There were about seven ops on the ground:Milton & C.J. briefing them, radio checks, walk thrus of the subject location a block away, etc. Perhaps 20 clowns showed up, most were Ronalds though there were two or three Hamburglars; five or six folks with cameras or note pads were hanging out as well, notably the retired BLF web-master, Conrad Hoc, Phoenix & Jonny A up from LA. The lovely miss Katy B, clown/perv extraordinaire was the clown wrangler. We massed along the shaded edge of the field just to the left after passing through the stalactite tunnel (oldest concrete bridge in America, by the way) just beyond the end of Haight St. at Stanyan. The van was parked two blocks up on Frederick St. On top, under canvases were two bigger than life-sized metal frame & plaster figures. One was a sinister six-five Ronald McDonald holding a plump hamburger in his left hand. The other was a kneeling, freckle-faced corpulent child. The figures were made by three fabulous local artists in a singular collaboration with BLF and NY artist Ron English. Violet Crumble (costumer for The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) designed and stitched the beautiful costumes, mad impresario DPX (with a little help from me) made the skeletal metal frames for both figures & he perfected the animatronic motion of Ronalds arm & last but not least the lovely, talented Mizz Emma Bonny Peel fabricated the figures & their faces & hands, did the finish work and fitted Violets costumes. The singular genius of Mr. English provided us with a remarkable 24 x 10 foot paper image for the back board.
When I’m planning a major advertising campaign, one fraught with peril, the chance of apprehension & possible injury, I become obsessive about absorbing the sense of space surrounding the target location. I am compelled to commune with the genius loci of the billboard. I’m naturally paranoid & more than a bit neurotic about such things. I visited the location dozens of times, day & night in the fortnight prior to the scheduled Memorial Day hit. I developed a feel for foot & motor traffic patterns, shopping schedules – peak hours & slack times (the hit was to be on a board in the Cala-Foods parking lot.) I observed the activities and patterns of the local constabulary (Park Police Station is 1-1/2 block away!) and kept an eye out for any passing Viacom trucks (they “own” the board we had chosen.) Everything was cool. I thought that with the freaky Haight St. crowd of rockers/bums/hippies/shoppers/tourists, no one would notice our work of papering over the old ad until the final seconds when we lifted the 3D figures up and clamped them onto the board. Even so, I gave us a 40-60 chance of pulling the hit off in broad daylight without being popped. Caution? Paranoia? Reason? three things to brush aside if you are stupid enough to try & do what were planning.
So, everything was great. The hit was on for Monday the 30th, Memorial Day at 1PM. The Thursday before around 8AM, I strolled up Haight from a swell breakfast at The Pork Store and had just lit a Swisher Sweet cigar (notice the product & vendor placement?) when I came in view of our intended target. There were two Viacom cranes and a pickup truck at the site. The top board was swinging from the end of one of the cranes & the bottom board (the one WE had chosen!) had a pick on it from the second crane & a signman was oxy-acetyline torching through its I-beam supports!!!! I choked on my cigar – they were removing the board we had planned for months to improve with our own ad celebrating McDonalds 50th. Ron English was in from NYC. Clowns & spy guys were in training. We had made these damn beautiful, expensive figures. We had associates from out of town to film. We were completely geared up for the most ambitious hit since our neon Joe Camel board in 1996! And Viacom was de-installing our billboard! I had an alternate board in mind on Upper Market in the Castro. It wasn’t nearly as good and there wasn’t a high volume McDonalds store directly across the street like there was at the Cala-Haight location. I really wanted the Haight St. board. Really. We were doomed. I wondered: were they permanently removing the board(s)? They were, after all literally removing the entire structure, not merely the plywood backboards. No, no they couldn’t be. It was so, so difficult for a company, even one as omnipotent as Viacom to get a new permit for outdoor ads in the commie anti-commerce bureaucracy of the SF Planning Dept. that they would NEVER voluntarily abandon a high profile neighborhood board like this one. I guessed – I hoped they were merely replacing the old rusted, funky super-structure with a new one. If that were the case, could they finish in 3-4 days prior to Memorial Day? I kept my fears to myself, my fingers crossed & came back several times over the next few days observing the progress of their work. As it turns out they finished the job by Saturday. Two days to spare. A brand spanking new, shiny, clean, sharp VIRGIN billboard was now in place. Our ad would be the first. There would be no others before us. Oh frabjous Day! Calous, Calais! No lost revenue for our corporate sponsors. No crappy dirty substrate to apply to. No future argument that we were somehow impeding commerce by “borrowing” the board! Bwahahahahaha!!!!
Even so, I figured our chances of pulling it off in broad daylight with a crew of dozens, a block from the cop shop & across the street from the highest volume Mc-E-dees in Frisco were less than 50/50.
Walking from the Park to the van was one of THOSE moments. My life has always been informed and inspired by adventure film, pulp and weird fiction and B-horror movies. There were four of us. Ron English. One of my heroes. He & Mark Pauline (on the ground crew) of SRL fame (an early billboard improver) are the two hardest working, most talented, obsessive, brilliant and child-like artists I have ever had the great good fortune to know and work with. Ron is, among many other art talents a ONE MAN BILLBOARD CYCLONE. His work has NO parallels. These guys are the real deal. Real art heroes in a world of mewling. puking, sucking, boot-licking gallery commerce. They take serious chances and (have) paid the consequences for real. Jail time, injury, censure. THATS what art should be about. Beauty, fear, all that – forged in the crucible of TRUE RISK
Also on board was old friend Louis Cyphier. A man to be trusted in all circumstances. One hell of a co-conspiritor. Always has your back. Good high man. The ladies love him too.
Rounding off our install team was Freeman T. – Rock solid tradesman. Unparalleled Art installer. Calm, capable, a true white gloves tradesman of the highest order.
What a team.
Walking to the van on our way to the hit I had a moment of genuine cinematic synesthesia. We smelled of the sweat of fear. Our resolve in the face of near certain detection, defeat, capture and imprisonment was total. Like Pike Bishop, Lyle & Tector Gorch & Dutch Engstrom, we strode steadily to a near certain fate…more later.
And don’t forget to come see Popaganda, the Life & Crimes of Ron English at the Red Vic Movie House this Friday or Saturday night. The finale of this hilarious, thought provoking film biography of Ron Englisht is the 50th McDonalds billboard described in this post. It is a must see.