Firesign Theatre Tour 2005 - Diary
Tuesday January 25
On the road
I am driving a silver Ford Focus, a compact. It's not packed solid yet; I still have an unobstructed view in my rearview mirror. The trunk, though, is tight: five Sennheiser wireless mikes, Peter Bergman's printer, signed CDs and LPs, two boxes of stills that Andy Thomas had specially printed - one from the original photo session for How Can You Be, the other from the photo session for Bride of Firesign - plus buttons, also homemade, in five styles. The buttons and photos will be sold as merchandise.
Also in the trunk is a bag of flyers for The Animation Show which no one knows about yet. The Animation Show is an annual omnibus of animated shorts, and it debuts in late February. I love shorts (I review them every month for awn.com), and when I found out they'd had flyers printed up I emailed the Animation Show offices in North Hollywood and offered to flyer all the venues where Firesign Theatre would be playing. They were overjoyed, and on the 24 [th] I biked over to their office and stuffed the flyers in my backpack. There were 1200 of them and they weighed 25 pounds. Now I know why they were so hot to get rid of the bastards. I plan to leave a pile of 200 every night when Firesign performs. I hope the venues won't notice.
In the back seat is a medium-sized suitcase full of Proctor's sound effects and props (including pop gun, crackly green plastic, toy cell phones, and a really addicting toy megaphone that feeds back musically when a hand is cupped over the microphone or speaker). For the merch tables Andy has purchased two bags of Table Covers. They are shiny, white and mysterious. Neither cloth nor plastic, we conclude they must simply be made of a substance called Table Cover, perhaps an alkali metal related to Cesium.
I depart Burbank at 9:04am. From Burbank it is a straight shot up the 5 freeway, the world's most boring motorway, which shoots up the middle of California through the farmland so much of America and the world depends on for food, up to Sacramento, Redding, and entertainingly-named towns like Yreka and Weed before hitting the Oregon border and winding through some rugged passes. I'm making good time and I get in 800 miles today, reaching the town of Cottage Grove, halfway up everyone's favorite Western state where you can't pump your own gas.
For the leg approaching Sacramento I listen to a book-on-tape of Mizlansky / Zilinsky (L.A. Theatreworks, with Nathan Lane). Then it's all Beck, starting with Mellow Gold. In northernmost California, at dusk on a steep uphill grade in the rain, I finally get to Sea Change. Note: Never do this. Beck was coming off an unhappy love affair when he made Sea Change and it's a real hide-the-razors, Nick Drake-ian affair. This album is for use under direct sunlight only.
Wednesday January 26
On the road / Seattle
North to Seattle. Firesign have been here writing since Monday, and will be rehearsing today and tomorrow. The first gig is in Portland, but they've rented a rehearsal room at A Contemporary Theatre in downtown Seattle so that Austin and Ossman can drive home nights. I arrive at the Mayflower Park Hotel downtown, amidst a maze of one-way streets, and only get lost for ten minutes. My room is on the 12 [th] floor overlooking the Bon Marche. I get my car back from valet and set out for ACT, which is six blocks away. Twenty minutes later, after getting lost on the local university campus and by sheer force of will getting on the right-way street to deposit myself at ACT (I swear the one-way streets allow only one way in, and no way out) I park at the loading dock and join the group.
In lower level D in the rehearsal room Firesign are finishing their first rehearsal of the act-one closer, "Anythynge You Want To". I slide in silently. I meet Jeff Payne, stage manager, and Mike Scerra, sound designer. Andy Thomas is at the table, stage left, programming sound effects and music cues for the show on his Powerbook. There's a small keyboard for triggering sound effects. Immediately there are questions of paying Jeff and Mike in cash after the Seattle performance on Sunday night, and I have no answers. (Eventually we do it with the cash from merch sales.)
Andy has brought his own MiniDV camera, as well as a small jib arm and a track. The jib arm is ready to go but the track isn't down, so I install it. It's only six segments of PVC pipe and it's a breeze to set up. We are constantly craning the camera up and down, left and right, getting in people's faces while we shoot the rehearsals. The venues won't let us film so this is the only face-on record of the skits being performed. I try to lighten the load in my car and dump some gear. Bergman informs me we won't need the wireless mikes after all. Andy asks that we hang onto the Firesign CDs and LPs as swag for radio stations along the way.
Rehearsal breaks up around 6pm and we drive back to the hotel. Dinner in the hotel restaurant downstairs with Andy Thomas, Peter Bergman, Phil Proctor and Melinda Peterson. For the first time on tour I almost choke on my food (unsure why, but the trend stops after the tour). Served by a friendly waitress who tells us about recreational Viagra use among college students. Bergman talks about family history. Back in the vaudeville days he had a cousin named Al Boasberg, a jeweler from Buffalo, whose clients included George Burns. Peter remembers one of his classic jokes that ended up in the New Yorker: "Anyone in the house a Christian Scientist? You? Can we switch seats? I'm sitting in a draft."
Thursday January 27
In the morning Andy, David, Phil Proctor and I drive to KUOW a few miles up the freeway. Phil and David pre-tape a radio interview for broadcast tomorrow. Andy and I film it. On the way over I see someone named Angel has tagged a wall in cursive. "Angel" has very nice handwriting.
More rehearsal at ACT. Just the music and sound effect cues today. Everything is going very smoothly with the writing; it seems like all the elements are under control. Lunch at a nearby restaurant with the whole group plus Judith Walcutt and Oona Austin. Chat about an internet phone technology that could allow Firesign to do a live radio show without any member leaving home. Get everyone the right hookup and add webcams and they can watch each other live, each member in a different corner of the computer screen. Andy mentions he'd like Firesign to do a teleplay version of Anythynge You Want To starring themselves and whatever famous names they can recruit in L.A. We ask the waiter for soy sauce. It's the first time anyone's asked for soy sauce since he's worked there.
After lunch, a burst of inspiration and the group spends an hour writing a new ending for Act II, "Club Firesign". Again we get it all on videotape. At the end of the day we strike the jib arm and track and pack everything into the SUV Andy's rented. Then back to the hotel. Andy is busy compiling music cues but I've got nothing to do. Feel like a third wheel. Watch a CBC documentary about a ballet star's final season. There's a food court in the mall next door, but they're closed for the night, so Andy and I walk down the street to a deli and I get a pizza sub. Before bed I have a sit at the window. Two police cars are up on the curb in front of the Bon Marche, lights flashing, facing the wrong way. No noise. Finally they cuff a guy, stuff him in the back and drive off.
Friday January 28
Seattle / On the road / Portland
I made a complete tour booklet before I went on the road. It included maps, venue information, a contact list and a day planner. Unfortunately I didn't make point-to-point maps to get from one hotel to another between cities. I get on the concierge's computer and make a map at RandMcnally.com. The cyan cartridge in the printer has bit the dust, and twenty minutes later I come away with four semilegible black-and-white pages to get me to the hotel in Portland.
I make the 5 freeway entrance on my second try and head south. The first gig is tonight in Portland. Bergman was told this is a five-hour drive; I make it in three. The hotel is the Mark Spencer, downtown. Find it on the first try. I check in, then head for the Aladdin. With only the souvenir map from the hotel lobby to guide me to the venue, I'm lost in under five minutes, trapped in the Portland University campus. I head south and stop in a convenience store for a Thomas Bros. map. Love those Thomas Brothers. East over the river to the venue.
The Aladdin is small, a 620-seater that started life as a vaudeville hall. I arrive and take a look at the merchandise. John Weber at Lodestone has provided some merch for the tour, mainly T-shirts, which he has had shipped directly to the Aladdin.
There is a lot. There is a LOT a lot. There are eighteen boxes the size of a mini-fridge. Fortunately both John Weber and Brian Westley are here in person, and they take charge of the merch table in the lobby while I sort shirts in the hallway backstage.
There are Eyeball Hat shirts, Nick Danger shirts, Morse Science shirts, Mark Time shirts, message shirts saying "In The Next World", "Beat the Reaper", "Shoes for Industry", "How Can You Be", "Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death", "Bozos" and "He Fell Right Over", Ralph Spoilsport license plate frames, Bozos bumper stickers, eight by ten photos in two styles, and buttons in five styles. Of the buttons, the most popular is a cyclops Boy Scout with the legend "Everything You Know Is Wrong". Every one of the cyclops buttons will go by the end of the first night.
We unpack the jib arm and the track to shoot the run-through at 5pm. Unfortunately Ossman isn't there, so there isn't any run-through and we strike the track and the jib arm. We won't be using it again during the tour. Doors open at 6 and the line is around the block.
The show is called "The Big Big Broadcast of 2005, or Radio's a Heartbreak". The whole show takes the form of a radio broadcast on K-BIL, the Voice of Billville. Act one is all local programming, with the Martha Glueit Show, School Lunch Menus, Mutt & Smut, Pay the Lord, Brother Bill Barnstormer, Lawyer's Hospital, The Golden Hind, 40 Great Unclaimed Melodies, and Anythynge At War. In act two K-BIL is bought in a hostile takeover, and it's all network programming, including Bebop Lobo, Ralph Spoilsport, Hal and Ray at Zeno's Paradise, Chump Threads, Captain Happy Pandit, Inside the Money Bubble, Art of the Insane, Ankha Pharaoh's, Nick Danger, and Club Firesign. In the tradition of live radio drama Firesign is bringing their scripts onstage with them, and they rely on them throughout, except when Proctor and Bergman do Peter's "Mr. Liverface's Dead Cat Dog Food" commercial from memory.
Tonight's performance goes well. It's a little long, about two and a half hours with intermission. Firesign accepts the performance for what it is, the first full dress rehearsal. It's a very simple setup, just three chairs stage right, a table with two chairs stage left, and two prop tables downstage. The lighting and sound cues have been worked out well in advance and everything goes smoothly. Tonight's house is full and loving it. Wayne Newitt will be here tonight and tomorrow recording both shows in multi-track. Stage manager Jeff Payne is touring with his son Dylan, and for part of act two each night Jeff gives Dylan the chair and the headset and lets him take the driver's seat. ("That way," Jeff says, "later Dylan can tell the interviewer, 'Yeah, I've been doing this since I was thirteen.'")
Saturday January 29
Nothing to do until afternoon call, so everyone goes sightseeing. We are one block from the sexiest bookstore in the West, Powell's. David Ossman, Judith Walcutt, Brian Westley, John Weber, and Andy Thomas come to the café and we have coffee. Talk turns to War of the Worlds and David's 50 [th] anniversary production from 1988.
There's a shitload of WotW documentary audio in David's collection, and it could and should be made into a DVD package to ride the wave of interest that Spielberg's movie will generate this summer. We all agree we should get on it if we can. Particularly intriguing for the project is the multi-audio capability of DVD. When the Mercury Theatre put War of the Worlds on the air, they did it opposite NBC's Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Bergen was trouncing Welles in the ratings, but audiences related to Bergen's show in much the same way today's audiences do to The Tonight Show; after a strong opening monologue, many started channel-surfing. Bergen's show had a music break after 12 minutes, and Welles and writer Howard Koch timed their script so that the Martian invasion began at 12 past the hour. Ossman has both airchecks. On a DVD, they could be synchronized on multiple audio tracks so the listener could switch back and forth.
A block away from Powell's are two superb comic book stores. Counter Media has not only original copies of Art Spiegelman's large-format Raw magazine, but also the best collection of vintage erotica I've ever seen. Next door is Reading Frenzy, from whom I bought two lovely postcards made of altered 1950s clip art - one with a bubbly white couple grinning with the header "We're All Going to Hell" and one of a pious child in church thinking "But What If It's All Bullshit?" Also down the street is a florist, and I buy some fake flowers for a gag I'm springing on Austin later.
I go to the venue in mid-afternoon. Curtain is at 7. A gentleman from a religious magazine called the Wittenburg Door has been trying to arrange an interview before today's performance, and I can't reach him. I leave him one last voicemail at home and hope he shows up. Early dinner with Proctor/Peterson/Thomas in the pub next to the Aladdin. Proctor signs an 11x17 show bill for the club to frame, and I take it back to the Aladdin under my coat in the rain for the others to sign. The Door guy does show up after all, and Proctor and Bergman sit for an interview and photo session.
Westley and Weber have the merchandise counter in the lobby under control, and I think I have the overstock under control backstage. Last night I missed most of Firesign's act because I was struggling with T-shirts so tonight I sit offstage and watch the whole thing. The theater is packed again tonight. Firesign have made some cuts, trimming both Martha Glueit and The Golden Hind, and the acts now run about seventy minutes and sixty-five minutes apiece. The crowd is hot again tonight, laughing long and loud.
Tonight the group gets what may be the biggest laugh of the tour thanks to a spectacular train-wreck of misplaced sound effects in the second half of "Lawyer's Hospital". The skit is based on the cocktail party from side one of In The Next World, and sound effects are being run by Firesign themselves using MIDI triggers on the keyboard at stage left. Ossman is Peggy, the host of the party, and Austin is Elliot, her first guest. Tonight Elliot's entrance, which in the script is a simple exchange interrupted by the sound of a door opening and closing, turns into a desperate battle to get in the goddamn house as the audience hears the door open, then open, then close, then open, then close, and finally close. "I think I'll use the window," Austin improvs, and Ossman breaks up.
Right before intermission I insert a gag that I'll continue to perform for the rest of the tour. Austin has added a line at the end of act one. The last skit is "Anythynge You Want To", and at the end Austin plays the only character left after a massive war in Movieland, who becomes delusional and says he's "ready for my closeup". Austin's new last line is "... Mr. Demille", so of course we've added the closing theme to Sunset Boulevard as exit music. As the whole group take their end-of-act bows I take the flowers, rush onstage crying "Miss Swanson! Miss Swanson!", give them to Austin, and rush off.
The Act two finale with the found poetry / Molly Bloom soliloquy word collage takes shape for the first time tonight, with the keynote being Proctor leavening the collage with the phrases "It's going to be all right... It's NOT going to be all right... I WANT it to be all right... Let's go home." It's beautiful and affecting and Ossman comes off in tears. Tonight's performance gets the biggest overall crowd response in the tour.
Afterwards I have to corral them, as usual, to the table in the lobby for the post-show fan signing, which goes on for forty minutes. Alan Olsen and Michael Pearce show up with cassettes of original Firesign broadcasts from their collection, and they donate them to the group. (These are the source tapes for those unedited Dear Friends and Hour Hour airchecks that showed up on USENET in 2002, and at least half of them are the only surviving copies of the material.) We do the out-count on the merchandise, and the numbers look good. Austin and I settle the accounts for the Aladdin run.
Still there is hell in store: We've got half the boxes of merchandise in the dressing room upstairs, and management says they've got to be moved. They won't fit in my car. That means we have to go through everything, take whatever we think we'll need for the Seattle show and stuff it in my car, and stack the rest in the theatre office downstairs. Then I'll have to return to the Aladdin on my way south after the Seattle gig and pack everything to ship back to Lodestone. Two hours later we finally get everything into white trash bags and get all the bags in boxes, and I drive Brian and John back to the hotel with the merch for Seattle.
Sunday January 30
Portland / On the road / Seattle
I leave the hotel with Brian Westley around 11 A.M. and head north. In the car we listen to Death of a Salesman, the 1965 audiobook version with Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman. I am hearing the play for the first time. Gotta love this play, so many time-slips and flashbacks, yet so easy to follow, so full of delicious dialogue and compact character exposition. Plus Lee J. Cobb rules. We arrive back at the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle just as we're finding out What Happened in Boston.
David Ossman and Judith Walcutt are having lunch in the bar, and I join them for a beer and some bread rolls. For the second time I almost choke on my food. Lots of free time before our call at 5pm, so Brian and I get a proper lunch in the food court at the mall next door and then wander down the street to the Sharper Image store. It's exactly as bad as I imagined from a decade of catalogues arriving in my dad's mailbox in the 1980s, although the Dyson Root Cyclone vacuum cleaner is frankly bitchen.
The Moore Theatre, a massive 1400-seat, three-tier palace, is two blocks from the hotel. I hit the Bed Bath & Beyond for a pair of fingernail clippers, then go to the Moore to check out the lobby. Jeff Payne requests five "Morse Science" T-shirts for the crew. This new T-shirt design is the most popular shirt on the tour, and we're already out of XL. There's a counter for merch in the lobby, which is done in polished rust-colored marble, and management arranges to set up a folding table after the show for the fan signing.
Tonight's comp ticket list is the biggest of the tour, with 42 names. We were initially allotted 20; that's been increased to 40. If the other two show up we're buying their seats. Turnout looks promising. For the Firesign archive I grab the venue's last copies of the advertising bill for the show, which is a beautifully produced 14"x18" color poster.
The show goes well, although I'm worried that I can't hear the audience's laughter from offstage. Firesign can't hear it either, it turns out, but Oona and Judith are in the audience and they come at intermission to reassure everyone that the audience is loving it. I'm armed with a MiniDV throughout, and I manage to shoot some complete skits in profile from stage left. I also slip behind one of the blinder curtains to get the group's POV for their closing bows.
The count-out on the merchandise goes well again. For each show we or the venue have hired a freelance cashier to do the selling for us, and it's made our lives much easier. The hard part continues to be the time after the cashier leaves when I get to sort, bag, and load a carful of T-shirts for the next gig. Endless double-checking of shirt sizes written on tiny labels and horrible knots at the tops of white trash bags written on with Sharpies. License plate frames are selling really well. Half our refrigerator-size box will be gone by tour's end.
After the show it seems like everyone from both Fox and Whidbey Island has come to say hi. I meet a group of local Firefriends for the first time, including Cat Simril Ishikawa and Thomas O'Neill, a.k.a. DocTechnical. Orson Ossman appears for just over ten seconds after the performance. Maryedith Burrell has flown in from L.A. to hang with her sweetikins Bergman. Afterwards at the hotel bar we knock back a few. David's son Preston joins us briefly. The barkeep does some mental arithmetic and tells us Preston can't be in the bar. Bedtime for all. Proctor has already driven back to his airport hotel lodgings. Westley hitched a ride, and he will catch a 1 A.M. flight home.
Monday January 31
Seattle / On the road / Portland / On the road
I meet David Ossman, Judith Walcutt, Preston Ossman and Cat Simril Ishikawa for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Then onto the 5 freeway to Portland. On the way I road-test a new mix CD, "My Country Wrong or Wrong", with cuts by Shel Silverstein, Loudon Wainwright III, Victor Banana and Jim Kweskin, ending with Ruben Guevara's version of the "Star-Spangled Banner". Seems to work okay. Everyone in Firesign got a copy.
Arrive at the Aladdin at 11:30 A.M. Now I have to stuff into my car every bit of tour merchandise I think we'll need for the California leg of the tour. The rest has to be packed for shipping back to Lodestone. With ten styles of T-shirts in six sizes, plus 200 license plate frames and other ephemera, this is a helluva mission. Eventually I pack fourteen boxes for shipment back to John Weber in Indiana. Sadly the four biggest boxes are full of Eyeball Hat shirts, all of them left over from the last tour, which Weber had laundered at his own expense.
I sort, I cull what I need for the California leg, and I pack the rest for FedEx pickup tomorrow. The whole job takes five hours. I spend the last two enjoying a free soundcheck performance by tonight's band, Johnny A, a tighter-than-hell instrumental trio with a genius uptempo funk cover version of Hendrix' "The Wind Cries Mary". (Would you believe they're labelmates with Artemis artists Firesign Theatre? Small world.)
By sunset I'm back on the 5 freeway and heading south. I listen to Neil Innes' Recollections Vol. 2 and Radiohead's Amnesiac and down some rice cakes in the car, and nearly choke again. Even with no food in my mouth I'm afraid to swallow, and worry I may inhale my tongue. In Yreka I stop for the night.
Tuesday February 1
On the road / Burbank
A long drive down the 5 back to Burbank. I listen to The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial on the way - a nice claustrophobic play, but this production sucks.
Sad news when I get home and check my email. The family dog back in Idaho has been limping for weeks, and now he can't get up. They've taken him in to the vet for surgery tonight. I call home to check in. They call back a few hours later to say they've had him put down. He was a real sweetie, a Gordon Setter, and he was just ten.
Wednesday February 2
A day off, sort of. I play catch-up preparing for the next leg of the tour. Everyone will fly in to San Jose Airport tomorrow and I have to make sure rental cars and hotel reservations are in place. At the Moore performance one of the crew mentioned an article in the Post-Intelligencer about Firesign, so I look it up online. All I find is a negative review in the P-I written by someone who had no idea who Firesign was and didn't want to be there.
I fuel up, then drive over the hill into Hollywood to hit the Amoeba store for more Firesign LPs and CDs, then over to Proctor's place to return his sound effects suitcase. A CD I got in an internet trade has arrived, Bagsy Me by the Wannadies (Hammer & Tongs, producers of the upcoming Hitchhiker's Guide movie, did their video "Hit" which is up at www.tongsville.com). More listening music for the car. Before bed I make point-to-point maps for every remaining leg of the tour.
I was really hoping I could take the scenic route up the 101 to San Jose, but it'll take too long and I'll need every available minute to set up the merchandise before the gig. So it'll be the 5 freeway north again tomorrow. Since fueling up this morning I have put 34 miles on the trip odometer.
Thursday February 3
On the road / Campbell
Depart Burbank in the morning with a full tank. Well, almost full. Close enough. Closer than I would have preferred, actually - a trip that I usually can do on one tank nearly turns into a roadside emergency as my fuel light goes on in the middle of a huge stretch of nothing crossing the Diablos mountain range. I panic for 20 miles and barely make it to Casa de Fruta. Actually I needn't have worried - turns out I had two and a half gallons left. During the tour I will put 3522 total miles on the Focus, pay for 108 gallons of gas at a total cost of $220.50, and average 32.6 miles per gallon, or 6.3 cents per mile.
Casa de Fruta is a charming and grotesque tourist trap with multiple shops offering wine ("Casa de Wine"), candy ("Casa de Sweets"), dried fruits ("Casa de Fruit"), coffee ("Casa de Coffee"), furry animals ("Casa de Zoo") and even a miniature train ("Casa de Choo Choo"). Yes, it's Casa de Honkey, but the candy selection is good and I buy mysterious powdered chocolate balls, mint chocolate milk duds and cookies.
I get to Campbell and the point-to-point map almost gets me to the venue, but the instructions crash and burn at the last moment. I buy a map. The Heritage Theater is a restored 800-seat Art Deco venue that will probably sell out tonight. Tom Lehrer is on the comp list. I called him in Santa Cruz a week previously and said we'd put him down for a +1. He said he'd check his schedule, and was glad Firesign was still around. Austin's elderly mother was also on the comp list, but tonight I'm told she won't be attending.
The show is a boom again tonight. For the California leg Bergman has added a short monologue in act two, a skit featuring Yves Sanstoul, fashion designer (like his "Mr. Liverface" ad, it's memorized). Merch sales are brisk thanks to a good display and a team of ushers. The out count is $80 in our favor due to an accounting error we can't trace. T-shirts and license plate frames move as well as ever, and tonight we've put signed LPs and CDs on the table for the first time. Fifteen go out, only two come back. Good idea; must do it everywhere we go from now on. The house manager compiles a spreadsheet of everything sold tonight. Dude's got his shit together.
Around midnight I finally arrive at the pizza joint down the street for dinner with Bergman, Ossman, Proctor, Melinda Peterson, Andy Thomas, and a dude from Laugh.com who wishes we had gone on the road with some of their product. (Me too.) I have the evening's merchandise settlement in my backpack, and I hand Proctor an envelope with nearly $1200 in cash, which is something every American should do at least once in a pizza parlor, preferably accompanied by the phrase "Bada bing". Melinda wonders what ever inspired a member of the human race to put pineapple on pizza. Proctor thanks Andy Thomas for providing a joke that they've added to the Hal and Ray skit about why bowling is better than sex. I never find out if Tom Lehrer showed up tonight.
Friday February 4
Campbell / San Francisco / San Rafael
In the morning I meet Bergman in the hotel lobby. We agree the performances are constantly improving. He brings up reviews and I mention the negative review I read in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. To my surprise he's read it, and it didn't bother him. He simply didn't agree with the critic. "That kind of shit just rolls off my back." To the mall for a muffin and milk, then Barnes and Noble for a Thomas Guide for the Bay Area Metro ($50 - I hope the guys let me expense it).
I find a pay phone and try to reach Harley Jessup at Pixar. (I must be the only guy on tour with no cell phone. I've never had one in my life, actually, which in California is punishable by law.) Jessup is production designer for Ratatouille, the next Pixar movie after Cars, and I interviewed him on the phone a few years ago for a story about the making of Twice Upon a Time, which he also designed. I want to get on the lot and say hi; mainly I want to get on the Pixar lot, and he's the only guy inside I know. There's a recruiter who's expressed interest in me, too, but she didn't return my emails before I went on tour so I'd rather not drop in on her unexpectedly.
One hour up the 880 to Berkeley, where I intend to hit the local Amoeba store for more Firesign albums. I exit at Telegraph Avenue, but go south instead of north and end up in Oakland. So this is where Don Joyce of Negativland lives. It's more or less North Hollywood with taller buildings. Amoeba Berkeley is one of three Amoeba megastores in this California indie chain (we've got one in Hollywood, and the third is in the Haight in San Francisco). Finally I find the store and park. I'm in the comedy section on the floor looking through the CDs, and I hear a couple guys talking about Firesign albums and resale. I turn and see Andy Thomas and Peter Bergman, who have just arrived. We both got the same idea and didn't tell each other. We snap up all the good stuff and I put it on my Discover card. Most of my expenses on the tour - and too much of my real life in Burbank - is going on that card.
On the way back to the car I find a phone booth and try Harley at Pixar one last time. Pixar is next door to Oakland in Emeryville, and if I'm going to see the studio gates, outside or in, this is my last chance before I head north to San Rafael. Amazingly he's in, and he's happy to hear from me, although he can't meet me for coffee in the commissary because he's booked all afternoon. A designer on Ratatouille has died and they're organizing a memorial for him. I wish him well, and go on with my day, which will be much easier than his.
I go south on the I-80, pay the toll and head west across the Oakland Bay bridge into San Francisco. A quick jog west on the 101, which ends after just a mile (the Golden Gate bridge continues it, though, and they're constructing a connector so eventually we'll be able to do SoCal to NoCal nonstop). Lost again for a few blocks, and then I hit the Haight. I drive through the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, which was certainly on my list of things to do in life. Amoeba Haight is in a former bowling alley. A great store, just like the other two. Oddly they've only got three usable Firesign LPs in the bins. A slice of New York pizza in a local dive and I'm on my way, around Golden Gate Park and up Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was also on my list.
The Marin Center in San Rafael is biiiig. Mainly it's wide, its aquamarine seats stretching most of the width of a football field. The lobby is round and small, and there's no place to set up merch. There is one small table where they say we can do a signing. We improvise a merch area under the entrance stairs in an open area to the left of the orchestra seating. I unload everything and arrange the tables. Before I left Burbank I got on the phone to a local boyfriend/girlfriend pair, who agreed to bring a cashbox and sell merch for the evening. They arrive an hour before curtain, and I scramble to make them a price list and show them where everything is.
Offstage right Judith Walcutt is manning the magic box that will transmit tonight's live performance to Radio Margaritaville for online listening. All is well with the data stream. The comp list is smaller tonight, as none of us knows too many people in the Bay area. Judith and I tried to get phone invitations out to some Pixar people last night. John Lasseter is out of town, but Andrew Stanton is interested so we put him on the comp list. I look for him at intermission and after act two, but never spot him trying to get backstage.
Afterwards I herd Firesign down to the lobby for the signing. The table that was supposed to be cleared for the signing is full of brochures and displays. We dump what we can off the merch tables, and they sign there instead. Sales are good, but to make up for last night's overage there's somehow $140 missing from the gross. We have to eat the difference. Packing up takes longer than usual for some reason, and I get to the hotel at 12:30. I join Andy, David, Judith and friends in the patio for ten minutes of chat, then crash.
Saturday February 5
San Rafael / On the road / Cerritos
In the morning I pack and express-checkout. Music in the car is Escape from Noise and Dispepsi, only fair as I'm in Negativland's hometown. Lunch is a burger from Carls Jr. in a very small town next to a lovely dead end of abandoned landscaping ideas. The miniature furrows and lakes in the dirt look from five feet exactly like Nevada does from 40,000 feet. The burger will punish my lower intestines tomorrow, but I'll be home by then.
From the 101 to the 580 to the 5 and a straight shot to L.A., and 415 miles later I'm at the stage entrance of the Cerritos Center. Cerritos is in the L.A. basin at the very southern tip of Los Angeles County, south of East L.A. and north of Long Beach. The Center is the youngest venue on the tour, with a generous four-tier interior and a huge lobby. The merch sales go better than at any other time on tour, with a huge display area and even mannequin torsos for displaying T-shirts.
Before the show Austin and I have a chat about the tour. He says it's gone better than any of them expected. He'd do an East Coast tour if they could get the bookings, and if he could drive it ("I've never flown"). In particular he spells out details of how the tour came to be, and for the first time I get some hard facts on what Firesign needs before they can tour and how their agent at ICM helped get the tour going in the first place.
(You and I would probably insist that Firesign deserved more dates on this tour, and that they merit more industry attention. In a recent email, in fact, Austin reiterated that he doesn't believe for a moment that Firesign is being ignored or under-represented in any way in the entertainment industry:
"We're not somehow outside of actual show business. We are an extremely hard entity to book, because so few people are interested in us.
"Over two years ago Steve Levine at ICM came to us through a New York producer named Julie Lokin with whom we have a long history. At first Steve didn't believe that anyone would pay the money we're presently getting, but I asked him to hang in there and take it slowly, and the result is what you see. We made more money this year than we've ever made on tour.
"My conditions for touring have to do with reasonable time to drive between dates and an agreed minimum guarantee figure. Plus we won't do nightclubs or casinos. ICM has, for two years, asked everyone in the U.S. who fits those restrictions if they wanted to book us, and the five cities we just did are it. We were actually offered Spokane, too, which we had to turn down for money and travel reasons. Steve Levine has hung with us over two years of getting these paltry five cities together.")
Firesign's performance at Cerritos is their tightest yet. There's a video projector and screen, something we haven't had so far on the tour, so at the top of act two we play the "Rat in a Box" commercial from Case of the Missing Yolks plus Andy Thomas' new follow-the-bouncing-ball version of the "Porgie Tirebiter" song, featuring home movie footage of the Android Sisters performing it for the Dwarf sessions at Columbia in 1970.
After the show Andy arranges a champagne toast for the whole crew backstage. Then I corral Firesign into the lobby for the signing. Security is tighter than it's been anywhere else, and I feel like an asshole when I tell friends of Proctor they can't get backstage to say hi. Of course Proctor comes to them, making the issue moot. The boys sign souvenirs for fans while I do the out count of the merchandise and pack it for the last time. Our luck is better than last night, and we only have to eat $80 in missing gross.
Orson Ossman is here tonight and we have a somewhat longer chat than last time. Dude's over six foot, not yet a high school senior and already a professional actor. Phil Proctor takes a snap of Orson with his daughter Kristin (The Wire, Riding In Cars With Boys). Now she can say she knew him when. One by one everyone says goodbye and disappears into the night.
In the backseat are two bags of table covers (never used), four Ziploc bags of buttons, two boxes of photos, 20 bags of T-shirts, 100 license plate frames, 2 dozen champagne glasses, and one bundle of Animation Show flyers. I'm home in Burbank by 12:45. Proctor is back in Beverly Hills, Bergman is back in Silver Lake, Austin is back in Mount Olympus, Ossman and family are at the Airport Hilton. Andy and Victoria Thomas return to Tarzana, and Brian Westley heads for parts unknown. Jeff Payne, Dylan Payne and Mike Scerra are staying at the Riot Hyatt on Sunset in West Hollywood. The deposit is on my credit card. I hope they don't get any ideas about the TV.
Back to 2005 Tour page