Sunday, December 05, 2010

For An Afternoon, I Was A God!

A few days ago, my daughter, Nora, reminded me of an incident that occurred a decade ago, when I picked her up at her high school. As I always did, I asked how her day went. As usual, the answer was a teen-ager's sullen, "Nothing happened today."

However, after a minute, Nora suddenly asked, "Dad, were you Cuckoo Con?"


"You were Cuckoo Kan, weren't you? I saw you on t.v. in my history class today!"

"Yes, that was me," I answered, my mind traveling back through the years. For the remainder of the afternoon, and into the evening, I was a god to my daughter; at least I was a t.v. demi-god.

Long ago, Kukulkan – his real name – was a god of particular importance to the Mayans, the people who lived in the land that is now southern Mexico and that stretched south as far as the Guatemalan Highlands of Central America. At first Kulkulkan was the War Serpent for the Mayans, whom they would call upon to help them in battle. Later, much later, he was depicted, more peaceful in guise, in Mayan art. He had morphed the Vision Serpent, the god who was the direct link between the spirit world of all the gods and the physical world of Mayans, with his image carved into jewelry and onto temple columns. Today Kukulkan still exists in the folktales of the Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula.

And 34 years ago, Kukulkan put in a single afternoon's appearance in that tony Southern California city, Beverly Hills, home to the rich and famous, to their plastic surgeons, and to upscale jewelry and clothing stores along Rodeo Drive. The town is also home to the virtual world of the Clampett family, whose members are as mythic to Americans as Kukulcan is to the Mayans. They Clampetts, of television's situation comedy fame, are the transplanted family of Arkansans who struck it rich in "Beverly, Hills, that is. Swimmin' pools, movie stars. The Beverly Hillbillies!"

Jed and Granny, Elly May and Jethro have been viewed in reruns since the 1960s. The actors who portrayed them, though, never had to set foot in Beverly Hills. They worked out of a t.v studio in Hollywood. The shots of the t.v. mansion the Clampetts lived in were filmed, not in Beverly Hills, but in the exclusive Los Angeles community of Bel-Air.

Kukulkan made his visit to Beverly Hills on an afternoon in 1976, in the grassy confines of La Cienega Park, on the corner of Olympic and La Cienga Boulevards. For that visit, a t.v. director and her cameraman filmed the god's appearance. As preparation for filming began, a small contngent of senior citizens sat, in their lizard skins, taking in the sun on the park's hard benches. The seniors watched the proceedings in bemused puzzlement as the god, who looked suspiciously like me, stripped off his shirt, and put a headband on that looked like the piece of cloth torn from an old pillow case, which it was. The director daubed some make-up on the god's pale face, shoulders and chest.

Yes, on that afternoon, long ago – and only a few blocks from my current home – I played the part of a god. I was Kukulkan.

In that long ago time, I worked as a documentarian for Alan Landsburg Productions, a t.v. and movie production company. Our offices were on Doheny Boulevard, just south of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The job was a kick ("We need 200,000 black, non-biting, half -inch long ants! What's story on killer bees? Where can we find Bigfoot? Wh was the real Santa Claus?"), even though it paid a minimum wage.

Occasionally my fellow three researchers and I were drafted for other sorts of tasks that were definitely not in our job description. We would provide background crowd noises at the local sound studio, fetch donuts at 6 a.m. for the film crew on a location shoot, answer letters from people who had questions about the t.v. shows or movies Mr. Landsburg produced, read books for potential script ideas, and otherwise serve as serfs, all without extra pay, of course, because, as the staff documentarians, we were at the bottom of the office totem pole. (One of my fellow documentarians was Jim Kouf, who was busy in his off hours writing movie scripts, and in our down moments, he would let us read his latest efforts. Today, he's a very successful screen writer, with a string of hits under his belt, as well as a film producer. People fetch donuts for Jim.)

One day the call came for me to play the role, not unreluctantly, of Kukulcan, for one of the episodes on "In Search Of...." The "documentary " show, with host Leonard Nimoy (he of "Mr. Spock" fame, from "Star Trek fame), is still on the air in reruns. Mr. Nimoy once graced our offices with his presence. He was a very nice man, with no particular interest in the subject matter of the the show, who was justifiably capitalizing on his persona as Mr. Spock. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, when he visited our offices.

For my big scene, we drove the few short blocks south from our offices to the little park. The director explained to both the cameraman and to me that we didn't have permits to film in Beverly Hills. If the police approached us, we were to say we were UCLA film students. Even with my godly status, I was a little nervous.

Shooting took a few minutes. From behind a tree branch, I moved forward to survey my Mayan realm. It took a few takes before the director decided I appeared sufficiently god-like. A few days later, with other draftees from the office, I played the part of a Spanish monk, my face buried deep in the hood of my robe to obscure the fact that I'd also been a god in the same episode. Later, these scenes were edited into the stock footage that made up most of the In Search Of... episodes (which were far cheaper to rent than it was to actually film anything). Hence, one of our chief duties as documentarians was to find stock footage for the various In Search of Episodes.

In Search Of...was a documentary program in the same way there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Which is to say my job was to research the most sensational, and usually least truthful elements of stories about subjects like UFO's, telekinesis, the Bermuda Triangle, "psychic" detectives, Dracula, and life on Mars, etc., to entertain and divert the viewing masses from reality.

Although Mr. Landsburg's projects seemed to be doing well – In Search of... alone ran with new episodes for years – an "efficiency expert" showed up one day. Soon, and perhaps mercifully so, the documentarians of a documentary film maker were given two weeks notice. The producers of each individual In Search Of... episode, and of the various other documentaries, would pay for research out of their own pockets.

With those two weeks to go, we were treated by those who still had jobs as the walking undead. We were unholy reminders that anyone else on the payroll might find themselves suffering the same fate as we four. For two days, we sat around the office without any assignments, with everyone else looking right through us, most of them not even willing to speak to us. I'm sure their reactions were born of both fear and pity.

On the third morning, without any assignments, I left the building. My supervisor, who herself had been given notice, protested my early leaving taking. "What's going to happen to me, Jeannie? I'm going to be fired?" My supervisor, Jeanne Rousseau, would later marry the t.v. and film writer and director (Happy Days, Parenthood, etc., etc., etc.), Lowell Ganz. Years later I discovered that one of the repeat participants on my photography trips was Jeannie's father.

Jeannie, who was and probably still is a wonderful person, didn't need the job as much as the rest of us did. She enjoyed having lunch at a number of upscale Beverly Hills restaurants, and always wanted the other three of us to join her. We would usually spot someone in the "business," an actor or producer. One day fitness guru Richard Simmons walked by us, wearing, as he apparently did once in a while, a pink tutu.

Frankly, a meal could eat up a huge chunk of that day's salary. One of us finally said something to Jeannie, and after that she frequently invited the other three of us for lunch at the home she and Lowell shared, in the hills above the Sunset strip. At the time, Mr. Ganz' need for home decoration appeared to be minimal. The only piece of furniture in the massive living room, for example, was a pool table. Jeannie, though, soon, and admirably, took over the decorating chores.

Those final 10 days at the Landsburg offices were rather pleasant for me. I'd stroll into the office each morning to discover I was still dead to everyone else. I'd enjoy the thought that I was at least being paid a little money for not having to work. I'd have a cup of coffee, and then wander outside into freedom. For most of the next many years, I didn't think that much about my time as a documentarian, or a god.

Years later, a history teacher at my daughter's high school would pop a tape of that old In Search Of...episode, in which I had a part, into into a VCR, and show it to his class, thinking, in some misguided manner, that his students were going to learn something of value.

My daughter, as we drove home, recounted her and her classmates' boredom as they sat through the old show. Glancing up at one point, she saw Kukulkan surveying his Mayan real. She leaped up and shouted, "Stop the tape, that's my father, stop the tape!" As her shocked fellow students and teacher looked on, she walked over to the VCR, ran the tape back, and confirmed my identity as Cuckoo Kan.

After reminiscing with Nora about that day when she'd seen me on t.v., I pulled up youtube on my laptop, and quickly found the old show. I probably hadn't seen it since it aired, in 1977.


If you, good reader, would like to see more of what a god looks like than the still at the top of this page, then watch the first 25 seconds of the video, below (and try not to blink much).

1 comment:

DuckLionDog said...

This is so cool. I wish I was in a documentary.