I came to LA to find work in the motion picture industry. My first job provided me just that: a job at Universal Studios! Home to Hollywood history dating back to 1915, this was the home of Abbott & Costello, Flash Gordon and the Frankenstein Monster. Steven Spielberg first bluffed his way into the industry by sneaking onto this lot and setting up shop in a vacant office! After that, of course, no bluffing was needed–he was the real deal.
I proudly drove my shiny silver 1979 Mazda hatchback through the Main Gate every evening. I parked near the Jack Webb Building, just down from the famous Black Tower of the legendary Lew Wasserman. I entered what had previously been a film vault and now housed the Lower Lot Security Department. Yup, I had made onto the Universal lot as a security officer. I was now “in security.” Each
night from 11pm to 7am I had the run of the place, patrolling the famous back lot. When it was quiet, I’d sit on the steps of the “Back to Future” courthouse eating my lunch, knowing these were the same steps Gregory Peck climbed as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I also got to patrol all of the sound stages prepped for filming sitcoms, films and commercials. My favorite was Stage 28, the Haunted Sound Stage.
Stage 28 dates to the 1920s and houses (to this day) part of the opera house set from both the 1925 and 1943 versions of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Whenever a show films inside, they drape the three-story opera set with black cloth. Why is it still there? Because, legend has it, that every attempt to dismantle it has met with someone being seriously injured. Noises are heard in the rafters, suddenly lights turn on and off, and one person claimed to me that they were tripped on the steps by an invisible hand grasping their ankle. How cool!
My love affair with this job ended in 1992 when, around 2am one morning, tanks containing chlorine for the Miami Vice stunt show on the Upper Lot began leaking. Poisonous chlorine gas low-crawled down the hill, settling into the basin of the Lower Lot sound stages. The security watch commander ordered the lot be closed until Hazmat could respond. Several security officers were issued painters masks to protect them from the fumes (it did not) and I was given a respirator with oxygen tank, which would have been fine if the tank contained any oxygen inside (it did not). I knew I was in deep trouble when Channel 7 News decided it was too risky to report from my location and promptly made a U-turn. By 4:30am the emergency was under control and the lot opened for the day. Myself and three others were showing signs of respiratory distress: burning lungs, shortness of breath, and light headedness. A van was summoned to transport us to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. We waited and waited. Finally the watch commander somberly told us that the “Colombo” people had shown up and needed the van for this morning’s shoot. We would have to drive ourselves. I shouted back as we exited the tiny office, “If I die, they better dedicate the episode to me!”
After that, things were never the same. But that’s okay; it was time for me to move on. After all, I was here LA to work as an actor, not a security officer. So I quit with the satisfaction that righteousness was on my side. Onward and upward, my heart sang out!
But times were tougher than I thought. My wife and two sons had now joined me in LA and I had to stay employed. No one wanted to hire me except for a small security company in Santa Monica whose office personnel sat placidly behind bulletproof glass. They issued me a single uniform and sent me to guard a bank parking lot in South Central LA eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. It was the scariest $5.25 an hour I ever earned!
I’m just saying…