Set Decorator Jason Howard SDSA
Production Designer David Korins
Art Director Joe Celli
Carnival, final rehearsal… Those wet sidewalks are not part of special effects! It had rained just before this final rehearsal! Luckily, everything dried enough in time for the finale…drama till the last moment!
Info and insights from Set Decorator Jason Howard SDSA into the making of the remarkable, Emmy-nominated television event GREASE: LIVE!
As every experienced Set Decorator knows, every show you decide to take on is a unique adventure. You always feel you are heading out to the first day at a new school. Some of the classmates may be the same, some of the locations may even be the same, but the work takes you down a few new roads and will always leave you changed.
GREASE: LIVE! was no exception. At the outset, the mantra we repeated to ourselves was, "We are doing a new thing." Everyone involved had done similar shows, but this combined elements of many disparate genres. It was part live theatre, part dance show, part multi-camera, and a 100% entirely new combination of all of those elements and more.
Lucky for me, I knew a lot of the key players and already had a rapport with many of them. Producer Greg Sills and I have worked many awards shows together, including GUY'S CHOICE AWARDS and KID'S CHOICE AWARDS. He is a seasoned pro and one of the nicest and saltiest guys ever.
TV Director Alex Rudzinski I know well from 7 seasons in the glitter-filled trenches of DANCING WITH THE STARS. We have conquered countless Argentine Tangos, Cha Chas and Paso Dobles together.
Supervising Art Director Joe Celli is someone I have known for 20 years, and our history is a terabyte hard drive. He shopped for me on BABYLON 5 when he was fresh off the boat. We were both new LA transplants when we met. Being the small town this is, there were many other familiar faces on the crew in all departments: camera, grip, hair, stage management, sound. A real down-home crew.
The particular challenges we faced as a company had more to do with logistics and timing than anything else. Working on 3 different interior stages, and number of exteriors all over the Warner Bros. lot had us running. In hindsight, I am most oddly grateful for 2 simple things - a loaner bike provided by my stellar Assistant Set Decorator Effney Gardea, another SDSA member, and the fact the WB lot is about 12 minutes from my house.
One of the things that set this show apart from other live events and shows I have worked on was the lengthy rehearsal time. Our cast was rehearsing long before our sets were done. They needed furniture! There were chairs, tables and other items that were integral parts of the choreography. Some of that is trial and error—a piece may be perfect looking, but is it sturdy enough to endure weeks of rehearsal? Are there enough multiples out there, and in period style?
We had a number of these issues, and I think the cafeteria chairs sum it up. We needed about 20 of them. My favorites were a basic ‘50s school desk chair. Steel tube frame. Fiberglas seat. So we got them over to rehearsal. I think it was about 2 days before the first chair seat cracked. I'm used to this. The sea of broken furniture and props left behind in the wake of the lovely dancers at DANCING WITH THE STARS could fill a 40' drop box.
So, off to plan B. Similar chairs with wood seats and backs. Sturdy. Light enough. I got the thumbs up on the chairs from our dazzling choreographer Zach Woodlee. The next step was changing the color of the wood. Our gym was studded by the honey wood tones of a sea of collapsible bleachers, and the tables were of a similar color value. We really needed to break it up.
The answer? Icon Image Graphics. Suzanne and Sino Tuor have helped me before by wrapping the oddest things imaginable with colored film. They are truly amazing. They do a lot of cars, so why not a chair? We did a test chair, wrapping the seat and back in the proper shade of red, and after weeks of rehearsal the process proved to be dancer-proof. No scratches, no tearing! Victory. About 3 weeks before the broadcast, we had the balance of the chairs wrapped and voila! Perfect. Just like magic.
I can tell just by looking at a lot of items if they meet this standard or not. Sometimes I have to compromise and make the best of my choices. Maybe I paint things. Maybe I don't. Maybe I can't. Ultimately, sturdy wins the day. You would be shocked at the amount of force a 100-pound dancer can exert by landing on or jumping off of a table or chair. I know I have been.
Picture it: Hollywood rehearsal hall, the recent past. I am standing with two dancers, a frantic producer and a sad piece of broken furniture in the center of the proceedings. I am incredulously asking, "How the hell did you two people break this? You're both the size of 10-year-olds!" Cut to me in the Line Producer's office handing over a PO and a Loss and Damage invoice saying sternly, "This is why we can't have nice things."
People think Set Decorators just run around picking out pretty things, swilling expensive coffee drinks and pointing at people. The reality is we are simultaneously traffic cops, accountants, managers, psychotherapists and parents. Frankly, being creative isn't even the half of it.
The line between theatre and reality…
The trickiest creative aspect of this show was straddling the line between theatre and reality. We were creating a world that was part reality, and part theatrical.
To that end, Production Designer David Korins had very specific ideas about the color choices. We worked within a very limited color range in each set. If you add period decor, you have a problem on your hands. We start with limited stock, and then need to customize.
The Frosty Palace set needed all custom-made booths. Marina at Sofa U Love slammed those out for us, but of course we needed to special order the fabric. We had chairs upholstered to match the V-pattern in the booths. That was actually done by Barsandbooths.com out of Charles Town, West Virginia. They made all of our tables and chairs and did a great job. Fast. The tables were topped with a special paper designed by Assistant Art Director Resa Jorgensen. We also needed very large blue aluminum blinds. Omega Cinema Props to the rescue!
The gym required an array of championship banners spanning a long winning season that was far in the past. But they needed to be a certain color. Not just any color. A certain deep shade of red: William Ivey Long red. (Mr. Long, the Broadway legend, was our Costume Designer). We also needed cream fringe. This meant extensive felt and trim shopping. Thankfully, my resourceful assistant, Effney, had a brilliant seamstress who was up to the task. It isn't every day that you have a lady sewing banners for you by day, while she is also producing a crazy Mexican wrestling show at The Mayan Theatre by night. I highly recommend Liz Fairbairn at Lucha VaVoom. She also fabricated a giant wrestling mat cover for us.
That was only the beginning of the gymnasium set. It played as a gym in the Magic Changes montage. We acquired period workout equipment for that. It also became a cafeteria, and that required the aforementioned chairs to work with some massive tables from Premiere Props for the lunch scene where Sandy is introduced to the girls. Again, kudos to our Herculean dancers. Not only can they destroy furniture, they can hump heavy tables across the floor!
Later we see the gym decked out as a pep rally. There was no Victory Bell present, as per the script. Only a sad empty yoke acquired online. And signs. So many handmade signs. Thank you to Propmaster Jaime Mengual.
Then we only had 25 minutes to transform the gym into the dance contest. A crazy array of fireproof streamers courtesy of Rose Brand had been rigged and hung in the grid. They needed to be lowered, arranged, detangled and set for the scene.
We also had a fairly vast assortment of crepe paper balls, fans and decorations that were hung on battens. They were also lowered into place and futzed with in the changeover. Word to the wise: fireproofing crepe paper is no picnic. These beasts needed to be assembled, hung up and then fireproofed one-by-one far in advance. They took a day to dry. Then they were moved across the lot. I am very happy that Warner Bros. gave us the space to do this. Our stellar Leadman Shane Reed was so understanding in this process and many others! It was laborious and painstaking to maintain the shape of those fragile and brittle decorations.
The theatrical color challenge was most significant in Frenchy's Bedroom. We were working in a lavender and green motif. That color combo does exist historically - in one solitary research picture I found. The dominant colors of the period went in a totally different direction. Resa did many passes on wallpaper designs, and we finally landed on a choice and had it printed it up.
A bedspread secured at Iguana was dyed to match our room. Omega Cinema Props made us sheers. Ebay was a great resource for sheets and a number of other key items. We were very faithful to the period in this set. Other than the mattress, curtain rods, and carpet, this room was meticulous in historical accuracy. Huge kudos and thank you to Pam Elyea and History For Hire.
Many of the photos in Frenchy's Bedroom were called out in the script. We secured the rights to use images of Rock Hudson, James Dean, Tab Hunter, Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor. Art department Coordinator Holly Titchen shined on our clearance needs. Fortunately, some of us had very pretty parents, so we were able to clear and use some family photos to augment the teen idols of the time.
I have to be honest. I wasn't sold on Frenchy's Bedroom. Our NY-based Art Director Javier Ameijeiras had created detailed and impressive renderings early on, and I faithfully followed the direction he and David Korins had provided on color. But it simply wasn't how I had seen the room in my head. I struggled with that set more than any other part of the show. Still concerned about the palette, I executed the design and added everything I could think of to personalize it and breathe life into it. I felt that at least I had done my job as best possible under those color restrictions. Then Lighting Designer Al Gurdon lit it. That stopped me dead in my tracks. It worked. And it worked beautifully.
I don't think I ever had such concerns about a set in my entire career. Poor Joe Celli. I had him cornered outside the Warner Bros mill at least 3 times ranting over this set. His patience is endless and his friendship is priceless. Frenchy's Bedroom taught me a valuable lesson. Trust your team. Go with it. Have faith in the vision and have faith in yourself. You can do this job for 20 years, and still not know all the answers. Sometimes you just have to believe.
The Auto Body Shop was another color obstacle. We needed it to be black, white and grey. To accentuate the dramatic transformation in the Greased Lightning scene, the set needed to read as a fairly monochromatic flat canvas. Thankfully, EC Props let us paint a number of crucial items. It isn't every day you run across a grey engine hoist. Or grey toolboxes that look like they are from the ‘50s. We even went so far as to make color-correct oil can labels and labels for the fan belts. Many of the walls in the shop were scrims, to allow for lighting to blow them out when the song explodes and the car magically turns from junker into road-killing, race-winning speed machine. We had transparencies of bills printed up and carefully affixed them to the scrim with tiny pieces of double stick tape. We obsessed over the composition of how we placed these transparencies.
The Carnival was another thing altogether. We had an interior start and an exterior finish. The gym was the beginning, then camera carried us straight out into the massive carnival outside. Live. With the cast filmed on golf carts en route to the rides. The bang-up finale of You're The One That I Want is what the entire show was leading up to. We were making that whole thing happen in a red and white theme. One of the legends of LA film lore, Wini McKay at LA Circus, helped us make this come about. We needed a lot of red and white tents. And massive bins of plush toys—we must have gotten 15 giant buckets of plush. They were all dumped unceremoniously onto the floor of the gym—it was clean, really, Wini—and sorted into color-coded heaps. Then they were strung up in carefully planned game booths to keep our controlled color game on point. A few times, I was afraid Assistant Art Director Ryan Grossheim might lose his mind over this set. I really put him through his paces on this and he proved to be a hero. I'm still expecting him to sneak up behind me and beat me senseless as a final act of revenge for the torture he endured on the carnival.
Weather! Or not…
As if all of this wasn't enough, we had a troublesome weather forecast for show day. It was January 31st, after all. The long-threatened El Nino was predicted to smack the living daylights out of all of us. During the broadcast, no less!
During our final run-through, it was raining pitchforks and possums. We needed to find a bunch of proper umbrellas for the Jessie J opening number, Grease Is The Word. Thank goodness for Raintec Umbrellas.
The massive truss structure outside the school set needed to be approved for safety. The wind was nuts. We had alternate plans for weather in place. An entire second opening had been planned. But somehow or another, the rain let up. We had minor sprinkles at the top of the show, but that was all. By the time we got to the end of the show, and the entire cast flooded out to the exterior carnival, I was on my bike, riding out to watch the triumph of completing our marathon.
The cast erupted into a reprise of the Hand Jive on the wet pavement, carnival rides spinning, lights glittering, jibs pulling back into the sky, and everyone singing at the top of their lungs. Dancing and jumping, we were all grinning to beat the band. Hundreds of crew members. A giant audience. Thousands of moving parts. Nature was threatening us the whole time. Like all big shows, there were moments we had doubts, but the show must always go on. Especially in Live TV. This one went on with a massive bang.
As often happens in show business, life goes on while the show is going on. The night before our live broadcast, our Rizzo, Vanessa Hudgens, lost her beloved father Greg Hudgens to cancer.
She went on anyway, and knocked it out of the park. It was a heroic and galvanizing performance.
Vanessa, this article is for you.