In the Money

By early March 1991, our lives were getting mostly back to normal. There were still plenty of interviews for various venues (sometimes in person, sometimes on the phone), but by that point we were pretty blasé about all that. Thirteen’s journal entries often mention doing an interview that day for “some radio station” or news program or what have you, but there’s usually not even a mention of what or where it was. Another day, another interview… and March is also the first time in my journal that there starts to be mention of getting a little tired of it all — not just the interviews, but getting recognized in the drugstore, getting letters like the one from our senator, waiting on things to air or be published, waiting to find out if we had any more publicity trips coming up, and most of all having to answer the same sorts of questions (whether from reporters or teachers or just people in our hometown) over and over and over.

I’m supposed to get my hair cut tomorrow. I shudder to think of how all the hairdressers are going to react to me.

One other thing we were tired of waiting for: our checks.

We’d originally been told we were going to be paid their standard rate for a story treatment, which, if I remember correctly, would have been $900 total, split three ways. In the end, though, they (whoever “they” was, in this case) paid us the rate for a full script — $3900, divided three ways.

Well, mostly. As Thirteen resentfully noted:

They’re going to take taxes out of our money. Can you believe it? I mean, we’re kids — we’re not even working yet! Can’t they wait and guzzle all our money then?

Filing a tax return wasn’t the only red tape we’d have to deal with. Since we weren’t members of the Writers Guild of America, we had to sign some kind of document as a waiver for having sold a script without being part of the union. I don’t remember the details of it, but I vaguely recall it boiled down to a legalese-worded promise that we didn’t intend to do that and weren’t going to do it again. Or something. I’m sure some legal departments got a day’s work out of it, anyway.

At long last, though, we had our checks. I think our parents all kind of followed the same basic pattern — we were allowed to spend a certain amount of it and the rest had to go in the bank. You’d think I’d remember what I bought with that money, but I don’t. (Probably I went to Suncoast at the mall and bought a bunch of Looney Tunes tapes and some posters.)

I like to quip now that this was my first writing sale, though I guess technically it was my first job, period…

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Step by Step

One of the coolest parts of having our story made into an episode was that the crew made such an effort to include us in every part of the process. Before the January trip to L.A. for the story meeting, we were sent the first draft of the script (essentially a story treatment), and then in March we received the final script. Later on, we were sent a copy of the storyboards (fascinating for Thirteen, now that she wanted to be an animator), and then a VHS of the rough cut of the show (more on that in a later entry).

There was even talk at one point of the three of us recording our own voices for our characters, but sadly that didn’t happen, and we wound up being voiced by the show’s cast. (It wasn’t until fairly recently, when I read the episode’s Tiny Toon Adventures Wiki page, that I found out which actress had voiced each of us. Assuming that listing is accurate, my stand-in was the awesome Cree Summer, who also voiced Elmyra.)

One of the more frequent questions I’ve gotten over the years is how much of the “meta” material (the cameos by Spielberg and the three of us, etc.) was from our original story. The answer is, pretty much none of it. Other than the core story of Buster and Babs’ vacation, the only other material that was taken from those original drawings was the bit about the History of Q-tips, which was a fake cover page I made for one part of the story, poking fun at a previous teacher of mine who had a reputation for being boring. (I kind of hope now that he never figured out that was supposed to be him. Thirteen could be ruthless sometimes.)

I think the writers made a good choice, though, in including the behind-the-scenes-type gags. Aside from the fun we got out of actually being in the episode (how many people get to say they were once literally cartoon characters?), it made the story behind the episode part of the episode, in a way that I think made the whole thing hold up better. If all that material hadn’t been in there, and they’d just made our relatively simple story of Buster and Babs’ vacation hijinks, I doubt it would have held up well, and it would have just been a footnote of “oh yeah, that was that episode those kids wrote, that’s why it’s not that great.”

(Of course, maybe it still has that footnote, but if so, don’t care.)

A sampling of the treatment, script, and storyboards for the opening scenes…

Story treatment pages

Script pages

Storyboard pages

 

The Grand Tour (Monday, January 21, 1991 – Part Two)

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Me, Sarah, Tiny Toons executive producer Jean MacCurdy, and Amy.

After we left Amblin, it was time to go to the Warner Bros. studio lot. After a tour, we had lunch at the commissary, then called the Blue Room (where we noted that Dixie Carter was eating across the room from us), and then stopped in for souvenirs at the company store. Not that the three of us needed much in the way of souvenirs, since our publicist, Valerie, had just handed us each a Bugs Bunny tote bag full of stickers, stationery (including Tiny Toons Valentines), figurines, a hat, a beach towel, and fifty of those Tiny Toons enamel pins to give out at school. (As Thirteen noted, “I think WB doesn’t know how to do anything except make movies and cartoons and give people stuff.”)

After we finished our shopping, we continued with the tour of the backlot. We saw where they record the music for Tiny Toons and Dallas. (It was also where the music for all the WB cartoons was recorded.)

We saw the street from The Flash, and got to meet John Wesley Shipp. We also saw the Mogwai store from Gremlins 2, as well as streets from Dick Tracy and the sets of Life Goes On.

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Meeting John Wesley Shipp.

For some reason, out of the entire trip I have the least memory of our time touring the backlot. I can’t even remember now whether we were walking around all the time (probably) or in the bus, or what. I’m guessing it just got overshadowed in my mind by the story meeting that morning and then the afternoon at Warner Bros. Animation, which was obviously of more interest for a teenager now wanting to be an animator.

There, we saw more of the people from the story meeting — like Sheri Stoner, who modeled Ariel in The Little Mermaid. (She was really cool.) Plus, we saw the background designers (and some of the backgrounds from certain episodes), the cel painters, and of course, some of the animators.

Throughout the studio, we saw all these pencils stuck in the ceiling. Frustrated animators. Amy said she could picture me doing that.

We even got to meet Charlie Adler, the voice of Buster. We went around this corner and all of a sudden we hear, “Hi, Toonsters!” We all expected to see a blue rabbit standing in front of us, but instead we see this guy.

Thirteen wasn’t quite able to capture that sense of disconnect (“this guy”?), but you have to realize that this was pre-Internet, of course, and back then you just didn’t have as much opportunity to know what a character’s voice actor looked like, unless they already happened to be a celebrity. So there really was this odd looking-glass feeling about it that took a few seconds to reconcile.

When told that Buster was supposed to have a fear of flying, Charlie commented, “That’s not far from the truth.” Then, as Buster, “I burrow underground.”

We also hung out in Jean’s office for a while, watching two Tiny Toons music videos from an upcoming episode (more on that in a later post) and a promotional video for The Elmyra Show — which made Amy happy, since Elmyra was one of her favorite characters.

Valerie and Jean walked us out to our bus then. They hugged us and said goodbye. And I can still remember Valerie’s parting words: “You’ll be back.”

Then we went back to the hotel for our last night in Los Angeles.

We had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to get to the airport, which is a time of day that technically does not exist at age thirteen, never mind that we were all exhausted by that point.

All of us met sleepily in the lobby of the hotel, then climbed into the bus. Tim turned on the radio to try and wake us up, but we would have fallen asleep were it not for the astonishing fact that Tim took us directly to the airport without getting us lost.

Our trip home was uneventful, and we knew we had more interviews and events to look forward to for months — most notably, getting our payment, seeing the 20/20 segment, and of course, the airing of the episode itself.

Looking back on it now, that trip to L.A. loomed so large in my memory for so many years, I would have assumed it had been a week long at least, but the entire trip lasted just from Friday to Tuesday — basically a long weekend. Not until my engagement and wedding would I have that feeling again of weeks’ worth of life-changing memories packed into such short spans of days.

And in nearly every journal entry for months, Thirteen was dreaming of, longing for, and grasping at any shred of hope of, going back.

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen L.A.?

The Big Guy (Monday, January 21, 1991 – Part One)

The next morning was the day we’d been waiting for, when we’d go to Amblin for the story meeting with Steven Spielberg and the TTA writers. The group of us met Jean MacCurdy and Barbara Brogliatti in our hotel’s restaurant for breakfast, though none of the three of us ate much.

A few minutes later, we were on the bus and on our way to Amblin Entertainment. Unlike you might think, there is no guard or anything at Amblin. Still, I think they were expecting us, because nobody stopped us. Tim just drove on through. Then again, Tim would have driven on through anyway.

We walked into Amblin, then into a room where all these cameras and stuff were set up. We all sort of stood around nervously. I still couldn’t believe what was happening.

Then Steven Spielberg walked in. He was wearing a denim Tiny Toon Adventures jacket and faded jeans.

When he walked in, every single camera in the entire room went off. I think all of us were blinded for a second. We introduced ourselves. Steven, of course, needed no introduction.

After a second he looked at us, smiling, and started pushing our shoulders down, saying, “Drop the shoulders, drop the shoulders, relax…” Then he said, “I detect these thick accents coming from you. Where are these from?”

So naturally we’re all thinking, “I have an accent?”

(And sure, we did — but not as thick as the ones we would wind up with in the show.)

Of course, the next thing was posing for pictures. And more pictures. And then some more pictures. Some standing, some sitting, and everyone telling us to pose, to do this or that. (Steven: “Do you feel silly? Because I do.”)

Meanwhile, people are telling us to “Get closer! Get closer!” We’re already half a millimeter away from him. What do they want us to do?

And since I’m behind him, people are telling me to put my arms around him. I reply, “What do you want me to do? Strangle him?”

Which I then jokingly did. (There was a rumor that that photo wound up in a tabloid somewhere, but we were never sure.)

(You can see some of those endless pictures in the various magazine articles here and here.)

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“Pretend like you’re whispering in his ear!” *sigh* FINE.

Once everyone had used up enough rolls of film (ask your parents, kids), it was time for the story meeting, which was slated for fifteen minutes but wound up being over an hour.

The story meeting was fun, hilarious — and being taped by 20/20. We just couldn’t shake those people.

At this point, our families went to the game room, and we heard later that there had been a huge spread of snacks and breakfast food set up nearby for them while they waited for us to be done with the meeting.

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A shot from Amblin’s game room, where we got a chance to play for a while after the meeting. (Note the timely sign added to the game on the far left.)

Then we started going over the script. When we got to a scene with the shark from Jaws, Steven said, “Really, though, the whole concept has been so overdone… I mean, it’s been done and done and… If I hear those two notes again, I’m going to hit someone.”

(Right then we all had the urge to hum the Jaws theme, but since Amy was in good hitting distance of him, we decided not to.)

Then Steven mentioned another animation rule of thumb. “You have to get characters out of the water as fast as you can. Water is very expensive to animate, because everything is constantly moving.”

I thought a moment, then said, “Maybe you could have Babs sit and gaze at the waves and then have Buster walk up and say, ‘Stop staring at the water. Do you know how much this is costing?'”

That should give you some idea of how the meeting went — ideas, jokes, odd notions, questions about what we liked or didn’t, what our favorite episodes were, a constant Ping-Pong game of conversation. What surprises me now, looking back on all of it, is how much the three of us (at least from my perspective) were taking everything in stride. The whole time we spent in L.A. was just one fun thing after another to us, with every moment being another chance to crack a joke, another chance to laugh, or another new big-city experience for three small-town teenagers to enjoy.

Really, I think the best part of the story meeting was sitting there with people who are as obsessed with cartoons as I am.

Thirteen had already decided at that point that she wanted to be an animator, though looking back, I wistfully think that my place, had I had enough self-knowledge and drive — and, well, courage — to pursue it, might have well been at that table of writers instead.

I still wonder, some days.

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The cap he’s wearing reads “Where is Waynesboro, Virginia” — we made it for him as a gift, since that was one of his first questions on finding out about us and our story.

 

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…

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.

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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…