Is anyone old enough to remember that Quaker Oats slogan? I used to love visiting their old headquarters which was located in the same Chicago landmark where my mother worked, the Merchandise Mart. We used to take the Quaker Oats tour whenever we had a free moment so we could stop by the test kitchen and sample the strange recipes the researchers were always working on. I’ve got oatmeal on the brain today because my nephews Spencer and Sammy (ages 9 and 5) are in town from Chicago to shoot a Quaker Oats commercial with the three other members of their band “The Blisters.” These young non-actors got the gig through a bizarre series of events, it wasn’t something they sought out. But oh, what fun it was!
The commercial was shot yesterday at the Hollywood Center Studios where many Marx Brothers, Mae West, and Jimmy Cagney movies were shot. Howard Hughes’ “Hells Angels” with Jean Harlow was filmed here, and it was later the location for many classic TV shows including the first two years of “I Love Lucy” as well as “Green Acres,” “Mr. Ed,” and “Petticoat Junction.” The Lucy soundstage has a special plaque marking its historical importance and the studio commissary is called the Babalu Café to honor Ricky Ricardo’s famous song.
When I first moved to L.A. in 1986, MGM, once the classiest film studio in the world, was in its waning days (it soon become Lorimar, then Columbia, and today it’s Sony Entertainment). I perfected a technique back then to get past the security guards at the front gate and wander around the lot to my heart’s content. I’d dress nicely, park my car on the street, grab a yellow pad and a couple of pencils, and look extremely busy jotting down notes on my pad as I sauntered past the guard in the back of a group of studio executives. Sometimes I would even start raving about some contract I was working on, pretending I was talking to the person in front of me. I never got caught and I’d spend hours in the gargantuan soundstages and prop rooms looking for items from MGM’s gloried past. One time I found myself alone in a huge room containing massive backdrops on gigantic rolls including a panorama of the Scottish highlands from the Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse movie “Brigadoon.” Alas, the fabled MGM Lot 2, which contained all of the outdoor sets including Andy Hardy’s home town of Carvel, was stupidly torn down in the early 70s (despite Debbie Reynolds' best efforts to save it) and sold to developers who built a bunch of hideous residential homes and condos. One of the many insane moves of the 1970s, a miserable decade for preservationists everywhere.
These days it is nearly impossible to sneak into film studios. For a good year after 9-11 there were sharpshooters armed with rifles on the roofs of the soundstages since rumor had it that al-Quaida was planning some hits on the sites responsible for spreading the culture of the infidels worldwide, and security is still intense. So it was a treat to be in a studio again, even if it wasn’t one of the biggies. I put on my fake MGM executive look and wandered around the lot. Every once in a while I caught snippets of what people were screaming into their cell phones. Some verbatim examples:
“That fucker promised me a deal at Dreamworks. What the fuck am I paying him for?”
“Our D.P. (Director of Photography) doesn’t know his asscrack from a hole in the wall.”
“I can’t use kids, it’s a long shoot. Call Shirley, I need a bunch of '18-look-youngers' by Monday."
I never heard that phrase, “18-look-younger,” but it’s very Hollywood. I guess that’s how they get around the strict child labor laws when it comes to shows featuring minors. Just get 18 year olds and pretend they’re 14. Many of the people I saw at the studio seem to be going for the “45-look-younger” category.
The Blisters’ commercial was directed by none other than Academy Award winner Errol Morris. He’s done a bunch of fantastic documentaries including “Gates of Heaven,” “The Thin Blue Line,” and “The Fog of War.” I wonder who was a more insightful interview subject, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara or my five-year-old nephew Sammy. Robert McNamara told Morris, “Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he is speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily—his own troops or other troops, through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn't destroyed nations.” Sammy Tweedy told Morris, “When I hit my head, it makes me think better.”
I loved the set, a series of giant, perfectly reproduced oatmeal boxes. Spencer got to play his drums atop a box of Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal. All the kids were naturals—Spencer, Dylan, Hayden, and Henry, and they even wrote an original song about eating oatmeal that sounded great (to quote Spencer, “Oatmeal makes you rock more efficiently!”). But I was especially riveted by Sammy’s avant-garde performance. As the band played, Sammy wandered in an out of the frame holding up a series of kid-made signs about oatmeal. Sometimes he’d hold them upside down, sometimes he’d drop them on the floor, one time he was almost trampled by the crew member holding the Steadicam. I don’t think that soundstage has seen such brilliance since Harold Lloyd shot “The Freshman” there in 1925!
California law requires a social worker and tutor on every set where children are working. Every time any of us spoke to the kids we worried that the social worker was going to turn us in to the authorities! And thanks to the abuse that cute child actor Jackie Coogan endured in the early 1920s after starring with Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” (his mother and stepfather wouldn’t give him a dime of the $4 million he earned as a child), all of the parents on our set were educated about the Coogan Act which requires a portion of the kids’ earnings to go into a blocked trust that no one can touch until they’re 18. (But the Coogan Act couldn’t prevent adorable Jackie Coogan from morphing into scary Uncle Fester in the 1960s sitcom “The Addams Family,” also shot at this studio!)
All in all, it was truly a unique experience. The guy who created the ad campaign, Scott Smith, was one of the finalists in Project Greenlight this year and you can read his comments about the day in his excellent blog.
As they were finishing up the commercial, I suddenly wondered if it was wrong to have children acting as corporate shills. At least all of the kids in the band really do love Quaker Oats products so they didn’t have to lie during their interviews! I made a joke to the parents about producing a dossier on the political activities of the company, now owned by Pepsico, and when I checked later I actually did find out that they are one of the top 25 contributors to the Republican Party. Should I tell my lefty sister and my brother-in-law Jeff who might go on an anti-corporate rant at the Wilco show here next Tuesday? Oh well, I also found some charity work that they’re involved in, so who am I to judge the purveyor of such a wholesome nutritious product?
I never touch the stuff myself. I’m a Cream of Wheat man—you know, the hot cereal that uses offensive pictures of black servants on the box? Oy.
Cream of Wheat is so good to eat,
That we have it every day.
We sing this song,
Cause it makes us strong
And it makes us shout HOORAY!