47 – Universal Florida Pre-Opening Daze

The months before opening USF are a muddy, wild time.

My first job is to scout prices and availability of lights, cameras, generators and filming equipment for our phony film crew. Since I know absolutely nothing about film shoots and since this is as far from the kind of creative work I had been hired for, I am immediately resentful. This is the first big test of boss Neil Miller’s patience with me; he passes with flying colors.

I can’t believe that we were going to waste manpower and money setting up a phony film shoot on our backlot. Surely no intelligent human being is going to stand in the Florida heat and watch a bunch of technicians killing time waiting for a shoot that will never happen (I don’t know that, 5 miles south of us, Disney is pulling the same dirty trick on their Guests). But every time I raise the issue with Neil he smiles, listens patiently, and sends me out to another equipment rental firm.

# # # # #

USF is my first experience with the ‘electric leash’ – the hand-held shortwave radio – and I enjoy the prestige for a while. It can also be a source of amusement.

When the E.T. Adventure ride first comes online it is a popular practice to hop on for a trip to see the show and get out of the heat. Problems arise, though, with folks who keep their radio in their hip pocket. Sitting on the bicycle/ride vehicle, their backside would key the radio, so everyone in the Park has to listen to the entire ride soundtrack until they disembark (I didn’t mind as much as most, as I had provided dialogue for one of the cops: “They’ve got E.T.!”).

One day as storm clouds gather Security sends out a call that we will be experiencing a ‘Code 10-13’. My limited knowledge of radio codes leaves me scratching my head, and I’m just naïve enough to call back on the radio for all to hear, “What’s a ‘Code 10-13’?”

With his typical blend of patient amusement and exasperation Neil’s voice comes back: “Ron, it’s a musical starring Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.” So enlightened, I hasten back to the office just ahead of the rain… singin’ all the way.

# # # # #

The Silver Stars Restaurant is Universal’s attempt at a high-end sit down restaurant; upscale menu, wine list, waiters in white shirts and black bow ties. To give the crew some practical experience the restaurant issues a limited number of meal comps to those of us in the administration building. I secured five of these comps: one each for me and a lovely young assistant stage manager and one each for Groucho, Harpo and Chico. I tell the boys they are to arrive in costume and in character (Ain’t I a stinker?)

I and my date arrive early and secure a booth on the far side of the room. Shortly thereafter The Marx Brothers enter, all proper manners. They present their invites and are escorted to a booth by the door. Orders are taken and drinks are delivered… and then, as they wait for their food, the boys strike.

Harpo makes himself at home eating the condiments at an adjoining table. Chico picks two attractive-looking diners to charm and Groucho starts to tango between tables with an agreeable female Guest. The other employees are watching this with smiles and laughs all around. Everyone is enjoying this first glimpse of what my characters can bring to the Park.

Everyone except the Assistant Manager, that is. He watches for a moment, then stalks backstage; a moment later he returns along with the Manager who is doing his best impression of Franklin Pangborn. The manager sends his assistant back into the kitchen and I tell my date, “I’m about to get a call on the radio.”

Sure enough, a minute later: “Entertainment 4, the Marxes have to leave Silver Stars immediately.” I respond in the affirmative then raise my voice to be heard over the laughter. “Oh, boys!”

As if in a film buff’s dream, The Marx Brothers drop what they’re doing and race across the room to line up in front of my table. Chico says, “Yeah, Boss?

Putting on my best managerial airs, I tell them, “Gentlemen, we have been invited to leave. However I think it would be terribly rude if you were to go without shaking hands with every person in the building.”

Groucho, Harpo & Chico spontaneously salute and scatter, warmly shaking the hand of every Guest at every table. I found out later that they dashed into the kitchen to shake hands with the kitchen staff and each one hugged the managers before dashing out the front door. I and my date left shortly thereafter.

At our next gathering I let my people know that they are all to steer clear of Silver Stars in the future. Eventually they are welcomed into every other Universal eatery. They can get free fries anytime they come to play in Mel’s Diner, and the Blues Brothers are invited to feed each other free shrimp when they drop by Lombard’s Landing. But no one goes in or near Silver Stars Restaurant.

Roughly a year later at a park-wide manager’s meeting people are remarking on the success of our look-alike program. The manager of Silver Stars asks why the Celebs don’t come into his location. I think it was Danny who got tell him, “Because you told them to leave.”

# # # # #

Coming out of a writing session in my Hollywood Boulevard hallway/office I stumble onto a spontaneous party just outside of Mel’s Drive-In. Folks are gathered to bid farewell to Richard Crane who has built much of USF (and all of Womphopper’s); as Richard is a friend I invite myself to join in. That’s where I am reunited with the President of MCA Attractions and my old Womphopper’s Boss, Jay Stein.

To say that Jay was surprised to see me pop up on the east coast would be a gross understatement. I explain that I was hired to oversee the celebrity look-alikes, and that I’m available for any writing chores. “Uh-huh,“ Jay says. “So if I ask you to write me a fucking speech… ?”

“I’ll write you a fucking speech.” It’s like we’ve never been apart.

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About Ron Schneider

Creative Consultant, Lecturer, Freelance Writer, Director & Show Doctor, Actor and Voice-Over. Lifelong student of themed interactive entertainment.
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