Universal Studios – or, The Beetlejuice Story (Sunday, January 20, 1991)

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This is where Thirteen’s journals start to get a little fuzzy chronologically, since most of the entries about our trip to L.A. were written after getting back home, and often in a piecemeal “oh, yeah, I forgot to mention this other thing that happened when” kind of way. From what I can tell by the entries, though (and from matching up what outfits we were wearing in the photos), we spent Sunday at Universal Studios Hollywood and at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, called Mann’s at that time.

As you can tell from the photo above, our time at Universal Studios, much like Magic Mountain, was a combination of private tours/rides and photo-op interactions. We saw the Riot Act stunt show and the Animal Actors show, with Amy — the most outgoing of us — volunteering to be an audience participant in the latter. (As an introvert, I hate the entire concept of audience participation.) Fievel’s Playland, where you climbed around in a giant lobster trap, slid down a banana peel, and sat at spool tables on thimble chairs, was also fun, especially for Amy and Sarah’s younger siblings. (This was before Fievel Goes West was released, so everything was still based on settings and props for the original film.)

Most of the time, we had a crew from 20/20 and a few other reporters and photographers with us, but occasionally we were on our own. We had reason to be thankful for that after lunch, when Amy, Sarah, Mom, and I were looking for the ladies’ room but couldn’t find it. Finally Mom figured we’d just have to stop a park employee and ask. Which she did.

The employee just happened to be Beetlejuice.

Okay, fine. We were assuming he would just, you know, point us in the general direction. Tell us to head down that way and take a left.

Yeah, no.

Staying firmly in character, and with his legs crossed, Beetlejuice led the four of us on an impromptu parade to the restrooms, with occasional commentary to make sure the crowd around us knew exactly where we were going.

I could have killed Mom, but I decided to let her live until we got home.

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(No, we weren’t paying homage to Frank Parker; that’s just where we happened to be.)

Later, at Mann’s and the Walk of Fame, we were again amused at how, thanks to the ever-present camera crew around us, there would always be tourists taking pictures of us, too.

There were these two girls at Mann’s. They were watching us and the camera crew and everybody. One of them said, “Who are they?” The other replied, “I don’t know — I think they’re a new singing group.”

“What’s their name?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard them sing.”

I wonder if any of them ever figured out who we actually were…

Happy holidays, and see you next year…

One thing I got a particular kick out of back in 1991 was getting the official Warner Bros. Animation holiday card…

wb christmas card

wb christmas card interior

I’ll be back on January 10 to continue the story, including our trip to Universal Studios and our meeting with Steven Spielberg and the TTA writers. See you then!

We Love L.A. (Saturday, January 19, 1991)

Our trip to L.A. was about as all-expenses-paid and full-on guided as anyone could want. We were looked after by our publicist, Valerie Scott, who did a great job shepherding a large group with as many kids as adults (and putting up with the three of us always shrugging when she asked what we wanted to do, a move that she eventually started calling the Waynesboro Shrug).

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Valerie and Tim, our guides to the wonders of Los Angeles.

Our driver, Tim, got us wherever we needed to be, though he quickly got a reputation for getting lost and having to get on his radio to get turned around again. (I seem to remember we once heard the person on the other end say, “Now where are you again?”) To this day, I don’t know if he really did have a bad sense of direction or secretly just knew every obscure shortcut in the greater Los Angeles area, but he always got us from point A to point B with a great sense of humor.

As far as expenses went, it truly was all expenses paid — the flight, hotel, and attractions, of course, but even more. Most of the time Valerie or someone else was with us to pay for our meals, but each family was also given $600 to cover any meals or other expenses when there wasn’t someone around to pay for us. There were some snacks and drinks we bought out of that, but most of it wound up paying for souvenirs for ourselves and friends and family back home. As far as I recall, we didn’t spend any of our own money during the entire trip.

Saturday we went to Six Flags Magic Mountain. (I remember reporters before the trip asking if we were going to go to Disneyland. Seriously?)

We never had to wait in line for rides; instead, they took us through the exits. (I mean, the others never had to wait in line — I’ve never been big on amusement park rides myself.) The photographer even went on one roller coaster with Amy and Sarah (and he, of course, had to ride backwards to take pictures).

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Me with Daffy at Magic Mountain.
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By this time, we were used to having photographers around. (Yep, that’s me in the Bugs Bunny ears.)

We also went to Venice Beach. Now, if you want to talk about the ultimate in tourist culture shock, drop a group from rural Virginia at Venice Beach. Along with the street musicians, the Skateboarding Granny, the roller skaters who almost ran us over, and the general randomness of humanity, we were particularly amused by the guy hawking laundry bags at the top of his lungs. Said laundry bags, as he repeated over and over, were both super jumbo and all-nylon. It sounded like a quality item.

As Thirteen put it:

To mostly summarize, Venice Beach had a lot of weird people there.

Of course, we also walked down to the actual beach, and Amy decided she wanted to take a bit of the Pacific Ocean home with her. Back then we were into those Life Saver Holes candy bits that came in little plastic flip-top cylinders. We had one with us that was nearly empty, so we polished off the rest of the Holes and she filled the container from an incoming wave. (Oh, for the days before airport liquid restrictions.)

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At Venice Beach.

For dinner that night, we were picked up by two limos (one for us and our moms, the second for the rest of the group) and taken to Ed Debevic’s, which Google tells me originated in Chicago (and is now closed even there), but at that time there was a location in L.A.

eds
Souvenirs from Ed’s. (I think I also got a sweatshirt or a T-shirt.)

Google also tells me that Ed’s had a reputation for deliberately rude service, which isn’t exactly the way I remember things. As I recall, the campy ’50s-style diner was raucous and loud but also just plain fun, with servers offering up good-natured pranks and wisecracks along with the food. (Or maybe they were just going easy on us — we were a family table, of course.) Thirteen made special note of the fact that our waitress had a beehive hairdo accessorized with fake bees, and even went so far as to deem it one of the few restaurants where she wouldn’t have minded having “Happy Birthday” sung to her (high praise for the atmosphere, since that’s something Forty still tries to avoid).

After that, we headed back to the hotel. I was still dealing with that stupid cold, so on the way back, Dad had their limo driver stop at a convenience store to get some cold medicine for me, plus some soda and chips to have in the room.

I have this hilarious picture in my mind of the limo pulling up, and everyone around wondering what big star’s in there, and then my dad steps out.

Where are the paparazzi when you need them?

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Me, Amy, and Sarah, out for a night on the town.
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Our group photo.

TGIF (Friday, January 18, 1991)

I have absolutely no memory of Christmas 1990. I’m assuming my family celebrated it as usual, but at the same time most of our attention was on preparation for our January trip to L.A. Amy, Sarah, and I would be traveling with our parents, plus Amy’s little brother and Sarah’s two little sisters. What would be the first plane flight for most of us would be on a turboprop out of the regional commercial airport, connecting to the cross-country flight. And we’d have a camera crew along (of course) filming for the 20/20 segment.

Our flights went fine (and here I just want to pause for a moment and fondly remember the days when the only real stress of flying was in the actual flying itself). Unfortunately, I’d picked up a cold a couple days before we left (the packing list I made in my journal mentions cough drops), and my ears never popped on the descent to L.A., so for the rest of the evening, everything sounded muffled. It was an annoyance, but I didn’t care — we were finally in Hollywood!

Thankfully, after the long flight, there wasn’t much planned for Friday night. The only item on our itinerary was being in the audience for a taping of the sitcom Family Matters, which was pretty cool since it was a show my family already watched (along with the others in the TGIF lineup). We provided the laugh track for a prerecorded episode (season 2, episode 17, “High Hopes,” a.k.a. the one with the hot air balloon, aired January 31) and then watched them film scenes for another episode that wound up airing near the end of February. (Don’t remember which one that was, unless somebody knows which one had a scene where Steve is in the lunch line and has Laura’s picture on his cafeteria tray.)

We also got to meet one of the stars of the show, Jaleel White, who played Steve Urkel, the character who had pretty much stolen the show by then and became a sensation for his nerdy laugh and catchphrases. Much more low-key than his alter ego, White was friendly and funny. It was a pretty brief encounter, but he made a gracious first impression. I found a line in my journal that he offered to go bungee-jumping with us, which made absolutely no sense until I found the scribbled footnote explaining that I’d misunderstood the conversation. (Ears again.)

SARAH: Could you sign an autograph for me?
JALEEL: Oh, sure! I thought you were going to ask me to do something really daring, like go bungee-jumping with you or something!

(I’m guessing she must have asked kind of hesitantly — but hey, we were still getting used to this whole meeting-people-we’ve-seen-on-TV thing.)

In the end, we did get autographs, each one signed with a different Urkel catchphrase:

UrkelWhen we got back home, sometimes we ran into people who, when told about our L.A. trip, got way more excited over us meeting Steve Urkel than Steven Spielberg.

That’s the ’90s for you…

In the Spotlight (Part Two)

Probably the most extensive print article done about us was the cover feature for USA Weekend, a magazine distributed in many Sunday papers at the time (though our local ones carried Parade instead).

The article was good, but we didn’t care for the pictures they ran with it

Okay, we hated those pictures. Especially that cover photo, which we loathed with a passion that only teenage girls can muster for lousy photos of themselves.

Thirteen’s commentary:

Amy’s hair was, like, standing up and Sarah’s hair was blown around, and mine looked all stringy. Besides, Amy had her mouth wide open, and the sun was, like, glinting off my forehead . . . And then, in the black-and-white one showing us at lunch, you couldn’t even see Sarah, I looked like Kathy Bates from Misery, and all you could see of Amy was her hair (from the back, of course).

(Granted, just the day before she’d written…)

We’ve gotten used to seeing pictures of us and stuff. Before, we would have cringed to even glance at a photo of us. But now we’re used to it. Same with seeing ourselves on TV, hearing our voices, and seeing our names and stuff about us in print. It’s kind of fun, really. (not)

USA Weekend cover feature

Three other newspaper articles from the second wave of publicity, leading up to the episode’s premiere in November 1991:

The Sunday News Leader (Staunton, VA)

Daily Press (Hampton Roads, VA)

Roanoke Times & World-News (Roanoke, VA)

 

In the Spotlight (Part One)

And then word got out.

Here’s a sampling of some of our print interviews. (I should note that to this day, there are still resources online that get Sarah’s last name wrong — early on, a typo morphed it into “Creek” instead of “Creef,” and unfortunately it got copied along from there.)

PDF of articles from local newspapers

(The irony of a Warner Bros.-related story showing up in a Disney magazine was not lost on me.)

Once the story hit the wire services, it was picked up everywhere. We were sent clippings and copies from newspapers across the US (including Hawaii, of course), from The Stars and Stripes, and even from other countries. Interviews became commonplace (if a little boring sometimes because of having to answer the same questions over and over again).

The only story that never panned out was for TIME. They came and did an interview and a fun photo shoot (even to the point of buying us color-coordinated sweatshirts to wear in the photos), but the week the article was slated to appear, Operation Desert Shield became Desert Storm, and from what we understood, our story kept getting pushed back because of all the Gulf War-related news taking up page space. We kept checking each issue for weeks, but to our knowledge, the article never appeared.

From Hollywood to Waynesboro

A couple weeks or so had gone by when Jean called again — and this time asked to talk to Mom.

They had decided to use the material we sent. In other words, they were making our story into a cartoon. That alone was enough to get us excited.

But then they said that they were flying into Washington for some sort of other business. And that they would then fly from Washington to Charlottesville and then drive to Waynesboro — our small hometown. (And when I say small, I mean small.) They said that they would be coming next Thursday, which was December 13th.

We were stunned. But the bigger surprises were yet to come.

Everyone — which in this case meant the three of us, our moms, Jean MacCurdy, and Barbara Brogliatti (senior vice president for publicity and promotion) — gathered at my house for the visit. They’d brought a few gifts for us — character plushes, buttons, figurines, things like that — which had been in the suitcase that had not gotten lost. (As for the one with all their clothes in it, well, I’m assuming it caught up with them eventually.) Amid coffee and probably ham biscuits and pizza rolls (our go-to snack), Jean made the announcement.

They said that we would go on an airplane (all expenses paid, of course) to L.A. and then literally watch the story be made into a cartoon. She also briefly mentioned that there would be a press conference and a story meeting with Steven Spielberg. Steven, she said, was filming a movie in February, so he wanted to get all of this over before then.

The movie was Hook. And his side of it probably was pretty much over by then, but ours would go on for quite a while longer.

The followup letter provided the details. (It strikes me now how short and general that fine print is. Somehow I doubt it would be so simple today.)

I started my journal five days before we left on what I would come to mentally categorize as “the L.A. trip.” By that point, we had already done several interviews for both print and TV, so my journal has something of the feeling of a story I’ve told many times before. What surprises me now is that there’s very little in the way of emotional content in its pages; it feels as if it were written more for public consumption than as a private diary. Because of that, I don’t have much of a historical reference for how I really felt at this point. Were all this happening to Forty, she’d likely be more anxious than excited, but I don’t remember Thirteen being particularly nervous about any of it. The intensity may have simply faded out of the memories with time, but from what I can recall, from start to finish it just felt…

Well, like an adventure.

Up next: In the spotlight

 

Out of the blue

Our package had made it to the desk of Jean MacCurdy, and since we never bothered to include a phone number on our letter, she had to hunt for one. Information wasn’t a great deal of help at first — there were a lot of Carters in our area — but she asked if there was a number for Renee Carter, and there was. This was because my parents, in their wisdom of having already raised two teenagers, had long since gotten the kids their own phone line so we weren’t constantly tying up the main one.

It’s a Friday night. Sarah was having a surprise slumber party for her birthday… Since I was sick, I didn’t go to the slumber party. And it was a good thing I didn’t. Because that night at about 8 PM, I got a call from Jean MacCurdy…

(Full disclosure: I may or may not have actually been sick, as I did have a history of using that sort of excuse to get out of slumber parties or other kinds of parties. The life of a teenage introvert often involves such ethical dilemmas.)

She said that our story had been sent to her, and that they liked it and that Steve — yes, Steve — had been thrilled with it. Then she said that they were planning future episodes. And then she said that they might be calling me back.

Well, Sarah and everybody else were at that slumber party. So I tried to call Sarah, but everybody wasn’t there yet.

So I hung up and literally paced my room.

I don’t remember much of that first conversation, though in the 20/20 interview, Jean playfully recounted my responses as an flat, almost underwhelmed “Yeah…?” When you tell a story again and again, as we had to when answering interview questions over and over, in time the story can replace the memory. (Remember, even this journal entry was written a couple months after that first call had happened.)

Sarah said that I was talking so fast, she could hardly understand me. But I got my message across.

“I don’t believe it!” she said.

Meanwhile, Amy and the others didn’t know what the heck was going on. Amy kept saying “What? What?” Finally Sarah turned around and told everybody what was going on. I could hear Amy screech in the background.

Thing was, we had never even told our parents what it was we sent in. So it was kind of fun, filling our parents in on what we had done. (Good thing we hadn’t robbed a bank, huh?)

Honestly, we weren’t really expecting another call. A week or so later, I got a little padded envelope in the mail with some Tiny Toons postcards and pins, plus a followup letter:

Letter from Jean

postcard and pin

postcard backAt that point, we figured that was it. We were all ecstatic that, yes, they had received it, and yes, they had read it, and yes, they had liked it. That was enough for us to feel awesome about the whole thing. Day by day the excitement died down, and we went on with our regular eighth-grade lives.

Then my phone rang again.

Up next: From Hollywood to Waynesboro

Interstitial: Dear Mr… Speilberg?

Here’s the letter we sent along with our story. (Addresses and phone number there are long since defunct, by the way.) I don’t remember whether I wrote it solo or we composed it together, but I’m betting it was the former, since the letter’s in first person from my perspective. Amy then typed it in the school’s computer room and printed it out for us — those are her initials there at the bottom, in proper secretarial style.

To the question that always comes up of “did we ever think this would be made into an episode,” I think this letter makes it pretty clear that we really weren’t expecting anything much — just that “we would like your opinion,” and even that feels like something of an afterthought to me.

Besides, if you’re aiming to have your enclosed story made into an episode, it would seem a bad idea to misspell the recipient’s name — plus forget to, you know, actually sign the letter. (At least we made an effort to explain the teacher-related inside jokes in the story. Apologies to Ms. Coffey and Mr. Aylor, by the way.)

Two other quick asides: 1) I seriously have no memory whatsoever of that fan club, and 2) The blatant flattery in that last paragraph is so Thirteen.

Honestly, this entire letter is so embarrassing to me now that I try to avoid looking directly at it for long periods of time. So of course, here I am putting it up on the Internet…

Our letter to Spielberg

 

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

(We’re back! New posts will be scheduled for the 10th and 25th of the month, with occasional bonuses in between. To make sure you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe using the “Follow Blog via Email” widget in the right sidebar of the website, or follow our Twitter account for notifications of new posts. As a reminder, or for those just joining us, the quotes in these posts are taken from the journal I kept in 1991 at age 13.)

 

Since other kids at school kept reading this stack of notebook paper and saying “You should send that somewhere,” or “You should send that to Spielberg,” we finally figured hey, why not, if we can find somewhere to send it…

Amy ended up finding the address for the Fox network in a magazine. It was one of those teen magazines where it gives celebrity addresses. I think it was there if you wanted to write to somebody on that show “21 Jump Street.”

I have a feeling that “somebody” was probably Johnny Depp. (Hey, Thirteen was pretty lousy at being a typical 13-year-old.) Therefore, let it be known that were it not for Johnny Depp, “Buster and Babs Go Hawaiian” might never have become an episode. Um… sort of.

Of course, we had no clue that Tiny Toons was a syndicated show (at that time, at least; it later went to Fox exclusively). The only thing we could think of was to send it in care of the Fox network where we watched the show, so that’s what we did.

By this time, it cost almost three dollars to mail it.

*waxes nostalgic about 1991 postage rates*

We never made another copy of it. We were going to, but Xeroxing it would’ve cost too much change, and we didn’t want to take the time to make another handwritten copy. We just figured that if it got lost in the mail, then it did. So we didn’t worry about it.

(We didn’t number the pages, either, so a few of them were missing when WB graciously sent us a copy.)

In a way, the story did end up getting lost in the mail — or at least, it took a winding path to its intended destination.

Our story was sent to Fox in Burbank. Jean [MacCurdy, executive producer] said that, under usual circumstances, it never would have gotten past Fox. It would have been stamped “Return to Sender” and sent back.

I think you’ve caught on by now that nothing about the next several months is going to involve “usual circumstances.” Bear in mind that sending an unsolicited story or script to a television show sets off a whole host of alarms from a legal standpoint — for example, if they were to inadvertently do a similar script in the future, we might claim they stole our story and sue — so nothing’s supposed to be opened or read.

However, the people at Fox opened the envelope. They took our story (and the letter that we enclosed) and put it in one of their envelopes. Then they sent it on to Steven Spielberg. Steven’s secretary sent it on ahead to Warner Bros. Jean said that the secretary probably figured if it got this far, it must be okay. She said that it was basically sent to people who didn’t really know what they were doing.

*polite cough* Which is not, of course, to imply that Steven Spielberg’s secretary was incompetent…

This was all told to us second- and third-hand and maybe some other hands besides, so it’s possible the timeline isn’t 100% accurate. The point, though, is that our package looked legit when it got where it was going, which eventually was the desk of Jean MacCurdy, the executive producer of Tiny Toons and, at that time, president of Warner Bros. Animation.

And she picked up the phone…

Up next: Out of the blue