By Mark Neuling
Photojournalist for TechTV San Francisco, California

I don’t know why television stations and their management operate like this, but sometimes they do. Always on the lookout for “revenue streams,” the small independent television station that I use to work for had had a very modest success syndicating programming to cable outlets. The emphasis here is on “modest” succes.

For some reason the station looked outside and beyond it’s own staff to crew and shoot these ventures. We had five or six very competent photographers, all with a great deal of news experience who were always bypassed for these assignments. Management felt more comfortable hiring outside freelancers. The gallows humor amongst the shooters was that management felt that if we were any good, we’d all be working elsewhere. But quite honestly we didn’t want to do these shoots, too much scrutiny by upper management.

In the defense of our photography staff most of our photographers weren’t equipped to do more than a basic news shoot. What ever gear the photographer and reporter could carry from the car was it. No fancy lighting, no dolly’s, no jibs. Just the camera, tripod and “maybe” a light. Most of our shooters didn’t have more than two battered lights to begin with, most had never done anything more than a basic lighting set up. Daily news, under a deadline, doesn’t require much. And quite frankly, unless the video is blue, most managers don’t care.

But one day word came of an important shoot. We had an interview scheduled with the actress Shelley Fabares. Her mother had passed away from Alzheimer’s Disease and she was going to do an interview with us about her family’s struggle with the illness. The normal freelance crew was unavailable, they were off in Europe somewhere, tough gig. The shoot would have to be done by one of the in-house crews. Since my partner Paul Felt and I were the Electronic Field Production unit the shoot would be our responsibility.

We had a half-a-dozen lights, flags, reflectors, audio mixer and even a monitor at our disposal. Hey if you can make the daughter of some car salesman look good, we shouldn’t have any problem with an attractive Hollywood actress. As always, management had their panties all in a knot over this shoot, and as always, the crew was pretty blasé about it. Just another talking head.

Of course Shelley Fabares is not just another talking head. Her career has spanned four decades in the entertainment industry and includes not only acting but singing as well. Beginning in 1958 she co-starred on the “Donna Reed Show” playing the bewitching Mary Stone. While starring on this series she had a number one hit song with the tune “Johnny Angel.” In the 1960’s she co-starred in three Elvis Presley movies. During the 1990’s she played TV news anchor Christine Armstrong Fox on the show “Coach.” And in real life she is married to actor Mike Farrell of “MASH” fame. By anyone’s standards this is a pretty good Hollywood resume.

My little station, as most little stations are, was pretty tight with the purse strings. But occasionally, for big events such as this, they would break into the piggy bank and spend like sailors on shore-leave. They rented a suite at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose for us to do the shoot at. Hired a limousine to bring Ms. Fabares from the airport, and they even brought in a makeup artist. Oh this was the big time.

And then the day before the shoot our chief engineer dropped by my cubicle with a brand new camera. Out of the blue, no word or rumor of it, a BRAND NEW CAMERA. What were they thinking.

Sure cameras are only tools, but in most shops you are assigned a camera and it’s yours, sometimes for years. The life expectancy of a broadcast camera is about five years, but in many shops they are used for many years beyond that. Your camera becomes an extension of yourself. You learn your camera’s quirks, its likes and dislikes, it’s like being married. The initial shoot with a new camera is like going on a first date.

In the old days cameras were simple. Turn it on. Select a filter and white balance. Modern cameras have page after page of menus, set up cards and manuals that can run close to a hundred pages, which when translated from the Japanese aren’t always clear to understand. You have to date one these cameras for a long time before you understand it and can really utilize all the bells and whistles. Of course on most days we pretty much still just hit the power switch, select a filter and white balance. Some things haven’t changed much over the years.

The day of the shoot dawned. There must have been five or six people from the station involved with the shoot. The programming director (who never went on shoots) was the bull-goose-loony in charge of this project. Her job was to handle the flowers that would be in the background of the shot. Yes dear reader those great looking flower arrangements in television shots don’t happen by accident. She must have cut the stems of the flowers three times before the length was just right. The make up artist did the make-up for both our talent and Ms. Fabares. Paul and I kept the lighting simple, but elegant; a soft key light with some bounce off a reflector, a back light, done. We even had time to tweak the lighting for the reversal shots of our talent. Only a Hollywood actress would sit patiently while a crew re-lights a scene for a reversal.

Usually in these tales of mine you expect some disaster to happen about now, but on this day everything went according to plan. I managed to find the on-switch to the camera without any difficulty. Every one was awe-struck by how warm and sharp the new camera looked. Our set in the hotel looked great. Ms. Fabares, as most actresses are, was a consummate professional. She thanked everyone by name and was very complimentary on the lighting job. We wrapped the shoot and then the general manager of the station surprised us all with lunch; and yes even the lowly camera grunts were invited.

We made our way to one of San Jose’s swank watering holes a block away and sat down for lunch. The conversation eventually steered it’s way to the “Donna Reed Show.” For the record Shelley Fabares is an outstanding story teller. She shared tales about the show and Donna Reed herself, it was like our own private look into a small piece of television history. Now camera grunts are usually expected to be seen and not heard, but I was curious about how the song “Johnny Angel” came to be, so I asked her.

She seemed to brighten, a shy Mona Lisa smile crossed her face. In the early 60’s there was a lot of cross-over by television actors/actresses into pop-music. The creator of the “Donna Reed Show,” who happened to be Donna Reed’s husband, approached Ms. Fabares one day and asked her if she’d like to record a song. “Oh, but I’m not a singer,” Shelley said. “You like working on the show don’t you?” he asked her. “ Yes I do,” came the reply. “Then you’ll do a song,” he told her.

And the song turned out to be “Johnny Angel.” It stayed at number one on the Billboard Charts for two weeks, only to be knocked out of the top slot by some guy named Elvis Presley. Shelley told us that she went on to record five more albums and eleven more singles; each selling progressively less than the one before. Proof and vindication that she wasn’t a singer after all.

So why was this shoot so special? I can’t really say to answer my own question. There certainly was no great photojournalism shot that day. Heck it was just a couple of talking heads, not so unlike the thousands I’ve shot before or since. I didn’t even like the way the story turned out; too long and poorly paced. It’s neat to actually get to hang out with a celebrity, discovering the real person inside, as opposed to jumping through the protective hoops of some public relations minion. We certainly had a good time listening to Shelley’s stories, and the lunch tab was paid for by the station. It’s just that sometime all the elements come together. We did more than just our job that day. Some little spark of magic was ignited and the memory of the shoot got burned into our consciousness. It’s these times when we remember that this job can not only be fun, but that it’s one of the greatest jobs in the world.

Mark Neuling

© Mark Neuling 2004

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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TechTV is the world’s leading cable and satellite television channel covering technology news, information, and entertainment from a consumer, industry, and market perspective 24 hours a day.  Available in more than 75 million households across 70 countries, TechTV is also the world’s largest producer and distributor of programming about technology.
Copyright TechTV 2003 TechTV Inc. All rights reserved.



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