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Summer 2006

Table Talk

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Charlie Haas

Before I got mixed up in the movie business I got mixed up in the music business, spending my first two years out of college working at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank. (I had the hair but not the guitar. I wrote liner notes.) One morning I got a phone call from Jonathan Kaplan, the only movie director I knew then, who was on the Warners movie lot next door. He was making a picture called Truck Turner, starring Isaac Hayes, who'd also composed the score. There was to be a recording session that afternoon, with Mr. Hayes conducting, and did I want to come watch?

It sounded like fun and turned out to be thrilling. An orchestra the size of some Biggest Little City's symphony sat on the scoring stage, surrounding Mr. Hayes, who in recent years had killed the people with the theme from Shaft and an emotionally pummeling cover of "Walk On By." The session was like a normal recording date at the record company except for the movie screen on the wall, where clips from the Truck Turner work print were shown so that the music could be timed to them. "Bassoons," said the Barry White–trouncing bass voice that had moaned its way through Hot Buttered Soul, "you need to be out when the car door closes. Again."

Again, baby! The car door on the screen closed several more times, the bassoons at last caught up with it, Mr. Hayes went on to the next cue, and I was in heaven. The only thing that could have made it better was if, instead of natty casual clothes, he'd been wearing the getup with the chains from the Black Moses album cover. This being Hollywood, I soon started remembering it that way. As a bonus, the route to the scoring stage took me down Warners' New York Street, a beautifully detailed block of fake Manhattan, complete with little staircases leading down from the street to basement apartment entrances. As I walked back to work, it occurred to me that some of the inspiration for Disneyland must have come from Walt's seeing the delight of civilians taking their first walk down a back lot's ersatz avenues.

Later, as I say, I got mixed up in the movie business, so mixed up that I sometimes took it seriously. Like the showbiz columnist Army Archerd's fictional studio correspondent Onda Lotalot, I was on the lot a lot. I walked from my car to the office through a dusty village that was Cuzco one week and China the next. I ate at the commissary. I bought discounted Warner-Reprise CDs at the studio store. I wrote monster movies.

I would say that I became intimately familiar with the New York Street during that period, but in fact I was intimately familiar with it before I ever set foot there. Everyone is. It's the setting of a million crime pictures, musicals, TV episodes, and commercials. It's basically 1940s, but with a little signage and some show cars its age can be pushed back or pulled forward by decades. Gangsters tommy-gunned one another from running boards there, and dozens of young strivers burst simultaneously out of their below-grade apartments to do dance numbers about hope up and down the fire escapes. The car chases on New York Street accounted for half the crime in the Valley. It was no place to own a fruit stand.

Years after my first visit, my wife and I went to the Warners lot one night for a screening. "The lots are full," the guard at the gate said. "Park on New York Street." We got the last available space. As we got out of the car my wife said, "We're by a hydrant."

"No, no," I said, "that's not a real hydrant." My wife is brilliant and all, but she's never been in show business. If our marriage had been announced in Variety, the item would have listed one or two of my monster movies and, despite all her achievements, added, "Wife is a non-pro." If Curly from the Three Stooges had married Marie Curie, she would have gotten "Wife is a non-pro" too.

Nothing on the New York Street was real, I explained. The apartment house façades looked like gritty real life took place inside, but there was nothing behind them. Gritty real life happened on soundstages, a hundred yards away. I closed the car door, without bassoons, and said, "We'll be late."

When we got back from the screening, there was a ticket on the windshield for parking by the quite real hydrant. I was mortified and didn't know what to do with the ticket, or even who had issued it-studio security? the Burbank police? Karl Malden in The Wrong Man?

I showed it to the guard at the gate. "You can't park by a hydrant," he said. "What if there was a fire?" I nodded, cringing at the thought of years of America's memories going up in flames like an over-insured furniture store because some idiot, me, had blocked the fireplug, and with a rented Cavalier at that. "I'm really sorry," I said. "How do I pay it?"

"Pay it?" He took the ticket from me and dropped it in the trash. "No, no. That's not a real ticket."

Charlie Haas has recently completed a novel.


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