Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Part 29: HOUSE guests

Shortly after ringing in the new year 1985, I received a phone call from James Cummins.  I had returned to New Orleans the prior November after finishing up on THE SUPERNATURALS.  Mark Shostrom had been contacted by the production company to do a few pick up shots, but, understandably,  couldn't afford to have me fly out again for a few days work.  However, James had big news: He was going to supervise the construction of the Make Up Effects for a new film entitled HOUSE.  Not only that, but he was offering me work, if I wanted it.

James was back in Los Angeles after spending a lot of time working for Chris Walas on ENEMY MINE up in Marin County, California.  Upon his return, he moved into a house with a roommate named Rick Brophy who was acting as James' manager.  The idea was that when James eventually directing movies, Rick would be his producer, protecting James' interests.  So James made the offer.  Come to Los Angeles and work on this new project.  He wasn't 100% sure when it was going to start, but he felt that February would be a safe time to come to Los Angeles in preparation for the show.

I explained to James that it was going to be tough for me to come out there with no place to stay, but James insisted that he had enough room for me to crash with he and Rick.  There.  It was settled.

When I mentioned this to Tracy, she had another take on the situation.  She wasn't going to let me leave for California a fourth time alone.  She was coming with me.  I resisted.  I knew I didn't have a lot of money saved, and neither did she since she was paying for her own college tuition.  Then something unexpected happened.  James Cummins spoke with her, and offered her a job and a place to stay at his house.  It had nothing to do with me.  A job and a sofa bed were waiting for her if she was interested.  It looked like the population of James and Rick's house would double in a few weeks.

Ding,'s coming!
Like any show, there were stalls at first.  Tracy and I packed suitcases and left Louisiana to the chagrin of her parents.  They wouldn't speak to us for over a year, but it didn't matter because we had struck out on our own to begin a crazy new adventure together.

We lived with James and Rick for a few weeks before the show started.  During that time, we began to meet people that had either worked for James before, like Bill Sturgeon, or sat in during interviews of new prospective artists like Larry Odien.  It was thrilling to watch a varied group of artists and technicians come together from different studios like Rick Baker's, Tom Burman's, Make Up Effects Lab, Chris Walas, and Stan Winston's.  It was going to be an INSANE crew.  Next up we needed a place to work.

James and Rick found an old office unit, on the second floor of a building in Burbank's "Golden Mall." No one on our crew cared much about its appearance since we knew that it was going to be used as a manufacturing center.  And come to think of it, I wonder if the folks downstairs running the antique book shop must have thought that all of the commotion and noise upstairs was a crew doing improvements.  How ironic.

The Golden Mall was an outdoor strip of storefronts along San Fernando Blvd. before the big Burbank image-improvement that occurred a few years later.  No, this Golden Mall appeared to be a location populated by individuals that would have been comfortable either in a George Romero or Frederico Fellini film.

I'm going to attempt a crew list here as clear as I can remember it, if I leave your name out, PLEASE publish a comment and chastise me.

When the crew was assembled for the show, it was this (in no particular order):

James Cummins, Rick Brophy, Eric Fiedler, Larry Odien, Brian Wade, Earl Ellis, Bill Sturgeon, Howie Weed, Brent Baker, Lauren Vogt, Mike Spatola, Tony (Anton) Rupprecht, Tracy Shea, Steve Burg, Richard Snell, Cary Howe, Dirk Von Besser, Barney Burman, James Belohovek, Steve Frakes, and myself.

There was another artist who had done some preliminary designs for the show, Kirk Thatcher, whom I had met briefly during the pre-production.  A talented artist, I recall him stopping by the shop to check out the creatures as well as on set during shooting.  However, we would work together again a year or so later...

Like any show being run by someone without a permanent shop, the first order of business was to actually BUILD the shop.  We all chipped in and built work tables designed by Larry Odien and Eric Fiedler and within a week, you would have thought we had been there for months.

James broke down the main creatures amongst the mechanics: Eric Fiedler would be responsible for the marlin trophy that comes to life, Larry Odien would handle the demonic child puppet mechanics, the severed witch arm, and war demon arms, Bill Sturgeon would handle Big Ben and the witch head mechanics, and Jim Belohovek would build the flying skull puppet.

War Demon Arm Mechanics!
Latex and Polyfoam War Demon Arms
A War Demon Arm hangs on Lauren Vogt's Foam Room door, awaiting seaming.
Eric Fiedler's Marlin after being shot - wish I had a before photo!
Here's another shot of Eric Fiedler's Marlin on the "Hot Set" (Shot!  Get it?)
 The sculpting duties broke down with Brian Wade, Larry Odien, Earl Ellis, and Eric Fiedler beginning since there were no actors yet.  Brian began sculpting the war demon neck using Roma Clay presses of crew faces, Larry and Earl sculpted the war demon arms, and Eric began sculpting the marlin.  The rest of us prepped for life casting.

We cast three little people for the demonic children, a mime/performer named Peter Pitofsky, who would play the witch, and Curt Wilmot (my understanding was the Curt was director Steve Miner's tennis pro, but who knows for sure?) who would play the resurrected Big Ben.

When we weren't prepping life casts, James let a group of us sculpt monster arm gloves for the scene where Roger Cobb, the protagonist played by actor William Katt, is grabbed when he opens the medicine cabinet.  For this, James encouraged us to do whatever we wanted since the idea was that a collection of all different monsters were reaching through.  I chose to sculpt a cartoony, six-fingered, Frankenstein-ish arm.

Tracy models my monster glove.
 Tracy, who had no prior experience, was given the task of roughing out a tentacle sculpture which would be finished by other sculptors later.  I recall her not enjoying the experience.

Tracy in tentacle hell.
"Tracy, you want a photo of the tentacle?" Tracy: "No." Well, here it is anyway...
  Finally, with life casts complete, the real sculpting began.  Earl Elllis began the witch, James sculpted the war demon head, Larry Odien sculpted the demonic kid puppet (later, Richard Snell would sculpt the "water spitting" version of the same character), Brian sculpted Big Ben's chest, etc.  A few of us, who had been sculpting the monster gloves, were asked to sculpt back ground demonic children masks.

The Mechanical Witch Mask sits next to a painted Big Ben skin.
Larry Odien works on the Demonic Child mechanics.
The Hero painted skin awaits glue down onto the mechanics.  It was sculpted by James Cummins.
Larry finishing the puppet glue down.
An impressive, frightening puppet!
I was given the opportunity to sculpt one of the Demon Children background masks.
A year later, I put new eyes in it.  Check it out: It's wearing a Chris Walas ENEMY MINE crew shirt!
 There was so much more to do than just the main characters, however.  A decapitated version of the witch needed to be fabricated along with a severed head, there was a mechanical severed witch hand, as well as a Big Ben severed arm. Eric Fiedler also had to make sure that they could squib his marlin to blow a huge hole in it.

The decapitated witch body sits next to the suit.  Note Richard Snell's "Spitting Demon Child" puppet skin in front.
Steve Burg and Bill Sturgeon with a mechanical arm.  No one can remember why we built this.
 At the risk of sounding repetitive, things were very different in 1985.  Although mechanics were a specialized field, it was understood that most of us would have to do anything from sculpting, to molding, casting, seaming, etc.  However, Mike Spatola was the stand out painter and was responsible for painting most of the hero pieces on the show.

James watches as Curt Wilmont is fitted into his Big Ben suit.
James places the helmet on Ben's head.
Ben's ready to kick Roger Cobb's butt!
By far, the largest and most complicated piece was going to be the war demon.  For a modest budget film like HOUSE, it was certainly the most ambitious effect.  I was given the task of sculpting the torso of the beast, but that was nothing in comparison to the enormous body sculpture that was a mass of twisted flesh, weapons and faces.  When it was completed, Brent Baker, Steve Frakes and Barney Burman made a six-piece stone mold on it in the main room of the upstairs office complex.
The War Demon Neck sculpted by Brian Wade - You can see his face cast in there somewhere...
The War Demon torso I sculpted.  I thought I was being oh so very clever sculpting hands to serve as ribs.  Whatever.
Brent Baker and Steve Frakes with their colossal mold.
"King" James addresses the War Demon Mold Crew - That's Barney Burman on the extreme right.
Steve Frakes helps rig the War Demon frame onto the under structure.  James Belohovek seems tickled.
The mold was so huge and heavy that it wasn't opened initially.  The team cleaned out the entire mold, ran a latex skin, backed it with expanding soft polyfoam, and finally cast a fiberglass shell all with the mold closed.  They opened the mold, once, to free the piece, however the mold was so heavy and cumbersome that even after we left (evicted) from the building, those mold pieces were left behind in the room that they were made.

Yes, we were eventually evicted from the Golden Mall, but thankfully most of the work had been completed.  I'm not sure how we finally were caught manufacturing in a retail zone.  Maybe it was the smell of the fiberglass, foam latex,  or the skinflex that was being cast.  It was probably a combination of all of it, along with the noise.  The operation had to be moved, quickly, and since there was not a tremendous amount of work to complete, getting another commercial space seemed foolish.  So where could we move the studio?

Why, James and Rick's backyard, of course!




  1. lol... LOVE this recounting of a very memorable show at a very impressionable time for me. A couple points of note; The Gold Mall is now the Burbank Media Center. The "Office" shop was on San Fernando at Orange Grove, I believe. And the giant 6 piece mold that Brent and Steve and I made was actually opened and cleaned out. We then cast latex, then poly foam, then backed each of the 6 pieces individually with fiber glass (leaving about an inch or two arounf the edges of each piece clean so we could assemble them. We then put all the pieces together and repeated the latex, pollyfoam and fiberglass process along the seams. It was a huge undertaking and it took the three of us close to 24 hours straight to complete it.
    Thanks for posting this, Shannon. It was my first job in a shop outside of my family and it meant a lot to me... and still does.

  2. AHHHH! Finally! A posted comment from a colleage! Thanks for straightening that out Barney! My memories of this show are pretty sketchy, but I have a particulary funny photo of you that I'll post in Part II! Thanks for reading and taking the time to post a comment!

  3. Sorry about that, Barney. I guess you knew that was me posting that above. I wonder what the landlords thought finding that plaster monstrosity up there! By the way, I remember your first day in the shop. You wore a long coat and a derby and in the hatband was a paper sign that, I think, read: "Lose weight now, ask me how."

  4. A great reminiscence, Shannon. That was a vivid period for me as well, but time makes the details kind of hazy. For instance, It'd slipped my mind that it was Eric who sculpted the marlin. And I feel a bit ashamed for flat-out forgetting that Richard Snell was part of the team. Like Barney, I will NEVER forget anything involved with the War Demon, though I would like to. Fortunately, there were the Long Island Ice Teas at the Bombay Bicycle Club to take the edge off. I think we only got through that show by virtue of our being young and enthusiastic. And of course the wallpaper helped a lot.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

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  6. Thanks for posting these Photos and stories, "House" is one of the movies that inspired me to get into Make-up Effects!

    I still love that Movie!!

  7. I actually bought the Mill's View mansion in Monrovia a few years ago partially because of the memories I have from this movie as a 9 year old kid. Funny, eh?