With a career spanning over 25 years, Jerry Green has had many roles with Universal Studios Hollywood. Starting out as a tour guide in the early 70s, Jerry served as an attraction host, wardrobe manager and entertainment manager – eventually moving to Planning and Development (now known as Universal Creative) in the 1980s. We spoke with Jerry in a conversation that spans the infancy of the Studio Tour and the theme park to the development of Universal Studios Florida.
Here’s part one of that interview.
» Inside Universal: What brought you to Universal Studios Hollywood?
Jerry Green: I wanted to be an actor, to be in showbiz. I went there on the tour and had to be a part of it.
» When you joined Universal, what was your job?
I was a tour guide.
» At that time was there only the tour or were there other attractions as well?
No no…there were several other things. We had the stunt show, animal show, a marionette show…there was the Ark Park…
It was supposed to be like Noah’s Ark, a mock- up. We also had a make-up show. They picked a lady from the audience and made her up to look like the Bride of Frankenstein. It took place in a store where Max Factor cosmetics were sold. They set up a barber chair and people would just stand and watch. There were no seats, no theater. They called it a make-up show but it was more of demonstration.
I can’t remember if we had anything else. We had a pantomime show, but it may have come later.
A pantomime show?
Really? You couldn’t get away with that nowadays. Just to give some perspective, where was the tour entrance located at that time and where would the people load onto the tram?
Hmm, I’m not sure. It’s changed so much. The only constant is the turnaround area. The first lobby I remember was an open area with a large information booth in the middle. We tour guides would sit in the info booth between tours and answer phones and assist guests. Just past the lobby and down a short ramp were the trams. Then we remodeled and built the lobby that was there for many, many years. It was about 40 or 50 feet up from the turnaround where the fountain and neon Universal sign are. Guests would walk up the steps and the lobby was right there. The queue was just past the turn styles. When it came time to board the tram they would walk through the opening at the end of the queue and trams were lined up and ready.
It was not located in its current location?
No, no. It was 100 feet or so from the turnaround.
» When you started at Universal, what were some of the attractions on the tram?
We didn’t have any.
You didn’t have any on the tour?
There was a burning building; very unimpressive by today’s standards. Can’t remember much else. But it was great. Every day when we arrived we were told what soundstage we would be taking the guests through. It was a different stage almost every day. There were usually sets in the stage that were about to be used, or had just been used for a shoot of some kind. It was an actual working set. Not something set up just for the tour. But I remember times when we would be assigned an empty soundstage; a huge empty building and nothing inside. No walls, no furniture – nothing. And we would have to keep the guests entertained, sometimes for 30-35 minutes.
…and people enjoyed that?
The people ate it up. It was a real working studio. It was not something staged just for the tour. The guests could go home and see that set on their favorite television show. Back then there were no behind-the-scenes shows on TV. No one had ever been allowed to go onto a movie studio before. Show business was magical to the average person. So to be on the lot touring a working studio was a totally different experience. To think that Charleton Heston may have been on the set yesterday, or James Garner was coming next week, that was super special. It was very common to see “Hot Set” signs on the sets we visited. People were excited to be there. We would tell them about the sound stage construction, the thick asbestos padded walls.
Now they probably wouldn’t like that, but back then, who knew?
The health inspector would love that!
Yeah, you would take the guests into the sound stage and, we wouldn’t do stand-up comedy but stand-up material – whatever we could think of. We would do a Q&A and it would go on forever. People were in awe. Then when we would see celebrities walking around the studio, the guests would go crazy. We knew which celebs didn’t object to being pointed out, and which wanted to be left alone.
» So, then at the time and through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s until they introduced the television monitors (on the trams), it was solely dependent upon the tour guide, where if you had a bad tour guide, you were going to have a bad tour.
Pretty much. We had a few that weren’t very good. If two groups arrived at the sound stage at the same time we would team up and take the groups through together – kind of a tag team. So we quickly got to know who was good and who wasn’t. (laughs) Of course that presented a problem from time to time. When it was time to re-board the tram, some of the guests from the other guides group would try to get on the tram with the best tour guide.
» Now one of the more infamous attractions on the tour from the 70’s was the “Rockslide”…
Oh yes! (laughs) That was our first special effect on the tour.
So that was the first?
Well…unless you count the burning house that I mentioned earlier. It was down the hill by the fire station. The Rock Slide was close to the beginning of the guided tour. There was a huge bucket, and when I say huge it was probably fifty feet long and five feet deep. It looked like a really, really big dumpster. This thing would roll up and dump rocks made of foam rubber down a hill straight at the tram. Note to designers: foam rubber is heavy; especially when it has 100 feet to gain momentum.
The script called for the rocks to come rolling down the hill toward the guests and at the last moment fall into a trough right in front of the tram. Unfortunately the rocks didn’t read the script. Many of them would bounce over the catch-container and into the tram. It wasn’t uncommon for the rocks to bounce through the tram or smack a guest upside the head – it was like the old Batman TV show…wham, whack!
Something like that too, when you combine rain with foam rubber, would hurt.
Oh yeah, after a good rain add 5 pounds to each rock. It was really funny!
You would get wet.
Well yeah, you would get wet and knocked out of the tram. Those were fun days…but going back to what I was saying about the tour. In those days we didn’t have TV monitors, anywhere. The guests either had a good or bad tour guide.
When we took a tour group into a soundstage, it might be sets or maybe not. If there were sets, we wouldn’t necessarily know anything about the production. The studio would sometimes just tell us, “This is the set from Ironside”, or “This was a set that was just used in The Sixth Sense. And that was all of the details we were given. The rest we had to find out for ourselves. But it was very exciting and we loved it.
I can’t remember how many guides we had back then, maybe twelve or fifteen. The guided portion of the tour was probably an hour and a half long, and we did three or four of them a day. We were wiped out by the end of it. The tour began with a visit the front lot and a sound stage; then go to Prop Plaza, which was considered the half way point of the tour. We dropped the guests there so they could get snacks and take pictures with props and cars from different TV shows and movies. We guides would remain on the trams and circle around and pick up a different group waiting to continue the second half of the tour. Did I already say those were fun days? Really fun and very exciting days.
» What actors would you see on the tour?
Oh gee, we saw see everybody. If they were shooting at Universal there was a good chance we were going to see them. People like Charlton Heston, James Garner, Robert Wagner, Telly Savalas, Robert Blake, and Shirley MacLaine. As I said, some we could point out, others, not so much. Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood used to come up to the hill from time-to-time. But we saw everybody; Paul Newman was there filming a movie called The Secret War of Harry Frigg. I spoke with Neil Diamond one morning while he was strolling through the park by the Flower Drum Song Restaurant.
We not only saw on-camera talent, we also hung around some behind-the-scenes celebs like Edith Head. She won eight Oscars. There were effects people. A really nice guy, his first name was John, but I can’t remember his last name. He was famous throughout the industry for the prosthetic makeup and pieces he made for film and TV. He would always welcome us into his lab and spend time talking about what he was doing. Nice man. There were so many others; matte painters, editors, and the list goes on.
» In today’s version of the tour you really don’t see stars like you used too. During your time there the stars had bungalows, now they have trailers near the sets where they are filming. So the chances of you seeing somebody famous is now slim to none.
Right…but like I said, it was different then. Telly Savalas was there very often. In fact he lived at the Sheraton Universal while they were shooting Kojak. I think he had a suite on one of the top floors. His Mother lived there with him. When Larry Curran and I were developing The Show Biz Quiz would go to the Sheraton Universal for breakfast, and often times Telly and his mom would be there.
» You mentioned the movie The Secret War of Harry Frigg. I have never heard of that film.
It wasn’t one of Newman’s greatest, but he was on the lot filming. He drove a Volkswagen. An old, cheap, ugly Volkswagen. The guy could afford any car in the world. I guess he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He never came over to the tram to talk to anyone. But some would come over. If we saw a celeb and pointed them out, sometimes they would walk over to the tram, I would hand them the microphone and they would visit with the guests. Talk about making their day. Camera flashes everywhere.
Oh wow! You would never get that today.
Probably not. Today some actors think they are above it. Back then many of the actors appreciated their fans.
» After being a Tour Guide, you moved over to hosting shows?
First I became show announcer. I would introduce the Stunt Show, the Animal show, the Marionette show and the Pantomime show. I even filled in as a performer in the Marionette show one day when the guy couldn’t make it. I put on the tuxedo and went on stage operating one of the marionettes. I also performed in the stunt show when one of the guys couldn’t make it. I’d seen the shows so many times it was second nature to me. I became a student of everything that was “show biz.” I wanted to learn it all.
The stunt show was produced by Lance Rimmer, right?
No, Lance didn’t produce the show. I don’t think he ever got credit for directing it, but he should have. It was his baby.
» You left the studio for a while didn’t you?
Yes, I was drafted in 69’. I went into the Army for twenty two months. An employer was required to rehire you if you were drafted. So I returned in the fall of ‘71, but they didn’t really have a place for me. It was the slow season, so they put me in the wardrobe department. I handed out costumes and wardrobe to people.
Cliff Walker, the Operations Manager, a really good theme park manager, came to me and said, “You know Jerry, I know that working in wardrobe isn’t something you really enjoy, but you’ve had a really good attitude about it and never complained. So I’m moving you to stage 70.” (This was the Screen Test Show at that time.)
» Where was stage 70 located?
Where Conan used to be (Castle Theatre). It was a small theater that seated about 700 people. The stunt show was housed there before State 70. There were no seats, just rails that guests could lean against. Kind of like the Circle Vision at Disneyland years ago.
The Stunt Show had been moved to the Amphitheatre (Gibson) which was an open air theater and seated 6,500 people. The Amphitheatre housed several different shows. I hosted a couple of them called That’s Incredible and Those Amazing Animals. They were live stage versions of two popular TV shows at the time.
One of the acts in That’s Incredible was the Amazing Joe Acton, ha, I still remember his name. He was crazy…excuse me…he was amazing.
His act was catching rattle snakes. He would dump a rattle snake from a burlap bag onto a counter top and then agitate it by hitting the table just inches from the snake. Finally the snake would strike at him. When it lunged he would snatch it out of the air before it hit his face.
So he was nuts?
Well, he was quick. He was faster than Sugar Ray Leonard. At least that was his claim. So on the final day, the final show, the grand finale, he dumps two diamondback rattlesnakes from the burlap sack onto the counter…
Yep. He began slapping the countertop, over and over. The snakes kept moving and writhing trying to avoid him. But suddenly both of them coiled up and lunged within a half second of each other. He grabbed one and then the other. Just liked he claimed…faster than Sugar Ray. Of course Sugar Ray was never dumb enough to irritate a diamondback. At least I don’t think he did.
How long was that show there?
Not long, it was just a summer show.
You went from just announcing shows to hosting them.
Yes, but before we talk about hosting shows there’s one story I have to tell. I was doing the introduction for the Animal Show and I forgot Ray Berwick’s name. For those who don’t remember, Ray was only the world’s most famous animal trainer at that time. He trained he birds for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds, Benji from the movie Benji, plus lots of other films. I remember introducing him on stage one day and my mind went blank when it came time to say his name. I said, “Ladies and Gentlemen please give a warm welcome to the world’s greatest animal trainer…
…and here he is!” after a second or two of not hearing his name he came walking out smiling. He never let me forget that.
I did it again when I was introducing a celebrity from one of the Star Trek movies. We had celebs from time-to-time at the Screen Test Show. I was introducing him to a full house, about 2,000 people, and just as I get to his name my mind went blank. I covered by saying to the audience, “Oh let me see if he’s here yet.” I stuck my head behind the curtain and said, “What’s his name?” It must have made him feel really important since he was standing five feet from me. I used to have dreams about things like that happening. Actually it was more like nightmares.
» Was Adam 12 the first show in Stage 70?
It was the third. First was a western comedy spoof. That was really a nothing show. But they were getting their feet wet; still in the learning phase. Then they did the original Airport (audience participation). Then came Adam 12. Then we moved from what is now Castle Theatre to where Shrek 4D is currently located. It was originally an open air theater. We had 25” television monitors that were used to show the replay of the show we taped. When you’re sitting 150 ft. back and looking at a 25” monitor, which you couldn’t see because the sun was washing out the screens, it’s less than impressive to an audience. Most of people couldn’t see anything on the screens. You really just enjoyed the show for the stage presentation and not the playback.
Our next show was a takeoff on the TV show Emergency; it was our biggest budget ever – $250,000. That included the stage, sets, camera – everything. That was a big deal back then. We were quite proud of it. Then we did The Great Chase and after that was Star Trek.
Our conversation with Jerry Green continues in part two, which covers his role as Universal’s entertainment director in the early 1980s and his involvement with the development of King Kong, E.T. and Universal Studios Florida.
Jonathan Green is a contributing editor for Inside Universal.
Jonathan has been going to Universal for over 25 years and has developed a deep passion for the theme park and its historic films. He gained his desire and passion from his dad and sister – his father having worked for Universal for over 25 years and helped oversee some projects that were created for Universal Studios Florida. He hopes to one day follow in his father and sister’s footsteps and continue the family tradition.