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Interview with Stephen Schochet , author of Hollywood Stories by FCEtier

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The television set in our home is rarely used to watch television programs.  Even though we have cable, our Sylvania has become an appliance for watching movies.  We enjoy the movies even more because we’ve always kept a copy of Leonard Maltin’s encyclopedia of capsule reviews nearby.  We recently added a second book containing the obituaries of the stars, Fade to Black.  Now we’ve added a new book to the Etier Movie Library, Hollywood Stories by Stephen Schochet.  If you enjoy a movie and want to know more about the actors and get some of the “behind-the-scenes” stories, you’ll be interested in this book, too.  I interviewed Schochet recently by phone and we talked about his work, his passion of collecting anecdotes and his knowledge of the stars. His personality fits his profession very well — he’s friendly, talkative, and knows his stuff about Hollywood.  Would I be able to stump the tour guide with questions about Fred MacMurray, Quentin Tarantino, Bettie Page, George C. Scott, George Carlin, Katharine Hepburn and Soupy Sales?

Photo courtesy S. Schochet
Tell us about your business — company name and how you got into the tour business.
I’m a tour guide in Hollywood. It’s not my business. I work for a company called VIP Tours and Charters. The way I got into it originally was that I was a limousine driver and a writer. I’d write while I was waiting for people to come get into the limousine. Then I was asked to give tours of Hollywood. I’d always been interested in this and told a few anecdotes and got a really good response.  So I decided to become a tour guide. We were given the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do unless the people complained.
Anecdotes were the way to go! I just kept researching and researching them and it grew over time. After a while, I got the idea that I don’t have to just tell them on the bus, I can tell them anywhere. So I did a bunch of projects and this book, Hollywood Stories, is the biggest project I’ve ever done.
When did you actually get into the tours — how long have you been doing this?
Twenty years. 
One of your projects was audio.
The first one (project) was an audio book, “Tales of Hollywood” and it was about the early days of Hollywood. I have a lot of really fun stories in it.  Like Samuel Goldwyn’s name was really Samuel Goldfish and he was partners with a man named Edgar Selwyn. He cheated Selwyn out of all his money and he decided to combine the two names, but he didn’t want it to be “Selfish”. There’s music and sound effects and wind shots and whistles go off and things like that. It was a collaboration between me and a gentleman named, Igor Frances, who got really great sounding music for it. Every time the story changed, the music changed. Being a tour guide, I’m really comfortable with an audio project. I’m used to telling the stories, and of course they hadn’t been scripted. It was really a fun thing to do.
How much does your script change from day to day, tour to tour?
It always changes. There are some things — well, you have to tell what a place is.  There’s always stuff going on. The route changes and things change. I try to keep it as current as possible by looking at blogs and entertainment news, things like that.  I try to keep that freshness.  It’s gotten to the point where I have so many stories that I can pick.  And I try not to be redundant. One thing that makes me self-conscious,  is that we actually have repeat business, which I didn’t expect. People would get on the bus and say, “Yeah, I went on the tour four years ago.”  I’m like, “That’s impossible!” So I’m thinking, “What can I tell you so that I don’t repeat myself?”  [laughing] I want to give them a different perspective. There’s enough material that you can do different things.  If you go to an area like Venice Beach for example, you can talk about the founder, you can talk about Chaplin making his first movie there, you can talk about recent movies made there like I Love You Man. Or you can go to Muscle Beach and talk about Schwarzenegger,  there’s a big variety of choices.
What’s the most significant difference in tours and writing a book?
The one thing about a tour, which of course is different from writing a book, is that you have to make split second decisions on what to talk about. There’s a site, well, you better talk about it cause a new site’s gonna come along. 

Photo courtesy S. Schochet
Do you do tours of the stars’ homes?
The stars homes I don’t do all the time.  Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston lived on a little cul de sac in Beverly Hills. Tour busses would go down that street and literally get stuck in the cul de sac. Pitt and Anniston’s neighbors, who included Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, were trapped in their driveway. They were calling the police about the tour buses all the time and that’s the biggest reason why oversized tour busses were stopped from coming into Beverly Hills. So now legally, you’re only supposed to do them in small vans.  They were considering a ban of all tour busses.  The tour companies argued that the vans were better than people coming in their own cars. That was a good argument especially considering that a few years ago, when Brad Pitt was single, a girl got past security and made it into his bedroom. She was waiting for him in his bed with no clothes on when he arrived.
Do your tours include stops at the studios?
The studios have their own private tours.  I’ll drive by a studio, like Twentieth Century Fox and give some stories that I happen to know. 
Tell us more about your tours.
A tour consists of driving around the city and by stars‘ homes if the bus is small enough. I drive the bus and use a hands free mic so I can keep my hands on the wheel.  It includes driving around Venice and Beverly Hills with stops on Rodeo Drive and the farmers market and Hollywood Boulevard and Venice Beach. While I’m driving, I’m giving a narrative and I try to make it as relevant as possible.
Are tourists more interested in current events or the past?
As long as it’s interesting, I think people are interested in all sorts of different events. So I try to keep the narrative going back and forth.  Like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford starting United Artists in 1919 because no one wanted to pay their high salaries. Then I tie that in to Tom Cruse being one of the big cheeses of UA today.  As far as places go, certainly they’re interested in current places such as where clubs are, where L.A. Ink is, or something like that. I feel it’s important to balance it out between the history and the current.
What’s the most popular restaurant they want to see?
Oh, that’s a good question!  I don’t get asked that much, most of the time they ask, “Where’s a good place to eat?” If you pass by a place like the restaurant “Ketchup” that Ashton Kutcher owns, you tell them about that. Sometimes I’ll mention The Brown Derby and tell a story about that.  And the farmer’s market has lots of barbeque stands and many of them have never had Brazilian food before and they go crazy for that!
Most common question?
A lot of Chinese people want to know how The Chinese Theatre got it’s name. It was kind of an arbitrary choice. At the time, movie theatres were made to look like palaces or temples,  in part, to help lure people into the movie.  A lot of people hadn’t seen movies before. It was just a selling point and that theatre could have been the Aztec Theatre or the Taj Mahal Theatre and with the hand and footprints out in front, it would have been just as famous anyway. Most of the time it’s just different questions about different stars.
Most difficult question?
Oh, most of them are so easy…there’s not much I don’t know.  The most difficult thing about the job is time. We want to get people back on time, and everybody has different priorities on how important time is.  That makes it tough to deal with because we don’t want to leave anyone stranded.  We’ll get to a particular place and say, “Oh this is so interesting, be sure to see this and don’t miss that, but hurry back!” And you just never know what traffic will be like.
What question would you like to answer but no one ever asks?
Oh gosh! You’re asking trick questions. I’ll have to think about that.  I love to tell stories about colorful stars. I like it when people ask, “You got any good stories about: Cary Grant, John Wayne, Fred MacMurray, or Walt Disney?” If they don’t, I end up volunteering them anyway.
Have any celebrities taken your tour? You look up in the rear view mirror and there’s some big name?
Yes, one of the guys from “Boyz II Men” took the tour. I didn’t recognize him and later someone told me who he was.  But that’s only happened once. We see a lot of celebrities on the tour.
When you see a big star on the tour, how do they most often react?
I’ve had great luck, with people taking pictures and signing autographs.  Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kirk Douglas — really friendly taking pictures.  One time I felt really bad for Steve Garvey — the ex-first baseman for the LA Dodgers and he came walking by the bus on Rodeo Drive.   I recognized him and called “Hey Steve!” and he comes over and says to the people on the bus, “Hello everybody.” I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Garvey.” and I got a bunch of blank looks. Everyone was from England and Germany and no one knew who he was!
Do your customers expect you to be a source for gossip?
I don‘t know what they‘re expecting.  I think they expect to see things — I don’t know if they expect quite as much information as I’m giving them.  I think from their point of view, once I start giving the tour it’s almost like a play by play — like you’re watching a sports event.  We see a building and I tell them what goes on there and the subject is constantly changing.  As far as gossip goes, I’ve actually gotten people who didn’t want to hear gossip. They prefer vintage anecdotes rather than what they can read in the tabloids.  What I try and do is find something a little bit different to say if some gossip happens.  One of the things that interested me was when Wynona Rider got arrested for shoplifting.  It was one of the reasons she was willing to do interviews with people like Leno and Letterman.  She was afraid of the shoplifting question. If you’re a movie actor, five per cent of your job is acting and 95% is promoting.  And if you’re unwilling to go out there and do interviews  and promotional things, you become a lot less interesting to studios and potential movie investors. I try to bring in a little insider perspective like that if I am going to talk about gossip so they get something different from what they might hear or read.
Let me just mention a name and you give me a few comments.
Fred MacMurray:  He was SO rich! He was the one who tipped off Bob Hope and Mae West to invest in real estate. His estimated fortune when he died was $500 million! When he was on his classic TV show, My Three Sons, they came up with a new method of working called “The MacMurray Method”. They had thirty-nine episodes and he only wanted to work twelve weeks a year. So to keep him on the show, the producers would take out all of his scenes and film them in non-chronological order at the beginning of the year, during the first twelve weeks. It worked well until the last season when Fred’s character got married and they had a little girl.  In one scene, the boys were with the little girl and she was smiling. Then they had a scene where MacMurray was with her and because it has been filmed months earlier, she had no teeth!
Katharine Hepburn:  She was very into privacy. She didn’t like autograph seekers. When she was doing the play, Coco, about Coco Chanel, she was backstage. She came out and there were autograph hounds. She got into her limo.  As they drove off, she rolled down her window and said, “Run’em down, we’ll clean up the blood later!”  And everybody scattered.  Ironically, she felt like she could go into other people’s houses and inspect them, if she liked the house.  She got past security and snuck into this house in Beverly Hills. She was going through the closets and the owners came home. They were going to call the police and she said, “No, no, don’t. I’m Katharine Hepburn. I just wanted to see what your house looked like.” So the owners ended up giving her a tour!
John Belushi:   He died in 1982 at the Chateau Marmont Hotel.  It’s very ironic because Lorne Michaels, who created Saturday Night Live, was living at the Chateau Marmont Hotel when he created the show. Then five years later, John Belushi dies there. There was an incident where Belushi got DeForest Kelly so hysterical with his impersonation of Captain Kirk, that Kelly couldn’t look at William Shatner without cracking up!
Dustin Hoffman:  He would follow producers into restaurants.  He would wait for them to go into the bathroom, slide his headshot into the stall, and then run away. That’s how he’d get their attention. When they made the movie, The Graduate, the studio actually wanted Robert Redford and Mike Nichols, the producer had a meeting with Redford. Nichols said, “You’re not right for the role.” Redford said, “What do you mean?
Nichols, “Have you ever had your heart broken by a girl?” And of course, that’s the main reason that Dustin Hoffman went into acting in the first place was to meet girls. And of course, that role made Hoffman a big star.

George C. Scott:  Very temperamental, was in the movie, Patton.  He thought the big speech would overwhelm the rest of the movie.  Frank Schaffner, the director, had got him to do it by lying to him. He told Scott it would be at the end of the movie.  And that was such a powerful scene! There were actually some servicemen who went to see that movie and they were so overwhelmed by the sight of George C. Scott as Patton in uniform that when they heard the off-screen voice say, “Ten-hut!”, they stood up.
George Lucas: You know, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola have sort of had this love-hate relationship. Lucas went to USC and Coppola went to UCLA, Coppola was five years older. They went through a lot.  American Graffiti which Lucas directed and Coppola produced. When Lucas wrote Star Wars he based Luke Skywalker on himself. He was young, adventurous, quiet, liked fast cars only in the movie they were space pods and the arguments Luke had with his mother about being a Jedi knight were the arguments Lucas had been through with his father about being a director. Han Solo was Francis Ford Coppola — loud, brash, cocky, always in debt.  One of Coppola’s friends came to him complaining that he was in debt, and Coppola said, “Don’t worry about it, I owe $50 million!” So there were definitely aspects of Coppola in Han Solo.  Then, the “Empire” represented the movie studios like Warner Bros. and Universal. Lucas didn’t like the way they were cutting parts out of his movies and telling him what to do.  Lucas wanted the financial freedom he would get from Star Wars to break free from the studios.
Quentin Tarantino: The one story I love about Quentin Tarantino is that he’s so loyal to actors. He sent the script to John Travolta for Pulp Fiction and at that time Travolta’s career wasn’t going that well. So Travolta agrees to a meeting at Tarantino’s apartment.  He went to a place in West Hollywood and knocked on the door and he said, “This is strange…” Tarantino answers the door with a couple of beers and a cigarette and says, “Come on in, man. Want a beer?”  John says, “You’re not gonna believe this, but I used to live here!”  Tarantino says, “Yeah, I know that. That’s why I rented the place. I love you man!”  Of course, Travolta ends up getting the part and an Oscar nomination and it gets his career back on track – – all due to Tarantino’s loyalty.
Stanley Kubrick:  There were so many things that happened in Dr. Strangelove that were a bit accidental. You know, like George C. Scott falling down on the set. The only reason they ended up casting Slim Pickens was  because Peter Sellers hurt his ankle. Otherwise, Peter Sellers was going to play that role, too. Then Slim Pickens came in and he was dead serious.  People said on the set that he had no idea that it was a comedy so he gave a straight performance the whole time, even when he was riding the nuclear bomb down to earth like a bucking bronco!

What’s your single favorite movie of all time?
 Hmmm…just one, huh?  OK, the latest Star Trek, Star Trek 2009.

What’s next for you?
Publicity and promo events for the book.  Lot’s of interviews both in print and televisions. Oh, and I’ll try to have some stories for you next time on Bettie Page, Soupy Sales and George Carlin. That’s one thing I do for my tours, when someone stumps me about something I bone up on it so I can get it next time.

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