In the summer of 1987, I started as a tour guide at Universal Studios. It was my first real job after high school (well, my first actual job was working the Halloween Shop at Sears, but that was just an excuse to wear costumes after school for a few weeks for pocket change). One of the biggest reasons I wanted to ride around on those trams was the chance to see Hill Valley up close, every day of my life. You see, I wasn't just a mere "fan" of Back to the Future -- I was obsessed. I could recite every line, hum every musical cue, and answer every time-traveling trivia tidbit about it. The summer it opened in 1985, I must have ridden my bike to the UA 6 Theaters in North Hollywood to see it fifteen times or more.
In 1988 & 1989, the sequels were filmed on the backlot while I was working as a guide, which also coincided with my short-lived freelance side career as an assistant cameraman during my first few years of college; I actually worked on the set of Back to the Future: Part II with the camera crew for about two weeks, during the Hill Valley 2015 sequences. Around the summer of 1991, I dropped out of film school altogether to focus on working, and ended up on some pretty high-profile music videos, films, and TV shows. Mostly as a lowly camera assistant or production gopher; being on-call as a studio guide paid my bills in-between those freelance gigs. Alas, into the early 90s, I discovered that I really didn't enjoy the day-to-day work of movie production as much as I thought I would, and fell into a rut. I had pretty much become a full-time tour guide as the lustre of production life wore off for me more and more.
Then in the Fall of 1991, I took a trip to the new Universal Studios Florida theme park in Orlando. In particular, I was excited to see BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE RIDE, which had just opened. My twenty-one-year-old head exploded with just how freaking cool that ride was, from the huge scale of the ride film to the way the story fit into (and expanded upon) the original mythology. I must have ridden it about twenty times during that one vacation trip, and went home giddy.
Now you may think, at this point, given my proclivities towards theme-park design, that I immediately had some huge epiphany that instantly redefined my dreams from movie-making to ride-design, like a magical switch that flipped deep inside of me. Well... you'd be wrong.
Flash back to me at eight years old, in 1978. My dad was a professional headhunter at the time, placing engineers and project-manager types in all sorts of industrial jobs. Quite a few times, he'd placed people at Disney Imagineering -- and in fact, sometime around age eight, he had a last-minute meeting to go to after picking me up from school, so I tagged along with him to WED over in Glendale. While he had his meeting, a nice secretary took me on a tour, and showed me the enormous model for EPCOT. I was speechless. It was huge, and made quite an impression on me. But -- being a theater nerd at that age -- it didn't strike me as something that I could do. It was about engineers, and architecture, and math. All of which I had no interest in.
So, while I was certainly awestruck at Epcot (which became yet another lifelong obsession of mine), I never really put two-and-two together that my skill set -- head-in-the-clouds-geek, storyteller, burgeoning writer, incredibly average C+ student -- had anything to do with places like Disneyland.
Soon enough, I found out that BTTF was going to be built at the Hollywood park, and I was curious about just how that was going to happen. I went snooping around the lot, and called in every favor I could from all the executives that I gave VIP tours to, practically begging for a chance to see inside MCA Planning & Development (now called Universal Creative -- the folks who create all the parks & attractions). I was really just interested as a fan at that point, but my perseverance got noticed, because eventually I got some casual face-time with a guy named Steven Marble, who was BTTF's project director. Meeting with him, I managed to spew out everything I knew about the ride and the movies in a blur of unprovoked nerdity over the course of what seemed like hours, but I'm sure was only a few embarrassing minutes.
I either scared or impressed him, because waiting for me when I got home was an answering machine message telling me I'd been offered a job: Assistant Project Coordinator for BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE RIDE, opening at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1993. And to be honest, I didn't even know I was interviewing.
Of course, I took the job -- and over the course of the next two years, I got to combine my love of live theater, technology, theme parks, and one of my favorite movie series. Granted, I was just a grunt, doing odd jobs like copying, filing, running errands, and making the construction site's security badges. But my initial geekery (and park operations experience) paid off, as I was slowly given nerdy little duties like laying out the queue line, propping out the scenic rooms (a few of "Doc Brown's" handwritten notes were actually mine), planning out the placement of building signage, assisting with motion-base programming and audio mixing, designing the crew swag, leading press & media tours, and being an eager "voice of authority" when it came to the BTTF universe. I even got to meet Bob Gale, co-writer and producer of the films -- he had an office on the Universal lot, so I toured him through the building and snuck him onto numerous test-rides before we opened.
It was a dream job. It didn't pay much more than my nearly-minimum-wage tour guide salary, but I gladly would have done it for free. By the time the ride opened, lo and behold, I'd had a crash-course in location-based entertainment design and large-scale construction projects. It was a real eye-opener, showing me that this mysterious industry that I had previously chalked up to being way out of my league, a mythical far-off realm of designers and engineers... also had room for nerdy, writerly-minded folks like me to learn and grow.
I didn't even see it coming, but it was truly my First. Big. Break.
I'm sad that it's gone now (turned into The Simpsons Ride in 2008, a very worthy successor), and I've been awash in a lot of reminiscing lately because of the original movie's 25th anniversary. Put simply, I'm forever grateful to guys like Steven Marble who saw a spark and gave me a chance. I'm grateful to all the team members who were so amazingly skilled at their incredibly high-tech jobs, and yet made an inexperienced twenty-two-year-old feel like he was actually part of the process -- showing me that half of finding your own path is helping those around you find theirs. And I'm grateful to Bob Gale, who was so gracious and inspiring and kind to me, and signed a poster with words that make me smile every time I read them on my office wall: "To Dave: Thank you for helping to keep 'The Future' alive! 'The Future' is greater because of you! Best wishes for all time!"