Main > Series > Articles/Interviews > On the Fame Set - Part 2
A TYPICAL DAY AT MGM'S FAMOUS STUDIOS BY NANCY FALLS
Before the Fame cast arrived on the set in the morning, they've already checked their callsheet (the daily schedule detailing the work to be done that day) to see whether they will be required to sing, act or dance that day.
Each episode of Fame contains at least two musical numbers, one of which is the spectacular, specially choreographed showpiece known technically as a production number. Every episode takes seven days to shoot, and they always save up the production number for the seventh day!
I joined them on one of these 'Dance Days', as they are described on the callsheet. The production number was being filmed in the Performing Arts High School theatre set on Stage 28. Stage 26 contains the interior sets, such as schoolrooms, corridors and the cafeteria, and Stage 28, which is directly across the narrow studio street, contains the theatre set and a large backstage make-up and dressing room. This is actually used as a set when it's required for a dressing room scene in the show.
During the first series, the Fame folk had to go all the way to downtown Los Angeles to film the production numbers in a small theatre, which was very inconvenient and time-consuming. But now they have a theatre of their own on Stage 28, complete with seats, orchestra pit, curtains, apparatus to raise and lower the scenery, spotlights, and all the other things a real theatre would have.
The episode they were finishing the day I was there was one called "Star Quality", and the production number was an adaptation of Gene Kelly's famous "Singin' In The Rain" routine from the 1952 musical of the same name. To keep the feeling of realism, the scenery and costumes had been deliberately designed to look as if they had been produced by a theatre high school that was tight on funds! They had a painted big-city street scene as a backdrop, with the buildings outlined in tiny white Christmas tree lights, and the only set decorations on the stage were a street lamp and an old American fire alarm box..
The 'rain' was created by plastic streamers hanging from the flies (as the scenery-moving equipment above the front of the stage is called).
The original version of "Singin' In The Rain" was set in the Twenties, but for this new adaptation, the costumes are a mixture of styles from the Forties and Fifties, the sort of thing that might have been dug out of a parent's trunk in the attic, or purchased at a second-hand clothes shop. Chainstore plastic macs and brollies provide the cheap 'n' cheerful finishing touch!
Gene Anthony Ray takes the role formerly played by his namesake, Gene Kelly. He was looking surprisingly trendy in a brown pinstriped double-breasted suit that was the height of fashion forty years ago and is just coming into vogue again now. Carlo Imperato plays a cop walking his beat, and he was wearing an old-fashioned policeman's uniform, which looked very much like a British policeman's uniform except for the hat.
A dozen dancers were appearing with Gene and Carlo in the number, as well as the episode's guest star, Chris Lewis, the young boy we mentioned in last month's magazine, who tags onto Leroy and becomes his self-appointed little brother.
Although every bit of a film or TV movie looks effortless by the time it reaches your screen, it takes hours of hard work to achieve a good result, and the musical production numbers from Fame are no exception. Just filming the dance sequence requires a 14-hour shooting day, and that is the end product of a lot of prior planning and preparation.
The costumes for "Singin' In The Rain" had been chosen, the set constructed and the choreography worked out in a remarkably short period of time. Debbie Allen, who does all the choreography for the series, as well as playing the dance teacher Lydia Grant, had begun preparing for the number only ten days earlier.
The first thing she did was to watch a videotape of the original version. She then had to decide which parts of Gene Kelly's version were suitable for use on a different sort of stage, the one the Fame cast would be working on, and how to adapt the effects (e.g. the plastic streamer rain instead of real water). She had to take into consideration the fact that she was working with a completely different sort of dance team, too.
After she had worked out the dance routine, it was then taught to the dancers, who usually rehearse for four or five days of each seven day shooting period at the rehearsal hall near the Fame soundstages, under the direction of Debbie and her assistant, Otis Sallid.
The dancers learn their routines while the actors' scenes are being filmed, and everything - the story plot and the production number dance - comes together on the last day of filming for each episode.
Meanwhile, the music and arrangements have to be worked out. Lee Curreri, Lori Singer and all the other performers on Fame do their own singing and play their own instruments, and usually the playing and singing is done live before the cameras. But occasionally it is not possible to do it that way because it's too difficult to place the microphones to record them properly. When that happens, the actors have to go over to a recording studio in Hollywood, about fifteen miles away, to tape their singing with studio session musicians. And because the shooting schedule is so tight, this means they have to do it in the evening, after a long day's shooting, or on their day off.
This happened to Gene during the filming of the "Star Quality" episode. He was sent off to the studio to record the song he'd be singing in it...... and nobody had told him what it was going to be! He hadn't even had a chance to practice it beforehand, When he arrived at the studio and they told him he was to record "Singin' In The Rain", he was thrilled to bits.
"I've got that on videotape at home, from 'That's Entertainment' ", he said. ("That's Entertainment" is a film made up of clips of dozens of musicals). "I know it by heart," he added. "That man's my idol!"
He soon proved he'd studied Gene Kelly's original, not just by being word-perfect on the first take and managing to get in and out of the recording studio in twenty minutes flat, but also by being able to reproduce a lot of Gene Kelly's on-stage movements and mannerisms, such as the twirl around the lamp post.
When the day came for them to actually film the sequence, I watched Gene dancing and lip-synching (mouthing the words along to the music with perfect timing) to the vocal track he'd recorded a week or so earlier. In the orchestra pit sixteen musicians were playing along with the pre-taped accompaniment. None of this is easy to do, but it gives the best possible sound quality for the musical numbers.
I wasn't the only person watching the number being filmed. It was practically standing room only in the theatre. In the front were the extras, standing within range of the camera, and at the back where I was standing were a crowd of crew members and visitors. The Fame crew members seemingly never get tired of watching the cast perform one of these special numbers, even though they have seen dozens of them.
By eleven in the morning some of the offstage shots had been completed and the action had moved onto the actual stage to film Gene and Carlo in "Singin' In The Rain". The musicians took their places in the orchestra pit, the play-back equipment was in place and an extra camera and camera crew were on hand to film the dance number from different angles. Normally only one camera is used to shoot Fame.
Everyone had to maintain total silence as sound was being recorded while the film was being shot. The extra camera crew was up on a battery-operated crane and it was quite spooky to see it moving about, carrying a heavy 35mm camera and three or four men on the end of its long boom, all in utter silence.
A special lightning effect had been organised for the beginning of the number, and everyone had been cleared well away from the machine which was to produce the lightning and warned not to look at it. It produces flashes of extremely intense blue-white light as an electrical charge jumps between two carbon rods with a harsh, tearing sound that raises goosebumps on your arms!
Debbie came in looking very smart in a big, cranberry-coloured pullover, grey knickerbockers, cowboy boots and a man's tan fedora hat. She and the director of this episode, Gwen Archer, promptly started conferring about the dance number. As usual Debbie was looking calm, crisp and unhurried, but she's so busy that just reading her schedule makes you feel tired, never mind doing all the things she has to do.
First of all she has a major acting role in the series and this alone would be a full-time job for most people. Then there's her job as choreographer and real life dance instructor on each episode. The week before the filming of "Singin' In The Rain", she'd flown to New York and back with some of the Fame Kids, to dance in the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She was also very busy rehearsing dance numbers for NBC TV's Christmas Special which was to be filmed the following week, and a different set of numbers for the Fame troupe's trip to England. And on top of all that, she had a raging toothache - yet she still managed to appear relaxed and in command!
As Gene and the others rehearsed, I could see them adding their own delightful little touches to Debbie's choreography. Chris Lewis, the young boy who co-stars with Gene in this episode, is about the same age as Gene's real life brother, Nairobi, and watching the two of them dancing, you could see that a warm rapport had sprung up between Chris and Gene. Between run-throughs of their part of the dance, Gene kept carrying Chris around on his shoulders, and Debbie noticed this, smiled and added it to the routine!
In order to work out the steps, Gene hoisted Debbie onto his shoulders and carried her around in the same fashion, reminding onlookers yet again of how strong dancers are. Gene made carrying an adult on his back look every bit as easy as carrying a child.
As the rehearsing went on, further personal touches were added including juggling open umbrellas and, to round off the number, some 'accidental' bumping into Carlo as he walked his policeman's beat! Somehow, a dozen back-up dancers, all carrying umbrellas, Gene and Chris, and Carlo with his policeman's truncheon, all managed to swirl around the stage in perfect timing and synchronisation. It seemed impossible that someone wouldn't trip somebody else up, or cannon into them, but it all went off perfectly.
Hour after hour, sequences were rehearsed, then filmed, then the lighting would be changed, the cameras moved, and the next sequence would begin. Nobody seemed to get tired. No-one was out of breath, or perspiring, or rubbing sore feet. By six o'clock I felt shattered and all I'd done was watch! From seven in the morning until nine at night is an extremely long day, especially for Gene, Carlo, Debbie, little Chris and the twelve dancers. Yet their energy never flagged and no-one ever complained. Everyone on Fame is a hard-working, dedicated actor or dancer - and anyone who thinks being a dancer is easy just needs to spend a few hours in the studio with them.
This interview was provided to me by Stuart Farrell.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.