The Magician – Chapter Eight

MacGuffin Films was a commercial production company from Manhattan that frequently shot commercials on the West Coast. I worked for them a several times as a production coordinator and on each job, they’d paid me my rate of $400 a day.

A few months later they sent a new producer to San Francisco, who was a borderline sociopath. He looked me in the eye told me sincerely that “the budget was so tight,” they could only afford to pay me $350 a day.

This production company had hired me more than once, they seemed like my work, and they’d previously had no trouble paying me my rate of $400.

Remembering that the fish stinks from the head, I dashed off an eloquent one-page letter of protest, addressed to no one in particular, and faxed it to the MacGuffin Films headquarters in New York City. My father was a lawyer and I’m pretty good letter-writer. In the correspondence, I inquired if this callous and deliberate unwillingness to pay my established rate of payment was “indicative of MacGuffin Films’ commitment to excellence in film production.”

Apparently, the letter did its job, because a few days later, the sociopathic producer informed me joylessly, that I would, in fact, be paid my $400 rate.

I felt victorious. Briefly.

During the shoot, the owner of McGuffin Films, Michael Salzer, flew to the West Coast on business.  He drove directly from the airport to our filming location in his rental car. Pulling up on the set, he rolled down the passenger window and ominously motioned for me to get in. I had never met him been before, but I certainly knew who he was.

Once I was seated in the passenger seat, he turned off the engine. I heard the click as he depressed a button on the armrest, locking the doors.

Mr. Salzer had the gruff bedside manner of Tony Soprano. His outward appearance of calm containment was betrayed by his fingers on the steering wheel, tightly clenched in a death grip.

He turned slowly and fixed his steely eyes upon mine. He narrowed his gaze and said as calmly and deliberately as he could manage, “I … don’t … wanna’ … see … any … more … letters!”

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It’s a common practice for producers to try to persuade crew members to work for less than their usual rate of pay. A lot of producers are borderline (or fully emerged) sociopaths, so this practice doesn’t bother them. Some, like George Young, Dan Ellithorpe, and Jim Golden, actually derived satisfaction from bullying crew members to accept less than their daily rate – for them it’s a sport.

I considered this a very poor incentive for crew members to give you their best. You can’t buy enthusiasm. But you can pay people their rates. I wanted each crew member to give the production their very best work and I didn’t want anyone on the crew working for less than they thought they were worth.

In those bygone days when I worked in the film trade, the greatest faux pas I could make as a production manager, was if the heads of the grip and electrical departments –the key grip and the gaffer, respectively – ate lunch at the same table and discovered they were not being paid the same rate.

You only have one opportunity to lose morale on the crew, and in those days, we went to great lengths to make sure it never happened.

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Jon Guterres told me that when he was working at the San Francisco Opera House fifty years ago, Ken Phelps laid it out for him, “Once you have a rate, that’s what you charge. If you agree to work for less than your rate for out-of-town clients, how’s that going to make your local clients feel when they find out?

Jon Guterres’ first on job “on scale” was with Bill Maley. At that time, scale was $5.85 an hour and Maley was paying $7.50 an hour. Then Ken Phelps hired Jon for $80.00 for ten hours – a whopping $8.00 and hour!

Each day of a film shoot, the production department issues a document known as a call sheet, which lists each crew member’s name, their job title, and their assigned time of arrival for the next day of shooting. Ken Phelps would tell Jon Guterres, “Look at the call sheet. What does it say next to your name? That’s all you need to do. Don’t do anyone’s job but your own.”

Thirty years ago, if you managed to get Ken Phelps or Jon Guterres to work on your shoot, you were really lucky – they were the best in the business and their services were in great demand. Ken Phelps was two years older than Jon Guterres. Ken grew up in Orinda, California. For much of his career, Ken Phelps specialized in rigging cameras to automobiles.

Where Bill Maley was rather transparent and was often unable to prevent his thoughts and opinions from manifesting in spoken word. Ken Phelps kept his cards very close to his chest and one rarely knew what he was really thinking on the set. Perhaps this inscrutable quality – this misdirection –was because Ken Phelps was a magician. He had a lot of experience, literally keeping his cards close to his chest.

The Magic Castle in Hollywood, California.

Jon Guterres told stories of how, on location, Ken Phelps would entertain everyone at the dinner table by performing magic tricks that “blew them away.” Phelps was a member of the exclusive and prestigious Magic Castle in Hollywood.

Kenneth David Phelps was born in 1941. He developed an interest in magic while still in grammar school. His parents were modest, mild-mannered Methodists, both schoolteachers by profession. His uncles were engineers – very predictable, pedestrian people; decent, law-abiding citizens.

Around 1955, when Ken was in the ninth grade, his family moved to San Rafael. While still a student at San Rafael High School (where his father was the principal), Ken began performing his magic act, at first in unpaid performances for local community groups and events.

Ken Phelps at San Rafael High School, 1957

Beginning in May 1957, sixteen-year-old Ken Phelps ran a one column inch display ad, several times a week for several years, advertising his talents as a magician, displaying his innate gift for marketing:

“MAGICIAN: Entertainment for all ages at clubs, parties, Children’s birthday parties a specialty. Ken Phelps, GL 3-9354.”

Before the internet, the classified advertisement was the only available low-budget marketing option. Soon, Ken had income from his magic act. He managed to get a lot of newspaper coverage and they would publish photographs of his performance for the Boy Scouts, or the local carpenters, or a May Day event. Ken remembered that the greatest impediment to his working as a magician was that he did not yet have a drivers’ license.

While still a student at San Rafael High School, Ken took a class in stage craft. The play production class staged a musical that year and Ken had a chance to work backstage on the lights and the scenery.

At one point his teacher said to him, “You know you could do this for a living.”

This planted the seed in Ken’s mind. Making money working as a stagehand seemed a far more exciting career than being an educator, like his mom and dad.

During Ken’s high school years, the carnival would come to San Rafael each summer and set up in the big lot across the street from San Pedro Road. Ken and other local boys were paid a dollar an hour to help set up the carnival rides.

A magician himself, Ken discovered among the sideshow performers, a professional magician who also worked as a fire eater. The magician told him, “Look kid: I’m through. I’m going to quit this job. And you can take my place. I can show you how to eat fire – it’s easy!”

It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Running away from home and joining the carnival is a childhood fantasy shared by so many crew members. But young Ken Phelps realized he wasn’t quite ready to quit school and leave home and follow the carnival.

Not quite.

Ken attended San Francisco State University, obtaining a degree in technical theater. He then banged on the door at local 16, only to be told there was no work for him. But he was persistent, returning once a week until, in 1963, he was finally placed on the midnight crew in the scene shed on the first floor of the San Francisco Opera House.

In this rather nepotistic environment, Ken was one of the few people on the Opera House crew who wasn’t the son of a local 16 member. But since he had set construction experience and a degree in technical theater, he managed to get in the door.

In the early 1960s, local 16 members (with the exception of Russ Kelly and Bill Maley) didn’t have any expertise in motion pictures. But the union reps recognized that they were missing a lot of out-of-town jobs, because the production companies would bring their crews from Los Angeles or New York. Local 16 wanted those jobs.

Russ Kelly was Ken Phelps’ mentor. “Russ was a legend,” Ken told me. Ken remembered working on his first film shoot with Russ Kelly in 1967, in Half Moon Bay, on a job with Bill Maley “in his little grip truck.” The commercial was for Drakes Cakes. The director was quite disappointed that Ken didn’t yet know what a C-stand or a reflector was – after all, it was his first film job, and motion pictures use different equipment than theatrical productions.

Ken’s parents didn’t drink alcohol or go out to restaurants. Ken enjoyed his first glass of wine with Russ Kelly. And Russ would take him out to dinner at Original Joe’s at Taylor and Eddy in San Francisco.

After three years stuck inside the windowless San Francisco Opera House, Ken was so happy to be out-of-doors, on location in beautiful Half Moon Bay, working in the sunshine, and getting paid a higher rate of pay than he received at the Opera House.

By this time, Bill Maley already had a wealth of film experience, and he was a mentor to Ken Phelps when he was, as Ken put it, “young and unworldly.” Both Bill Maley and Russ Kelly were more entrepreneurial than Ken Phelps – he was more of a technician and an inventor. Ken told me that, remarkably, when he retired, after nearly four decades in the industry, he had never owned an apple box or a C stand – two of the most common and rudimentary tools in motion picture production.

Jerry Lewis

As a young man, local 16 sent Ken Phelps out to work in the special effects department on a Jerry Lewis movie that was shooting in San Francisco. Ken went down to the set and introduced himself to the head of the special effects department and was promptly instructed to “sit in the truck and stay out of the way.”

As Ken was sitting quietly in the truck, whiling away the hours, one of the assistant directors ran over to him, and said that they needed a special effects guy on set, right away. Ken jumped out of the truck and went to work.

They had just shot a scene where Jerry Lewis’ stunt double had fallen into the bay and gotten all wet. Now it was time to shoot the close-up of Jerry Lewis, himself, dripping with water. Ken Phelps was instructed to pour a bucket of warm water over the six-foot-tall star’s head. Ken was on his first feature film, standing there holding the bucket of water, in front of all the entire cast and crew and a large audience of spectators. He felt self-conscious and quite nervous.

Jerry Lewis looked him in the eye and said impatiently, “Come on kid, do it.”

Thirty years ago, I worked with Ken Phelps on a car shoot on Mt. Tam with a large crew. The shoot was costing tens of thousands of dollars an hour. Everyone was standing around waiting for a professional glazier to arrive, to remove the front windshield, intact, so that we could photograph the interior of the vehicle.

While we were waited, Ken Phelps said to me, “When I was a young man, I worked on a Jerry Lewis movie. He was both the star and the director. We were doing the same thing, waiting for glazier to arrive remove the front windshield, so we could shoot the interior of the car. Jerry Lewis asked to borrow my hammer, so I handed it to him. He used it to shatter the front windshield of the car with the hammer!

“‘Let’s shoot!’ cried Lewis.”

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For several years, Bill Maley hired Ken Phelps as his grip; Ken’s one of the best. Then Ken decided to start his own motion picture equipment rental company West Coast Theater Services, opening an office on California Street in San Francisco. Now he was Bill Maley’s competitor.

And, typical of Bill – Bill stopped speaking to Ken. That old Irish unforgiveness reared its head once again. He thought that Ken was a traitor. Bill Maley had deep seated issues with betrayal. He felt as if someone had stabbed in the back. It was right out of a Eugene O’Neill play.

And this is ironic in a business where it is common – even predictable – to have the people who were once your underlings and assistants surpass you and become the people you either work for or compete against.

“Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist. That’s Bill Maley,” Dick Dova observed.

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Ken Phelps’ Super Grip mounts a 35mm camera to the door of an automobile

As Ken Phelps gained more experience rigging 35mm cameras to moving vehicles, he recognized the limitations of electrical conduit and pipe rigging. Not only was it slow and cumbersome, once the camera was mounted in position, there wasn’t any fast or easy way to adjust or alter the camera position.

Consequently, many producers opted for towing the picture vehicle behind a camera car or filming the car on a stage in front of a rear screen projection – but both options usually look fake in the finished film.

Around 1967, Phelps invented the Super-Grip – a camera-mounting device with a giant concave ten-inch suction cup that securely and quickly mounted a 35mm film camera to the sheet metal surfaces of an automobile. The Super-Grip not only made vehicular filming smoother, faster, cheaper, and easier ­– it allowed the filmmaker to place the camera where it had never been placed before. It literally revolutionized cinematography, so much so that it was very nearly nominated for an Academy Award.

The Super-Grip was featured in the July 1972 issue of American Cinematographer magazine. One of the photos shows a young Ken Phelps standing on a Super-Grip mounted to the vertical wall of a panel van, the device easily supporting his full body weight.

“How many times have you seen a close-up shot of someone driving a car and then realized that he really isn’t driving?” the article begins. “You’re distracted by the fact that he is being towed, or perhaps he isn’t moving at all – someone is rocking the car by hand, off camera…”

The ten-inch suction cup itself was made by Howard Wood, owner of Wood’s Grip Company in Wolf Point, Montana, by a staff of local Indian tribe members who worked in a Quonset hut, seventy miles south of the Canadian border. Old man Wood had developed the large suction cup to secure small engine valves during the lapping process. They were also used to move large sheets of glass.

Soon, everybody in the film industry wanted to buy the Super-Grip, but Ken Phelps wasn’t set up to mass-produce them. Ken made an arrangement with Grant Loucks, at Alan Gordon Enterprises, in Hollywood, to manufacture and distribute the popular product.

“Ken Phelps was one of the sharpest guys around,” Dick Dova told me. “A real thinker. I learned a lot from Ken Phelps.”

Ken Phelps stands on the Super Grip, 1972

They were only a few problems with the Super-Grip.

The first was that it was indestructible and had no built-in obsolescence. It would never wear out and no one would ever need to replace it – which is very un-American.

The second problem was that old man Wood had originally agreed to give Ken Phelps an exclusive deal on the ten-inch suction cup. But when Wood’s son took over the business, he would not honor his father’s exclusivity agreement. That’s show business!

The third was that you couldn’t use it on Jaguars, which, at that time, were made out of aluminum and the big suction cup would actually bend the sheet metal.

In 1973, Ken Phelps and Ned Kopp – a Bay Area assistant director and production manager – leased Stage A at 991 Tennessee Street, from Al Niggemeyer. They purchased Dana Fuller’s collection of 16 and 35mm cameras, as well as his grip truck, entering into a non-competitive agreement with Dana – which Dana honored for about twelve months before he promptly and permanently forgot.

They hired Gary Gill as the stage and equipment manager. Ken went down to Culver City and bought a few DC generators from MGM. Ned and Ken had the biggest motion picture rental house in Northern California, doing more than half a million dollars in business their first year. But the partnership only lasted for a couple of years and then dissolved and a few years later, Greg Snazelle bought the stage.

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I worked on dozens of car commercials on Mt. Tamalpias, in Marin County, usually for out-of-town and often international clients. It was a singular location, with its high elevation, absence of telephone poles or intersecting streets, scenic views in every direction, and the elegant, serpentine, switchback two-lane road that went on for miles and miles. It’s as if the place was made for shooting car commercials. It’s one of the most popular filming locations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Local film crew members were well-aware of the fact that, in the winter and spring, to actually get three sunny days of filming on Mount Tam, you sometimes had to spend three weeks on the mountain, waiting for the sky to clear or the rain to stop.

The out-of-town producers didn’t really embrace this weather phenomenon and consequently, their film projects on Mt. Tam always were over budget and behind schedule. (Think of the passengers of Gilligan’s Island taking a “three-hour tour.”)

Nobody knew this better than Ken Phelps, who worked on more car commercials than practically anybody else in the industry. Back in those days, thirty years ago, Ken’s usual rate was $400 for ten hours, plus overtime and 14% union benefits (health and welfare). After ten hours, the union crew got time-and-a-half. After 14 hours, they got double-time, as well as meal penalties, if they weren’t fed every six hours.

My point is, in the twinkling of an eye, it can get really expensive, really fast.

When I would phone Ken to book him on one of these predictably endless “three days shoots” on Mt. Tam, we were both aware of the uncertainly factor and the possibility of massive overtime expenses. Ken always had an innate sense of marketing, and he knew that production managers loved to cut deals.

Much to my delight, like Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz, Ken would challenge me: “Tell you what I’m going to do: you can book for my usual rate of $400 for ten (and all the overtime) – or you can book me for a flat day-rate of $600, with no overtime of any kind – but you have to decide now, and you can’t change your mind later.”

That really Rodger’d my Hammerstein.

It was a “lady and the tiger” proposition, as there was no way of knowing what the weather would be or how many days (or weeks) the “three-day shoot” would require. Cutting deals with the crew was usually pretty routine, but Ken Phelps was a magician, and he always had a trick up his sleeve to keep me on my toes. His clever proposition delighted my sense of sportsmanship and deal-make-ification.

Ken was already a legend in the automotive advertising world. In truth, I would have paid him whatever rate he quoted – you were just lucky if he happened to be available for the dates of your job. He really was a magician, a countenance that was reinforced by his continually “pulling rabbits out of hats” – devising ingenious solutions to rigging and camera placement problems, as quickly as they arose.

This car shoot on Mt. Tam was for the Peugeot 405 – the last vehicle the French automaker sold in the USA. The advertising agency, HKM, was from France and the language barrier made the ensuing turn of events more alarming and confusing. Fortunately, the production company executive producer, David Lasseron, was a bi-lingual Frenchman.

Mike Berkofsky

David’s director/cameraman was the famous English-born New York City photographer, Mike Berkofsky. I’d worked with David and Mike before, and they were great clients. Berkofsky was a cranky bloke who was, by his nature, hard to please. On a distant location shoot in the National Recreation Area west of Redding, California, I had pulled the proverbial sword from the stone by finding an excellent local caterer, Dan Ferrarese, whose food was so good, Mike Berkofsky actually uttered a compliment – a rare and singular occurrence in the career of this persnickety Englishman!

Back in 1991, in that time before the invention of the drone, car commercials frequently involved helicopter cinematography. Those of us who made our living working in television commercials, especially the camera assistants, had witnessed so many helicopter mishaps and crashes that we never left the ground. Ever. You’d have to hire a specialist daredevil ariel cameraman – a maniac like Stew Barbee, who got his jollies dangling out of planes and copters.

Pilots who work in film have a set of skills that are unknown to pilots outside the industry. Motion picture helicopter pilots – at least the ones who are still alive – usually have pretty good judgment about whether it’s safe to do a given shot or not. It’s a good idea to respect your helicopter pilot’s judgment and listen to their recommendations. If the pilot tells you the shot’s not safe, they’re probably right.

The summer I moved to Los Angeles to “break in” to the film business, the following incident occurred. During the filming of the feature film, The Twilight Zone (1982), director John Landis had envisioned a helicopter shot so dangerous, no motion picture pilot was willing to do it. So, they hired Dorcey Wingo, a non-industry pilot who’d flown copters in the military. Three people – the actor Vic Morrow and two small children (who were working illegally, without permits) – died gruesome deaths. It’s a cautionary tale that was never far from my thoughts on jobs involving ariel photography. Landis didn’y go to jail, but he should have.

I always made sure we hired a helicopter pilot named Harry Hauss (1927-2015) who was my dad’s age. At sixty-four-years-old, Harry was older than practically everyone on the crew or from the ad agency. Harry had been in the business for so many decades, he’d been the helicopter pilot on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series in 1967, as well as more than forty feature films. He was one of the busiest and best helicopter pilots in the industry. On TV commercials involving complicated or difficult helicopter work, we would often schedule the shoot around Harry’s availability, he was that good.

If it was Harry’s considered opinion that the weather was too inclement for flying, the client and the agency people rarely argued. Harry had been flying helicopters in movies for four decades and he was still alive – that, in and of itself, was always a very persuasive detail.

If I went in and told the agency guys that the helicopter pilot told me that the weather was too inclement to do the shot, they would often want to argue about it. But if I sent Harry to tell them, with his wrinkled, grandfatherly face and his thinning white hair, they were much more likely to listen to reason.

On that shoot, the weather was terrible – the worst I’d ever seen in my many jobs on that mountain. Day after day, we sat in the motorhomes, looking out the windows at the downpour and waiting for the deluge to exhaust itself.

One morning there was a horrendous hailstorm that dropped inch-and-a-half balls of ice that dented the roofs of the motorhomes, making a terrific racket, and shutting down production for the whole day. The wind blew at a ferocious gale force, driving everyone inside the heaviest vehicles. In the deluge, the grips had to anchor the helicopter to planet Earth with heavy steel chains sledge-hammered deep into the mud with massive four-foot long, steel spikes called “bull pricks.”

The “three-day shoot” took three weeks.

The production company’s filming permit, provided by the rangers in the Mount Tamalpias State Park for a $750 fee, was good for a week. It was apparent that we would need considerably more time, and there were other production companies waiting in line to shoot the mountaintop where we were working. In 1991, the rangers in the state park did not yet have fax machines. In that bygone era, permits had to be obtained by snail mail or you had to send a production assistant to their office during business hours.

At my suggestion, my employer, David Lasseron, purchased two new Panasonic fax machines and gave them as gifts to the rangers at the state park. Ron Angiers, the ranger then in charge of permits, graciously extended our shooting permit with no additional fee. Thereafter, film permits in the park could be applied for and obtained via fax.

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Ken Phelps was the key grip on American Graffiti (1973) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). He was the rigger and the camera car driver on The Black Stallion Returns (1983). After nearly four decades in the motion picture industry, having worked on hundreds of car commercials and many feature films, he finally retired in the late 1990s.

When I asked him, what had prompted him to quit the film business, after thirty-five-years with local 16, he explained succinctly, “It wasn’t fun anymore.”

It’s a very good answer.

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