Friday, June 13, 2008

Rainier Beer Lookalike

The recent post devoted to movie-marketing adventures called up some other memories--of Hollywood films I watched in the making, and of some parodies I later wrote and helped produce...

Back in 1962, Seattle staged its hallowed-in-history World's Fair, called "Century 21" (look, Ma, we made it!). This extravaganza created the Space Needle, several theatrical venues--the entire urban-park Seattle Center in fact, including the Monorail connecting it to the city's downtown--and put Seattle successfully on the world map. I was going-on-20 that year and definitely jazzed by the sudden cultural opportunities; fondest recollections are for a brilliant staging of Beckett's Waiting for Godot (still relatively unknown back then), a rollicking concert by Erroll Garner, and the chance to watch Elvis Presley make a movie, It Happened at the World's Fair by name.

Not one of his best by any means, but the filmed-on-location viewing opportunities were excellent. I remember two scenes in particular, relatively simple stuff that took the crew hours to set up and then actually "get in the can," as the director would say. One had Presley going into the entrance to the Space Needle, but needing all extras coordinated and the light and camera angles just right. And the other was more important, Elvis and the movie's darling little Oriental girl (his unwelcome sidekick, sort-of, but a plot-crucial character in fact) getting on or off the Monorail at its downtown station, the extras even more important and visible. The girl was cute as a button, and he was lean and tan and fit as a fiddle, "The King" in all his splendor, even appearing in what turned out to be a so-so film.

Sadly the next time I saw Elvis almost-live was at a concert in the Seventies, when he'd successfully come back, conquered Vegas, and then gotten fat and druggy. That particular evening his joking with the back-up singers was strained, even verging on racial-stereotype humor, and his ever-perfect musical timing slightly off--his pathetic decline acted out right before our eyes.

But before that, in 1972 I was hired for a major freelance-writing gig that required me to move to Georgetown, that upscale part of D.C., for a month to research, partially write, and also edit, proofread and then publish a 24-page one-issue tabloid newspaper called Fresh Water Journal or some such, its layout and typefaces mimicking Rolling Stone, which was just then making a splash (er, so to speak).

Why? Well, the Potomac River was in disgraceful condition, and the three states involved (plus D.C.) had united to persuade the public to vote support for water treatment upgrades--possibly even going so far as what was then called "tertiary treatment," meaning basically giving the polluted river wastewater (including sewage) enough chemicals and sunlight and filtering to make it truly potable again. A radical idea back then, but one that has been gradually taking hold around the water-rationed world ever since.

The newspaper I saw to publication was distributed free and was actually fun to read, filled with news and views and editorial cartoons, convincing science and political analysis too, making the whole river-purifying idea as palatable as possible. But free paper or not, the citizens weren't buying; the measure failed at the ballot box. Clean-up of the Potomac had to wait several more years...

At any rate, while I was inventing a newspaper, that ghastly-green horror film The Exorcist (a different sort of pollution) was also in town, filming on location in Georgetown; and the crew and I happened to be staying at the same Marriott across in Arlington. Sitting at the hotel bar in the evenings, once in a while I'd get into conversation with crew guys. They had good Hollywood gossip stories, and a general disdain for the film's director, William Friedkin. The main complaint seemed to be that Friedkin was not focussed on the daily filming; instead, he'd spend hours on the phone (pre-cell days) working to line up his next directorial jobs, neglecting the current work that was costing a whole heap every day.

I was invited to drop by the location shoot and watch, so of course I found time to flee the typewriter. One cloudy day I tracked the crew to a scene of tree-shrouded concrete steps--shooting day-for-night, I think--and watched a couple of actors go through the motions; I was hoping to spot Max Von Sydow (admired from the great Ingmar Bergman films) but no such luck. Friedkin was there but didn't seem to have much to say; I couldn't tell if his bad rap was justified or not. Pretty boring day, actually, and I chose not to view the finished film.

But I couldn't escape the movies (or television). Back in Seattle, I was soon working for the Rainier Beer creative group, and in no time involved in, and then producing, commercials that parodied Casablanca, Cole Porter, The Twilight Zone, "Indian Love Call," Lawrence Welk, Garland-Rooney musicals, TV's Archie Bunker, Star Wars, and much more. But I want to mention two projects I'm especially fond of, company sales films the public basically never saw...

The first was a collection of brief movie parodies created for a firm selling tax-deferred annuities, using familiar movie scenes to tout different investment aspects; the length of each varied from 30-60 seconds up to 2-3 minutes, with the short ones meant to be lifted out and used as TV spots. So I got to write variations on a "Pearl Pureheart" silent (using title cards, our heroine tied to the railroad tracks); the murderous Hal computer in 2001; Gene Kelly dancing and Singin' in the Rain; Robert Preston delivering his "trouble in River City" fast-talking spiel in The Music Man; Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (the classic "just put your lips together and blow" scene); and more.

Moreover, since this was one of our typical shoestring-budget shoots, I got tapped to do more than observe and approve (or critique--the agency producer job). It was my voice picked to deliver, flatly, without emotion, the speech of our "Hal" computer; and later I got to wear a hat and raincoat--"rain" drenching the Pioneer Square set courtesy of firehoses--and be briefly accosted by our singing Gene replacement. (Unpaid and anonymous, as ever!)

Anyhow, my best sales-film script was a job for Rainier. Each year we'd create some meant-to-be-comical setting in which to embed or at least introduce the coming year's beer commercials. One year, for Rainier Light, the boss dreamed up a TV spot meant visually to "marry" a beer bottle filmed in close-up with the famous silhouette (and voiceover) of tubby director Alfred Hitchcock. I wrote the words, and the production company found an L.A actor who could "do" Hitchcock. And he was so convincing (visually rounded too) that we quickly decided to expand his role--that is, to write the whole sales film around Hitchcock's familiar droll, on-camera introductions, seen each week on his popular television series. I read a couple of books of Hitchcock interviews to get the gist of his longer speeches and stated ideas about film, and then translated these into sales pitches for Rainier spots, discussing taste, freshness, the element of surprise, and so on.

Our actor did a brilliant job mimicking Hitchcock, talking to the camera in the various set-ups introducing each beer commercial (making my script sound more clever than it was), and we had a good visual trick going throughout too: what appeared to be a bomb taped under a desk, the timer dial ticking down to zero as the sales film went on and on, Hitchcock talking about suspense and "McGuffins" and other matters while the movie-viewers were watching a bomb about to explode... At the last second, the actor reached down and pulled the wires or something, as he continued to talk about denying the audience's expectations, always keeping the surprises coming.

It was a banner year for Rainier spots and sales, maybe the peak year, somewhere around 1978-1980. After that, well... subsequent sales films have vanished from my mind. I do remember scripting a fun Archie Bunker spot for Heidelberg Beer (also owned by Rainier) involving a kilted Scotsman confronting the astonished Archie, but generally (as I believed then and now) Rainier's much-honored commercials started their slow decline around then. The writer-producer (me) was bored, anyway, and ready to abandon reel world for real World.

Which I did.

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