A Door Closes, A Window Opens

“Welcome to Universal Studios, E.T.’s home away from home.”

That was part of our opening spiel on the tour in the 80s. I went back to full-time tour guide duty in the fall of 1986 after being let go from Segue Music. A bummer, to be sure, but at least I had a job that I enjoyed, could support my family and could still pursue finding another music editing gig without the barrier of not being in the union. The tour would be my “home away from home” for a while longer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent a great deal of my off-time down on the “lower lot” observing scoring sessions and peppering music editors with questions. One of the perqs of the job – it was mentioned in their want-ads and during training – was that tour guides worked at “the biggest and busiest movie studio in the world” and that ambitious guides could use the job as a stepping stone to a career in the biz. I grabbed that opportunity as soon as my first summer of work ended.

FALL, 1984 – I walked into the guide dispatch office, found a studio directory, and located the name of the “Orchestra Manager” for the studio. The name listed was Sandy DeCrescent. I dialed her extension, told her who I was and that I wanted to observe scoring sessions whenever possible. She said that as long as I wouldn’t become a nuisance, and as long as producers and composers had no objection, I could come down but I would have to coordinate my visits with her assistant, Tiffany Jones. Tiffany was a hoot-and-a-half. We struck up an immediate friendship and got along so well that after a while Tiffany would call me to let me know when there was a special scoring session that I might like to attend. I got to watch John Williams record the Main Title for Steven Spielberg’s AMAZING STORIES, Alan Silvestri record the skateboard chase sequence for BACK TO THE FUTURE, and John Addison record the main title for MURDER, SHE WROTE, among many others. Sandy and Tiffany were very generous with their time and I am forever grateful to them.

Sidebar: At the time in met Sandy DeCrescent in 1984, she had just recently been appointed Orchestra Manager for the TV scoring sessions. That meant she was the person responsible for hiring the orchestras for all the TV scoring sessions. This job is also known as Orchestra Contractor and I’ll cover that job in more detail in a future post.

Sandy Left Universal sometime in the late 80s and became arguably the busiest and most-often-hired orchestra contractor in the feature film business. Take a gander at the incredible list of films she has contracted over her career. I was very fortunate to have met her “back in the day”.

Three music editors in particular at Universal took my badgering in stride and taught me a lot about the business and the craft: Arnold Schwarzwald of SIMON & SIMON; Jerry Cohen of MIAMI VICE; Gene Gillette of AIRWOLF. Their patience, wisdom and tips were of great value to me when Dan Carlin hired me in 1985 to work at Segue.

Soon after AIRWOLF was canceled in 1986, Gene left Universal and went to work for an independent music editing company (a competitor of Segue’s) called Music Design Group. Of course Gene knew about my ambition to become a music editor and he was happy for me when I told him that I was finally in the union.

August, 1987 – a year had passed since being let go from Segue when I was called into the guide dispatch office to take a phone call. It was Gene Gillette calling to ask if I was interested in an apprentice music editing job at Music Design Group. Gene had been working there for about a year and the owner of the company, Roy Prendergast, was on the lookout for new talent, hoping to move an apprentice or assistant music editor up the ranks to editor status. Whereas Segue was a company still working primarily on 35mm film and doing things the tried-and-true, old-school way, Roy was trying to take his company into the future of editing by working on video tape instead of film for picture & dialog, and on analog ½-inch tape instead of 35mm magnetic film for music. He was also developing computer software to streamline some of the workload – most notably breakdown notes and preparing the picture for scoring sessions. One of his computer programs was considered for (but did not win) a Scientific and Technical Academy Award.

I went in for an interview, Roy and I hit it off well, and he offered me the apprentice position. I was so happy to be going back to music editing and was especially happy that the time I had spent building relationships with the music editors at Universal had paid dividends. Gene was very generous to think of me when this opportunity opened up. More gratitude in my life.

Sidebar: After Gene retired from the film biz he started writing blogs, articles, essays and poetry. He passed away in 2014.

Roy appreciated my enthusiasm and inventive way of problem-solving. Within six months he called the union and had me promoted to full music editor which meant more job security, more responsibility and more pay. I was proud of my accomplishments, but also a bit nervous about moving up so quickly. Had I stayed at Segue, I would have apprenticed for at least another year followed by one or two years as an assistant before becoming a full music editor.

Roy had me shadow him for a while on a TV series and a couple of TV movies. With each passing week, he’d give me more and more to do on my own. Then we started a new project and he said that we would trade places. He wanted me to take the lead on a TV movie and he would shadow me to make sure everything would go smoothly. The composer was the late Fred Karlin who was arguably the most prolific TV-movie composer of the 70s and 80s. He’d also written scores for feature films, was nominated for 3 Oscars, and won a song-writing Oscar for “For All We Know” in 1970. No pressure. Happily it all went well on A PLACE TO CALL HOME which led to two big events in my young career: 1) Roy was done shadowing me and “turned me loose”. 2) Fred Karlin called again later in the year and asked for me to be his music editor on his next TV movie, THE FACTS OF LIFE DOWN UNDER – my first composer request for my services.

The next two years (October, 1987 – October 1989) brought an amazing bounty of projects. I worked on ten TV movies, an ABC series, two independent feature films and the biggest mini-series in TV history, the 30-hour epic WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, for which I earned my first Emmy nomination (lost out to LONESOME DOVE). It’s important to understand that working at an independent music editing company, we received calls to work from all the different networks and studios and independents. Return business from a producer or composer was always the goal. On one of my earliest TV movies, INFIDELITY, I was paired with composer Steve Dorff. Steve liked my work, asked for me on virtually all of his following projects and just last summer we worked on a fun indie feature called PURE COUNTRY 2. I’ve been Steve’s music editor for 24 years now. WAR AND REMEMBRANCE teamed me with director/writer Dan Curtis and composer Bob Cobert. Dan and Bob had worked together since 1966 when Dan created DARK SHADOWS and Bob composed the legendary Theremin theme. They both appreciated my work enough on WAR that I was their  music editor of choice for all their projects after that (including the remake of DARK SHADOWS in 1991 and the sequel to the cult-classic TRILOGY OF TERROR in 1996) until Dan’s passing in 2006. Bob now lives a happy life of retirement near Palm Springs. In an interesting bit of irony, I got the job on WAR after Rob Wieland, then Post-Production Supervisor at ABC Circle Films, offered it to Segue Music. Bob Cobert was trying to give a young man a break and help him get into music editing and asked if the fellow could apprentice on the show. From what I learned from Cobert, Segue said they couldn’t hire a non-union apprentice (sound familiar?). That was a deal-breaker for Bob Cobert. Rob Wieland next offered it to Music Design Group, Roy made the guy a production assistant (non-union) and he was able to observe and learn and help out as needed. I worked on WAR for nearly 18 months from 1988-1989 including working straight through the writers’ strike of 1988 (have I mentioned how fortunate I’ve been?).

Because of my schedule on WAR (and because I really was working many hours now as a music editor) I gave my final tour at Universal during Spring Break of 1988. It was a wonderful time in my life, a great place to learn how to handle yourself in all kinds of unpredictable situations, and, in my case, a great training ground for my chosen career. Click on any of the following names to see what some of my fellow guides from the mid-eighties have been doing in show business. They all had the same guts and desire as me and have succeeded spectacularly in a very tough, competitive industry.

WAR wrapped in May of 1989, and I spent the summer working on a couple of TV movies. Then in the fall of 1989 Roy called me into his office and shut the door. I was having a foreboding sense of déjà-vu all over again. Was this going to be another one of those talks? He told me that he had just received a call from Skip Lusk, head of TV Post-Production at FOX. Skip told him that the dialog editor on THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW was pulling double-duty as the show’s music editor. Most weeks, the music load on the show wasn’t very big but often there were big musical production numbers that required a lot of work and attention. The editor, Suhail Kafity, wanted to concentrate on dialog only and asked to be let out of music. Skip called Roy looking for a music editor, but there was a slight catch – the budget for the season was already set and they didn’t have a separate music editing budget since Suhail was handling both jobs. I’d have to work for scale (union minimum wage) rather than a premium (over-scale) wage. But there was a catch to the catch – Skip said that FOX was planning to spin off the “little cartoon show” that played in and out of commercials on TRACEY into its own series later that year. Skip could make up for the lower wage on TRACEY with a little bump on the cartoon show. It also meant working on both shows at the same time once the cartoon went into post-production, so I’d be very busy.

Roy asked, “Well?” I was already a very big fan of TRACEY and was thrilled to be working on the show. I really enjoyed the cartoon bumpers as well, and I wasn’t quite sure how these 30- and 60-second spots could be expanded into a full half-hour series, but I was very interested to see how it would work. I said, “Sure.” I walked out of the office, let out a very big exhale and wondered if I had just bitten off way more than I could chew.

Next time: Working on the end of TRACEY and the beginning of THE SIMPSONS


2 thoughts on “A Door Closes, A Window Opens

  1. Very cool, Chris…I remember riding along with you on one your Universal tours and thinking to myself, “Poor guy, reduced to this…”, lol! Congrats on doing such a great job following your nose, from Yet Someone Else who hasn’t done too badly in that department! Have I ever mentioned to you how there hasn’t ever been a time in my life when I could even come close to predicting what strange turn the next five years would take? It’s still happening! 😉

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