Well Planned Spontaneity

Tinseltown Baby


Nothing good happens at three in the morning. This is the magical time in which drinkers are usually heading home, night workers are in the middle of their shifts and bakers and other morning people are still fast asleep in the beds. At three in the morning, the streets are dark and wide open for the desperate few who are leaving places they have to leave and heading towards places they should have already arrived. Bakers eventually wake up a few moments later to another early morning of warm creativity and delivery drivers are also just then being pulled out of their hardworking slumber to start moving things from here to there.

The night is not a real mysterious place; it is a familiar place which is temporarily cloaked in darkness and fatigue. As children, we view the night as a theater, saturated with ghouls and escaped felons but as adults, we see dark open spaces albeit more and more affected by night blindness. The house and apartment buildings are uniformly dormant with an occasional light politely cursing the darkness due to a still-on television or a light bulb forgotten. We all have moments: we live up to them and let them take us where we have to go even if the night is all around us and if we are too tactically preoccupied with a plan to remain strategically interested in anything else in the night or in the day.

As with bakers and drivers, the early light of the morning also belongs to the dog robbers. A dog robber rolls out of bed and checks his service for messages; no machine or paging system can capture the flavor and depth of requests made on his profession. As he gets into his car, weathered phone books, a state-of-the-art GPS and old maps are strewn in both the passenger seat and the floor mat indicate both a disregard for hygiene as well as showing that he is working, searching, scrounging and looking for a specific list of items which make graduate school scavenger hunts pale in comparison. Tonight is different, as he is not working alone as has been his custom. For many years, he worked the streets as a solo act but too many things and too many demands forced him to take on an assistant. What he did was not something that one could be trained or major in college; he needed innovation, creativity and an ability to deliver things what bordered on the impossible. After numerous wasted interviews and referrals, he found a willing candidate who  needed a job and wasn’t afraid of what was unknown. He wasn’t kidding himself that this person could do his job but the hunger was in her eyes and more importantly, she didn’t fill the silence with vacuous yammerings. Her first night was no different that all of his nights: they had many places to go with a set amount of time to get there. The new person rode shotgun, caffeinated within an inch of her life and willing to do what had to be done.

“Actually, I am doing is dog-robbing," he mutters to his new apprentice. "Were you in the Army? You ever heard of that? He was surprised that he felt that he had to teach or provide context to his profession. Either you got what he did or you didn’t and most people didn’t ask. He is a modern-day scavenger. He usually works off a list that comes from one of the three main customers. His biggest clients come from movie makers; Prop (erty) Masters that are desperately seeking several items to complete a shot. Usually, Prop Masters can fall back on a large inventory of items but often, a cinematographer and/or the screenwriter demand several impossible items and eventually, Mike gets a call at midnight from an exhausted Assistant Producer begging for suits of armor, mandolin strings, a first edition of Mein Kampf, an albino Great Dane or a pristine version of the Mousetrap game.

His tools span the spectrum of predictable (phone books) to the non-traditional (gay newspapers) with frequent stops to search eBay, Craig's list and other auction sites with one of his numerous smart phones. He had hundreds of snapshots of items (each with phone numbers and other details on the back), membership rosters, a police scanner and a copy of U.S. Customs import regulations.

“I once found three old style English phone booths in St. Louis that were sent overnight for a movie in Tucson. I got a call from some kid at lunch and before the day was through, they were already being delivered to the movie shoot. That one was easy.”

Mike had worked alone and only now is adding an Assistant after a decade of being a one man operation. He decided that he needs someone on the inside to take the initial phone call, maintain the growing inventory of items that make up his world (many props are sent back to him with full knowledge they may pay for it all over again down the road) and to work the computers. He is most effective working out in the field and that adrenaline that is generated from his frantic searches is the only thing that he enjoys. The actual acquisition of an item provides some satisfaction but most of the time, it is anti-climatic as it signifies the end of a hunt. 

Based in Los Angeles, his work day begins early with a series of visits to some of his favorite haunts including studio liquidation areas, flea markets, pawn shops and police auctions. He also continually looks for unique items to pre-buy as he has been very successful in identifying potential item sand buying it ahead of anyone else. He stays away from costumes and other size-specific items because different sizes mean less of a chance of success. Costumes can be churned out in a dozen back lot tailor shops but owning an exact replica of a Gemini space capsule or a twelve-foot mosquito has come in handy several times. He current thought process is how to immediately get paid via a smart phone application but the thought of giving up seven percent has caused him to protest this shakedown and to date, he had remained steadfastly old school on his payables and receivables.

As such, his prices are fairly high but the people reliably get what they need with no excuses or alterations. He has reduced his prices slightly through bartering film credits, walk-on roles for friends and referrals but he is regarded as a sure bet to find something that is out there, somewhere. Mike has made several attempts at writing a book about his adventures but having time to write down his anecdotes has always been difficult. It is tough enough to invoice places correctly that his internal stories have always suffered. Large movie studios are historically slow invoice processors so he makes it up by working within the system. His standard contract allows him to re-acquire, at his option, any item that has completed principle photography. This option terminates once his invoice has been paid and only two times in ten years has he not enjoyed the double-dip.

“I once had a three-legged dog in three movies in two days,” smiled Mike over a quick cup of coffee. “ Paramount finished shooting by ten in the morning and since my invoice was still in the Prop Master’s hand, I took the pooch home. Usually, animals are either on the set for months or for just an hour or two. In this case, none of the main actors were on set so it was rare for someone to attempt to adopt the dog.”

“Then what happened?” The new Assistant asked.

“As soon as we left the gate, I got a call from Warner’s and do you know what they wanted?”

“A three legged dog?”

“No, a three legged cat.” I told them I would call them back but I sounded pessimistic. If you are going to under-deliver, give them time to get used to the idea.”

“So, what happened next?”

“I started driving over to Warner Brothers and I called them back. I told the Prop Master that I had a cute three legged dog but no cat.”

“What did they say?”

They said, “It is close enough, bring it in.”

“So, the pooch went over to the lot, did several scenes and we were out by five. On the way home, I got another call, this time from Paramount asking for a sympathetic looking animal for a television pilot.”

“I bet you had an idea.”

“I did, they loved the dog and the next morning, he went over there and got the gig. The pilot was picked up and he was on for two seasons. Since it was steady work, he needed an owner to be with him on the set.”

“What happened to the dog?”

“My sister owns him, I see him all the time. He even gets residuals and appearance fees from the fan club. He is a happy dog.”

The phone impressively rings constantly. The majority of the calls are from desperate people because the need can be rarely planned in advance. If he can’t help them, he tries to provide them with a name or clue to give them hope. But more often that not, the panic usually means more money and when the “emergency” call happens, his adrenaline starts generating. Mike estimates that he is successful about eighty percent of the time.

“Sometimes, when I sense flexibility in their voice, I can fall back on my inventory or one of my competitors.”

“Isn’t that unethical?”

Mike laughs and coffee almost comes out of his nose. “This is Hollywood and the show must go on.”

Mike learned a long time ago that he could either establish an arrangement with key competitors in town or allow them to at least get a taste of some business or fight amongst themselves and see everyone suffer.

“I work the major studios and do a lot of pilot work. Some others will concentrate on major television, cable television or independent work. The independent work is the most enjoyable but you break even at best.”

“If I can’t help them, I tell them that right away.”

“That is commendable.”

“I agree but it also good business. These entertainment people are mainly career transients and at the bottom of the show business food chain. The good ones will get promoted and the poor ones are on a plane back to Grosse Pointe to Mom and Dad within six months of arriving here. The most fun are top-flight actors who start producing and directing their pet projects; those connections come in handy all the time."

Mike has found that keeping his rates flexible has been another key to his success. The charges vary per job and time commitment but he knows he is high-priced but not obscenely so. He gives breaks to new producers, independent films and people that he has worked with on previous occasions. Most of his work is reactive; people call and he fills their needs. Tonight, he needs to find an actual gondola, a working medieval catapult and double necked Gibson SG guitar. He has a line on all three of them and is busily making calls. The duo heads out to Venice Beach and Mike pulls into a non-descript driveway. He flashes his lights and a man walks out of a beach house with a large guitar case. Mike shakes his hand and gives him a down payment on the rental of the instrument. The new person takes notes, per Mike, and opens the case and inspects the guitar, copies down the serial number and provides a receipt. The guitar, in pristine condition, is one of maybe five in California and is needed for a scene with a MTV movie documentary of Led Zeppelin. The director was some fanatic and demanded the image in the scene. It really didn’t matter to Mike; it was just one down and two to go.

Most movies begin work early in the morning so most of Mike’s work has to be taken care of prior to the morning shoot. Any adjustments occur right away before the camera shots are blocked and if the dog robber under-delivers, scripts can be rewritten and expectations can be shuffled before anything substantial happen. If crews are counting on a key prop and it fails to materialize, significant costs are added to the production due to unnecessary rework because someone didn’t do what they promised. Mike prided himself on rarely, if ever, disappointing producers and if he did fail, he notified them immediately not to surprise anyone. People in the movie business hated, absolutely hated surprises.

The gondola and catapult are dealt with over the phone. He had a gondola in his warehouse and another dog robber had two catapults that might work. Mike told him to deliver the “spookiest” one of the two. The list had been finished and all three items were at the studios, time for coffee. Mike could go home for sleep and start up again after lunch. Sleeping from four in the morning until noon would guarantee a few frantic calls from people that he could work in the afternoon. Mike told his new assistant to come back, if she wished, and he would buy her lunch.

She drove home with her heart racing; this was as fun as she ever had since she was a kid. Driving around, consorting with mysterious and shadowy figures, and making things happen that normal people could not imagine doing was tremendously enjoyable. She lay in bed, curtains drawn per Mike’s suggestion, and her heart was racing. “What was the next thing?” she thought and she fell asleep running through a litany of bizarre objects d’art and antique weaponry. She didn’t know what was coming next and during the pinnacle of her thoughts, she fell dead asleep.

The phone rang. It was twelve-thirty and Mike told her to meet him at a nearby café. She began to dress the part of an insider: primarily black clothes with comfortable shoes and a swagger of knowing a secret. Mike made a magnanimous point of introducing her to movie folks, contacts and other folks that actually knew what Mike did. He had no interest in keeping her under his thumb: if she worked out, they could be a great team. Eventually, she would be encouraged to strike out on her own and they could still pair up on hundreds of jobs. Either way, they would both win if she could maintain her love of the job. They sat there, in a café known only to locals, and added to the overall insider vibe. She loved her job and could not wait for the next call.

She didn’t have to wait long: Mike’s first cell phone started ringing and while he was taking the call, cell phone number two began to ring. He tossed it her and told her to take care of it.

“Mike’s phone.”

A pitiful and excited voice emerged from the phone, “Is he there?”

“He is on the other phone, what do you need?” She had a natural reassurance to her voice and she noticed his breathing was stabilizing.

“Who is this?” asked the slightly less pitiful voice.

“This is his assistant, Amelia. Talk to me, what do you need?”

“Mike has an assistant?”

“What do you need or are you just calling up for personnel updates?”

Her smartass comment allowed him to gain his concentration again. “Oh, that’s right. I need the Batmobile today.”

“The Batmobile? Today?”

Mike looked up at her and held out his hand, five fingers. She paused to gauge his need and the voice repeated, “Yes, today. It is critical and I need it for three hours and we will take care of the releases.”

“Six thousand dollars.”

The voice squeaked “Deal.” She got his name, studio and said they were on their way.

Mike smiled and when he was done with his call, speed dialed his phone and said, “I need the car, three hours, two thousand dollars.” There was a pause and he concluded the call with a reassurance of his own and muttered “Of course I will.”

They got up from the café and got into his car. Mike started to drive and asked “Where does the Batmobile have to go?”

“Two things,” said Mike. “It is ‘a Batmobile’ and Fox, lot four.”

“Fine, we will swing by and pick it up and get to the Fox lot within a few minutes. “ Sure enough, a few minutes later they pulled into a large, clean warehouse and drove out with a small semi trailer. And inside was one of the three working Batmobiles in the entire country. The truck had no markings or ownership labels and when Mike pulled into the Fox front gate, the guards waved him through. He knew every working guard in town and when they saw him, they knew time was money. He figured he was able to drive in without stopping but it was always fun to shoot the breeze with the guards, flip off some friends and keep the contacts fresh and loyal.

They dropped off the keys with the Prop Master and asked to borrow a fleet car. A set of keys were thrown to him and within thirty minutes of the phone call, they had made their money. They drove over to Mike’s warehouse and loaded the trunk with actual medieval broadswords. He had a feeling that the catapult would also bring opportunities for other weapons but until his phone rang earlier, he couldn’t be sure. The twelve actual swords weighed about thirty pounds each and each one was a dangerous and freakishly sharp weapon. The prop guys could make replicas but if you needed to photograph a sword’s glint or actually hear the swords collide, no sound designer or Foley artist can effectively replicate the sound of metal on metal. They filled the fleet car’s trunk with swords and buzzed over to an independent studio. Mike knew these guards and drove through with just a wave of his hand. He backed the car up to a studio door and honked the horn. Seconds later, several best boys and assistant producers emerged and gathered up the swords. He shook hands with one of them and whispered something to her and they both laughed.

Amelia had inventoried the swords on the way over so the hand off was quick and business like. They had contracted the swords for a week and Mike asked Amelia nicely to fax the invoice to them once they got to their next destination. They stopped at the café again, had another cup of coffee and looked back on the day.

“So, what did you learn?” asked Mike.

“Well, I learned that frantic people are good customers.”

“Anything else?”

“If you can help them, tell them that so they can get on to their next challenge. If you can’t help them, be polite and don’t waste their time.”

“Those are good insights,” said Mike. “This town is full of creative, high-strung people who have been doing magical things for a living. The thought of leaving this business scares them so every task is a chance to wonderfully succeed or fail miserably.”

“I thought we had a tough gig.”

“We have daily challenges but these guys are deeply in their profession. Every thing is a life or death dilemma and it wears on them. I try to be nice but time is money. My contacts are established over the years but I am not naive enough to believe that they all would abandon me if I didn’t consistently deliver. Let’s go.”

Mike and Amelia drove over to his warehouse and during the trip; Amelia got a quick summary of waiting calls from the service. The warehouse was a large trapezoid that intersected numerous cross streets. As a result, there were at least five separate and distinct addresses assigned to the building. Built in the early thirties, the town of Hollywood grew around the building and the odd structure was just another charming piece of the movie and television industry. Mike shared the building with several other dog robbers and they quietly decided to pool their inventory for a majority of their requests. A few old pros knew of the deal but no one cared: if you could get a Panzer tank, a portable ice rink, a tilt-a-whirl and one hundred manhole covers to the Paramount lot by noon, do it. This was show business and time was money.

Mike had several key contacts with the union locals: Hollywood had unions for almost every discipline. The traditional ones included plasterers, electricians, projectionists, metal workers, and the non-traditional unions included portrait artists that could quickly paint portraits from fax copies and have them framed and mounted within a few hours, sculptors creating replica copies of famous statues or custom pieces as vanity backdrops. Mike always worked within the system, as a general point of pride, but made sure that he always was compensated fairly.

The warehouse was full of stuff: chandeliers, cars, vintage house wares, over sized furniture, coffins, kitchen tables, art deco clocks, unicycles and bicycles built for two, Oriental and Turkish rugs, band instruments (including a large gong), car parts, an old but realistic rocket ship, vintage vending machines, desks, a zinc bar, old office equipment, floodlights, a push mower, several ball muskets and swords, a fifty-foot high monkey and a series of stacked office doors that were lettered with things like ‘Nick Solo, Private Investigator.’ Most of the stuff was used and returned to Mike and the other robbers because studios usually disband movies quickly. The areas needed to be freed up for the next production and their back lots didn’t have the room for excess inventory. In addition to quick changing movies, the executives usually turned over so fast that most proprietary issues were ignored with new regimes coming in. “Do you want it?” was a common phrase in the back lots, “then take it” and Mike calmly called for a transport truck and the item was taken off their hands, categorized and placed into inventory with not a lot of attention drawn to the deal. .

“Impressive.”

“I love that monkey,” said Mike. “He is out more than me. A fraternity rented him for a week and brought him back cleaner that he went out. Originally, they were going to put him on the roof of their house for rush week but they decided it looked cooler, on his back, in their great hall. There was not a mark on him”

It was time to eat and on the way to the restaurant, Amelia asked simply, “Why are we called Dog Robbers?”

“This story isn’t half as interesting as the monkey,” smiled Mike. “Its usage originally comes from the Army: an aide to some hotshot officer has no problem stealing a dog's dinner to feed his superior officer. It evolved over time to include people that deliver things, anything, on time. No one asks a lot of questions usually because they are under backbreaking timetables themselves.”

Over coffee, Mike finally fell into a cliché when the phrase “the town had thousands of stories” but he meant it. He personally had witnessed insecure and selfish actors and actresses that were nothing like their on-screen persona to the fascinating personalities of people who were around movies but no one knew about. Old school gaffers that had worked with Chaplin and John Ford, stunt men that pulled gags forty years ago that gave them legend status even today and makeup people who painted the million dollar faces that made the movies. Only movie stars made the big money as most workers were members of the union with pay rates that were in line with most light industrial positions in most cities. What made their jobs different is that they worked with magic and make believe and at times, the love of hearing the word "moxie."

“One time we needed an earthmover and a steam shovel. We had to “borrow” them from a construction crew on the weekend. They left the keys in the equipment, we used them and brought them back and everyone went to the premiere. That is an example of a dog robber using guile and creativity to deliver.”

“Sounds like a victimless crime?”

“Where was the crime?” asked Mike. “No one got hurt, no productivity was endangered and all participants benefited from something. That was a beautiful thing.”

“It all seems so loose and slippery.”

“Well, Type A personalities don’t last long in Hollywood,” said Mike. “You have to know when to go with the flow and you have to also when something is an absolute deadline. People can go from one end of the spectrum to the other in a single conversation so I pride myself on the hard deliverables.”

He checked his watch and threw some money down on the counter. Amelia noticed it was a healthy tip and Mike caught her eye and said, “These waiters and waitresses are all in the business, they are just between jobs. We help where we can.”

Amelia nodded and personally decided her opinion was inconsequential. As they got to Mike’s car, they were getting into a pattern with Mike driving and she was checking the voice mail. Her memory was good but she still felt compelled to paraphrase every message to Mike as he drove.

“Warner Brothers needs a tree house, two days. They are freaking.”

“No problem, we will call Ferdie. He has a couple. We’ll take the assist on that one and let him have it.”

Amelia knew that they just made ten percent by referring the call to Mike’s friend. Ferdie will act like the house is Mike’s and Mike will hand ninety percent of the payment back to him. Ferdie was a renter of Mike’s warehouse so it all stayed in the family. Mike explained that it was bad business to play telephone tag with an anxious studio; Ferdie would take care of the whole thing and in a few days, they would likely reverse roles.

“Sony needs a Fire Truck. One day, big and red.”

“No problem, when we get back we can ask what kind. I think we have about six or seven that will work. Oh, remind me to remind them NOT to repaint it.”

“Check. And Phi Gamma Nu wants the Monkey for the weekend.”

“Check again. Anyone who cleans my monkey is my friend.”

Amelia smiled and said, “You have to love a clean monkey.”

Mike smiled back and accelerated. "It was time to get back to work," he said. "It's showtime.”

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