The Burbank Block

In the 1980s I had my first office in the first brick building in Burbank, built at San Fernando Road and Olive in 1888, pictured here. In fact, I was there for the building’s centennial (which no one celebrated because no one know about it then).

By the time I was installed, it had changed quite a bit. The parapet was gone in an earthquake many decades ago, and the bottom part was now a series of independent businesses, food establishments and the sort.

The upper offices were really cool. Heavy oak doors with transoms and patterned plate glass in them. Much like the feel of a seedy private detective in the 1940s or a railroad office in the old west.

I had found the office because my college friends from film school, Chris Huntley and Stephen M Greenfield had set up their new company there, Screenplay Systems, where they developed and marketed the world’s first screenplay formatting software called Scriptor (for which they both later won a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy (you know, the Oscars).

I recall driving by the building several times on my way home from an editing job in Hollywood and seeing the light on in their office, with Steve visible in the window, cranking out the code for Scriptor on the Z-80 computer he had built himself from a Heathkit.

Steve had previously been the director of photography on the first feature length film I directed called The Strangeness, which you can see even today on Amazon Prime – though none of us get any residuals from it.

Chris was my co-producer and co-writer (along with Mark Sawicki, the first friend I made at USC). Chris, Steve, and Mark were roommates at the time we made The Strangeness, I believe, though I don’t remember if Chris had moved out yet.

I do know that we shot a few of the special effects shots for The Strangeness there at the house in Burbank they were renting together.

One shot was designed to look like a horizontal mine tunnel and a huge ball of fire was supposed to rush down it toward our heroes. Mark and Chris did this by creating a miniature of the tunnel about 2 x 2 feet and ten feet long, and placed it vertically.

At the bottom, they placed a film can filled with hot melted paraffin, then lit the fumes above it on fire, like a flambe. Mark had a camera secured at the top behind a sheet of plexiglass. He’d climb up a ladder, start the camera to shoot extra fast to create slow motion when played at normal speed.

As soon as the camera started, Chris would throw a glass of water on the flaming paraffin and it would explode in a fireball when the steam vaporized and would shoot twenty feet into the air, right past the camera.

We did several takes, at night of course (for best effect) and late so no one would be watching, since we were pretty sure it was illegal. Sure enough, after every explosion, we’d hear the beating of a police helicopter which would fly nearby looking for whoever was creating these fireballs.

But the flash only lasted a couple seconds so we’d just freeze in place with the lights off until it flew away and then set off the next one. Two minutes later they’d be back again, and we played cat and mouse like this for about an hour until we got all the shots we needed.  Fortunately, they never got a fix on us.

The shot turned out great in the movie, by the way, though if you look closely you can see the “rock” walls shudder a bit because they were actually made of industrial thickness aluminum fail, crinkled to look like rock, then spray painted appropriately with dirt thrown on the wet paint to complete the look.

Another effects shot we did there was of a second miniature tunnel where we did stop motion photography of our tentacled monster in the mine.

All the tentacles had to be slightly moved and then one frame shot then moved again, then another frame, and so on. At 24 frames per second, it not only took a lot of time, it was also very complex to keep each of the many tentacles twisting and curling in the right directions. And on top of this, Mark added an animated camera movement down the tunnel during the stop-motion by repositioning the camera slightly after each adjustment to the miniature monster!

I even animated one of the monster shots myself just for the fun of it.

Anyway, Mark and I were the only crew on this, though I think a shot or two was done by Mark’s semi-famous animator friend, Ernie Farino at another time.

This day, we needed to create some fog on the miniature set, but couldn’t use a fog machine because the animation would make the swirls of fog jumpy and ruin the effect.

After much discussion, Mark remembered he had an orange rescue flare from his uncle’s boat. So, just before we started animating, he set it off in the closed garage where we had our miniature.

In short order, the place was filled with an acrid, lung-burning, orange smoke, but it did create the effect we were looking for – a nice even fog.

So, for an hour or thereabouts we hung out in that space, shooting animation frame by frame, then darting out the side door for a quick breath of fresh air before diving in once again.

In the end, we got the shot and it was really good! But, when I got home, I discovered my white underwear had turned orange. Mark told me later that week he had sneezed up orange snot for three days.

I wondered what that might do to my health. Now, forty year later, so far so good. But, to quote John Milius (director of the original Conan The Barbarian film), “Pain in temporary; film is forever.”

That’s a pretty good place to end this memory thread. Later, I’ll start from that same office building and tell you tales of creating my first album of original music there, bringing my kids there after school so I could continue working while I watched them (and the adventures we had), the true to life Mystery of Geppetto The Mole, and many more stories from the building officially known (when it was built) as The Burbank Block.

“Until next time, this is Gary Owens and Morgul, the Friendly Drelb.”

(Google it)

The Beautiful Downtown Burbank Olympics

Back in the early 1970s, my high school buddy Bill Krasner and I decided to have our own Olympic games with things we could actually do.

We got the whole family involved, and made sure there were events that played into everyone’s skills, so each of us was sure to get a medal or two.

I think this medal is from our second Burbank Olympic games because the first time, the medals were just aluminum foil covering Super 8 movie film reels. Yeah, I know. This medal is mylar self stick paper on some pre-cut wooden shapes I found in a craft store.I

think Bill won the gold medal for Chess that year (which is why you see the silver medal here, recently unearthed from one of my memento boxes). My grandfather always won the gold medal for Pool, as he had a pool table back in his patio.

Strangely, T and me are now living in that patio, and the pool table (with 3/4″ genuine slate bed – from Sears!) is stored on its side back in T’s workshop – which is the 2 1/2 garage my grandfather built in the back yard when he turned the original one-car garage into a car port.

He also built two enclosed patios – the first one was smaller, flimsier, and not as elegant. So maybe it was that first patio we had some of the Olympics in, not the second patio (built on the same space) that we are in now.

Either way, we all played and had fun striving for the medals as Mickey Mouse as they were. So, just seeing this silly little item among the thousands of other items of recollection, made me smile, as it always does, with fond memories of great times with many who no longer remain, and those few of us who were there and still are now.

P.S. The words on the “medal” say “Beautiful Downtown Burbank Olympics.” Back in the day, a “cool” and “with it” variety show called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, began to refer to the location here as Beautiful Downtown Burbank, which was an inside joke since downtown hadn’t gotten a face lift since the 1930s and wasn’t very impressive at all.

Of course, all us residents latched on to it when the phrase went national, and people from around the country came here to see the place. I’m sure they were underwhelmed. Nevertheless, it was our claim to fame, and so we named our Olympics after it and proudly put it right out there for everyone to see on our medals, where it remains to this day.

Eye of the Beholder

True story:

I was about 3 or 4 years old. Went to my mom with a picture I had drawn in crayon.

Me: Mommy, does this look like a cow?

Mom: Why yes, honey. It looks exactly like a cow.

Me – Screaming and crying as I ran from the room: “It’s an airplane!!!!”

Back story – I had been drawing the other room and my grandfather came by, looked at the picture and said, “Nice picture of a cow.”

Belaboring the Big Picture

From my archives:

It’s 10:30 in the morning on Sunday, February 5, 1995. And a phrase just occurred while I was attempting to reupholster two chairs that have gotten really ratty in the living room. “Necessity is the mother of frustration.”

I think I finally got a handle of why people get frustrated with me or upset with me when I’m trying to explain something in great detail.

To me, every little detail is important to understanding all the nuances of what’s going on, but other people get frustrated because they see the big picture before I finish filling in the details, and that’s all they care to know about it.

Of course I know this from our Dramatica theory of story structure. We talk about how, as an author, you should just put an outline around a story and eventually the audience gets it without having to fill in all the details. But I keep going trying to fill in the details that are so important to me personally, just like now.

I told all this to my daughter and I could see she was getting frustrated by it as she looked at me blankly. So I said, “I just went through all these details and explained how it all worked. Doesn’t that make sense?” And she said, “Sure it makes sense, just shut up.

A poem written by my daughter when she was 10

The Earthworm

Mindi Dawn

I had, I had an earthworm
To squirm, squirm, squirm
It was for my plant
It’s name was Ant
It dimmed the light
It died that night
It was doomed
There was a boom
It had nieces
We picked up the pieces
We put them in a box
We used a lot of locks
I had, I had an earthworm
To squirm, squirm, squirm

Squirrel Candy

Each evening I feed peanuts to the squirrel we rescued and raised two winters ago. Last night, I gave him a dried cob of corn from our garden that was too short to use in a meal. He sniffed it, not having seen one before, then took it in his sharp little hands, tried a tentative bite, then looked up at me in shock at what a spectacular treat this was and said to me (in my mind) in a voice of one of the South Park kids, “Holy F***, Dude! He gnawed like his life depended on it, then ran off for the woodpile to hoard the treasure all for himself. Best squirrel candy ever!