ELVIS AT PARAMOUNT
by RAY CAMPI
As originally printed in Now Dig This. Used by permission of Ray Campi.
Perhaps in old films or in movie magazines you've seen the famous Paramount Studio gate, with lots of people rushing in and out. I made up my mind I'd be one of those people, still remembering that these gate police have very important jobs; mainly to keep nerds like me out! There was a way, though, to get in quite easily, and that was to enter through the gate at 10 minutes past 12:00 or at 10 minutes to 1:00. Those were the times when workers left and returned from lunch. During this period many office workers, stage hands, actors, extras and producers and their staff walked through the main gate, going to lunch at the restaurants on Bronson and Melrose Avenues. These people were never challenged by the guards, and I made my second appearance on the Paramount lot with an envelope in my hand, walking briskly with my eyes pointed intently, straight ahead. Before I knew it I was back on Elvis' rehearsal stage.
THE SECOND DAY
What went on that second day was much like the previous one; the same people were present, working in the same way. I was impressed by the quality of the songs in G.I. Blues. I thought all of them were well-written and uniquely arranged. I talked with Elvis again and stayed there for a while, then decided to "look around" the lot. I entered another stage where some extras were already in costume, were made-up and were being screen-tested for small parts in the movie. Director Norman Taurog would ask them to walk on the set of a cafeteria and say a few lines as a camera filmed them. There was one girl in a German costume who later appeared as a waitress in the picture.
I spotted a middle-aged, large, whie-haired, European-looking man whom I'd seen in many World War Two movies and Three Stooges comedies. His name was Gene Roth. Years later, in the early 1970s, when I was recording taped interviews with music and film people, I interviewed Gene. He had started in films as an extra in the early 1930s. He and another man hopped a freight train from the Midwest in the late 1920s. As the train wound through the mountains the two men fell asleep in a boxcar. Suddenly, Gene awakened and happened to look out the open door of the boxcar. He could see little in the winter's night, but he heard the sound of squeaking and grinding, and then suddenly... flames! As the engine rounded a curve it started to fall off the track down a mountain, with each attached car following it. Gene and his buddy were about in the middle of the train but he knew he only had seconds to jump from the car, which he and the other man quickly did. Some crewmen had been killed and Gene and his partner were given jobs, and paid by the railroad to help clean up this terrible train wreck. With the money he made his way to Los Angeles where he found a job downtown, managing a silent movie theatre, which he did for many years. Gene Roth escaped that accident and lived a long life until his next terrible one. He had never made a living as an actor, so for many years he worked as a cashier in a drug store on Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Exactly one week after I interviewed him, he left the drug store one night after work, crossed the street and was hit by a car and killed on the spot. I'll never forget Gene Roth, and if you've seen G.I. Blues I'm sure you won't either.
"MY FAVORITE STOOL"
The thought entered my mind as I watched these extras going through their paces that possibly I could get into this film!
The next day, Thursday, I pulled my same "fast walking" / "important business" act and got past the guard again at lunch break. I made it to the studio and was soon perched on what was becoming "my favorite stool."
The rehearsals were fun! I was getting to be with Elvis and hear him sing "in person," more than any fan who had to buy a ticket to a concert. Was I a fan? I guess so, but a low-key one. Bear in mind that I'd started playing music a few years before Elvis, had had live radio shows with my Ramblers while still a teenager in high school, and had recorded in a "real" studio as early as 1951. There was no doubt that Presley was great! He completely changed the music business and opened doors for youthful entertainers and for country-fied rock 'n' rollers such as myself. Yet I didn't care to become a "groupie." Maybe I was too independent, or perhaps concerned more with my own music. I chose not to be running after him. I never asked for an autograph or for a photo to be taken. Would I act that way if I had the chance today? HELL, NO!
For the above-mentioned reasons I acted a little shy with Presley and his troupe, though this was not to my best advantage - as I found out the next day.
During the course of Elvis' song rehearsals on that Thursday in April of 1960, I noticed that a boy of about ten had taken a seat on the stool next to mine - usually occupied by Elvis. This boy had a close relationship with the singer and talked with him a lot. The boy and myself began to talk and soon I'd told him I was from Austin, Texas, had met Elvis in Texas and that I played and sang rockabilly music.
"You should be in the picture!" he enthusiastically exclaimed. "That's not a bad idea," I answered. Anything was better than my job of tearing theatre tickets, I thought. "I can help you," the kid went on. "My dad is Norman Taurog and is the director. I'll take you to meet him." I was in shock. During the past few days Mr. Taurog had never appeared on the sound stage as he was busy testing actors for supporting roles on another stage. The kid acted like he had discovered something important and that by finding me, he was doing his dad a favor. Ha ha!
My pulse quickened as we exited the sound stage and soon we were ascending a flight of stairs to an office where I was to meet one of the best and most famous directors of musical films in the world.
Mr. Taurog was very warm and polite, and asked my drama background, did I have an agent, photos, experience, etc.? He then called the Paramound casting director and set up an appointment for me the next morning, which was Friday. I was to meet him at 9 a.m. (I knew then that my chances of being in the film were over. If a film director wants you in his picture, he does not ask permission from the casting director; he informs him what part you'll be playing.) I thanked Mr. Taurog and his son and left the studio as it was late afternoon and the theatre was awaiting me. I drove quickly to Beverly Hills with a million thoughts racing through my mind.
At 9:00 sharp the next morning on Friday, April 30th, I was ushered into the office of Paramount's casting director. The middle-aged, cherub-faced man looked briefly at my photos, asked a few pertinent questions and thanked me for coming. Within a few minutes, maybe five, I was led to the door with the familiar, "We'll be in touch." I headed back to what I thought would be safe ground, the rehearsal stage I had grown used to.
Elvis and the group were getting ready to go back to rehearsing, so I picked out a spot to sit down. After an hour or two the bottom fell out of my world. What happened next makes me recall a funny story about movie-making that actually happened to my cousin (another of my dad's), Edwin Campi.
Ed had come to Hollywood, before cousin Adele, from New York in the early 1950s. He had settled into an apartment only half a block from RKO (later Desilu) Studios and two blocks from Paramount and the General Service Studio. He had joined the studio emplyees' union and had become a budget man. He had to account for every bit of money spent in the day-to-day making of a film or television show. If money was being wasted, he had to correct the situation.
He had been working at ZIV Studios on two shows for TV, "Sea Hunt" and "Highway Patrol." For many weeks a middle-aged, well-dressed man would come onto the set of "Highway Patrol" around noon and have lunch with the cast and crew, paid for by the studio. He would be walking a beautifully groomed white poodle dog. He'd then watch the filming for about an hour, say goodbye to everyone, take the dog and leave. After a while, Edwin enquired to some of the crew what the man's name was. No one knew. Edwin then asked the star, Broderick Crawford, if the man was a friend of his. Brod didn't know him either. He then went to the director and producer. Neither knew anything about this visitor who had been coming onto the set daily. Finally, in desperation, Edwin went up to the man himself and asked him his name. Then Ed went to his office and looked at the payroll records for the man in his budget. Did he get a surprise! He found out that this man had been getting a weekly paycheck for months and that his name was listed as being part of the "Highway Patrol" film company. He had no job to do, but some friend of his in the office staff had entered his name onto the payroll list. Every week a check was given to him for just walking on the set and having lunch with the crew. Edwin soon put a stop to that! Even the poodle was banned from the ZIV lot after that.
A FUN EXPERIENCE
Something like this happened to me on that fateful Friday. One of the technicians on the stage came to me and asked my name. I told him. "Are you part of Elvis' group of friends?" he asked. I said, "No," although I'd met him before. I was asked to leave. Later I learned that Elvis and the musicians thought that since I was there so many days in a row, I was a studio employee. Remember, Jim Drury did not introduce me personally to Elvis as his friend; he'd already left when I arrived. I possibly could have explained that I'd met Elvis in Texas in '58, that we had "mutual friends" or something silly like "Gabe Tucker sent me here," but I didn't. I did not want to say I'd had a meeting with the director or with Colonel Parker. If I had then I'm sure no one would have cared how long I'd observed the goings on.
I had a great time. It was a fun experience for four days, so I couldn't really grumble. I packed up my pride and walked off the Paramount lot feeling like I was a richer man - which I was. By the way, I'm still waiting to hear from that casting director!
Now Dig This
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