Robert Mendel

Robert Mendel was the location manager for the “In The Neighborhood” video shoot. The video was shot and directed by Haskell Wexler and co-directed by Michael A. Russ on October 18th, 1983.

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“I was scouting locations on a show called “Lottery” in 1983, and as it happened, I was on the street Tom lived on, driving my 1971 Pinto with a camera around my neck and I see him — Tom Waits jaywalking toward what I would later learn was his house from the mini-market across the street (it was an old Coach House for a long torn down Mansion in the neighborhood just West of Downtown, with a hilly alley running behind it). I stop my ol’ beater Pinto right in the middle of the street, jump out and holler, “Tom? Tom Waits?!” He looks at me with shock and surprise, and a little fear, which I realize is due to my camera. I quickly explain that I’m a location scout, working, and a big fan, and “anyhow, when’s your next record coming out? It’s been a while!” He is friendly and cordial and says that his next record, in fact, is coming out very shortly. I apologize for interrupting him and get back in my car to park, as I need to scout this street for “a retired ship captain’s house in Portland, Ore.”

As I’m parallel parking, I suddenly realize that Tom has approached my drivers side window and is standing right next to my car! I get out and he asks me if indeed I’m a location scout, might I avail myself of a little time to maybe help him secure a location for the music video that he is about to make with famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler for the new album, “Swordfishtrombones.” It’s important to note that Tom Waits has just been nominated for an academy award in 1983 for his score for Francis Ford Coppolla’s film “One From the Heart,” and his career is just about to take off in new and wonderful directions.

Tom explains that he lives right here on this street and has a new baby (daughter Kellesimone, a powerfully talented painter), and he’s a very private guy, and well, there’s an alley behind his coach house which has inspired the concept for this music video he’s about to do, but he doesn’t want to do it here and give up his privacy, as he doesn’t want the world to know where he lives, what with all this notoriety and all happening, and would I scout around these parts for a similar alley, because he doesn’t want to go too far from his wife and baby to shoot it, and yet the alley has to have a steep hill, because he’s planning on coming up over the rise as a drum major in this Salvation Army Band of Carnival Freaks and he needs a clean reveal, and the alley really has to have that ‘edge of town’ quality with maybe some weeds growing down the center and gritty castoff furniture littering it, and if I’m interested in spending the rest of the day scouting for him, he’d meet me for sushi around the corner later that evening to go over the pictures and consider the options. Well, I didn’t pause, but jumped at the opportunity, of course, and it didn’t take long to scour the vicinity and conclude that his alley was the only one around there that had the hill and while other alleys were nice and gritty, if the hill was important, the alley behind his coach house was IT.”

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“So at dinner I suggested he just use that alley but arrive on the set at his call time by hired car / limo and suggest by doing so that he had been driven from his home in another part of town, and that nobody had to know about where he lived. He loved the idea, insisted on having me location manage the job, and the next day I drove Tom and his producer IN MY 1971 PINTO (and the producer was 6’5″ and folded himself into the backseat!) for the official location survey to commit to the alley.

On the shoot day, it was 100 degrees, and the cast were physically VERY fragile (a dwarf, a thin man, a fat man, a bearded lady, etc. all dressed in Salvation Army/Carnival heavy costumes). We fought very hard to keep them shaded and hydrated all day, and they never complained.”

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“Haskell Wexler, the famous cinematographer and co-director of the video, was somewhat older at the time himself, and he just leaned in to the camera with his straw hat or rode the crane – a quiet and diligent artist. Tom Waits’ new personal managers flew out from NYC for the shoot, and by that time they had heard about me from Tom, and they offered me a job in NYC answering phones for them at their home office on Central Park West for the autumn if I wanted to, as their “girl” had gotten pregnant and engaged. I jumped at the chance, and as it happened, my Practical Theater friends were on Saturday Night Live at that time, so I had the chance to see them and live in the city for about 8 weeks. I thought perhaps they’d keep me on, but alas, they wanted a woman in the gig and I was given notice (alluded to in the letter from Tom).

During that time in NY, Tom lived there and I would drop by their house. I got to chat with him about “Frank’s Wild Years” which he had been telling me about since the video shoot – a play he was developing for himself, with music. Coming off the intoxicating experience of working with Coppolla, who on “One From The Heart” had pioneered a really unique and amazingly high tech village of video assist and creative collaborators including weekly Friday night parties at his studio, Zoetrope, where he directed out of a silver Airstream Trailer all wired with video and communications systems to his stages.

Tom was really thinking about a show that would be utterly unique as a theatrical experience. After returning to Los Angeles, I wrote him a long letter with a bunch of creative ideas and suggestions for the show, having produced Brecht/Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” at Northwestern a couple years previous and full of the tantalizing similarities Tom Waits had to Brecht/Weill in my mind. This letter is his kind response.”

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(Photo credit: Kind permission of Robert Mendel)

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4 responses to “Robert Mendel”

  1. rick says :

    Thanks for sharing all that Robert, I always wondered about that neighborhood..
    The story & letter were awesome, grabbing life’s opportunities, I love it!
    rock on
    rick

  2. durham1984 says :

    Very informative post, thank you for answering some long standing questions 🙂

  3. JensdePens says :

    Great read!

  4. Bitten blu says :

    Brilliant. Thank you.

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