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Sunday, June 27, 2010


George Orwell had it right. 1984 was the year of my subjugation. It began for me in the dead of winter stuck smack dab in Hell’s Kitchen. I was working for the former Programming VP at the Television business I had worked for since 1978. I was designing the packaging and writing promotional materials to launch two new lines of Home Video.

Our new offices were located in a former animal hospital built in the 1920s in the bowels of the west side of New York City. The building was about eleven treacherous blocks from Port Authority, so it provided the added bonus of a winter workout as I ran back in terror every evening to catch my bus home to Hoboken. It was 4 narrow stories tall with 2 cavernous rooms on each floor and a tiny elevator, capacity 2.5 people, noisily grinding between them. Sometime in the late 70’s they had air-conditioned each floor by installing ceiling units in the hallway by the elevator. This meant that in order to derive any cooling benefit, the doors to both rooms needed to remain open.

Two entrepreneurial childhood friends from Long Island founded the company I worked for. They had pooled their bar mitzvah money and as a lark, bought a porno movie theater in New York City in the early 70’s. They quickly learned that the Pornography movie theater business was very profitable and they parlayed these earnings into the burgeoning Home Video rental business. They opened the country’s very first home video rental store and by 1985 had over 15 outlets. They also owned 4 porno theaters in New York City.

Our two entrepreneurs eventually realized that the real money came from creating software, i.e. the videos themselves. They didn’t fool themselves into believing they were the second coming of Samuel Goldwyn and friends. They stuck with what they knew and started producing adult films both for their theaters as well as for the newly exploding adult home video market. In my own defense, I knew none of this when I signed on to work in their new “legit” division, I just knew about the video stores.

At our new headquarters, as I said, we were charged with creating an identity for and marketing one new to home video label and actually producing and marketing the second label. The first was a collection of rather fine, though somewhat dated films from England from the J. Arthur Rank Studios. The titles included Carol Reed’s Odd Man out starring a very handsome young James Mason; a brilliant and heartbreaking rendition of the D.H.Lawrence short story, The Rocking Horse Winner; and Victim, a controversial film from 1951 about the blackmail of homosexual member of Parliament portrayed by one of my personal gods, Dirk Bogart. All appeared on the up and up, as I set about designing and writing about a group of very respectable films from a studio with an extraordinary history.

The other label we were creating from scratch, sort of. We had a contract with the WWF, yes, the infamous Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. We were to take the Television productions and convert them into home video productions with judicious editing, adding some interviews and creating some behind the scenes footage.

In 1984 professional wrestling was incredibly popular. Tickets to the annual Wrestlemania events at Madison Square Garden sold out months in advance. Hulk Hogan, Captain Lou Albano, and Andre the Giant were the headliners. Coming up were Rowdy Roddy Piper and Kumala the warrior and my personal favorite, The Sheik. Each of these personalities were created by the marketing team at the WWF and Linda McMahon, wife of Vince.

As part of my marketing research, I went to a big match at the Garden and had ringside seats with my boss. Let me say first of all, that by the end of that evening I was completely beer soaked and not from drinking any. Secondly, the person sitting in front of us was the size of a small apartment building and I couldn’t see over him unless I stood up. I remember that my boss asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking off his shoulder so I could see.

I also visited the WWF headquarters in Connecticut and interviewed some of the up and coming young wrestlers to put together an illustrated guide to professional wrestling moves to include in the video packaging. I learned about how they hid razor blades in their wristbands to cut themselves as part of the show, how identities were created and abandoned as they rose and fell in popularity and how they carefully choreographed each match trying to control the severity of injuries.

This was completely new territory for me. I had no real interest whatsoever in this spectacle, but began to embrace it by conceiving of it as some form of extreme theater, tragically predestined characters facing evil, facing the inevitable. It was completely ridiculous.

I did enjoy having a big open space to work in with a great picture window that provided an unobstructed view of the daytime muggings on West 52nd Street. I had never had so much personal workspace in New York City. The room had a cement floor that sloped in the middle into a drain. This room had apparently been the operating theater of the animal hospital. I didn’t say it was glamorous, just big.

Across the hall on my floor was the editing suite. All of the films this company made were shot in Europe. Then the “auteur” flew back to the United States with the uncut film footage to be edited. Uncut footage carries a much lower import tariff than a completed movie coming into the United States. All the editing was done on a moviola, which is a large machine used to splice the actual film stock together. It allows the editor to actually view individual frames to precisely select the best edit cut-point and align the appropriate audio. The moviola itself was a huge stainless steel flatbed unit, somewhat similar to a reel-to-reel audio splicer that was located near the door to keep it cool. Metal film spools canisters filled the shelves in the room surrounding it.

My space included a huge drafting table near the door where I spent most of my time and 3 large industrial desks with one typewriter around the perimeter of the room. Spacious, with a cement floor sloping toward the center and all very gloomy grey.

It wasn’t until the weather began to turn warmer that I got a real sense of what was going into the Moviola. I was working on the packaging design for a Terry Thomas movie about a group of bungling crooks. Terry Thomas had that distinctive gap toothed smile, a nasal veddy British diction and a silliness that surely influenced Benny Hill and Monty Python. The packaging design for this veddy silly film needed to capture that attitude.

From my left through the hallway I heard the whirling of the Moviola. The machine itself made a low clacking noise as the film feed into the machine. Stanley, our wizened and slightly deaf editor, was syncing the audio as well today. I heard the moans. Moans going forward and moans rewinding. Moans going forward and moans rewinding. Uhhh. Ummm. Uhhh. Ummm. Oh Oh Oh. Then backwards again and forward again. Uhhh. Ummm. Uhh. Ummm. This continued for over an hour and while it wasn’t completely unpleasant, it was really distracting.

I didn’t want to interrupt Stanley and I certainly didn’t want to see what he was working on. The moaning, just audible over the air conditioning, continued for the next three days and I was really beginning to lose it. Just take a moment and imagine hearing sounds of pleasure for hours on end.

I went to meet a friend for lunch just to get out of the office. I couldn’t share this with anyone; I was too embarrassed. It wasn’t like I was actually involved in the business of pornography; I just sat across the hall from it, in 1984, subjugated by the sounds from the room across the hall.

1 comment:

  1. Gives the term 'big brother is watching' a totally new connotation.