Thursday, September 01, 2011

The View From The Perms

 
This week, as part of my current two and three day a week schedule, I got to visit a place I've rarely had cause to venture into. I worked in the perms. For the uninitiated, the perms, or permanents refers to a grid system of wooden beams suspended in the top of most Hollywood stages. The beams are criss-crossed at 90 degree angles leaving roughly 3'x5' openings called ozones. This grid is surrounded and quartered by a system of catwalks and the whole thing is basically just a base from which to rig everything from lighting to set walls and special effects. The whole grid can be anywhere from thirty-five to sixty  or seventy feet above the stage floor,* depending on the height of the stage. It's truly a grip and electric's world up here, as we are usually the only crew members who have a reason to climb the long ladders or staircases into these shadowy recesses. It is from here that the electrics pull up hundreds of feet of cable and the grips hang teasers, green beds (catwalks that are suspended by chain just above set walls), backings, truss, and any of  the other countless things we are called upon to suspend above a set. I've actually never spent much time up here. I came up as a set grip in Atlanta, where stages were mostly empty warehouses in which we would hang a pipe grid. Perms were unheard of. I didn't come up through the studio pecking order where a rookie started out on the gang hanging green beds and backings before finally making his or her way onto a set crew. By the time I started working in Hollywood, I was already a working Dolly Grip with years of set experience and a pretty good resume, but there was a whole segment of grip rigging knowledge of which I was ignorant, that many Hollywood grips take for granted. I still remember my first job in Los Angeles. I was a permit (someone trying to earn their thirty days on a union show, making them elegible for membership in Local 80, the grip local in Hollywood.). As a permit, you basically had to wait until the town was busy enough so that even the most moronic among us had a job and no actual  Local members were available. I got a call at five o'clock one morning from the Local asking if I could push B camera on NYPD Blue, as their guy had called in sick."You can push dolly, right?" the voice on the phone asked. "Yes... yeah I can. Where are they?"  "Fox Studios in Century City," the guy said. "You need to be there by seven."  So I pulled out my trusty Thomas Guide** and plotted a course to the storied Fox Studios for my first job in an actual soundstage after over twelve years as a grip in the film business. I still remember calling my parents from the parking deck and telling them that I was at Fox Studios to work on NYPD. Even though I was, by now, a seasoned Dolly Grip, I was still a little unnerved by the thought of actually being there and wanted to share it with them. Anyway, I've gotten off track here, but I still remember walking in that stage and craning my neck up, and up to the highest ceiling I think I had ever seen. And at the top of it was the perms.
  So this week I did a commercial at Paramount. Now, I've done many commercials, too many to count. But I am still pretty ignorant of the perms. I've just never had much reason to go up there until this week. I should explain that there really isn't a dedicated dolly position on commercials, at least as far as rate goes. As a Dolly Grip on a commercial, you are expected to fall in with the boys when you are needed and especially on prelights and at wrap. So, I showed up to push dolly on a commercial and found myself in the perms pulling up pipe and trying to remember my knots. You know what the perms are? The perms are history. They've seen it all. Many of these stages were built in the twenties and these ancient beams have supported lights and walls, grids, and backings for everything from Sunset Boulevard to Casablanca.***  You can see the notches worn by years of rope rubbing across beams and handrails as it was pulled up by now forgotten craftsmen on these movies that have ingrained themselves in the public consciousness. On the air ducts and handrails, grips and electrics have drawn pictures of everything from women, to (strangely) women with penises (I don't get this one. What are they, twelve?) to dirty jokes or their own names, and sometimes, just the names of shows and a date. The wood is worn smooth by years of the hands of long-gone grips and juicers who participated in the making of everything from Ozzie and Harriet to Star Trek. These guys lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and then hitched up their pants, lit a cigarette, and went to work. They walked these narrow beams without a yoyo**** or a harness. I guess the thought of falling seventy feet came in a close second to getting shot at by the Nazis. And then they went home to dinner with their families. I rubbed my hand along the smooth handrail and thought about them for a moment. And then I waited to hear the voice of the Best Boy say, "3-2-1 Pull!" like so many of them probably did. And I pulled, and pulled, and suddenly the pipe was at the top and I quickly tied it off (under the handrail, cross over, pull back, over the handrail, behind the rope, pull up, under itself and a double hitch. I think that's it). I think everyone who gets a chance should visit the perms at least once. It will humble you. It did me.





Catwalk in Stage 18 at Paramount Studios, Hollywood.


*No, I don't know exact numbers. Come on, did you read the first part of the post?

** In LA, before smartphones and GPS, everyone usd the Thomas Guide, which was a comprehensive map of Los Angeles. Call Sheets would give the Thomas Guide page for the location.

***Stages 8 and 9 at Warner Brothers.

**** A safety system designed for high work. You clip it onto your harness. It keeps you from hitting the ground.
For more personal experiences in the perms, check out Michael taylor's excellent blog at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium. He says it best.

Okay, you made it this far, now I have a ghost story involving the perms. Two good friends of mine, on separate occasions told me this story. They were both up in the perms on a stage (I don't recall which one, it may have been stage 18 where I was) at Paramount working on a movie called The General's Daughter. At some point, while looking down upon the filming, they noticed they were in the company of a man a few feet away, in strangely outdated work clothes, who was also gazing down upon the activity below. They didn't really pay that much attention to him, other than that they didn't recognize him. Then, as soon as they had seen him, he was gone. They both walked the perms looking for him and found no trace. When they finally climbed down they asked the stage manager if there was another way out of the perms and explained why. He stuck his hand out and said, "Congratulations. You saw him."
Thanks to Dano and Gary for this story.

6 comments:

The Grip Works said...

Great post ! The perms -permanents .... thats what they are. Everything else moves on.
We have a shoot location in Bombay, that used to be a huge mill complex. There was a huge fire in which many mill workers lost their lives. For several years now it has been used as a studio.
Lots of construction, grip and electric crews will not work nights there because they swear it is haunted by the dead workers.

A.J. said...

I guess I'm one of the ones who take the perms for granted. I tend to see those wooden beams as a place for riggers to hide out, doodle penises and write moronic comments about their favorite sport teams. Though I do like it when I stumble upon a patch of names that date back to before I was born, but at the same time, it's the historic ones that make me nervous. The floors are usually so rickety that I can feel them bend from my weight. Not a fun feeling when you're up so high off the ground...

Thanks for sharing your perspective on it. The perms are definitely part of our history.

D said...

Yeah, I probably overdid it a little, under the Captain's influence, but it is and interesting place with a lot of history if you look at it through different eyes than your work ones.

D said...

I honestly do not know what compels a grown man to draw a huge picture of a penis on an air duct, but the perms, in every studio and stage, are full of variations on this theme. It's truly a phenomenon.

Michael Taylor said...

The cave paintings up high are a world of their own. Amid all the crude amateur pornography you'll find occasional flashes of brilliance -- a face beautifully rendered from a knot in the wood and a magic marker, or some wonderfully ironic comment on the crass money-first nature of the biz -- but mostly it's a bleak wasteland of perverse iconography.

We've all worked some very long days -- eighteen to twenty-four hour (or more) gigs -- but the longest eight hours of my career was spent pulling hangers for green beds on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers back in the early 80's. Out there on the four foot O-zones with no safety gear whatsoever, I spent all day staring down at the stage floor 65 feet below while dropping my rope and swivel-snap, pulling up hangers, then slamming the perm hook in place. Just when I thought I was done, the floor pusher would yell at me to "take it up three links and add a twist."

Continually racking focus from the toes of my boots to the floor was a killer. By the end of that day my feet were sore from trying to curl around those perms -- and all for eight bucks and change per hour -- full union scale back then.

After that day (and a few more like it), I was more than happy to go back to juicing low-budget non-union features...

Wick said...

Love the perms, or a grid in a theater. Some of my most fun working days were in hemp-hung houses in New York.