Today, most of the original stages at CBS-TV City are either being used for game shows or soap operas. But back in the day, along with soap operas and game shows, they were also used for sitcoms and weekly variety shows. Television City was so busy, it was practically going 24/7. In order to be able to get ready for the next dayâ€™s tapings , we would have to schedule a â€œturn around crewâ€ consisting of stagehands, to come in during the middle of the night, to strike one set and set up a new one.
Almost every job dealing with production is attached to a union, whether it be a make-up artist, hairdresser, lighting director, stagehand, cameraman, or truck driver–all the way up to the director, actor, and even to the actorâ€™s stand-in. Without any of these people, production would come to a virtual standstill or at the very least, making it difficult to complete. And when thereâ€™s no production, thereâ€™s no revenue for anyone.
Negotiations of contracts usually start months in advance between union leaders and Management–both wanting to get the best and fairest deal for their side. But no matter how hard each team tries, sometimes a mutual agreement canâ€™t be reached. When this happens, a strike is called and all union personnel are ordered to walk off their jobs immediately, which leaves only management as their replacements, until a settlement can be reached.
When I say â€œmanagementâ€, that means all employees who arenâ€™t part of a union. And just like the union members have to abide by their leaders who ask them to leave their jobs, management is expected to fill in for them. Itâ€™s called working strike duty. Training doesnâ€™t usually start until we learn that negotiations are going poorly. And then we start cramming, like college students for a test. Weâ€™re taught either by professional strike training teams or management, who use to be union people themselves.
Have you ever heard someone say, anybody can write a book? Oh, yeah, just let them try it.
The first union job I trained for was as a boom operator. For all of you who arenâ€™t familiar with the term, a boom operator is the person who follows the actors around the studio with a microphone on a pole high above the talentâ€™s head. Today, outside of the soap operas, booms arenâ€™t used very often. Theyâ€™ve been replaced with microphones hidden in the actorsâ€™ clothes. Being a boom operator sounds easy, right? Wrong!
After hoisting yourself up on a three foot high platform, the first thing youâ€™re taught is how to put the microphone together on a long rod, that is swung over the actorâ€™s head. Putting the thing together isnâ€™t all that easy, and neither is operating the boom itself. You can swing it in different directions and use a reel to move it in and out, sort of like an upside down fishing rod. Not only is it heavy, but itâ€™s hard on your arms, shoulders and neck. Your main goal is to have the mic just the right place above the actorâ€™s head to pick up his voice, but out of camera shot. This would be simple if the actors just stood in one spot. Unfortunately they donâ€™t. One moment they can be sitting, the next theyâ€™re standing or walking around the set. My greatest fear was I was going to hit someone in the head. More than a few times, my greatest fear almost came trueâ€¦especially when I would relax for a moment and the boom would come crashing forward.
Besides worrying about your mic not showing on camera–picking up a balanced sound and concentrating on not conking anyone on the head, you have to be careful not to cast any shadows that can be seen in the shot. While Iâ€™m doing my balancing act in the air, below me is someone pushing and pulling me around on my Ivory Tower, making sure I get to where I need to be. Can anyone say, Dramanine, please?
They once relieved me from my boom duties and gave me a shot at being a camera person. When they did, I thought Iâ€™d found my niche. But I was wrong.
During taping of a show, they used what was called the multi-camera technique (something that started as far back as the â€œI Love Lucyâ€ days). This is when they have multi cameras on the floor and the director calls the shots from the booth into a little earpiece inside the cameramanâ€˜s ear. â€œAnd close up from camera threeâ€. We did have rehearsals, but besides practicing your moves, and learning how to operate the side handles for those zooming in and wide shots, you had to know how to run backwards and from side to side–all while pushing your camera around, and avoid colliding with someone elseâ€™s. This is all done while looking through a lens. The pressure was enormous and I was glad to give up my post. Actually, I donâ€™t think they ever asked me to come back to it.
Usually, professional stand-ins were hired for us to practice our skills on, but then there were those few times when they would ask us to pick up a script and read the lines for our co-workers to practice on. I, personally couldnâ€™t act my way out of paper bag, so I found the whole thing rather embarrassing. The good thing was no â€œSoapâ€ actress ever felt threatened about losing her job because of newly discovered talent.
A few years later, once again, I was called in for training. This time, I was placed in the audio booth to do sound effects. I liked this job a lot better, and my timing for ringing the doorbell, slamming a door and tooting a carâ€™s horn were ingenious. Unfortunately, there was more to the job than just doing live sound effects. They also wanted me to perform the sweetening, which is adding sounds after the show had been taped. The audio board had hundreds of gadgets on itâ€¦rotary knobs, faders, power mixers and switches. So it wasnâ€™t just a matter of pushing levers or turning knobs. Once the sound effects were used the first time around, you had to learn to cue it up by looping it on the machine so it could be repeated again for the next time. Everything was in the timing. This is not a job for a technically challenged person as myself. But I did get good reviews. But personally I wasnâ€™t comfortable in doing it and was thrilled when there was no strike called for that year, either.
Years later, when another threat of a strike came up, I was assigned as a video tape operator. This called for late night training. I think of all the jobs this was the easiest, but by far the most boring.
The tape went from camera into film can and then transferred onto a video tape machine, where it could be shown over the network and into the viewersâ€™ homes. Threading a video machine is like threading a sewing machine. The most important part of the process is remembering which thingamajig the tape is suppose to go around. But once thatâ€™s completed, the rest is simple. You just have to babysit the tape machine to make sure everything runs smoothly–and make sure you donâ€™t nod off while doing it. We were also given lessons on how to edit the tape, by cutting and splicing it together.
Because Iâ€™m a night person, I was excited to find out that my training would be starting at 11PM. But the novelty soon wore off after a few days. Working all day and then returning again at night was not my thing. I realized my best night work was at home working on my book and in pajamas.
As luck would have it, (as much for me, as for â€œProductionâ€) I never had to work strike duty for real. And I never lost any of my union friends over it. They knew, like them, I was following orders.
And the next time you look at somebodyâ€™s job and think you can do it just as good as they can, I would say to you, â€œNot so fast, my â€œCape Crusaderâ€ friend, itâ€™s probably harder than you think it isâ€¦.POW!, WHAM! & BLAM!
Hi Bobbie! What a great way to end my day — reading your blog. Makes me smile. This one was great! As usual. 🙂
on November 15, 2009
Hi Stephen, I agree with you. Going on vacation and returning to more work than you left…let's just say you have to work hard for that vacation time off. Working on stage is even worse, when you make a mistake they call it out to everyone's attention over a loud speaker from the booth. And everybody knows it's you who messed up. Thanks for reading the post.
on November 15, 2009
Great post. I remember numerous instances of trying to fill in for other people when I had a real job in banking and finance. Not so easy for sure. What's even more challenging is to have someone fill in for you, then return to see the mess they left for you to clean up.
on November 13, 2009
Doing someone else's job is like being a fish out of water. Very easy to feel like a dummy.
Miss talking to you…but glad to hear from you here.
on November 13, 2009
POW! WHAM! BAM! yourself, my friend. Great post. I was sure you were going to say you bonked Johnny Carson on the head one night and that's why Ed always said, HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEErrrrrrrrrrrs Johnny!
Love the post and more tales about your adventures at CBS. I remember when Bob was called in to work when the telephone company went on strike. He didn't appreciate climbing those poles at all!