The Holiday Truce on Stage 34

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“I hope they paid you double the salary for working on both shows,” I said.

Cal chuckled.  “Well…” He trailed off with a wave of his hand.  “A shame about the fire.  They were pretty good those episodes, as I recall.  But since we only showed them once a year, we didn’t keep them in the same place we kept the other reels.”

“Why didn’t they make copies?”

“They did, but no one knows what happened to them.  People look for them now and then.”  He leaned in and lowered his voice, even though we were the only two people in the room.  “You ask me, someone took them.  Maybe kept them in a vault, hoping to get rich off them someday.  But maybe they got spooked, thinking the world might be angry about it.  So they never came forward.  That happened to me with something I swiped off the set that I truly didn’t think anyone cared about.  So I put it back one day.  Slipped it back into the props room.  It was found, and everyone just thought it had gotten misplaced.”

I grinned.  “Oh yeah?  What did you take?”

He touched a finger to the tip of his nose.  “I’ll never tell.”

“Then I’ll ask you to tell me about something you are willing to talk about, the plot of the specials.  Do you…remember?”

“A fair bit.  You know it’s funny.  There was a time I could have recited every line from those episodes.  Not because I memorized them on purpose.  But because we had a tradition of watching them every year.”

Cal was silent for a few moments, his eyes narrowed as he reached into his memory.  I sat back, a gesture to let him know he could take his time.

“The ‘Lily’ show started with her waking up in the middle of the night because she saw a bright light,” he started, “and so she went outside her balcony to see, and then—“  He slammed a fist into the palm of his other hand.  “—boom!  She was swept up into the ship.”

“Wait, wasn’t ‘Calling All Ships’ set like a thousand years in the future?”

He waved his hand.  “Sure, sure.  But they went back in time.”

“How?”

“I don’t remember.  The ship must have had a time engine or something.  Anyway…”

The man sitting across from me in a chair that looked older than he was kept talking, his eyes twinkling in the warm yellow light that suffused his living room.  He occasionally glanced out of the window at his grandkids playing in the yard outside.  He described as much of the plot as he could remember of the two-part lost holiday special that crossed between the two shows he was working on as an award-winning property master and junior set designer at PH Studios in the middle of the twentieth century.

***

“Lily Loquacious” and “Calling All Ships” were both filmed in the same giant building that housed the famed Stage 34.  In fact, they were the reason that Stage 34 was famed.  The building actually housed five stages, all originally occupied by the “Lily Loquacious Variety Hour,” brought over from radio, which later became “Lily Loquacious Lives,” and finally just “Lily Loquacious.” The show started as a sketch comedy, where Lily Loquacious was a returning favorite character played by the inimitable Lily McKay.  When it was clear audiences wanted more of Lily Loquacious, the studio obliged by building a show around her.

The fame and prosperity of “Lily Loquacious” allowed the modest studio to develop more shows.  They rewarded that feat by taking over one of “Lily’s” stages for an ever-revolving series of failed pilots.  But the studio kept trying, and in time, one of those pilots hit.

“Calling All Ships” was a space saga about a ship ironically named the Valorous because it and its crew fled from a critical battle during the last war that their people and allies fought against a mysterious longtime enemy.  “Calling All Ships” eventually took over three of the stages and the studio’s only backlot at the time.

***

“They say it was the first time characters from one show appeared in another as the same characters,” I said.  “They do it all the time now, for the fans.  But this was the first television crossover.”

“I don’t know if you’re right about that,” Cal said.  He reached toward the table where he’d set a laser blaster.  He picked it up, turned it this way and that, just to show me, keeping it pointed downward, as if it were a real weapon.  He handed it to me.

It felt strange, holding it.  I felt as if I should have gloves on.  And I wondered how old a thing had to be before it was considered an artifact.

He smiled at me.  “I just know it was…a special time, despite the circumstances that led to the event.”

I nodded.

Cal gazed at the blaster.  “He actually never wanted them to have weapons.  At least, not the heroes.”

“Who?”

“Damien Shepherd.  The creator and producer of ‘Ships.’  Have you talked to him yet?”

“Not yet.”  I doubted we ever would.  He had not responded to our attempts to contact him.

“It wasn’t because of moral objections,” Cal continued.  “He was a nice guy, Damien.  But he was no dove.  He figured they were cowards, working their way back to being heroes.  Not carrying weapons had been their way of avoiding danger.  But he figured they’d continue not carrying weapons until they proved to themselves that they were brave enough without them.  But the studio executives thought it would be too bizarre to have a space saga without laser blasters, especially one that starts with the end of a war.”

“Wow, that would have been a different show,” I said.  I took down a note.  Cal had just told me something I hadn’t known, something significant.

“You’ve seen it?”

I raised my brows.  “Uh…’Calling All Ships’?  Yes, sir.  I’ve seen it.  Seen every episode that’s still available.”

“Hmm, and what about ‘Lily’?”

I sat back and took a breath.  “There are a fair bit more episodes of that show.  I skipped a season or so.”

“The one where she tries to be a professor at a women’s college, so she can inspire a whole new generation?”

I winced a bit and smiled.  “Yes…I will watch it before I finish my documentary.  I mean, it should probably be the season I pay more attention to.”

“Why?  Because you’re a woman?”  Cal shook his head.  “It was a boring season.  You’ll see.  No shame in saying so.  But you sat through the entire second season of ‘Ships’?”

I mimicked his earlier gesture and shrugged.

Cal whistled.  “Well then you’ll definitely survive ‘Lily’s’ professor season.”

I laughed.  “I’m certain I will.”

He pointed just over my shoulder.  “That’s the other one I promised you.  It’s not just a prop though.  It still works.  Well, I mean it had to.  She actually used it on the show.”

I turned and glanced at the old typewriter sitting on a side table.  The same typewriter that a character named Lily Loquacious, intrepid reporter, used to write her regular “Citizen on the Street” column, and the occasional front page story.

“Did you know they wanted to call the show ‘Lily Lively’ when they first moved it over from radio?” Cal asked.

“Oh?” I did know.  But I wanted to hear his take on the story.

“The props and costumes room was next to the dressing rooms, and that’s where she’d have her…uh…discussions with the producers.  ‘Lively,’ she said.  ‘What the heck is that supposed to mean?  We’re all alive.  So what if the repetition of the ‘ly’ looks good on ad copy?  If you want her to have some kind of personality, how about Lily Loudmouth?’”  Cal chuckled.

I’d heard the anecdote before, from Lily McKay’s old assistant, who was actually in the room during the conversation.  The studio execs had thought the word “loquacious” didn’t have enough personality.

Cal took a deep breath.  He locked eyes with me and yet there was also a faraway gleam in his gaze.

“The two best shows I’ve ever worked on,” he said.  “Two of the best shows to ever grace the small screen.  Both filming on the same lot, in the same building.  And I did the props for both at the same time.”  He threw up his hands and then brought them together and clasped them.

I nodded.  “Yet they came to be competitors for the same time slot.   Did that make you feel awkward in any way?”

“There’s a difference between rivals and enemies, kid.  The shows were always rivals.  The producers of one show would try to leverage all their friendships and connections to get the best guest stars before the other show did.  The cast and crew would do the same.  Lily McKay once wined and dined three different costume designers in one night in the hopes of getting someone with some vision for her show.”  Cal leaned toward me.  “It was hard to beat the outrageous costume designs on a show about space travel and meeting aliens.”  He winked and sat back.  “And then there were the pranks.”

I nodded.  “I’ve heard about a few of those.”

“Lily” was the established and solid flagship show, and “Ships” was the fresh-faced and eager youngster.  Pranks became a regular occurrence between the crews of both shows.  For the most part, people could take sides, because the shows only shared a few crew members.  The rare few, like Cal, who worked on both shows were nominally asked to “turn traitor” on occasion, but were left alone for the most part, being considered “neutral territory.”

For the most part, the worst harm the pranks caused was momentary embarrassment and the waste of time and money.  The studio executives weren’t aware of the pranks, but those who were—directors and producers—thought it fostered a healthy creative and competitive atmosphere.  So they allowed it.

“Did you hear about that time someone took all the ink barrels out of all the pens in the ‘Ships’ writers’ room and offices?” Cal asked.

I nodded.

“How about that time someone was lurking in a hallway one Halloween, jumping out and scaring all the ‘Lily’ cast as they went to the dressing rooms?”

I raised my brows, gave him a twisted smile, and nodded again.

“Well did you hear about the one I got blamed for?”

“Uh, someone might have mentioned it, but—“

“Let me put the record straight.  And I don’t mean to be rude to you, but to all those who might have filled your head with the wrong ideas.”  He narrowed his eyes.  “I stayed out of it.  I was on both shows.  I loved both shows.  And I even ruined a prank or two just to try and keep the peace.  I went ahead and took all the whoopee cushions off all the chairs on the ‘Lily’ set one time before people could sit on them in front of the live audience.  And another time, I found ants crawling all over the one robot prop I made for ‘Ships’ because someone had smeared honey all over it.  I saw it in time and managed to clean it all up before they needed it for shooting later that day.”

“That didn’t make you thirsty for your own revenge?  Maybe on both crews?  For messing up your props?  I mean, the robot prank at least.”

Cal flicked his hand in the air as if swatting away a bothersome fly.  “It was all in good fun.  And I left out the part where the person who did the honey prank actually caught me the next day and apologized.”

His shoulders shook in a silent chuckle.  “One day, on both sets, none of the doors would work properly.  On ‘Lily,’ the doorknob kept falling out of one door, and another kept getting jammed.  And on ‘Ships,’ the automatic doors that usually slid up to open and down to close kept getting stuck halfway.  That sort of thing happened sometimes, but this was both shows, and almost all the doors, on the same day.  And I was in a foul mood that day, which wasn’t like me.  Some personal family business came up.  Anyhow, someone put all those details together and got an equation in their head that equaled me pulling a prank.”  He shook his head.  “The problem was that it was no ordinary day of shooting.  The producers had warned us about it ahead of time just so we wouldn’t pull anything.  The studio heads had brought in some investors, and long story short, I got the blame for pulling a prank that made everyone look bad in front of some bigwigs who were ready to write us some big checks.”

“What did you do?  Did you come forward and explain it wasn’t you?”

“I didn’t.  Because I figured whoever really pulled the prank was probably scared, but as long as the blame was on me, they could breathe a little easier.”

I frowned.  “But still, if you were warned ahead of time, this person should have known better.  You didn’t deserve to take the fall.”

He raised his brows.  “I had a contract, and a reputation that I felt was solid enough that they wouldn’t can me.  They’d instead maybe twist it around and convince the investors that I was trying to show them how important a props master is and why it is we need their investment.  Something like that.  Lily may have been the one called ‘loquacious,’ but both she and Damien were always coming up with saves like that, using their wits and their fast-talking with investor types.”

“And did they?  Save the situation?”

Cal chuckled silently again.  “Not that time, but the studio heads said they weren’t the right investors anyway.  It all blew over.”

“And?  Who was the real prankster?”

Cal shrugged.  “I never went looking for him—or her.”

“But even after it cost the studio investment dollars, the pranks didn’t stop, huh?”

“Between ‘Lily Loquacious’ and ‘Calling All Ships’?  Are you kidding?  They were two giants living under one tiny roof.  Everyone behaved for a little while, but once we got the memo about a new infusion of cash, it started up again.”  He sighed.  “Until someone pulled the prank to end all pranks.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “From what I understand, it was more than a prank.  It was a crime.”

Cal nodded.

***

No one died.  But they could have.  Food poisoning can be deadly.

Both shows had solstice specials planned.  And both shows had holiday parties planned to wrap up the mid-season and let the cast and crew disperse until after the new year.

But on the day “Ships” was scheduled to start shooting their holiday episode, and a week before “Lily” was going to shoot a live show that revisited the old variety show days, half the cast and crew of both shows called in sick at the same time.

At first, the unions were contacted to ask if there was a strike on.  Then those who’d come in to work started calling those who hadn’t to find out why they hadn’t showed up.

The same details kept popping up in call after call.  The same list of symptoms.  Stomach cramps.  Fever and chills.  Vomiting.  Diarrhea.  It didn’t take long for skepticism to fade among the studio heads, who had come onsite as soon as the directors and producers told them that both of their top shows were in serious trouble.  It didn’t take long because by the time they showed up, the crew had already put together the scenario.  Everyone remembered the deliveries two days prior, of baskets upon baskets of muffins, cookies, brownies, and little cakes called petit fours.

The baskets had generic tags on them with messages like “For a job well done throughout the year,” and “Enjoy this basket as the people enjoy the work you do.”  Everyone who bothered to guess had guessed that the studio heads were responsible.  That it was their gift to the cast and crew, an extra surprise leading up to the studio’s big solstice party.

Many of the crew chowed down, along with some of the cast.  And many who didn’t eat while at work, took the excess home.

That’s why, over the next few days, more people became sick.

That first day, filming was cancelled, in the hopes that most would be able to make it into work the following day.  But most were still too sick to come in.  A few even had to be hospitalized, and still more fell ill when the effects caught up to them before word spread to toss any remaining baked goods.

The studio heads would later lodge a complaint with the company that supplied the baskets of baked goods, followed by veiled threats of ruination.  But that company was so confident about the quality of their goods and their method of checking that they launched their own investigation.  It was they who brought in the police, when they suspected that their baskets had been tampered with.

But before all of that.  And before the arrest of the newly hired assistant, who was one of the rare few assigned to work on both shows, and who in an overzealous and misguided attempt to up the level of the pranks had committed the crime of purposeful public poisoning, the cast and crew of both shows went into crisis mode.

Realizing that they could not wait for their employees to get better, the studio heads ordered the cast and crew of both shows to carry on as best they could, but to carry on.  Advertising was already being run to promote the solstice specials.  So they had to put them on.  But the ads didn’t say what would be on the shows.

***

“It started with everyone who was sitting in the break room, just sipping water or coffee, because we were nervous to eat anything in the darned place,” Cal said.

“So you hadn’t gotten sick?”

Cal pressed his lips together.  “I’ve never really been one for sweets.  And I had no desire to bring home any goodies for the kids.  They had enough energy as it was without stuffing them full of sugar.”

I nodded and made a note.

“Someone suggested that we combine offscreen crews,” Cal said, “and have everyone work on both shows until we were back to full capacity, or heck, even two-thirds capacity.  No one was happy about that suggestion.  It would mean we’d all have to work through what should have been our time off.”

Cal stopped and took a sip from the glass of water beside his chair.  “Then someone asked if there was a way we could do that and still get both shows done in time to get at least a few days off, and not get sick from just being so tired.  And that’s when a few of the writers on ‘Ships’ said that they had played around with something one day as a peace offering for the writers of ‘Lily,’ after a prank that now seemed mild.”

“Something?  A script?”

Cal nodded.

“Wait, so…was that script never meant to be taken seriously?”

Cal had started shaking his head before I’d even finished asking my question.  “But the thing is, a lot of people were already familiar with it.  So many of us had read it as a lark, a laugh, and maybe a little bit of cheese.”

I threw up my hands.  “Who doesn’t like cheese?”

Cal pointed a finger at me.  “Some people are allergic to it.”

“Fair enough.  So how did it go from a suggestion to a decision?”

“Lily and Damien pushed for it.  By the end of that first day, we heard that the studio heads had changed their mind about carrying on.  They were thinking of just nixing the idea and announcing to the public that the cast and crew had gotten sick.  And releasing the guest stars from their commitments to appear.”

“Really?  I thought ‘the show must go on.’”

Cal paused for a moment, and then a wide grin broke across his face.  “And it did go on.  But that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of doubt and near-surrender before it did.”

“How did you get past all the hurdles?”

“Hurdles weren’t the problem.  Hurdles we could hop.  The problem was that everyone was squeamish.  In the days before we knew who’d done the prank, no one knew who to trust from the other show.  For some people, they didn’t know who to trust on their own show.  People went hungry that first day, afraid to eat from the catering table.  But Lily and Damien convinced us, pulled us together.  So as of Day Two, we got a lot of work done, reaching out to the guest stars to let them know there was a change of plans, and sending them the scripts and their parts, and starting to build the sets, and modify the script as much as we could to take advantage of what we had.  We had the star of ‘Lily.’  She had not tasted of the poisoned basket.  But half the senior officers of the Valorous were out of commission.  And that included the captain.”

Cal took another sip of water.  “See, they’d written in a quick romance—mostly just flirtation—between Lily and the captain, but they had to take that out.  So the writers added something about the captain and his senior officers being off the ship for some event or something.  And they would leave some of the junior officers in charge.  The night shift, so to speak.  The puppeteers got real excited then to push for one of their newest creations to be the main officer in charge.   Their team only had one guy missing, and they’d built a puppet that had been used in the background already.  They were eager to showcase their alien puppet.”

“And the writers let them have a say?”

“The writers were actually going around asking all the teams—costumes, props, puppets, et cetera—what would be the easiest thing for them to write that the rest of the crew could pull off and still give the audience a great show.  Two great shows.”

Cal shifted his gaze over my shoulder again.  But he wasn’t looking at a prop this time.  His eyes gleamed.  “It was only for two weeks.  But I was so tired when I got home from work each day.  Too tired to eat the dinner my poor wife had wrapped and left for me in my fridge when she got too sleepy to stay up for me.  Too tired to have a sip of something to help me relax.  Too tired to take off more than my jacket and shoes before I collapsed onto the couch each night.  But I was also too restless.  My mind kept thinking of the next thing I needed to do.  I had to assemble a few new sets and build a few new props, and do all of it, two weeks work, in maybe three days.  But when I was on set…”  His gaze shifted back to meet mine.  “…it was like being in a different world.  It was like being in the world of Lily and the Valorous.”

“But didn’t people get better and start coming back to work?”

Cal shook his head.  “We had hoped people would at first.  But once we shifted to the new storyline, we worried about what would happen when they did.  If the actors playing the senior officers on ‘Ships’ came back, they’d surely want to be written in to the new script.”  He dropped his gaze and smiled softly.  “And a good number of them did come back before we finished filming.  But they didn’t do what we feared they would do.  They got it.  Those were used to being in front of the camera, they took to helping the crew, and assisting their fellow actors.  I could tell that some of them were itching to perform.  But others, they were kind of glad to have a break, and work behind the camera.  A few helped direct some of the scenes when one of the directors also fell ill, not from the food poisoning but from an unrelated flu.”

“You pulled it off.”

“Barely.  But yes, we pulled it off.  Partly pre-recorded.  Partly filmed live.  The specials aired when people were expecting them to.  And we crossed our fingers and told ourselves it was okay if the episodes bombed.  We didn’t have that long before our regular seasons started, and we’d show everyone that everything was back to normal.”

“But they didn’t bomb.”

“If you’re talking about the very first airing, that is unclear.  Some people hated it.  Some thought it was brilliant.  Some didn’t like the episodes themselves but were charmed because they knew about the offscreen rivalry between the shows.  I think I slept through the first airing.  When I woke up—about twenty years later with a five-foot long beard—I had to help finish all the holiday shopping, and go see family, and none of them watched the shows, so I didn’t really know until later.  I’d done my part.  I let it go for a bit.  But then, the new year came, and everyone was talking about the specials so much that the networks aired them again.  The episodes had nothing to do with any storyline in either show, so they were able to air the same specials again the next year, in addition to the separate specials each show did.”

“But they didn’t do another crossover.”

“Never again.”

“Why not?”

Cal shrugged.

“I’d heard of a fallout between two important people involved with each show—a fallout whose details were never discovered by the press despite chasing after everyone involved in the show in those days.”

“Fallout.  Of course there had to be a fallout.  People can’t just be decent to each other?”  Cal sighed.  “You’ll believe me.  Or you won’t.  What I say is the truth.  There was no fallout.  They agreed.  Lily on one side and Damien on the other.  They both agreed mutually that what had happened was magical, and if they tried to replicate it year after year, that magic would fade.  And they convinced the other producers and the studio executives.  So the shows went back to being rivals, only now something was different.  Something that only the casts and crews knew.  That solstice special.  It was theirs.  Their special moment.  Their special bond.”

“And why break the silence now, Cal?”  I thought I knew the answer.  But I wanted to hear it from him.

“We’ve already started leaving,” he said.  He pointed up.  “Dying from this world and—who knows?  Waking up naked and screaming in the next one.  So keeping the secret doesn’t matter to us anymore.  At least, it doesn’t matter to those of us who I managed to get in touch with.  We want people to know now, if they care to know.  And if they don’t, well, that’s fine too.”

“What do you want them to know?”

“That we had a good time.   That we did good work.  That we were good to each other…for the most part, and especially during those two weeks we filmed those two episodes.”  Cal sat up and squared his shoulders.  “That if we could pull ourselves together—we misfits and miscreants—maybe there’s hope for the rest of you.”

“To be valorous,” I said.

Cal nodded.

“And loquacious,” I added.

Cal chuckled.  “And maybe just a little bit mischievous.”

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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