As one would suspect, a lot can transpire over 30 years. Good, bad, happy, sad, you take it as it comes. I always wanted to be a film critic; just ask my high school counselor. “Film critic” wasn’t even listed in her book of career choices. But I was fortunate in high school to find two teachers who not only understood my dream, but were essential in helping me fulfill it. Carol Clark was my journalism teacher, and gave me the freedom to explore boundaries and improve my skills. David Penhallow taught film criticism and drama, and provided me with an intelligent outlet to discuss film.
Being an entertainment writer opened many doors. In the entertainment business, it’s not what you know, but who you know. You can have all the talent in the world, but without the proper connections you’ll end up hawking cell phones in a mall. The door wasn’t always open, and sometimes I had to kick it down. Connections were eventually made, nurtured and cherished.
Those connections leveled the playing field, giving the Reporter access to events, premieres, parties and so much more. When I talk to people about what I do, they get jealous. They can’t believe I get to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, dance with celebrities, hang out in nightclubs with musicians, be the first to ride a new roller coaster. The funny thing is, I have never taken this job for granted. To me, it’s just what I do. Celebrities are people. Seeing a movie first is cool, but it’s not heart surgery. Being the first to ride a new roller coaster sounds like a blast and,quite frankly, it is. Five years from now, five more coasters will open, and one moment in time becomes that, a moment.
Looking back over the past 30 years, here are ten moments that occupy a special place in my memory:
E.T. go home
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival made its debut in 1986 with the premiere of Just Between Friends, starring Mary Tyler Moore, Christine Lahti and Ted Danson. As a member of the press and veteran of several film festivals, I was in my element. While interviewing Danson, Leeza Gibbons from Entertainment Tonight rudely interrupted us, pulled Danson away, and shoved a television camera in front of his face. I was already peeved at Entertainment Tonight for exploiting their initials (ET) to ride the coattails of the Steven Spielberg film, but I wasn’t about to be shown up by Gibbons, who obviously thought she was something special. Cheers made Danson an important interview, so as the cameras rolled, we stood behind Gibbons exchanging exaggerated sign language. Needless to say, she didn’t use the interview. That was the first and only time I allowed someone to pretend they were better than I. Two years later, my friend and cohort in crime, R. Scott Bolton, and I worked the film festival as press volunteers. Anthony Edwards was in town to promote two films he had on the schedule. I love to cook, and make killer enchiladas. One night I decided to feed everyone at the press booth when we were joined by Edwards. Remember, this was right after Revenge of the Nerds but long before E.R. Even then, I’ll always remember Edwards as being decent and earnest.
E.T. ride premiere
Usually when an amusement park opens a new attraction, they have a press preview day. When Universal Studios Hollywood opened the E.T Ride, they threw a big party benefiting the Starlight Foundation. Ride openings normally include a little introduction, the ride, and then some finger food. When Universal throws Steven Spielberg a party, they go all out. A sound stage near the attraction was transformed into an outdoor forest. Food was everywhere. So were the celebrities, who showed up to support Spielberg and a good cause. The last time I saw this many stars together was at a Betty Ford Center reunion. Scott and I were fortunate to ride the attraction with Spielberg. Too bad it broke down. Didn’t matter. The after-party was incredible. Robin Williams was intrigued by my new camera, took it from me, and went into five minutes of improvisation. Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss were there with their son, who was the spitting image of his father. I adore Paula Prentiss, and as I was talking to her, People magazine took a photo. Found out in the checkout line at Safeway. Of course I showed the photo to everyone who couldn’t believe I was in People magazine.
After a short hiatus, Elton John returned to recording in 1978 with the single, “Ego.” To trumpet the release, the label shot a short movie (music videos were still several years away) and premiered it at the National Theater in Westwood. Robert Emert, a friend since high school, and I headed down Highway 1 for what seemed like an innocuous event, a five-minute film with free popcorn. On the way there, we rear-ended a car, crushing the front end of Robert’s little Honda. Since it was mostly cosmetic damage, we decided to carry on. What was supposed to be a little goof turned into a major goof, at least for us. Imagine our surprise when we pulled up to the National Theater to hundreds of screaming fans, who stood behind velvet ropes to catch a glimpse of rock and roll royalty. We were escorted out of our crushed little car by the valet, walked down the red carpet (who the hell are they?), and entered the theater. Inside was a Who’s Who of rock and roll, a packed house choking down packets of Pop Rocks followed by Champagne chasers. After three screenings of the film, we were escorted across the street to Dillon’s Nightclub, where all three stories were filled with VIPs, free-flowing booze and incredible music.
The Heidi Chronicles Premiere
There is an unwritten rule: Always give critics the best seats. Always. I am always amazed how someone like me can get the best seat in the house. I never expect it, I never complain. I just feel privileged to be in the same theater with the actors on the stage. When we arrived for the premiere of The Heidi Chronicles at the Doolittle Theater, I was a little puzzled because we were assigned balcony seats. Some critics were incensed, and demanded floor seats. Their loss. What they didn’t know was that all the celebrities and VIPs were put in the balcony. Sitting directly on my left was Marion Ross from Happy Days. I love Marion Ross, and apparently so does everyone else. Not only did she include us in her circle, she invited Scott and me to the after-party. It was a great play spent with a great lady.
When Disneyland opens a new attraction, it holds a press event. When it opens a new land, it throws a party. To celebrate the inauguration of ToonTown in 1993, Disneyland held a private party. During the day, my friend Chris Wilson and I explored the new land, which was still under construction. After the park closed, Disneyland rolled out the red carpet. Fantasyland leading up to the entrance of Toontown was transformed into a carnival with game booths, live bands, photo opportunities, great food and, for the first time in a Disney park, alcohol. Champagne flowed freely, and we were allowed to carry our flutes over to the Rivers of America for a private showing of Fantasmic! I’ve been to Disneyland so many times I’ve lost count, but that night was truly magic.
Universal Studios back lot opening
Universal Studios knows how to throw a party, and when it underwent a major expansion in 1991, including new sets in the upper lot, it tied the event together with the Star Trek Adventure. The upper lot was closed to the public, and Universal turned every street into a theme adventure. Roller skating waitresses served hamburgers at Mel’s Drive-In, while cast members from all the Star Trek franchises beamed in for the festivities. Scott and I had met Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry several times, but always as press. So imagine how we felt when we stumbled across Majel Barrett, Roddenberry’s wife (and Nurse Chapel on the original Star Trek). We couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down and chat, sharing wine and having a good time. Then it happened: Roddenberry approached the table. We stood up to introduce ourselves, and he put out his hand and said, Scott, John, nice to see you again. “Not only did he remember us, he took the time to sit down for a while and just talk shop.” Ask any Star Trek fan what this means.
River rafting in the Grand Canyon
When I pitched a story about white-water rafting, little did I realize the request would lead to two life-changing trips. After tackling the rapids of the American River, I was immediately hooked on white water, odd for someone who would rather get wet on the log ride at Magic Mountain. A quick search led me to a week-long Grand Canyon raft trip down the Colorado River. My first trip down the river was the second half of a two-week vacation. One week in Hawaii, fly into Arizona, and then another week on the river. Too bad the airline lost my luggage. After acquiring minimal supplies from an outfitting store, which opened early just to help me out, I set sail with 15 strangers. We were all brought together by one desire: to see the Grand Canyon from the river. Forget the flash flood that took out half our camp, or the injuries that plagued the other half. It was a life-changing experience. When I got home, I learned my mother had died while I was rafting. I kept her ashes for five years, and then decided to take the trip again, this time to sprinkle her ashes on the river. She would have liked that.
Rocky Horror 15th anniversary
Most people only know The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a midnight movie. While in high school, I remember sneaking off to the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles to see the original stage show with Tim Curry and Meatloaf. When the movie was originally released, it bombed, only to find new life on the midnight-movie circuit. Audience participation turned a failure into a phenomenon. My friends and I must have seen Rocky Horror at least a hundred times at the Ventura Theatre. Dressed as the ill-fated rocker Eddie, I even emceed the Halloween Costume Show. So it was exciting when Scott and I were invited to the 15th Anniversary Party for the film. A sound stage on the Fox lot had been transformed into a castle, and giant movie screens were plastered over all the walls. Everyone had their freak on, and when the original cast showed up, the place went nuts. I’ll never forget the sight of 1,000 people in unison doing the Time Warp.
Talk about playing the game to your advantage. While working at the Fox Oxnard Theater in 1982, we attended a sneak preview of E.T. at the Carriage Square Theater. A friend was assistant manager, so we were able to grab seats before the crowd. I knew after watching E.T. that it was going to be more than a movie, it was going to be an event. I also learned the Carriage Square Theater neglected to hand out boxes of promotional buttons. Wanting E.T. at the Fox Oxnard Theater, we used the information to wangle the film away from the Carriage Square. They had no idea, and neither did our home office. This was all done through our booker, who had no idea the theater had been sold and was due to close. So we booked the hottest film on Earth with a 16-week guarantee. Knowing E.T. was special, we put into motion the crazy idea to hold the Ventura County Invitational Premiere. We convinced the studio to give us the print for free, worked magic with a local radio station and corralled dozens of promotional partners. With literally no budget, we managed to pull off one of the best premieres Ventura County ever witnessed. The home office was both shocked (they had a Chuck E. Cheese coming in) and elated (we were making a ton of money).
On the air
When I flew through a car windshield in high school, I believed my dreams of being an on-air film critic were over. Competition was tough enough, even the slightest flaw was fatal. So having a face full of scars didn’t give me much hope. Fortunately, I’ve been able to fulfill the dream, albeit on a local level. When original publisher and editor of the VC Reporter, Nancy Cloutier, was asked to do an entertainment piece on the local cable news, she asked if I could fill in for her one week. I did a review, which led to another review and then another. Before you knew it, I was Cable 6’s Movie Guy. When KTIE became Ventura County’s first broadcast network, Nancy couldn’t make a gig. Once again, I stepped in. You know the rest. For someone who never thought he had a chance, I marvel at all of the chances working for the Ventura County Reporter has provided me.