I was born in the mid 1960’s. According to my mother, as soon as I developed enough physical strength to move under my own power, I crawled up to the TV set and sat there until the end of the 70's. We had a 25" Zenith and, if I close my eyes, I can still recall the smell it made when it was first turned on and started heating up (TV's used to do that). It was a warm, comforting yet metallic odor that screamed, "cartoons is on!"
As the 1970’s made their bell-bottomed way to the 1980’s, I graduated to movie theaters. As a teenager I worked as an usher at our local cinema. I grew up in a small mill town in the middle of Massachusetts, but the area boasted two cinemas and a (proudly, still operating) drive-in. My high school years were spent earning something close to minimum wage while tearing tickets and shoveling popcorn at one location or the other. As an adult, I chose to make my living in the world of - wait for it - movies and television! What can I tell you? I like what I like.
As a result of all this, I've learned a lot about show biz over the years, with my focus always being on the weird, arcane, obscure stuff. Why, you ask? It's simple: the ladies love it.
You know the old expression, "truth is stranger than fiction?" It's not true. Seriously, have you read Dune? But sometimes truth is almost as interesting as fiction. That’s good enough for me! So this space will be dedicated to the weird facts and bizarre stories that took place behind the scenes. Some of these stories are widely known. Some I learned from a life spent eyeballs-deep in “Making Of…” documentaries, behind-the-scenes memoirs, and magazines like Filmfax, Cinefantastique, and the beloved Famous Monsters Of Filmland.
Here is a fascinating (and widely known) example of a behind the scenes problem that had a huge impact on a Hollywood blockbuster. Take Jaws. Jaws would not be the movie we all know and love today had the mechanical shark worked as planned. It was designed and built in Los Angeles by a team of incredibly inventive and talented special effects technicians. It worked flawlessly when tested. Unfortunately, it was tested in a tank. A nice tank full of fresh water. When the crew arrived in Martha’s Vineyard and set the rig up in the Atlantic Ocean, the rough currents and saltwater chewed through the mechanics like, well, a shark. The entire system needed to be taken apart, redesigned and rebuilt on the spot. Movies on location can't just stop and wait for stuff like that. The meter's running. The meter is always running.
Director Steven Spielberg, still only in his twenties, was forced to improvise ways to shoot around his absent underwater star. Working with screenwriter Carl Gottlieb and the brilliant cast and crew, these improvisations resulted in Jaws becoming a much more inventive and suspenseful film than even originally intended. Remember all those bright yellow barrels bursting forth from beneath the surface?
Okay. So here we go.
One of my first memories of watching television is that of Neil Armstrong descending that rickety ladder to Tranquility Base to set the first human foot down onto the moon. I was sitting in the afore mentioned living room, surrounded by my parents, aunts and uncles. Everyone was smoking. It was, after all, the 1960’s. I only point this out because I find it odd that even though Neil Armstrong was walking around on a rock in space with no atmosphere, he was breathing cleaner air than I was.
The Space Race was one of several defining pop cultural elements of the 1960’s, and no television program better symbolized America’s interstellar aspirations than Star Trek. I grew up a fan of Star Trek, and I did it in the shadow of four jock older brothers who were not fans of Star Trek. My point? I was a fan of Star Trek when it wasn’t easy. I paid for my fandom with a blizzard of wedgies. Try to imagine an endless, eternal, funhouse mirror infinity display where I am anally bisected by my own underwear.
No, really. Do it.
Why did I suffer so? Because I wanted to watch Kirk, Spock and the gang while the game was on.
When I talk about Star Trek, what I’m referring to is now called Star Trek: TOS. Star Trek: TOS means Star Trek: The Original Series. The original 79 episodes starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy that aired on NBC between 1966 and 1969. There are now many, many, many Star Trek variants. Star Trek: TOS, Star Trek: TNG, Star Trek: DS9, Abrams Trek, Star Trek: Discovery, ad infinitum.
Star Trek is now an American institution and economic juggernaut. It has attained that most sacred of states. It is a franchise. An interstellar cash cow. A seemingly limitless source of movies, tv shows, video games, books, magazines, and merchandise. You know, content. Sweet, blessed content. It’s not even Star Trek anymore. It’s “The Star Trek Universe.” And within the Star Trek Universe, there are… multiple parallel universes! But we’re not discussing that. Don’t worry. It confuses me, too.
Anyway, Star Trek wasn’t always the colossus it is today. There was a time, not too long ago, when Star Trek was an unknown commodity. A lone, troubled TV pilot, hanging by a thread. In fact, it owes much of its survival to the staunch support of one woman.
If you like Star Trek, thank Lucille Ball.
I’ll tell you that story soon, in the meantime....