The night was…
(SFX thunder)
The night was…

(Larry pauses, frustrated)
The night…

Stu Silver’s script of Throw Momma from the Train, the 1987 crime-comedy starring Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito (who also directed), opens with those words in a clever sequence of Crystal trying to overcome writer’s block.

Ever since I was a little kid in Kansas, I’ve loved the night—when the light and shadows are most dramatic. When streets are quiet, often in an ominous way, and footsteps behind you sound louder than they do during the day. After the colors of the day have grayed out comes the noirish night where the scenes you see can be baleful in high contrast black and white.

I was reminded of my fondness for the noirish hours when I ran across my old DVD of Throw Momma from the Train.

The Vista Theatre as it was.

In late spring 1987, Central Casting called. (Yep, the Central Casting made famous exactly 50 years earlier by David O. Selznick’s A Star is Born). They booked me for an all-night shoot to work on, as the casting agent said, “A Danny DeVito movie.” She gave me wardrobe instructions, the call time, and the location—then she said, “Prepare for a long night.”

The location for the shoot was an interesting one—the slightly seedy Vista Theatre on the northeast corner of the intersection where Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards converge. Here’s a photo of the Vista on the evening of the shoot. It reveals some fun background information.

1. Off-duty police officers gathering their patrol cars. They were hired by the production company to stop traffic when cameras were rolling.
2. Props were on carts and ready to be handed out.
3. The marquee was changed out for the shoot.
(The Vista was a gay porn theatre at the time.)
4. The one-sheets were switched out with
reproductions of Hitchcock posters.
The Vista parking lot today.

The holding area for talent was an asphalt parking lot behind the theatre. Far from being bleak and dingy, it had been transformed into a movie-maker’s party space. When I arrived, lighting packages warmly lit the spot, and the craft trucks were all set up and serving snacks and sodas. Long banquet tables were covered with white cloths, and chairs were ready for all of us to sit and chat and, later, have dinner. Based on my call time, I calculated our first meal would be about midnight, and I wasn’t far off. And what an unusually fun meal it was.

DeVito and the other heavyweights sat at the communal tables with us, told us stories, laughed and ate and told more stories, and laughed harder and ate even more.

The contrast between the front of the Vista that night (a carefully crafted dark and moody environment) and the parking lot (bright and fun as a day at the beach) was typical of night shoots. I’ve never tired of that extraordinary juxtaposition.

An M-R lighting the night.

The shoot wrapped around 3:30 in the morning. The AD signed my SAG voucher, and I tossed my garment bag over my shoulder. As I walked up Hollywood Boulevard toward the parking garage, I heard—behind me—the muted snapping sound of the 10 and 5k lights being turned off by the gaffers. I started to walk slower so I could savor the dark a bit longer.

Throw Momma from the Train was released in December 1987. Our efforts, the efforts of the cast and crew who worked that night, had been cut to a 10-second closeup of DeVito—but it didn’t matter in the least. That night, I’d earned a few bucks and increased my SAG Health and Pension balance. I’d shaken hands with Danny DeVito, met some fun folks, watched and learned, and enjoyed the dark of the night and the brilliance of the people who make the movies.

Anne Ramsey was nominated for an Academy Award
and a Golden Globe for her performance.