I feel like writing tonight. This, while 'bombs,' are bursting in air, and just outside our window. The noise ruins the silence. But, the brilliant lights like 'shooting stars.' It's the end of Spring Festival here in China, and the neighbor kids are blowing off all the firecrackers they have left. For the moment it's quiet, but at any moment I could be startled yet again.
You get used to it if you live in China, as Chinese love noise of any kind. They scream into they mobile telephones, the honk their horns (incessantly), they speak loudly to the person next to them, and of course, firecrackers frighten the monster 'Nian' away. So, goes the legend.
But tonight the 'legend' is about me... The old and young me, the willing-to-take-risks me, the doing-crazy-things me.
I worked in television in my youth, movies later, television again and a myriad of other jobs to survive. For example, I've taught acting. Better said, I'm an 'experience junkie!' How else can you be a writer?
In my youth Hemingway was my hero. That's who I aspired to be like, the two-fisted drinker, the 'love 'em and leave 'em' hero! I achieved both of those, but never such fame or fortune of Hemingway (who wrote plays too). I can claim infamy, however! How many people have 'hijacked' a 747 over the Atlantic, and lived to tell the tale? Not me! How many people, in their late sixties would have cycled to and across China? How many people know how to fly an airplane?
This will sound like hubris, but all my life I've wanted to make movies, but have never been able to. Then one day I realized I'm the 'movie,' I'm the story! The things I've done, the places I've seen, the people I've known, loved, hated... so varied and far flung, almost beyond my recall.
But, here are two, maybe three situations I do recall...
As a child growing up I was afraid most of the time. I don't know why? I guess I've spent my adulthood conquering fear. And this requires taking great risks to overcome.
After being fired from a network television job, I was hired by another. This in the days when there were only three television networks. Thus, my network television career included working for ABC, CBS, and NBC. I think I was 'let go,' by the second, not renewing my contract. I didn't like working for corporations actually, and even though theirs is 'show business' they're still corporations (too conservative)! Finally, in 1974, I was 'free!' 'Free at last! Free at last, thank God almightly I'm free at last!' I remember feeling like I'd been released from prison! That came later!
At the time I was living in a penthouse apartment with a woman named Lee Arthur (the first female sportscaster in television history). This 'pad,' was on E. 52nd Street between Second and First Avenues bordering 'Sutton Place.' Lee and I had met one night at Madison Square Garden when we (Jack Fitzgerald and I) discovered she and her friend sitting in our 'comp'd' seats. The rest is broadcasting history. Lee was an interesting woman, driven to succeed, but with many personal problems! Lee, at my urging, had taken a job at a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, KDKA/2 -- the first female sportscaster in broadcasting history (1974).
It wasn't long afterwards that she started calling me just about everyday. It turned out to be 'hell' for her! The men working at the station, jealous no doubt, made life miserable for her. Note, this in the days when women in any locker room was taboo! She pleaded with me to join her there in Pittsburgh! 'Pittsburgh,' a City I had seen for the first time televising the U.S. Open at Oakmont. It wasn't even in my 'Top One Thousand' places to live and work. I said 'No thank you!' So she took to flying to N.Y.C. on her days off to partake of the City (and me)!
By then we were 'a couple!' A couple of 'nuts' that is! She drove me nuts, and no doubt vice versa! I remember whenever Ted Ashley (CEO of Warner Bros. at the time) came to New York, she would disappear for several days (shacking up with him in the Sherry Netherland Hotel). One time she proposed a 'threesome!' I declined like an idiot! I, the jealous type, unable to recognize an 'opportunity.' We argued about that and other things. When I wouldn't do what she wanted she would get even by threatening suicide! One time I once pulled her back from jumping off our 14th story balcony, breaking my hand on the wall so angry (opted for the wall, rather than her face)! We were a 'pair!'
One day she called me from Pittsburgh with an 'opportunity.' The NABET news cameramen had gone on strike, and the News Director was looking for 'scabs' to 'shoot' news footage. Out of work I was torn. I didn't want to cross the picket line, but there was another matter, even greater to consider. I'd never shot 16MM film before in my life. How could I do this? She was incessant! There were all kinds of 'perks,' the money double the usual rate. We'd be put up in a hotel, and given a company car. Meals would be provided by the station. I thought and thought about it. I conferred with a close friend, Michael McCallum, also out of work. He wanted to do it! We ended up going together as 'a team!'
Now, let me explain that 'shooting' news film in those days, was challenging even for those with much experience (little room for error). McCallum and I discussed how we could pull this off! We devised a plan.
Arriving in Pittsburgh we met with the News Director (Bill Aber - I still remember his name.). The plan was to act like 'New York hot shots,' and degrade their facilities and equipment as 'old fashion!' It worked! When they informed us they were using CP-16 (picture and sound together) cameras, we scoffed and said in New York it was all handheld video now. That it had been a 'long time,' since we'd 'shot' film. We'd have to familiarize ourselves with these 'antiquated' cameras again! We lied like rugs!
God was with us for sure, however! They, Bill and his assistant, spent the rest of the afternoon teaching us how to load the film magazine (in a black bag), and how to operate the camera! Part of our plan was for each of us to divide the tasks, the equipment, me to learn how to load a magazine (by feel), and McCallum the operation of the camera. Trust me, we were good students that afternoon.
We returned to the hotel that night and spent most of the night practicing, me teaching him how to load a magazine (with an exposed roll of film), and he, me the camera. But, our tension ran high! We spent a fitful night worrying--could we pull this off without them ever suspecting we were a couple of 'con artists.'
The following day we got our assignments. Usually there were two per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon (or evening for the next day's broadcast). Our first day, however, they only gave us one, mine I'll never forget! I was to film an interview with a female black reporter. This in a hotel room. I forget now who she interviewed, but I'll never forget that day, as long as I live!
We were a 'one-man band,' in those days, having to 'hump' much equipment including lighting.
I spent too long setting up, acting like I knew what I was doing, the 'hot shot' from New York--the 'perfectionist!' I said a silent prayer before turning the camera on. Then I announced 'rolling!' It didn't take too long, the interview, maybe two hours from 'set up' to 'strike.' Afterwards I rushed to the laboratory with the film!
Now, veteran 'shooters,' would never hang around while their film was being processed, as takes hours depending on the how busy the lab was. But, I did! They must have thought I was crazy sitting there waiting like an expectant father.
Finally, hey fed the exposed roll in one end of a huge machine (made a loud noise). At the other end it came out all 'baked.' The entire process taking only about an hour. Note, this was reversal film (I forget the Kodak #, 72__?), meaning no negative, it came out as a positive image when processed. At the end of this huge processing conglomeration of machinery was a glass box. This is where the was dried (with hot air) and rolled up onto a spool.
I'll never forget waiting at the glass box, this to see if there was an image at all and I had still had a job! There are many things that can go wrong with 'shooting' film that you are unaware of until you can see it (after it's processed). Young videomakers don't know about this! You could have been out of focus, or worse... no image at all! Finally, my hands wet with perspiration, the film emerged from it's long chemical process. It first at the top of the machine, then fed through a series of spindles, taking it up and down the length of the box, maybe two meters in height. This to expose it to hot air until completed dried.
There I was squatting up and down, following the film with my eyes to see if there was, in fact, a useable image. When I decided there was, the feeling was one of pure elation, that sudden pride of knowing you'd pulled it off! My sigh of relief, muffled so no one would suspect I was a rank amateur. I tried to act nonchalant when collecting the film to deliver to the station (for the 'Six O'Clock News').
McCallum had the same good fortune that first day, and we went on to be heroes at KDKA/2, Bill Aber and everyone else never suspecting, we were imposters that had risked our careers for the experience! I think we worked there at KDKA/2 for two months until the strike ended. But, I never felt good about crossing the picket line!
The confidence I got from this experience, however, of risking so much, was invaluable! It made it possible for me to take even greater risks!
Next blog entry.
Labels: My life in Xining, Qinghai Province, China