Kel Mitchell talks with me about Nick Studios Florida

It’s a special day because today April 16, marks the 20th anniversary of the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show All That.  It quickly became a hit and the main go to for the network lasting for an impressive 11 years! All That which has always been called “the SNL for kids” was fantastic not only because of its wholesome, hilarious sketches from the talented cast members but because of the musical guests ranging from R&B to hip hop to pop who you were all waiting to see at the end of every episode.  I did talk to original cast member Kel Mitchell about his beginnings of the show in Orlando,Fl at Nickelodeon Studios and how great it was for everybody to get their start there (keep in mind this interview is from last December so no discussion of the 20th landmark at the time). You can see all about Kel by looking at his website here. In the meantime here are also two latest articles where the cast members, crew and musical guests discuss the legacy of the show now nearing 20 years later https://myspace.com/discover/trending/2014/04/14/all-that-oral-history-season-one/ and http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2014/04/behind-the-scenes-all-that/.  Here is Kel’s interview about NSF below(there is an audio out of sync problem so forgive my part in this video. I tried to fix it)!

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Bob Brandenburg interview

This whole documentary has been a blessing in disguise. Bob Brandenburg was one of the first people who saw the creation of the Nick Studios from ground up. In fact he was even responsible for the development of the studio tour and Game Lab. I got a chance to do an interview with Bob and he was more than happy to reveal all the gloriness of Nickelodeon in Orlando.

How eventually did you get started in showbiz and then Nickelodeon?

I started performing professional from the age of 17 and moved to LA in 1988 to persue a career as an actor.  I secured a job in LA as a Tour Guide at Universal Studios Hollywood.  It was that job that got me a job as the new assistant manager of shows and tours for the opening of Universal in Orlando opening in 1990.  My main priority was to cast and install the tour of Universals sound stages that ended up touring the brand new Nick Studios.  Universal opened on June 7th of 1990 and as part of my connection with Nickelodeon I spent much of that day in sound Stage 19 where the live Broadcast was being shot.  As of August of 1990, I resigned my position with Universal and started working full time at Nickelodeon Studios to produce the Tour from a Nickelodeon point of view.  That led to me do warm-up on almost all of the shows for about 6 – 8 years.  I loved it.
What was your first impression of the Nickelodeon Studios when you got there?

I first saw the studios in December of 1989.  it was still under construction.  In fact the steps that we walked up were just metal frames… the cement filling had yet to be poured.  The grounds around the studios was nothing but mud.
It was such an exciting time.  I was there when Nick had a press event “discovering” the slime fisher in the front of the studios.  Gerry Laybourne, Geoffrey Darby, Scott Webb and Scott Davis were present for the event.
What was a typical day like being there?
There was NO typical day.  LOL there was always something different happening.  When big game shows like Double Dare or GUTS were in production there was always a great sense of excitement.  Seeing contestants getting prepped for the shows, mess being made, sets being built and the people.  The People were the best part.  SO many young people who were very excited and very passionate.  We were all in it together, learning, producing, laughing.
Any celeb sightings you remember seeing as part of the grand opening?  I remember the sliming of Stephen Spielburg.  After being slimed he was asked what it felt like.  He responded that it was like having one of his kids throw up on him.  warm and gooey LOL
How eventually was Game Lab developed?
Game Lab began as a filler show put on Sound stage 19 during the christmas holidays in 1990 or 1991.  Greg Lee and myself shared the hosting duties.  Robin Marrella was also a co-host.  The show was the idea of Andy Bamberger, the VP of Production.  He thought it would be fun to have a live show where audience’s could watch us test games for future game shows.  Not only could people be invited in as part of the audience it also gave the tour guests something to look at in the tour viewing tubes.  The show was SO popular it was decided to create it as an ongoing show that would be featured at the end of the Tour.  That show became my responsibility along with the tour.  I helped create and install the show that Universal then continued to operate.  It was great fun and allowed all the guests at Nick to see what they really wanted to see… someone getting slimed.
Back then Orlando was known as Hollywood East though it eventually went nowhere. Can you explain how great it was to have all the film production in the area and why it has decreased?

It was SO exciting.. not only Universal but also Disney MGM  (I also got to do warm-up for Star Search with Ed McMahon)  So many cable shows, network shows and films were being produced.  It really felt that the momentum would continue.  However, most executives of shows came from New York or LA.  They didn’t like having to travel to produce their shows and of course the talent pool of actors and technicians were not as plentiful as in LA.  So eventually things slowed and productions returned to being produced on the west coast.
As an audience warm up person it must’ve been a blast to see so many guests coming to see a live taping. What is the best part about having a live studio audience?

I loved making them laugh and answering all of their questions.  They loved seeing our hosts and stars.  Hi Honey I’m Home was particularly fun with so many great Iconic TV stars appearing weekly, from Al Lewis Grandpa in The Munsters, Barbara Billingsley, the mother in Leave It To Beaver  (she actually was willing to repeat her famous Jive Talk from the movie Airplane)  others included Gale Gordon from The Lucy Show, Eva Gabor from Green Acres, Rose Marie from Dick Van Dyke show and many more.  So of my favorite moments were having kids in the audience tell their favorite jokes.  Occasionally they were a bit “blue” for our audience which brought even more laughter from the adults.
Was there a particular show there that you loved visiting the set of?

I was always taken aback when walking on any set.  Nothing beat walking onto the stage when Double Dare was in production.  The Clarissa set was fun to visit.  I loved showing people the Mini ladder that the character same used to climb into Clarissa’s bedroom.   he would lay on a pillow until his cue came and then he’d flip the ladder and act like he was climbing up when in fact he was just three feet below.

Nickelodeon certainly was on a roll with so many live events across the country in the 90s. Describe how different and fun Mega Mess-A Mania was.

Mega Mess-A-Mania was a result of the success of arena tours like Double Dare Live, and Nick Live with Phil Moore and Mike O’Malley.   This show featured two new characters, the Slimeologist and the gakmiester.  The idea was that we have a huge tanker truck filled with slime.  This tanker (an inflatable) hung above the stage threatening to explode slime all over.  The show featured hosts Mike Omalley Phil Moore and eventually Donnie Jeffcoat from Wild and Crazy kids. It was VERY messy and toured the US for a year.  I loved this opportunity and had so much fun bringing this to places like Madison Square Gardens which played in front of a packed ten thousand seat crowd.
10. Have you ever been slimed?
Slimed, Pied, thrown in all of the obstacles during double Dare.  The crew enjoyed torturing me on the set when I was doing warm -up.  As fun as it was I hope never to get the goop on me ever again LOL  it’s kinda icky.
11. Favorite ride at Universal Orlando. Past and present.
Back To the Future was always my favorite.  Now I’d say the Harry Potter ride is my fav at Islands of adventure
12. What would you say caused the downfall to Nick Studios?
It was just too expensive and Nickelodeon had to find ways to reduce costs.  The Studios was a heavy expense for the network.  That was the main reason.
13. Do you see a relatively difference in Nickelodeon (the network) then and now?

I still love this brand and continue to work closely with Nick.  This August will be my 24th year.  Every generation has it’s own relationship with Nickelodeon.  The network evolves as kids evolve.  Back when the studios opened, there was no internet, no smart phones.  Technology has changed Nick.  I think it is just as wonderful now as it was back in the nineties.
14. How great were all the staff who worked there? I always hear positive stories.
That was the BEST part of Nickelodeon Studios.  Young energetic passionate people.  We were a family.  We had HUGE thanksgiving feasts on the sound stage every year and spent both work and free time together.  I still keep in touch with almost everyone via facebook.  It was something special.
15. Favorite behind the scenes memory.
I was a product of classic Television.  My favorite moments were meeting the stars of sitcoms on Hi Honey I’m home.  I got to meet and interview each of the stars prior to the audience coming in for a taping.  I remember telling Al Lewis (Grandpa on the Munsters) that I grew up watching him.  He looked at me with those creepy eyes and said “I hope you don’t hold me accountable for the way you turned out”  HYSTERICAL
Another great moment was when Vice President Al Gore came to the studios for the first Kids World Council.  We did a taping of Nick News with Linda Ellerbee.
16. What do you think made Nick Studios so great and special

It was a moment in time. It can’t be recreated.  It was unique and it was the advent of Nickelodeon becoming the behemoth entertainment brand that it now has become.  We knew we were a part of something special and that stays with all of the alumni.
17. Would you like to see it be reopened?

No… it was a moment in time that can’t be recreated.

 

Rich West interview

You never know how much work art directors and prop masters put into when filming a tv show is like but believe me what they do is fascinating. Rich West is certainly one of those artists who worked during the early years of Nickelodeon Studios and saw firsthand the continued success of it. In our interview below find out how much his job influenced how much he loves becoming set designer at theme parks and why the Nick Studios was a groundbreaking move in history. All for the documentary!
1. How did you become involved with Nickelodeon?
 In 1991 I was trying to break into the “Production” industry as a Designer. I was waiting tables at night, while interviewing during the day. I had somehow gathered up enough courage and “cold called” the Nick Art Dept. To my surprise, they set up a meeting for me. I put on a Suit and Tie (A quality not often associated with me) and brought in my portfolio of Art Work for review. The interview went well I thought, but ironically it was NOT my illustration and design work that got me the Job. At the last minute I had included a few photos of Model kits I had built thinking it might help show an additional talent (I recall including a model of the Spindrift from ‘Land of the Giants’ and an Eagle Transporter from ‘Space: 1999’). As it turned out, the Studio had recently shot a pilot episode for a new series called ‘Clairissa Explains it All’. In it, the character of the Father was supposed to be a somewhat eccentric Architect who would render his buildings in “Googie” style. It was also formatted that the character would build models of his crazy concepts at home. Although the models in my portfolio were store bought kits, this particular skill was immediately recognized as important for the production of the series which had just been green-lit for 6 new episodes. “Dad” would often be building a new model in episodes and I was given the job of chief Model maker. I also shared in the week to week general prop fabrication with another prop builder. After the first six episodes I went onto other Nick shows over the summer and was brought back for another 6 episodes of ‘Clairrisa’ before leaving for Disney’s ‘Adventures in Wonderland’.
2. What was your first impression of the Nickelodeon Studios when you got there?
BIG. I was also amazed at how extremely well set up the entire operation was. No detail, no equipment, no anything was left out. They had everything there you could possibly need to do your job. You would seldom have to leave the property to go get anything and If they didn’t have it, they would get it for you. The Art Department was stocked full with reference books, material samples, art supplies, everything necessary for your job.  Each Sound stage had their own Tool Cabinet, but there was an even a larger ‘Tool Crib’ you could go to to sign out any additional tool or power equipment imaginable to do your job. The Studio had its own Mail Room for shipping, Kitchen for making slime, Sewing room. etc. etc. If a bomb were to ever go off, or the Zombie apocalypse happened, you could successfully live and survive at Nickelodeon Studios.
3. What was a typical day like being there?
It was a standard 10 1/2 hour day as I recall. The first part of the week we read the scripts and broke down the fabricated props required for the new episode. It was then identified who would be responsible and fabrication would start. The last part of the week we filmed the episode. The Prop and Carpentry Departments were also located on the same Sound Stage as filming, just off to the side, which made it difficult. When camera’s began rolling for a scene a loud bell would go off signaling silence on the stage and you had to remain absolutely still until they got the take. This went on all day. Not too easy when you’re fabricating and using power tools.
4. One of your earliest roles there was an illustrator for the game show Get the Picture. Is it an easy task at first to be on a game show where everything is fast-paced?
Actually quite easy. As an illustrator my work was produced weeks before they shot the episodes. Approved art work was then brought up stairs into Post Production on the second floor where they would edit it into the episodes. I was never on set.
5. Is there a bit of a difference between working on a game show and then a scripted series?
Absolutely. While both a Game Show and a Scripted Series have a standing set, the scripted series will usually require a “Limbo set” area. Scripts are usually written creatively with new scenes that take place off of the main standing set. This open area of a sound stage is used for additional set work, which means it has to be designed, constructed, dressed and lit in a very short turn around time. The scene is filmed and then struck for the next temporary set per the next script’s requirements. I recall ‘Clarissa’ having a lot of new sets every week as there were a lot of creative cutaways . One that comes to mind is a dream sequence of Ferguson (Clarissa’a brother) in a Russian Gulag peeling Potatoes. It required a lot of additional work for what was probable a 20 second clip.

6.Orlando back then was shaped up to be Hollywood East but never lived up to it. How great was it to have all the film production going on in the area and why it has since decreased?

I actually moved to Orlando because of “Hollywood East”. Then, after several years of working in TV production, I left and went into the Theme Park industry. I did this for two reasons. The first was my early perception that TV and Movie Production in Florida was drying up. Tax incentives for outside Productions to come to “Hollywood East” were being bungled by the State of Florida. The second and main reason is I found prop making and model building to be a rather bohemian lifestyle with sporadic freelance employment. I enjoyed making props for these shows and it was very second nature to me, but I preferred the challenge and more formal structure of being a Show Set Designer for the Theme parks. I made the switch in the late 90’s and am still in this industry.
7. Have you been slimed yourself?
Happily not.
8. Favorite ride at Universal Orlando? Past and present.
I absolutely love the wonderful whimsey of ‘Seuss Landing’ at Islands of Adventure and In particular, the ‘One Fish Two Fish’ Ride. It’s just so doggone happy and sweet. Universal is very good at thrill rides and dropping people from 80 feet in the air, but we don’t often do sweet, simple and happy. Certainly not in todays market. Seuss Landing is filled with sweetness. The ‘High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride’ is just too marvelous for words!

9. Do you still own any of the props there?

I have many photographs I took of my model work and props at Nickelodeon before turning them over to the Studio. I also keep copies of all hand drawn design work.
10. How great was all the staff who worked there? I always hear positive stories.
I think we cut our teeth at Nickelodeon. Many of the people I worked with originally are still in the industry.

11. For Clarissa Explains it All was the pet alligator considered to be a prop and did it ever cause any chaos ?

The Pet Alligator was rubber. Close-ups of a real Alligator were pre-shot (only once) and then edited in to the particular episodes as needed.

12. What do you recall the most about the green slime geyser that was outside the front of the studio?

It was part of a whole different world. I was usually isolated on the Sound Stages and seldom saw the light of day, except for coming into work in the morning.
13. What would you say was responsible for the studio’s downfall?
I had moved on by this time and was in the Theme Park Industry by then, so I don’t really know. I had heard on the street that the Studio wanted to do more cost effective animation (Sponge Bob) and that this type of work was better suited to New York and L.A.
Let me know if you find out why.

14. You may not be aware but how do you feel knowing that the studios and all the great 90s Nickelodeon shows made such a positive impact on fans and is still loved today?

 Happily amused. I grew up on shows like ‘Lost In Space’, ‘The Munsters’ and ‘Space: 1999’ and thought they were just the most magical things ever in my kid life. It never occurred to me that my work at Nickelodeon Studios would contribute to a similar impact on kids of that generation. In fact, this is the first I’m hearing of this notion. Wow.

15.  Do you mind explaining what you have been up to these days?

I work for Universal Studios as a Show Set Designer and Art Director. I have often been a designer for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Currently though, I’m an Art Director for the new Harry Potter/Diagon Alley experience that we’re opening up this summer. (Hint; It’s going to be HUGE!)
16. Favorite behind the scenes memory.
I was the Field Scenic Art Director for Universal’s ‘The Mummy’s Revenge’ and was given the task of designing the figural hieroglyphs throughout the Attraction’s Queue walls. The small drawings I did on 11 x 17 paper had to be transferred full size onto the walls and the process to do this was causing the Egyptian figures to look terribly wobbly, like they were drunk. I had to come back in with a red pencil and re-draw on top of the full scale figures so they would be correctly painted by the Scenic Artists. There I was, very early morning, in the dark, the walls illuminated only by the spot light on my hard hat. The queue was so well designed that It actually felt like you were in an egyptian tomb and it was creepy in there. The next day I happened to be flipping through an Egyptian art book when I noticed something in one of the photographs. Red Lines. Very similar red lines to the ones I was making on my figures. As it turns out, Egyptian Priest would often take a red pencil and do final refinement on the hieroglyphs before the slaves painted them. I had been doing the same exact thing… 3,500 years later.   I should also mention, I placed an egyptian version of The Robot from ‘Lost in Space’ into the Hieroglyphs as a tribute to something that had inspired me to become artist. (I’ll never tell where)
17. Do you think your experience being there was a learning process in terms of the work you do now in a beneficial way?
Absolutely. It was all part of an evolutionary process. It’s interesting to note that the physical models I was building, I now do in a 3D program called SketchUp. The future is Fantastic!
18. What do you think made Nick Studios so great and special?
I think it was one of the first venues in Florida that offered many artists a larger than life opportunity to express themselves and cultivate a career from it.
19. Would you like to see it be re-opened?
I love any opportunity that could potential inspire a new generation to know what they want to do in life.
Rich thanks so much for allowing me to interview you and being a part of this project. Be sure to let you when it is released and hope to keep in touch!
Thanks for the opportunity Bilaal!