by Doug Miller
I worked in television production for thirty years. When somebody asks me how I got my job, I start the story with my grandfather, Harold V. Miller, and I begin around 1930 because ours is a multi-generational story.
My grandfather came to this country with his parents as a very young boy from London. He was an engineer son of a bike shop owner. By the time he was a young man, he had purchased a small movie theater on the west side of Los Angeles. It was during this time, he made friends with another engineer type who worked at Mitchell Camera Company. With his knowledge of gears and bike chains, he and his friend came up with an ingenious idea. With two paired stationary electric motors and two bike chains, he locked a 35mm film camera with a 35mm projector accurately enough to shoot the projection and have no frame line flicker. With the addition of a translucent screen and a rear projection, they could place talent in front of the screen, light them, and shoot them with a moving projected background. The process was cleverly called “Process,” more accurately known as “Rear Screen Projector/Camera Interlock.” When two such electric motors are wired correctly, they sit idle. Any movement applied to one is replicated exactly by the other. With one motor on the camera with gears and a chain and a second on the projector connected also with a chain to replicate the movement of the camera, the two are perfectly locked and can never drift. Growing up in a bike shop had paid off. His work was written about in Who’s Who around 1932. The invention would change the way movies were shot for the next eighty years.
He was forced into early retirement by cataracts of the eye that made him legally blind before his untimely death from a heart attack and stroke while on his first trip back to the UK in 1964. The seeds had been sewn, however, for my father to follow in his wake.
Growing up in La Cañada and running movies at The Montrose Theatre, my dad, Robert V. Miller, became a Projectionist at the tender age of sixteen. His love of the moving picture was second only to his love of sound recording. While the gig paid well, he eventually went on to get a degree in sound from Pasadena City College.
An older neighbor down the block heard of my dad’s love of projection and bequeathed an old machine to him upon his death. It was the second projector ever owned by Cecil B. DeMille. The old man had one stipulation. If they ever built a Hollywood museum, he was to donate that old 16mm with the shutter in front of the lens to the museum. I grew up in a house with that projector displayed prominently. When they finally moved the Lasky Barn from Paramount to the location across from the Hollywood Bowl, my dad followed through and donated it. It sits on the floor at The Hollywood Heritage Museum in a glass case, but it needs a plaque or something to explain its importance—something I have been meaning to correct for years.
After meeting my mother, Peggi McClain, who was an usher at The Montrose, they wed in 1960. He was committed to projection, but he really loved sound. His first few calls beyond The Montrose were at Paramount as a cable wrangler in the sound shop. One day while working as a daily there on Dobie Gillis, he heard that the old Process Gear on Stage One had failed and a feature was going to be shut down for months while they shipped it to Minnesota where the only living guy left who could fix it was located. Dad went over and fixed it on his lunch break. When the Projection Department heard what he did, they came to his stage and asked, “Hey kid … how the hell did you fix that so fast?”
“Well, my dad invented that.”
He was swiftly offered a weekly in projection, which he of course, accepted.
After a short time there, I was born into the family the first week of ’63. Little did they know at the time, how this business would continue in our family. My mother’s brother, Tom McClain, studied to be an Industrial Design Engineer at Long Beach State College. When he met my dad, he expressed a desire to learn the art of projection too. My dad showed him all about the simplexes and carbon lamphouses he loved so much and helped my Uncle Tom get a trial in the Projection Department at Paramount Studios. Tom tells the story as a trial by fire. He was in the projection booth and in comes a big pile of track and picture. After threading up two picture machines and two sound heads, about two minutes into running, he hears over the intercom “Next!” so off they come to the rewind bench while reel two is running and he threads up reel three just in time to hear “Next!” again. Off goes reel two and while three is now running, he loads up four … “Next!” This went on while he was sweating up there trying to keep up. Which he did. He was told it was Robert Evans out there saying “Next!” but he always suspected it was my dad, who informed him shortly after that he had a job at Paramount. My father went on to become Chief Engineer at Paramount and was responsible for about fifteen screening rooms and eventually, Head of the Projection Department. My uncle Tom’s humble career started at Paramount, which had him working around Orange County on daily calls running all kinds of screening rooms. He got quite good. He was running shows at The Miramar Theater in San Clemente when the new young theater owner wanted to do some rock & roll shows there. Tom jumped at the chance to help. He helped build the stage and install all of the lighting and the sound equipment. After a successful run of music shows and similar work at the Orange County Performance Center, he eventually joined Local 504, Orange County Stagehands. He then landed a job as Head of Sound at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, where he spent the next thirteen years. He would go on to be the go-to technical director for Disney when they came looking for someone with live rock show experience to help with some ambitious movie premier events. He worked with Disney as a freelancer for about ten years from Pocahontas in Central Park to Pearl Harbor on the deck of an aircraft carrier under way to Hawaii with a full orchestra and a giant screen that he designed to fold out of and back into a tiny box on the deck, complete with working curtains. Since then, he has done things for The Pentagon, a presidential inauguration, and even the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in China, but his favorite was The Concert for Valor in Washington, DC. He was tasked with drawing up, planning, and pulling off a concert for seven hundred thousand people at the Washington Monument.
As a kid, I loved art and learned how to make stained-glass windows with my dad and wire sculptures with a soldering iron in my hand. I also helped my friends who were talented musicians with their sound equipment at rehearsal halls in San Dimas. One of the first semipublic gigs I had was as a roadie for my friend Brian Duffield’s band, Tygress, when they had two shows in a rented hall on the outskirts of Whittier with an unsigned local band called Slayer. I didn’t find my calling for sound quite yet though. First, I took a job from music legend Ken Scott, who had worked on The Beatles White Album and later mixed for the likes of Supertramp, David Bowie, and so many others. At the time, he was bankrolling a Zappa spin-off band called Missing Persons and was also managing and recording them. He hired me to sell merch at gigs. I was a senior at Burbank High and just eighteen. This experience got me hired by Bill Graham at Winterland in San Fransico to sell merch on tour with Night Ranger, where I drove a rental truck full of T-shirts from gig to gig for nine months in 1984.
It was at these shows that I saw the sound engineers installing and mixing where I got the bug. T-shirts were sold in the lobby while the real fun was down in the house.
Shortly after my return from tour, my dad heard a friend named Charlie Massa had purchased what was left of “Quad Eight,” a sound company, and had moved it into a tiny building in Burbank. He had drawings and parts but needed somebody to solder stuff together. He hired me at minimum wage, about $4 an hour at the time. He handed me a power amplifier, pointed me to a wall of parts, and said, “Can you build me a dozen just like this one?”
After a year or so, he sent me to a Pro Audio dealer around the corner to get a sub-woofer for a system upgrade we were doing at the home of Barbra Streisand. Pro Audio Services and Supply Co. was in a famous old recording complex once known as Kendun Recorders. It had two full studios with large control rooms and two extra smaller rooms. In the ’70s, everyone from Stevie Wonder to Paul McCartney had recorded there but the gear was gone, repossessed a decade earlier, and the buildings had been emptying for years.
I started bugging the new owner, Bob Hacken, for a job. He had built his company selling new and used gear for music studios and now his plan was to find tenants for the rooms and to sell them new and/or used gear, along with a service contract. After many visits, he agreed to hire me. He told me he had rented the first and largest room and sold a big package, including a big Trident 80B mixing console. My first day would be the day that console arrived from England in a 9’ crate. He needed the help to move it. He and his tech, Mark Bonasara, had me soldering mic lines and Tuchel connectors for weeks. I was up to about $8 per hour and I was learning a ton. Warranty repair on Crown and Crest amps, outboard stuff like Lexicon and TC. and 2” 24-track tape machines, Studer, Ampex, 3M, and Otari. I learned about 1/4”, 1/2”, 1”, 2” tracks, 4 tracks, 8 tracks, 16, and 24. A few weeks after that first studio opened, I found a drummer I knew from the club scene in Hollywood just walking across the patio where I ate my lunch.
“Hey Steven, what are YOU doing here?” I asked.
“Dude, I got a $120,000 record deal, can you buy me and my friend Slash lunch?”
They were penniless local kids from the Hollywood club scene with a little-known local band called Guns N’ Roses. They had the studio for a thirty-day lockout to do guitars and vocals for their debut album, Appetite for Destruction. I will never forget when the studio owner, Steve Smith, found me outside and pulled me in a week later so he could play play me rough mixes of “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” through that Trident 80B from the MTR90 2” Master.
“Wow, this room sounds good!”
Well, the mojo was there and the acts that followed over the next four years included Heart, Cheap Trick, Billy Idol, Jason Bonham, Roy Orbison, and so many others. Subsequently in another studio there called Red Zone, in which I installed an AMEK Angela mixing console, we saw Green Day’s debut Dookie, LA Guns, Steve Lukather, Warren Zevon, Slaughter, Kenny G, and Vanessa Williams fresh from her Miss America falling out. Around this time, I joined the Orange County Stagehands Local 54 so I could take gigs working with my uncle down at Irvine Meadows. I only worked on shows I wanted and only if they didn’t interfere with my job at Pro Audio. It was a fun few years.
Then it happened. My father asked me if I was ready to make a little more than $8 an hour. Some years earlier, his local had merged with a small group of sound folks who recorded actors on sets of features and TV. He took me to meet Mr. Wacter and, with my experience and some entrance dues paid, I was allowed into IATSE Local 695 and was looking for new work.
The next two years went by fast. I was playing ping-pong with Ann Wilson and drinking beers with Slash but still only up to about $8.50 an hour when Bill Harrington at Paramount needed somebody to make fifteen thousand feet of mic cables in a hurry. He and Dan Brewer at Tech Services on the Paramount lot had been providing sound and video tech to Cheers and a few other sitcoms when they picked up another and had to scramble. I called in sick to Pro Audio on a Wednesday in December of ’89 and reported to the basement of Paramount’s Stage 31. I made a boatload of cables that day with Canare Star Quad and a few hundred nice new black Neutrik XLR’s with gold pins. They liked my output and asked me to come back the next day, and the next. Then Bill asked me if I could be a maintenance person on a sitcom. My mind flashed to the day my parents had taken me to the studio to see an episode of the I Love Lucy show, the one where Lucy worked at the bank with Vivian Vance. I still remember looking up and seeing the Boom Operators waving their arms around up in the green beds and thinking, “hmmm ,that looks like fun. I bet I could do that.” I think I was about twelve. However, I had never seen inside the sound booth. He took me to Stage 25 to see the booth on Cheers. What looked like a little baby console to me, a Yamaha 1516, and a pair of reel-to-reel decks? Otari B2 1/4” and a 1/2” MRKIII4. I could fix a couple limiters I had installed dozens of and a patch bay I could wire easily. Oh, and there were some of my new XLR cables on the floor standing by.
All I said was, “Well, I am a warranty repair trained tech on both of those machines and this console looks like a toy to me. Is that it?”
I was in, he was down. I was on Dear John for two nice twelve-hour days a week and would make more than a week’s pay back at my soon to be “old job.” I had to break it to my boss in Burbank that I didn’t have the flu for three days like I had said I did. I went in on Monday to give my notice. He asked what my new rate was and thought maybe he could match it and keep me …. I told him.
I think he actually spit out his coffee and said, “I’m gonna miss you, Doug!”
I stayed there at Paramount, installing and maintaining the sitcom packages for seventeen seasons. In the process, I learned how to wrangle cables on cameras, what a PL system was, and how to install and repair that. I learned how to string Fisher booms and move perambulators around, how to run four channels of microwave video assist transmitters and monitors, how to install mic lines and PL’s and effect speakers in the green beds and how to install a dozen little shotgun mics to capture audience reactions. I saw ways to make installation and un-installation more efficient by replacing hundreds of single-line mic cables with multi-pin snakes and I re-wired the packages, a couple a year, for a couple years till I had them all the way I liked them. Most of this work was done in the summer when the shows and all the freelancers were on hiatus. The stages got new patch bays and new mic lines and eventually, we replaced all the reel to reels with High 8 Digital DA98 and the Sony version, which I liked better as it had separate XLR ins and outs over the “D” connector fanouts on the Tascams.
I got derailed a year after I started at Paramount when the unthinkable happened. Dan Brewer had a heart attack and died while playing tennis with his cardiologist. By then, we had our new packages at Paramount, Universal, Fox, and Disney. Dan had been the keeper of those sweet rental deals and most of them went away when he died. Our department lost half its business and I got laid off. I think it was about eighteen months before Randy Dixon told the new guys, Tom Bruhl and Frank Estrada, about me. I was working with my friend Jamie Sutton out of a storefront in Burbank, installing and repairing music studio gear for about half what I had been paid in the union. We got pretty famous for taking old beautiful Neve Mic Pre/EQ modules from older desks and racking them up. I built racks for The Rolling Stones and for Heart and a bunch of studios around the country that ended up being used by big names like Pantera, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and many others. We were restoring a big API for a studio in Seattle when I got the call from Frank Estrada at Paramount. They had picked up a couple sitcoms again and I was back!
I worked on Cheers, Coach, Major Dad, Frasier, Becker, and all the rest. All in all, about eighty shows in and eighty shows back out again. Pilots counted. For me they were just as much work as a show that hung around for years. I worked steady from ’92 until 2006, when Paramount closed our department and laid me off again, this time for good. I had been there seventeen years and was in deep shock when that happened. I figured I would never again smell the inside of a hot stage. I purchased a little mixer from a new company called Sound Devices and with a 416 and K-Tek pole, I worked for Entertainment Tonight, grabbing B-roll at parties and a few other odd gigs. There was a one-day call to run a small PA at the equestrian center near my house for Warner Bros. Then, I was asked by an AV company in Santa Monica if I wanted to mix a couple bands down at Olvera Street. I had mixed weddings and bands at backlot parties at Paramount hundreds of times, so I said sure. I figured it was the little concrete bandstand at the top of Olvera Street. The day of the event, as I was parking at Union Station, I turned around to see the whole park fenced off for an international televised music festival and party sponsored by Seagram’s with a huge stage and lighting truss. I was to mix three big bands from a tent three hundred feet from stage on a Digital Yamaha 5D. I was mixing for the cameras and had to follow along during sound check between the Front of House and The Monitor guy … in Spanish! I don’t speak Spanish. I also had to track it all on a 48-channel Pro Tools and 48-channel Tascam. The Pro Tools crashed 3/4 of the way through but the Tascam lived. So did I, somehow by the skin of my teeth. I grew a few gray hairs that day.
After starving for another year or so, I got called by Warner Bros. again to do the same one-day PA gig at the equestrian center. I worked with Steve Blumenfield again, only this time, I realized WB really needed to hire me. Mike Riner had taken the job as Department Head and needed to replace himself in engineering. I lobbied hard and he told me he’d call me if and when he could. While I waited, I took a gig for a company installing video conferencing equipment at Amgen in Thousand Oaks with my friend Mark Aragon. We were to upgrade three hundred fifty rooms at Amgen with HD projectors, cameras, and all new audio. Mark and I were on about our fourth room when I was over at Disney in Glendale measuring a room for an upgrade late on a Friday by myself when I got the call.
Mike from WB said, “Hey, I’m thinkin’ about bringin’ you in Monday.”
“What time do you need me?” I asked.
“To be there? 8:30.” I replied, “I’ll see you at 8:00!”
WB had DM2000 digital consoles on the sitcoms and they also had mobile wireless single-camera show packages with Cooper mixers that ran on batteries. Wow, I was back in school! With Mike’s help and the tutoring I got from Mitch Quinones and Ara Mkhitarayn, I learned the WB version of a sitcom package and all about the single-camera stuff too. Then I went to work, first rewiring all those single-camera carts and then all new everything for the sitcoms too. It took a long time to get everything the way I wanted it. Like before at Paramount, I was able to work on the packages during the summer hiatus. After a few more years, every package had new everything. The single-camera shows got rid of the Fostex PD4’s and the DB824’s and moved onto Sound Devices. In two years, we purchased twenty-four 788T 8-track decks and helped the manufacturer with testing software versions and getting the bugs out. Then all the sitcoms got new patch bays, multi-pair snakes between racks all connected with Elcos for quick disconnect. We also added a nice A/V tie line rack down on the camera isle and got some Sound Devices PIX270i for recording the audio masters and for HD video playback for the sitcoms. I had the packages all right where I wanted them. In 2020, we were starting to buy Sound Devices’ newest Scorpios and CL16. I was there for twelve seasons. From Two and a Half Men, Old Christine, Cold Case, and Without a Trace to The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly, Two Broke Girls, Mom, The Mentalist, Shameless, Lucifer, and Young Sheldon and all the others. Another eighty or so. What a ride!
I went out for a two-week medical leave that turned into six weeks. The very day I was ready to return was March 27, 2020; the day they locked the gate and closed Warner Bros. because of the coronavirus. By the time the studio re-opened about five months later in August 2020, I had moved my wife and kids to Maui and I never looked back.
Most people have a job they go to where they see the same four or five people every day and they become like family. I had fifteen stages each with at least twenty people I considered family. My family was hundreds of people. I spent all my time with them, ate all my meals with them, and they truly became my giant family. I love them and miss them and I am forever grateful to each of them for being professional and personal and for making my career what it was.
I was twenty-seven when I joined 695 and now, in 2022, my son Skyler is twenty-seven. He has dabbled with sound a few times, once even mixing a school play on a Mackie in high school. Now he wants to join the family business. Skyler has been in Seattle since college but is moving back to LA this summer to join Local 695. He plans to learn how to operate Fisher booms and peds with his sights set on sitcoms. He will be the fourth generation in my family to enter this crazy business and when somebody some day asks him how he got his job? His story will start in 1930 with my grandfather Harold, son of a bike shop owner, and his “Process.” The next chapters are yet to be written.