A 21st Century Christmas Carol

rley was dead, there should be no doubt about that. Or at least his career was. Marley had been a rising star in the studio world, but once his animated version of Death of a Salesman, starring the Olsen Twins, had tanked at the box office, his fast-track career had gone south. South to Olympic Boulevard, that is. Now years later, he was resigned to selling stereos at Best Buy to harried holiday shoppers. Now his former partner, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, was in sole control of Amalgamated Studios. The latter had been instrumental in assisting the swift departure of the former from the ranks of the haves."Humbug! Infernal horrible caterwauling! Why can't they leave a man in peace?" Scrooge looked out his large window, through the legs of the 60-foot Eagle statue that surrounded it, and down into the parking lot where dozens of striking actors walked in circles carrying their signs. The chanting of the actors easily carried all the way up to Scrooge's palatial suite and passed through the double-paned windows. "All they think about is money, security, and eating!"Scrooge's earnest young assistant, Bob Cratchit, was still looking up "caterwauling" in the dictionary when his boorish boss approached."We pay them enough, don't we, Cratchit?"Cratchit's silence spoke loudly, but he managed a tight-lipped smile before clearing his throat."It's 8 o'clock, sir." "Correct, Cratchit," grumbled Scrooge, who pulled up the sleeve on his crisply tailored Geoffrey Beene shirt to take a look at his new Rolex. Before Cratchit could have a good peek at it, Scrooge snapped his arm back down."You'll be wanting off until the 6th of the year, then?""Yes, sir, if it's convenient," answered the young executive, who someday hoped to be green-lighting pictures himself."It's not convenient, Cratchit, and yet if I docked your boat at Marina Del Rey for it, you'd no doubt feel yourself ill used.""Well, yes, sir, but the studio is closed, after all. All of our nonstruck series shooting in Canada are on hiatus until the 6th, and there's nothing on the board until then. The features are shut down in Australia, Mexico, and Yugoslavia, and, sir, I have been working six days a week from 8 until 8, and I understand I have a new child now. It seems fair.""Fair? Fair, Cratchit? You think it's fair that I have to drive past those insolent actors who want to pick my pocket every time I hire 'em?"Just then there came a knock at the door."What now?" barked Scrooge, who half expected the annoyance to be coming from one of those pesky writers from the new Hallie Eisenberg series that was burning the candle down the hall. It wasn't a writer, but Scrooge's perennially optimistic nephew, Fred. "Oh, it's you.""And Merry Christmas to you, Uncle Ebenezer, and happy Hanukkah to you, Bob Cratchit," offered Fred as he bounded into the room."What have you got to be merry about, nephew? You haven't had as much as a dayplayer role in a year.""Well, Uncle Ebenezer, there's always tomorrow, and I may have a new agent after the New Year!""For your sake, let's hope this one has booked something other than animal acts. Well, what do you want?""As I do every year, Uncle, I would like to invite you to dine with us on Christmas Day. We're having it catered by Boston Market." "Sounds delicious. But I'll pass.""Nevertheless, the invitation stands. We dine at 6. Oh, c'mon, Uncle, you've had a great year. Celebrate with us. Maybe you'll get some holiday cheer in you and pay some of those actors down there a fair wage."Cratchit buried his face in a magazine so as not to show his growing smile. "The choir preaching to the choir. We pay those blue-collar ruffians a full $240 whenever they work. Next they're going to want us to feed them, too!" "Well, uncle, far be it from me to tell you how to run your business, but many years ago the industry did feed them. And frankly, the pay was better 30 years ago than it is now, and I needn't remind you that most of what you produce now is shot overseas and doesn't use the very American actors you complain about." Scrooge walked toward his relative and stared at him sourly. "You should have been a lawyer, nephew, and put that speaking ability to good use. Now, away with you, and let me get back to my work.""Very well, Uncle Ebenezer, but we hope to see you tomorrow. You know where the Oakwood is, don't you?"With a tip of the hat to Cratchit, the very likeable Fred turned on his heel and left as quickly as he'd arrived.HARD TIMESMuch later that night Scrooge waited impatiently for the valet to deliver his car to the front of the restaurant. Leonardo DiCaprio had picked at a mesclun salad and sipped a Diet Coke, which wouldn't affect Amalgamated's entertainment budget much. As usual, Scrooge had consumed a steaming mug of potato stew-with avocado, as befitted the style of California cuisine. The deep blue lights of his Boxster slid around the corner of the restaurant and out hopped the valet. It was Marley."I thought you were selling stereos now, Marley," uttered Scrooge."I was, but they made some cuts. I'm doing this for a while, but I have a script over at Paramount...""Oh, so does my mailman!" barked Scrooge. "Give me the keys!" Scrooge grabbed the keys from his former partner and slid into the seat. Marley could only look at this sad human with something akin to pity. "By the way, Ebenezer, you're going to be visited by three ghosts tonight. Perhaps it's not too late for you." Scrooge missed the last four or five words as he'd already pulled onto Melrose and gunned his engine in the direction of Holmby Hills.BLEAK HOUSEScrooge was sleeping, floating, dreaming of grosses and of acquiring filmmakers and landing Jim Carrey for next year's blockbuster yet to be written."Wake up, Scrooge. Time is of the essence!" It was a thundering voice. A huge man, who looked suspiciously familiar, was floating in midair, and that was never a good thing.Scrooge sat upright in his bed and pulled the expensive sheets up to his chin. "Wh, who... are you?" stammered Scrooge."I'm the Spirit Actor of Holiday Present, and I'm here to show you what your miserable excuse of a life has done to those who know you.""P... pr... present? I thought these things usually begin with a Ghost of Christmas Past?" "Normally, yes, but she got stuck on the 405. It never lets up," said the burly man. "Come closer, you silly-looking man." And with that Scrooge magically floated to within a foot of the giant. Only then did the apparition become fully recognizable to Scrooge. This was no ghost; it was the dayplayer Scrooge had recently fired so that a certain new and very promising starlet could get her SAG card."You're no ghost at all. I know you, you worked on that syndicated thing we do-oh, what...""Mountain Expedition Force, yes, that was me! But you changed all that, didn't you, Scrooge? Hired a 5-foot-10 blonde with better legs to play my part, the part of an aged war veteran. Does that make any sense to you? We're going for a ride, Scrooge, and we're taking a bus.""A bus in L.A.? No!"The five-mile bus trip from Holmby Hills to another world-the corner of Sawtelle and Venice-took a full three and a half hours. Now Scrooge and the bear of a man stood before the window of Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Scrooge leaned in for a closer inspection.Inside, Fred and his lovely wife, Sunshine Aura, were throwing the holiday party of parties. Out-of-work actors, writers, directors, technicians, and all manner of good folk were in full celebration. Yes, times may be tough, but being with friends and toasting past good fortune was pleasure enough. A spirited debate was underway between Fred and his best friend, Brock Hardin, the actor who had once worked on Scrooge's big hit, Cleveland Hospital. The show had moved to Toronto, and Brock's character was replaced by some guy who had the peculiar habit of saying "Eh" a lot even though he was supposed to be from Atlanta. Oh well, that was the bottom line in this new Hollywood."Fred, I still just don't get it," guffawed Hardin. "You invite that miserable uncle of yours here every year, and every year he's a no-show. On top of that he's a miserly curmudgeon who has never done a single thing for you, his only nephew. I mean, Fred, you have the only relative in Hollywood who doesn't subscribe to the practice of nepotism!" The room roared its approval, and Fred took his turn."I'll not deny your words, my good friend," answered the always cheerful Fred. "It's true, Uncle Ebenezer is a bit of a grump, and he's never so much as gotten me a single audition at the studio, but I still love the old coot. I can't help but think that inside that stingy old man there's someone else waiting to get out."Outside in the cold, all 65 frigid degrees of it, stood Scrooge, mesmerized at what he was seeing."My God, look at this place! It's a perfect working set. This could be New York or Pittsburgh. Look at that corner right there. That says Brooklyn. You know how much money we could save by shooting down here rather than renting space from Universal? If only we could drop this whole neighborhood right into downtown Vancouver.""Scrooge, have you been watching your nephew at all?" asked the incredulous giant."Sure, I heard him. He likes me. Anything else you want to show me tonight?"Magically-well, not magically, considering Cratchit lived only two blocks away-they appeared before the windows of the employee's modest Craftsman house."I would have thought for sure Cratchit lived north of Sunset. He has a boat, doesn't he?" uttered Scrooge."Yes," answered the giant. "A 6-foot dinghy he uses to fish for dinner.""I wouldn't eat anything caught in that bay," offered Scrooge."Hold on, I'm being paged," interrupted the tour guide, as he dialed into his service. After a moment, he explained. "Two things, Scrooge; we have to make this quick. I have an early call for commercial extra work tomorrow, and it appears the Spirit Assistant Director of Holidays Yet To Come can't make it tonight either. He's working over at FotoKem, and he's got a crapload of dailies to do for Ken Burns' new documentary on Spam. It's just us, then."Scrooge wiped the Cratchits' window to get a clearer view."What's he doing in there?" They stared into the Cratchits' kitchen.Cratchit and his son, the teenage Tiny Tim, were hard at work before the computer. "Dad, this is like the most amazing script I've ever read! You got a major league hit on your hands, dude.""Thank you, Tim, but don't say that too loudly. You never know who's outside your window. Besides, remember, this is your script, Tiny.""Right, Pop, I wrote it all on my own. Cool." Scrooge looked on more confused than ever. The big man shook Scrooge's arm. "That's right, Scrooge, the blacklist continues in Hollywood even today. Except now it's the writers who are older than 40. That Cratchit of yours is an amazing screenwriter, but he's forced to use his son as a front to try to sell that script." "I never would have thought Cratchit was so bright.""And the casts you hire, Scrooge. Average age is about what, 17? Your shows are starting to look like summer camp productions, with kids playing the roles of adults." Scrooge turned away from the man and tried to find more suitable filming locations. "How old are you, Scrooge?" The question sent a sudden chill down Scrooge's spine. The spirit continued."Of course, you don't have to worry about that unless your next three films under-perform. Combined budget was, what? a measly $400 million, Scrooge? They might want to have a look at that birth certificate of yours." The big man laughed heartily at the thought.Scrooge, terrified, dropped to his knees in the Cratchits' plastic yard snow and covered his head."I've heard enough, unemployed actor spirit! This place scares me. I've seen the error of my ways. I have. I'll change! I really will. It's not too late to make things better. I can do it. Just give me the chance. Please!" The tears washed across Scrooge's face in a wave, and the giant patted him softly on the shoulder. "My work is done here, Scrooge, but before I go, can I give you this?" The actor handed him a new 8 x 10. "Just in case anything opens up. Oh, and I'm really good with dialects, too." With that the giant was gone, and Scrooge slowly stood up with a boastful smile. "Fool."GREAT EXPECTATIONSIt turns out Scrooge had been somewhat of a decent child actor and had mastered the ability to cry at the drop of a hat. It came in handy on occasions, and he'd used it to great effect when one well-known director had ripped into him for hiring a basketball player instead of a seasoned middle-aged actor for the pivotal role in what turned out to be a marginal hit."Now, I've just got to get that script from Cratchit-he's my employee after all, and therefore it's really my property, and...."The bus hit Scrooge square in the back. Perhaps Marley should have had more on-road training, but the MTA was in a mad rush to add seasonal drivers, and the two-week course was all the former studio partner had time to take. It sure beat parking cars, but he'd never bargained for this. Marley put the parking brake on and rushed to Scrooge's side."I thought you were a valet, you schmuck," wheezed Scrooge. "That was yesterday, Ebenezer. I'm writing a screenplay about a bus driver who holds the city hostage, so I thought I'd get good research..." "What, by running me down?" "I'm really sorry, partner." "You just called me, partner, Marley. After all we've been through." "Well, we were for a long time, and you were a good man once, Ebenezer." "I want you to have your old job back," said Scrooge. "The talent, the producers, and directors, they always worshipped you. The studio didn't make any money, but at least you were liked. That's something to build on. Maybe you'll even learn from a few of my lessons, huh?""Sure, I'll shoot in Canada on occasion, but only when it's integral to the story," replied Marley. "Don't worry, I'll remember the bottom line, Ebenezer, but I'll do it with heart.""End this strike, Marley, it's been going on too long. And hire a few 50 year olds, will you, and get Cratchit's script over to development with his name on it. And that dear nephew of mine, give him-no, get him into a good acting class, and...""Slow down, Ebenezer. You're a changed man after all," marveled Marley. "It's the end of the story, friend, and I'm seeking sudden transformation here. I've always been a sucker for the classic Hollywood happy ending, huh?"Scrooge began to recite the lines from some classic holiday film, and then he passed out. When he would awake, he would fulfill his destiny and become that new man, teaching sensitivity classes at seminars all around the country, working tirelessly on his new passion, in-line scootering, and always taking time to hug his new puppy. Scrooge would never return to the frenzied world of studio politics. He'd leave that to others.He did keep one vestige of his old days-his Rolodex of starlets' phone numbers. Well, he wasn't stupid.That very next afternoon following the bus debacle and after hours of intensive meetings on the lot, a new sign went up on the big door at Amalgamated. It read, Marley & Cratchit, Studio Co-Presidents.Happy endings start with happy beginnings. B