It was in 1997, late into the second season of ‘Savannah’, where we’d moved into new digs on the east side of Atlanta. It was about six miles or so outside the perimeter but technically considered part of Decatur. The new ‘stage’ was nicer than the old one, and we had settled into a nice shooting routine.
Which gave us a little bit of time for hijincks….
I hadn’t intended to play a prank on my friend Glenn Ballard on that fateful day, it just kind of happened. There I was, at a urinal in the men’s restroom at the stage. I was kind of finishing up when Glenn happened to walk in and head into a stall for a more-involved evacuative process. Small talk ensued as I washed my hands. On the way out, as an afterthought, I flipped off the lights and kept going…despite Glenn’s wail of “Dreeeeeewwww”. Oh yeah, there was Matt Whiteside’s wail too. See, I hadn’t noticed there was an electrician in one of the other stalls…I mean, who checks these things?
But, no harm, everybody made it out safe.
It could of course have ended there….
But no. I had to push it. A few days (maybe weeks) later, we were shooting on the riverboat set. This was an easy scene, just principals, no extras. It was sometime after lunch when I saw Glenn hang his tool belt on a grip cart. He leaned over to another grip, Jerry Lee, and said “I’m going to the bathroom now”.
I turned to our third, Stephanie Ponder, and told her to “Cover me”. And off to the men’s’ room I ran. I guess that Glenn must have stopped to chat to somebody because I got there first.
Now is as good a time as any to explain the layout of the men’s’ restroom there on stage. The door to the men’s room swung open into hallway outside the mens’ room. Inside and to the left was a counter with two sinks built into it. Further down that lefthand wall was a urinal, followed by three stalls, the last one being against the far wall.
So, I scooted to the third stall, closed and locked the stall door, sat down on the toilet (pants up) and swung my feet over against the wall to hide my shoes.
About two minutes later the door opened and in came Glenn. Maybe he was humming or something, but there was no doubt that it was him. He chose stall #2, the middle stall. I heard the door close and Glenn sit down. I waited a beat, stood up, unlocked my door, walked briskly to the door, switched off the lights and walked directly back to set.
This was of course an unequivocal act of WAR.
Now, during this time I think there were also some other harmless lights-out games being played between Glenn and Matt, but I never received confirmation of this and considered it as a separate battlefield.
Regardless of battlefields or bloodfeuds, I was worried about bowel movements…namely my own. My unwarranted act of aggression had made me subject to having the lights turned out on me…which I’d been able to avoid to that point. Like most guys, I do some of my best reading on the toilet and I’d hate to just sit there in the dark.
Feeling the call, I whispered to Steph that I had to go to the bathroom. Then I took a long circuitous route to the men’s room, trying to throw off any potential pursuers. I finally decided that I’d gone around enough dark sets and back hallways to elude Glenn, so I headed for the bathroom. When I got there I was relieved to find out that I was all alone….and I checked every stall before settling into that stall along the wall. I was just getting everything in motion when I heard the ‘whoosh-boom’ of the door opening and closing.
It was Glenn.
I could tell because he was talking to somebody on his radio…and he sounded distressed. It was like he had THOUGHT that somebody had called him on the grip channel, but now he couldn’t raise a peep. It also sounded like he had to go REALLY badly and was torn between staying in the men’s room or heading back to set to make sure he wasn’t needed. The call of nature won out and he headed back to the middle stall to take care of business. I had already dropped some of my newspaper onto my feet and swung them over against the wall. Glenn sounded like he was only concerned about taking care of business.
Then he said “Drew?”.
I mumbled in a low voice…it incoherent babble and I hoped he’d think I was somebody else, maybe one of our Teamsters. There was no way I was going to admit to being myself at that moment.
Again Glenn asked: “Drew, is that you? My radio isn’t working, can I borrow yours? I think that they’re trying to call me.”
Since I first started working I’ve always tried to help make the shot work as long as it didn’t involve risking lives. So I pulled out my radio and turned it to channel 5 and called for the grips. No answer…and I had a fresh battery. So I switched to channel 6 and called for the electrics because they’re like grip-cousins and could find out if the grips needed help. No answer there either. Now Glenn had heard me call them both and it sounded like he was content that I’d made the attempt.
Another minute or two passed and he sounded worried again, so he asked if he could borrow my radio and try again. I thought, “now why am I going to be a jerk and not let him borrow my radio?”. So I passed it to him underneath the stall. The next thing he did was amazing. He stood up, said “thanks!” and walked out of the stall, walked out of the restroom and left me sitting in the pitch dark.
Then the BOOMS began. Imagine the sound of war drums.
The sound echoed around the men’s room like the lid of the ark slamming back to earth after destroying all the evil Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was magnificent, it was terrifying….it was hysterical. I laughed and laughed and hurried up my business and got up off the john and headed to the door with my arms extended in front of me like a zombie, walking unsteadily toward the thin bright outline of the door.
I found the light switch and flipped it back on. I halfheartedly tried to open the door, but it was sealed. Still laughing, but slightly nervous, I hopped up onto the sink, intending to foil my entombment by climbing up into the ceiling grid and dropping back down to the floor outside the men’s room.
One problem: the air-conditioning unit for the stage was DIRECTLY over the men’s room, specifically directly over the sink. There was no escape in this direction.
Now I was nervous, but decided to try the door again. So I hopped down, and pushed it. HARD. It budged just a tinch. So I pushed again, really leaning into it with all my weight. Slowly, grudgingly, it scraped open just like a real-life movie tomb. As I squeezed out of Glenn’s trap I saw what he’d done: he’d hammered a wooden dolly wedge into the gap between the door and the floor. And just as I gained freedom I saw him round the corner with a screw gun in one hand and a bunch of 3″ drywall screws in the other. My escape was narrow indeed.
And so that was it for the game of Lights Out….
No. Stephanie and I sat down and talked to my friend Joe, who was our propmaster. We discussed options and he had an inspirational idea, but it would take planning…and a mole inside the grip department.
Together we approached Jerry Lee one afternoon and recruited him to our side. He was hesitant to betray his friend Glenn, but he was even more concerned that he might get pulled into this increasingly dangerous game of Lights Out. He made us promise him that he wouldn’t be dragged into the fray, to which we agreed.
Jerry’s only role was to alert us, the prop department, that Glenn was headed toward the restroom. His code-word, of his own selecting, was “Yellow Foot”.
Joe prepared the “weapon” and hid it under his desk in the prop office.
Then we all sat back and waited.
It didn’t happen that day, or the next. In fact more than a week may have passed before I heard those words streaming across our channel one day as we were coming back in from lunch….”yellow foot, yellow foot, yellow foot”. I hadn’t imagined it, that was the call. Totally forgetting our plan, I told Steph (yet again) to “cover set” and dashed toward the prop office. I ran in and started telling Joe to get ready, that Glenn was headed to the bathroom. Once he calmed me down enough that he could understand me, he said, “Are you sure he’s in there? Let me check!”
He stepped into the men’s room and came back out and asked me “Is he wearing blue sneakers?” to which I replied, “Yes! Yeah! Whatever, it’s HIM!”. We leaned into the art department and grabbed our friend Jonathon, brought him up to speed on what was happening and explained his assignment to him.
Then began PROJECT DOOMSDAY.
I excitedly entered the men’s room and headed for a stall. All I had to do was confirm that the target was in fact Glenn, to confirm his position. To tell Joe, I would use my walkie’s headset mike. We had a name for each stall:
A) WALL – the stall against the wall.
B) MIDDLE – the middle stall.
C) DOOR – the stall closest to entrance to the men’s room.
So, it was for all intents and purposes exactly like a called-in airstrike.
Like in the movies.
I could already see that our target was in stall C, the WALL stall. But everything went wrong as soon as I settled into place on the commode because the guy in the wall stall said “Drew?”.
It wasn’t Glenn, it was Matt Whiteside. The wrong guy!
Matt continued, “Drew? I know that’s you. I’m almost finished, and as soon as I get up and leave I’m going to turn the lights out on you. I just wanted you to know that.” His toilet paper holder began squeaking as he pulled paper loose from the roll.
‘”Alright turkey, if that’s the way you want to play it, your are going DOWN” was the satisfying thought running through my head as I leaned into my microphone and quietly said “WALL, WALL!”.
Just then, the door opened and a rustling sound headed toward us. A guy came in and sat down in the stall to my right. I knew who it was. It was Glenn. He’d made it in time, I frantically called back to Joe and Jonathon: “ABORT! ABORT! REDIRECT! REDIRECT! DOOR! DOOR!”.
The next few events happened in slow motion.
Matt stood up in the stall to my left.
The door to the men’s room opened and Jonathon flipped the lights off. Matt made a confused sound, I groaned and started complaining about having the lights turned off (momentarily freeing me from suspicion). Glenn groaned too, realizing that the three of us had had the lights turned out on us, that we were all in this together. But of course we weren’t.
I looked straight up and saw a ceiling panel near the wall lift up, the thin outline of light illuminated a long tube which began extending out over Glenn’s stall. Then I heard the WHOOF! of Joe’s breath as he blew as hard as he could into a cardboard tube filled with baby powder. The tube retracted, the ceiling tile settled back into place and the room filled with the smell of baby powder.
“What, the??!” is what Glenn said.
He repeated himself again, just to be sure he’d said it out loud.
Seconds later the lights came on, thanks to Matt.
Hanging about 3 feet above the floor was a swirling white cloud of baby powder. It was everywhere.
I stood up and followed Matt outside.
Twenty minutes later Glenn joined us back on set with nary a trace of baby powder on him.
As far as I know, nobody ever turned the lights out on anybody else for the rest of the show.