RIDING MY THUMB IN THE SNOW

Back in the day when a man in uniform could thumb a ride anywhere:

That heavy snow we just had on Easter Sunday reminded me of another spring holiday snow storm. That one was on Holy Saturday many years ago.

I was heading home from Ft. Bragg to spend a week with my folks. One of guy in the outfit had posted he was going to Chicago. Another trooper and myself answered the post.

I had the backseat all to myself. The two Chicago boys took turns driving and keeping each other awake. I was sleeping good when they started raising their voices above the music on the radio. It took me a bit to realize they were arguing over who came from the toughest neighborhood in the city. The stories grew larger and larger; by the time they left me off at the highway that bypassed Chicago, you would think they both were remnants of Al Capone’s mob.

Next ride got me though Madison, WI.. That’s when the snow started. It was the wet, slushy snow that often makes April the ‘cruelest month’. Luckily a car stopped before I got too wet. The driver was about 30, nice smile, friendly voice. Seeing I was shivering, he turned the heater on high in spite of the fact he was wearing a black turtle-neck sweater. He asked where I was heading and when I told him, he apologized because he was only going a little past Tomah.

Usually the price you pay for hitching a ride is you have to listen to the driver talking, telling you things he would not tell to many other people; but you were a stranger and his story would go no further. Kind of like a confession. But not this driver. He got more out of me than I was use to telling anyone.

I started to doze off so I suggested that he could turn the heat down. He did so with pleasure, beads of sweat were on his forehead. But it didn’t help me much. The slip-slapping of the wiper blades sang me back to sleep.

I woke in a hurry when he started swearing. The blades were losing the battle with the snow but not enough that I see we were in trouble. The car was heading for one ditch and then he swung it back towards the other. It was facing the opposite direction when he finally got it under control enough to pull onto the shoulder. He made the Sign of the Cross and took some very deep breathes.

I cut loose. I called him names that would make a paratrooper blush. And I finished by yelling, ‘You dumb @#@%$#@, I know I told you I was in a hurry, hoping to go to Easter Mass with my folks; but I ain’t that much of a hurry to get killed trying to do it.’

Apology time for both of us.

‘I got thinking about tomorrow,’ he said, ‘And didn’t realize I was going too fast for the conditions. Thank God, there wasn’t any other cars around.’

‘Yeah, thank God! Well,’ I said in a softer voice, ‘It happens. I shouldn’t have had no call to swear at you like that.’ The last thing I wanted was to have him give me the boot in that snowstorm.

He laughed as he pulled a pulled a Uey and back on track. ‘Don’t sweat it, Don. I’m the padre at Camp McCoy up ahead. Heard a lot worse, believe me.’

‘Oh, no!’ I said, ‘You’re a priest! Jeez…Boy, now I really got to get home in time to go to Confession.’

Well,’ he said, ‘I can take some pressure off you.’ He reached under the front seat and pulled out a stole. ‘Always keep one handy in case of an emergency.’ He placed it around his neck. He must have read my mind. ‘Don’t worry’, he said, ‘A car is as good as a confessional.’

I hesitated at first and then begun, ‘Bless me, Father…’ After the first few words, the rest came easy.’

I hoped he wasn’t the kind of priest that closed his eyes when he was hearing a confession.

So, riding in a car, in the middle of a snow storm, going to Confession. A first and only time for me.

The padre left me off at the entrance to Camp McCoy. Nice bench, a sheltered roof. First car stopped. A top of the line Chevy convertible. The driver was a little older than me. Big man, but soft features. I had to do a double take when I saw his backseat. There were boxes of LP records, a stereo phonograph, TV set, a few books and lots of magazines on the floor, Down Beat’s, Playboy’s, probably a Penthouse or two hiding in the stack . He took a nice homburg hat off the seat, flipped it in the back and invited me in.

After trading names and where-you’re-goings, the driver took over the conversation. His name was Paul and he was going back home, which was only a few miles from my home. He had spent the last three years working in Milwaukee. He said the pay wasn’t bad but he hated every minute of working in that office and living in that city; especially after he got a “Dear Paul’ letter from his girlfriend, who had vowed she would wait for him to get established and then they would get married. He didn’t have a job waiting for him, but he was sure he’d find one in the Twin Cities. In the meantime he could live with his folks…And maybe look up some girls he went to school with.

Fancy car, nice clothes, and I imagined he had quite a few romantic albums in his collection would help him find a new girlfriend, fast. Until then, there was always his collection of Playboys, if he managed to hide them from his mother.

His blues story was boring; but I did like the part about him driving me right to my parents’ home, so I made like a bartender expecting a nice tip does and pretended to listen intently. The snow was getting heavier. Instead of driving out of it, it seemed to be we were driving into the heart of it.

I was sure happy when we came over the hill and could see the river and the Hudson Bridge that crossed into Minnesota in the distance. Home was the next stop. Again, I was wrong. As soon as we got got into the river valley, Paul pulled off into the main street of downtown Hudson.

‘I have to buy a new tie for tomorrow,’ he explained, as he got into the jam of cars doing last minute shopping. ‘All mine need dry cleaning.’

Yeah, good luck finding a place to park, I thought to myself.

No problem for Paul. He just double parked in front of a very busy department store. ‘Drive around,’ he said, as he reached for his hat, ‘Meet you back here in a half hour.’ He opened the door and got out. I slide into the driver’s seat and pulled out before one of those irate horn-blowers behind me decided to get really mad.

I turned around the block and headed back to the truck stop we had passed on the highway. Switched on the radio and settled back and enjoyed driving this fine automobile. Sure beat the Jeep I drove back at Bragg. My first inclination when I parked in the big lot, was to go inside and get a cup of coffee; but I had second thoughts about leaving the car unoccupied with a back seat full of expensive goods.

And then it dawned on me. Now, to say I was tempted would be pushing, but I sure was doing some day dreaming.

That damn Paul! That damn stupid Paul! Handing over his fancy car loaded with thousands of dollars of things that anyone could fence. I thought how this kind of money compared to Army pay. I watched the cars heading east and thought how close I could get to Chicago by the time he got tired of waiting and decided to call the cops on me. I thought about those two would-be gangsters I could look up… But like I said, it was a day dream, a would-be author’s kicking around ideas for a story. I wasn’t stupid and I sure wasn’t a thief.

I timed it as close as a half hour as I could. I had no more stopped in front of the store when Paul came running out and jumped in the passenger seat. The chorus of horns started up again. I pulled away as soon as Paul closed the car door and headed back to the highway.

‘Not much of a selection,’ he said, ‘But I got one I liked anyway.’ He pulled out a tie out of one bag and showed me.

I stopped the car just before pulling out on the highway. I turned to him and cut loose with the same kind of language I had used on the priest.

I told him he was a @##@$$#@# fool to turn his life savings to a perfect stranger. How did he know I wouldn’t just up and steal the car and everything in it. How did he know…

He gave me a smile and a doughnut he pulled from a second bag. ‘It’s Easter Time, Don. Nobody steals at Easter.’

The doughnut was good. His logic was…

I drove to my folk’s home and Paul and I wished each other a Happy Easter. It was still snowing as I ran into the house. Went right in because that was back in the day we left our door unlocked and nobody ever stole anything… especially at Easter Time.

I would like to wish everybody Happy Holidays in this time of Holy Days for all. Belated or predated. In sunshine or snow.

GLUCKICHER OSTERTAG

(Happy Easter Day)

May we all celebrate the Holy Days of April in the way we use to. Please stay safe. Obey the rules. Remember the lives you may save maybe the lives of those you love the most.

EASTER WEEKEND 1972

EASTER WEEK 1972 – Oh yeah. Cybill Shepard, panties and bra, bring in the body-double. Wrap filming for the week. 

    I was looking ahead to a no-work Saturday and a nice call Sunday afternoon.

Easter Weekend!

The phone rang about five on my, up until then, lazy Holy Saturday. I knew it was for me. It was. The Local’s Business Agent.

‘I know you’re off the movie job today Need you. There’s a show at the Guthrie tonight. Acme Dance. They need another hand for one of the numbers. Easy gig. You’ll just working the one bit and then you can leave.’

‘Acme Dance! I suppose I’ll have to dress up in a Wile E. Coyote costume and drop an anvil from the center cove.’

“Whatever,’ the BA growled. ‘See someone called Sally. She’s the show manager. She’ll tell you what to do. Wear tennis shoes. You got to do some running.

‘Oh, have a Happy Easter tomorrow.’

In those days you never turned a call down from the B.A. unless it was a real emergency. It was too easy for him to lose your phone number for the next job.

I broke the news to my wife, who wasn’t surprised. Then I looked in the paper to see exactly what I would be working. It was modern dance out of New York, The Acme Dance starring Jaimie Cunningham. Never heard of it.

When I got backstage I asked Old Martin, the union man working the deck on the show, to show me Sally. He pointed out a man wearing a plaid flannel shirt, loose jeans, work shoes, and a baseball cap on backwards. Sally, probably short for Salvatore.

I introduced myself and when Sally turned around, I had to think twice. From the front, he was a she. She took the fancy carved briar pipe from her mouth before she talked. She had a raspy voice with a thick New York accent. She looked more like an extra in ON THE WATERFRONT than the manager of a dance company.

We went down in the underworld under the stage. She gave me two flashlights and showed me how to hold them, one in each hand, one hand on top of the other. The top hand grasping the thumb of the bottom hand so both flashlights would move at the same time.

‘One of your lights is going to hit Jaimie’s sunglasses. The other one on his crouch. You’ll be laying on the top acting step. Jamie will be the center of the three dancers on stage. The other two will be picked up by a boy dancer laying on your right, a girl dancer on your left. The flashlights will be the only front light. Miniature follow spots. It’s the first number after intermission. you’ll enter from the audience right vomatorium. You’ll get your cue to go to the step from the dancers entering with you in the blackout.

‘Sounds a lot harder than it really is. I think the old stagehand could have done okay with the flashlights but he just couldn’t run on and off. Too slow.

‘You got a lot of time to practice working the flashlight bit. The other two spotters will be down when it is ready to get into place at the mouth of the vom.’

She re-lit her pipe and left. She was the company manager, stage manager, tech manager, sound person, lighting designer and cue caller. Probably drove the van and got to sleep in the warehouse studio back in New York. In the world of dance, especially modern dance, the participants have to love what they are doing because the work is hard and the pay is small. Bet she smoked a pipe because pipe tobacco, like a can of Prince Albert, cost less than tailor-made cigarettes and was less work than roll-your-own smokes.

I had the flashlight bit down before intermission was over. I went into the darkness of the vom and waited. The two dancers, wearing robes and red cowboy boots, came behind me and the gal repeated what I had to do. The houselights and stage preset blacked out. I heard two ‘Go’s’ and I took off running. Saw the glow tape center mark and flopped on the stage, got my flashlights in position. I heard the two dancers lay on the step, one on each side of me.

Music came over the speakers, it was Nancy Sinatra’s big hit, THESE BOOTS ARE WALKING. Back lights came on and there were three dancers. I hit the middle one, Jaime, with my two lights like I had been told, sunglasses and crotch. He was wearing a kid’s cowboy hat, a kid’s two holstered cap guns, and red boots. Oh, and the sunglasses, aviator style. And that’s all. No tights, not even a dance belt. The other two dancers, one male, one female, had the same costumes on – or off, depending how you looked at it.

The three on stage didn’t do much dance movement except stomping their boots on the stage, in rhythm to Nancy’s singing about ‘And one of these days these boots are going to walk all over you!’

I flicked my eyes to my two companions and saw a lot of skin. A lot of skin! I came to the conclusion that I was the only one in this bit that was wearing clothes.

The song ended. The stage went dark. I heard ‘Black Out’. I shut off my flashlights and took off running down the vom. I heard my fellow spot ops run on stage. I darn near tripped over the two dancers’ robes. The audience applauded and applauded. But there was no bow lights. Instead, after a long period of darkness, quick change I thought, music came over the speakers, an instrumental western swing tune and the stage lights popped on.

I knew I was in the dark of the tunnel and out of the audience’s line of vision so I turned around.

All five dancers were on stage. No mini-spots from the front this time, full- up front instruments. The original three dancers had discarded their sunglasses and toy gun sets. The two that had been with me had put on cowboy hats. Five dancers wearing nothing but kids’ hats and red boots! And doing a modern dance version of a western ho-down.

‘Swing your partners do- see- do.’

You can’t make things like that up and you can’t take naked dancers swinging their partners too long. I turned and went down the vom to the underworld.

Old Martin was backstage when I came up. He was smiling and shaking his head. ‘If the gals down at Augie’s On Hennepin undressed that deep, old Augie’d lose his license,’ the old-timer observed with a chuckle.’

‘Yup,’ I agreed.

We wished each other a Happy Easter, and I went home.

Easter was spent in our traditional way and I took a nap before I had to go to work. The Ice Follies were finishing their four weeks at the Met Arena. I was a packer on the Out. I got there when the show started. The road propman and other packer, a college student who worked occasionally for the Union, and myself got the two props standards, two huge box-crates where all the props were loaded on, down on the ice, upstage of the curtains. As the props came off, we broke them down and stored them according to the directions of the road man.

Easy work, but it took a bit of practice before my partner got the hang of walking on the ice. The knees of his jeans and the seat got wet in a hurry. His welcome to working the ice show.

When the end of the show was approaching the wardrobe personnel came down on the backstage ice pushing loaded costume racks. The chorus came off stage. Peggy Fleming went on for her final number.

The quick- change took place on the back ice. Men and women milling around, finding their dresser. No need to removed their skates. There was the ripping sound of separating velcro, that invention that had changed the world of wardrobe people.

Out of the one costume, down to boy’s dance belts and girl’s panties and bras, then into their Grand Finale costumes.

I continued with my prop work, making sure I didn’t get in the way of the skaters. My young partner, on the other hand, stood in one place fascinated by the precision of the change. Well, I guess the correct thing was that he was fascinated by all the panties and bras.

The music changed. The skaters went on ice. Peggy stood in the wing waiting for her entrance. But my young green partner remained where he had been all during the change. I had to holler at him to get back to work.

He had a silly grin on his face as he slip-slided over to me.

‘Is show business always like this? he asked me.

“No,’ I answered. ‘Sometimes it gets down right exciting. They tend to tone it down during the holy days.’

Yup! Four score plus Easters Seasons have passed through my life, but none like the one in 1972.

THANK GOODNESS!

HOLY WEEK? 1972

Cubil

Of all the weeks of the year, all of this had to happen on the week leading up to Easter and Easter itself.

Even with the name Ostertag, German for Easterday, Eastertime was always a quiet time for me. More holy day than holiday. Each one pretty much the same as all the others. But not in 1972. Never before. Never again.

It was the Guthrie dark time and I had been working the Minneapolis location filming of THE HEARTBREAK KID, the original, the one starring Cybill Shepard and Charles Grodin, for the better part of a month. Typical movie work. Bust tail for a while followed by doing nothing for a while. Long, boring hours. Sometimes have to get by with four, five hours sleep. Good food. Good money.

We had moved to a new location, heading into the wrap for filming in Minneapolis. After this one, there was only one more left and that one in St. Paul. This scene was the sex scene the cabin. If things went well, we were promised an Easter/Passover break until the Tuesday after Easter.

The log cabin was on an estate by Lake Minnetonka. We were setting up the lighting when Cybill Shepard came in and saw the interior for first time. She screamed for Elaine May, the director, and stormed out, vowing never to set foot in there again.

‘The Diva has returned,’ said the young, easy- to- dislike, gaffer, who, along with his dad and uncle, had been with the film since the start in New York. ‘Her bitching grows old in a hurry, but it makes us good bucks.’

‘Cool it, Abe,’ his dad warned. ‘ If she complains one more time about you, I won’t be able to save your job this time.’

It was Elaine May’s second time directing a movie. It was Cybill Shepard’s second time acting in a movie. May started in show business when she was three. Shepard hadn’t even been in show business a total three years yet.

Elaine May was a successful writer, actress, and a pioneer in women taken as serious comedians. She rose to fame in the improv stand-up comedy of Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. She had just finished the movie, THE NEW LEAF, which she directed and costarred in.

Cybill Shepard was a star teenage model whose cover picture on GLAMOUR magazine prompted Peter Bogdanovich to cast her in a starring role in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the movie that made Bogdanovich into a major director and Cybill Shepard as a someone to watch, not just look at. The chemistry between the two resulted in the teacher and the student living together.

At the start of the filming Miss Shepard considered her movie fame as a sign she knew the business and tried to contradict some of Miss May’s directions. The first few weeks of filming were done in Miami and very difficult for May. Not only did she have she Neil Simon, the screenwriter, showing up on the set offering his two cents, she had arguments from her ‘star’; but they picked the wrong person to try to order around. Elaine May totally ignored Simon and warned Miss Shepard that getting a rep of being difficult to work with would damage a young career in spite of good looks and influential sleeping partners. She advised her to watch and learn from the pros in the cast, pros like Eddie Albert and Chuck Grodin.

Cybill took that advice from Elaine and caused no more problems on the set. Until the cabin episode and when May walked into the cabin she agreed with Shepard.

It was something out of a Hemingway story, not a romantic comedy. The walls were covered with animal heads, the shelves with stuffed birds, trophies from all over the world. May ordered them to be taken down and stored safely, to be replaced after the filming. Cybill’s refusal to the interior of the cabin was less artistic temperament than just common sense.

But common sense took a back seat concerning the scene to be shot in the cabin. Cybill’s contract, on the advise of Bogdanovich, stated that she would not appear in the nude. He said if she kept appearing nude in movies, it would hurt her career. Funny, he didn’t have the same concern when she was appearing nude in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the movie he had directed her in.

Elaine said nudity was a must for this scene

They reached a compromise for this film. She would strip down to panties and bra and then a body- double would replace her. It would appear to the audience that they were seeing a naked Cybill Shepard.

Big whoop! If the body-double fools the audience into thinking that it is Cybill naked what’s the difference to Cybill’s career in the public’s mind?

Auditions for the body- double had taken place in New York and Miami as well as the Twin Cities. They were conducted by Erik Lee Preminger, an assistant of May. Preminger only recently took the name of Preminger as his own. He never knew who his father was while his mother was living and she forbade his father, movie director Otto Preminger, to let it out that he was the father of her son. Once she died though Otto claimed the boy as his.

Erik grew up in the wings of theaters watching his mother do her strip routine. It was second nature for him to scout for the body- doubles in strip joints. It was also his nature to brag about his casting couch routine. He had weeded the girls down to four and saw to it they were ready for their turn in front of the cameras.

The action took place in the darkness of cabin, with the two of them lit, supposedly, by the flickering of the flames from fireplace they were standing in front of. In the background the flames flashing against the log wall added to the romance of the scene.

Now the only way the fireplace flames can be controlled to suit the mood and the camera is not to have a real fire. You use a fireplace effect machine. A rotary spit with ribbons of gel filters flipping in front of the glow of a lamp, The spit is a few feet off the ground. The lamp lower. Properly placed it creates the effect of a small fire flickering. The actors stand in front of the machine and are softly illuminated by the false fire from the fireplace.

The spit is hand- turned by a gaffer laying on the ground by the actors’ feet.

‘That’s my job,’ young Adam declared.

‘In your dreams,’ his dad declared. ‘Don, you’re the effects turner!,’ he said pointing at me.

HB Kid.jpg

So late afternoon of Monday of Holy Week I found myself on the cabin floor turning the fire spit while a few feet away Chuck Grodin and Cybill Shepard rehearsed their lines and movements. There was a lot of laughing and joking between the two. At first they only pretended to take their clothes off; but once they got the lines delivered to the satisfaction of the director, they hastily undressed, or partially undressed, stopping at boxer shorts and panties and bra. Over and over. A few short breaks and then a long break for dinner while Elaine watched the video rushes of the scene. She would watch the film dailies later in the evening.

Back on the floor for me. More of the same. Finally a wrap was called and we were told the time of the call the next day.

The day started with a few lighting touch-ups for electrics while the actors got their notes from the director and then back on the floor for me. Only now when Cybill got down to panties and bra a time-out was called and a naked body-double took her place – a few feet in front of me. Over and over. Down to panties and bra. Exit Cybill. Enter the body-double.

Eventually a lunch break was called; but before we left the cabin, Cybill had something to say.

‘Elaine,’ she said loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Do you know why all these people are in here? Some aren’t working. Just staring. If they are not needed I don’t think they should be in here. We’re not putting on a strip show for their benefit. I don’t want any gawkers in here!’

Elaine agree and gave the order only the essential workers would be allowed in the cabin. The others would be close to a radio in case they were needed.

At lunch I sat next to Hollywood, the other gaffer from our Local. We compared how are our day was going. He told me, doing nothing, except playing poker in the costume designer’s RV. He said he was tired of losing. I told him what I had been doing and I told him I was bored working the scene, over and over. He asked if I wanted to change places. I jumped at the chance. He smiled.

At supper break he said he wasn’t bored in the least and gave me some baloney about how much he was learning about movie making. I said told him I was more than happy to go back to the poker game. I would not want to disrupt his education. And I was expanding my education also. I was learning when one of the players was serious, bluffing, or just hoping. And I was ahead of the game.

 

I now more than got out of the mess tent when I heard someone calling my name. I turned and Cybill was behind me, chewing her bubble gum. There was a lot of smoking by the cast and crew but Cybill chewed bubble gum instead. She played with her gum. She snapped her gum. She blew bubbles with her gum. Her gum was ever present when she wasn’t in front of the cameras.

‘When I said I didn’t want all those people in the cabin, I want you to know, I didn’t mean you,’ she said. ‘I mean… you were working.’ She laughed. ‘And your face was so red. I don’t think it was from the FX. Trying so hard to be a gentleman and not peek. See,’ she pointed out, ‘Red just like now.

‘But I hollered because that turkey from New York was in there. Just watching. What a pervert! We caught him peeking in the window when we were doing the motel scene. I wanted him canned at that time, but his dad promised that the creep would behave.

‘Anyway, you coming back to work in there?’

‘No,’ I told her. ‘Not unless they tell me to. I got a hot seat in a poker game. But thanks for the clarification.’ I turned to go but she stopped me.

‘You’d rather play poker than watch me in the sex scene!’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Only when I am winning.’

‘Wait! Wait!’ she said holding up a finger. She started to blow a bubble. And continued. And continued. It was an impressive bubble. The kind that would win a ribbon at a county fair. It hid almost all her entire face.

Then she stepped forward, right into me. And she made sure the bubble hit my glasses…and burst. She laughed, stuck out her tongue, and ran away, leaving me to clean up the mess she made on my glasses.

As much as I wanted to be mad at her, I couldn’t. I had to admit it was a good prank on me. Bet it wasn’t the first time she played it. I was just thankful none of it got in my hair.

When we broke for the day, it was very late. We knew the four body-doubles were finished and thought the next day would be just putting everything in the vans and trucks until the next week. But Elaine had other plans though. She had one more body-double. It was Cybill Shepard’s stand-in.

The stand-in had been hired locally for the Twin City filming. Nice girl. Quiet. Somewhat shy. A student the U of Minnesota. When she waiting to be used, she always had a text book in her hands. She had politely hinted to Cybill that she would like a chance at the extra work. It would pay a full semester of school for her.

The stand-in had been present for all the cabin work and knew exactly what to do. It took only three takes. One for practice. One for the shot. One just in case. She was selected as the body-double. Preminger was left with four angry women on his hands.

We wrapped everything as fast as we could. That four day break sounded like a short trip to heaven.

I had called home before I left the location and my sweet wife had a steak dinner ready for me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t so much hungry as I was tired.

When she poured me a second cup of coffee she set the pot down and took my glasses off my face. ‘There’s something stuck on the frame’ she said.’ Looks like gum. How did you get gum on your glasses?’ she asked removing a small spec with her fingernail.

‘Long story,’ I answered.

She felt my forehead after she replaced my glasses. ‘You don’t feel hot, but your face is sure flush. Better get some rest. You’ve been putting in a lot of hours.’

‘Good idea!’ I said.’ Finished eating and headed for the bed; but on the way, I stopped off long enough to get wet in the shower, promising myself to do better later.

No problem getting to sleep. Bam! I slept twelve hours straight. Woke up and ate some pancakes. No meat on Good Friday, the holiest day of the Church year. Those twelve hours of sleep were such a pleasure, that I went back to bed and got ten hours more. But not before I took a long, long shower.

The first four days of Holy Week!

Panties and bra. Cut. Bring in the nude.

See you and raise you a buck.

The fifth day was indeed a day of rest for me. And a long, long shower.

Two more days to go in Holy Week 1972. No way would the last two compare with the first four.

But- if there is one fixed rule in Show Business, it’s this: The show must go on, but everything else is Subject To Change.

Wrap for now. More to come.