PANORAMA CITY — It was late in the afternoon, the doughnut supply was down to crumbs and Jellyroll the elephant had had enough.
She flapped her ears, stomped her feet and wound her trunk under the neck of the lead actress. Then she nudged her head playfully toward an extra, nearly raking his ears with her foot-long tusks.
Finally, after a handful of gummy worms and a few pokes in the rear, Jellyroll was coaxed into holding her head obediently above the actress.
"Roll tape," the director yelled.
Under the spotlights, you could almost catch a gleam of mischief in the elephant's yellow eyes. A second later, the actress, Valarie Rae Miller, discovered a wet splotch on her chest.
"Uh, oh," she said, "elephant juice."
"Cut!" yelled the director. "Wardrobe! Wardrobe! Grab a hair dryer. Got some elephant drool to deal with."
Here on the set of Disney's "One Saturday Morning," a children's show co-hosted by a 6,000-pound adolescent elephant, you gain a greater appreciation of what it takes to make kids laugh.
No shot is easy, no scene is predictable--even for the people who wrote the script.
One minute of filming makes crystal clear that even a Hollywood-raised elephant belongs on the veldt, thundering through tall grasses and snacking on trees, not standing dead still in a genie hat on a Panorama City sound stage.
But to the folks at Disney, Jellyroll is perfect right where she is. "One Saturday Morning," which airs on ABC, is the top-rated show on Saturday morning, two years running.
"It's great for branding," producer Prudence Fenton explained. "There's no other show with a big, live elephant. If you're flipping through the channels, wouldn't you stop if you saw a girl standing next to an elephant?"
Stand next to Jellyroll and it's not her size that is especially striking--at 8 feet tall, she's not fully grown yet--or her nose-wrinkling scent. It's her beauty. Jellyroll's hide gives off a rich golden glow, as if it were being lit by rays of afternoon sun. Her eyes are the size of tea plates and ringed with long, delicate lashes.
"She's got such a soul, can't you just see it?" asked Fenton, during a quiet, off-screen moment with her star.
Everybody on the set, it seems, loves Jellyroll, even if she gets a little antsy at the end of the day. She has a good shot at being the most spoiled elephant this side of the Serengeti Plain.
Born 12 years ago in east Africa, Jellyroll came to the U.S. at age 2 and works at the Serengeti Ranch Co., an Acton-based animal supplier. Her real name is Susie and credits include everything from a Janet Jackson video and the movie "Congo" to a recent ad for the national Republican Party in which she thundered after a pack of donkeys. She rents for $3,000 a day.
Each morning for the past two weeks, Jellyroll has commuted in a $60,000 climate-controlled trailer from her mountain ranch in Acton to the Chandler Valley Center Studios in Panorama City.
Producers Fenton and Peter Hastings picked Chandler Valley, an independent studio on Saticoy Street, because Disney's lot in Burbank was booked. Chandler Valley was built three years ago on a vacant parcel on the former General Motors factory site. Its 15,000-square-foot sound stage is spacious enough for Jellyroll and an elaborate set.
The set for "One Saturday Morning" is vintage play land. Dozens of extras prance around in Day-Glo costumes and clown shoes. Some play with Alice-in-Wonderland-sized props like a 6-foot paint brush, a giant baseball and a globe the size of a Volkswagen Rabbit.
All shots are filmed in front of bright green backdrops ("green screens" in industry lingo) and instantly filled in with computer effects. The result is an energetic mix of fantasy sequences including Jellyroll splashing around in a bowl of milk.
The theme of "One Saturday Morning" is that Jellyroll and Meme, played by actress Miller, are friends who work in the factory where Saturdays are made. They have parties, do chores and talk kids stuff (Jellyroll has a dubbed voice).
During the two-hour block on ABC, scenes from the Saturday factory are sprinkled among three Disney cartoons--"Doug," "Recess" and "Pepper Ann."
The scenes with the elephant are taped over three weeks, which provides enough footage for the entire season.
Since many of the extras on the show are kids, the set is stocked with sweets: a cistern of jelly beans, a bucket of gummy worms, cakes, cookies, gumdrops, a never-ending supply of Twinkies, to name a few.
But there's no question who has the biggest sweet tooth of them all: the aptly named elephant. Every day, Jellyroll consumes 125 gallons of water and 250 pounds of food. A lot of it is junk.
"Hey, you with the elephant?" a messenger asked Jellyroll's trainer during a break.
"Yeah," said Serengeti Ranch owner Hayden Rosenaur, with a proud nod.
"These are for you," the messenger said, plopping down two bags of chocolate-covered Hostess doughnuts.
Rosenaur explained that Jellyroll, in adolescence herself, has the mind-set of a kid.