Saturday, April 04, 2020

Monday, December 02, 2019

Chicken History

I needed work. There was a new animation studio opening in San Diego. I packed up a bag and headed down from LA to create a promotional film for Odyssey Productions. They were located in an office building in Mission Valley.

One day I squeezed into the elevator, filled with Prudential Insurance employees in suits, clutching an armful of Fisher Price toys I was planning to stop-motion animate. One of the suits commented, “Aren’t you little old to be playing with those?”

Just before the doors to my floor opened I replied, “I sold insurance when I was six. I’m just trying to make up for lost time.” I exited quickly.

In the midst of working on the film I’d entitled Adventures Of A Red Ball, I overheard the producer discussing a bid for an animated TV commercial for a local radio station. There was some mention of a chicken tie-in but I never understood what that was all about. After all, I was merely eavesdropping. All I really knew was he had to submit a bid by the following day.

I suggested that I stop what I was doing and animate a chicken that could accompany the bid. This would entail shooting the animation in-house on 16mm black and white film and developing it in the men’s room down the hall. When I got the okay I set to work.

In order to create a lot of animation in a short time I employed a technique called crawls, whereby I would have my cartoon chicken strike a series of ridiculous acrobatic poses and then hand trace them several times. When shot in random order it would give the chicken a sense of aliveness while holding the poses, as opposed to being a static drawing. In this way I was able to create about 45 seconds of animation in one sitting. Once shot and developed in the men’s room the film was stretched out to dry in a closet using a series of paperclips. When dry it was rolled up on a yellow plastic core and taken into the ad agency the following day.

Meanwhile, I had plans to fly to New York for a meeting. This was not to be. The producer returned from the meeting and informed me that my chicken had clinched the deal. I would have to delay my flight in order to create some storyboarded ad ideas. At the same time, local animator/artists would submit chicken designs. The artist whose chicken was selected by the client would go on to animate it.

I came up with several ad ideas and spent more time creating nice storyboard panels than I spent drawing inside them. With less than an hour left I sketched in my ideas. They were laid out on a large table next to the rapidly gathered submissions from the other artists.

In my mind I had one foot in New York by the time the folks from Grant-Rogandino Advertising and KGB Radio showed up. I bit my lower lip as they circled the table surveying all the offerings. Then they went into a private huddle on the other side of the room. When they emerged they said which ad idea they liked. Great. Then they announced that the chicken they liked was the one in the storyboards. What?

Change of flight plans. I now had to stick around to direct and animate the commercial. Which I did, adding my own signature “Ga-bawk!” to the sound track.

As soon as I was finished I left for New York. When I returned a week later I was backing out of a parking space in El Cajon. When I looked back over my shoulder I nearly screamed. My back window was filled with my cartoon chicken on the side of a municipal bus. My TV spot soon filled the airwaves as my chicken gently clutched her glowing eggs in a rocking chair to the sound of the Allman Brothers.

KGB Radio soon led in the ratings. By the next cycle the ad agency circumnavigated the production house and brought me in write copy. From this meeting came the immortal words, “KGB Radio…Rock Around The Cluck”. These words soon appeared ala spray paint graffiti on billboards all over town. Next to them stood the huge image of a chicken holding a paint can. This was the first live incarnation of the KGB Chicken, inhabited by young Ted Giannoulas.

Hired at $2/hr initially, the radio station had no idea what they’d done by putting Ted in that suit to hand out tickets and such. A much more attractive suit would follow, later to evolve into the Famous Chicken when the tight leash of KGB Radio was severed. That is Ted’s story and it’s epic.

As for me, on the next round KGB Radio approached me directly and offered me the entire advertising account. I was in the process of flying the coop at that time and turned them down. I would soon move to northern California, once again writing as well as animating for Sesame Street, then onward to a feature with Lucasfilm and everything else that has followed.

Due to Ted Giannoulas’ amazing creativity and energy I have never been able to look over my shoulder and see the Chicken as a part of my past. Because he had been at it all these years. Somewhere in the universe there is this crazy chicken energy field that overtook me years ago and then found Ted. It is an energy field that touched the likes of Harpo Marx and Buster Keaton. It is bigger than Colonel Sanders. May it never die.  

Friday, October 18, 2019

Monday, September 09, 2019

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Of Fire and Water

Water was on my mind this morning as I donned my rain shoes, like every other morning this soggy winter. That’s when I noticed the tiny rubber blister near the right toe. It’s a souvenir of years of men’s group meetings at my friend Bob’s house. Unless it was pouring rain you would find us sitting around a fire pit under an oak tree every Tuesday night, as his man-made waterfall trickled into his koi pond nearby. 

The blister brought me back to fire. It was a product of warming my feet too close to the fire on a rainy night. Fire and water. Two destructive forces that have ravaged our community in recent times. 

A few years ago I elected to trade in one men’s group for another. It was a matter of Tuesday night commitments. I took the opportunity to join a band called Old On Meds. We met at Tony’s house, a mile and a half up Mark West Springs Road from Bob’s mini farm. There was a half-mile long private road that wound through the woods to get to Tony’s property. In a separate little building Tony had set up his very own recording studio. It would house my drums for years, along with all the guitars, amps, speakers, computers and 16 track mixing boards that comprise such an endeavor. I would sit with my back to a set of French doors that opened to a spectacular view of rolling mountains as the bass player’s dog, Rickie, would lick my hands whenever we began to play. There would be years of musical memories made there, including adding a Rickie-Lickie towel to my drum kit, so I could dry my hands.

A series of catastrophic fires began in the area a few years ago. The first came out of Lake County and moved south, consuming whole mountains in its path, ravaging the town of Middletown and destroying a beloved hot springs resort called Harbin. Tony and I, both being pilots, eventually took to the air with a photographer in the back of the plane. The fire was still technically burning, though I couldn’t see any smoke, as we overflew the area at a minimum of 7,500 feet. The photographer had a 600-millimeter lens. I had a list of addresses given to us by landowners who were concerned to find out if their homes still existed. We did the best we could. It was difficult to navigate among ash. It took us the better part of an hour to circumnavigate the whole disaster. It stretched all the way from Clear Lake to Lake Berryessa. One couldn’t help but feel bad for the locals who lost everything in the devastation far below. Little did we know what fire would soon bring our way. 

In October of 2018 my wife had joined her brother Dennis, a Santa Rosa resident, in driving to Southern California for a wedding. I was home alone at 4 AM when a series of forceful knocks at the front door roused me from a deep sleep. I stumbled downstairs as my brain tried the make sense of the situation. It quickly informed that it must be my wife, Robin, having returned home early and discovering she didn’t have her keys. That thought balloon quickly burst as I opened the door to find a female police officer standing there. 

“Fire! Get out now!’

Now my brain had new material to chew on, starting with WTF? I shut the door and walked to the kitchen to look out the back where two mountains, Taylor Mountain and Sonoma Mountain, gently fold into one another. One of them (or both?) was on fire. The sky glowed orange and 40-foot flames licked upward, consuming trees. Holy shit!

I got dressed as fast as humanly possible. Now my brain had a new job and, believe me, it wasn’t firing on all cylinders at that hour. What do I grab on the run with the prospect of losing everything else. It came down to about five things: an oil painting of Meher Baba, a small safe containing important papers, two computers and a wolf puppet from one of our TV shows.

I retreated to a friend’s house farther south where I was joined by other local evacuees for a long, tense afternoon, wondering if everything in your life is gone. I didn’t talk to Robin until later. There was no sense in waking her early to cut her in on the trauma, especially when I didn’t know what to tell her about the outcome, except that I was okay. By the afternoon we were allowed back into our neighborhood under voluntary evacuation status. I took advantage to stuff my car with more belongings, including a trunk now full of puppets. It looked like a Mafia hit job on Sesame Street. 

The wind was kind to all of us in Rohnert Park. It blew the fire southward towards Penngrove. Over the next couple of days volunteers from a local construction company, Ghilotti Brothers, tore up the pastures that surround our home with plows and bulldozers, creating a huge fire break. We dodged a bullet.

Bob and Tony did not. They both lived in the canyon that funneled the fire from its origins in Calistoga down into San Rosa, crossing the freeway and adding 1,000 homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood to its list of victims. Along that route it also destroyed the home of my friend Brian Fies. A graphic novelist, he immediately began chronicling the horror he experienced and funneled into a book called A Fire Story (published by Abrams). It is personal, powerful and universal all at the same time. Read it if you want to understand the experience that thousands have gone through. 

My wife Robin and her brother stayed with their mother near Ojai for two weeks while those of us up north trudged around looking like a nation of surgeons as we attempted to breathe through our masks. Her brother Dennis lives in an area called Fountaingrove. It is a mountain covered in spectacular homes. Or, I should say, it was. The whole place lit up like a birthday cake. Access to the ruins of this fire was not available until the day they drove up from the south. It was first day we saw blue sky around here and they soon learned that Dennis’ low-lying street was the only one remaining on the mountain. 

It was around that time that I was finally able to drive up to Tony’s house to see if it survived. Getting there was disorienting. A world, once familiar, is not when it is torched. Tony’s house was a pile of twisted roof metal. The recording studio was nothing, save for a sliver of concrete foundation along the front. I stood on it and looked down the hill, hoping that Ziljian cymbals might survive a conflagration. How naive. The only thing I could recognize in the ash was the circular shape of my Ludwig snare drum’s top ring. Surrounding me were hardened puddles of melted metals and plastic, as if a huge candle had once stood there.

On the bright side, Tony barely escaped with his life. One of his neighbors did not. He was forced to drive through six miles of blowtorch fire to reach safety. But he did. So did Bob and his wife, retreating in their motor home to the safety of Dillon Beach temporarily. I gathered together some clothes and size 13 shoes and drove out there. Bob asked me to give him a lift to the local store, which I did. My jaw dropped when I saw that all he bought was a small Duraflame Fire Starter log. It’s cold out at the beach. He needed one. I photographed him holding it proudly in front of his motor home. We all needed a laugh. 

This brings me back to the blister on my boot. From the fire. Every Tuesday night. At Bob’s house. When I eventually went back there to survey the damage I missed the driveway. Once again, the landscapes have become unrecognizable. There is no more fire circle. Or home. The beautiful koi pond is a dark pit of sludge. 

Bob has a new home now. So does Tony. We all move on. I’m still searching for good cymbals. My rain shoes are starting to fall apart. The rubber blister has even cracked. They’ll carry me through the rest of this soggy season but by next winter I better get a new pair. It is always time to move on. And count one’s blessings along the way.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Cheech lives on...

A wizard changed my life. His name was Cheech. It was 1975. John Carpenter’s DARK STAR had recently premiered at Filmex in Hollywood. For the first time in my life I had witnessed paparazzi and realized they were circling me. Shortly thereafter, Shel Dorf, a founder of the San Diego Comic Con, called and informed me that I was going to be a celebrity guest in July. He didn’t ask me. He told me. So that was that.

When I saw that Vaughn Bode was also going to be a guest I studied up a bit on his work and became excited about meeting him. I’d seen his cartoons in the National Lampoon but soon realized there was much more to appreciate. Then, two weeks before the Comic Con, Shel Dorf called me again. This time it was to inform me that Vaughn Bode had just died at the tender age of 33. I was shocked and saddened, even though I’d never met him. Oh well. Life goes on.

In the midst of the hubbub of the Comic Con, prior to my presentation on DARK STAR, I was approached by David Scroggy who informed me that Vaughn Bode’s brother Vincent wanted to see me in his hotel room. What? Why in the world would he want to see me? I soon came to learn that he was intimate with his brother’s live presentation, known as BODE’S CARTOON CONCERT, and was determined to present it in his brother’s stead. Being an air traffic controller by trade, he had asked around if there were any actors at the Comic Con who might be able to assist him. Someone pointed out that the star of DARK STAR was around. That’s how I wound up in Vincent’s hotel room.

He showed me the binder of cartoons Vaughn would use when bringing his work to life in front of live audiences (including at the Louvre!) and asked me to read some of the characters after he’d demonstrated the sort of voices Vaughn would employ. I launched into it and in no time was cast for the part with only minutes to spare before going on stage.

As Vincent rushed around his room getting dressed I asked if I could use his projector to double-check my slide tray. My presentation would follow right afterward and I wanted to be sure the images were right side up. I held my finger on the button and whipped through the slides as fast as I could as Vincent zipped around the room. At one point he paused to look at a slide and froze in his tracks.

“That’s the movie!” he exclaimed.

“What’s the movie?” I replied in bewilderment.

Vincent explained that the last time he saw his brother alive he’d been following Vincent around in Vincent’s art studio (Vincent being a great artist in his own right) and excitedly telling him about this movie he’s just seen called DARK STAR. He wanted to see it again and take Vincent with him. That was their last conversation. I was speechless.

I asked Vincent if I could wear Vaughn’s star-studded top hat during my DARK STAR presentation. And I did.

But first, Vincent and I rocked the house with our version of BODE’S CARTOON CONCERT; a mere two weeks after Vaughn’s untimely death.

It was not long thereafter that I climbed on board the Bode bus that would alter my life going forward. With the help of Colleen Christian and the advice of Virginia Curtis (who made Mortimor Snerd for Edgar Bergen) I build a “life-size” marionette puppet of Vaughn’s signature character Cheech Wizard, as well as a foam hand puppet of a generic lizard character. I would soon integrate these puppets into the live concerts.

I was still in the Los Angeles area at that time and soon realized that picking up the Bode flag and running with it would require moving north to be with his family. And so it was that I abandoned Hollywood and wound up living in the very same studio in the back of Vincent’s house in Oakland that now contained all the artwork and artifacts of Vaughn’s life. It was total immersion.

In addition to adding puppets to the mix, a band from Canada (songwriter: William Butler) wrote a wonderful ode to Cheech Wizard that I would also incorporate, including one concert at UC Berkeley where the band appeared live. I would begin by placing empty beer cans on the stage next to the podium and then hide in the back of the theater with Cheech in hand. When the lights went out my prerecorded message would begin the show.

“Vaughn Bode was born on July 22nd, 1941. Cheech Wizard was born in 1967. Vaughn Bode died on July 18th, 1975. Vaughn may be gone…but the Cheech lives on!”

With that, a spotlight would hit Cheech and me standing at the back of an aisle as his new theme song would echo throughout the theater.

“Who’s dat? It’s da hat! You better show dat you’re a believer…..”

Throughout the song, I would dance Cheech down the aisle, as he would jump onto women’s laps and attempt to kick guys in the balls.

The audience would erupt with delight as I made my way to the stage. Cheech and I would be in position by the time the song reached its catchy finale with a bad-da-da-da-BUM, at which point, having positioned Cheech amid the beer cans, I would release the airplane controls and let him land on his butt with his legs outspread in a semi-drunken pose. The crowd would go nuts. I had them in the palm of my hand before I opened the book and started the presentation.

If you’re not familiar with Vaughn’s work it is important to point out that he created a unique style of presentation whereby the voice balloons resided in their own graphic territory above the artwork. That allowed for the beautiful display of the artwork on screen without giving away the contents until I performed the lines live. An hour-long presentation that including over 50 characters was a great strain on my voice, not to mention doing all the music and sounds effects as well. I soon abandoned the idea of performing in clubs where people smoke. I never would have survived that.

To say I fell in love with Vaughn’s work is a gross understatement. I was in awe. When this all began for me in 1975 Vaughn’s son Mark was all of 12 years old. I had no idea how his father had groomed him at such a tender age but time would reveal him to be a virtual extension of his father’s hand as he has continued to bring Vaughn’s work to life and gain an international reputation in own right as a graffiti artist and tattooist as well. Talent runs deep in that family.

After performing at comic conventions and universities, including Vaughn’s alma mater, Syracuse University, it eventually became apparent that the concert would not financially sustain me. Having left the womb of Hollywood and moved north I no longer had industry connections and was feeling a bit adrift. I didn’t have a resume and didn’t look forward to writing down a list of jobs. So I created a comic book of my life titled RESUME FUNNIES. I had no idea what to do with it until I read about North Bay director John Korty in Newsweek Magazine. Eventually, I decided to send him a copy. His producer Bill Couturie (a fellow USC Cinema graduate) had heard of me and now held my comic in his hands. That is how I got hired at Korty Films and wound up writing and animating for SESAME STREET for several years until George Lucas entered the picture as Executive Producer of TWICE UPON A TIME. I would spend three years on that project as Supervising Animator and Sequence Director. The rest of my resume flows from there, including work with Pixar, Wildbrain, Levi Strauss, Apple, Google and other Northern California giants.

Were it not for that chance encounter in Vincent Bode’s hotel room and the enduring brilliance of Vaughn Bode’s work my life would have turned out very differently. To this day a little statue of Cheech Wizard sits in the highest position on my desk. Vaughn may be gone, but the Cheech lives on.