Friday, December 25, 2015

Trashed Item-of-the-month

On the set of A Christmas Story. Darren McGavin, the Old Man, and Mike.

Here's a TRASHED trivia item for Christmas.

As you know, Trashed is fictional, but pieces of it are real, based on my own experience as a garbageman as a young man, in 1979 and 1980. Here's something you
don't know. My real-life partner on the truck-- named Mike in the book, named Mike in real life, too-- was in the beloved classic film, A Christmas Story!

It was winter break 1982. Mike was home from Ohio University. I was at Ohio State. My time on the truck was over by the end of 1980, when I started at OSU. Mike, however, worked at the Service Dept. an additional year. Unlike the book, I left first. I didn't come home anymore for breaks. Instead, I spent that time with my girlfriend, who had already graduated and lived and worked in Battle Creek, Michigan. Horrible place. The air reeked of toasted corn flakes from the cereal factories. I was also deeply involved with the school newspaper, The Lantern, and our breaks were short since we had to be on the job a week early to gear up for the first week of publication once the semester began. By Christmas 1982, my comics career was well underway and I was drawing political cartoons for The Lantern, as well as working as a reporter or photographer, depending on the semester. In December 1982, I was gearing up to be a fulltime reporter and political cartoonist once school started again in January 1983.

But the real impetus for staying away from my hometown was there was NO WAY I was getting back on that garbage truck again, which would have been my likely fate, since part time jobs over break were tough to find. I had already worked trash over a previous Christmas break. That was enough.

Mike in Trashed (in Dutch!)

Guess Mike felt the same way. He was home, and the break at Ohio U stretched SIX WEEKS at that time, from Thanksgiving all the way to the new year. He was determined to find other work. He was leafing through the classified ads in the Cleveland paper one day when he saw a mysterious ad: "Major movie. Extras needed." Curious, he called the number listed. He was told the only requirement was you had to be on call 24 hours a day. The only instructions were for when and where to show up, and how to dress. In vintage clothes.
"You had to go through costuming or could bring your own. I brought my own," Mike says, explaining that he borrowed his Dad's 1939 overcoat.

Ralphie's house, on Cleveland's hardscrabble near West Side, is now a very successful tourist attraction! 
That movie, of course, was the beloved Christmas classic, A Christmas Story. The filming took place in various locations around Cleveland, passed off as writer Jean Shepherd's fictional Rustbelt hometown of Holman, Indiana. 

For the next several weeks, Mike would spend most nights as an extra in a movie, the identity and storyline of which remained shrouded in mystery. Mike recalls he thought the film was utter nonsense. He particularly recalls watching them film Ralphie's fantasy scene, where he's picking off bad guys in his backyard. "What the hell IS this?," he thought.  "It looks terrible!"

Mike has always been a collector of odd antiques and family heirlooms. His boyhood room was full of strange artifacts. One of his hobbies was old cars. At this time, he had a Thirties sedan he tooled around town in. When he noticed the film was a period piece, he mentioned the car, and they hired him as a driving extra, one of several old-car buffs who simulate traffic in the film. He's driving in one of the opening scenes, as Ralphie is staring through HIgbee's front window at the Red Ryder BB gun. Higbee's was the real downtown Cleveland department store (it's now, alas, a casino). Another scene Mike was in was the one where the Old Man has a flat tire after getting the Christmas tree. That was filmed in the desolate Flats, Cleveland's industrial pit along the Cuyahoga River, where all the steel mills are. Mike was instructed to drive back and forth through the scene, hour after hour, all night long. He remembers it was a white-knuckle drive, on an icy, pot-hole-littered road, with few street lights and crew and actors mere feet from the passing cars. Mike was terrified he was going to run over Darren McGavin! The scene took an entire week to film.

Most of the filming took place at night, with production wrapping up at 3 am, so the street could be cleared by rush hour. December 1982 was bitterly cold. There was no snow that month. All the snow in the film was placed there with snow machines! Mike mostly stood around the set for hours, trying to stay warm and waiting to be called for a few minutes of filming. Then, when the set closed for the night, he would have the long, 20-mile drive back to our hometown, in his clunker car, and collapse in bed at dawn. Only at age 22!

There's Mike, behind the shrub!

But Mike had one big moment, the iconic Leg Lamp scene. When the Old Man is taking in the view from the street– "Oh, you should see what it looks like from here!"– a crowd gathers behind him to gawk. There's Mike, former garbageman, looking over his shoulder! I remember the first time I saw the film, I bellowed in recognition when I saw his face.

More trivia. A Christmas Story bombed. MGM thought it was a dog and dumped it in theaters at Thanksgiving 1983. It was gone by Christmas. The NY Times critic Vincent Canby savaged it! "There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in ''A Christmas Story,'' but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them." Ouch!

The following year, however, it popped up on heavy rotation on cable tv. In the early days of cable, the movie channels ran the same five movies in a continuous loop all month long and, since virtually everyone hacked the primitive cable boxes (with a paper clip!) to gain free access to those pay channels, you'd find yourself watching these films over and over. This turned box office disappointments like Road Warrior and Fast Times at Ridgemont High into cable hits.  And that's how fans found A Christmas Story. Then Ted Turner bought the rights and started the 24-hour marathons on TNT and TBS, which have grown into a Christmas Day tradition.

Now a college prof in Indiana, this scene has made Mike an annual Christmas celebrity on campus. All because he didn't want to be a garbageman anymore!