June 25, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
I love to take long drives through Midwestern farm country during the summer. I never tire of watching the fields start to green and grow. I spent many of my childhood summers at Loon Lake, near Antioch, Illinois. To this day in my home office, I have a stuffed loon my grandfather shot and had stuffed to remind me of the good times I had at Loon Lake. (My grandfather was duck hunting at the time, and his eyes weren’t what they used to be.)
Each summer, I loved going to my best friend’s farm to pet the animals, pick raspberries, bale hay, and chase the chickens. It was an organic farm that was way ahead of its time in the early 1950’s. Last weekend was my Mother’s 94th birthday, and I took her for a nice long ride to visit Loon Lake. Over the years, it hasn’t changed much, and most of the farms were still there.
My love of farming led to me acting in a few agricultural films and commercials. One of the most interesting agricultural films I acted in was for Ken Kahle who had a film company in Harvard, Illinois. While Harvard isn’t Hollywood, John Hughes lived in Harvard and owned many acres of land there. But, I digress. It was a very hot July Day when I got up before dawn to drive to the shoot. Because the shoot days was a week long and the shoot days would be very long, Ken put the cast and crew up in the El Rancho Motel. If you have never stayed in an El Rancho, it has a very interesting motif. They are like Mexican Log cabins. Harvard was over an hour’s drive straight west from where I lived so I enjoyed the scenic drive on a two lane highway that went directly from where I lived to Harvard. Ken provided me with a great map of roads that didn’t exist on printed maps. Once you get into farm country, the roads go between the farms not between the towns. Many of the farms are bigger than the towns so it is easy to get lost on the roads between the farms. But, Ken gave me good directions so I arrived on time for the shoot.
The sun rose as a big orange ball that morning. The weather forecast predicted temperatures would rise to over a hundred that day, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. As I pulled my car into the barnyard, about 60 cows were being let out of the barn and herded down the path that led to the pasture for a peaceful day of grazing. It was a beautiful sight . . . but you had to be careful where you stepped. Once the cows cleared out, I saw a fork lift truck go into the barn followed by a veterinarian carrying a medicine bag. A few minutes later a cow that was stiff as a board was carried out of the barn by a fork lift truck. I thought the cow was a prop for the film like my stuffed loon. But it was a dead cow that died during the night, and it needed to be examined by the vet. This film had a comedic bent, but I couldn’t recall an episode of Green Acres that began like that!
In this film I played the role of a Fairy Godseller who sold animal feed products to farmers. Needless to say the script wasn’t written by Shakespeare and I wasn’t playing Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream, but memorizing and internalizing a technical script about animal feed additives and explaining dosages to farmers . . . and getting laughs . . . was harder than anyone might imagine. And when the dead cow was cut up by the vet and carted away for an autopsy, I knew my speeches were a matter of life and death. The Fairy Godseller became one of my most interesting and challenging roles. I was a figment of the farmer’s imagination. I explained the advantages of switching feeds in technical details to the farmer with statistics. I had to get the facts right.
As daunting as the script was to memorize, the biggest challenge awaited me in my dressing room. My costume was an all white tuxedo complete with a white top hat, white cummerbund, and shiny synthetic white paten leather shoes. And yes, I had a white magic wand. Keeping the costume white and clean was a real challenge. And keeping the white shoes spotless was next to impossible as I tip-toed around a mine-field cow pies in the barn yard. We only had one tuxedo to last me the whole week. So, the costumer followed me everywhere. If I wanted to sit down, she would put a white towel on whatever was available for me to sit on so I wouldn’t soil my trousers or tails. We shot outdoors and the temperature was over a hundred each day. Since I was a Fairy Godseller, I could appear and disappear with a wave of my magic wand. So we did a lot of freeze frame shots where I would appear and disappear which involved stopping and starting the camera while the cast froze into place and walked on and off the set.
But, the biggest challenge of the shoot came on the last day. We didn’t do the script in order to save the white suit in case of a catastrophic accident in the big action scene which took place in a pig sty. A crew of six men in hip waders picked me up over their heads and waded into a wet, muddy pig sty filled with lots of 200 pound hogs and lifted me onto a platform on top of a feeder that looked like a little house. I sat balanced on the point of the roof. When the actor that played the farmer brought food into the pig sty, the hogs went “hog wild”. They bumped each other to get a good position at the feed trough. They made a lot of noise and interrupted many of my takes. And occasionally they would stand on their hind legs and nip at my white paten leather shoes. Balancing on the point of the roof of a pig sty for fifteen minutes in the broiling sun while a feeding frenzy swirled around me is something I will never forget. I truly felt sorry for the crew who had to come back into the pig sty and pick me up off the roof and carry me back to safety. But, revenge is sweet. That evening, Ken roasted a hog for the cast, crew, and clients, and I enjoyed every bite.