The Golden Horseshoe runs 10 shows a day all Summer of 1980, but with the Fall comes shorter hours and fewer late shows. I move out of my Anaheim apartment, find a place down the hill from Universal City Studios and report to the Womphopper’s Wagon Works construction site.
With a little over 6 weeks till opening I think I have a pretty good handle on what I have to do to get the place ready. I am to be responsible for casting the wait staff. General Manager Dick House and Day Manager Missy Moe will handle restaurant operations, leaving the atmosphere entertainment to me while I report directly to Jay Stein.
My limited experience in creative management had convinced me the best way to create the comic/service environment I envisioned was to hire responsible, funny people and work with them as a team leader and fan, rather than than to take a dictatorial approach. I’d seen it work at Poppy’s Star, 1520 AD and the Golden Horseshoe. It was the atmosphere in which I had been happiest and had done my best work.
That was not the Universal method. Jay Stein makes it clear from the beginning that no material is to be presented on the ‘sales floor’ that has not been personally approved by him. He wants to approval of everything to be said and done and under what conditions. If I am to give my people any creative input, it will have to be in selecting material from a pre-approved book. So I set about writing that book.
I break the Womphopper’s experience down into a series of potential contact points then create 5 or 6 ‘bits’ for each point. I script routines for greeting the Guests, taking them to their seats, collecting the menus, bringing food to the table, delivering the check… you get the idea. I deliver this novella to Jay who returns it with copious notes in the borders and various remarks indicating ‘Approved’ or ‘NO’.
Meanwhile I place newspaper ads for the seating hosts, waiters and bus staff. I make sure it’s clear I’m looking for entertainers: ‘Now Casting Characters to staff Universal Studios’ new restaurant experience – Womphopper’s Wagon Works’. Applicants come in to the restaurant to fill out an application, then based on their performing and restaurant experience I call some back as a group for the second ‘interview’.
When they arrive I gather everyone in a corner of the building and ask each one to get up and tell a joke to the entire crowd. We get to know each other, we laugh together and they come to know me as a friend and fan. I then tell everyone they’ve been hired and ask them to come back to our first meeting with a fictional character name for their nametag; something humorous and sales-related. Among the names they come up with are Hugh Ben Hadd, Hi Prices, Huge Ripoff, Bux Upfront and Selma Mother. Of course Jay had to approve all the names (I was heartbroken to lose Selma Mother).
Meanwhile the Wagon Factory is coming together to amazing effect. Universal spent close to $3 million on the place and it shows. The building is entirely covered with authentic old barn wood. Real full-sized wagons are suspended from the ceiling in the foyer and a mammoth mechanical fan turns slowly above the main seating area. There are numerous themed areas throughout, each reflecting a different aspect of the wagon business. There are elegant private booths for our Hollywood clientèle and a gilded cage to represent our former accounting department. (It’s so beautifully themed that a group of Disney Imagineers start coming in once a week for lunch!)
I am especially pleased with the crew of Sales Managers/Seating Hosts I have working with me at the front desk. Sandy Silverthorne had been my idol back when I was conducting the Universal Studios Tour; his tour was the best, the warmest and the funniest of any of us. And Don Lake had been a clown at Magic Mountain and is simply the funniest guy I knew. With the rest of the talented crew, we have a perpetual blast at the front desk endlessly putting on each other and the Guests.
Jay insists that there always be a C.L. Womphopper character at the front desk, so I have to pick two of my seating hosts to fill in for me. None of them resemble me in the slightest, so I pick the two who show the strongest knack for that kind of guest contact. And I’m very happy with my choices…