Working as a teenager at a temp job in a laboratory, dripping pee into test tubes with an eyedropper, was not as bad as working for Merv Stimmel at RKO Pictures.
It was the winter of 1986. I was 28. Having recently stormed out of the music business with the earnestly self-righteous attitude that I used to claw my way in, I was now drinking gallons of coffee in cafés and scouring help-wanted ads for another job in the entertainment business.
RKO Pictures? "King Kong" and "The Body Snatcher!" The ad was intriguing. They wanted a creative self-starter to assist with acquisitions for their new video department. The pay was good.
I made my way to Times Square for the interview. In the mid-'80s, Times Square was still triple-X venues, souvenir stores and pinball arcades. Campy, I thought, and pictured art deco offices with old framed movie posters.
The building was so featureless I thought maybe it was just a front for the fabulousness inside. But then the elevator was out of a horror film as it jolted along, gears grinding, with a sickly flickering florescent glow. “RKO, please,” I said to Quasimodo.
The reception area was empty so I walked down a hall until I found a human and was directed to Mr. Stimmel’s office. The place had seen better days — musty, dirty windows, dusty blinds and empty offices stacked with old furniture. It was as seedy as it gets.
Merv Stimmel sat behind a huge desk with a huge cigar perched on his lower lip as he spoke. He gestured to a chair and as I opened my mouth to speak he said, “Hi howya doin’?” and launched into his history with RKO, naming the pictures (“pic-chas”) he produced; none of which I had heard of.
“You never felt cold until you spent a winter in Russia,” he said as preface to an anecdote about producing a picture in Moscow, which led to a monologue comparing New York and Moscow weather (and where was his fur hat, anyway?).
I was about to tell Merv that I worked with Ted V. Mikels on "The Worm Eaters" (even though I didn’t last a month) when he asked out of nowhere, “Do you carry a backpack?”
“No,” I replied, a little surprised, since my outfit was rather chic and backpacks were still for school kids and campers.
Holding his cigar aloft, Merv pontificated for a good ten minutes about the Inconsiderate Young People nowadays on the subways with backpacks taking up the space of two people, culminating in, “I was forced to ride the subway because I couldn’t get a cab this morning” and a rant about people never walking anymore leaving cabs for older folks like him.
I listened, trying to look alert, but said nothing.
“Can ya type?” he asked, as if suddenly remembering why I was in the room.
“Yes,” I said, though my typing skills were awful, but how much typing could there be?
“Good. Ya hired,” he said. “See ya bright and early.”
The next morning, Merv asked me my name and introduced me around as his new “gal Friday.” “He produced some great westerns,” he said about an overly tanned man — leathery but handsome — wearing cowboy boots, and jeans as stiff as air ducts on his thin legs; “the movie archivist” was a fellow with a limp handshake who was so tall, rounded and pale he resembled an aquatic life form; and in a twin office across from Merv’s sat Irv, another diminutive cigar-chomping elderly man behind a huge desk. With a flip of his hand, Merv said, “He was an associate producer on ‘Super Fly.’” Irv raised his arm in greeting but didn’t look up. I realized this wing of RKO was the glue factory for B-list movie execs.
“Robin, take a lettah!” Merv bellowed, as I arranged my desk just outside his office. I jumped. What the hell? Was this 1950? I grabbed the first paper I saw — a desk calendar — and a pen. “Dear Sirs…” Merv began, before I even sat down. “Where’s ya steno pad?” he asked. I had no idea what a steno pad was so I said, “I like taking notes on calendar pads.” He looked at me for a moment then continued, “Dear Sirs…”
He spoke quickly and I scribbled fast. The letter was to the manager of Gerard Depardieu about acquiring some of his early films for video. The next letter was to the Better Business Bureau about his shirt being burned by dry cleaners. “Ya gotta learn shorthand,” he said.
Then Merv left for the day. His workday ended at noon and other days he didn’t show up at all. I read a lot and planned an exit strategy.
During that first week, the leathery producer of westerns ran out of his office and announced the Challenger blew up. Everyone stayed pinned to the radio. It was the most exciting day on the job.
The second week, Merv rushed into his office as if he were secreting the Hope diamond. He had in his case the logo for the new video company. He told me to close the door. On a piece of velum was an amateur spidery drawing of a nymph or fairy with the word VAMP handwritten above. “What is it?” I wanted to know. Merv removed his cigar and yelled, spitting on me, “It’s a vamp!” He moved closer, “Video. Award. Motion. Pictures.” He annunciated as if I were an idiot.
“Who made it?” I asked.
“My niece!” he said.
A few days later the Gerard Depardieu films showed up. Merv rented the RKO screening room — a broken-down affair that smelled from I don’t know what. He lit up a cigar and the movie began. It featured a dominatrix with Gerard Depardieu as her client. The dominatrix strung up Gerard Depardieu naked on a rack against a wall, and as I was mentally recording this as the most awkward experience of my life, Merv said, “OK, I had about enough of this” and, through, a waft of smoke walked out.
The next day, I walked in Merv’s office and quit. I told him I wanted to be a bike messenger. “What?!” Merv said. “Then go!” he roared. As I was leaving he said, “I knew you wore a backpack.”