The night before Universal Florida opens is damp and misty. The Park is getting it’s final going over. Since all the attractions are either indoors or behind the scenes whatever desperation is going on (and there is plenty) is hidden from view.
Terry Wines and I have finally been given our own single office in a small trailer near the Park entrance, the same trailer that houses all the character costumes, dressing rooms and break area. The Celebs and Animateds are slammed together for the time being, but everyone seems to be handling the situation pretty well.
I cannot remember ever feeling so excited, so fulfilled. I’m living a dream beyond my dreams. Whatever goals I may have had for performing, I’m now directing and creating through others, passing on what I’ve learned and watching as people I love take what I share to the next level.
I have managed to acquire a Pargo electric cart from operations and decide to take a celebratory ride through the Park. I’ve never had the use of a vehicle inside any park, and I’m beaming as I speed through the deserted Studio for no good reason at all.
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Over the next few months my people manage to surprise me and delight our Guests with their creative growth and initiative. Everybody steps up and, as I had originally asked, I’m put in the position of being a simple fan of their work.
Jamie McKenna locates a Model A Ford of the type used in the old Hal Roach films. He wires the car for sound and finds recordings of the background music from the Laurel & Hardy short films, so when The Boys drive by the Guests hear the appropriate tunes coming out of the car.
Jamie and Michael Andrew find some overalls and buckets of white wash and spend hours in the Amity Harbor area, painting an old rowboat that had been set there as decoration. Guests wandering by see Laurel & Hardy eating lunch when they aren’t covering the boat – and each other – in the messy white paint.
Finally, Jamie manages to construct a piano crate so they can recreate L&H’s Academy Award Winning routine from ‘The Music Box’. The crate has tiny casters set into the bottom so they can push it along the street… it weighs practically nothing so it can fall on Jamie without killing him… and the interior features a brilliant construct of bungee cords and strips, so when the crate falls over it sounds like the piano inside has been utterly destroyed.
We hire a tiny marching band under the leadership of Tony Aleguas. Since we don’t have marching band costumes – and since the guys are kind of young and disorganized – we dress them in leftover costumes and lab coats from the (as yet unopened) Back to the Future Ride. Since there’s only eight or nine of them, I suggest they don’t try to march in formation but rather travel in a swarm that can move freely in and out of the crowds. And how do they repay me for this genius stroke? Every time they spot me in the Park whatever song they’re playing immediately segues into ‘Baby Elephant Walk’. Thanks, Tony…
Anyone playing Marilyn Monroe has a hard time with the crowds… especially since we’re an attraction that sells alcohol to its Guests. We wind up pulling a chauffeur/escort out of the Animated Character ranks and putting her in a huge silver convertible that can drive her around the studio (and away from any uncomfortable situations).
Since our Marilyns are so talented, I create a show around the character to alternate with the Blues Brothers on Brownstone Street. Our Universal Band drives up to her apartment to pick up Marilyn for a group date, which leads into a medley of Marilyn’s signature songs that ends with her sitting on the back of the car as they drive away playing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’. For something so hastily thrown together, the show is a surprising hit.
Walking toward the front gate one morning I see a crowd gathered around a table at the cafe. I break through the crowd to find two beautiful ladies in the middle of a game of cards with the Marx Brothers. It’s like a scene straight out of ‘Animal Crackers’ except that the material is original and it’s happening spontaneously to our Guests.
Another time I’m walking down Hollywood Boulevard after hours reading the star’s names in the sidewalk. Tucked between John Forsythe and Janet Leigh there’s a blank square – that isn’t blank anymore. A big star has been drawn in chalk and inside that, in a childish scrawl, it reads ‘Jake & Elwood’.
The next morning when Keith and Dan report for work I call them into my office. “Gentlemen, that stunt with the star on the sidewalk is brilliant. Go wash it off.”
Dan is puzzled. “Why?”
“Because you have to do it again. It isn’t funny if it’s written, it’s only funny if Guests see you sneak up and write it.”
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Two side effects of my job: 1) I find myself looking at everyone I meet and trying to figure out who they look like, and 2) folks are always auditioning for me, trying to get into the look-alike program.
When I’m conducting auditions, I try to make the experience as positive and as much fun as possible. After my awful experience at the USF cattle call I decide to pattern my auditions after Disney’s format, making the whole thing more like a ‘look-alike workshop’ than a typical audition. Finding the perfect performer for this kind of job is rare, so I work with people to see if they can be trained (or at least show them what work they might do on their own so they’re better prepared for the next round of auditions).
Instead of isolating the auditioners I keep the group together in the room, so everyone has a chance to watch the process, act as an audience and encourage each other. The important thing is for me to be pleasant-but-honest; this helps to establish my credibility.
Folks often show up with an idea of who they can portray. I start by giving them a realistic assessment of whether they’re physically right for the part while emphasizing that physical resemblance is only part of the job. I then share what insight I have into the celebrity they’ve chosen and the challenges it presents to the performer. If it’s a character we have the rights to, I encourage them to keep working and to try again another time.
With this approach I have remarkable success creating a fun atmosphere and building goodwill for both Universal and the look-alike program.
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My Pal Dave Jackson and his buddy carry on an enthusiastic campaign to get cast as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton from The Honeymooners. I love their work and think they’d fit beautifully in our New York area, possibly alternating days with Laurel & Hardy. Trouble is Universal doesn’t have the rights to those characters so my efforts to get them hired go nowhere.
We do, however, get the rights to Lucy Ricardo. We cast Melissa Radley, one of our ladies from the Entertainment Department, to play Lucy and I start casting about for a good Ethel Mertz for her to work with. It seems obvious to me that if I can get Lucy and Ethel on the street, there’s a lot we can do to sweep the Guests up in their shenanigans.
But it’s not to be. While this is going on, I try a new barber shop around the corner from the studio. The second I see the guy cutting my hair I start thinking, ‘He looks like someone, but who?’ Adrian Israel is the barber’s name…
So Universal’s Lucy has found her Desi and Ethel is forever out of the picture. And, like many of the people I started in this business, he’s made a pretty good living as a celebrity look-alike!