Ten Thousand Dyspeptic Interior Designers

I just now received my first telemarketing call ever to my cell phone (a pesky Spanish speaking robot). I've had this number for maybe six years. And for probably the last five years I've been without a landline — and I'd never go back. But because the cell phone is immune to telemarketers (because of some arcane telecommunication legislation) I tend to smiled indulgently when other people bitch about telemarketing interruptions during their daily life. It'd be like listening to people whine because of their acne or the problem they have getting someone to buy beer for them. This is stuff that I quite simply can't relate to — we're talking about things so far back in my past that really it's all just vapor. Phone spam and pimples are things of my distant past. And so should they remain.

Please, telemarketing robots, leave me be, I'd rather not relive the misery of the 20th century.

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I've been working long production days for this Holiday Laser Show — about 12 hours per day. Wednesday night I was with the crew at the Aztec Theater setting up the laser equipment. Tim Walsh, the laser artist, arrived pulling a trailer filled with large, heavy cases. The Aztec — one of the old San Antonio movie palaces — has been renovated to show 70mm films. There is no “floor” seating. The lower level is one of the pathways where the audiences can enter. All the seats are in the balcony, which I'm pretty sure have been raked up at a steeper angle than original. At least that's my take after lugging some damn heavy equipment up all those steep steps to the projection booth.

I shouldn't complain too much. Hector was the one small enough to navigate the crawl-spaces under the seats to snake the fiber optics for the laser. Actually, Hector has years of experience in theater tech — so it wasn't only about him being the right size. Poor Hector must have been worming about down in there for three or four hours.

I wasn't much involved in the technical side of things, so I'm a bit vague about that stuff. However, my understanding is that the show just uses one extremely powerful laser. Max, another one of the expert theater techs in town, was telling me how much power the laser draws. Something outrageous like 90 amps. Now I don't know much about electricity, but my basic rule of thumb for hooking up tungsten lights for film production is that if you're using a 110 volt system, like in someone's house, for each amp on each breaker, you can get almost 100 watts off it. So, a 20 amp circuit can managed a bit under 2000 watts. Say, three 500 watt lamps, and then you move on to outlets that feed off different breakers, you know, to be on the safe side. So, to get an idea of this laser, my one bedroom apartment has 80 amps available, coming in through 4 circuits. And that laser needs more power than my home could deliver, and it needs it fed through a single circuit. The laser uses a water-cooling apparatus to keep it from overheating. And with an array of mirrors and three laser projectors (connected to the laser with fiber optic cables), this single laser is able to provide all the light, shapes, designs, animation — add two smoke machines, some loud Christmas music, and 500 rambunctious kids (mostly from area elementary schools), and you've got a show. Yep.

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Thursday was our first day. We had three shows, with about 500 kids per show. I believe 14 schools were represented. And bearing in mind that a school bus holds 50 children, that's thirty buses arriving and departing throughout the morning. They dropped the kids off on one side of the theater, went to an assigned parking lot on the far side of downtown for the duration of the show, and returned to collect the kids on the opposite side of the theater. This worked, mostly, but some of our teachers and administrators apparently never looked at the map we provided with the tickets. These maps explained where to drop off the kids, and later, where to pick them up. And then there were the god damn bicycle cops. They were telling us we couldn't unload the kids in the loading zone. Seems like one can unload beer and brisket for the adjacent hotel, but god forbid you let some third graders off a fucking school bus. There was a moment when George went over to speak with one of the cops — I believe he was given two choice: do what the cop said, or get hauled off to the station. I was amused with the image of George riding all cozy and tandem with the bike cop to the downtown police station, but then I realized that a patrol car was doubtlessly just a radio call away.

It eventually became apparent that this was their passive aggressive way (though not so passive) of letting us know that we damn well should have hired an off-duty officer to direct the traffic. And, yep, we should have. Well, the Aztec should have.

But we managed to get through the day without a bus driver getting a ticket, George arrested, nor a child tasered. That's all I ask for. I'm really a man with simple needs.

Production work, whether it's film, theater, or these sorts of events, have many things in common. There's a lot of unbridled chaos, followed by a certain amount of downtime (sometimes, a monstrous amount of downtime, depending on your crew position). But the one thing that separates a person who can do this work, and one who can't, is the ability to be flexible. When things go off track, and they so often do, you have to not panic and just work through it. If you don't have a plan C in mind, you need to cobble it together on the fly … 'cause, like the guy said, the show must go on.

After the first day of student shows, I was beat. Only five hours, but I was up and down the stairs on all four levels (if you count the projection booth). And then I headed back to Urban-15 to make phone calls and generate the paperwork for the next day.

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Here we have Tim Walsh and George Cisneros.

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And here are some photos I took of the laser show. Because I couldn't control the shutter speed, I got some interesting effects of multiple images of the laser light zipping around.

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I also took some photos of the Aztec. Here we have a water fountain, the men's room, and a bench.

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I don't know if today really went any smoother. Sure, we'd learned some things from Thursday. But we had new problems, like moving the kids off the buses faster so we could try to avoid the attention of the cops. So we were parking hundreds of kids in the lobby until we could clear the theater from the previous show.

And then there was a school (and I'll not name names) who decided to take all four of their buses to the Urban-15 studios about three miles away. I guess someone decided not to use the map I hand-delivered to the school.

That was for the first show of the day. We had to keep that laser in check for ten minutes as we rushed the kids to their seats.

Thankfully all us crew and volunteers (thanks so much Dar!!!) had on festive holiday head-wear. This sort of stuff makes the kids so much more attentive to your authority, don't you know.

Actually, my snide comments aside, when you have third and fourth graders, they haven't yet been crippled with cynicism and societal bile. I received a surprising number of complements on my costume. “Cool reindeer antlers,” was the chirpy refrain of the last two days.

Mostly the kids seemed to be amazed by the Aztec Theater. And who can blame them? Lavish is an understatement. I imagine ten thousand dyspeptic interior designers who have just eaten several copies apiece of the most vividly illustrated editions of Popol Vuh, chased it down with tumblers of DayGlo poster paint, and were then allowed to run around the space, vomiting like a champion runway model — yeah, that's what the place looks like. Quetzalcoatls, corn gods, and shit like that. The kids eat this stuff up. Meso-America cultural tropes as bastardized by PT Barnum and H. Rider Haggard's gayest younger brother. When I find myself walking through the Aztec Theater I ask myself why I'm not dressed in a gold lame suit and clutching a calfskin riding crop? Screw those reindeer antlers. This would get the kids to “form a line straight and to the left!”

Here we have some of Santa's elves (Hector and Herman) who were ushering the kids. Hector (on the left) knows how to place a hat at a rakish angle. He really needed a cigar.

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One of the Aztec staffers made some comment that the stairs could get exhausting. “All this up and down,” she said shaking her head and pantomiming exhaustion.

“It's the Aztec,” I said with a smile. “You really just need to do it once. Up at the top, the projectionist, I believe, will be more than happy to cut out your heart with an obsidian knife and then toss your carcass down the back.”

She made some excuse to leave. Something about paperwork. Wow! And I'd thought I was being so charming. I'm serious, I'd caught her smiling at me earlier — and don't think I don't cut a striking figure with a pair of antlers on my head. However, it was the word “carcass,” wasn't it? Girls don't like it when, in speaking to them, you use the phrase “your carcass.”

Shit …. And, hey, wasn't I supposed to be spending my holiday months in a cave in the Bofecillos Mountains living off mesquite beans and cottontails? Yes, I believe that was the plan. And I don't have a plan B, let alone a plan C.

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