Steve Collins, the teamster who drove Bill Maley’s grip truck, lived in San Francisco, down the street from Russ Kelly. Dick Dova would sit in the middle of the wide front seat, with Steve Collins on his left and Bill on his right. When the shoot day was over and they were back in the truck, as soon as they were two blocks away from the location, Bill Maley would promptly fall asleep – dead to the world – until the final left-hand turn into the parking lot at his shop, when he would suddenly awaken and come to life, as if he hadn’t been asleep at all. And this happened on every shoot day.
Bill Maley was knowledgeable about lighting, rigging, and cinematography. But he wasn’t a soundman, and he knew it. Not far from the Maley’s home in Terra Linda, lived one of the few soundmen in the Bay Area at that time, Lou Yates.
Louis Hutchinson Yates was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915. He and his wife June lived in the quiet hamlet of San Anselmo, a couple blocks away from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Six-feet tall, with bright blue eyes, Yates was an only child. He was a lifelong registered Democrat who drove a Volvo. During the 1940s, he worked in San Francisco as an engineer and photographer. When Bill Maley booked film crews in the 1960s, he hired Lou Yates as the soundman.
At the age of twenty-three-year-old Bill Maley worked as a gaffer for cinematographer Russ Meyer, on what was very likely his first feature film, The Desperate Women (1954). Bill and Russ Kelly worked (without a film credit) on the first picture Meyer directed, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). The film, which was shot in the Bay Area in just four days, cost $24,000 to produce and eventually grossed more than $1.5 million. Before this picture was released, the only films containing nudity were “under the counter” pornographic films. Meyers would be dubbed “The King of the Nudies,” for bringing this softcore genre of filmmaking into the mainstream.
Bill’s film credits include two other Russ Meyer movies Lorna (1964) and Mudhoney (1965). They say that Bill Maley was Russ Meyer’s right-hand man. Decades later, at a Russ Meyer film retrospective in San Francisco, Meyers pointed to Bill Maley, who was seated in the front row, and asked him to stand up and take a bow.
The nice thing about roses is to get ’em while you can still smell ’em.
Bill and Dick Dova worked with cameraman Dave Meyers (no relation to Russ Meyer), on the 1969 television special of Johnny Cash’s concert at Marin County’s San Quentin Prison. Dick Dova remembers how the prison guards searched everybody’s pockets and confiscated their pocketknives. And Bill was the gaffer on George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) – two motion pictures of which he was particularly proud of his work.
Once their kids started school, in the late 1960s, Bill got his wife Jill into local 16 and she began a career working in the wardrobe department. Her credits as a costumer include The Right Stuff (1983), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), and James and the Giant Peach (1996).
Because the Bay Area film community was so small, it was a much more tribal situation than could be found in Hollywood. Crew members in San Francisco were careful not tarnish their image. As a freelancer, you were only as good as your last job, and there were few secrets. The Bay Area didn’t offer the anonymity found in Los Angeles. It was a close family of crew members. The film industry lends itself to camaraderie and friendship. You’re often close together during a one-of-a-kind shared experience. Everyone’s trying to be innovative and cooperative, at the same time. It’s a team sport.
Bill Maley had the first camera car in the Bay Area – a Ford Ranchero. Dick Dova had the second one, a 1971 GMC Sprint. Dick took it to a welder and had receiver rods installed into the frame, as well as a roof rack, a front platform, a rear platform, and a bed.
“I never wanted to own a soundstage,” Dick Dova confessed. “My family was more important to me. I didn’t want the phone calls at night and the bookings after hours, when I could be with my children. But Bill Maley was a visionary. Bill always knew what was going to happen next. He understood that San Francisco needed a better soundstage.”
The warehouse at 991 Tennessee St. – known colloquially as “Stage A” – in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood has been used by film production companies for at least sixty years. In 1960, Strong Productions produced a children’s television program there called Kite Flight to Moonland.
In early 1965, Bill Maley leased Stage A. He hired Russ Kelly and Ken Phelps and they build offices and a new cyclorama – with careful lighting and the corner-less joint, the “cyc” wall created the illusion on film that the studio floor continued to infinity. Russ Kelly designed a new lighting grid, but it was only half completed at that time. Lou Yates installed the new sound system and Jim Mansen painted the floor and the new cyc walls.
The July 10, 1966, issue of the San Francisco Examiner, reported, “Another San Francisco television production attracted international attention last week. It was Beauty and the Beast performed by the San Francisco Ballet company, narrated by Hayley Mills and filmed last May at Stage A, 991 Tennessee St., a former warehouse that has been converted into the largest film facility in Northern California…”
But soon, Bill Maley got out of the stage rental business. When Woody Allen directed his first film, Take the Money and Run(1968), they shot eighty-seven locations in San Francisco and his production company leased Stage A for their production office.
* * *
Stage A was the brainchild of Albert W. Niggemeyer. He bought the old warehouse building on Tennessee Street in the 1960s, with money given to him by his aunt Ruth. Every soundstage in Hollywood was designated by a numeral. To be different, he called it Stage A, instead of Stage One.
Born in San Francisco in 1920, Al Niggemeyer was a big Tommy Dorsey fan. Al loved to play the trombone. He played in the school band at Balboa High School and he was a good musician. During the second world war, he served in the US Navy in the Pacific, returning home to San Francisco on troop carrier USS Le Jeuene on September 25, 1947.
Al Niggemeyer was an enthusiastic championship-level bowler, among the best in the Bay Area, and the winner of many local tournaments. In 1958, San Francisco still didn’t have its own televised bowling program. Niggemeyer and fellow top-notch bowler, auto salesman Bill Fritz, pooled their money with Bill McGowan, a local bowling promoter, spending $5,000 to film a pilot for a bowling competition TV show. The show finally got on the air, in March of 1960.
When Al began working as a freelance cameraman in San Francisco, his day rate was higher than any other cameraman in the Bay Area. It was six months before he finally got hired on his first freelance job. His client told him on the phone, “You must be one of the best shooters in town – you’re certainly the most expensive!”
By the time I began working in the Bay Area film community, Joe Ward was already one of the busiest camera assistants in northern California. In 1976, Joe began working as Niggemeyer’s camera assistant. Jon Guterres was Al’s key grip. Al also hired Bill Maley, Russ Kelly, and Dana Fuller on the crew. And Al trained Jon Fontana to be his soundman.
Al kept Joe Ward and Jon Guterres on retainer, giving him first call for their services over all other offers of freelance employment. When they traveled on a job with Al, they flew first class. This was important because Joe used to be a little claustrophobic. For this reason, when I worked with him, I always got him the bulkhead seat in the very front of the cabin or into first class.
George Lucas wanted Al to be the director of photography on American Graffiti, but Al turned him down, preferring the less demanding schedule of TV commercials. Joe Ward remembered that Al Niggemeyer would only work in the morning, requiring his crew members to join him for a long lunch in the afternoon, usually at Rocco’s Cafe at Folsom at Seventh Streets. Al always picked up the tab for these luncheons. He understood the reality of the freelance economy better than the young men who worked on his crew.
Stewart Barbee got his first job in San Francisco as a camera assistant working for Al. His brother, John Barbee often worked as Al’s soundman. Stew couldn’t believe it – he was getting paid forty dollars a day plus per diem, which seemed like a lot of money for a recently returned Vietnam veteran, in 1970.
One afternoon during one of these luncheons at Rocco’s, Al laid it out for Stewart.
“Look, kid,” Al told him. “Let me tell you something: you ain’t never gonna’ get rich working for wages.”
Stew didn’t believe him, “But…” he began.
“But nothing! You ain’t never gonna’ get rich working for wages,” Al declared. “There ain’t but ten guys in Hollywood making what you hope make. You’re never gonna’ make big money working for wages. Never!”
For a young camera assistant, it was a wake-up call. Heeding Al’s counsel, Stew and his wife soon purchased a rental property in Marin County which, decades later, provided them the financial freedom their wages alone could never have, allowing his wife to retire at the age of fifty-four.
In May of 1977, Al opened a fancy seafood restaurant called Arbuckle’s, at the corner of Montgomery and Pacific Streets in North Beach – just around the corner from Jon Guterres’ dad’s On Broadway theater. Al’s restaurant was named in honor of motion picture pioneer Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Al had partnered in this venture with one of his television commercial clients, former advertising executive Don Tatum. In truth, there were a number for good reasons why this venture should not have succeeded. Neither man had any prior experience as a restauranteur. The food was overpriced. And there was no advertising of any kind, save for a solitary billboard on Montgomery Street.
Inexplicably, Arbuckle’s was an overnight success – you couldn’t get a table without a reservation. But it didn’t last long and soon Arbuckle’s went out of business.
Marcia McCann produced political commercials for Al Niggemeyer in the 1980s. She remembered that Al Niggemeyer told he two things: “Never call me on the golf course,” and “where’s lunch?” She described Al as very laid back, “the Bing Crosby of film production.” He rarely shot more than three takes of any set-up.
The January 14, 1968, issue of California Living magazine, bundled in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, ran a story about Al:
Al Niggemeyer, a veteran camera pro and native San Franciscan who makes commercials for TV and films for such giants as IBM and Chevrolet. He also owns the only full-fledged sound stage in town…
Soft-spoken, fortyish Niggemeyer is probably the most experienced, and pragmatic … in-demand cameramen in the country. In four months, he figures he can earn enough to live for an entire year. ‘It takes more ingenuity to make a one-minute TV commercial,’ he argues, ‘than to shoot 100 minutes of a feature…’
Why do they pick San Francisco? … ‘It’s not the beautiful San Francisco scenery,’ says Niggemeyer. ‘It’s the weather. In other places, when you have bad weather, everyone has to sit around killing time. Here, if you’re socked in, you just drive 20 minutes and it’s nice.’ One way you’re sure to tell a San Francisco filmmaker: he does his own camera work. This may seem self-evident, but down in Tinsel Town directors just don’t touch cameras. It’s a union thing. Not so here. ‘To me,’ says [John] Korty, ‘the only way you can see a scene is through the lens of the camera.’ Niggemeyer agrees that holding his own camera is essential. ‘That’s the big hang-up in Hollywood,” he says. “They can’t do what they want. That’s why they come up here…’
Most of his work is done on location. You might want to borrow Niggemeyer’s technician, Russ Kelly, who can rig a camera on a car so that it shoots the bumper and wheel at 90 miles an hour. You’ll have an $11,000 collection of camera lenses and when you shoot you’ll expose 3,000 feet of film for every ninety used.
* * *
By 1977, E. E. Gregg Snazelle had acquired ownership of Stage A. There, he opened Cine Rent West, a camera, grip, and electric rental company.
Ernest “Ernie” Edward Snazelle, Jr. was the eldest of three brothers. He was born in 1926 in Memphis, Tennessee. His little brother Phillip died of pneumonia when Ernie was five years old.
Ernie spent his childhood in Lake Bluff, Illinois. His mother Agnes was Scottish. His father, E. E. Snazelle, Sr., was an Englishman who operated his own portrait photography studio in Waukegan. Young Ernie learned photography from his dad. At the end of the Second World War, while he was still a teenager, Ernie enlisted in the US Navy. After his discharge, he moved to San Francisco.
In June of 1950, twenty-three-year-old “Ernest Snazelle ” began performing with the local Player’s Club. He performed in their production of Susanna, a “gay farce comedy with music,” at the Fairmont Hotel on Union Square. Three months later, he played a primary role in Franz Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow at the Greek theater in Berkeley. In October of 1950, he played leads in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience and H. M. S. Pinafore.
Those of us who worked with him years later, had a hard time – I mean, a really hard time – imagining the guy singing Gilbert and Sullivan.
He’d done a little acting, a little photography, and he’d worked in a gas station, but his aspiration was to work in the brand-new medium called television – San Francisco’s first television station, KPIX channel 5 began broadcasting in December of 1948. So, Ernie took a low-paying part time job as a production assistant (go-fer) for an old time Hollywood producer who was making small films in San Francisco.
In 1952, Ernie rented a tiny office on the second floor of building downtown at Sutter and Grant. He called his business the Snazelle Studio Workshop Group, though in truth, he’d never taught a class or a workshop. Embracing the “fake it till you make it” approach to show business, he had a telephone installed and, to pay the phone bill, that same day he placed a half-column inch display ad in the back pages of the San Francisco Examiner advertising his services, “TALENTED? Call Snazelle Productions…”
Soon the ads were a little larger declaring, “Producer of Local Live TV Shows will accept a limited number of students for coaching … Also expert voice coaching in song styling and musical arrangements made by N.Y. director.”
Versions of this ad ran almost daily for nearly a decade, during which Ernie’s “day job” was driving for Yellow Cab on the midnight to 7:00 am shift, to make ends meet.
These classified ads are early examples of what would become a recurring theme in his approach to business relations – the promise of goods and/or services he did not actually have but wished he did.
A couple of years later, in 1955, “Ernie Snazelle” was shooting the “Winner’s Circle” films that aired daily on San Francisco’s KGO-TV. That December, his son was born. (I know little about the boy’s mother; Snazelle had two or three ex-wives.
In August 1961, Ernie was appointed the president of San Francisco’s Advertising Associates agency. The following week, Al Niggmeyer was named president and manager of Snazelle Productions, Inc. Ernie disassociated himself from the operation of the business to concentrate on his work as president of Advertising Associates.
When I knew him, Ernie was a low paying, lonesome, litigious director/cameraman who had apparently taken a vow of frowns. I never once saw him smile in all the years I did business with him – terribly ironic in an industry where many crew members believed we had the best job in the world (and smiled a lot). But you can’t but enthusiasm.
Ernie was so remote as to be unapproachable. He was visibly rankled if you called him “Ernie” to his face. He would say, “My name is Gregg.”
I’d heard the story how a numerologist had advised young Ernest Edward Snazelle to put the initials E. E. before his name, and how he added the “Gregg” to honor the pioneering American cinematographer, Gregg Toland (1904-1948).
Like Lionel Barrymore’s character Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life or billionaire Monty Burns of The Simpsons, Snazelle was a mostly friendless and embittered rich man who would go out of his way to destroy the careers of certain former employees whom he felt had betrayed him – expending a surprising amount of time and of energy to this cruel end. San Francisco producer Melody Woods and aerial cinematographer Thomas Miller were both on the receiving end of Snazelle’s unbridled and unmerciful unforgiveness.
By 1979, Snazelle had expanded the capacity of Stage A – “the biggest sound stage north of Hollywood” – to 30,000 square feet. By this time, he was a well-established tv commercial director/cameraman in San Francisco and had shot hundreds of commercials. He made a lot of money and wielded a lot of power in a small market. But he took little pleasure in his work or his success. He seemed unable to enjoy himself.
* * *
Snazelle managed to finagle the exclusive rights to the prestigious 35mm Panavision motion picture franchise in northern California – an astounding feat of brinksmanship, in and of itself.
How did he pull that off?
They say that, around the time of the bicentennial – 1976 or 1977 – the Academy Award-winning founder and president of Panavision, Robert Gottschalk – reportedly a flamboyant older gay man – and his entourage made a surprise visit to their local Bay Area dealer, Adolph Gasser, on Second Street in San Francisco.
Panavision makes the Rolls Royce of motion picture cameras. They provide all their dealers with large and elegant logo-emblazoned lobby display signage. When Gottschalk saw the Panavision logo signage languishing on the threadbare carpeting in Gasser’s showroom, he blanched, nodded to his entourage, and departed without a word.
Gottschalk had heard that an enterprising local commercial director/cameraman named Snazelle was then renovating what was still the largest soundstage in San Francisco. So, Gottschalk made an unannounced visit to 991 Tennessee Street, where he found Ernie in navy dungarees, painting the cyc walls in Stage A.
This is an oft repeated urban legend contains the familiar story elements found in much of Snazelle’s self-authored mythology: he’s just passively standing around doing nothing when the Hope Diamond falls out of the sky and miraculously lands in his lap. Usually, the facts are more complicated and contrived.
In some versions of this story, Gottschalk met Snazelle at his studio at 155 Fell Street, with its unimpressive screening room and cheesy carpeting. Either way, as unlikely as it may sound, the two men apparently hit it off. Within thirty days, the exclusive Panavision franchise was Snazelle’s.
Gottschalk is said to have ruled Panavision with an iron fist. But his judgement in his personal life appears questionable.
For several years, the sixty-four-year-old Gottschalk lived in his swank Bel Air mansion with his lover, Ronnie Chuman, a twenty-eight-year-old male prostitute. In May of 1983, Gottschalk made a codicil to his will, assigning ten percent of his $5.6 million estate to Chuman.
Three weeks later, Chuman bludgeoned Gottschalk with a pipe wrench and stabbed him nineteen times in the back and the chest with a kitchen knife. Chuman was sentenced to twenty-six years in the state prison.
For a few years, Snazelle retained his exclusive and lucrative northern California Panavision dealership franchise. There were only two places in the entire state where you could rent a Panavision camera: from their headquarters in L.A., or from Snazelle in San Francisco. However, it wasn’t long before Snazelle had offended the powers-that-be at Panavision, by over-stepping the limitations of his agreement, as was his custom.
Snazelle’s style was deliberately caustic and frequently litigious. In the early 1980s, he had succeeded in pissing-off Panavision to such a degree, they unceremoniously pulled his franchise without notice or cause. Snazelle sued and managed to get his Panavision franchise reinstated in 1985.
Those who worked closely with him reported that, as a result of the lawsuit, Snazelle had Panavision “wrapped around his little finger.” But as he got older, he became too jaded to even enforce his territorial monopoly. He didn’t really care anymore; the fight had gone out of him.
* * *
Danny Sarris Sr. was an electrician and Opera House alumnus who became local 16 journeyman in 1952. He was a larger-than-life character of Greek extraction and a “real tough guy.” Even his business card said “BBS” – short for a “big bull-shitter,” which aptly described him.
Sarris was the Mole-Richardson dealer for territories outside Los Angeles including the entire Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, Northern California, and Vegas. Mole-Richardson manufactures a lot of the equipment used by the grip and electric departments on a film shoot. In the bay area, if you wanted to buy anything from the Mole-Richardson catalog of motion picture lighting equipment and accessories, you had to buy it from his Cinema Services company in Brisbane, California. Sarris also rented generators for motion pictures.
On Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), local 16 sent young Jon Guterres out to work in the special effects department. Jon remembered how Danny Sarris came onto the set, looking for trouble and carefully examined one of the Mole-Richardson smoke machines. Danny located the serial number on the machine and determined that it had not been purchased from his office.
He filed an official complaint.
The next day, coincidentally (or perhaps predictably) the generator the production company had rented from Danny caught fire.
Of course, Bill Maley went out of his was to boycott Danny Sarris’ business – he’d never buy anything from Danny. Furthermore, there was considerable bad blood between Danny and Gregg Snazelle – they were made for each other: conniving, punitive, and predatory. Danny had to sue Snazelle to get his lighting equipment back from Stage A. Turnabout’s fair play.
* * *
After he sold Stage A, Al Niggemeyer teamed up with Republican political strategist Hal Larson. They both made a lot of money making political TV commercials. Business was so good, Al took the whole crew on vacation to Maui for a ten days, on his American Express card. Al treated each couple to their own cabana on the beach at the Sheraton in Kaanapali.
Gregg Snazelle had a standing arrangement with Lintas; Campbell-Ewald, the advertising agency that had the Chevrolet broadcast account, to spend a few weeks each summer shooting the running footage of all of the new year’s models.
When I left Los Angeles in 1987 and moved to the Bay Area, my first job was as a production assistant on Snazelle’s summer Chevy shoot. A century ago, Darryl F. Zanuck said, “The fish stinks from the head.” Working on Snazelle’s Chevy film shoot was one of the low points in my career in the film trade.
Snazelle had done these shoots for so many years, it was all routine to him. He and his producer had figured out where to cut corners to maximize profits. They didn’t have the best people in town working on that job because they weren’t willing to pay their rates.
I was the lowest production assistant on the totem pole – the new kid in town. The job was two hours from my home in San Mateo County. Despite the low wage, at my own expense I checked into the Panama Hotel in San Rafael. Each night, after the shoot, I would haul half a dozen cases of walkie talkies back to my tiny hotel room and recharge them for the following day’s shoot.
There was one location in the storyboards to be shot on a pier at the waterfront. Now mind you, San Francisco has a hundred different wharfs and piers. Lacking any social conscience, narcissistic Gregg Snazelle elected to shoot on the only pier in San Francisco that was then being picketed by union workers out on strike. I kid you not.
Ironically, Snazelle’s own business, Cine Rents West, was an I.A.T.S.E. signatory company; he’d signed a union contract. But like some villain in a bad novel, he made the unpopular decision to force the members of his crew cross a picket line. As the son of a labor lawyer and the grandson of a union official, I was quietly appalled. I came from a family where crossing the picket line was a sin – like eating table grapes picked by non-union farm workers or shopping at Wal-Mart.
A former employee of Cine Rents West charitably explained. “Working for Gregg was like working for a dysfunctional family.”
* * *
No long after the summer Chevy shoot, I’d begun to establish myself as a one of the few Los Angeles-trained commercial production managers in San Francisco. It gave me a slight professional advantage, as we’re only as good as the people who trained us. Suffice to say, I never worked for Snazelle again, but I frequently rented his cameras and rented his soundstage. Gregg was still teaching his perennial workshop to starry-eyed want-to-be actors.
At Stage A, I’d sometimes see him, and I’d ask him, superficially in passing, “How are you?”
He’d reply, “I’m up to my eyeballs in alligators!”
In October of 1988, I was producing a Golden Grain spaghetti commercial at a small stage on Bryant Street, in San Francisco, for at Lewis, Browand and Associates. We were using a 35mm Arriflex camera rented from Snazelle’s company, Cine Rents West. I didn’t care much for Snazelle himself, but the people in his camera department were top-notch.
Unbeknownst to all involved parties, a hard metal gate had accidently been left inside the camera from the previous shoot, adjusting the aspect ratio and frame lines so that our negative was unusable, necessitating a reshoot of the entire day’s photography. It was a one-of-a-kind, obscure error that I’d never heard of before and I’ve never heard of since. Although this was a small tabletop commercial, we were still looking at an unforeseen expense of tens of thousands of dollars.
I knew that Snazelle – like the villain Vizzini in The Princess Bride (1987) – was in the “revenge business.” He had a reputation for chicanery and litigation, so I anticipated a Battle Royale filing an insurance claim against Cine Rent for this error.
You can well imagine my surprise when Charles Pickel, Snazelle’s crackerjack camera technician phoned me a few hours later to inform me that no claim was necessary – Gregg was taking full responsibility for the mistake and would compensate us for all the incurred expenses for both the reshoot and the additional day of camera rental. When I reported this to my client, they thought I was the toughest negotiator in the business.
But in truth, Snazelle – in this unprecedented, singular instance – had acted fairly, ethically, and responsibly, retaining my business and confidence in his camera department for many more years of camera rentals. In this respect, he was a good businessman.
Another ex-Cine Rent employee summed up Mr. Snazelle succinctly, “Fair and rational in some matters, petty, bullying, unforthcoming, paranoid, and vengeful in others. He could be a patient and generous mentor and/or a complete bastard. He treated me well for years, until things went south … I was too young and inexperienced to recognize a narcissist and borderline sociopath for whom ALL relationships were transactional.”
* * *
In 1994, Snazelle expanded his empire, establishing a stage and a rental house in Portland, Oregon. He asked Panavision for permission to open a dealership in Portland. They said “no” and “hell, no.” But he did it anyway, although he hadn’t secured the rights, purchasing a full-page ad in the Oregon film trade periodical, proclaiming the arrival of “Panavision in Portland!”
When Panavision found out, they took away his franchise for good. It no longer mattered to him; his heart wasn’t in it anymore. He had become a rich man, but he didn’t seem to take much pleasure from it. And he wasn’t in good health.
The young man who used to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas had become embittered in the single-minded pursuit of his own ambitions. He was not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ proverbial A Christmas Carol, who looked back nostalgically on the merry Christmas dances at Old Fezziwig’s, that he attended in his youth.
Old Gregg Snazelle, with his watery blue eyes hidden behind dark aviator sunglasses, his face a roadmap of frown lines and creases, and a rumpled, nondescript fishing cap pulled down over his brow, took little pleasure from his “golden years.”
One wonders if memories of those bygone days of his musical youth were as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring.