Guest Blog: Bjo & John Trimble's First TOS Set Visit
By Bjo & John Trimble - September 09, 2012
Star Trek debuted on September 8, 1966, but it might not have lived as long and prospered as much as it has were it not for Bjo and John Trimble, who led the letter-writing campaign that saved TOS and paved the way for everything that followed. We caught up with Bjo in August, 2011, engaging her in a lengthy interview, and Bjo and John penned a guest blog for us in January of this year in which they shared their memories of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Today, with the 46th anniversary of TOS upon us, StarTrek.com is pleased to present a new guest blog feature by the Trimbles. In it, they recount their very first visit to the set of Star Trek, courtesy of Roddenberry. As you read the piece, you'll note that the Trimbles don't actually name the episode they saw being filmed or mention any sets other than the Enterprise bridge. We pointed that out to the Trimbles, who explained that Roddenberry wanted to show off his "main toy," the Enterprise bridge set, and that, back in the day, visits to the Trek set, especially by fans, were extraordinarily rare, with visitors given very limited access. They didn't get to see a call sheet, which would be filled with details about the episode, or have an opportunity to meet the director or any guest stars. So, please enjoy this rare behind-the-scene peek at what it was like to drop in on the set of Star Trek in 1966 -- and keep an eye on StarTrek.com for future contributions by Bjo and John Trimble.
When we met Gene Roddenberry at Tricon, the World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland, he invited us to visit the Star Trek set any time we were in Los Angeles. We figured it was the usual “Hollywood producer” talk. Translation: he could not possibly mean what he said. We proceeded to shrug it off.
Then when John was sent by his company to Los Angeles for business, we got a weekend babysitter so Bjo could tag along. On the way down from Oakland, we discussed contacting that producer and seeing if he even remembered us. We did, he did, and we were invited to the Star Trek set. Quelle surprise!
Desilu Studio was on the corner of Melrose Avenue and Gower Street. Desilu property was sort of attached to Paramount Studios, but they were two entirely different entities separated by a large stucco wall. There were doorways through that wall, so the separation was really not too serious. As it turned out, later on, Desilu was sold to Paramount and absorbed into the larger studio. Desilu was located on the old RKO Studios lot, and the RKO “world” still sat atop the corner of the tall stucco wall around the studio. It was a well-known landmark that harkened back to the old days of many an exciting adventure movie.
There was no drive-on for visitors at Desilu. The only cars on the lot belonged to important personages such as Bruce Geller, Gene Roddenberry, and their strongest supporter, Lucille Ball. She was also at that time the owner of the studio, and OK’d both Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, though her advisors said both shows would bankrupt the studio.
We arrived at the studio, parked the car on the street, and walked into the Desilu foyer. It was not all grand, not what one might expect of a movie studio. About 8 people could have fit in that foyer if they were very friendly.
The uniformed guard checked us through, but he seemed reluctant to do so. Turned out that he had that attitude toward everyone, including celebrities and important people. Good to know he was democratic, anyway.
It was a short trip out of the foyer, through a doorway, and into the hall leading to the Star Trek offices. There were only a few doors but they were all open, and people in those offices smiled and said “hello” as we went by. This friendliness never faltered in all the times we visited the studio.
At the main Star Trek office, we met Penny Unger, GR’s personal assistant. Side note: nobody in Hollywood has secretaries anymore. Everyone who is anyone, or who thinks they are anyone, has a personal assistant. That’s how things work nowadays.
Penny was a delightful person who managed to keep Roddenberry’s lively enthusiasm focused on the job at hand. Across the hall, a very funny lady named Andy kept Gene L. Coon’s office in order. Between them, these two ladies worked against all odds to keep both their bosses sane in a world that leans very strongly toward total insanity.
We were not escorted into Gene’s office. Penny just pointed to his open door, and called out our names. Gene waved us in with his typical genial smile. We were heartily greeted, told to sit down, asked how we were, offered a drink, and told he was taking us to lunch. There was no pause between all this information. Then, with a proud smile, Roddenberry asked us if we’d like to visit the Star Trek set. Well, of course we said we were so bored with visiting sets that… nobody believes that, huh?
John had never been on a set before. Bjo’s mother used to sew costumes for Warner Brothers Studio. As a child, she frequently snarked out behind movie sets and watched the amazing development of a story on paper into a story on film. But every set is different in looks, attitude, feeling and the people manning it. There is as much fascination in watching the people behind the camera as watching the actors. We both have a sincere respect for those unseen and often unknown people who work so hard to make our magic worlds happen.
On any film set, if you wish to know what’s really going on, talk to one of the staff. The best courier of all the news is the crafts services person. He is the “Radar O’Reilly” of any studio set. Craft services is one of the most important functions on a film set. He (it’s usually a male) sets up the coffee urns and puts out the sweet rolls and sandwiches. He also knows all the latest information, and even the upcoming information. Much later, we were to find out about the incipient cancelation of Star Trek from the crafts services man.
This first time on the Star Trek set was pretty amazing. We waited until the red light went off outside the big sound-proof door. Then Gene led us into a dark high-ceilinged space that seemed to have random bits of this and that all over, including a tangle of thick wires leading to huge lights, to the camera, and to the sound system.
When our eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness, we could see that there were dim work lights everywhere, illuminating makeup tables, director’s chairs, and assorted studio paraphernalia. Gene took us to the bridge set, which to our pre-computer eyes looked simply wonderful. Clever hidden lighting helped to make the Enterprise passageway look as if it really circled the ship. Everyone was obviously proud of their part in creating a futuristic starship out of 1966 common materials. We didn’t care that the set had Christmas tree lights under the ship’s control panels. We were on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise! Now there’s a truly gosh-wow feeling.
At a makeup table sat Nichelle Nichols, reading the L.A. Times while Fred Phillips, the TOS makeup artist, added finishing touches. Nichelle greeted us cordially, and asked if we read Jack Smith’s column. We said both of us enjoyed his wry observations of human frailty, and especially that of Los Angeles citizens. This led to a short but lively discussion of local politics until Gene called us away to meet other actors. John was unused to meeting actors who were interested in anything else but their own ego. He was bemused and delighted to find that such a beautiful woman would also be a reader and have cogent opinions. As we grew to know Nichelle better, she flirted outrageously with John whenever she could, to his embarrassment and gratification.
When we met George Takei, there was a genuine spark of connection between all of us. It is very hard to explain, but over the years from that introduction, a friendship grew that we treasure today. Though our paths don’t cross very often, we thoroughly enjoy renewing our relationship each time.
Then Gene was called away to resolve a problem and left us on our own. He trusted that we would know enough about set visiting to stay out of everyone’s way and stop talking when the red light went one.
By this time Bjo realized she was tired; it had been a long drive to L.A. and an exciting morning on top of that. She was on sensory overload, and sat down at backstage table. John stood nearby, still taking everything in. A gentle voice said hello, and DeForest Kelley sat down opposite Bjo. Both of us were surprised and secretly thrilled to have Dr. McCoy sit down with us. Introductions were made and he began to draw us out, instead of talking about himself. He was actually interested in us! At one point, De asked if we had any pets, and when we said we did, he launched into one of this favorite themes: his pets. Almost shyly, he showed us a photo in his wallet of a cute schnauzer dog. Then he talked for some minutes about his pet, until he was called away for a scene.
We wandered back to Fred Phillips’ makeup table and talked to him awhile. He had learned his movie makeup trade from his father, who was a well-known makeup artist. Fred’s very first movie was working as an apprentice for his father in The Wizard of Oz. Fred went on to do personal makeup for many famous female stars. He was delighted to work on Star Trek, which he felt would challenge his makeup artistry. Little did he realize that a TV show would have far more serious budget problems than a movie!
Then we went to watch the episode being made. This was not the first one, of course, which had been made some time ago. Episodes are always weeks and sometimes months behind what you see on the TV screen, though it sometimes seems as if the current episode was made last week. Without all the computers used today, it took a fairly long time to create the special effects. They all had to be hand-done frame-by-frame. So simple phaser fire took far more time to create back then than it does now.
During the filming, Bjo leaned on a director’s chair with Jerry Finnerman’s name on it. He was the main cinematographer for Star Trek, having come off several major movies (for which he did not get credit) and many other TV series. After the scene was shot, he came back to his chair and shooed Bjo off it. “I worked a long time for this chair,” he said, “and nobody sits in it but me.” When Bjo pointed out that she’d not sat in the chair, knowing better than to do that, he agreed that she could touch his chair. He was not mean about this, but simply territorial, which is understandable.
After awhile, we were taken to the studio commissary for lunch. Desilu’s idea of someplace to have a meal was not exactly restaurant standard, but we were pleased to see various TV people who showed up for lunch. There was none of the Hollywood movie atmosphere, where actors in feathered headdresses ate sandwiches with dazzling starlets in sequin gowns. Wardrobe people would never let an actor wear a full costume off the stage and into a cafeteria. Plus actors were glad to get out of their costumes for a short time. So we saw a lot of jeans and message T-shirts, instead. After lunch, we were given permission to return to the Star Trek set, while Gene went back to his office to attend to business. He told us to drop by when we were ready to leave so he could say goodbye. So we walked across the small lot to Stage 10 again, and entered that magical shadow world of filmmaking.
This time those we’d already met greeted us with cordiality. Though they were on the set, we didn’t meet either William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy. They were not only busy with their lines, but they really didn’t seem to like having visitors on the set. This was not surprising; many actors don’t like to be observed when they fluff a line or do something silly. On the Star Trek set at this point, nobody was prepared for fans. That would come later. Of course, nobody knew we were just fans. Everyone thought we were somehow related to Gene Roddenberry, and that was enough for them. Fandom was yet to impinge on Star Trek, so at that time no one realized the decades-long effect fandom would have on the show, and on them. Well, nobody could have predicted what that future would bring that show and all who were involved in it, including the fans.
We met the propman, Irving Feinberg, who was responsible for making the various prop, or getting them made. We met the clapboard man, too, but unfortunately, we don’t recall his name. His job is to keep a clapboard handy to chalk in the information that editors need to cut and create an episode. At one time, movie sound systems were so unreliable that a noise was necessary to let editors know that scene had started. Hence, a clapping sound was devised. As time went on, the clapboard became as automated as everything else in Hollywood, but the tradition persisted for several years longer than needed.
To the surprise of on-set personnel, a small fandom grew up around these people, who were not at all used to having any attention paid to them. The somewhat grumpy propman was, we think, secretly pleased to know that his work was appreciated. When the clapboard man was hospitalized with cancer, hundreds of Star Trek fans sent him get well cards and encouragement. This was the first inkling that the fans out there were vitally interested in anything that happened concerning Star Trek. Gene had an inkling that fans were gathering behind the show, because fans called the studio, asking to be put through to him in person. Penny had a time of it, fending off eager fans who insisted that they were Star Trek’s “biggest fan.” Fans seemed to think this claim conferred a special honor on them that obligated Gene to talk to them.
When letters started coming in, specifically addressed to Gene Roddenberry, that mail was sent to his office. Mail simply addressed to Star Trek sat around somewhere, waiting for pickup. So for several weeks, nobody even guessed that Star Trek was popular. As it was, they had only the studio naysayers and NBC curmudgeons, who reflected only pessimistic views. Had anyone told them, the entire crew and all the actors would have known far sooner that the fans were out there and eager to say how wonderful the show was.
We did not wait for the daily wrap, because we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. We said goodbye to Nichelle and George, waved to DeForest, who was still on the set, and walked into the canyon of tall walls and buildings. Bemused, amazed and entirely enchanted, we left Desilu and began the long drive back to Oakland.
Bjo was very pleased about the whole day, talking about it all the way home. Though less voluble about it, John’s first visit to a film set was very successful! We were to make many more visits to the Star Trek set, but that first time was pure magic.
– John & Bjo Trimble
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