So a Hollywood production company, 25/7 (would you want to work for an outfit that thinks there’s an extra hour in each day?), plans to shoot what they’re calling a docu-soap on Martha’s Vineyard. It will be aired on CW TV which already runs 90210, America’s Next Top Model, and Gossip Girl, so you see where they’re going here.
The advance copy for the new show blurbs, “There are moments in life that change who you are, one summer that defines you,” so we can surmise the storyline will not feature the fishermen who buy BLTs on rye and Lotto tickets at the Woodland Grill. The series will also give short shrift to $5 nights at the Capawock, live R& B at The Ritz, selectmen’s meetings, beachplums simmering on the stove, snowstorms, or lectures at the Council On Aging. In short, the saga about the Island will assuredly leave out Islanders.
In fact, if there’s a single Islander in the main character roster of The Vineyard (clever title, no?), it’s bound to be a native-born high school girl who falls in love with an Ivy League college kid whose folks own a Makonikey trophy home with a plasma television set in every room, even in the seven bathrooms. In the last segment of the first season, the boy will spurn the girl for a super-cute teen queen whose dad owns a thousand square miles of commercial real estate in Texas. In the last moments, the boy will realize he truly loves the Island girl (plus the teen queen’s dad has just filed for bankruptcy), so he chases his beloved down the beach, catching up with her at Lucy Vincent, whereupon he stops short and says, trying to maintain his cool, although his voice betrays a pre-pubescent squeak, “Are those people naked?” Cut to commercial break and scenes from the coming season.
The Biz has already tried to exploit the Vineyard artistically (if we can use that term). In recent memory, the 2007 reality show, The Bluffs, backed by MTV, centered on, what else, a group of young people sharing a summer rental. The show enjoyed a nonexistent air time.
But there have also been attempts to cultivate a more home-grown, video-taped drama.
The project with which I myself have intimate knowledge was put together in the winter of ’91/’92 when my (now-ex) husband, Marty, and I moved full-time to the Vineyard with our then-seven-year-old son, Charlie. Marty and I were television writers in exile, and the first thing show bizzies do when they move to the Island (for the sake of putting off, for as long as possible, getting real jobs), is to declare in the manner of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, “Let’s make a movie!”
We called it a soap opera, but in effect our aim was more pretentious. We had both spent much of the 80s watching Masterpiece Theatre, and we thought we could create a drama with more wit and style than your typical American soap (granted, that’s not saying much).
The story contained two time-frames: The 1920s, and the now-incredibly-archaic, but then-up-to-date early 90s. In a week of feverish activity, Marty and I penned a script for a 30-minute pilot. Marty, we decided, would direct, and we convinced an LA/Chappy chum and indie producer, Judy Starger, to kick in $6,000, and to help supervise the shoot.
We held a casting call at the West Tisbury gym (thanks to principal, Bob “Coach” Tankard), and managed to snare some of the Island’s top actors, including Terry Zaroff, Taffy McCarthy, Jennifer Kish, and Josh Maidoff. The accomplished director Kaf Warman, of Island Theatre Workshop, volunteered to consult with Marty, who thus far had only directed friends to the bathroom at our tiny condo in Malibu.
We shot the 1920s sequences in Yvonne and Cap Cleaveland’s slightly worn but gorgeously charming cottage on Eastville Beach. The contemporary scenes were filmed in Bob Carroll’s glam penthouse on the top floor of the Harbor View Hotel.
The biggest boon to the show was designer and seamstress Karen Rusillo, owner of Menagerie apparel and antiques boutique in Vineyard Haven. For the 1920s scenes, Ms. Rusillo put together period costumes that truly could have followed an Alastair Cook intro and a blaze of Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary.
Island composer Brian Hughes created and performed a melancholy piano score, and restaurateur Primo Lombardi kept cast and crew amply fed. Theatre Renaissance woman Marla Blakely supervised the modern wardrobe, hair and makeup, and cameraman Robert [LAST NAME HERE] provided atmospheric lighting and lovely shots.
The only element that offended was the sound. Our budget was too frugal and low-tech for us to have anything as educative as dailies, so it wasn’t until the last throes of the filming, when we were busy laying down the track for Brian Hughes’s music at the Channel 58 studio, that we realized something was drastically wrong. The entire sound track held some kind of staticky thrum like the workings of the ventilator system that kept the monkey alive in Sputnik.
The sound guy, whose name escapes me, was abashed; there must have been something off-kilter with the equipment he’d borrowed, undetected until that ghastly moment at the TV console.
Looking back, it’s clear that, while Marty and I were creative sorts, as technical beings we were nincompoops. We were also optimistic nincompoops, so it never occurred to us — or anyone else involved in the production — that every piece of begged and borrowed machinery would fail to prove at least adequate.
It turned out nothing could be done to clean up the sound track. We brought the recording to the inestimable Charlie Esposito, with his own sound lab in Vineyard Haven, but even the maestro couldn’t remove the Sputnik transmission.
We decided to use the reel, flawed as it was, to seek funding for a new and improved pilot. But Marty and I are even worse at selling stuff than we are at vetting sound equipment. The project died. It’s sad because, crummy sound aside, there was some very good work in it: acting, music, design, cinematography, even directing. Somewhere in various people’s attics, there are videos gathering dust with labels with “Vineyard” in the title (yes, we fell into that particular commercial trap.)
Marty and I did find “real” jobs, Marty working at Primo’s Chilmark Store, I brokering vacation rentals at Linda Bassett Real Estate. We kept our writing careers aloft, Marty as an on-set writer for such movies as Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, and Princess Diaries, and with his standup comedy, I with books, mostly collections of ghost stories, plus magazine and newspaper articles.
Would we ever make a TV pilot again with a story set on the Vineyard? Not bloody likely.
Will we watch the new CW TV docu-soap when it airs? It depends what’s on Masterpiece Theatre that night.