"The rats?" Joe said. "You mean the rats on Willard, or King Rat?"
Joe was at the far end of Godfrey's table at Dear John's, one of the best know, unknown watering holes in Hollywood. Technically, it wasn't really in Hollywood, but Culver City, just down the street from MGM (Now Sony) Studios. And Joe wasn't really called Joe, but I don't remember his real name, so Joe it is.
He turned to me and Chris. "Both gigs were pretty miserable. Willard because Ernie Borgnine kept getting drunk and falling on them, or stepping on them, and King Rat because it was a jungle shoot and the little fuckers kept dying on us in the heat."
"No, no, not rats!" Godfrey said. "Bats! Bats! Tell them about the bats!"
"Oh, yeah, bats," Joe said. Although he was only in his late 40's, or early 50's, Joe's hearing was less than it should be thanks to all the prop guns he'd fired in his career. Joe's main specialty was weird animals - he'd wrangled, rats, roaches, snakes and, apparently, bats. But he had a sideline as a gun wrangler for when the spooky critter business was slow.
He frowned at Godfrey. "What bats are you talking about, Al?"
Our producer/mentor was not the most patient man, except when it came to crew members and other working stiffs. He said, "The ones we used on Mission Impossible. You remember, Joe."
Joe's face lit up. "How could I fucking forget?" he said. He turned to us. "There was this scene where the IM team wants to terrorize this bad guy couple. They're both in bed, fooling around as much as you could fool around in television in those days. Anyway, the deal was that at just the right moment, a mess of bats was supposed to explode out of nowhere and freak them out."
Godfrey, who got his start on the Mission Impossible TV series, added, "Joe was the bat wrangler for the episode. Which turned out to be a real pain in the ass for Joe, and a double pain for us."
Chris and I had just landed a gig at MGM and Godfrey, who knew everybody worth knowing at all the studios in town, was having a little luncheon get together to introduce us to the really important people at the studio. No, not the stars, or the directors, or the producers. But the people who did the actual work: lighting, sound, Foley artists, costumes and makeup, prop masters, set designers, art directors, stunt men and women, and so on. The ones they call the Below The Line Talent, because their credits come last on the Roll.
For me and my partner, it was like auditing a university class, but with scotch and soda privileges. Of course, that was Godfrey's intent. We hung on every word as those battle-scarred veterans of The Biz regaled us with their favorite anecdotes.
It was Joe's turn now, and he was saying: "The main thing about handling bats, is that to control them, you have to keep them cold. Put them in temporary hibernation. I've got little wooden stands with pegs poking out like branches. I call them bat trees. So, I put the bat trees in the cage and start lowering the temperature. Pretty soon the little fuckers get sleepy, hang off the pegs and take little bat snoozes. Then, when you want them to wake up and fly around you just heat them a little. Turn on a space heater, or a heat lamp, and they snap to."
"Pure-dee amazing," Chris said. "Bat trees, huh?"
Joe shrugged. "Every critter has his ways. My brother works with big cats sometimes and he says that for tigers, you have to treat them like a dog. Pick up a stick and say 'No!' real firm like." He downed half a shot, swilled some beer, and added, "And if that don't work, the trick is keep some raw chickens on ice. Toss them a whole chicken and get the hell out of the way."
"That's great about the tigers, Joe," Godfrey said. "But we were talking about bats."
"Yeah, the bats on Mission Impossible," Joe said. He wet his throat again with a shot and some beer, then continued. "So, anyway, while they're setting up the bedroom scene I show up with the bats - all asleep, hanging off the pegs like they're supposed to. I put them over in a quiet corner and go see the director to get the timing of the gag straight. The actors come in and they're all set for bed. Their characters are rich, so he's like in silk PJ's, and the girl's in a sexy nightie.
"But what we didn't know was that some apprentice had moved one of the light stands right over the bat tree. He'd shut the lights off, but they were still hot, you know? Meantime, the director calls for action and the couple climbs into bed and does some light weight smooching. Then there's supposed to be a little talk-talk to further the plot. Back to smooching. Then cue the bats. But, they're still kissing and cuddling when all of a sudden -
"Wham! The bats wake up and fly right at the bed, screaming their little heads off because they're scared. And the actors freak out, especially the girl when one of them gets hung up in her hair. And they're running like hell all over the set, waving their arms, making the bats more scared.
"It would have kept going like that but I got a net and shooed them out of the set. But then they fly up into the the sound stage's cat walks, which are..." he raised a hand over his head... "thirty, forty feet high... so there's no way I can get them down and freeze 'em again. At least, not right away."
Godfrey broke in. "That meant we had to shut down production," he said. "We're talking several thousand dollars an hour here, with the whole crew standing around with nothing to do but scratch their asses."
"Until I get us some more bats," Joe said. "Luckily I had some at the ranch. So, I hustle back, freeze up another batch, and drive like hell to the set. Get everything ready and they do the scene no problem. Except all the sound had to be dubbed later because the bats in the rafters squeaked their little heads off. And it took me days to round them all up and put them back." He leaned closer. "I use crickets," he said. "That's the trick. Bats love crickets. Get them at a bait shop."
A guy on my side said, "Well, bats can be bad, but bears are a whole lot worse. They are not only way the hell bigger, but crankier than shit."
Godfrey said, "Oh, you mean when you were working on Old Yeller, right, George?"
George, who was a set man, said, "Yeah, Old Yeller. I was just a kid. An apprentice. And we were doing the cabin interior and shit. Me and my team also helped put up a big fence around the whole thing - it was about an acre, or so, with the cabin in the middle. The fence was maybe ten feet high. The director wanted to keep the actual animals who lived in the forest out and our animals in."
"You mean like the bear?" I said.
George laughed. "You don't know the half of it, son," he said. He paused while the waitress brought another round, then said, "First I see of the bear is this big old station wagon driving up. And it's real low on the springs, like it's carrying a lot of weight.
"Well, in the back we could see why. Because there was a cage thing back there, with this huge fucking bear, all muzzled and wrapped up in chains. And I mean they were big, thick chains." George made a large circle with two hands to show how big. "And you're thinking, with chains that thick the bear must be pretty damned mean."
He paused to get a drink, then said, "Well, sir, even with the station wagon's gate shut you could see this bear was not in a good mood. No way in hell, was he happy. And you couldn't blame him, because when the bear wrangler opened the gate it was so damned hot in there that the heat just came rushing out like a fucking Santa Ana wind. And a damned smelly wind, too. The bear had shit himself and he didn't look too happy about that either.
"So, the guy prods the bear out with a long pole, with an iron hook on the end. Like you'd use on an elephant, or something. And he says to the director, 'You get everything set and I'll just get him loose from these chains so he can stretch a little. He's been kind of cooped up three-four hours.'
"Now we're all looking at that bear and he is giving us the look back. And he's growling and shaking his head and rattling his chains, and trying to bite the muzzle. And we're getting kind of antsy, you know?"
Chris and I allowed that we would have felt the same.
"And the director's none too happy either. He says, 'You're sure that bear's okay? I mean, he looks pretty mad.'"
The bear wrangler says no worries, he's got his pole and his hook and if the bear gives us any shit, he'll scare him tame with that.
Then he looks around the place, frowning... suddenly acting cautious... like he was expecting cops, or something... and he says, 'You don't have an SPCA guy around, do you?'
"With animals, you're supposed to have a Humane Agency person on duty to make sure they are treated right. But in a Disney movie, the budget's the number one thing. And you have to pay the SPCA inspector wages, which the cheap-ass bosses at Disney think is a waste of their good money."
A woman broke in. Joanie, one of the MGM prop people. "Yeah, my dad worked on Disney's Perry The Squirrel back in the 50's. And you know that bit where Perry is hiding in a log and a fox is trying to get him?"
Chris and I both remembered it well from our childhood Saturday matinee days.
"Well, my dad told us the fox was pretty hard to control with a squirrel just sitting there in this little old log," Joanie said. "He gobbled up six or seven of the poor little things before the director got the shot he wanted. And, no. There wasn't any SPCA person there either."
George nodded. "Same with us. I mean, this was an animal show. Old Yeller's a dog. The main character after the boy. And they're on a farm, so there's other animals. But we almost never had an SPCA guy around. And on that particular day, when we were looking at that poor bear, we were all thinking, maybe we'd have all been a lot better off if there was.
"The director's looking worried, but he's got to do the scene. Time is money and at Disney money is God. So, he tells the bear wrangler that we'd all back off, while he got the bear out of the chains. So he wouldn't feel crowded, or anything. And maybe give the poor thing something to eat and drink, before we got to work.
"So, we back off. And the guy starts unlocking the chains and the bear's getting really pissed, now. The guy pokes him with the pole to make him behave. Then he gets all the chains off, and the muzzle off, and goes to the station wagon to get out some water and whatever, and that bear's head is going back and forth... You know how they look with those long necks... Almost like a big, furry snake, but with a huge head.
"And he spots us and he growls and the bear wrangler turns around and pokes him hard with the pole. This just makes him madder and he forgets us and goes for the guy. Well, quick as a bunny, the bear wrangler jumps into the station wagon and slams the door in the bear's face.
"The bear bangs on the car a bit, then remembers us and turns around to look. And from the way he was acting he was thinking everything was our fault. We keep backing off, then if that damned bear doesn't get up on its hind legs and fucking roar."
George shuddered at the memory. "Jesus, was that a roar! But then director shouts, 'Run!' Like we needed to be told. So, we all take off, the bear roaring and coming after us. But just ahead of us was that big fucking fence we had worked so hard to put up. And right then ten feet looked like fifty feet. But we kept running. And the bear kept running.
"I'm one of the last guys to reach the fence." He paused to lubricate his throat, then said, "Anyway, I hit that fence and the bear's right on me. And I'm climbing like nobody's business. I get just near the top. But then I feel that damned bear grab my shoe.
"And he's pulling me down. But, luckily, I kick the shoe loose and fall over the other side. And damned if he didn't eat my shoe while I watched."
George paused and took a long thirsty swallow of beer. Put a hand on his chest. "Thought my heart was going to come right through," he said. Shook his head, then said, "Took the rest of the damned day to get that bear under control and back in that wagon. Next day, another guy showed up with a different bear. And he wasn't chained. Or mad, or anything. And in the end, we got her done."
Chris and I sat back, looking at George in amazement. Then the others got back into the act trying to top one another with Hollywood stories.
Later, as we were leaving Dear John's, we had to wait a few minutes for a big garbage truck that was blocking our car.
Godfrey said, "You know, when you've been in the business as long as I have, you don't look at anything the same way. Even small things."
"For instance?" I asked. Which, of course, is what he wanted me to do. We didn't mind. It was not only fun to be Godfrey's straight man, but rewarding.
He nodded at the garbage truck, where two men were muscling stinking, overflowing bins to the lift gate. "Like garbage," he said. "You don't even look at garbage the same way."
"What about garbage?" Chris asked dutifully.
Godfrey said, "When I took over production at Vega$ - the Bobby Urich show - the first thing I did was to send for a budget so I could get a feel of what was what. I'm looking at it item by item. And see that this thingamabob cost of hundreds of dollars, and I'm looking at another, and it's hundreds of dollars more. And so on and so forth, down the line. Hundreds of dollars here. Hundreds of dollars there.
"And then I come to an item listed as 'Garbage.' And the cost is ten thousand dollars."
Chris and I were both jolted. "Ten thousand dollars for fucking garbage?" Chris said.
Godfrey grinned. "My reaction exactly. I looked to see what the garbage was for. And find that there's this scene where Urich is looking for clues to a heist at the casino. Turns out somebody tossed it into a garbage bin. So, he hightails it to the spot, but the garbage truck has already hauled it away. He follows it. We have some fun garbage truck-chasing gags. Then he has to crawl into the bin and search through the garbage for the vital clue."
"Okay, so that's what the garbage was for," I said. "Then what?"
"Well, I call in the prop master and ask him how come he's charging me fucking ten thousand dollars for fucking garbage. And he just gives me this look like I'm the one who has lost his marbles.
"And he says, 'But, Al. It costs money for good garbage. Don't you know that?'"
NEXT: THE MOVIE ROCK TYCOON