Thursday, July 14, 2011

Memoirs of a Set Designer

It's been almost 30 years since I left for Long Island after retreating from the small UHF studio in Ashland, KY and the life I once knew. Leaving only with a small suitcase and the clothes on my back, I ran and didn't look back from a childhood paradise that slowly evolved into a traumatizing nightmare.

It was then and there; I was a young adult, down on my luck and barely making enough to pay the monthly rent for the apartment a friend and I shared. I was barely making minimum wage at my first job, where I would flip burgers for nine hours a day in the heat. The small eatery was beside a long stretch of highway my superstitious boss used to call "Ghost Road," a place where the ghostly hitchhikers would hail rides from unknown passerby.

I switched my apron in for a flourescent vest, to start pulling shopping carts into the local grocery store and mopping floors for twelve hours a day, five days a week; again, barely making minimum wage. I quit after only four weeks of working to look for a better and higher-paying job after I received a notice that I was going to be evicted.

It was while reading the morning paper three days later that I found an answer. Perhaps this would be the answer to my problem. A small article in the want ads called for pairs of helping hands to build set pieces for kid shows at the small UHF studio about thirty minutes away.

I got excited and ran for my red sedan, hoping to get there before someone else could. Something told me this would be my day. After driving for what felt like forty minutes, I pulled into the nearly-abandoned parking lot and looked for an unlocked door or, at the very least, someone to unlock a door. At last, I found a door that would open and was hit by a blast of cool air; the air conditioners were on full blast, I think.

I was about to approach the front desk to ask about the job offering but was stopped by an older gentleman in khaki pants and a blue polo, with neatly combed black-brown hair and green eyes. He asked me if I was here for the job position and smiled from ear to ear when I said yes. He gripped my hand like a python and shook it. He seemed overly excited or like he forgot to take some medication that morning, or maybe he was on a caffeine high. I wasn't sure; it could have been both, actually, but I couldn't tell you.

"The name's Bob Fields," he said, still shaking my hand. "You can call me boss. I'm so happy that someone saw the article. Times have been really tough because of the recent tax cuts and stage hands walking out. Please, follow me."

When he finally let go, my hand was red and numb. I followed him through the halls to the set, trying to shake it off. Mr. Fields was a strange person, but could you blame him? He loved his work and seemed to love the people there like a second family. Arriving onto the set, there were about a dozen people in different parts of the large room. It made me think that they shot different shows in one room at the same time.

He showed me around the room and explained the different shows they were working on. It didn't take an expert to take one look at the set pieces and realize how cheap and awful they were; it made it clear how seriously low budget they were. I knew times were tough, but not this tough.

The first show he introduced me to was called "Jumbo's Circus". It was an educational show that showed kids how to count, tell time, and identify colors and shapes and all that. It was a very basic show for the Pre-K demographic. After meeting the director and cast, I declined. It was nothing against them; it was the extreme coulrophobia that haunted me since childhood.

Fields then showed me another show. This one tried to be educational in the sense of moral lessons. Unlike Jumbo's Circus, where it was mostly live-action, this one had a cast consisting of only puppets of different shapes, sizes, textures, and colors. The show was called "Sunshine City" and it followed a group of puppet kids that would deal with real world problems that most kids never heard of or experienced.

Common morals were used, such as "stealing is wrong," "treat others the way you want to be treated," and "respect authority". However, some of the episode themes were rather serious, especially for a kid's show. One of the episodes was about one character, Lucas, who was bulled by another puppet, Peter, because his felt skin was a different color than that of all the other puppets on the show.

One of the puppeteers, who I spoke to shorly before I moved, told me about the darkest episode of the series. It was shown only once, because of the content, and resulted in the immediate cancellation of the show. In it, the sad orange puppet, Ron, was more upset than usual. He did his usual "woe is me" speech and left, not returning until the last two minutes of the episode.

In that short time, Ron can be seen sitting on a rock by the train tracks, staring at the cardboard sunset horizon. Sounds of a train can be heard, getting louder and louder with each second. Ron eventually sighs and stands. As the train speeds forward, Ron jumps out in front of it and the scene cuts to black. The very last part is a fade-in, showing Ron's dismembered puppet arm lying beside the tracks. Cotton is coming out of the limb and the train is chugging onward into the sunset. The final scene and the credits roll in silence.

The nature of the show made me feel uneasy. I again declined the offer. Fields sighed and showed me the third show they were working on. It was another puppet show, this time about pirates. The title of the show on the script said "Pirate Place," but that was  crossed out faintly in pencil. There was something written beside it, but I couldn't read it; it was mostly illegible.

Fields explained the plot of the show, which was about a girl named Janice who would go on adventures with a pirate named Percy, who wasn't a really good pirate because he was scared easily. The more he spoke about it, the more interested I became. He told me about a dream the director had about a boat that spoke with an Ed Wynn voice. He conjured up images of a smiling boat with big eyes that seemed to swallow the sea.

He explained two other characters - the villains. They were two strange puppets: Horace Horrible, who had tall teeth, a handlebar moustache, and a monocle, and the Skin taker. The Skin Taker was a skeleton on strings that had a glass eye, a cape, and a top hat.

The character of Janice reminded me of myself as a kid, dreaming about going on adventures and looking for hidden treasure on the seven seas. I signed up for the project and Fields smiled.

He introduced me to the director of my childhood dreams, Emerson Grimes. Grimes seemed like an okay guy. He was wearing hiking boots, blue jeans, a trucker hat, and a Hawaiian shirt. He took me to a rec room where the rest of the small crew was drinking Tab and playing darts.

At the time, they only had three voice actors: Todd Smith (Pirate Percy), Michael Colon (The Skin Taker), and Leonard Lloyd (The Laughingstock). They were still looking for someone who was the embodiment of Horace Horrible, as well as someone to play Janice.

A week later, they found someone to voice Horace Horrible. Grimes found comfort in Jeremy Kirby, who had recently finished working on another kids' show for the studio, "Fisherman Fred," and would have went on to do backstage work for another strange kids' show, "Peppermint Park".

Around the same time, they found someone to play Janice. She was a kindergarten student from a nearby school named Jodie Silver. She was quiet and adorable. She didn't complain much, unlike most kids who auditioned. All you needed to keep Jodie happy was a pouch of apple juice, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, and a coloring book; have that, and she was good to go.

To help get the ball rolling faster for us, I had gone to local craft stores and flea makets with crew members to get props to build the puppets and the sets. The most tedious part must have been building the Laughingstock, which took us two weeks. Production started around five weeks after I was signed on.

Production had been very rough and was becoming a challenge. Because of the intensity of the flood lights always beaming down on her, Jodie would often come down with fevers and become overheated. We became very concerned about her health and opted to find a body double so both could be switched out for each other. It was a common trick that many shows did and we were about to do the same. Unfortunately, Grimes refused and said that it would be fixed and Jodie would adjust to it.

In three weeks time, Walter Shay (one of the gaffers) was injured on the set in a freak accident, resulting in a broken leg; it left him on crutches for the show's entire run. Much of the crew and I considered abandoning the project because of Grimes' incompetence, but, like everyone else who had it tough, we just bit our tongues and hoped for the best.

After Shay was replaced, things seemed to go back to normal as we were soon on a normal schedule. Things seemed to be going up for us until episode seven was in production. One of the writers, Abbey Levi, revealed to me during a lunch break that Emerson had been destroying scripts and replacing entire stories. I didn't notice until she brought it up.

Evidence of the tampering was obvious, especially prior to episode seven. Jodie, who knew her script like the back of her hand, would often be confused by stage positions and what she was supposed to do. She would often ask Kirby (Horace Horrible) what she had to do before takes. Her parents would go over the script with her every morning and night, so the changes confused her.

Episode seven was where it became extremely clear what was going on. Originally, Percy takes a scroll from Horace Horrible that explains where to go for the next hidden treasure. It was initially replaced by something of the macabre. It started off just like any other episode, with Janice and Percy talking outside a cave, but somehow focused on the Skin Taker and the dark origins of his hat and cape.

Grimes told the cast to go along with it, despite the eyebrows they raised. Michael Colon (Skin Taker) was the most uncomfortable with the episode because of both the script and how Grimes wanted him to present the dialogue. It was chilling, but he went along with it anyway. They didn't show anything explicit or violent, for all they did was deliver some subtle lines, but they were still unsettling.

The scene that most rememebered was Janice asking why the Skin Taker's mouth moved the way it did. He didn't say it to her; he turned to the camera and said, "To grind your skin". It was this episode where I and the others started to question Grimes' sanity. I wanted to believe he was just this way because of the long hours he worked, but the others were trying to show me that wasn't the case. He was a madman and something had to be done.

That infamous episode resulted in lots of mail from viewers, most of it asking what we were doing and what was going on. It also resulted in the first warning from the studio; if we got two more, then the show would be cancelled like "Sunshine City" was later in the year.

I remember spending long hours in the rec room, working with the writers and crew to jot down ideas and brain storm. Someone suggested a comical episode involving Horace and a record player. Someone else suggested an awkward episode involving Janice and the Skin Taker's birthdays, plus the introduction to a new character, Nathan. Nathan was written as Janice's next-door neighbor and friend.

The ideas were pitched, sent to the studio, and approved by Mr. Fields. They were aired a few days later, but Nathan was gone after only one episode. Viewers wrote us letters, asking where he went and if he was coming back. From websites I examined, Nathan's disappearance was a bit topic and had many theories. Some claimed that he was kidnapped by the Skin Taker and his skin was made into a coat. Others believed he went back to the real world or was lost at sea. Those with even darker minds believed that Nathan was murdered on the set.

We had finished making episode eleven and we were set to air it the following Tuesday. Mr. Fields approached us, saying that the ratings and views had been rocky. We had one more chance to prove ourselves. If the next episode wasn't good, then the show would be cancelled. If we could make an episode that would knock their socks off, then we'd be in good hands. Fields took the finished episode and we went back to brainstorming for ideas.

The next episode was going to be the most jam-packed and longest yet. There was going to be one last showdown between Percy and the villains over the title "King of the Sea". Along the way, Percy would gain mass amounts of courage and become a brave sea captain by the end. At the end, Nathan would sail up on a wood raft and a group of buccaneers to help Percy and Janice defeat Horace Horrible and the Skin Taker (who would both end up lost at sea, never to return).

Janice would end up leaving the world of pirates to return to the real world while Nathan would go on quests with Percy and the Laughingstock. She would only show up on occasions to help them when they got scared the most. It was an idea approved by much of the crew and the cast. After hours of typing scripts, we sent a copy off to Fields and Grimes, hoping to save the show.

Fields was out of town, but called us saying it was amazing. Grimes, on the other hand, took it upon himself to lock himself in one of the editing rooms for several hours. Production for the last episode was in late October, on a calm, quiet night in 1971. It was the most terrifying night of my life.

I arrived to the set around 6:30, when the cast and crew for the other shows left. It left us on the set alone. A storm was picking up outside, causing the wind to pound against the structure of the building and the lights to flicker. Smith and Levi returned with coffee and donuts (juice for Jodie) as we waited in the rec room until we were expected to get on the set. A few of us were playing cards while Colon would play Checkers and Old Maid with Jodie. Shay was keeping an eye on the news and weather.

It was around 8:15, later than usual, when Grimes opened the door and told us to get ready in five minutes. In the few seconds he had his head in the door, I saw a change in him. His eyes were darker, hollower and slightly bloodshot. His skin was much paler and his hair seemed to be falling out.

Jodie grabbed onto Colon's arm and seemed to bury herself in his side. You could hear him faintly whisper "it's okay," to her, repeatedly. At 8:20, we were on the set and getting ready to go. We all had our scripts and went to skim them. Grimes walked over to us and took them, throwing them in the garbage.

"There's a change in plans," I think he said.
"Changes?" Smith replied. He raised a brow at this. "What kind of changes?"

"It's only something minor," Grimes said. "Don't you worry."

Grimes turned around and walked to his chair, still repeating "don't you worry," to himself. Coming back, he had a few pieces of paper, each for all of us. I choked; I could see terror in the eyes of the cast and stage hands that were looking over their shoulders. One word was written on the paper, over and over: SCREAM.

"Wilson," I believe Grimes said, calling a stage hand. "Take Jodie to the playroom. Don't forget to give her the new script.

Tom Wilson looked at it with his eyes beginning to widen. It was as if he saw a ghost. Tom sighed, taking Jodie by the hand to the play room. It was where the young kids on the set would usually go to cut loose on their breaks. Grimes took the rest of the actors and some of the other crew members into a sound room.

I remember how he would scream and shout like a lunatic, telling them to scream and cry and shout in the sound booth. I swear that the front desk secretary could hear it. I bet people would have thought the making of a snuff film was going on if they just walked in the building. I was standing by Grimes, watching in terror as Abbey cried in the corner and Shay doing what he could to comfort her.

The fear that Colon had in the infamous Skin Taker episode was coming back, too. He looked legitimately frightened. He put his hand around his throat and backed up into the wall. His face was pale and his eyes were watering. He fell down onto the floor, still gripping his neck in terror. He stared at the caged microphone that dangled above his head.

Smith and Lloyd were shouting weird, almost inaudible, phrases. Kirby's screams sounded like cries for help, as if those were his last words before he'd have his throat cut open like a cow waiting at the slaughterhouse. The stage hands beside me and one of the writers, Jennifer Hess, could only watch in fear.

Hess could be heard faintly saying "What is this? Oh my god." It was one of the few things we said that could be heard in the episode. I shut my eyes and prayed it would stop, but it was only made worse. It gave my imagination fuel and the thought that I was making a snuff film.

"Louder!" Grimes demanded with insanity in his eyes and voice. "LOUDER! I want your throats to be bleeding by the end of the take! LOUDER! HARDER!"

Grimes went towards the set to give the puppeteers directions: shake them and flail them around violently on the wooden and cardboard stage. Throw them. Beat them. Anything they wanted. One of the puppeteers, Sandra Letting, later described the night and the episode making as a puppet snuff film. The screams and cries of the actors, combined with the abuse of the set pieces made it a nightmare.

"I'm surprised Grimes didn't request we pour blood out of the Laughingstock's mouth or have Percy sacrificed to a sea demon, or even have Janice be made into a sweater on camera."
-Sandra Letting

The cameraman probably endured the worst of it. He not only had to record the abuse of the pieces we spent so much time working on, but also the death-like wails. It was too surreal. He wasn't sure if he was recording this disaster to distract him from Grimes murdering the actors.

After being gone twenty minutes, Wilson came back with Jodie. Her face and eyes were red. Wilson's were too. I'm not sure who cried more, him or her. Wilson refused to talk about it, but I'm only lead to believe he was deeply upset for having to put Jodie through hell. However, it was a hell she would be happy with, since seeing the death of all the puppets she worked with would have broke her heart.

The Skin Taker's jaw was hanging off a hinge. The strings on percy were broken, as were some of his parts from him being thrown about. The strings that operated the Laughingstock were snapped and his foam jaw was on the floor in a pool of saw dust. Horace Horrible seemed to be the only one to come out okay.

Everyone left the sound booth in silence. Grimes took the recorded audio and locked himself in the same editing room he did before. The cameramen for "puppet death theater" and "Janice's meltdown" cracked the door open to give Grimes the footage. His pale arm reached through, snatching the reels before slamming the door and locking it. It was the last time we ever saw him.

Smith took Janice home before the storm could get any worse. The rest of us left as quickly as we could and hope that Fields or someone would pack the props up. I went back to my apartment to pack everything I had and drove to Long Island. I needed to separate myself from Ashland as quickly as possible.

I learned not too long after that you can't run from your problems. The rumored curse that plagued the set came back shortly after the final episode aired, and it bit hard.

Grimes disappeared the night the episode aired. No one from the studio remembers seeing him leave and no one from his neighborhood, not even his wife, saw him return. His car was still in the parking lot, but almost every trace of him was gone. The only things left on our side of the set were the discarded scripts and some teeth and large clumbs of hair that were scattered about the floor; those were later proved to match Grimes' DNA. He was presumed dead in December of '72, after several months of looking failed.

Shay was injured in a car accident six months after the final episode aired, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Lloyd nearly drowned on a kayaking trip in '73. Jennifer Hess suffered third-degree burns in a house fire the same year. Smith committed suicide in '78 after being rumored to have lost losts of money in the stock market or something. Colon's son, Trevor, was murdered in the fall of '81, ten year after the infamous Skin Taker episode was aired. His killer remains at large. Both Wilson and Fields died of massive heart attacks in '87 and '94.

It's been nearly thirty years since that night, and I'm still too afraid to go back to the city, let alone watch an episode again. I've been emailed on different occasions by people claiming to have information about where to find the episodes and the missing set pieces. I just end up deleting them.

Nobody's sure why Grimes did this. I don't want to say he was just an artist gone mad, because I don't feel I can. If you ever find one of us, please, I beg you. DO NOT bring up the show. We want to leave the past where it is and try to forget about it. I still get occasional nightmares and flashbacks to the day and the ones building up to it. When they happen, it makes sleeping and eating almost impossible.

To those claiming that they have a set piece, that's not likely; nearly all the propes and footage were incinerated in 1983, when the studio burned to the ground in a freak fire. If anything survived the blaze, the location of them is unknown and I'd rather not know where they are.

If anyone who saw the show was hurt in any way by it, I apologize deeply, but the nightmares you have because of it will never compare to the ones I've had and still do.

16 comments:

  1. Wow, this was a really interesting take on the Candle Cove story. I honestly still like the idea that it was static, and some people could see it and some couldn't, but this adds a very strange mysterious element to it. Definitely a great read.

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  2. I agree with anon above. I prefer Candle Cove to be a supernatural show of unknown origins, but for what this story is, it was descent.

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  3. In the original story, it was only a rerun. It may have not been static in the original run of the show. The show was also cancelled after 12 episodes, never to be shown again.

    So whatever made Grimes disappear also caused the show to rerun in static only certain people could see.

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  4. Then Grimes changed his name and he called himself "John kricfalusi"

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  5. Very nice concept, Concheria, but no one here would even know who that is.

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  6. Wouldn't doubt they're the same person.

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  7. This was one of the better stories I've read on here in a while. Nice twist on a classic pasta.

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  8. Ok. so no one got offended by the author saying there was DNA tests and the FREAKING INTERNET in the seventies ?

    seriosly. fuck.

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  9. Just putting this out there Caiutis, I think the author meant the main character was reading the theories and whatnot on the internet well after the actually events happened. Also the internet, although it would have been the ARPANET and not accessible to civilians, and DNA testing did exist in the 1970's, the DNA testing was obviously a lot more rudimentary than today, but the point still stands.

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  10. "the events actually happened"* my apologies.

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  11. This is good stuff. Though I think it should've been clarified that the author looked up the internet theories much later.

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  12. This is so cool! Excited to see you starting to do stuff like this.I'm still just a hack, of course, but I learn so much

    when I get the chance to tag along when you're shooting. Plus with your knowledge of photographing Viet Nam, this should

    be an amazing trip for people.

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  13. Also the internet, even although it will are already the ARPANET and never accessible to civilians
    When we play the WOW, we need to try get the WOW Gold Cheap,thst's to say, spend less money, do we have any good way to Buy WOW Gold from trust friends or some way else? When we have that we can play the game becomes more quickly and update the levels more easy.

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  14. I literally live an hour from Ashland, KY. :3

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  15. Okay, so, the author looked up the internet theories later...at the point the author never, ever wants to be reminded the show exists...?

    And...the author wrote this story about the thing they never wanted to be reminded of because...?

    Kinda sloppy...

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  16. NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE
    The Candle Cove stories are too much...

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