Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Tale Told Badly (By One Who Wasn't There).

I've mentioned that I got my start in the film business at Blake Films, a lighting and grip equipment rental house in Boston. I worked there from 1980 to 1986 and in spite of all the hardships that existed there, I really loved it. Recently, someone started a group over on Facebook for Blake Films alumni and a couple of days ago, someone over there said, "We need some good Ceco mobile stories". Of course, I figured, who better to tell the tale than the guy who managed to avoid most of the saga. I hope the folks who were there will drop in to fill in the blanks and correct me where I've made mistakes.

A side note to the good people at F & B Ceco: Please don't sue me. I don't imagine that any of the people involved with the current company were involved with the company in Los Angeles from the early 80's that figures into this story. If I'm imagining wrongly, I'm sure you were really fine people then and even finer people now and I'm sure you had no idea whatsoever that the trucks you were selling to a company in Boston were complete pieces of shit and even though I have no idea what was paid for those trucks, I'm sure it was a really good price to begin with and that you discounted that price even further just because you were really, really, really nice people. Please don't sue me.

So this is the story of how Blake Films ended up with 1 Cecomobile.

Ceco was one of the pioneers when it came to renting out lighting and grip equipment. They got their start in the late 60's and quickly became the gold standard in Southern California. In the early 70's they designed and built a fleet of trucks that were intended to cater to the specific needs of motion pictures shooting on location. It would be a whole lot easier to tell this story if I could find a picture of one of these beasts, but I'll have to just try to describe them.

First, picture a a modern motor coach...two axles on the rear, one on the front. It has no pivot point anywhere along its length, so it has the turning radius of a football field. Instead of one door at the rear of the box, it has 4 doors opening on either side of the truck behind the cab. Unlike a beverage delivery truck, instead of having doors that roll up completely out of your way, they were intended to fold in half and, when opened, form an awning over the opened compartment.

Other than the turning radius (which was especially bad on Boston's narrow streets), what else is wrong? Having been built before anybody used lightweight metals or even, God-forbid, plastics in vehicles, everything about these pigs was heavy. Driving one up a hill made you empathize with Sysyphus. Opening those side doors required that freakish strength that mothers are reputed to achieve when a child is trapped under a car. And once the doors were opened, their angle made it impossible to get anything bigger than a breadbox off the top shelves. (There was an attempt at rectifying this by setting the support bar to hold the door open at a higher angle, but that backfired when it rained and channeled all the water into the opened compartment.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the trucks had to be driven from Los Angeles to Boston. Five intrepid souls flew out to Los Angeles for this task, expecting to take part in a really awesome adventure. There was a fifth truck meant to also make the trip, because the purchase also included a camera crane. This truck was going to be driven by a Teamster so that everything would be hunky-dory with the union. (This crane was reputed to have been the same one that worked on The Wizard of Oz, and I saw a picture once that made me think this may have been true. It was in such bad shape once it reached Boston that all it ever did thereafter was contribute to a rust farm, but that's another story).

So one day, our four dupes and one Teamster arrive at Ceco and I guess they spent the morning getting familiarized with the trucks. Shortly after noon, the convoy departed. Cheers erupted throughout the land. The trucks performed flawlessly...for three blocks, when one of them sputtered and died. After a few minutes of fruitless attempts to restart the truck, one of our intrepid voyagers went back to Ceco in search of assistance. Rental houses usually keep strange hours to be available to their customers. This means they usually keep long hours. This day was apparently a special one-time-only Rental House holiday because Ceco was closed up tight with everyone gone by 2:30.

So, our heros made arrangements to have a mechanic deal with the problem and they settled in for another night in a Los Angeles motel. Their Teamster cohort went home to find his wife with another man. When they got on the road again in the morning, one of their number had been replaced.

The next part of the journey, I can describe very quickly. The trucks took turns breaking down...many times per day. One of the major problems was that they had sat unused for so long that all of the gas tanks were full of rust. They were buying fuel filters by the case. Eventually, they reached Des Moines, Iowa. I won't claim that this trek was in anyway remeniscent of the Donner Party, but by this point in our story, five weeks had elapsed. Mental illness and mutiny set in. Our Teamster basically said, fuck it and booked a flight back to L.A. One of the Boston contingent refused to leave his motel room until someone handed him a ticket home. (Did I mention that at some point, this trip had envisioned having our drivers camp out along the way to save money? Yeah, like that happened.)

So, this is where I actually come into the story. While I was flying to Des Moines and our Teamster and Boston Retiree #1 were jetting home, the trucks all spent a couple of days at a mechanic's shop where they canibalised one truck to make the remaining trucks (somewhat) roadworthy. The canibalised truck would be left in Des Moines to be retreived at some future date. A day later, I had my first personal introduction to the Cecomobiles. The driver's compartment was huge. I'm talking you could have parked a Volkswagon Bug sideways in the cab of one of these suckers. The clutch stood a good 15" off the floorboards and you had to double clutch to change gears. The steering was manual and the steering wheel itself was damn-near 36" in diameter. The windshield crossed state borders seconds ahead of the driver.

I was given a 15 minute tutorial on driving my new friend, and off we went. Less than an hour on the road, I was given my first lesson on changing a fuel filter (a task at which I became quite adept). Later that first day, we encountered a rain storm. Sheets of rain implying the end of the world was nigh. While barreling along at 50mph (top speed), I searched for and located the windshield wiper control. The wiper made three ineffectual swipes at the windshield and then decided it didn't have the strength to remain upright which point it decided it was easier to perform its assigned task on the truck's grill instead. Like the idiot I was, I opened the driver's side window (a task achieved with two hands while steering with my knees), and stuck my head out in an attempt to see. This was not a good idea since my glasses had no wipers, working or otherwise. Since we had walkie-talkies to speak with each other, we were able to all pull over and regroup after the storm passed.

Long story short(ened). We arrive somewhere in Connecticut. Boston is a physical, welcoming presence, sensed just over the horizon. Someone announces over the radio that he needs a bathroom break...we need to pull off the highway. Someone else announces, on the edge of hysteria, that he's just going to keep driving...the next time he steps out of his truck is going to be the last time he steps out of that truck. I stick with the trucks that are going to stop. Halfway down the long, straight exit ramp, I discover that my brakes have failed. At the bottom of the ramp, there's a red traffic signal. There's a car ahead of me in my lane. One lane to the right of that is an ambulance stopped at the light. (I actually took the time to decide they might come in handy in a moment and I steer to avoid them.) By this point, I'm uselessly standing on the brakes with both feet while pulling down on the steering wheel with all my might. Through sheer luck, I made it through the intersection without hitting anything and finally rolled to a stop a few hundred yards later.

I have no memory of what we did with that truck or how I got back to Boston. Eventually, through the clever use of tow trucks, all of the Cecomobiles made it to Boston. Three of them were never used for anything other than spare parts. The one that made it into operation was reviled by everyone who ever had to drive it or work off of it. The only reason it was ever used at all was nothing but stubborness born of trying to salvage something out of the time and money invested.

Long before it was finally retired, the owner of the company had an 8" x 8" piece of its distinctive red plywood shelving cut, framed and placed on his desk like most people display a family photo. Whenever the uninitiated asked him what it was, he told them it was a stark reminder to beware of brilliant ideas.

Comments, corrections and further illumination are all invited from the actual participants. Have at it!


mattw said...

No business like show business huh?

neurondoc said...

You know, I just have to say that my job is easier than yours.

And I can't stop thinking of the Cecomobile as a Cecum-mobile. I am glad to share that thought...

Nathan said...

Cecum-mobile is actually entirely appropriate.

MWT said...

Sounds like a really ... umm, awesome.. adventure. ;)