen credit) on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1984). His first movie as the key grip was More American Graffiti (1979).
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One of the stagehands at the San Francisco Opera House in the early 1960s was Russell K. Kelly. Russ was born in 1920, to a single mother in Washington State. Jon Guterres said that Russ Kelly was, “the best grip and rigger in San Francisco – ever.” Dick Dova agreed.
Russ was the original hippie from San Francisco with long hair and the counter-culture philosophy. According to Dick, Russ was a very intelligent man, quite likable, and with an interesting background – he’d prospected for uranium in Mexico until the government stopped him.
Jon Guterres told me, “Russ Kelly owned two Ferraris, one pair of jeans, and two sweatshirts. He liked Anthony and Cleopatra brand cigars, beer, and white wine.”
“His jeans were ripped and torn and came from Abercrombie and Fitch,” Dick Dova added. “Everything Russ owned was of a high quality. He even had a gold cigarette case.” Doug Freeman remembered, “He would go to the polo grounds dressed in tennis shoes without socks and his torn jeans.”
In between motion picture jobs as Bill Maley’s key grip, Russ worked as a stagehand at the San Francisco Opera House. Jon’s Guterres’ first television commercial job with Bill Maley starred the Three Stooges and was shot on location at Bil Freeman’s house in Tiburon. Russ gave Jon a ride to the location in his Ferrari. That was Doug Freeman’s first commercial, as well and his family home was the location. The art director, Bob Ramsey, gave Doug $2000 in cash – a lot of money in 1967 – to go out and buy six of the finest tea cups at Gump’s department store, the first in a long career of jobs in the motion picture art department. Russ Kelly called young Doug Freeman “The Orangutan.”
Russ knew Dick Dova from Dick’s skating days at Winterland because Russ had worked on the stage crew at the Ice Follies. One afternoon, between shows on an Ice Follies matinee day, Russ took Dick Dova for a spin in his candy-apple red Ferrari. It was a veritable Mister-Toad’s-Wild-Ride through the streets of San Francisco, never to be forgotten.
Russ was a motorhead whose articles and photographs were published in popular car magazines, like Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and Sports Car Quarterly. In his forties, his vision deteriorated, and he gave up photography.
“Russ Kelly was a great mechanic and he had the patience to work on Ferraris,” Dick Dova explained. “The Ferrari has a very ticklish engine. Most people find it’s just too expensive and time-consuming to maintain, and they give it up, but Russ did his own repairs on one Ferrari – and then he got another.” Russ became such an expert Ferrari mechanic that sometimes the Ferrari dealer would call him to come down and help them with a particularly difficult repair.
Russ was a good looking, muscular man who always dated beautiful young women. Ultimately, he was not rehired to work at the Ice Follies as his reputation as a “lady’s man” preceded him – either the management, or the young women in the show were not comfortable having him backstage.
He was a legend at the Opera House and in the film community – one of the few people in the bay area at that time who worked on 35 mm television commercials. He was so good at his job, out of town production companies would shoot in San Francisco, just for the opportunity to work with him. During the summer, he worked in Los Angeles.
For seventy years, advertising agencies from all over the world have come to the San Francisco Bay Area to shoot television commercials for automobiles. It’s a staple of the northern California motion picture industry. For many people on the crew, car commercials were among the best jobs in the industry. Photographing automobiles entails a lot of tricky camera-rigging and you often get to work out of doors.
Russ taught Bill Maley, Dick Dova, and Ken Phelps how attach 35 mm motion picture cameras to moving vehicles, using what is known as conduit mounting.
Russ used standard three-quarter inch and a half inch galvanized steel electrical conduit to make extendable rods. The cameraman would hold up his hand just outside of the window of the car, indicating the position for the lens, and Russ would set the camera there, supported by the conduit framing. He’d install case-hardened bolts into the frame of the car and build out from the body, constructing a camera platform made of conduit rods. This technique was first developed by the pioneers of television commercials for automobiles and later employed in feature films.
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Sometimes motion pictures are magic – and you don’t know how it happens. If you did, it would spoil the effect, because so much of planning and preparation goes into making that magic.
In the 1960s, the broadcast television commercial was still evolving as an art form and a marketing tool. Some of these legendary tv commercials involved logistical problems that had never been tackled before.
Around 1965, Pappert, Koening, and Lois (PLK) an advertising agency in New York City, signed a new client, the Clark Oil Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. PKL conceived an ambitious broadcast television campaign for Clark, in which an automobile literally soars up off the ground and into a clear midwestern sky – like an aircraft – as soon as its tank is filled with the client’s gasoline product.
This was a tricky special effects job, not to mention a financially risky undertaking for any production company that bid on the job. In 1966, after much consideration, the commercial was awarded to Robert Colodzin at Colodzin Productions in Manhattan. The March 27, 1967, issue of Television Age magazine reported on how it was decided to execute this concept as a practical effect:
This minute of magic required extensive preplanning: for realism’s sake it was decided to forgo any use of opticals, rear screen, blue or other matte process. The men from PKL and Colodzin brought master riggers Bill Maley and Russel K. Kelly to the mid-west from San Francisco and started checking out ways to rig with wires so thin they’d be invisible on color film. For close-ups, it was necessary to custom build a camera platform that would be hidden on the side of the car away from the cameras on the ground. Airplane wire, after some testing, was found to be invisible enough yet strong enough to carry the car hanging from a ninety-foot crane.
The commercial was shot on location at a Clark gas station in rural Moose Lake, Minnesota, fifty miles southwest of Duluth. James Walsh, the former vice-president of PKL, had just left the agency to become the executive vice president and creative director of Colodzin Productions. Instead of hiring a professional stuntman, Walsh himself sat in the driver’s seat as the car flew through the air.
“As the cameras whirred, he took the wheel and off he went, in an upward spiral around the lightpole while the close-up man crouched out of range on the tilting platform,” Television Age magazine explained. “The one take did it.”
The campaign was so successful that it “set the client’s sales soaring skyward.” The story about the flying car commercial has entered into legend. Remarkably, I cannot find it on YouTube.
Using his conduit mounting techniques, Russ Kelly worked (without a film credit) as cinematographer William Fraker’s car rigger on Bullitt (1968), starring Steve McQueen. The film was shot entirely on location in San Francisco and Daly City, in the spring of 1968, and the nearly eleven-minute-long car chase that starts the film is among the greatest and most influential in motion picture. It was Russ Kelly’s last feature film and the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.
Russ lived out in the Richmond district in western San Francisco, at 153 19th Avenue, between California and Lake Streets and one block from the Presidio – right across the street from the Richmond Playground.
On Thursday evening, May 30, on his way home from the shoot, Russ stopped at Earthquake McGoons, at the corner of Broadway and Front Street, to hear Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band. McGoons was the longest-running traditional jazz club in San Francisco and even in 1968, it was an integrated environment, both on stage and in the audience. Russ had been drinking. He saw a white man with his arm around a black woman. Russ made a bigoted remark and the enraged man decked him.
Wounded, Russ spent the night a young lady who rented a room in Sandy Carroll’s house, where Russ rented two spaces to park his Ferraris. The following morning, during their lovemaking, Russ died suddenly on top of her – “in the saddle” as it were, likely of his internal injuries. He was forty-seven years old.
He was cremated on June 5, 1968. On the death certificate, the doctor left the “cause of death” line blank. In accordance with Russ’ wishes, no funeral service was held.
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Some say Russ Kelly invented the conduit mounting technique. Others say he learned it from a former race car driver and brilliant mechanic named Bill Frick – another pioneer of car rigging.
Ken Phelps remembered Bill Frick as a “serious genius” who was kept on retainer at Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, the advertising agency that handled the Chevrolet account, to work on all their TV commercials. He is frequently (and easily) confused with his namesake, Bill Frick, born in Germany in 1916 – another motorhead, whose claim to fame was putting Cadillac engines into Fords and Chevys.
The Bill Frick who pioneered automotive camera rigging was based in Detroit and built intricate latices of conduit that were themselves works of art. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, he was one of the few riggers in America who specialized in automobiles, Frick and his partner (who was also his wife) worked on hundreds of car commercials. They artfully mounted 35mm film cameras in seeming impossible positions, without putting a scratch on the brand-new vehicles, or casting a shadow in the shot.
Each year, during the automotive industry’s launch season, Frick worked on commercials for the new year’s models. Once the director figured out where he wanted the lens, Frick would hold up a metal “cheese plate” (think Swiss – one with many holes for mounting cameras) at the desired location while the key grip took measurements. Then he’d climb under the vehicle to find the best location to bolt the rig to the chassis, usually by drilling into the steel frame.
Using the anvil mounted on the tailgate of his truck, Frick would pound the ends of the conduit with a sledgehammer. Then he’d drill holes in the ends with a pneumatic drill connected to a nitrogen tank and used rivets to connect the sections of metal conduit, anchoring the cheese plate into the desired position.
They say he even rigged pick-up trucks onto the wings of a B-17 “flying fortress” bomber.
Director John Frankenheimer used Bill Frick (who worked without a screen credit) on MGM’s big budget race car drama Grand Prix (1966). Shot in Super Panavision 70mm, eighteen Cinerama cameras were used on this film, each weighing about eighty pounds when fully loaded with a film magazine and a battery.
“The logistics were horrendous,” Frankenheimer recalled, “We had a crew of 205 people, we had sixty-five racecars and we shot in nine countries.” Frankenheimer wanted each race to be photographed in a different way, necessitating the construction of dozens of different mounts, each tested to withstand stress of more than 300 pounds.
Frankenheimer would indicate where he wanted the lens for the next shot and Frick would immediately start cutting conduit into custom lengths. In twenty minutes, he would complete construction of a sturdy mount that would have taken a less experienced grip three or four hours to build. And they’d often mount the camera in as many as seven different positions on a single vehicle.
Bill Frick invented a new type of camera rig that could be attached to the side of a race car, without tipping it over, so that it could travel at incredible speeds while still filming, making Grand Prix a remarkable technical and visual achievement for its time.
The November 14, 1965, issue of the Detroit Free Press reported about Bill Frick’s exploits riggings Chevrolets for television commercials:
For a waterfall scene which the cars splash through, Frick extended the water-drop five feet and put photographer [David] Quaid and camera on a raft. With the help of helicopters, he assembled a 1964 car piece by piece atop a California pinnacle previously visited only by eagles. He built an underwater raft in Venice so that the car appeared to be wheeling on the water. He sent a chassis out on the highway without a body – with the two riders apparently suspended in space. And while bringing a 1965 car off an ocean rock, he was caught in the explosion of a fuel drum and fell to the ground with shattered legs. He said he’d be back in a year to blow up a 1966 Chevy and he was.
With more total sales than the rest of the General Motors divisions combined, Chevrolet had a huge marketing budget in the 1960s. For a 1966 Chevrolet television commercial filmed in Fort Macon, Georgia, Bill Frick and twenty-six crewmen labored for eight days to produce just two minutes of film. The concept for the spot involved a new Chevy that magically assembles itself, piece by piece, right before your eyes.
Today, this would be accomplished via computer animation. But back in 1966, this was achieved as a practical effect, with each car part rigged to airplane wire thin enough to be invisible on film. The piece was shot, starting with the entire car assembled and then each piece removed, one by one, using cranes and airplane wire. When the film was run backward, car appears to assemble itself.
For the last shot in this spot, the car was blown up with explosives. The Detroit Free Press reported:
The first blast, using 15 sticks of dynamite, didn’t satisfy him [Bill Frick]. The second time, he concocted a subtle wiring job; and in between times helped the component pieces fly around. Frick’s flyaway car was built with 1966 flourishes on a 1965 chassis. Through the strenuous early filming, the doors, trunk lid, grille and fenders became bent and scratched, requiring endless bumping and spray painting in another nook of Fort Macon.
You can watch this commercial on YouTube.