Archive for April, 2012


B’ Day Card Discovery! Famous Signatures by Tony Piazza

   Imagine searching through your parent’s memorabilia and coming across a birthday card to your dad from work. It is signed by all his co-workers with well wishes for his special day.  Now imagine that this job was with a television production…and those co-workers were celebrities and crew from that show. That is exactly what I came across this morning and am sharing with you today. The show was “The Streets of San Francisco,” and I worked with my dad on it through its run of five seasons.

 

It looks common enough from the cover, but when you open it up!

Look closely you will see Karl Malden.

And this page has Michael Douglas, Jill St. John, Zazu Pitts, and SF journalist Herb Caen amongst others!

Now that is one birthday card, wouldn’t you say!

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Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.

 The Lone Ranger Connection by Tony Piazza

One of 2013’s  most anticipated films is the Lone Ranger.  A classic western adventure directed by Gore Verbinski and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. The film stars Armie Hammer  and Johnny Depp as Tonto. The announcement of this feature reminded me of a article I wrote some time back that mentions an early incarnation of that masked man of the plains. I present it below unedited. 

 

   I have been reading a great book, “Flights of Fantasy” by Michael J. Hayde the last few weeks. It tells the unofficial but true history of “Superman” on radio and early television. As I read through the pages I came across names that were familiar to me… not names that you would necessarily recognize, but people who I knew personally during my years in the film industry. Coming across these names, I suddenly found it exciting that I had had the opportunity to work with these people who had a role in the production of my early television favorites. Programs that helped fire my childhood imagination by bringing my favorite comic book heroes to life on the screen.  As an example, in one photograph in the book there is a picture of George (Superman) Reeves during his first assignment behind the camera directing an episode of “The Adventures of Superman”. Sitting behind him by the camera was Joseph Biroc (Director of Photography). I was Mr. Biroc’s stand-in for the second unit work on Irwin Allen’s ( “Lost in Space”, “Time Tunnel”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, etc.) “Towering Inferno”.  From the cast lists printed in the book I learned that one of Superman’s foes in an episode was portrayed by Lawrence Dobkin- he was a star of many radio and film productions, but also acted as Director for the pilot show of “The Streets of San Francisco.” Incidentally, Dick Donner, another director on “Streets” is a name associated with a more recent Superman!

    That then got me thinking about some of the other people that had an association with my early television favorites… and I remembered that our Unit Production Manager on “Streets”, Bob Beche, worked on the “Lone Ranger” television production starring Clayton Moore. He also went on to do the disastrous re-make, “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” in the 1980s with “Streets” Production Manager, Dick Gallegly. One of our QM drivers, and a good friend, Gil, was James (Matt Dillon) Arness double for “Gunsmoke”.  These are not big names by fan’s standards, but people responsible none-the-less for giving me so much enjoyment in my youth…. And it also goes to prove that even in film land one can say that it is a small world!

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Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970’s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.

A Special Tour through Disney Studios by Tony Piazza

   In 1967 we were given a tour of Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The tours were, and still are as far as I know, by special invitation only. Ours came through the head of transportation at Universal Studios, a man nick-named “Frenchie” who was a friend of my father. Visiting the studio was always a dream of mine, and I had hoped to someday work there as an animator. One of my talents was as an artist, and I had won awards for my artwork. I did not end up in this profession however, although as you probably know through my blog site, I did work for ten years in the entertainment business.

   Campus-like atmosphere of Disney Studios.

   We drove up to the guard at his post at the front gate of the studio. He removed his clipboard and scanned the names on the attached pages. Locating ours, he waved us through and indicated where we should park. The reception area’s interior design was still reflecting the 1940s in which the studio was built. The original studio was on Hyperion Avenue but closed in 1940 and the work transferred to this new studio on Buena Vista Street in Burbank.  As I sat on the couch, after we announced our presence to the pretty receptionist at the main desk, I glanced around the surroundings taking in one large wall that was covered by a montage of  Disney characters, movies, television shows, and theme park images. Each was placed artistically so they formed a pattern that stood out in a three-dimensional relief. Shortly, a guide introduced himself and we took off with two other men, guests as ourselves to a door that directly opened up to the start of the back lot.

   Disney Hyperion Sudios.

   The back wall of the administration building was fronted by false store fronts that could be seen in numerous Disney films as downtown “Medville”…any small town U.S.A., complete with a small grass park in its center. This tour didn’t provide trams to take us around. There were no need, the studio was very compact, and within a few paces we were crossing a college campus-like surrounding to the old Animation Building located near the center of the complex. The individual streets we crossed were named after Disney characters, and I was amused in passing signs announcing “Dopey Drive” and “Mickey Avenue.”

   Inside the Animation Building we were taken to the individual departments. Each room had a story to tell. Inking displayed the many different colors and categorized formulas that were crossed linked to the character’s complexions and costumes. A system set up to guarantee consistency of color schemes throughout the project’s animation process, or several if they were doing “shorts.” In the background department we were told of a woman who had worked all night detailing the background of Sleeping Beauty’s castle stone by stone, only to drop the illustration board and watch her paint flake off. She left in tears. We were also shown the Xerox mimeograph machines that revolutionized animation, and made 101 Dalmatians possible. However, the most fascinating of all was seeing the multiplane camera that was created in 1937 for the animated short, The Old Mill. It was still in use to create those three dimensional- like effects on their feature animations. Finally we were escorted into an animator’s office and were able to visit and watch him at work. The animator was Ken Anderson and he was working on The Aristocats at the time. His assignment was the old lawyer, and he showed us with simple line drawings how he was applying a routine used by comedian Dick Van Dyke to the movements of his character. The lawyer was old, so he used his cane (Van Dyke style) to uncurl his legs and help him stand. He flipped through a series of  these drawings which came instantly and convincingly to life. At his work station, one of the other guests commented on the fact that he did not have a mirror. Mirrors were common tools used by illustrators to capture expression- as the animators themselves usually were the actors. His was missing however, and Mr. Anderson said with a smile that it was in his closet, because the last thing he wanted to see first thing in the morning was his reflection!

   Entrance to old Animation Building.

Just as a side note; when Mr. Anderson was asked what animation projects were yet to come, he rattled off a number that eventually hit the screen years later.  They planned that far in advance! For example, Robin Hood (animated) and Black Caldron were two that he mentioned back in 1967.

Multiplane camera.

   After spending a half  hour to forty minutes with the animator we were taken to the theater used for screenings and also utlized by the music department for scoring. The control panels for sound mixing were incredible. The theater was not in use at the time, but aside from the orchestra area you could also see sections were actors could be posted for singing or dubbing.

Animator Ken Anderson

   Next we walked along the residential block back lot and I could pick out the homes of the Absent-minded Professor– complete with unattached garage where he discovered flubber, the home of the Shaggy Dog, and Pollyanna. The Zorro plaza came after, and then a wilderness area with stream and covered bridge.

   Zorro Set.

   The tour also included some soundstages where shooting was actually taking place. I remember seeing the interior cabin set, and an actor sitting off to the side in his chair. The film was Rascal and the actor who nodded to me as I gazed over in his direction was veteran character actor JACK ELAM.

  Actor Jack Elam

   It really was a special experience for me which I will never forget. Less than ten years later KARL MALDEN shared a private performance of his reverend character (his sermon speech) from Pollyanna.  He did his bit for me in between the shooting of The Streets of San Francisco. It’s funny how things seem to come around in life.

 

One last item: My father worked with Disney Productions during the filming of the 360 degree America the Beautiful attraction in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. He even got in the film! In the San Francisco segment you would have seen him directing traffic at Fisherman’s Wharf.

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 Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.

 A Visit to Warner Brothers Studios by Tony Piazza

   I was in Hollywood on April 22nd 2010. I hadn’t planned the trip, and the reason for being there was not a happy one. A dear family member passed away and was buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery (Glendale) the previous day. She had a beautiful ceremony in the same chapel that Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman was married during the 1940’s… in LA everything seems to be connected with Hollywood.

   Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan

   

   Famous Warner Brothers water tower

   In any case, we decided to spend an extra day there before traveling back home… and ended up at Warner Brothers Studios. I had been there back in the late 1960s long before the studio was opened to the public (this tour, I believe is something recent). We knew the head of transportation and my family was taken on a private limousine tour of the studio soundstages and back lot. The lot was more complete then. They still had the Western set… although they had just torn down the fort from F Troop. One particular soundstage we visited that day was used in Camelot and the Errol Flynn pirate films…it was very large (one of the largest in Hollywood at the time), and the floor could be turned into a tank and filled with water to contain a large pirate ship mock up. We also watched them film The F.B.I. television show…the director of that episode was a man I would work with a few years later on The Streets of San Francisco, Virgil Vogel (I have mentioned him in an earlier story). I also remember seeing Kim Novak stick her head out of her trailer dressing room to see who we were… I still find that funny.

    Kim Novak

   I was curious how the studio might have changed from the time I had seen it, and so we decided to take the new tour so I could make a comparison. The main thing I noted was that its’ activities seemed to be more focused on television than film production. The Ellen show seemed to be the big item. Feature film work seemed nonexistent.

   On another note: It was strange to see Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” outfit in the museum… I remember him wearing that wardrobe when I worked with him back in 1973. Also, another soundstage that we stopped to visit on the tour listed on a bronze plaque (under television productions shot there): The Streets of San Francisco… well, that was not entirely true. The police headquarters interior (and only that set) was there for the pilot and first season; after that, even it was constructed in San Francisco in a converted warehouse on Kearny Street. I felt that the plaque gave the impression that the entire show was filmed there. Most of the soundstages we saw were empty, and the ones that were occupied were set up for sitcoms and live audiences.

   Eastwood on location for Magnum Force.

Warners Soundstage.

   Bronze plaque outside soundstage 1.

   They say you can never go back, and I have to admit that I found it kind of sad that most of the Warner’s magic had disappeared with the passage of time. Location work has stolen away a larger portion of the mystique that the movie studio once held for movie going outsiders. Where once great ships sat in studio tanks and mighty palaces adorn soundstages, now the lots are taken up by administration buildings and (in the case of Universal) Theme Park rides. To a lover of classic Hollywood history the time spent at Forest Lawn seemed a prelude for what came later.

City Street on back lot

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Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.

An Encounter with Ricardo Montalban- A Class Act by Tony Piazza

   We shared the same birthdate, but not the same year. He worked on radio, televsion, theatre, and film. So did I. His career spanned six decades, mine only one. He was a star, and I…a fan. His name, was RICARDO MONTALBAN and he was every inch a movie actor in the classic sense. Granted there were other actors that could project the charm, wit, and sophistication that he did, but somehow his performances always seemed to do it better. Perhaps it was because it was no act, but film capturing the real man. 

   Montalban with Herve Villechaize (Fantasy Island).

   RICARDO MONTALBAN… to most, he needs no introduction. From early MGM musicals with Esther Williams (whom I also met) to Star Trek, Fantasy Island, The Naked Gun, and Escape to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes…he has been a prolific actor that has brought us much enjoyment through many generations. This photograph (below) was taken in 1971 on location in SF for a televsion mystery movie called “The Face of Fear’, co-starring Elizabeth Ashley.

   Montalban- a class act!

  They were filming at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, close to the boat club, a very dramatic scene that included both Ashley and Montalban. On screen it was a private conversation, but in life they were surrounded by lights, camera, reflectors, sound recording equipment, booms, and a couple of dozen people which included director and film crew. That is the reality of the movie industry; creating an illusion that will convince an audience to accept what is projected on the screen as life. I have to admit that working in film does rob you of some of that magic, but it also instills in you an admiration for a film when it is really done right. That is where the actors come in, and the concentration and intensity delivered by both Montalban and Ashley in this scene really sold it for me.

   Co-star Elizabeth Ashley.

   “The Face of Fear” production company shot for forty-five minutes at that location. I was there the entire time, watching with the crew- others, a much larger crowd of onlookers were roped off at a distance, but because my father worked with the company I was given a front row view. After the scene was completed , Mr. Montalban was whisked away to his car. My father took my mother’s hand and led her towards the parked limo, I in close tow. When we reached it, I saw him sitting in the front passenger side, exhaustion etched on his face. My father called his name and tapped lightly on the car door. Always the latin gentleman…when he saw us with my father…he got out of the car…and then took my mother’s hand, a smile stretched broadly across his face…kissed her hand, and said, “you are a very lovely lady” and then asked “who is this gentleman?” (me), and shook my hand. There was class, and a fine example of what a gracious man he really was in life. If only the stars of today could conduct themselves with such panache, perhaps then we would have a few actors that years later we could call a class act.

 

Great memories. Thank you for letting me share them with you.

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Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.

My Italian Buddy, Paul Sorvino by Tony Piazza

   Paul Sorvino and my mother in 1976.

   My Italian buddy, PAUL SORVINO (Goodfellas, Law and Order), and accomplished actor who has appeared in numerous roles on television and feature films. He was born in April of 1939 to an Italian American family whose descendants came from Naples. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he  completed his schooling and eventually found a job in an ad agency. While attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy he decided on a career in theatre.  In 1964 he appeared on Broadway and transitioned to films six years later in the motion picture “Where’s Poppa?” I’m behind the camera in this photo (above) of him and my mother (who stopped by for a visit). They posed for the picture just inside the studio entrance of Quinn Martin Studio’s soundstage.- a converted warehouse located on Kearny Street in San Francisco. One memory of this Italian actor that I have, has to do with Paul and I having lunch one day…he a salad (he was always on a diet), and myself roast beef, which he was eyeing with envy. I thought he was joking and laughed…only to realize to my embarrassment that he was serious! He was a good sport about it, but I can’t eat roast beef to this day without thinking about him.

   Paul now has his own line of food (notice the sauce).

   I should have added that this photograph was taken during the filming of the detective show “Burt D’Angelo Superstar”  (1976) in which he starred. It was a spin-off from “The Streets of San Francisco” and lasted just as a summer replacement. It wasn’t picked up by the network for the Fall season.It was a good show, but too much like “Streets”…in fact the police headquarters set was the same, just re-dressed. I was Bob Pine’s (Chips) stand-in on the show… he was Paul’s detective partner, much as Michael was Karl’s.

   My father (left) with Bob Pine (center).

   Paul also enjoyed singing opera…he would do so in-between takes. He wanted to do a bio. film on legendary opera stars Enrico Caruso or Mario Alonzo, but it hasn’t as yet come to pass. He shared that dream with both KARL MALDEN and myself during the filming of the pilot. He took voice lessons for 18 years, which I find incredible because he suffers from severe asthma.  He later started his own organization, The Sorvino Asthma Foundation to find solutions to combat the disease.

 

   His daughter MIRA SORVINO, is also an accomplished actress. I met her as a little girl back in the 70s. In 1995 she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the Woody Allen film, “Mighty Aphrodite.” Paul was extremely proud of her.

 Paul and his daughter, Mira Sorvino.

   I was a good friend of Paul. Recently I was watching him in the film “The Brinks Job” with Peter Falk (another actor I knew personally) and suddenly remembered an amusing story that Paul once told me. When he was going to marry his first wife Lorraine, he told his Neapolitan family, and immediately uproar broke out amongst its members. You see, Lorraine was an Americano (definition of “Americano” is anyone who isn’t Italian), and it was considered very radical back then when an Italian married anyone who wasn’t also of Italian descent. During all the screams, protests, and tears, his grandfather leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Tell me, Paolo, is she economical?” In which Paul replied, “Yes, Nonno, she is.” The old man padded him on the arm, and then nodding his head stated, “Then you got my blessing!”

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   His first wife Lorraine was an attractive woman, and an excellent mother. I remember when she would bring the girls, Mira and Amanda onto the set. They were dressed like little ladies, in long wool coats, hats, and gloves! Very East Coast, but refreshing.

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Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His second novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” was released this last January.  He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.