Sometimes reporting a story is like shaking a tree: You rattle one branch and an entirely different limb swings into view.
And so it was earlier this year as I reported on the oral history of the legendary 20th Century Fox Studios that the talented scenic painter Mike Denering came into sight.
Walking across the lot, the “Seven Year Itch” mural that Denering refurbished loomed in the distance. Then there was the “Family Guy” mural and the one from “Young Frankenstein ” — he painted both. Denering also restored the famed murals in the commissary, first commissioned in 1930. Of course, without knowing it, I’d seen his work before on the backdrops he’d painted over the years on such films as “Die Hard,” “Batman,” “Lemony Snicket” and “Jurassic Park.”
John Candreva, the studio facilities operation’s executive director, who knew every inch of the lot, including the subterranean tunnels running beneath, casually explained that the murals were still hand-painted. He mentioned the person responsible for most of them. Mike Denering, “he’s phenomenal,” he exclaimed, adding that “he was one of only about a handful left.”
Denering’s story was the story of the end of a Hollywood era. And he told it to me over many months and the course of several meetings: on the Fox lot, at his home, on the phone and on Melrose Avenue.
There were so many colorful anecdotes, not all could make the final cut. Here is a sampling of some of the outtakes.
Stars on the lot
“When I first started work here [on the Fox lot] back in early ’80s, Lucille Ball was still doing shows here. I would come out of the scenic shop from a break and Lucille Ball would be parking in her spot. She was a lot older and she smoked a cigarette. She was cool. There used to be a lot of actors around here. You’d just bump into them. They were just like regular folks, just one of the workers.”
“We did Mary Tyler Moore specials [at CBS], she was another really, really sweet lady. She’d come in and sit down and have coffee with you in the morning and really enjoyed being in the moment of what she was doing. So that was a pleasure.”
In 1988 Denering worked on the film “Vibes,” a mostly forgotten comedy romp with Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum playing a couple of psychics off to find the “source of psychic energy” in the Andes. But Denering has a soft spot for the flick because he and his crew re-created Machu Picchu on a soundstage.
“There were clouds so you were up in the clouds. And I walked on that stage and I was just floored. It was Machu Picchu. It was like a playground. I just lit up and I started running through it. It was so fun to create that kind of thing. Well, they don’t create images like that anymore. They don’t create environments like that. [Those are] the films I really enjoyed, when they created environments.”
“When I first started they had these big vats full of color. You’d open them up and it was great. It was, ‘Wow, this was beautiful.’ It was like they had lights inside of them, some real, pure ground color. So you’d make rabbit skin glue or you’d make a certain kind of a binder and you could make your own paint. So you’d use that for quite a while before the acrylics came in ... They eventually said we’re taking all your colors away because they’re toxic. The [backdrops] in the early days before the ’80s, like the ’70s, were really beautiful pieces. They were like watercolor paintings. But they came in and took it all away and we had to learn how to repaint acrylic, which is basically plastic with color in it.”
Painting the ‘Young Frankenstein’ mural and meeting Mel Brooks
Denering met Brooks in 2014 at the dedication of the mural he painted in celebration of “Young Frankenstein” and the naming of a street after the director on the lot.
“I love the movie. It was such a fantastic movie. I watch it over and over again. It’s one of my favorites.
“I said, ‘Mel, there’s one thing I was nervous about.’ I said, ‘I wanted to make sure that your portrait was really well done because I really respect what you did and I love your movies.’ And he stepped back and he goes, ‘My family and I love it.’ And after that, the head of the sign department, Monica, called me up a week later and says, ‘Mel’s been here every day off and on for the last couple weeks showing people this mural and dedication on the street.’ So it was a real sweet thing. He’s a wonderful guy. Old Hollywood, really funny. He’s wonderful.”
At the ‘Family Guy’ mural dedication in 2017
“It was to thank Seth [MacFarlane] for all the years of success for ‘Family Guy.’ So during that day, they had a speech and they had him here and the whole place was full of people. He made a joke about it, it’s like: ‘Of all the places on the lot, it’s here in the corner [by a parking lot].’ And they said, ‘Well, this is the largest wall that we have, it’s a hundred and twenty feet long. Yeah. No one else has it. And you can see it from the street.’”
And finally …
“We know that when we paint them [the backdrops], they’re temporary. The thing that lasts is the film.”