MacArthur Park Wasn't Melting in the Rain That Day.
Let me begin with a couple of very important lessons, learned early in my career as a Mad Ave copywriter: One: if you write on-camera dialogue, you get to go to the shoot. If you write voice-over copy, you get to go as far as the local recording studio. I learned to write dialogue.
Two: if you write outdoor commercials that have to be produced in the winter, you will shoot them in warm locations.
Here's how fate can play tricks, even when you follow those rules. We had one day to shoot three on-location commercials in Los Angeles. It was a day in March.
Everybody knows why the film industry settled and prospered in southern California -- the weather. So we didn't worry.
Across the street from MacArthur Park is a fabulous old building, now the Park Plaza Hotel, built originally as an Elks Club. It's a favorite location of filmdom, and in fact, the day we were shooting in front of the building, because it could look like a bank, two other companies were shooting there -- Steven Seagal's crew was setting up a drug lord's lair in the building's indoor swimming pool on the lower level, and up on the roof Robert Stack was filming an intro to a segment of Unsolved Mysteries. And you've seen the staircase to the mezzanine level in countless movies and TV shows.
For the main commercial we were to shoot that day, I had written a “one take” commercial, which is a spot that requires an actor to do the entire spot without a cut -- always a difficult task, but, when it works, very effective. The commercial, conceived by my art director, was ostensibly a stand-up -- an announcer talking to the camera. But this one had a twist -- what he was promoting was a giveaway promotion at Krystal, a chain of hamburger restaurants -- sort of the White Castle of the South.
The copy went something like this: “peel off the tab from the soft drink cup and you could win up to five thousand dollars.”
As the spokesman walked from the guarded armored car in front of the “bank,” he held up the winning tab, then announced that if you found a “double the prize” tab, you'd win ten thousand dollars. This makes his eyes light up, as he realizes he has the actual winning tab in his hand, and he starts running away, with the armed guard chasing him, and the spot dissolves into chaos and the product shot.
The problem was, it was a lot of copy and a lot of precise movement, and it was cold. Not just morning mist cold, but exactly like this very mid-December morning in the suburbs of Albany, New York – cold enough that if it rained, the water would freeze before it hit. And it did rain.
Here we were, agency people and production company from New York, in summery clothes, shivering with cups of coffee in our hands. We shot the commercial, in between downbursts of ice, and ended up with just one good take, which we used. The other spots we shot that day were shot in other parts of MacArthur Park, and were all MOS (an old movie term that means silent, but allegedly comes from the mouth of a German Director who abbreviated his own term, Mit Out Sprechen, and it stuck), so we got them out of the way quickly and headed back to our hotel bar for warmth. One of our beautiful models cavorting in one of the spots was one of the two gorgeous daughters of Tommy Chong, either Robbi or Rae Dawn, and I wish I could remember which one.
Another footnote to the day and place -- MacArthur Park was the hangout of a lot of homeless people in the eighties (it might still be), and the catering that was provided for cast and crew, as usual, was much more than any such group of people could eat in a day.
It didn't go to waste -- we provided a veritable feast for the homeless of the area that day, giving them every edible morsel that was left -- and it was a lot.
Next time: Teaching and Learning.