As with any other background gig I'd done before, I was feeling insecure about my pool of available clothing. I had two awesome 70's style vintage Star Wars and KISS shirts to bring along. I knew brand names and labels were verboten but I thought I could get away with some era-appropriate t-shirts. I brought these along with a brown 80's suede vest I borrowed from my better half, my Chuck Taylor kicks, a shark tooth pendant and a pair of outdated glasses I'd held onto for occasions just such as these.
I got to the Roller Town set around 10:40 am. It was a beautiful and cloudless late summers day and I couldn't help but wonder if I'd be done early enough to facilitate a trail hike and possible swim later in the afternoon. Experience told me that the odds of this happening were highly unlikely.
As with November Christmas, the signage directing background was virtually non-existent. Which was great since it gave me the perfect excuse to nose around a bit. I wandered down a driveway between a church and a private residence. Only when I got to the end of the lane did was I convinced that I'd found the right place.
I quickly inventoried the tell-tale signs: a costume trailer, a barbecue tent, a seating area, a massive rental equipment-laden truck and tons of harried-looking people running around with headsets and walkie talkies looking like bohemian members of the secret service.
What I didn't spy were any stark yellow signs directing me to background holding. People were standing around mute outside the entrance of a massive structure that looked part bingo hall part crop-duster hanger. This was a sure indication that cameras were rolling just inside so I paused for a moment and froze until a member of the crew got the call for "CUT!"
All of a sudden, everyone set into motion again, further emphasizing the child-like nature of shooting movies which sometimes seems like a mass adult game of "Red Light, Green Light".
While we were all loitering about I spied Picnicfacer Bill Wood waiting for his clearance to enter. Here he is looking appropriately dapper in a file photo from the troupe's website:
In Roller Town, Bill plays the enigmatic "Brick Assassin", who's unorthodox handiwork I would glean some insight into very soon. In an interesting fashion choice, it turns out that killers for hire that specialize in mortar products as their preferred weapon also have a penchant for wearing fireman pants, suspenders, rubber boots and very little else.
Also hanging around to help us collectively lower the neighborhood property values was George Basil. An actor and improviser, he's come up from Brooklyn to play the part of Gregs, one of the unscrupulous suits looking to kill disco in lieu of those evil 80's-style arcade games. George was a friendly and amicable chap and we talked at length about local restaurants and other attractions he might be interested in as an out-of- towner. Here's a link to his group's website:
But when the all-clear was sounded, I couldn't resist going inside. It's always been a dream of mine to walk around a movie set without the threat of being tazered by security (as a refreshing change), so appropriately mandated, I barged through the doors without a peep of opposition from anyone. Ha! Up yours, RCMP!
The sight laid out before me was nothing short of surreal. It appeared to be a massive dance hall set-designed to look like an olde-skool roller rink! There was a snack bar/skate rental desk, wood floors ideal for roller boogerie, shiny red paneling all over the wall, 70's-era golden Christmas streamers, and a half-dozen vintage arcade consoles. Oh, and, inexplicably, a giant pile of hot dog buns.
Clad in a denim shirt and pimp-tastic directors beard, Andrew Bush was navigating the logistical minefield like a pro. Here he is looking characteristically pensive in a promotional photo on the group's website:
I paused to watch his crew's collective efforts for a bit before venturing upstairs in my quest for guidance.
At the top of the steps I chanced to glance over my shoulder and saw massive bins overflowing with ancient-looking roller skates. Would a pair of these twice damnable things prove to be my downfall? Literally? Like falling down and dying?
I had someone direct me to a corner of the upper promenade where I could see what looked like an administrative desk and a makeup mirror. I managed to corner someone who sent me back down to the church I'd just walked by mere moments before.
When I went out there a sandwich board sized sign which read "BACKGROUND ← " was now standing next to the propped open basement door of the church.
'Man, I gotta stop showing up early,' I mused silently as I picked my way down into the basement.
The silence, the sights and the smells instantly formed a nexus of recall in my head. As soon as I stepped into that basement I was a seven-year-old Senior Sixer Scout again.
As I continued my descent I thought silently to myself: 'How many times as a child have I been imprisoned by adults in some dank Church dungeon with a slew of my peers, wearing a Cub uniform replete with woggle?"
Wow, if you say that today it sounds kinda pervy, but I swear, those really were a more innocent time!
Ahhh, the smell of a church basement: 33% mold and mildew, 33% incense and 33% freshly ironed righteousness with a well-represented 1% of creepy thrown in for good measure.
Down in the pulpit pit a small gathering of Roller Town residents was beginning to coalesce. Not long after our call time there were 12 of us assembled in the holding area: Peter, Vickie, Holly, Christine, Theresa, Jillian, Doug, Natasha, Marie-Claude and Aaron.
Amongst them was a real social butterfly named Gary. Recently retired from the military, Gary started to get into background performing and voice acting when his wife passed away not too long ago. He was super-friendly and very helpful. I have to thank him for shedding a spotlight on a voice-over audition website which I'm hoping to explore.
Gary perfectly summed my attitude to retirement. It really gets on my nerves when some people (especially Baby Boomers) refuse to retire because they believe that all of their self-worth is tied up in their jobs.
"Oh, I can't retire," some of these blowhards like to say. "What would I do with my time?"
Well, you can volunteer for starters. I've been effectively retired for over six months and not once, not once, have I ever said to myself: "Wow, I have absolutely nothing to do. Boy, I sure wish I was still slaving away in that dead-end, spirit-crushing job I was doing before!"
No, Gary summed up my own personal ethos perfectly. There are w-a-a-a-a-a-y too many good causes to support, books to read, poems to write, and movies to roller skate in to ever give someone the right to winge "I'm bored!" Also, if I ever see another lottery-winning dickhead on the news saying "Oh, yeah, the money's nice and all but I'll be back to work at the ole' hardware store first thing Monday morning"...I swear I'll target them for a home invasion.
Having sociable company all around made the wait go quicker. And a good thing too; several hours clocked by without a call to set.
During this time we were appraised by wardrobe. As I feared, my awesome Hildebrandt Star Wars tee was tragically nixed. Mercifully the wardrobe gals gave me a brown checked long sleeve shirt replete with butterfly collar. It meshed perfectly with the leather vest and really completed the look.
I have to say, the fashions arrayed out before me were considerably more flattering for women versus men. I'm sorry, but if a dude is wearing shorts so short that I know what religion he is, that's just not cool.
After wardrobe gave us all the once-over, they started to strap us into the makeup chair. The girls were subjected to teased and feathered hair, gaudy swatches of eyeshadow, gobs of mascara and pale shades of lipstick. By the end of it, all of them had that fraudulent, plastic-looking Stepford Wives meets Charlie's Angels quality.
Us dudes got off lucky: Gary got a brief powder down and Aaron got his hair slicked back a bit. They didn't even touch me. To this day I'm not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Around 1 pm we got our first call to get into roller skates. En route back to the set I couldn't shrug the mental picture of me being splayed out on that wooden floor with the once-intact content of my skull strewn out behind me like pumpkin innards.
But I was to earn a reprieve. Andrew came over, took a quick head count and decided that there just wasn't enough of us for the crowd scene he intended to shoot. Once again we were sent packing back to the basement to cool our bolt-stop heels.
Around 2:30 we were rallied again and this time it looked like a go. As if some kindly spirit was looking out for me, this time Andrew expressly told us to come out onto the dance floor sans skates.
So what was involved in this "skateless" scene? Why some stone-cold groovin', tha's all! The tandem A.D.'s arranged us strategically and we were asked to bust out our best disco-style dance moves for the camera.
Amongst our numbers was Brian Macquarrie, seen here in what I can only assume to be his graduation photo:
Although some members of the troupe were slated to play multiple characters, it was up to Brian to bring just one pivotal role to life: that of Grandpa, A.K.A. the God of Disco. As such, the film's makeup department had expertly transformed Brian into a lovable and ancient-looking curmudgeon. He had a shock of fading blond hair, a huge voluminous beard, museum-era specs and a healthy coat of latex for that raisin-y finish. His wardrobe was equal to the task: comfy velcro shoes, a cozy checked beige and brown cardigan and pants that could only be characterized as "slacks".
Which makes me wonder: why do seniors like slacks? I guess when we all get to a certain age we need things to be slack in certain regions of the body.
So convincing was this illusion, Brian had permanently slipped into character. Like Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, Brian had apparently studied under Strasburg and wasn't just playing Grandpa...he was Grandpa.
As background gathered within earshot, we were the ones to reap the immediate benefits. Brian was a one-man improvisational lightning rod of funny as he kept cracking us up mercilessly between and during takes.
We shot several scenes of us just dancing, and then Brian was inserted into a few of the set ups. Then, things took a turn into the Twilight Zone. I intend to proceed very cautiously here because I think people that traffic in spoilers should have their genitals dipped in liquid nitrogen and then be forced to ride a rodeo horse.
Brian began to hallucinate the appearance of some sort of spectral image. An unconventional spectral image doing things I really can't talk about during the Family Hour. Suffice to say that the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my short experience doing background was trying not to laugh while Brian was immersed in his on-screen moments of terror/rapture.
Several variation of this were lensed. We got a couple of "as is" scripted takes and a couple of deliriously funny ad-libs. All the while, we disco-dancers are just a-boogieing away, doing our best Travoltian moves and trying despirately not to react to the spectacle. In a couple of takes Andrew wanted us to become briefly aware of "Grampa's" over the top conniption fit and then resume dancing as if nothing had happened.
Then the crazy was ramped up another 40%. In the last few takes, Brian inexplicably started screaming "MY BELT!!! WHO TOOK MY BELT?!??" On one of the takes he bellowed this out, looked around wildly at the usual suspects cavorting around him and decided in no uncertain terms that I was the one who took his precious belt.
All of a sudden this octogenarian shuffler became a whirling dervish of flailing polyester limbs and pure unadulterated rage. Instantly I found myself weathering a storm of blows on my shoulder and back.
There was no acting on my part. The fear you may see in my eyes should this scene be retained for the final cut is very real. It was the sort of fear that comes naturally when you realize, all too late, that your demise will not be fulfilled in a roller skating mishap but courtesy of a comedian who's ventured so deeply into a role that his mind has snapped Dennis Hopper-style.
My reaction wasn't conscious, but instinctive, born out of self-preservation. I tried to ward away the first few chucked knuckles, then went down on my knees as "Raging Grampy" went off on me like James Caan in The Godfather. Thank f#@% there were no garbage can lids lying around.
At this time half the crew are in stitches. Brian finally managed to retrieve his belt from out of nowhere, and now victorious, turns back to the camera for another cringe-inducing encounter with the spirit world. Without direction I slowly stood up, glared holes in my attacker for a few beats, shrugged and then started dancing again like nothing had happened.
"CUT!" Andrew yelled.
And then the barely restrained laughter was released like dogs straining against a lead.
"Oh my God, that was hilarious!"
Just to f#$% around with them, I decided to feign injury as I shuffled back.
"Arrghhh! My shoulder!" I shouted as I hobbled around.
"Dude? Did he hurt you!" Andrew shouted, casting a reproving glance at his cast mate. "You went down..."
"That's 'cuz it friggin' hurt!" I wailed.
"Oh, c'mon, I didn't hit him that hard!" Brian protested, breaking character for the first time.
I couldn't keep a straight face any longer and bust out laughing.
"I'm calling my agent about this!" I ranted between guffaws. "Oh wait, I don't have one..."
"Seriously, are you okay?" Andrew asked, looking dire.
I dismissed his concerns with a wave.
"Oh yeah," I replied, now struggling for breath. "I just wasn't expecting it. He scared the shit out of me."
After everything was squared away (and I kicked Brian in the nuts when he wasn't looking) we wrapped Grandpa to a huge ovation.
In the next episode: More Roller Town recollections including:
- Witnessing gratuitous abuse of an arcade console with the worlds most unconventional weapon.
- A cast member is "Born to Be Alive".
- One of the Boogie Wonderland Girls displays a unique (and decidedly stomach-turning) talent.
- Mark Little gives a bravura performance (including the most startlingly original dance moves I've ever been privileged to witness).
- Hangin' wif tha' Disco Dawgfather (don't ask).
- Why working with animals can be fun and blood-poison inducing!
- I SKATE
FAIL: Why Linda Blair's career didn't recover from this is anybody's guess: