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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

Universal Studios is the largest studio in the world.

USA - Los Angeles (Wk.1 of 1 week)
Week 51 of World Tour

1. Universal Studios

Today, Tuesday, May 18, was ear-marked for my visit to Hollywood. Angeliki had arranged for me to go to Universal Studios, but before that we were going to Hollywood Walk.

Hollywood Walk is the street where all the movie stars have their STARS on the sidewalk. There are so many stars there that it would take forever to read them and try to remember who they were. And no-one seemed to walk on the stars lest they upset someone or do any damage.

Amongst the STARS in Hollywood Walk.

Getting your own star doesn’t come by accident. Applications are made to the city, and these stars must get approval before they are placed.

The Chinese Theater was the central attraction. Once I understood that the Chinese Theatre had nothing to do with being a Chinese theatre, I was able to accept the fact that all these stars emanated from there. Not only that, but the hand prints and footprints of the stars could only be found at the Chinese Theatre.

Apparently the Hollywood Hills were just around the corner, so we drove by to see the giant white-lettered HOLLYWOOD sign following the contours of the green hill with the blue sky as a backdrop.

At 10am Angeliki dropped me off at Universal Studios. I was already hungry, so I ate a chicken-apple flavoured hotdog with a side serve of fries and a soft-drink. No time to think about eating healthy today.

About to walk down the red carpet and into Universal Studios.

The giant Universal Studios globe rotated outside the entry gates which reminded me of huge ancient Roman gates from a Ben Hur movie. And a long bright red carpet, flanked by massive palm trees, ran right up to those gates.

Entry to Universal Studios was about $50. But as I waited in line, the guy in front of me said, “How many of you going inside?”

“Just me”, I said.

“What a shame”, he said. “I’ve got this 2-for-1 voucher, so you could’ve got in for half price”.

Just then a girl joined the end of the queue. She was on her own too, so the guy asked if we would like half-price tickets and we both agreed. I waited for him to buy the tickets first before outlaying the $25, and sure enough, we were able to get in with those tickets. Then it dawned on me what he’d done. That voucher was valid for up to 6 people. He was there with his wife and 2 children, so he’d normally have to pay about $200 to get in. But seeing he got in for half-price (-$100), and seeing he got two lots of $25 cash from me and the other girl in line (-$50), his total cost for the day was much less than $50, because the children didn’t have to pay a full price entry fee.

So now I was just about to enter Universal Studios, but not before my bag was checked by security guards. It was becoming more and more apparent that security checks had become the norm in America.

I glanced quickly at the Universal Studios map and time schedules for each event. I was there early so I’d probably be able to see most of them. I headed for the closest attraction and, from then on, I continued going from one attraction to another until closing time. I visited 10 attractions altogether and this is what I thought of each one.

1. Van Helsing. This was a typical ghost train type of attraction, but done as a walk-through. The passageways were very dark and occasionally someone dressed as a ghost or Grim Reaper would come out and touch someone on the back of the head trying to startle them. My first exhibit was very disappointing. Thank goodness the quality picked up from there.

2. Studio Tour. This was a guided bus carriage tour. And one of the things I learned was that Universal Studios was the largest studio in the world, having made 8,000 movies. We passed by many movie sets which showed how special effects were achieved for a wide variety of films. As we drove over an old wooden bridge, it collapsed! Then once we got off it, it pulled itself together again. We saw street and city sets. We saw flood, rain and lightning effects at the Los Amigos set. We saw King Kong trying to break another bridge we were crossing. And we saw an earthquake scene in an underground railway station set. There was the Psycho set, still with the skeleton of the old lady rocking in her chair. We drove past the Munster’s House. And, finally, our bus was attacked by the Jaws shark as we crossed over a shallow watercourse.

3. Waterworld. This was probably my favourite attraction. Before entering the stadium I was told that the white seats were the dry seats, but if I sat on a green seat I’d definitely get wet. So I sat on a green ‘soaking’ seat, midway between the front row and the white ‘dry’ seats. The Waterworld set was built around a giant pool. Maybe it was the set for a dolphin attraction many years ago.

Waterworld show in full motion.

Rusty old corrugated tin sheets rose high along the far side of the pool, just like in the Waterworld movie. Soon there would be boats splashing in the water, so it was obvious that some people would get wet. Three performers came out to prepare the audience for the show. It was the usual thing where each section of the stadium was asked to be louder than the one next to it. But when one of these guys didn’t get a loud enough response from his group, he filled a bucket of water from the pool and drenched the audience in the 3 front rows! Soon the other guys were following suit. So I guess, as long as the only people getting wet were on the green seats, it was OK! Luckily the show began soon afterwards. It was extremely well done with jet-skis and boats speeding in and out of the set, and spraying the audience with more water. And the show finally ended after several fire explosions, actors falling several stories into the water and a seaplane crashing over the wall and into the pool. Amazingly, even though I sat in a green ‘soaking’ seat, I left Waterworld dry as a bone. And because it was such a warm sunny day, the audience that got wet were already nearly dry again.

4. Spiderman Rocks. This was a 20 minute rock musical taking place in a dark alley set on stage. I was surprised to hear modern contemporary songs such as ‘I Need A Hero (?)’ and ‘We Will Rock You (Queen)’ rather than songs from the original Spiderman movie. But it was still a great show, with lots of smoke and fire on stage, and Spiderman swinging out and above the audience on a giant strand of web shot out from his wrist.

5. Back To The Future. This was my first virtual ride. I got into the Back To The Future Car and we chased after that idiot from 1955 who stole the time-machine car. The visuals were beautifully done and the seat motions emulated the dives and turns perfectly on every occasion.

6. Special Effects. This was an educational tour through 3 large sets where we were shown how fake backgrounds, make-up and remote-controlled robots are used to create special effects. Two audience members volunteered to participate, and soon one was being attacked by a giant cat and the other one had been changed into a skeleton. A young boy was given a robot-control suit and shown how to make a robot of a werewolf make the same movements as himself. Unfortunately, the werewolf came to life and ate the host. But it was all just special effects, and soon all the dead people came back to life and joined us, so we were all able to relax again.

7. Jurassic Park. This was a smooth boat ride through the dinosaur park, past large and small moving models of prehistoric creatures. Luckily I’d seen how the ride ended, so I hung on tightly as the boat plunged down a 50 ft. waterfall. I was lucky to be sitting in the middle of the boat, so didn’t get wet. But those sitting at the sides got soaked.

8. Backdraft. Ron Howard narrated this attraction on-screen. But the effects were real, and the fire was very, very hot. We saw how fires were set up and sat through a full-blown explosion scene of a warehouse on fire. The fire show went for about 3 minutes, but then once it was over, the entire set rebuilt itself within seconds, ready for the next audience.

9. Shrek 4D. This was a 3D movie of Shrek, and the 4th dimension was the sensations we got from our seats. Our seats rocked when Shrek rode over the cobblestone roads in his horse-driven cart. They squirted water into our faces when the donkey sneezed. They blew air into the back of my neck when the ghost of Prince Farquardt appeared. And they tickled my feet when a bunch of spiders were dropped onto the floor.

10. Terminator 2 3D. Live actors were assisted by a 3D film to make the audience believe it was experiencing a real attack by alien saucers, etc. Governor Arnold Schwartzenaeger strutted his stuff convincingly on screen, while his counterpart road his Harley Davidson off screen and onto the stage, while being pursued by the enemy. Our seats were also hooked up to the action, getting a jolt as the Harley road over bumps and squirting us when he splashed through the water.

Was my trip to Universal Studios good value? It sure was. In fact, I would’ve still been happy if I’d paid the full price to get in.

2. Disneyland

Every child’s fantasy is going to Disneyland. And I guess all adults are really just big kids at heart, because I couldn’t wait to finally get to Disneyland, and still before I turned 50.

Mickey Mouse meets the Globe-Trotting LETSaholic.

It was Thursday, May 20, and I’d been awake since 4.40 am. Gee I must’ve been anxious. At 8.15 am Angeliki dropped me off at the Los Angeles Airport and I caught the Supershuttle bound for Disneyland. Next to me was a young lady who lived in Hampton, a suburb of Melbourne. She seemed a little disappointed that after a 14 hour flight she was talking to another Melbournian. But that was her problem, not mine. And it didn’t help that she couldn’t tell me how Collingwood was doing in the AFL. The bus trip cost $16, and at 9.15 am I was dropped off at the Disneyland entrance.

The entry fee was $49.75 (AUD$75) and opening hours for Monday to Thursday were 10 am to 8 pm.

I passed through the evermore familiar security check and entered the theme park at 9.30 am. But I didn’t get very far. The road was roped off at the roundabout where the entrances to Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland all began, and the rope wasn’t going to come down until 10 am. So I spent the next half hour browsing through some retail stores. In that time I noted that Disneyland opened in 1955, the same year I was born, and will be 50 years old next year. Nice to have such an internationally renowned icon sharing the same birthday as me. Then at 10 am I began the same old routine of going from one attraction to the very next one. I had seen 10 attractions at Universal Studios, and today I was going to go to quite a few more, 19 in total. Here’s what I thought of them.

About to enter into Fantasyland through the famous Fantasyland Castle.

1. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. My first ride was on this small train carriage which could only be described as ‘wild’ for a 4 year old. It went slowly along a track through mildly dark passages with paintings of Wind In The Willows characters along the way. This was all I needed to convince me to get out of Fantasyland very quickly!

2. Star Tour. This was a simulated flight into outer space. Much more exciting than my first ride. I was definitely in the grown-ups section now.

3. Honey I Shrank The Audience. This 3D screening of ‘The Inventor Of The Year’ was both amusing and entertaining. Rick Moranis continued causing one disaster after another, and then his children helped him make more of a mess. In fact, his youngest child (about 4) managed to shrink us, the audience, then ripped the auditorium up and carried us off under his arm. Fortunately he was coaxed into giving us back, otherwise I wouldn’t be around to write this story.

4. Innoventions. At 1 mile/hour, this was the fastest spinning building in Disneyland. And I suppose you’ve already guessed that it was the ONLY spinning building in Disneyland. It opened at 11 am and I was with the very first group to enter this attraction which allowed everyone unlimited time to experience all the fun and games within. But there was a catch. There were no toilets in the building, so you had to leave and then queue up again if you wanted to get back inside. But it was mainly a promotional attraction, promoting new technological inventions for manufacturers. For example, there was a refrigerator that scanned food packages and told the oven how long to cook it for, and it simultaneously added the pack to the householder’s current shopping list. However most of the 2 floors on this building were packed with computers hooked up to the internet and also featuring children’s software. Then, of course, there were stacks and stacks of video games.

5. Disneyland Monorail. This train travelled for 2 and-a-half miles (4 km), between Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Park, on its way to the Disneyland Hotels. As I wasn’t staying in one of those hotels, I just enjoyed the smooth and quiet round trip back to Disneyland.

6. Golden Horseshoe Stage.
I went there for lunch and ordered a real burger with fries and dessert. But I over-ate! Later I came back and saw a 4-man Hillbilly Band performing. They were very good with lots of humour incorporated into their act. At one point they coaxed a young lady to join them from the audience. Her name was Amanda and she was to play a mini-violin. She really enjoyed the attention and won some well-deserved applause for her efforts.

The 4-man Hillbilly Band playing each other's instruments while playing their own!

But the highlight of the show was an amazing performance, where the band-members all played each other’s instruments while still playing their own! That is, each one strummed his own guitar, violin or double base with his right hand, while his left hand pressed, and moved along, the strings of another member’s instrument.

7. Mark Twain Riverboat. This was a full-scale riverboat which paddled past some well-presented animated models of animals and Indian scenes. I learned that ‘Mark Twain’ is actually a river term meaning ‘sea water’, and this was always good news for the riverboat crew. I guess that’s why Samuel Clemens, the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, chose Mark Twain as a name for himself.

8. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I’ve never been too excited about roller-coaster rides, but I must’ve been more boring as a youngster. This roller-coaster ride through a huge mountain set was lots of fun. And the young girls in the seat in front of me were making the most of it as well. Just before each descent the girls raised their arms and screamed religiously until the carriage leveled out again.

9. Pirates Of The Caribbean. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this ride. It was an excellent boat ride through dark passages featuring quality animated models of pirates at war and at play. I’m sure Johnny Depp would be very proud of it.

10. Indiana Jones Adventure.
Another great roller-coaster ride. But this was in a jeep. Getting to the jeep took a while, walking through a long cave and temple. As the jeep drove us through the dark passages, dodging rolling boulders and landslides, Indiana Jones kept popping up and cautioning us to watch out for our next hurdle.

11. Jungle Cruise. This was a boat cruise along a jungle river and the animal and native scenes were very convincing and well-constructed. But the feature I enjoyed most was the comic commentary. The guide must’ve been in his very early 20’s but his timing was impeccable.

12. Enchanted Room. I knew this was a kid’s show before I walked in. But by this time I really needed to rest. The show went for 15 minutes and was basically a musical, with the main singing roles performed by stuffed birds sitting on perches above the audience. There were Macaws, Toucans, Birds Of Paradise and Cockatoos all singing above a water fountain in center of room. And they were accompanied by singing flowers and totem-poles too. Such soothing bliss.

13. Tarzan’s Treehouse. When I was a kid I built a treehouse on my uncle’s farm, but it was nowhere near as good as this one. This must’ve been the best darn tree-house in the world! It was a 2-room split-level design, very high up, using stairs and a rope bridge for access. I could’ve quite easily made myself at home in one of those.

14. Snow White’s Scary Adventure.
This was another carriage ride for tiny kids. I should’ve learned from my Mr. Toad experience.

15. It’s A Small World. At last, a Fantasyworld ride which I enjoyed. This was a boat ride through a long covered structure, along a narrow winding tub. And through the entire 20 minute ride they played ‘It’s A Small World After All’, looping it and singing it in different languages as we went through. Many countries were represented by animated models of children in national dress. Of course, I looked for Australia and I found it represented by a young aboriginal boy holding a boomerang and surrounded by kangaroos and koalas.

A Toontown street in Disneyland.

16. Roger Rabbit Cartoon Spin.
While I was waiting in line, there was a breakdown and we were told it would take 20 minutes to fix. So I returned 30 minutes later. And I’m so glad I did. What a lot of fun! This was a ride which went along a single track, and the car, just like in the cartoon, would spin any way you turned the steering wheel. So I had loads of fun spinning it around in a full circle while I still moved forward on the track.

17. Meet Mickey. I checked this out while the Roger Rabbit ride was being repaired. I walked through Mickey’s house and was directed, by signs, to his barn. I waited there in a queue for nearly half an hour while watching cartoons projected on the barn wall. Then I was led into Mickey’s room with 5 other people and had my photo taken. No displays. No show. No nothing. Just a photographer and a helpful attendant who volunteered to photograph me and Mickey with my own camera. But I guess that’s all I really wanted!

18. Snow White – An Enchanting New Musical.
A 30 minute stage show featuring a Talking Mirror, 7 Dwarfs, Forest Animals, Snow White, a Prince and a Jealous Queen. The Forest Animals danced and everyone else (except the Queen) sang. Large pink paper confetti (2” diam.) fell from the ceiling over the cast and audience in the finale. Another enjoyable rest, but I was also paying a lot of attention to the set design. Now, as an actor/playwright, it became much more interesting for me.

19. Disneyland Parade Of The Stars. At 7 pm the Disneyland Parade was going to start, so the loudspeakers were asking everyone to line the streets in anticipation of this event. The floats all featured the Fantasyland characters. And after the last float came out, I followed it all the way back to the entrance, as did everyone else in Disneyland. An excellent way to get the enormous crowds out of the theme park on time!

Mickey Mouse, Miney Mouse, Pluto, Chip and Dale and Goofy on a Disney Parade float.

I left at 7.30 pm, because Disneyland was closing at 8 pm and it would be pandemonium trying to get transport back. And just as well I did, because the last bus left at 7.45 pm and I only just caught it in time, because it took me all that time to find the bus stop! In fact, I was the only passenger on board, so I chatted with the Romanian driver for a whole hour, all the way back to the Los Angeles Airport where Angeliki would soon come and pick me up.

3. Performing In Hollywood

Standing next to Lee Strasberg in my stage outfit.

Back in Week 10, my travel story was titled, Hollywood Here I Come, which was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that I’d learned my play, The Glory Of Athens, off-by-heart. But even though I could never have imagined I’d really be performing my play in Hollywood, there must’ve been a subliminal factor working for me because I finished the story with, “And forgive me for sounding a little cocky, but I'm bloody good!”

That was back in August last year. And now, 9 months later, on May 22, I was about to give my 28th performance of my play and turn that fantasy into reality. So this week I was going to focus my entire attention on preparing for my play on Saturday night.

On Monday I redesigned the program for The Glory Of Athens, then I printed a script for the sound and light cues.

On Tuesday, Angeliki picked me up from Universal Studios at 7 pm and on the way home we stopped by The Lee Strasberg Theater to see the dimensions of the stage. This would help me with my rehearsals so I’d know how much room I had to work with. There were 2 theatres in the complex and we’d booked the Marilyn Monroe Theater.

It was a 99-seat theatre which was very common in Los Angeles. As Angeliki explained to me, the actors-union laws only apply to productions in 100+ seat theatres. So many actors perform for free in these smaller theatres, using the opportunity to develop their skills and hopefully ‘get noticed’. The stage area was very spacious, over 7 metres wide and much longer in depth. The width was fine, but I would only need to use the front 3 metres.

Soon after we returned, I met with Phil, a friend of Angeliki and a film producer, who was interested in filming my Saturday night performance. Not only that, he also wanted to sell copies of it afterward. So after discussing what we both wanted out of this venture, Phil and I agreed to several terms and conditions for a distribution agreement.

On Wednesday I spent much of the morning writing a Distribution Agreement to send to Phil.

Then I rehearsed the play twice in the afternoon. And later that night, we went to The Lee Strasberg Theatre for a full-dress rehearsal. Angeliki had booked it from 6 pm to 10 pm, but we actually didn’t get out until about 11 pm. The Lighting Technician showed Tim, Angeliki’s partner, how to operate the lights and Angeliki instructed Tim on what kind of lighting she wanted for my intro and exit. Soon I was on stage shouting out my lines because I didn’t have a mike, and Angeliki said my voice wasn’t clear enough in the back rows. After completing my 80-minute rehearsal at full volume, it was just as well I didn’t lose my voice!

On Friday, Angeliki and I were both interviewed at the Adelphi Cable TV Station by Vasilis Papoutsis, producer of Hellenic Views. It was mainly about Angeliki’s successful plays and films. But I was also asked about LETS, my Travel Without Money web site and also my play. The show went for the standard 28 minutes, then I stayed back to get video copies of the show for me and Angeliki.

Angeliki had mentioned that I could be more outrageous with my song and dance routine as Archimedes, so when I got back home, I rehearsed the play again, this time choreographing some new dance steps for Archie’s song.

With Angeliki (producer) and Tim (Angeliki's partner and lights/sound operator).

Finally it was Saturday, May 22. D-Day for James Taris and The Glory Of Athens. Would everything go well? Or would I flounder on stage? By the end of the day I would know.

I woke at 3.15 am and copied The Glory Of Athens program as a .pdf file for Angeliki. She’d need it early in the morning to take it to the printer for copying. I also copied the Distributor Agreement as a .pdf file because I’d need Phil to print it and get it signed tonight. So once I’d emailed Phil, and Angeliki had taken the program file to the printer, I got back into bed and had a well-earned nap from 8.30 am-11 am.

When I woke, Angeliki still wasn’t back, so I finished making the ATHENS Inc. sign for my stage set. I’d printed each letter on a full sheet of paper, then I taped them onto a long oval board, which Angeliki had found and painted white for me. It looked good.

Once again I rehearsed, for the 5th time since Wednesday. I had learned that the best way to build confidence was by over-preparing. My rehearsals were getting better and better, so afterwards I relaxed by folding the 100 programs for my play, which Angeliki had just brought home.

The play wasn’t due to start until 8 pm, but we were at The Lee Strasberg Theater at 6 pm getting everything ready. Angeliki had loads of food and drink for the after-show booze-up, sorry, I meant ‘drinks’. And we also had the stage props to bring in as well. And wouldn’t you know it, Kit had sent me a bowl of flowers because, “I thought it would be nice to have "stage door flowers" -- opening night and all that Hollywood jazz, ya know....”.

Soon the stage was set-up and at 7.10 pm, Phil arrived and set up 2 cameras to cover the event. As an experienced documentary moviemaker, he knew that having a fixed wide-shot camera would be the best insurance for solving any unforeseen mishaps on the night. By 7.30 pm the guests began arriving, so Angeliki sent me to my dressing room where I’d be out of site until curtain call. Being alone in a Spartan dressing room didn’t feel too good, so I filled my time productively by rehearsing my play again. By the time the audience had all been seated, there were maybe as many as 70 or 80 in all. Angeliki had asked me to wait at the side stage door, as rehearsed, and while I was waiting I heard a good introduction, praising Angeliki and The Greek-American Theater Company for their shows over the last 10 years, and also for me, and my 400 Day World Tour, presenting my play around the world.

It was 8.10 pm when I finally walked on stage. It was my biggest audience yet and at $35 (AUD$55) the highest ticket price I’d had paid to see my show, so it was rather daunting as well as flattering. As I walked across the stage, conscious not to begin my lines too soon, I got my first laughs, and the laughing continued throughout. All that preparation, all that rehearsing - it was all paying off. And the highlight of the show was when I played the character of Demosthenes impersonating The Godfather. The delivery went over so well that the audience broke out in applause!

My play had always had a very strong and dynamic finish, and tonight went over just as beautifully as ever. So after 80 minutes of non-stop monologue, my one-man show was over. I could now relax and revel in the audience’s applause. Nothing could go wrong now. It was over. It was recorded on tape, and it was over. Yes, I’d nailed it!

My dressing room door was locked, so I waited outside, unsure if I was supposed to mix with the audience yet. Soon Angeliki came out looking for me. So I mixed with the audience while they ate and drank. A 12 year-old boy came over to congratulate me. He was impressed, and he wanted to show me how much. So he stuffed his mouth full of grapes, imitating my Godfather routine. Gee, I love it when I make such a great impact on the kids.

A Greek actor also congratulated me and told me I’d inspired him to pursue roles he was really interested in. Many others came and congratulated me too. This was my extended 15 minutes of fame and I was reveling in it.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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