Jerry Green was a kid from the sticks of Panama City, Florida, who dreamed of going to Hollywood and becoming an actor. He made it to Hollywood, but instead of acting, his rural-to-riches story put him at the epicenter of a theme park revolution—the one without the mouse.
Like a lot of kids in southern California, Jerry was a regular at Disneyland. But it was the nascent Universal Studios Tour that captured his imagination, and soon after college he became one of the tour guides, Universal's tram-bound counterparts to Disney's Jungle Cruise skippers.
Jerry had a knack for connecting with his audience. Before long, he was hosting Universal's popular audience participation shows, and then he ascended to the upper echelon of Universal management, becoming the studio's entertainment director. From there, he was sent to Orlando to assist in the development of Universal Studios Florida, where he worked on rides and shows that wowed the crowds on opening day, and sent Mickey-down-the-road into an existential crisis.
Full of humor, celebrity encounters, and stories of Universal's cast and culture you've never heard before, Jerry's memoir of his 25 years with Universal Studios is that rarest of business books: a truly fun read, loaded with laughs and appropriate for theme park fans of all ages.
It's a Wrap
Write an autobiography? I never considered it, until two of my kids suggested, then encouraged me to take the plunge. And the interesting thing is, my life boils down to one-hundred-fifty pages. It seemed longer.
Some people are born gifted writers. Others, not so much. I’m now finishing my third book. Yet when people ask me if I’m a writer, I always tell them, “I enjoy writing, but I don’t know if I consider myself a writer.”
So what led me to write my first novel, Stealing Dawn?
At the age of 26 I became a Christian, and knowing the entertainment industry as a whole lacked moral character, I wanted to develop material that my wife and four kids could read, watch on TV, or see in the theater. From that desire came the idea for Stealing Dawn, an action/adventure story.
Originally written as a movie script, it sat in the closet for years before I decided to find out ... could I write a novel? Who knows, perhaps someday Stealing Dawn might make it to the big screen. There’s the old saying, “Hope springs eternal.”
My wife, Pamela, and I live in southern California and are blessed with four children, seven grandchildren, and now one great-grandchild. Perhaps I’m not as young as I thought!
A unique aspect of the Universal tour was that it took place at a working studio, and so there was always the chance of running into working stars. Some of these stars were glad to see their fans moving slowly past in tightly packed trams and might even amble over for a greeting; others, not so much.
In the early years of the tour it was common to see actors, actresses, and tech people walking around the studio. When I first started as a guide, Paul Newman was on the lot after filming The Secret War of Harry Frigg. He usually parked his little red VW in the hub, a large open area where trams stopped and guests disembarked for a tour through Stage 32. The hub was encircled by Edith Head’s office on one side; Raymond Burr’s dressing room adjacent to that; one of the prop department buildings; Stages 28, 32, and 34; and roads leading from the main gate and other areas of the studio.
Edith Head was another extremely accommodating person to tour guides. She was friendly, helpful, and usually took time to wave to the guests as she hurried from one project to another. She always seemed to be a frail-looking, but peppy little lady who was forever in a hurry.
I remember sitting on the tram in the hub and seeing a character actor passing a short distance away. I said into the microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s actor Brian David.” He casually walked over and I leaned down from the tour-guide seat, which was elevated at the front of the tram. He whispered, “It’s David Brian.” Ooops! Sorry, Mr. Brian. He wasn’t offended by me getting his name wrong. He corrected my error in a very kind way that only I could hear. At least I got the right names, just in the wrong order.
Raymond Burr was also a friend to the tour, always ready to wave and smile. But we did have others who were not user friendly. They were on the “don’t point out” list. Yes, there was a such a list. Some spent way too much time reading their own press clippings. Shirley McLaine comes to mind. She did entertain the guests one day by mooning everyone as the tram passed by. James Drury was also a definite no-no. He threatened to walk off the set if another guide pointed him out. Robert Blake, same thing.
I was told by an interior decorator friend of mine that at the height of the TV show Baretta, the studio spent a large sum of money decorating Blake’s dressing room; special carpet, décor from Europe, etc. Blake walked into the room for the first time, looked around, spat on the floor, then walked out.
For the sake of convenience, the transportation department parked trailers (mobile dressing rooms) in the hub. After guests got off the tram, but before taking them through the sound stage, we spent a few minutes orienting them to the location and the significance of the hub.
Part of my spiel included talking about the dressing rooms. “You have to understand,” I would tell my group, “there’s a pecking order when it comes to being assigned a dressing room. Stars like John Wayne, James Garner, Loretta Lynn, Charlton Heston, get the plush dressing rooms like the one Raymond Burr has” (point to his dressing room behind them). “Next in the chain are character actors, Tom Ewell, E.G. Marshall, and others like that. They, too, get a dressing room, perhaps not quite as nice. Then there are the day players, people who have a few lines and work for just a day or two. They get a trailer, but it’s still their own private space. Next come people who do ‘walk ons’; no lines, they just walk through a scene. They share a room with several other actors of the same stature. Then come the tour guides. We dress behind cars, under trees, behind buildings, anywhere we can find a spot.”
After touring the sound stage the group reboarded the tram and drove through the prop department. Universal’s prop department housed over 5,000,000 props and covered more than an acre of land. Fortunately, the road through the warehouse was large enough to accommodate trams. There were countless set decorations and show pieces on both sides of the tram, so everyone had a good view. Warehouses were filled with props from Universal movies and TV shows, many of them recognizable. A photographer’s dream. On rare occasion we were allowed to walk through the department since it was next to the hub, near Stage 32.
Coming out of the prop department the tour route turned and headed to the exterior sets on the backlot, passing what was referred to as Wall Street. This street was merely rows and rows of walls that could be assembled in any configuration to create interior rooms or exterior walls.
Just ahead, Anytown, USA. Its official name was Colonial Street, one of my favorite streets. We called it Anytown because it could be made to represent any town in America. It had many, many names over the years, depending on what was being filmed. Perhaps the most famous residents at the time were the Cleavers. It was home to Wally and the Beaver from Leave It to Beaver. Many years after that show ended, Jerry Mathers, the Beaver, became one of our Celebrity of the Day persons.
Thirteen-thirteen Mockingbird Lane. Sound familiar? I remember the address after all these years. But shortly after the Beaver and Wally moved out, the Munsters moved in. Fred Gwynne, Yvonne De Carlo, and Al Lewis set up residence just a few doors down from where the Cleavers had lived. Al Lewis, Grandpa Munster, eventually became a Celebrity of the Day as well.
The Cleavers would soon move out, and the Munsters had not yet arrived, when James Garner and Doris Day moved into the little community. Actually, they were right next door to the Cleavers, in one of my wife’s favorite movies, The Thrill of It All. The house was where James Garner drove his car through the garage and into their new backyard swimming pool. The exterior scene was shot at that house, but the backyard scene was filmed in a sound stage. They built a full-size pool inside the stage. Garner drove through the garage and into the pool that was surrounded with boxes of laundry detergent. Sounds weird, but catch the movie and you’ll understand.
Perhaps the most famous star-turned-politician to film on Colonial Street was Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo. The movie was directed by Fred de Cordova, who later became executive producer for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As a matter of fact, Carson used to make comments about de Cordova’s chimp experience. (Bonzo, of course, was a monkey.)
Continued in "25 Years Inside Universal Studios"!
Whether it's Universal or Disney or most any workplace, jokes (practical and otherwise) are essential to the culture, and how one reacts to a joke often determines how well they fit into that culture. Jerry once was sorely tested by a wad of chewed gum that showed up where it wasn't authorized to be.
Being a part of the Screen Test crew was always a blast. Everyone lived with the understanding that we were always fair game when on stage. If there was a way to get one of us to crack up in front of the audience, especially the guy with the microphone, then chances were.…
The console which I operated during the show controlled all of the special effects on stage. There were probably twenty buttons, about an inch in diameter, so I could easily get to them while at the same time talking with the audience and giving cues to the guest actors.
One summer day we were in the middle of a show and Al was running camera. As I recall, I made a joke to the audience about him chewing gum on stage, then continued on with the show. When I came back to the console I noticed that Al was no longer chewing gum. Then I spotted it, a large wad of chewed gum laying across the button I had to push for the upcoming effect. Al was trying his best to control his laughter. He knew I had no option but to push that button.
The show was in full swing. I was talking to the audience and at the same time giving direction to our guests as we recorded the next scene. Al was focused on getting that shot.
Yes, I could be considered a germaphobe, but forget the germs, that day I was determined. So while carrying on with the show, I worked very carefully and maneuvered the edges of Al’s gum until I got it in a ball.
By that time the scene was over and I call, “Cut!” The crew immediately began readying for the next scene, which meant that Al went to a different part of the stage to move equipment and get the guests ready for our next shot.
I explained the next scene to the audience and had a brief conversation with the guest actors. Al finished his setup and returned to his camera and slipped on his headset—still with that annoying little smile on his face. I carried on as if everything was good. And to me it was.
Then Al looked at the console and saw the chewing gum was missing from the button, but by that time we were already into the next scene. Now his focus was divided—get the shot, look for the gum.
As I talked with the audience, I watched his eyes. He was grabbing quick glances here and there, trying to find the gum. He didn’t know where it was, but he knew that wherever it was, it wasn’t good.
“And cut!” The scene ended. Al reached up to remove his headset and suddenly realized where the gum was. (Al always wore his hair in kind of a Beatles “do,” covering just below his ears.) As he pulled the headset away, long strings of chewing gum strung out between the headset and his ear, his hair matted in the strings of chewing gum. It took all I could do to keep it together. I was dying on the inside, and the audience could tell something was cracking me up. I pretended it was the performance of the guest actors on stage.
Al’s only solution was to quickly yank the headset away, carry on, and deal with getting the chewing gum out of his hair after the show. Scissors would be involved.
Continued in "25 Years Inside Universal Studios"!