Thursday, October 09, 2014

René the Artist

This is one of my favorite pictures of René in his "shop". I always preferred to call it his studio. The word shop seemed more appropriate for guys working on automobiles. In this Burbank space artists of varying talents sculpted heads from clay and designed miniature stage wardrobe for a tiny dancers and singers on strings. Other than the occasional reference to René's vintage Jaguar convertible there was never any "garage talk".  It is a studio. It holds a lifetime of memories for me.
"The Way I remember the Maestro."
Over the last 40 years I have lost count of how many hours I have spent sitting on a shop stool listening to René tell stories while we painted, glued but mostly sanded pink neoprene molded body parts. It was right there that I heard tales of the Ed Sullivan Show and days of the Hollywood Palace.  It is impossible to recall all the things I learned from watching René but for sure he taught me how to do "finish sanding".  
Since René painted his puppets with an airbrush finish the sanding had to be perfectly smooth.  Under an artistically applied base coat of lacquer paint, a slight error in sanding would stand out like a lighthouse beacon.  Several times a body part would be sent back to the sanding table for me to "work on" again, after that first coat of paint.  Since he never threw away sandpaper it was always a tough selection finding just the right piece with just the right level of wear to accomplish the task.  I didn't mind because sanding time meant more time for us to swap stories.  Besides I was only at the "shop" because I wanted to be there, not because I was on the clock. 
One of René's Creations
During the early days of my career I used that shop as a hiding place to get away.  In a day before cell phones it was easier to drop off the grid.  If I had a business deal to consider, a script to learn or just needed to vanish from show business for a while, the shop was the perfect Bat cave.  There were plenty of projects at the shop to take one's mind off just about any decision.  The Maestro (a name I gave to René - the lead puppeteer is always called the Master Puppeteer, so he was always the Maestro to me) was a strict gate keeper.  Even my personal manager did not have the number to the shop.  Unless it was Sandi trying to reach me I was "not there".  
Perhaps our best collaboration was for a short lived series called "Mrs Columbo".  The story was written for me and involved  (what else) but a crazy ventriloquist.  My character kills a puppet maker in his workshop.  The ventriloquist makes it look like a robbery but becomes haunted by a puppet who "witnessed" the killing .  It was my first dramatic acting role and I was trying to prepare for an experience I never had before.  
René was contracted to make the puppets for the script and they used a lot of  his work to dress the set.  The actual shooting workshop was very similar to the picture above. 
It was a couple of days before we started shooting the show. It was probably after 10:00 pm and the shop was dark and empty except for me and René. The Maestro was finishing up the puppets for the show, I was a nervous wreck. Since the set was very similar to the actual shop I decided to rehearse the murder scene while the Maestro was painting the final touches on a puppet face.  He was paying absolutely no attention to the words from the script I was yelling trying to make believable.  I tested several moves around the room to see what felt better.  
With the Maestro sitting in almost the same position in the same chair as in the picture above I was totally immersed in my character as a killer.  With all the method I knew to employ I started to picture how this character would kill a puppet maker in his own workshop.  Not thinking how it sounded that evening, I walked up behind the Maestro and calmly said, " Maestro, If I was going to kill you right now, what would I use to do it?"
René did not turn around nor did he pause to think or even divert his attention away from painting eyebrows on a puppet.  He simply grabbed a tool from his desk, and passed it back over his shoulder to me and said, "I'd use this." 
It was a wood worker's awl... a very sharp, heavy duty ice pick of a tool which, indeed, would make a very formidable murder weapon.  Even though I mimed a couple of stabbing motions in the Maestro's direction he neither flinched nor turned in my direction.   Although the director of the episode decided that the murder weapon should be a chisel on the day of shooting,  I still think the Maestro was correct in the selection of the right tool for the right job.  
I never thought of the Maestro as old, just older.  Over the last few years when he would express his frustration over the advancement of age,  I would tease him.  I thought he was teasing back one day when he said that one of his hands was older than the other.  He held out his hands turning them  palms up and palms down.  His left hand was much more wrinkled, worn and aged than his right hand. The difference was startling, his left hand looked like it belonged to another person 20 years older. It seems that the years of holding a puppet in his left hand while airbrushing lacquer based paint with his right hand had taken a toxic toll on his skin.  Clearly his left hand was much older looking than his right.  It was a graphic example of how our art expresses itself on our mortal coil. 
Only a few people knew that René was hospitalized after a stroke a week ago.  Yesterday with his life partner on one side and his business partner on the other, the Maestro took in one last breath and left the world stage.  The Maestro always said you could tell a professional by the way he took his exit bow.  René's final exit bow was humble, quiet, peaceful and he left us wanting more.He was definitely a Pro.  Rest in Peace, Maestro.
As you were,


JGregV in L.A. said...

Absolutely beautiful personal remembrance, Jay. Thank you!

Gwyn Oswin said...

Wonderful tribute, Jay. I've always thought it would be fantastic to hang around in a studio like that, with someone so talented and amazing. And thank you so much for sharing the "Mrs. Columbo" story!

[Note to fans: Jay's episode of "Mrs. Columbo" is featured as an extra in the "Columbo" complete set of DVDs.]

Unknown said...

Yes Jay, thank you so much for the beautiful words. I already miss my good friend, and still can't really fathom that I won't see him again in this place...

Wayne Martin Puppets said...

A very deserving tribute for a great artist. Thanks for sharing Jay.

Wayne Martin
Wayne Martin Puppets

Anonymous said...

Blessings on Maestro's spirit, he is Home, young, and happy, watching you continue.. And blessings to you in your life, may your career continue as long as you wish.. I am watching reruns of "Soap" on Logo now, still love the show!

David Gotwald said...

Beautifully said Jay. A loving tribute to a wise and caring fellow.

steve abrams said...

Thanks for this beautiful and loving tribute.
Steve Abrams

Pete Biro said...

Jay, so well written. A great tribute. Thanks for your blog.

RouxBDoo said...

Thanks Jay, in 1982 I bought my Walter Ego from Rene but never had the opportunity to meet him, I now regret this. I still have my buddy he crafted for me. Nice tribute.