Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Back to Show Biz

No political injustices outed.  No religious philosophy or devotion discussed, just a story about "the BIZ".
I find that I have come to that point in my career (perhaps my life) when remembering and writing about an experience is almost better than having to do it.  Like yesterday.
This is not to say that it was not fun, I had a blast, there was no pressure no stress but the reality of creating illusion is sometimes a chore.  
Hallmark Channel's show, Home and Family honored Robert Guillaume yesterday.  They gathered as many of his former co-stars from the two series he starred in as were available, and several others there via video clip to honor him. The retrospective on Robert's career in show business was concluded as Robert (Benson) Guillaume was given the "Hollywood Appreciation Award".
Those present in the Universal studio/house that is the set included, Katherine Helmond, Robert Mandan, Rene Auberjonois, Jay Johnson and Bob (me... or more accurately US) along with the dozen or so co-hosts that live in the Home and Family house.  Ted Wass, Jennifer Salt, Dianna Canova, Missy Gold and Billy Crystal made breif appearances via video messages.  They had gathered relative clips from Benson and SOAP in scenes we had done together years ago with Guillaume.  The show was heavy on SOAP clips although Benson was only on that show for two seasons while starring in his own spin off - Benson for seven years.  
Both of those shows were aired in the late 70's through the 80's.   Although it doesn't seem possible, mathematically that works out to be 38 years ago.  Time and age are very dysfunctional companions.  Thirty- eight years ago, when I was working with Robert Guillaume, I was in my late twenties.  It would be another decade before I would actually be 38 years old. Now, that is half of my life span ago.  Looking back is always a shorter trip than contemplating the future.  
SOAP had a younger cast which averaged around my age and an older cast that, well, were older. The older actors, playing our folks, were in their late 40's and early 50's at the time.  They were seasoned veterans of stage, screen and television.  They were the ones we looked to for the guidance of experience through uncharted show business waters.  It is strange to realize that I am older now than they were when we worked together.  This is especially true when this time machine of video clips transports you back to those days. There is nothing as humbling as having a split screen of yourself today looking at work you did almost 4 decades ago. I'm not sure I wish that experience on anyone. 

So here I am sitting on a couch in a fake home on the Universal Studio back lot, attempting to recreate the title shots of SOAP. I remember the original shot like it was yesterday, but today is very different from then.  My adult friends, my mentor actors and leaders shuffled on to the set in wheel chairs with walking canes and physical help.  Katherine Helmond, who was never a tall lady, seems so much shorter than my memory of Aunt Jessica Tate. Robert Mandan would no longer play the dashing philandering overstuffed Armani suite wearing Chester Tate, he would be cast as the grandfather today.  Robert Guilliaume has mostly recovered from a stroke many years ago, but he times his Wit a little more slowly and with limited physicality. I know they are all in their 80's now.  I could have looked up an exact age for each, but why would it matter anyway. This present moment is all that really matters. There have been so many from the cast who have died, it was thrilling to just be around the ones still here. 
Rene Auberjonois looks the same to me.  I have seen him more often over the last few years.  He was the only one there to represent the Benson Show family. He was just back from a trip to Australia, and that is a literal  fact.  He was jet lagged and fried. His plane landed two hours before his call time on the set. He was repeating the same calendar day in his life as he landed the day before he took off from down under.  It is another example of how time seemed to be an irrrelevant mash up, but more importantly it speaks to the trouble freinds would go through just to honor our friend Robert. 
It was one of the hottest days of the year in drought stricken Los Angeles but with a heavy dose of hummidity to make it sticky and uncomfortable. It was also the day the airconditioning failed to come on at the Johnson hacienda.  I took one shirt to wear and one to change into for the show.  Both were dripping wet the moment I put them on. 
The set for Home and Family is an actual house, well an actual movie house. It looks like the real thing except when you look up there is no ceiling nor attic. That space is filled with lights, grids for more lights, microphones and tiny airconditioning ducts that are totally ineffective against the heat from outside and the furnace blast created by the movie lights.  Even though I just put on my jacket for the takes, I had the look of a drowned New York subway rat washed up after Hurricane Sandy.  The makeup team resembled plate spinners as they ran from person to person trying to mop up and powder sweaty faces.  None of the faces seems to be as sweaty as mine.  I kept remembering that old show biz chestnut... "never let them see you sweat" - it was an impossible task to accomplish that day.  
I longed to be in a studio on the Universal Lot with fake walls, fake landscape back drops with tons of room and 30 degrees cooler than this "house". As I looked out the real window at real landscaping, on camera it looked very little different from a well painted back drop. It was hot and tight.  Along with a large regular cast, five guests (with at least one extra person to help them), gaffers, camera operators, cable pullers, sound men, stage managers, prop men, makeup ladies, segment producers wardrobe people and the set decorating crew there were maybe a hundred people crowded into a very warm crowded space.  There were even some shots outside in the yard and on the patio, so the doors needed to be open for cables.  I resorted to standing in a closet that had been converted into the sound department, just to get out of the way.  It was cozy, along with RF receivers, extra sound boards, microphones and cable there were three people claiming that space as their office.  They understood my interloping and tolerated me for a while.  
The coldest place on the lot was my dressing room trailer.  It was 40 degrees and felt like heaven.  Unfortunately it was parked a block away from the set and I was there no longer than 20 minutes over the course of the three hour shoot.  
Robert Mandan, Katherine Helmond, Robert Guillaume
(Chester, Jessica, and Benson)
They sent a car for me so I didn't have to drive. Thankfully so,  because the driver drove me through an entrance to the back area of Universal that I did not know even existed.  On our journey to the set my car passed by one of the Universal City tour trams loaded with tourists. I could hear the tour guide giving his spiel. The riders strained their necks to see who was in the back of the limo.  One person snapped a picture with an iPhone. Thank goodness the windows were heavily tinted. Their fantasies about who might be in that limo would certainly have been dashed if they had seen who it was in reality.  Once again we all participate in the illusion of fantasy even if I was miscast as the "mystery celebrity in the limo" that day.

It was all over too quickly.  I was also there to promote my DVD "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only" which I am told turned out to be a blurb on the credit line at the bottom of the screen.  It was not the reason for being there, it really was to honor Robert.
I was hot and miserable and knew that my red face was not televising well.  Puppet Bob was in perfect makeup and no shine whatsoever.  He is the poster boy for "never let them see you sweat" he never has.   I am sure that viewers watching at home felt like Bob had certainly held his age a lot better than me.  Just before we all ran for the air conditioning I snapped a quick picture of my friends on the couch. Bob Mandan made a Chester face, Katherine's smile shone as ever it did and with trophy in hand the honoree gave me a trademark sly grin. True Pros.  How lucky I am to work with them, to know them, and still be touched by their friendship.  No one said it out loud, but everyone knew it would probably be the last ever SOAP reunion celebration, I'm sorry that I didn't get a selfie with me and Bob in the picture.  But then again... I don't need a picture.. I have my memories and now have this blog to recall that special moment.  Soon it will not be about how hot it was that day, but how special it was. 
As you were,
Jay

9 comments:

P. Grecian said...

Perfect. Just perfect. As you may remember, I love "Soap," and it's thrilling to see the cast back together for a couple of photos.

And if that limo had passed me, I'd've chased it down just to embrace you and tell you how much I admire your continuing work and your humanity.

And your friendship.

Trevor said...

A wonderful and honest account. Thank you for sharing it with us.

It was great to see you all together and, please someone correct me if I'm wrong, I think this was the first televised Soap reunion. Soap continues to be my favorite show of all time and I'm sorry that it's not more popular than it is these days. It's a true gem that was many years ahead of its time.

BTW, I rewatched part of Two and Only today and it struck me that Bob is wearing the same shirt that he wore when you two did the great That 70s Show cameo. Cheers!

swarlock said...

Happy to see the Old gang again. With all the changes happening of late. It's nice to see some familiar faces if only for the moment.

Bless your hearts.

Amanda By Night said...

I am such a fan of Benson and SOAP and really loved reading this, even if it was at times poignant and sometimes maybe a little too honest for the girl who always thinks of Robert Mandan as the flustered lothario of her dreams (I'm not joking). But, I am always happy to see the cast members when I can.

thedavidbeach said...

Soap was one of the reasons I studied vent...loved you in that show

thedavidbeach said...

Soap was one of the reasons I studied vent...loved you in that show

thedavidbeach said...

Soap was one of the reasons I studied vent...loved you in that show

Ignorance Equation Radio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignorance Equation Radio said...

Just watched a 9 minute clip of the reunion I found, amazing stuff. As a fan it was great to see some of the cast back together again. Tomorrow (Sunday October 11th) Jay will be calling into our show, I am as honored as I am excited to talk with Jay about Soap, The Two and Only and the fine art of ventriloquism. Here is a link to tomorrows show, we go live at 5PM EST--->http://tobtr.com/s/7976909