Reflections of a Valley Guy — Part 6 “Hollywood discovers the Valley”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

While I enjoy movies, I’ve never been interested in the goings-on in Hollywood.   To me, it was a crowded place to pass through to get to the Burbank Airport on my way home to The Valley.  That changed – for a while – in 1980.   At that time, computer terminals were downright ugly – just square boxes with keyboards.  But the company I worked for paid a Swedish design firm (I think they also did the 1979 Saab) to come up with a streamlined, injection molded terminal.  Same electronics – fancy look.

Six months after the intro, I got a call from a guy who said he was the prop master at Universal Studios.  He had seen one of our terminals, liked the look, and could I help him get one in a movie?  Sounded like great publicity, so I flew to Burbank and drove out to Universal.  It turns out that prop masters for major studios are big-time executives, with golf carts, managing everything from jet planes to spears.  But he made me welcome.

The movie that needed a computer was “Captain America”.  No, not the one you saw in 2014, with CGI and wide screen explosions.  This was the 1980 version.  No CGI, much smaller explosions.  The plot:  Captain A, who rides a nuclear-powered Harley, must save Phoenix from a nuclear bomb, but he needs a computer to figure things out.  That’s where we came in.

So I shipped a couple of computers and some terminals South and showed up at the studio for shooting the computer scenes.  The studio techs had built panels of flashing light, since our computers had none.  And I cobbled up some nonsense programs to make things jump on the screen.  But it was tough to keep a straight face while showing a guy in a red, white, and blue jump suit how to tap the keys.

We appeared for only 6 minutes in what was not a very good movie.  But, Universal fell in love with the design of the terminals, and I got offers to bring more equipment down for appearances in “The Rockford Files”, with James Garner, and “Mrs. Columbo” (the wife of the Peter Falk detective, who sadly only lasted for 4 or 5 episodes, but was computer literate.)

But the apex was this:  we provided the computer terminals for “ET”, while the studio did their own flashing lights.  (Next time you see a re-run, watch the credits closely.  We come up just before the caterers.)

And no, I never even saw Steven what-his-name.  And I had no idea it would become a classic.








This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 6: “Hollywood discovers the Valley”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 7: “The Hollywood adventures continue”