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KAY ANDERSON describes what happened on the set on the day when everyone thought that Fame was finished for ever.
After a long week of work or school, everyone looks forward to the weekend for a chance to sleep late, loaf around, go to the movies or out with friends, all the things you can't do from Monday to Friday. Since the people on Fame work very hard to produce the natural-seeming, effortless-looking show we enjoy on our TV screens, by Friday afternoon on the set you can feel the excitement of the anticipated weekend rising.
Well, you usually can. Friday, March 4th, 1983 was different. That Friday feeling just wasn't there. Instead, everyone seemed rather subdued and in no hurry to rush out of the doors the moment their scenes for the day were finished. Instead, they stood around with somewhat wistful expressions, watching the cameras and lights being set up for subsequent shots, and exchanging hugs and phone numbers with the people they'd been working with for so long. It was the last day of filming on the second series.
The wrap party, which Kim Kaufman described in issue 10, had been scheduled for the following Monday and after that, no-one knew if they'd ever see again the friends and colleagues they'd worked with twelve-plus hours a day, five days a week, for two eight month filming seasons, as NBC still hadn't made the decision about whether or not to take Fame for a third season...
Late that afternoon, the dancers, wearing their yellow stretch overalls and orange tee-shirts, finished a live by-satellite television broadcast to Italy, which they'd been doing on Stage 26. Panting, drooping and exhausted, they wandered slowly up the shadowy studio alley and disappeared around the corner. As they went, they seemed to take the remaining light and warmth of the afternoon with them.
The only scenes still to be shot were taking place on Stage 28, which contains the permanent sets of the school theatre, the dressing, make-up and wardrobe rooms, and a big open space where non-permanent sets are built. The name of this last episode being shot was "U.N. Week", and the very last scene involving any of the Kids was a confrontation in the wardrobe room between Danny and Coco.
While Carlo and Erica were acting their scene, Lori and Valerie crept quietly in to watch. Lori was still in the costume she'd worn for her last scene which had been filmed earlier in the day jeans, and a long-sleeved blue plaid shirt over a pink leotard. Since then, she'd been practicing her cello in the rehearsal hall, situated down the studio street next to the production offices.
Valerie was back in her own clothes, which were black, as usual. Black is her favourite colour and when you ask her why, she explains: "I used to be a 'chubbo' and black is supposed to be slimming. Anything I ever wear that isn't black is something someone gave to me"! She's absolutely slim and trim now, but those black outfits have got to be a habit.
Carlo was wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt patterned with huge black flowers, over a black, long sleeved teeshirt. "Maybe I'll keep this shirt for luck", he'd mused earlier, and everyone within earshot had begun suggesting what kind of luck a shirt like that might bring!
The scene Carlo and Erica were doing was a very emotional one involving some long, complicated lines, but it went well and the perfect take was soon judged to be 'in the can'. Then the camera and lights were taken off to another set, to be used in a scene involving the teachers.
This was the cue for a round of hugs between Lori, Carlo, Erica and Valerie, then they left, arm in arm, struggling with the heavy, insulated double doors of the soundstage, which are difficult to open wide. With their departure, the soundstage suddenly seemed much emptier. Gene and Lee had finished all their scenes the day before and had said their goodbyes then.
The last remaining shots were scenes number 30 and 86 in the script. The action took place several days apart in the actual story, but as the scenes took place on the same set, they were being shot in a bunch, in normal film fashion. The set was a place called Kretchner's Bar, a nice, homely, American local pub, full of red-checked tablecloths, bentwood chairs, 1950s neon beer signs, ceiling fans, an old-fashioned popcorn machine and an elaborate old brass cash register. Fame's art director, Ira Diamond, himself a native of New York City, said he designed it "out of a fond memory".
The last scenes featured Lydia Grant, Elizabeth Sherwood, David Reardon and Professor Shorofsky and, for the last hour or so, Debbie, Carol, Morgan and Albert had been sitting at one of the tables in the bar set, going over their lines and working out how everything should be done, in addition to just quietly talking like friends do when they know they won't be seeing much of each other in the foreseeable future.
All afternoon, people from other shows on the MGM lot had been coming in to say goodbye to the Fame folk, and Debbie had been playfully chiding some of them for not wearing what she described as "our school colours". Looking around, it was interesting to note just how many of the crew and production people were wearing Fame's black, white and cranberry red colour scheme. Many of them were decked out in the tee-shirts, sweaters and satin baseball jackets with the Fame logo on which had been gifts to the show's personnel from the producers at various stages during the production, such as the first and second Christmases, the end of the first series, and to celebrate the news that NBC wanted the second series. Nobody dared to wonder if they'd ever be able to add to their collection or not...
Some of the others had used their imaginations and had assembled the correct colours from their own wardrobes. For instance, Debbie was wearing a red sweater and white slacks, Morgan a mulberry coloured pullover, and Carol a long black skirt, white blouse and red scarf.
Before the lights and cameras were assembled for shooting, to begin, dinner break was called, so everyone went down the street to Stage 25, which was empty and not in use just then. The caterers had driven their truck right inside and had set up tables and chairs in the cavernous soundstage. Caterers' trucks are miracles of technological space-saving, containing refrigerators, freezers, ovens, steam tables, cooking elements, electric mixers, drawers, bins, compartments and hanging racks, all crammed into a van body that is no more than eight feet wide and eight feet tall, by about sixteen feet long. Out of this cramped space, the cooks regularly produce culinary masterpieces.
On this occasion they offered a typical spread; a choice of oven-fried chicken, poached trout, or London broil with mushroom sauce, plus potatoes or peas and onions, five or six different salads, three kinds of hot rolls and, for dessert, German chocolate cake. The choice of drinks was equally wide, running to coffee, tea, milk, chocolate milk or a variety of soft drinks. There was certainly plenty to feed the sixty or so cast and crew.
Debbie, who eats very lightly, had only fish and a green salad. Albert Hague entertained the table, both deliberately, with his whimsical stories, and unintentionally by the incredible way in which he neatly boned his trout while scarcely glancing at it! Carol and Morgan, who both come from Nashville, Tennessee, though they didn't know each other when they were there, engaged in a nostalgia tour of their hometown, reminiscing about the places they both knew. Unlike some shows, the Fame cast, crew, extras and production people all mix together at the meal tables.
Then it was time to return to the set for the teachers' scenes. In television and movie-making, it frequently happens that a story set at one time of the year has to be filmed in the opposite conditions. People are challenged with creating an Arctic scene in the middle of a record-setting heatwave, or with romping on a beach in swimsuits on a freezing February day, On this occasion, everyone was dressed for a New York winter, although outside it was a mild California evening and under the lights on the set it was at least 90 degrees!
The action called for the teachers to sip white wine or beer as they talked. The "wine" was white Concord grape juice and, since nothing except beer forms an authentic-looking foamy head, beer with a very low alcohol content was used. Anyone who thinks acting is a glamorous profession should try sitting around in winter clothes in tremendous heat, sipping very warm, very sweet liquids for hours on end after a big dinner, and trying to look as enthusiastic after the fifth hour as you did on the first take, although you know the result of this ordeal is going to be edited down into a sequence which ends up only a couple of minutes long!
After finishing the first scenes in the bar, the actors and actresses changed into different costumes, as the next scene to be shot on that set was supposed to be taking place on another day. The extras had brought their own costumes; having the right clothes is part of an extra's job, and the more extensive their wardrobe, the more work they're likely to get. Incidentally, the extras were asked to mime their background conversations in the bar, rather than whisper, in case the microphones picked up their sounds along with the actors' dialogue. Their miming and reacting looked so extraordinarily realistic that I wondered how they'd done it .... and then I discovered that they were silently mouthing nursery rhymes at each other! Once they'd decided on which one to use, the other people near them could follow the story and react to it.
The last shot in the bar was actually the very last scene of the very last episode in the second series. Even more appropriately, it happened to feature a toast of appreciation from the teachers to all the pupils of the School of the Arts. There was in addition one final little "pick-up" shot, as it is called. This involved Debbie, alone on the auditorium stage. Miss Grant is watching Mr Reardon performing in the "You Got Trouble" production number, which, in the story, he does for an audition with a Broadway producer (played by Otis Sallid, Fame's assistant choreographer). As they weren't going to re-stage the whole number just to give Debbie something to react to, Morgan danced around the empty stage, whispering the song to himself, so that Debbie could follow him with her eyes, and produce the appropriate movements and expressions.
Then, suddenly, the last episode was over. The shooting lights were killed, someone threw a few paper streamers, and producer Mel Swope, who directed the episode, said a quiet: "Thank you, all."
Carol Mayo Jenkins, who is very sentimental, had stayed to watch the last shot, even though she wasn't in it. She was wiping her eyes as Debbie hugged her. Morgan, who can't bear goodbyes, grabbed his jacket and ran out of the soundstage door.
Although it wasn't yet 11pm, outside the studio lot was as silent as a deserted ruin in the moonlight. People headed for the gate in pairs and little groups, avoiding the deep shadows cast by the looming blank walls of the soundstage. A movie studio is a very spooky place at night.
A few weeks later, the Hollywood trade papers carried a double-page, full colour advertisement. There was the familiar black and red FAME logo, and the show's triumphant motto, "We're gonna live forever!" The tears and sadness in the hearts of the Fame folk were replaced by rejoicing. There WAS going to be a third series, and the last day hadn't been the last day, after all!
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.