Michael Phillips, The Airstream Chronicles - "Hollywood" meets the Airstream

"Hollywood" meets the Airstream

"MJB! You ready? The plane leaves in fifteen minutes!" Arty was nervously pacing back and forth in the groove he'd long ago worn into the deep pile shag directly in front of the Plexiglas "bay window" that was crudely hacked into the North wall of the double-wide (presumably to take full advantage of the summer desert sun). The rickety puddle-jumper that was scheduled to take us to Los Angeles wasn't due to touch down on the dirt road in front of casa Bell for almost an hour, but Arty was nervous as an unprotected sheep at a CBC stockholder's meeting.

"Take it easy, we have plenty of time," I said, poking into Bell's freezer looking for the plastic gallon jug of Safeway generic vodka that's always nestled in the door shelf. "Here old man, have a shot, we're going to be in the air for a while, and you know how pissed off "Wrong-Way" Bennett gets when you crack open your flask in the Cessna."

"Fucking hell," Bell wheezed, "I can't believe I'm letting that goofy bastard fly me anywhere. I swore him off after the emergency landing in that Reno bean field." Arty ran his dirty fingers through his heavily Brylcreemed hair. "And I feel like a god damned homo without my moustache! Look at me MJB, I've emasculated myself!"

"Stop whining Bell, you're giving me a headache. Besides, if you had any sense you'd know it was the moustache that made you look queer. Even the Village People shaved five years ago. Get with it, man. And believe me, I'm not looking forward to flying anywhere in Bennett's deathtrap. If you'd planned things better we could have taken the Geo, or even Amtrack." I handed Bell a tumbler full of the cheap vodka, and he slugged it down like an old pro. "There you go pal, you'll be feeling better in no time."

"More!" he yelped, sticking the glass into my face. He turned and continued his nervous squint through the scratched yellow window. I filled up the glass (it's much, much easier to fly with Bell when he's hammered), handed it to him and watched him toss it back in one mighty gulp. He farted and kicked open the door, running out into the dust howling like a monkey who'd just busted out of a research laboratory cage.

* * *

The Cessna only came close to crashing into residential structures five or six times during the flight, so it was a relatively uneventful trip. Bell passed out ten minutes after we took off, so I had to listen to "Wrong-Way" Bennett's endless stories of his Vietnam adventures. He was a chopper pilot in Saigon, but all he'd ever done was shuttle Generals to and from four-star hotels and share drinks with bar girls and pimps. His tour of duty in Vietnam was similar to Bell's, and they'd become fast friends after meeting at a live sex show in the "Good GI Charley" bar, though the two of them were beaten almost to death after trying to rig a cock fight on Bell's supply ship, anchored 45 miles off the coast.

We bounced into the Torrance airport and Bell came to just in time to puke out the window of the plane. A PA from the "Dark Skies" show was waiting to chauffeur us to the studio in a rented Honda Civic. It was unseasonably hot in Los Angeles, easily over 80°, and the Civic had no air conditioning. Traffic on the freeway was crawling and the kid was listening to a Tool tape at full volume and lurching the car quickly forward then slamming on the brakes an inch from the bumper of the car in front of us. Art couldn't stand the ride and puked again, but didn't quite get his gourd fully outside the window of the car. The kid screamed, "Jesus Christ! Cut it out man! I have to clean that up!" He threw a hand full of soggy Taco Bell napkins into the back seat and told Bell if he didn't mop every bit of his mess he was going to pull over and leave us right there on the side of the 405.

Bell looked at me with his horribly puffy, runny eyes, and croaked, "MJB, I ain't going to make it all the way to Hollywood..."

"Burbank Arty, much further than Hollywood I'm afraid." Bell began to whimper, so I figured it was time to end his suffering. I pulled the pint from my pocket, dangled it in front of him and smiled, "Hair of the dog, old friend?"

Bell cracked a huge grin, slapped me on the back an said, "I love you MJB, you never let me down!" he nipped at the pint for the rest of the trip and made it to Burbank without any further incident.

* * *

"Who?" the guard at the studio gate said.

"Ernie Ball," the kid chauffeuring us said.

"Not on my list, bro."

Bell stuck his head into the front seat of the car and barked, "It's Art! Art Bell, god damn it! I'm here to star on the Dark Skies television program!"

"Dark Skies?" the guard said, "Never heard of it."

Eventually he found Bell's name on a list and waved us through the gate. The kid drove around for a while not really knowing where he was going. "Sixteen...seventeen...which stage is it Mr. Ball?" Arty burped that he had no idea which stage it was, and finally we stopped and the kid said, "This is where you get out Ernie. Just go on in there and check in." We got out of the car and walked into an empty sound stage. After about ten minutes and garbled directions from several bored studio employees, we found the Dark Skies set. They whisked Arty off to make up and wardrobe, so I took a look around the set.

I'd been on several movie sets, but this was my first time seeing how they slapped together a television show. It all looked very cheesy - seams in backgrounds were obvious, the floor of one of the "rooms" was made up of milk crates and plywood, and the props made no attempt to disguise the fact that they were made of plastic and Styrofoam. It was similar to a real film set in one way though - about a hundred people were standing around doing nothing. After half an hour the activity picked up as everyone prepared to shoot the day's scenes. Someone snuck up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. "Excuse me, my name is Holly, are you here with Mr. Beal?"

"You mean Bell?"

"Yeah, probably. The radio guy?" I nodded, wondering what sort of trouble he'd gotten himself into. "Is he alright? I mean, he doesn't have the flu or anything, does he? Because we can't have someone on the set who's contagious."

"Oh, no, he's probably just drunk."

"Oh, okay, that's a relief. Jesus, he had me scared there for a minute. I thought we might have to get him off the set. So what did he do, win a contest to be an extra or something?"

"Damned if I know," I answered honestly, "one day he got a call from someone over here, and he's been a nervous wreck ever since."

Holly laughed and said, "Well, I don't think he really needs to be nervous, it's not like anyone watches this shit." She got a call on her radio and took off to solve some other very important problem. Then, in the distance, I saw Bell wandering toward the set.

I walked toward him smiling. "Hey Arty, you look great!" I lied. He was wearing a cheap, ill- fitting uniform of some sort, pinned and stapled in the back to make it appear to fit him, and held together in places with black gaffer's tape. The make-up people had covered the bags under his eyes very effectively though, I had to admit. "So when do I get to see you act?"

"Oh, I don't know," he groaned, "Maybe we should just get out of here MJB, let's get a cab and go back to the airport. This place scares the shit out of me! I'm not ready for big time Hollywood, I tell you! I've made a terrible mistake!"

A bored young guy with a headset and a clipboard walked up and said, "Mr. Berle?" and hustled Arty off to the set. Within minutes they had Bell propped up on the set and were feeding him his lines.

Soon they were ready to shoot, and the director said, "Okay Mr. Boyle, it's great to have you with us. Everyone, this is Ed Boyle, he has a very successful program on the E! network." A few people clapped while Arty simply shifted his weight back and forth and whispered requests for water. The director yelled "Action!" and they were on their way.

The scene was in a military office, and Bell was supposed to walk through a door and say, "General, the Prime Minister is here to see you." That was it. The filming of the scene went something like this:

Take one: The door opened very slowly and Bell walked halfway through and mumbled, "The doctor is here to..."

"Cut!"

Take two: Bell makes it all the way through the door and delivers his line in a strong voice, "General, the Prime Minister is here to see you." then his taped-up pants fell down around his ankles.

"Cut!"

Take three: Bell delivers the line, "General Prime, the Minister is here to see you."

"Cut!"

---Jump ahead to---

Take twenty-seven: Bell strides through the door, says, "General, the Prime Minister is here to see you."

"Cut!" Everyone held their breath. "Print it! Lets move on."

A snide cheer rose up from the crew. They'd spent an hour on a five minute scene. The director and a cluster of other big shots huddled for a moment, then the guy with the clipboard pulled Bell aside and said, "Mr. Dell, ah, it turns out we'll only be doing the one scene tonight. And, I, ah, understand you have a previous engagement tomorrow. We're all very glad that we had the pleasure of working with you. Be sure to leave the costume, and we'll give you a call."

* * *

Arty sat in an LAX bar beaming proudly, holding his page of the script tightly in his hand and telling anyone who'd listen, to "Watch me on my TV show, Dark Skies." I'd taken advantage of Bell's post-TV star euphoria and easily convinced him we should fly back to Vegas on a commercial flight, in First Class, as would befit a man of his stature. When he balked at the drink prices at the airport bar, I simply said, "Well, I suppose we could pour some whiskey into a couple of cans of coke or something. I hope no one from the studio sees us doing it." and he immediately whipped out the Discover card.

We were eventually kicked out of the bar, and it was a good thing, as our flight was about to depart. The door to the ramp was closed, but Bell shrieked at the attendant that he was a television actor and had to get on that flight or he'd miss his connection to Aspen. He can actually be pretty funny for a brief moment, somewhere between the tenth and eleventh drink.

mjp
11/09/96

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