The Order of Old Timers
Randy Bechtel
The Order of Old Timers

Any student of movie history knows that there is little truth in the tagline: “Based on a true story.”  In fact, the tagline’s operative word is based because the tagline primarily markets to movie investors not moviegoers. Apparently nothing today spells risk to investors more than originality. Ironically, when compared to sequels, re-makes and films based on novels, plays, musicals, foreign films, comic books, television shows, video games, visual novels and Disney World attractions, movies based on true stories are the most original fiction filmed today.

Take, for instance, the movie “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Its protagonist is an ambitious female lawyer in the Midwest who defends an upright parish priest accused of criminal negligence for trying to cure a dying girl with an exorcism. The film is supposedly based on a trial in which a male lawyer defended two alleged scam artists who performed exorcisms in Germany. 

I mention this only because, knowing far more about the history of motion pictures than the history of television, I assumed reality TV programs are as real as movies based on true stories are true. I say assumed because, until my recent conversation with Eddie Mars, I had not thought about reality TV enough to form an opinion. What little reality TV I had seen gave me the impression that it has the substance equivalent to interviews with professional athletes.

Needless to say, I had nothing to say when Eddie said: “What would you say if I told you we have an opportunity to create a reality TV series? . . .”

Seconds later Eddie tapped his I-phone and said, . . . “Hello . . . You there?”

“I’m here,”   

“I was saying—”

“I heard you.”

“Look, I’m serious! I just got off the phone with Game Changer Productions in L.A.! They’re a major player in the documentary/reality show space! I mean, shows like ‘Albinos in Harlem” and “Medieval Aliens Versus the Freemasons!”

“High bars to clear,” I said. “Why do these people think you can clear them?”

“We! We can clear them!  And Game Changer is willing to fly us to L.A. in three weeks to find out. All we need to do is a treatment.”

The treatment, according to Eddie, would present the premise of the series and then describe three episodes.

I said: “And this series will be about what?”

“Think positively now,” Eddie said. “There’s big money in this for us!”

“A series about what?

“Certified Old Timers.”

I’ll forgo my next response in the name of good taste and instead relate the series of events that occasioned it. 

From some source, Game Changer Productions learned about a Sacramento man trying to discover the legendary lost millions of Mark Hopkins. Hopkins came to California during the Gold Rush, partnered with Collis Huntington to open a hardware store in Sacramento, and co-founded the Central Pacific Railroad with Huntington and two other Sacramento merchants, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford. For decades after Hopkins’ death in 1878, claims that as much as $40 million went missing from the Hopkins estate have inspired conspiracy theories, treasure hunting and lawsuits.

For the last five years Sacramento’s Harry Wooley has been on the trail of those millions. Granted Harry Wooley is not a name Game Changer would have wished for the star of a reality adventure series. But then, as a company exec told Eddie, “Names can be changed.” The real problem posed by Harry was his age; insurance for a television series becomes expensive when the star is 7.8 years older than normal life expectancy. However, the exec had a eureka moment when Harry bragged that he was certified as an “Old Timer” by the Walter Brennan Institute. What’s more, Harry chortled, the institute recently recognized his 5-year dedication to finding the lost Hopkins millions as worthy of its highest rank of Old Timer—"A Real Character.” Unfortunately for Harry, his prospective status as TV star went from being the subject of a television series to being the subject of one episode in a series about certified Old Timers.

Game Changer immediately telephoned the Walter Brennan Institute and left a message with its board chairman, Marvin Mars. Marvin, who is Eddie’s cousin, understandably thought Hollywood calling had to be a mistake, joke or hoax given that the institute is located in Iona, Iowa and its board members, executives and employees consist of Marvin, his wife Edna and Marvin’s brother Larry. Marvin referred the call to Edna, who researched Game Changer on the Internet and discovered that the production company exists. However, hating anything and everything Californian, Edna referred the call to Larry.  As luck would have it, all of Larry’s upper teeth had been pulled and Larry delayed ordering dentures because his toothless voice resonated so well with Old Timers. In a panic, Larry punted to his California cousin, Eddie.

“No offense, Eddie,” I said, “but I want nothing to do with the Walter Brennan Institute.”

“Neither does Game Changer,” Eddie said. “Or at least they want certain changes, including a new name. Thought the one now might invite a lawsuit from the Walter Brennan estate. But the institute is already rebooting. I forwarded you the email Larry sent me.”

I accessed the email on my laptop. Eddie waited so patently I expected the email’s text to be lengthy. Instead, it simply read: ”Becoming an association. Legally too! New name: The Oder of Old Timers.”

I said: “He can’t mean odor. The Odor of Old Timers? Although if ever Game Changer sues Old Timers, it can’t argue it had no clue that Old Timers stinks.”

“Pretty sure Larry meant order. The Order of Old Timers,” Eddie said.

“How monastic. Look, I have no problem with people paying the Order $250 a year in association fees. Presumably they know what they're paying for. My problem is with the $500 people pay for the certification process. I was told you need to meet one of three challenges to be certified. You can loiter in a barbershop every business hour for a week. You can sit in the waiting room of a hospital for 24 hours with only 10 minutes total for bathroom breaks. Or you can spend a month with a mule in the Nevada desert living on whiskey and beans. Question is: Who monitors these challenges? Don’t tell me Marvin, Edna and Larry jet from Ionia to locales across the country.”

“Around the world,” Eddie said. “They’ve certified Old Timers around the world. Even in China.”

“So I’m to believe Mavin, Larry and Edna jet around the world to conduct surveillance of barber shops, hospital waiting rooms and the Nevada desert?”

Eddie said pensively: “How should I put this? The Institute—I mean Order—has always been selective with the truth. Certification candidates must notify Marvin well in advance of the when and where they will undergo their challenge. Marvin then tells them they will be observed. Which is true. Of course, the observer may be a barber or a sick person or a mule—”

“A mule?”

“Hey, mules can observe!  The point is, Marvin never claims the observer will be from the institute. After the challenge, Marvin calls the person—or emails him using Google translator if he doesn’t speak English. Marvin is non-committal at first. ‘How was your experience?’ he asks. Things like that to finesse a clue as to whether the person succeeded or not. Those who flunked usually reveal it the first minute. Those who act like they passed Marvin certifies.”

“That’s fraud!”

“I don’t know. Marvin says it underscores the institute’s commitment to an honor system.”

“Try telling that to a TV audience,” I said.

“He doesn’t have to.”

“Game Changer said that?”

“We never got into monitoring certification. But Game Changer agreed that this show should—to use your monastic analogy—be about the monks, not the monastery. If an Old Timer wants to talk about his certification challenge, then fine, because he’ll do it to brag, not question its legitimacy.”

At this point I told Eddie that I doubted I had the know-how to conceive a reality TV show. Must the storyline be true, plotted or a combination of both? I asked.  Must all the characters exist in real life? If programs are scripted, are scripts scenarios in which characters speak in their own words, or do characters recite dialogue? Etc., etc. Eddie’s answer to everything was that anything goes provided the characters appear to believe it is real.

“Oh, I expect us to take a factual approach to this treatment,” Eddie said. “I don’t know how much we’ll be involved with the show after that. But if we do write the scripts, I don’t see much need to embellish the stories—and especially those Game Changer wants to feature—of Old Timers with the status of A Real Character. You only get that status if you’re devoted to a unique mission. That’s the words they use—unique mission. Plus, our scripts would only be the beginning. If Game Changer wants embellishment, it will have script doctors, directors and editors to do it.”

The best approach to our conceptualizing the series, Eddie said, would be to first interview Harry Wooley and two or three other Old Timers living in or near Sacramento.

“Not the Mark Ellises!” I erupted, referring to three brothers named Mark Ellis who were the only certified Old Timers I knew.

“No, because every Mark Ellis is Something Else,” Eddie said. “That’s their Old Timer status—a level below A Real Character, one above Really Something. I have a list here of Real Character possibilities . . . “

I heard the sound of paper shuffling, then Eddie said:

“One is Peter Loomis of Roseville. He became A Real Character for being the only 80-year-old to walk from San Francisco to New York and back again. His mission now is to walk around the earth . . . Although—damn it!—sorry—he’s already left.”

“Jesus Eddie, the old man has to be demented!”

 “He is known as Bipolar Pete, although that’s because of the route he’s taking . . . Uh-oh! Reported last seen walking on an ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean. That was three years ago. Doesn’t sound good! . . .  Okay . . . hmm . . . Here’s a real possibility!  Marlin Stegbomb of Davis.”

“The name sounds vaguely familiar,” I said.

“Because Marlin has been in the news,” Eddie said. “His mission is to play every golf course in California. He became news for being arrested six times trying to weasel his way onto the Olympic Club course in San Francisco. He posed as an Arab sheikh, Nancy Pelosi’s brother, the CEO of Rice-a-Roni, so on and so forth, only to be busted each time on the first tee. Five arrests were for trespassing. After that, Olympic got a restraining order which Marlin received 30 days for violating. The seventh time Marlin arrived with a TV news crew. Olympic gave up and let him play a round. The irony is that Marlin is the world’s worst golfer. He shot 237.”

“I suppose he's okay if he’s available in Northern California to be interviewed,” I said. “We probably wouldn’t want to publicize his score cards. Who else you got?”

 “There’s Mickey Bitsko of Elk Grove. Mickey wrote a 19-volume biography of Ralph Waite.”

“Of who?”

“Ralph Waite, the actor who played the father in the TV series ‘The Waltons.’”

“19 volumes?  That’s sick! Look, I couldn’t fill two sentences with what I know—or care to know—about Ralph Waite. Next possibility.”

"Wally Wiener of Sacramento. He has a website dedicated to exposing the Double Z, a secret circle inside the Elks Club that is conspiring to make Elks the world’s ruling class. The website lists the names of more than 10,000 Double Z Elks who, Wally claims, are known to each other by nicknames with two Z’s—Buzz, Buzzy, Dizzy, Fuzzy, Ozzie, Razzy—"

“Ozzy Osbourne is an Elk?” I groaned.

“Dunno. I’d have to check Wally’s list.”

“Eddie, the more I think about it, the more I think I’m going to pass on this. Sorry, but I’m not a fan of reality TV and even less a fan, I’m finding, of certified Old Timers.”

“You can’t judge by Mickey Bitsko and Wally Wiener.”

“I’m not. The whole thing’s not in my comfort—”

“Here’s a good one—Steve Chu of Berkeley!” Eddie interrupted as if I had said nothing.

Now I said nothing.

Eddie persevered: “He’s retired from George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco. The man is a CGI guru! And for the last four years he’s developed the virtual reality product called Classic Hollywood Bods. Listen Randy, you know Teddy Gaines? He bought Hollywood Bods and gave me a peek. Believe me, this thing is hot! Its big selling point is that Chu used old movies to meticulously map not only the heads but the bodies of old actresses in their prime. Even though they were clothed, Chu could register scores of points on their bodies where cloth met flesh and virtually configure what they must have looked like nude. Put on the goggles and you can see a 3D Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth or Lana Turner or Liz Taylor strip and seduce you.”

“Sophia Loren too?”

“Probably. We could ask. I’m telling you, as far as fake reality goes, nothing seems more real than Classic Hollywood Bods!”

“Even though the women are computer generated?”

“They’re so real they seem too good to be true!”

I thought a moment, then said: “At least Chu doesn’t sound like he's crazy. Then too, it could be I’m jumping to conclusions about these Old Timers. I shouldn’t judge before all the facts are in.”

“Exactly! Do the interviews and decide then,” Eddie said.  “I’ll set things up. I’ll include Stegbomb and Harry Wooley.”

“And Chu!”

“Most definitely Chu!”

Copyright © 2021 by Randy Bechtel

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