Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER MY ADVENTURES WITH MUPPETS, DARK CRYSTALS AND CANDY

Doug Thompson headshotFor much of my adult life, I’ve lived in the past.  At least professionally.  Writing and producing radio and television programs about events and people from the past – John Lennon being one.  Over the years, I’ve written and produced six separate multi hour radio specials on Lennon and created one television documentary for CBC Newsword, (as it was then called).

I’ve written before about my adventures co-producing CHUM’s 12 hour Beatles documentary in 1970.  Now that was a trip (to the hospital no less).  I’ve also written about working with Ringo Starr in England for the 24 hour “Ringo’s Yellow Submarine” radio special for ABC/Watermark in Hollywood.  They’re all here in the DBAWIS Archives if you missed them.

CandyThen there was my years working with, and for John Candy.  John and I first met in 1975, when I was assigned to produce a series of political radio commercials for Foster Advertising for a Canadian election campaign.  The spots were to get people to get out and vote (it didn’t matter who you voted for, just vote).  The Creative Director at Foster and I had worked together before and he called and asked me to find actors who could ad lib and be funny at the same time (not at all an easy feat).  A producer friend of mine said I should check out Toronto’s Second City, which at the time, had a cast featuring John Candy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy.  I did and quickly hired John, Dave, Joe and Catherine for this campaign.  I would hire all of them eventually to voice radio commercials.  They came in, we spent a few hours in the studio, got some great material (including a few wonderful outtakes which will never see the light of day), and I started calling John for radio commercials whenever I could.  I used him on spots for Simpson’s (a department store chain that no longer exists), the Motor Home & Trailer Show (still going strong every Spring) and a series of radio commercials for Harland Auto, a local car dealer in Montreal.  The second announcer on the Harland series was Alan Blevis, a wonderful voice actor, who moved to New York a few years later and quickly picked up clients such as CNN, Enterprise Car rentals (“we’ll even pick you up”) as well as the Democratic Party.

Summer RentalJohn and I became good friends and in the late ‘80’s, I went to work for him in Los Angeles.  Although I signed a confidentiality agreement when I moved back from L. A. to Toronto at the end of 1990, and I’m not legally allowed to write about much of my time with John, I can tell you that Candy was everything you’d expect him to be.  He was a wonderfully kind and caring human being.  He was also very funny, on and off screen, although he wasn’t always ‘on’ as some show biz folk tend to be.  The movie that portrays John as he basically was in real life is “Summer John-CarlReinerRental”, directed by the amazing Carl Reiner.  John plays a burned out air traffic controller who takes his family on vacation to Florida.

Hilarity ensues.

John was directed, in separate movies of course, by two comic geniuses – Carl Reiner with “Summer Rental” in Mel Brooks1985 and Mel Brooks (1987’s “Spaceballs”).  When Mel took a break from directing, he’d pop into John’s trailer and it would be nonstop laughter for as long as he was there.

I was also doing a myriad of things in my life as well.  From 1977 until 1983, when ABC in Hollywood hired me to write “Ringo’s Yellow Submarine”, I was a freelance engineer/producer working out of Eastern Sound studios in downtown Toronto.  The location where Eastern was situated (the corner of Yorkville Avenue and Bay Street) is now the new 55 story Four Seasons Hotel.

doug-easternThe Eastern Sound job was cool.  I got to work with most, if not all, of the great voice talent in Canada at that time.  Legendary voice talents such as Henry Ramer, Richard Thomas (not the actor from “The Waltons”), John Stocker, Ron Morey, George Morris, Bonnie Brooks, Tommy Ambrose, Nick Nichols, Len Carlson, even Gordon Sinclair for Dominion Stores, among many others.  I even engineered a radio ad session with a young Jim Carrey, who at the time was still a struggling stand up comedian (this was a year or two before his move to LA and his smokinnnnn’ super star movie career).

Eastern Sound had three studios.  Studio A was the largest one of all.  The Toronto Symphony could fit in there (and occasionally did).  Studio B was slightly smaller, but ten or twelve musicians could work there comfortably.  When I was producing TM Productions jingles for St. Clair Productions a few years later (St. Clair as well as Eastern Sound were owned by Standard Laurie Bower SigersBroadcasting, now Astral Media), I produced all of my Canadian radio station jingle re-sings in Studio B working with the Laurie Bower Singers and engineer Peter Mann.  But from ’77 to ’83, I worked out of Studio C, the much smaller commercial voice over studio at the back of the building.  Day in and day out, ad agency after ad agency would stroll in (sometimes with as many as a half dozen account executives.  Those sessions were oh so much fun.  You’d note my sarcasm if you heard me reading that line) to record voice-overs for their clients’ radio and television commercials.  For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of amazing creativity happening with the ad agencies back then, at least in radio.  Usually, it was an announcer (or two) canadas-wonderland1voice over a jingle or a piece of stock music, maybe a sound effect or two, then mix it all onto tape and away they went, happy.  Every once in a while, there’d be a creative session like the radio campaign I recorded for Canada’s Wonderland featuring short-cropMarty Short (who was the spokesperson for a season or so) and often they’d bring in my old pals John Candy or Dave Thomas to work with Marty.  Those commercials were great fun to do, since there was a ton of adlibbing, plus they won awards too (nothing to do with me by the way, although the spots were excellently engineered even if I do say so myself…which I just did).

There were a few other ‘interesting’ and memorable moments in my engineering career, like on one rare agency night session (6PM on).  Ad agencies NEVER work this late unless they’re under an extremely tight deadline, but this was a retail agency that I’d worked with a lot.  They had a half dozen demo spots to record, so it shouldn’t have taken more than a couple of hours, but when the announcer showed up, it was obvious he’d been sucking back liquid libation for a considerable amount of time before the session.

Not Drunk AnnouncerOh boy, this was going to be a long session.  And it most certainly was.  The spots were 30 seconds long and in his highly inebriated state, this announcer could not read them in less than 45 to 50 seconds.  He simply couldn’t do it.  And when he sped up to try and get it in on time, you couldn’t understand what he was saying, he was slurring so much.  We tried and tried, but even pouring coffee down this guys’ throat didn’t help.  He was simply too wasted.  In the end, the agency producer had no choice but to fire him and voice them himself, since the spots were being presented to the client the next morning.  We re-did them a few days later with a different announcer…during a daytime session.  I didn’t save a tape of those original night sessions (although I do have a lot of hilarious out take tapes in my archives) out of respect for the announcer, who I worked with many times since that fateful night and who, when he sobered up, was mortified.

Jim Henson and Frank OzOccasionally, an exciting new and different recording assignment came my way.  That happened in 1982 when Jim Henson and Frank Oz entered my life.

The building next to Eastern Sound was VTR Productions (a television production facility also owned by Standard Broadcasting).  The two buildings were connected by a door directly behind Studio C.  The Muppet men had been in Toronto working on several projects, which included supervising the set up for Season One of “Fraggle Rock”, the TV series that was being co-produced by the CBC in Canada at VTR Productions.  Frank Oz was in Toronto for a different reason.  He was to star (as Miss Piggy) and co-produce (as himself), a television special called “The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show’.  More on that, coming up.

The Henson Organization was more than a well oiled machine.  It was like a military operation – only highly creative.  I was always amused by the names of the various divisions of the company. For example, Henson Associates had the abbreviation on their letterhead of HA!  Henson International was HI! And Henson Music was known as HUM!

The Dark Crystal movie imageHenson had a production office on the second floor at VTR and was there as much as he was needed.  Most of the rest of his time was spent in home base in New York.  In 1982, Jim Henson and Frank Oz had just co-directed a movie in England called “The Dark Crystal”.  This was a story set a thousand years in the past, on a far distant world, where the Skesis (pronounced Skeks-eze), an evil, birdlike lizard race, had plunged the planet into chaos and terror.  A Gelfling named Jen must search for a missing shard of the magical Crystal to restore peace to the planet before the Skesis find it and continue their reign of terror forever.  Directors Henson and Oz had even created an entire language for the Skesis with the English sub titles printed at the bottom of the screen whenever a Skesis spoke.  This was definitely NOT “The Muppet Movie”.  It was quite dark and truth be told, a little scary for really young children.  The movie had already been locked, meaning the studio and Henson and Oz had signed off on it and it was ready to show in movie theatres.

But after a few test audience screenings, they realized they had a major problem.  Since many of the movie goers were kids who couldn’t read yet, their parents were reading the Skesis language translation to them and the result was massive noise and chaos in the theatre during the Skesis scenes.

This would need to be fixed and quickly.  Henson and Oz were both locked into Toronto for the foreseeable future, so for two straight weeks, Monday Frank and Jim Directingthru Thursday, I worked the night shift (6PM to midnight) to re-record the Skesis dialogue into English.  One night, Jim Henson directed the talent.  Another night, it was Frank Oz.  The Henson organization flew all of the voice talent from England to Toronto to re-do their parts.  For most of them, they arrived in the early afternoon, having left London earlier that morning, recorded in the studio that same night and were back on the last plane to England later that evening Of Muppets  Men The Making of The Muppet Showto arrive early the next morning, London time.

Ahh, show biz.

Unfortunately for me, the credits were already finished, therefore I didn’t receive an on-screen credit as re-recording engineer.  I think Frank Sinatra summed up my feelings on that best in 1966 when he sang, “That’s Life”.

Autographed page 1During that week, I’d brought my coffee table sized book, “Of Muppets & Men: The Making of The Muppet Show” with me and asked both Jim and Frank if they’d sign it.  Oh boy, did they sign it.  Frank thought about for a minute, then pulled out several multi coloured pens.  He  autographed (using different colours) as himself, “To Doug, love from The Muppets & thanks for making me sound so good”, Animal, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Sam the Eagle.  Jim used only a Autographed page 2green pen (naturally, since Kermit is green) and signed as Rowlf (the dog), Waldorf (Of Statler & Waldorf fame, aka the two old guys in the balcony), Le Chef, and as Kermit and himself.  It’s still a treasured book in my collection.

But I wasn’t finished with the Muppets just yet.  They were shooting a one hour variety special called “The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show” with Glenn Warren Productions at CFTO in Agincourt (the building was rebranded CTV several years ago when CFTO became CTV Toronto).  Since “Fraggle Rock” was shooting next door at VTR, Henson decided to do the post audio work at Eastern Sound.  I had worked well with both Jim and Frank on the “Dark Crystal” re-recording, so I was asked if I’d like to be the audio post production person.

Would I?

foley (1)Basically, audio post production is a glorified title for a Foley operator, meaning assembling (or creating) the sound effects needed for the program.  They’re called ‘Foley artists’ in honour of Jack Foley, a pioneering sound effects editor at Universal Studios in Hollywood during the 1930’s.  ‘Foley Rooms’ refer to studios that have multiple sections of floor (usually several feet long and foleywide), and most times covered by a liftable lid.  Some ‘Foley rooms’ have a section with leaves in it for that ‘walking outdoors’ effect (cassette tape works well as a replacement for leaves, which tend to dry out and become brittle); then there are small sections of hardwood floor, linoleum floor, rocks, sand, basically as many indoor/outdoor surfaces as you can imagine.  Foley is an art.  99.9% of all sound effects in movies are created post production.  For example, that famous ‘phaser’ sound from “Star Wars” was achieved by hitting a metal guy wire attached to a tower.    Ben Burtt is a true master of this craft (he created that phaser effect for “Star Wars” as well as the sound of the light sabre, which was a combination of the humming sound from his television set, tuned between channels, mixed with the sound of a 35mm projector).  Burtt worked on all six “Star Wars” movies and all four Indiana Jones films (and hopefully he’ll also work on the 7th “Star Wars” Disney has announced as well as the fifth “Indiana Jones”, now in the planning stages).  Burtt was the sound designer/sound supervisor on many other movies, including “E.T.”, “Star Trek” (2009), “Wall-E”, “Super 8” and interestingly, “The Dark Crystal” (credited as ‘Special sound effects creator’).

For the post production session, Henson had hired an authentic ‘laugh expert’ from Hollywood.  At this point, some 31 years after the event, I can’t remember his name, but he was extremely well known and did most of the post production for TV series that used laugh tracks.  His equipment consisted of a series of carts (like radio stations used to have) in several racks with different ‘shadings’ of laughter on each.  He used foot pedals that could adjust the laugh ‘on the fly’, so you could obtain the exact volume and intensity of laugh that the director wanted.

It’s a fascinating process to watch (and listen to).  “Gimme a guffaw here, then a chortle, followed by a titter.”  In some American states (and a few Canadian provinces) that language is enough to get you arrested.  In talking with the ‘laugh guy’ as engineer Peter Mann and I called him, it turns out he’d been doing this for several decades.  He told us that most of the people laughing on his tapes were long dead.  A sobering thought.  You might be dead, but your laugh lives on.

Miss Piggy and Kermit The FrogThe ‘laugh guy’ was there for two days, then took his tape contraption back to Hollywood.  We continued on for the rest of the week, mixing music and effects.  At one point, Miss Piggy and Kermit The Frog (Jim Henson) were walking away at the end of the scene.  I borrowed a pair of high heel shoes from Teresa at the Eastern Sound switchboard, and there I was one morning, ‘walking’ along on the floor with my hands in these shoes, beside Jim Henson, watching the monitor to ensure my Miss Piggy ‘walk’ was in sync with the picture.  Whenever he was happy with a take, Jim would quietly say, “Lovely.  Moving on”.

I felt incredibly sad when Jim Henson died in May of 1990 – after all he was only 53.  What other magic could he have conjured out of that amazingly creative brain of his had he lived.  I can tell you this, I certainly saw how hard he worked.  When we were doing post production on ‘The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show”, we’d start at 9AM.  Jim had already had a breakfast meeting.  We worked until noon, then Jim headed to a lunch meeting.  Returning for 2PM, we worked until 5, then Jim either had one final meeting for the day, or he’d head for the airport to catch a flight back to New York so he could sleep in his own bed.  He’d then be on the first flight back to Toronto the next morning.  That was one seriously busy man.

Miss Piggy posterOn our last day of post production, Martin Baker, Jim Henson’s right hand man (they’d worked together since the original “Muppet Show” in England), brought in two large posters, one for engineer Peter Mann and myself.  The poster showed Miss Piggy lounging luxuriously in bed on several pillows, with an opened heart shaped box of chocolates, a cup of tea and some cupcakes on a tray.  On my poster, Jim had signed, “To Doug, With all her love, Kermit the Frog and Jim Henson”.

One of these days, I’m going to have to write about all this.  Oh wait a minute, I just did.

=DT=

Doug’s column appears here every 4th Monday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

DBAWIS ButtonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

2 Responses to “Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER MY ADVENTURES WITH MUPPETS, DARK CRYSTALS AND CANDY”

  1. awwwwwww! Doug, you are a dream writer! What a life! and what a mensch! Hugs!

  2. […] Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy Photo, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert Photo, Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green Photo, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck Photo […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: