What We Did on Part of Our Summer Vacation... :-)
(thanks to Rodney Walker for the main title)
It's not stretching the cliche to say that Monday, May 18, 1998, was a "dream come true"it's difficult to find words to describe a visit to a place I have come to think of as home. On that incomparable day, my husband James and I were welcomed to the set of Remember WENN, allowed to wander the rooms at will, chatted with many of the actors and some of the crew, shared their lunch, watched filming take place. If that heady thrill wasn't enough, we also visited with Rupert Holmes.
"But First, a Word from Our Sponsors"
This visit would not have been possible without the kindness of many people, and I'd be remiss if I didn't say thank you before I continue: first of all thanks to Rupert himself, who extended the invitation, made us welcome at his home, treated us to dinner, made possible the set visit. His assistant Teressa Esposito was unfailingly helpful and just plain nice to us, driving us back and forth to Queens despite some nasty traffic, and also escorting us to our hotel.
Our thanks also go to the cast and crew of Remember WENN, who treated us like royalty. I wish I could remember everyone's name to thank them individually: off the top of my head, thanks to director Juan Campanella, who allowed us to watch him direct; producer Richard Dooley; Christine Oh, the script supervisor; Rob Koch, who took our photo with Carolee Carmello and came up with another roll of film out of nowhere; and of course the ladies and gentlemen of the cast who came to talk to us: Tom Beckett, Hugh O'Gorman, Kevin O'Rourke, George Hall, Carolee Carmello, Melinda Mullins, and Amanda Naughton.
A little background on the expedition: we had been planning a trip to New England and environs to visit my mother for several months. Having been corresponding with both Rupert and his father Leonard Goldstein since last year, I wanted to get together with both of them if possible, perhaps for lunch or dinner.
When I told Rupert we were planning to be in the area, he
extended an invitation of a personally-
"And Now Back to Our Program..."
We drove out to Westchester County on Monday morning, arriving at Rupert Holmes' home just before eleven. Rupert met us at the door and made us feel at home, relaxing with us after the long ride for a few minutes before showing us his officecomplete with some lovely 1939 World's Fair posters and a beautiful old radioand the room in which he and Teressa combine the musical track of the series to the filmed portion, with the help of monitors, synthesizers, and mixing equipment. We were shown several scenes from an upcoming episode, including a funny encounter between Victor, Scott, and Betty, and another with Jeff performing the final scenes of A Tale of Two Cities.
Teressa was already at work collecting material to take with her to the studio. There was an early disappointment: unfortunately, scenes and music that had originally been due Wednesday were now due tomorrow, so Rupert would not be able to take us to the studio himself after all. Instead, Teressa drove us down to Astoria (the section of Queens where WENN is filmed), a pleasant ride in good company, but over a route fraught with traffic; we were quite grateful for an escort rather than having to drive the distance ourselves!
We had a lovely chat with Teressa on the way down about her work, and before we knew it were passing Yankee Stadium and crossing the Triborough Bridge, and soon were fighting traffic in the busy streets of Astoria, which reminded me of nothing more than East Boston on steroids, a neighborhood choked with businesses, apartments, stores, and warehouses. An online friend who lives in the Astoria area had sent me a photo of the studios; one could hardly tell from the outside that a TV series was filmed there. (I have described the building as a geode to friends: the Magic is all on the inside.) However, I recognized the building as soon as we approached!
"WENNderland" is reached by entering an unobtrusive door; once inside we were introduced to Richard Dooley, a tall gentleman who is the series' new producer. Several members of the crew were returning downstairs to the set after lunch and we were introduced to all of them; it was all too much to take in at one time and with apologies I will admit I've forgotten most of their names.
We climbed a set of metal stairs to a large room lined with tables used as a cafeteria and were invited to have some lunch. After I made a necessary "detour" ;-), we were introduced to Tom Beckett and Hugh O'Gorman, who had just finished filming and were leaving for the day. So it was that the first character's voice I heard on the WENN premises was Mr. Foley's! :-) They both looked quite different and relaxed in their "civvies."
I've always been a shy person, so I'm afraid I didn't say anything very clever upon meeting either of them; looking up (way up! the man is tall!) at Hugh O'Gorman left me rather at a loss for words! His smile is just as warm in person as on screen. (You'll notice this is a common theme as this account progresses; I'm afraid all my latent shyness came out in force.)
Upon second invitation, we helped ourselves to some of the catered lunch spread under the big windows at the front of the room and sat chatting with Teressa as we ate. Evidently overflow costuming goes into this room as well, as against the far wall were racks of clothing. I was facing a doorway to what looked like the makeup or hairstyling room and watched a gentleman working on Kevin O'Rourke's hair.
Several minutes after we started eating, Melinda Mullins walked by, dressed as Hilary in a beautiful black sheath dress, and smiled and said hello. Her Hilary look is even more elegant in person; one could imagine Betty's awe at meeting her for the first time.
After asking us if we mindedgood heavens, throw me in that briar patch, B'rer Fox!and making sure that it was okay with the crew, Teressa left us at the studio so that she could return to work on the next episode of WENN. We were therefore able to stay on set for the remainder of the afternoon.
We entered the world of WENN the same way that Betty Roberts would arrive at work every morning: directly through the front door and into Reception.
The set is built all of one piece, rather than in "wild" (separate) sets used on ordinary TV series, so it indeed looks the way it does on television, although it appears smaller; the camera angles used on the series enlarge the area quite a bit from real life. I stood there for a moment in wonder, drinking it all in, from the photos on the wall to all the papers on Gertie's desk. We were walked through the set, into both the Green Room and Studio A, into Victor/Scott/Pruitt's (heck, Betty's) office :-), and finally into the back corridor, to discover that both the door to Studio B and the one to the Men's Lounge lead into concrete block walls! The only room we did not see initially was the Writer's Room because they were setting up to film in there.
Juan Campanella was directing this week and he invited us to watch him, so we picked our way through the curtained access at the rear of the Green Room (behind where the radio usually sits) to backstage. There is a gap of about three feet between the concrete block walls and the flat of the back wall of the Writer's Room, and there Juan was posted behind his monitor, the cameras filming through the door in the back. He told us the Writer's Room set is so cramped that they refer to filming there as "hell."
The show they filmed this week dealt with the cast trading roles with each other. We initially saw Melinda Mullins and George Hall filming a scene where Mr. Eldridge misinterprets everything Hilary says (of course). They were going into several takes, so many that the crew started making jokes about having to serve champagne if they hit a certain number. I was actually surprised at how few takes the actors and crew needed to do a perfect scene, and they usually asked for two perfect takes just to be certain.
During a break in the takes, Juan commented on the Internet discussion of the series, and asked about people noticing bloopers in the filming. I mentioned how everyone thought the infamous crooked picture in the office in "Happy Homecomings" was some type of clue, and he took us into the office and showed us how it happened, with Betty fumbling for the light switch; he said he liked the shot of her fumbling because it looked natural and was amusing, but the film editors had used a different take. Afterwards someone had forgotten to straighten the picture, so the continuity didn't match.
Also during one of the breaks there was an encounter with The Wasp. We could hear a buzzing above the sounds of filming and it turned out there was a wasp flitting above in the lights over the Green Room set, There are some flat white sheets of material under the lightsto soften the glare, I would expectand the wasp was hovering between the material and the lights, making an astonishingly loud sound for an insect that size. There was a flurry of trying to kill it; I don't know if it disappeared or they eventually zapped it.
"Snapshots of the Set"
I should be trying to tell these events in order, but the long afternoon became a series of pleasant vignettes, so I'll just continue with things as I recall them.
Several of the actors were not filming that day, or, as in the case of Margaret Hall, had already gone home, so we did not get to meet her, or John Bedford Lloyd, Christopher Murney, and Mary Stout. :-( However, we were introduced to everyone who was there. The first person we got to chat with was George Hall; while he looks like Mr. Eldridge, he's certainly not like his character! We were told, in fact, that George rarely flubs his lines and the line he fluffed while we saw him filming was a rarity. He asked us if we had spoken to Rupert, and when we said yes, told us he had just joined the New York chapter of the Charles Dickens Society and it turned out the book they were reading that month was The Mystery of Edwin Drood! (George Hall, BTW, had auditioned for a role in Drood, but did not get the part.)
We had said hello to Kevin O'Rourke earlier while we were eatingI had told him we missed him on chat and he grinned rather wryly and said he was kind of busy! (I worried later that he might have thought I was nagging him; I just wanted him to know he is welcomed and missed!) We later got to see him filming with Carolee Carmello in the Writer's Room. In the story, he has changed jobs with Mr. Eldridge and Maple with Betty.
For this particular scene, Kevin was wearing a sweater like Mr. Eldridge and he, as well as Juan and Richard, thought it would be appropriate if he wore the bow tie, too. The wardrobe mistress said she had talked to Rupert about it and he had asked that Kevin not wear the bow tie. They called him back about this detail, and eventually the scene was filmed with Scott wearing his usual tie.
(When we discussed it later that evening, Rupert explained why he didn't want Kevin in the bow tie: the fact that Kevin had the sweater on was just a visual reminder of which character Scott was emulating. He said he didn't want Scott to look too silly as, after all, he is the "romantic lead." I was sure the Scott fans in the audience would agree with that description!)
Later we were "hanging about" the Green Room while Kevin and Juan were talking about the upcoming burlesque episode. I was delighted to hear Kevin say that the episode turned out marvelously. He mentioned that Mickey Rooney was quite fun to work with as well, despite some rumors that they had heard to the contrary. His appearance is quite shortI believe he is only on for five minutesbut apparently in those few minutes he made the scene his own.
Conversation confirmed that the next movie spoof will be Sunset Boulevard.
We talked with Carolee briefly in the Green Room, asking her about 1776 and telling her how much we both enjoyed that particular musical. We also chatted with her about buying a computer.
While we were in the Green Room, Kevin and Carolee also worked on the scene they were filming in the Writer's Room. I found it astonishing how quickly they get these scenes together. They do minimal rehearsing, perhaps five or six times, and then they shoot, and everyone fits into character perfectly.
We had returned to standing "up against the wall," watching more filming in the Writer's Room, and when Juan called a break Melinda Mullins came over to say hello. She had finished filming for the day and was already out of costume. She said she appreciated the Web coverage of the series although she did not own a computer.
Oh, we also met the actor who is playing Lester, the new sound engineer, but in the excitement I had forgotten his name. Lester is a bit older character than C.J., a tallish man with dark hair and a moustache. [NB: The gentleman's name is David Pursley.]
I'm sure we got in the way more than a couple of times, but the crew was very nice about any mistakes that we made (I know we walked out the door to Craft Services while the red light was on at least oncearrrgh!). It probably helped that due to theatre involvement and doing pledge breaks on GPTV we knew when to keep quiet! In fact one of the crew, the young woman who was the second assistant director, reminded us of a cross between two friends of ours. If you've ever wondered what a 2nd a.d. does, well, one of the things she got to do was shout at everyone to shut up before they filmed a shot! :-)
One of the crewmembers, Rob Koch, has turned up occasionally on IRC chats under the name "Reelworks." He took some photos of us in front of the WENN sign at Gertie's desk and later a photo of Carolee with us in the same location. He was instrumental in a small miracle involving a roll of film.
You see, while packing last night, I carefully sorted our exposed film from the unexposed, tucking the latter in my pouch. Or so I thought. But when I started to change film in my camera, I found I had brought the exposed film along instead! To say I felt massively stupid would be understating it.
At this point Richard walked by and, noticing I was upset, asked what was wrong. I was too embarrassed to admit it, but James told him. Richard called Rob, and asked him if he could dig up a roll of film. Rob said he thought there was some 200 speed around somewhere. I said that would be fine and he disappeared.
While he was gone, I continued to prowl the set; it was so hard to believe I was wandering the halls of a place that I had watched on television. There were WENN program schedules hung up near the studio doors, a bulletin board festooned with period items, including a WENN stationery that said the address was S. Isabella Street. I also riffled through the papers in and around Gertie's desk another program schedule here, this with Sunday/Saturday programming as well. Noticed the phone books on top of the console were actually from 1950. (Most of the magazines in the Green Room are closer to period, although a couple are from 1942 or 43, including one with a Thurber cover.)
When Rob returned with a roll of film, it was not only 36 exposures, but it was 400 speed, the same as I was already using. You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say someone went out and bought it...
As promised to the folks on chat, I did take the chance to examine the photos on the wall that we are always discussing!
There are several of the cast scattered about, like the photo of Mackie you see in Reception, but most of them are photos of classic radio performers, some of them autographed. The photo behind the Green Room radio is not Betty, although the woman in it has the look of Amanda Naughton. Some of the photos feature radio performers talking into microphones that are marked with network call letters. These have been altered so that the letters are different, for legal reasons, I'm sure. Also, I got a close look at the "distinguished service" citation to Victor Comstock that Cutter Dunlap comments on in "In the WENN Small Hours." It was actually written about actor Ed Wynn, but has John Bedford Lloyd's photo covering Wynn's. I supposed that means we will never see a close-up of it! :-)
The Studio A set was unlighted, but we did get a brief look at Mr. Foley's collection of props. I was tempted by what looked like the WENN chimes sitting on the table, but when I struck them the tune did not come out properly. I'm not sure if it was out of tune, the wrong set of chimes, or if I was just doing it incorrectly. [NB: One of the set of chimes was missing.] We also wandered through the Control Room, which is the one room on the set that does not look smaller in real life; in fact, it is downright roomy. Of course I couldn't resist the temptation to tweak a couple of the dials! (At one point we saw George Hall sneak what looked like a short nap there.)
Also noticed a little detail about the Green Room doors: the plastic pull-tabs at the bottom of the cords that adjust the opening of the blinds have been glued to the slats so they don't swing around! I love it. Contrary to how it appears, there is no glass in any of the doors and windows. I'm sure this helps with reflection problems; I suppose they put glass into the windows when they need a reflection in a shotunless that is done as some sort of special effect; I don't know.
(In fact, it strikes me now as I fill in the details after the fact that I never asked a lot of questions I could haveI was too busy trying to drink in details as well as attempting not to be an obnoxious "fangirl.")
Amanda Naughton spent much of the early afternoon with the hair stylist, who was fitting her with a beautiful new wig; it has a soft, fluffy look, falling to her shoulders, with wisps of hair loose around her forehead that look very natural and pretty. However, she eventually came on the set to film her scenes. I was so starstruck by this time I'm afraid I don't remember a lot of what she said; she did confess to not having a computer, but that she was interested in all the WENN activity on the Internet.
The last scenes we got to see filmed involved Betty and Mr. Eldridge in the Writer's Room. These shots were taken from the door to the room rather than from the back. I was watching from a distance, then Juan motioned me over, and I ended up sitting in the tall director's chair next to him watching them set up the scene, then rehearse and start to film. Betty had a long piece of dialog combined with some business with props, and sometimes the framing didn't go correctly, or she would slip on a line. It seemed very frustrating for her.
I was very interested in the "dolly," if that's the word, that the camera was mounted on. The shot began with a close up of the telephone, then opened up to show Betty at the desk. Dave Sperling, the director of photography, was on top of the dolly, and it was directed backward by another gentleman, while Rob seemed to direct the proper aiming of the lens itself. So not only did Amanda and George have to do their part of the scene properly, but the camera had to pull back properly as well. It makes you appreciate the complicated procedures used in the shots that look so effortless on screen.
The set fills about two-thirds of the studio area proper; outside the boundaries of "WENN" there are shelves full of props, electronic equipment, doors, desks, and a collection of other things I observed from afar. Just before the entrance to the set is a horseshoe of sofas around a long table where cast and crew sit between scenes it turns out that these sofas and chairs are the old furniture from the Green Room. Richard told us that the original furniture had gotten so worn due to people sitting in it between scenes (as we noticed during the afternoon, using the Green Room for its real purpose!) that the actors could no longer get out of the seats properly for shooting purposes, so they had replaced them. The new furniture doesn't look much different from the old that I could tellI'm afraid I hadn't even noticed until he mentioned it.
Sometime during the afternoon we went out to Craft Services; this is a corner of the area beyond the studio door where snacks and drinks are provided for the cast and crew; a huge refrigerator holds all sorts of juices and sodas, and snacks ranging from cookies to chips are placed on plates and bowls over a corner counter. On the walls are tacked funny e-mails, printouts, and photos; one must be from the burlesque episode, as it features Betty in a funky gold-lame/silk outfit. James was amused by the legend, which was "Betty Roberts, Warrior Princess." :-)
"'I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together...'"
I never did get to see how long it took to film that final Writer's Room shot of Betty and Mr. Eldridge, because all too quickly it was almost six p.m. and time for us to leave. I think the thing that made me chuckle the most all day was the occasional person including Juan himself asking me if I were bored. Bored? Me, the kid who in junior high didn't care to daydream about dating or a gorgeous dress for the junior prom and instead had fantasies about winning Emmy awards for writing? Bored? Never! When I walked through that studio door I was home. I would stay here forever if I were allowed.
We said good-bye and thank you to both Richard and Juan, then drove back with Teressa to Rupert's house. As we approached, we were behind a large grey car which turned out to belong to Rupert's dad and mom, Leonard and Gwen Goldstein! Once out of the car, I rushed to hug both of them; I've been writing to Leonard for so long I tend to think of him as an adopted father.
We were introduced to the rest of the Holmes family, then Rupert's wife had to hurry off to take their elder son to piano lessons.
We, in the meantime, headed to dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant. The food was excellent, but the best part of the night was the company. We spent the evening talking about the series, the set visit, Rupert's past projects, and even the antics of a police car patrolling the intersection outside the window. At one point Rupert and Teressa did a impromptu duet on Maple's song from the burlesque episode.
All too soon we had finished dessert and Leonard and Gwen drove us back to the house to pick up our car. We chatted standing out in the driveway a few more minutes, but finally it was time for farewells. When I hugged Rupert good-bye I jokingly asked if I could live in his basementadding that I didn't eat much unless there was chocolate in the house! :-)
Having had an early morning, it was a great relief to reach our hotel, but I wouldn't have minded had the day gone on forever...