Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Tribute to Jim Henson Part 2: Dick Van Dyke

Dick Van Dyke was another celebrity brought in to be part of the Jim Henson tribute show.

As I mentioned with Rita Moreno, certain show people are always on. It’s a little disconcerting to be around because, for the crew, we’re just there to do a rather precise and technical job, whereas the talent just shows up and does what they’re told: hit their marks and read the copy on the prompter. It’s like engineers having to build a machine that a mouse will work, and they, at some point, have to work with the mice to get their input. It’s two sides of the brain meeting in the middle. And it’s probably the same with all Hollywood projects. Business vs. art. When we shot Dick Van Dyke on the Disney backlot in Burbank, he was definitely on.

Let me explain about studios and their backlots. There are a few main studios in Hollywood, and they all own property. On this probably, usually in one location, are the main offices of the studio. Buildings where the studio heads offices are. And where producers have offices. And people like Clint Eastwood, who is talent but also produces and directs. Or Steven Spielberg, who (before Dreamworks anyway) had his own company called Amblin Entertainment, and because Spielberg didn’t have his own studio, set up Amblin at Universal and had a building for his company on the Universal lot.

Each lot has a different feel. By the time I’d moved back east after being in L.A. for about 16 months, I’d worked on the Universal lot, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Sony (which used to be MGM), and Disney. I never got onto the Paramount lot, which might be the most famous because sometimes you see their front gate off Melrose Avenue in movies, and through that gate you can see the sound stages (or just stages, as they’re referred to by anyone who works on them) and you’ll see employees riding in golf carts, which is how people often get around backlots. Unless you’re a lowly grip, and you might have a 1-speed bicycle with a basket to peddle around on. It’s actually a pretty funny thing to see.

Paramount Studios, the early days:

These lots are old, built probably in the 20s when Hollywood was starting up. The Disney lot is beautifully manicured and probably reflects the ideals of Walt Disney: family friendly and gentle, reflecting a particular time in Americana. The post-war years, maybe. While some backlots are full of nondescript stucco buildings which might house dozens of offices, the Disney lot had what could be called bungalows. Small cottage-like buildings with offices. Writers’ offices, producers’ offices, and, maybe editing suites. Interspersed with the bungalows are the stages.

Stages all pretty much have the same look. They are large buildings that appear like airplane hangers. You’ve seen them in overhead shots of Warner Bros or Paramount studios, I’m sure. You’d recognize them. Inside they can be really cavernous: stripped empty or full of intricate sets. They are generally dark. Plus, there is a protocol when working on stages. If the red lights just outside the doors are lit, don’t go in. That means they are shooting something right now. They are in the middle of a take, with live sound, actors saying their lines, cameras rolling. When that light goes off and you hear a buzzer sound, that’s the all clear, and you can open the door and go in or out.

With Dick Van Dyke, we shot a stage. This stage must have been where a TV show was shot, because there were chairs set up in the middle, up on a rising platform, like bleachers, although there were no sets. This is where I first saw Dick Van Dyke. I remember him coming in by himself. And he was on. Boy, was he ever. I think out of everyone I prompted for, this guy was ready to work for his supper.

Dick just couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t sit still, like he had a compulsion. Like the vaudevillian in him was still still eager to please. He talked to the director and then when the director moved off, Dick kept sort of talking to himself, but really to anyone who was around. And he had these little moves he would do, like he was practicing something, or coming up with ideas of what he could do. Maybe they were dance moves, I don’t know.

Then it was time to shoot. As with Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke read his lines well, and then went into some personal memories about working with the Muppets. He was eager to please and really wanted to do a good job. I’d say he was happy to have the work, but I doubt he was getting paid. He seemed sad when the shoot wrapped and it was time to leave.

As a footnote, I can't find the footage of Dick Van Dyke from this show on youtube. The IMDB page for the tribute doesn't mention him. So, I have to assume his footage didn't make the cut.

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