Saturday, August 08, 2009

My Day in the L.A. Sun: Talking About the Rise and Fall of Trapeze

I’m on the frosting on top of the frosting. Monrovia. Next door to Pasadena. Big house with a mansionesque feel perched on hills that look mountainous. Maybe it's all an L.A. illusion set up for the day’s shoot.

This is where I’ll be making my return to the screen — first cameo since co-starring many years ago with Bette Davis (okay, co-starring with the extras in a Bette Davis film, but my mug did make it in) when she came to Santa Rosa to shoot Storm Center. That’s me up there, being prepped with the props for an interview about a legendary circus flyer. To my left, assistant Bryant Williams; to my right, documentary producer-director Philip Weyland.

It feels so L.A. Heck, everything down here feels so L.A. Show me a gutter on Sunset Boulevard, and I’ll find you a trace of lost glamour. When I lived on North Orange Drive near Fountain in Hollywood, down a few blocks was a cement making yard that still keeps cement trucks in motion. Around the corner up La Brea were the old Charlie Chaplin studios. Next door to me for a time lived the mother of the Carradine boys. Across the way was a guy who made IBM commercials.

Los Angeles is a dreamland of sets and the people who can’t resist wanting to be in them. My half-hour rail commute from Union Station on the Gold Line to reach boss man Weyland feels more like a Universal back lot tour. Settings changing from moment to moment, as if the city fathers laid out Los Angeles to attract movie makers. That was then. Nothing in L.A. ever feels nailed down. You just float and hope ... And now, some of it is sadly floating away, like the huge prop shop in North Hollywood. Tinseltown, like the circus, is vanishing.

Weyland is making a film called The Last Great Flyer — about the last great flyer, Miguel Vazquez. In case you didn’t know, before Ringling Bros. audiences ever got to see Miguel turn his first angelic quadruple somersault, in private Miguel turned his very first practice quad on my birthday. (No, I wasn’t there; he didn’t invite me.) And he caught those four miraculous revolutions down in Long Beach, the city where trapeze great Alfredo Codona died. Another soooooo L.A.

Now, anybody who can pin down this elusive circus icon (I tried for years), let alone get him to talk while a camera is rolling -- and talk while seated next to another iconic flyer named Tito Gaona -- has gotta have his L.A. cards in order. And that anybody is TV and movie actor Philip Weyland.

For 15 years, Weyland had assumed, by having read an erroneous news item, that young Miguel was dead. And he grieved. When he learned that Miguel was very much not dead, he resolved to make this film.

Weyland’s easy going crew consists of camera operator Jake Gorst (left); camera assistant Lubo Barnet (right), a Swede who speaks with a slight Asian accent -- how novel-sounding, from having married a Chinese woman; and still photographer and assistant Bryant Williams. When I arrive, these guys are puttering over cables and connections, getting all set up in sync with sound checks and sun rays to shoot yours truly answering questions tossed his way by interviewer Phil. “It’s going to be more like a conversation between us,” he told me, adjusting my mind set from apprehensive down to relaxed. Anything half-way spontaneous beats a Meet the Press inquisition.

We do the interview, actually more Q&A than back and forth, out on a deck overlooking the serene skyline while a few lazy clouds drop in and out, a little curious. And in the afternoon, after a catered-in lunch (how very you-know-what), we go inside. A change of shirts for me, on the production company.

While Phil and I continue the dialogue, camera man Jake Gorst monitors the surroundings like a Geiger counter, ever sensitive to a disruptive buzz in the air, an emerging crease in my shirt. We stop and start. Do that over. I had told them up front, “Don’t ever let me say ‘you know.’” They never intervened, so I assume, you know, that I didn’t, ah, you know, go lazy or whatever.

Darting about at will, Bryant snaps still photos in a cinematically mysterious manner, looking like a figure out of a Hitchcock thriller. He also serves as Weyland’s assistant, ever ready to bring that over here, or here over there. Or to discover, with professional displeasure, a tiny something in my hair and to remove it discretely.

Phil and I talk about the quad, about trapeze history, about a form of circus much favored by Phil that seems to be fading away, if not already gone. Philip Weyland is not a Cirque du Soleil guy, and he wants to know how the history of trapeze may fit into the bigger big top picture.

So much so, that Phil filmed Miguel returning to the air after a five year absence. He showed me a stretch of the footage, and I saw the God of Human Flight reach out and connect with the hands of his brother, Juan. Artists back together in a supernatural realm they ruled nearly alone for over a decade.

What a great time I have. My fifteen minutes in perfect dreamland sunshine. Now, was I really in a place called Monrovia, or just inside a Culver City sound stage? And how near might I be to the cutting room floor? And is there a net down there just in case?

Don’t tell me, L.A. Sometimes it’s perfect not knowing.

{photos courtesy of Philip Weyland]

1 comment:

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
I waiting for you to quit swooning, and take a breath of air, before commenting that indeed the the Quad was one of the greatest moments in circus history. I never missed an attempt the years we were together on Ringling. Add to the feat the mystery rumors, ie. both Miguel and Juan were gifted their choice of Cadillac's by Irvin Feld when the historic 1st quad was caught in I believe, Phoenix. Also that each of the gentlemen were given an additonal 1000.00 for each quad caught, and 500.00 for each missed attempt in addition to their weekly contracted salary, and you indeed have a true, worth sharing circus glory day's movie in the making. Just wonderful that there is an interest from the movie industry to relive it for posterity.
Wade Burck