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Long Days, Low Pay--but at Least It's Boring

March 18, 1988|SYLVIA TOWNSEND

About 10 years ago, as a lark, I worked as an extra on a movie and was required to listen to a band play the song "Margaritaville" ad nauseam.

So I hesitated before becoming an extra again. For $35 for eight hours (plus possible overtime) I was expected to report to the downtown Los Angeles set at 7 a.m., bring clothes circa 1963, 1966, 1970 and 1981, and lug props such as blankets and picnic baskets.

Curiosity prevailed over caution, and I asked Huntington Beach casting director Nancy Mott to include me on her list of 134 extras to appear in a day's shooting of the television movie "A Song for You: The Karen Carpenter Story."

This time, the extras' and actors' antics alleviated the tedium. Plus, I got to get sick of three songs instead of just one.

When I arrived at an old hotel across the street from MacArthur Park, where the scenes would be shot, I changed into a 1966 summer look--preppy striped cotton shirt, pants I hoped would pass for pedal pushers and a ribbon around my hair. At 8, a production assistant herded yawning extras from the hotel ballroom out to a trailer for inspection by wardrobe.

The wardrobe supervisor, standing next to a clothes rack filled with 1960s garments that looked like they belonged in a thrift store, frowningly scrutinized the extras, ordered many to change their outfits. I was nervous when she scowled at me and relieved when she said, "You're fine."

I joined other extras clustered around a small stage in the park, waiting for instructions.

An assistant director told me and a young man to chat and look appreciative while we watched teen-agers twirl batons and the actress playing Karen Carpenter lip-sync "The End of the World" for a talent show scene.

Waiting between takes, the young man's friend joined us and these two experienced extras offered me some friendly advice: "There are so many people around here, they'll never miss you, go goof around or take a nap."

At 11:25 the extras on the set were still listening to "The End of the World."

The takes were short; the waits were long. The most interesting action between takes was actress Cynthia Gibb. A slim woman playing a chubby Karen, Gibb was padded with bulky bloomers from waist to knees. The padding appeared to be slipping, so Gibb kept hiking her dress above her waist, lowering her pantyhose, tugging up the bloomers, and putting her costume back in place. This peep show was going on next to the stage.

Next, we changed into 1963 attire and broke for lunch.

After lunch, the extras were seated on benches at an amphitheater for a scene in which The Carpenters won a battle of the bands.

Our job was to cheer as they played "The Girl From Ipanema," and played it . . . and played it.

Boredom was addling the brains of extras seated near me, and to amuse themselves, they joked about the glamour of working as extras.

The young woman next to me and I tried to make sense of Gibb's hairdo. It was lumped above a round band atop her head and looked a little like a chef's hat.

At 3:25, during a take, the young woman told me she'd solved the mystery of the hairdo--Gibb resembled Wilma and Betty on the television show "The Flintstones." I broke out in laughter just when I was supposed to be feigning rapt attention to "The Girl From Ipanema."

At 4:30, the sun was setting behind a tree. I was chilly, stiff from sitting on the wooden bench, and mightily bored.

I told Mott I was cranky and wanted to go home--a taboo for professional extras required to spend 15 hours on the set if needed, as they did that day.

I shudder to think how ghastly I would have felt if I'd stuck around with the other extras until 9:30, and I'm glad I didn't find out. But if you'd like to know how exciting it is to be in the movies, try it sometime.

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