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180716 July 16, 2018


A Portrait of the Actor as an Old Man
Tommy Towery
LHS '64
     When I do my income taxes for 2018 early next year, the only W-2 I expect to have to report will be the same as I have submitted for the last two years. The only jobs for which I have earned a salary since I retired in 2008 are for my work as an actor.

    Two years ago my daughter sent me a link to an advertisement by a place looking for extras for a TV series which would be filmed in Memphis. She said since Sue and I were retired, and could be available when others were not, we should sign up. At the time of filming the series was going to be called “The Million Dollar Quartet” but when it was aired later in the year the name was changed to “Sun Records.” Last year another acting opportunity came up when the yet-to-be-released movie “Brian Banks” was also filmed here in Memphis. I worked a few days on it as well.

Sue and me on the set of "Sun Records"

    Last week I worked on my fourth movie, a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie called “Christmas at Graceland.” Yes, it was my fourth, because way back in 1987 I was an extra on a TV mini series being filmed in England when I was stationed there in the Air Force. It was a follow up to the highly successful mini series “Winds of War.” This one was also a Herman Wouk’s series called “War and Remembrance” which continued the storyline of “Winds of War.” I played one of about 500 soldiers getting ready for the D-Day invasion, and was only a dot on the screen if even that.

Me with (Dwight D. Eisenhower) E.G. Marshall 

    One girl who was working on Sun Records with me asked the director how she should put the fact she was an “extra” on the series and he told her to never say she was an “extra” but to always put down she was “background talent” when she filled out a resume. Therefore, I am happy to say I was “background talent” in “Christmas at Graceland.” As part of my employment I am not allowed to reveal anything about the actors or plot of the movie, but you can Goodle  "Christmas at Graceland" and see for yourself. I just can't tell you myself.

    So what did I do? Let me give you a short breakdown of this latest experience. There was a notice on Facebook a couple of weeks ago the Hallmark Channel was going to be shooting the movie in Memphis and would be looking for locals to work in the movie. Then, last week they posted a notice on Facebook what type characters they needed and gave an email address asking interested people to send an email with their information for consideration. I sent in my email with a head shot photo I took with my iPad earlier in the morning along with my name, contact information, and physical description. I was applying for the role of “Hotel Guest with Car” so I also had to list the year, make, and color of my car. They specifically stated the car must be a newer model and not red, white, or black. My car was blue so I was okay. About 20 minutes later I received a reply stating I was hired and told I would be receiving instructions soon on when and where I was to report. 

    Let me back up and fill in a few more things. The company is named On Location Casting and when I first applied for a role with them I had to fill out a profile which they kept on record. In it I had to give my full body statistics: color hair, color eyes, height and weight, shoe size, suit size, hat size, along with a full body shot and a head and shoulders photo. I also had to go through a list of activates and check all which applied to me. These were things like, do you: drive, swim, roller skate, hula hoop, tap dance, ride a bicycle, fly-fish, know judo, skydive, scuba, fire an automatic weapon, non-automatic, pistol rifle, etc. etc. etc. I only had to do that once, but each time I applied after the first time I had to review it and update anything needed to be updated.

    The next day after I was “hired” a notice was published saying it was a winter scene at the Graceland Hotel and Spa (shot in July in Memphis) and I needed to bring five changes of winter clothes, jackets, boots, gloved, scarves, and hats in my own luggage which would be used as a prop if necessary. The pay would be $8.00 an hour guaranteed for the first eight hours and then time and a half after eight hours. I was to show up at 1:00pm ready to go wearing my first choice of winter clothing.

    Since it is a Hallmark Christmas movie to be shown this Christmas season, the front of the hotel and the grounds were covered in fake snow. It had to look like Christmas, but in the 20 years I have been back in Memphis we have never had a white Christmas – but hey, it’s Hallmark.

    After everyone had checked in, we had residency forms to fill out (they get special tax credits for using Tennessee residents) and give them copies of our driver’s licenses to prove so. Out of state people were not allowed to work that day.

    Then came the most common activity of all the background talent roles – sit around and wait. I was one of about 40 people stationed in a room to wait. We had snacks and drinks provided, but most of us just got to know the new faces and reacquaint ourselves with those we have worked with on other films. The costume person came around getting some folks to switch out some parts of their clothing which sent them digging through all the clothes they brought with them. After all my scrambling to dig up winter outfits in the middle of July, I never had to change the whole day.

    In a while someone came in and said he needed 15 people and went through the crowd selecting the ones he wanted. I was not selected so continued to wait. A little while later the first group came back and a new group was selected. I was in that group and led down to the lobby of the hotel (which was trying to still do business with the real guests while working around all the Christmas presents, trees, actors, lighting, camera, and other props.) I was told to wait in the hallway and walk across the room when I was told to. Later I was de-selected and placed back in the hall to wait. The director would shout “Background Action” and my fellow talent would start the motions they were told to do. A few seconds later, “Action” would be called and the primary actors would do their part. When the scene was finished, everyone would “reset” to their original places and repeat the process again. Sometimes it would be repeated a dozen or more times for a 20 second film shot.

    Around 6:00pm we were all loaded into a van and driven to a soundstage at Graceland where we were fed (30 minutes to eat) then shuttled back to the hotel to wait again. Eventually the six folks who had cars were instructed to pull them in front of the hotel and await instructions. After sitting there for an hour I was told to go back inside and they would call me when they needed me again – so I left the car sitting in the middle of the driveway and went in.

    I ended up being in the background during a scene when the main characters checked into the hotel and perhaps might be seen in the background for maybe two seconds, depending upon which camera angle is used. We shot the same scene at least a dozen times from three different camera positions. Even when we were not on camera we had to do the same things we did when we were. Later I was told to pull my car up to a position and they shot across the hood, but I was told to get out and stand out of the way. After a few more scenes of having to walk across the lobby I was once again sent outside and this time filmed, from a long way off, driving up to the front of the hotel. My car got more air time than I did.

    We shot on and off until 1:00am when we finally “wrapped” for the day and we had to go get our paperwork completed to get paid (the “check’s in the mail” in about two to three weeks) and get our stuff and go home. My car earned $10 for its part in the movie. I put in and was paid for 12 hours of time, actually worked about an hour, and will maybe be in the actual movie for five or six seconds if I am lucky. Multiple that by the cost of the other 40 people with me and you will see why it costs so much to make a movie - even a simple one for TV.

    As they were shutting down the set they gave me one of the props. An Elvis gingerbread man.

    The filming will last a couple of more weeks, but each announcement recently has required “new faces” not already been used in earlier shots. I don’t know if I will get another chance in any future scenes or not, but it is a fun way to spend a day if you are retired. 

        Memphis, TN - I hope some of you enjoy my recollection of my movie experience. If any of you have had a similar experience I am sure your classmates would love to hear about it. Please email me with your memories.

Lee Class of '68
50th Reunion
July 28, 2018

John and Sandy Cates

    We are working with the Lee High '68 50th Class Reunion Committee.  Greg Patterson asked that we send the 50th Class Reunion Invitation and Registration Form to you.  Please send/share the information with your Lee High friends and classmates.  We hope to have a great party and look forward to you/your classmates being there, too.  


From Our Mailbox 


Subject:    Mechanical Drawing

Skip Cook

LHS '64

    Seeing the drawing and reading your article on the “H” brought back memories.  I took shop class from Coach Nunley and I also took Mechanical Drawing class in that wing.  I can’t remember who the Mechanical Drawing teacher was however but she was a tough grader.  I think the first part of the year we were doing mechanical drawings with the old pencils that had lead about the diameter of a BB.  We sharped them with sand paper pads which generated a lot of lead dust which always seemed to get on my drawing.  Lead dust smudges were a mark against your grade.  The second semester I think we switched to ink and it wasn’t a good transition for me.  We had pens that you had to dip into ink wells and carefully transfer to the paper.  Get a little to hasty and the ink dropped to the drawing.  You can’t erase an ink blot.  From personal experience if you tried hard you could go right through the drawing sheet.  Somebody in the class discovered that there was a type of ink pen used by the professional drafters such as those at the Arsenal.  He got caught using one and got busted/shamed  in front of class.  Don’t know why you want to punish someone for using technology to their advantage?


    Coach Nunley would often take a break from Shop Class and head to the teacher’s lounge.  Then it was play time.  Does anybody remember “red bellies”?  I tried to stand in the background when they were being administered but couldn’t avoid detection.


Subject:    B Wing
John Drummond
LHS '65

    Tommy, that was a vivid description of the old (B) wing.  But having grown up in Alabama, I am surprised that you compared the layout of LHS as being in the shape of an (H);  I expected that you would have compared it to a goal post.   While touching on a football reference, may I remind everyone that the legendary Mrs. Jane Riddle Parks (per the 1965 Silver Sabre) got her M. A. at Auburn and M.S. at U. of Alabama, in Business Education.

    One other unique feature of the (B) wing was that the hallway floor was slanted, which made it a perfect ramp for the new sport of skateboarding.   On several occasions after the school day was over and the halls were clear, Jim Marburg would careen down the ramp, carrying his buddy Joe Schultz piggy-back style.  To my knowledge, no bones were ever broken on the (B) wing ramp, but I am certain there was major bruising to both bodies and egos.

    Outside where the boys smoked was also the place where motorcycles and bicycles were parked and guys of a certain common interest (which did not involve education) would gather before school started; as you said, no girls allowed.  The morning I rolled up in my new (previously owned) Cushman, everybody came rushing up to check out the new "motor" on campus.    For a precious few moments as the sudden center of attention from guys I did not ordinarily associate with, I felt like I had won the lottery.  Then the school bell rang, we all trudged inside (B) wing, and it was back to reality.



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