Blank Check–The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The Scene of the Crime.

Real estate is still a good investment, ya know.

Next year will the be the 20th anniversary of the Walt Disney motion picture Blank Check.  I assume you already have tickets to the Hollywood Gala, or the simulcast planned for Washington DC, Tokyo, London, Paris, and Madrid.  Or perhaps, like me, you will pass on all the hoopla and stay home, cozied up to a cool beverage and a warm spouse, honoring this classic motion picture in your own manner.

Or perhaps you enjoyed this movie more the first time you saw it, when it was called Home Alone.

Anyway, I’m proud to say I was there.  In the party scene.  That constituted about four minutes of screen time and took 12 hours to film on a lazy summer night in Austin, Texas.

This is the party that almost never was, but thanks to savvy Local 433 VP Ginger Shults (RIP, wonderful Ginger), the shoot went from “Guess we can hire the first twelve musicians we find knocking around Sixth Street” to “Union members only, thank you very much.”  I got the call from drummer Ernie Durawa, who was the leader on the gig.  Along with me, he hired Danny Levin on fiddle, James Lakey on trombone, the late Phil Richey on trumpet, and several others lost in the mists of time.  Some of them were symphony players, some were jazzers, some were do-it-all types.  The massed talent was incredible, but it really didn’t make any difference, because we were not going to play our instruments.  Our job was to sit on a backyard stage in tuxes and mime.  For twelve hours, although none of us knew that going in.

The basic premise of Blank Check, in case you somehow have missed the annual airings that have bumped The Wizard of Oz from Most Honored Family Movie status, is this: a mobster drives over a kid’s bike, and, in a hurry, gives the kid a blank check to cover the cost.  Because we know mobsters do most of their business from checking accounts, right?  Anyway, the kid, behaving like a nine-year-old Michael Milken, decides to write himself a check for a million bucks.  And the bank cashes it, and gives a million bucks cash to a nine-year-old.

So far, in regards to the Texas banking industry, this is a documentary.  But then things veer into Fantasy Land when the kids takes his million and buys a castle in Tarrytown (pictured above).  Not remotely enough scratch, not even twenty years ago.  But it’s a mooooovie, so let’s play along.

The scene we were hired for was the pivotal scene in the movie, because it contained the kid’s Big Speech about his discovery that money doesn’t really buy happiness, blahdi blah blah blah.  It sure got him a lot of foxy girlfriends twice his age in a hurry, but let’s not judge.  It also got us this gig.

Oh yeah, back to that.  So there are about a dozen of us, inside a lit canopy in the rambling back yard of this castle, miming our instruments.  Now in real life, this is a summer night in Texas, so the air is thick with bugs–June bugs, mosquito hawks, and flying cockroaches.  They are attracted to the bright lights, and between takes, they nestle up in the canopy folds about ten feet over our heads.  And, this being a movie shoot, there is a long time between takes, so they have plenty of time to set up their little colonies and begin drafting Constitutions.

Trouble is, a Disney universe can’t show cockroaches unless they are central to the plot, so just before a take, there is a crew member who has become the designated Bug Clearer.  Which means he takes a broom and starts sweeping all the bugs out of the shot.  Not being from Texas, the Bug Clearer is unaware that sweeping them down from above just means they are going to land on the heads and shoulders of the musicians seated beneath.  Or in the case of the sole female symphony violinist decked out in black strapless, her bare shoulder.

To which she responded–let me make sure I’m remembering this correctly, it was twenty years ago–oh yes, now I recall.  I believe it was:

“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Yes, that was definitely it.  All the guys on the bandstand had a chuckle at her droll wit, shaking June bugs from our ears.

There were other challenges on the set besides cockroach torpedoes.  The biggest–Mind-Numbing Boredom.  For a musician, the hardest thing to do is to hold your instrument for twelve hours without playing it.  It’s like–well, let’s not go into that.  It’s just hard, OK?

So naturally enough, as the hours slid past and the cameras were far across the backyard filming a fat man shoving an entire enchilada into his mouth, we were heading into catatonia.  That’s when Danny said, “Let’s play something.”  And counted off Ornithology at 280 bpm.

As soon as our trumpet/tenor/bone front line began nailing Bird’s bop take on How High the Moon, every head in our vicinity–all the actors, extras, and crew–snapped our direction in amazement.  None of them realized we were actual musicians.  They thought we were just models holding instruments.  HA!  That was fun.  Until a grip bounded across the lawn to tell us to STFU, about 45 seconds later.

Three hours later, as we straggled out of the shoot, the sun was coming up.  Paperwork was signed, and Ernie took it all off to file with the union.

A couple of weeks later, Ginger called me to say my check was in the office.  I hightailed it over there, sure that I was now a rich man.  I was in a Disney film!  Awright!

She handed me a check for $323.44, with $16 taken out for work dues.  As I began mentally calculating my hourly wage across twelve hours, my spirits began to dampen.  But Ginger just smiled at me and rasped in her Arkansas drawl, “Mahk–” (she always called me Mahk) –“this is a union shoot.  You will be getting special payment residuals.”

Never having done a film shoot up to that time, I had no idea what to expect.  But sure enough, one year later a check arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox from the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund.  I tore it open.

It was for $360.

And the next year’s was $280, then $235, then $165, and so on.  I’m still getting checks, albeit progressively smaller ones, twenty years later.  Twenty years later.  The kid from the movie, Brian Bonsall, is now 32 and racking up a pretty impressive rap sheet.

So when my fellow musicians tell me they are working on film projects, especially union shoots like Disney, I always ask them if they set up their paperwork through the union.  Because if they didn’t, they’re potentially kissing off thousands of dollars in mailbox money.

And when people ask, “What can the union do for me?”, I tell them what I learned twenty years ago.

“The union,” I say, “is a Blank Check.”

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