In November of 1987, I worked as an assistant to the tv commercial art director, Barry Gelber, on a spot for the Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas. The concept for the commercial involved an ancient Egyptian costume drama in which Cleopatra floats a freshly cut lotus flower onto the surface of a pond. Then – without an edit – the same flower is lifted out of the water by a 20th-century Las Vegas showgirl, as the camera pulls back to reveal the interior of the Caesar’s Palace casino.
For the film crew, this was a location, not a vacation. There was little time for drinking, gambling, or floor shows. We stayed in the fancy hotel rooms on the top floors of the casino. When we finished our workday, we dined in the hotel restaurant in the casino downstairs.
On my way to bed, passing through the casino to the elevators, I observed several grim tourists stationed in front of slot machines, dutifully feeding coins into the one-armed bandit. I studied their unhappy faces. Even when they won and the machine rang all its bells and whistles, they never smiled. As the coins were cascading out of the slot machine, making that familiar jangling sound, they’d grimace and mutter cheerlessly, “Well, it’s about time!”
When I arose at 6:00 am the next morning to get an early breakfast in the casino lobby, I saw the very same unhappy faces still parked in front of their respective slot machines – they’d never gone to bed! I was twenty-seven years old and had never been to Vegas before. It was a revelation.
Barry Gelber was a fastidious, well-organized, and abundantly creative art director. He took the work very seriously. Frequently, we’d spend a week building a fully realized $30,000 kitchen set, fussing over every detail: linoleum, curtains, wallpaper, countertops, drawer handles, new appliances, lighting fixtures, and the elaborate kitchen set dressing. However, none of this would ever be seen in the edited thirty-second commercial. All you’d see is a close-up of Florence Henderson holding the Proctor and Gamble product next to her face. All of Barry’s detailed work was so completely out of focus and in the background, it might as well have been a painted backdrop. That’s TV commercials. You never know where the director is going to decide to place the camera or what the lens will see. So, you build it all, right down to the smallest detail, as realistically as possible, just in case.
It was both a pleasure and an education to work for someone as thorough and buttoned-up as Barry. Ultimately, I didn’t have the inherent gifts necessary to be a great prop man or art director – I had neither the eye, the style, nor the interest. But I was conscientious, organized, and reliable, and I learned a great deal working as Barry’s assistant.
For instance, once we shot on location at Randy’s Donuts at 805 W. Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood, which has a gigantic and iconic twenty-five-foot-wide rooftop donut sculpture, which is visible from a great distance. Barry wanted colored pendants attached to the perimeter of the metal roof flashing, which I adhered with double face tape. I soon discovered that the only way to remove the double face tape was with a straight edged razor blade. It took six hours, on my hands and knees, in the bright Los Angeles sunshine. Barry later advised me to put down a layer of masking tape first, next time, so I could peel it right off. Like I said, I learned a great deal working as Barry’s assistant.
Barry wore black straight-leg jeans and expensive, trendy dress shoes. He never wore a tie, but often buttoned the top button of his shirt at the collar. Although he was a non-smoker, he smoked a lot of cigarettes when he was nervous.
While I was working with him, Barry bought a white 1986 Jaguar XJ6 sedan. He’d always wanted one and he felt it helped legitimize him professionally – made him look more like an art director. He’d never owned such a fancy car before.
Once we did a shoot at the El Mirage Dry Lakebed, where the dust is as finer than talcum powder. To protect his new Jaguar, Barry bought an expensive cloth car cover to protect his investment. In the steady breeze, it soon became impregnated with the fine dust and, like a gigantic wind-powered emery cloth, proceeded to polish the paint right of the corners of the vehicle.
In early November, we’d filmed the ancient Egypt portion on a soundstage in Los Angeles. Then we all flew to Vegas to shoot the present-day Caesar’s Palace portion of the spot at the casino. We spent a couple of days dressing the set inside Caesar’s Palace. When this was done, we retired to the hotel restaurant to eat a good dinner. We had to get to bed early for the shoot the next morning.
I was already in bed, under the covers in my hotel room, trying to quiet my mind and fall asleep. I had never slept on a round bed before. It always takes some time to clear my brain of the many details of the workday. As I lay there in the darkness, the telephone rang.
It was Barry and he didn’t sound sleepy. He was panicked but he kept his voice unnaturally calm. I thought perhaps someone had died or he was suddenly ill. My mind quickly catastrophized a scenario in which I had to assume his role on the shoot the next day.
It was hard for him to get it out. Finally, he said, quietly, “I forgot the lotus flowers.”
Barry very rarely made mistakes. But this was a big one. In an industry where you’re only as good as your last job, it was the kind of mistake that prevents freelance crew members from getting hired again.
Lotus flowers grow in ponds on the surface of – but not under – the water. They usually blossom in the summer and the flowers only live for a few days. They’re very delicate and exotic and are usually a special-order item from a commercial florist.
For the Ancient Egypt portion of the shoot in Los Angeles, Barry had no trouble obtaining, via special order and at a great expense, several beautiful, large specimens from an exotic florist in Hollywood. The lotus flower is highly perishable and has a limited shelf life due to microbial spoilage. And we had to have the exact same flower to match the one we’d already shot in California.
Now it was 11:00 pm. The next morning was our one-day shoot in Caesar’s Palace. We had eight hours to obtain a freshly cut lotus flower. And here we were, in the middle of the desert. The situation was as serious as a heart attack.
“I’m on it.” I told Barry, trying to sound as confident as possible. “Go back to sleep. I’ll take care of it,” I assured him. I knew Barry well enough to know that he wouldn’t be able to sleep, even if he tried.
I hung up the phone. One thing was apparent: we were completely and totally screwed.
I felt extremely anxious. How could Barry have forgotten the most important, most perishable, hardest-to-find prop in the script (or in the world)? I knew we didn’t have a chance of pulling this one out of the fire. What were we going to do?
I took some pathological satisfaction in the knowledge that this was Barry’s mistake and not mine. Because if I had been my mistake, I would have felt suicidal. I thought of Barry alone in his hotel room upstairs, pacing the floor in his fancy shoes and smoking cigarettes, perhaps feeling the same way.
I had three essential volumes with me in my briefcase: the LA 411, a directory of southern California motion picture crew members and supporting vendors; the Reel Directory, San Francisco’s version of the LA 411; and the Los Angeles County Yellow Pages.
I picked up the hotel phone and began dialing unceasingly.
All through the wee hours of the morning, I made hundreds of telephone calls to florists and flower markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles. People in the flower industry begin their workday well before sunrise, but few had yet arrived at work. Nobody I reached sold lotus flowers or had any idea where to get them. I never let anyone off the phone until they’d given me the name and phone number of someone else who might be able to help me.
Finally, about 4:00 am, I spoke to a wholesaler who knew a grower in Northern California who had a lotus flower pond on his property. I phoned the fellow and described the details of our situation.
He was thought it was a prank call. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked me.
In the film business one becomes accustomed to explaining incredibly outlandish situations succinctly, with remarkable detachment and candor, making the unbelievable and ridiculous sound perfectly plausible and pedestrian.
For a $600 fee, the man agreed to go out to his pond in the pre-dawn darkness with a flashlight and harvest several fresh lotus blossoms. He packed them carefully in a box with dry ice and boarded an aircraft at the Sacramento Airport with the box on his lap, on the first non-stop flight of the morning to Las Vegas.
He arrived at Caesar’s Palace in a taxi and delivered the lotus blossoms just before 9:00 am. I met him in the casino lobby and handed him and white envelope containing six one-hundred-dollar bills. I shook his hand and thanked him profusely. He looked around the casino like a wide-eyed schoolboy in a brothel, got back in the taxi, returned to the airport, and flew back to Sacramento.
I nonchalantly carried the brown cardboard box to the set and placed in on a table before Barry without a comment. Barry hadn’t slept all night. He was a bundle of nerves and smelled of tobacco smoke. But he was a good actor and maintained his professional demeanor. We exchanged a brief, knowing glance.
Nobody but Barry and I knew about the lotus flower snafu – it was our little secret. When it was time to shoot the scene with the flower, we were ready and acted like nothing had happened.
Just another day at work in the film trade.
* * *
What Barry didn’t know at the time was that I was pretty unhappy living in southern California. I had a new girlfriend who lived south of San Francisco. We’d rented a little cottage on Coal Creek in rural San Mateo County at 6000 Alpine Road in Portola Valley, for $700 a month. I got a local phone number and a revolutionary new Panasonic answering machine that made my pager beep whenever someone left a message.
A month after the Caesar’s Palace job in Vegas, a couple of days before Christmas 1987, I received a phone call from Jim Mansen, the executive producer at James Productions, a commercial production company in San Francisco. He was prepping a commercial for Arien’s lawnmowers and needed me to scout locations in the San Joaquin Valley. They needed a large green lawn, on which they’d photograph Ralph Giacomini’s Holstein, Karen the cow.
Having worked all my five years in film in Los Angeles, I had never scouted a location – that job had always been performed by a professional location scout. But in the Bay Area, crew members often wore several different hats and I quickly agreed to do the job. However, I wasn’t a photographer, and I knew it – I didn’t even own a camera.
My girlfriend at the time was from Modesto and was planning to spend Christmas there with her mother. She had a nice Olympus 35mm camera that she let me borrow. So, she went to visit her mom and I went out to scout locations. On December 24th, I found some very nice fields of oats, vast and green, nicely backlit by the morning sunrise, in rural Stanislaus County and took thirty-six photos.
Returning to the Bay Area, confident that I found a useable location, I drove to the one-hour photo lab in San Francisco, to drop off my film for processing. When I opened the back of the camera, I discovered that, due to my unfamiliarity with the device, I had not properly loaded the film and it never advanced. The negative was unexposed – I didn’t have any photos at all.
I considered turning right around and driving two hours back to reshoot the pictures, but it was midwinter and already getting dark.
I phoned Jim Mansen and told him the truth, expecting that he would fire me on the spot. But Jim was surprisingly understanding. “No problem,” he told me. “Just go back after Christmas and reshoot your location photos. Nobody’s going to look at the pictures until after New Year’s Eve, anyway.”
By gum – I was gobsmacked.
“Have a good holiday!” he added, before he hung up.
If at first, you do succeed try and hide your astonishment.