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Memoirs of a Set Designer: A Candle Cove Story

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CandleCove1

possible caption from the episode

10/11/98

It’s been almost 30 years since I left for Long Island, after retreating from the small uhf studio in Ashland, KY and the life I once knew. Leaving only with a small suitcase and the clothes on my back, I ran and didn’t look back from a childhood paradise that slowly evolved into a traumatizing nightmare. It was then and there, that I was a young adult, down on my luck and barely making enough to pay the monthly rent for the apartment a friend and I shared.

I was barely making minimum wage at my first job, where I would flip burgers for nine hours a day in the heat. The small eatery was beside a long stretch of highway, which my superstitious boss used to call "Ghost Road," a place where the ghostly hitchhikers would hail rides from unknown passers-by. I switched my apron in for a fluorescent vest, to start pulling shopping carts into the local grocery store and mopping floors for twelve hours a day, for five days of the week, again—barely making minimum wage. I quit after only four weeks of working to look for a better, higher-paying job, after receiving a notice that I was going to be evicted.

It was while reading the morning paper, three days later that I found an answer. Perhaps this would be the answer to my problem. The small article in the want ads called for pairs of helping hands to build set pieces for kids' shows at the small, nearby uhf studio that was about thirty minutes away. I was excited, and ran for my red sedan, hoping to get there before somebody else could. Something told me this would be my day, and I was hoping it would. After driving for what felt like forty minutes, I pulled into the nearly abandoned parking lot and looked for an unlocked door, or at the very least, somebody to unlock said door. At last, I found a door that would open and was hit by a blast of cool air from the air conditioners being nearly on full blast.

I was about to approach the front desk to ask for more information about the job offering, but was stopped by an older gentlemen in khaki pants and a blue polo, with neatly combed back brown hair and green eyes. When he asked if I was here for the job position and I said yes, he smiled from ear to ear. He gripped my hand like a python and shook it. He seemed overly excited; perhaps he forgot to take some medication that morning, or was on a caffeine high. I wasn’t sure which. Maybe both, I couldn’t tell you honestly.

“The name's Bob Fields.” He said, still shaking my hand “Or just Boss. I’m so happy that somebody saw the article. Times have been really tough because of the recent tax cuts and stage hands walking off. Please, follow me.”

When he finally let go, my hand was red and numb. I followed him through the halls to the set, trying to shake it off.

Mr. Fields was a strange person, but could you blame him? He loved his work and seemed to love the people there like a second family. Arriving onto the set, there were about a dozen people in different parts of the large room, which made me think that they shot different shows in one room at the same time. He showed me around the room and explained the different shows they were working on. It didn’t take an expert to take one look at the set pieces and realize how cheap and awful they were—making it loud and clear how seriously low budget they were.

I knew times were tough, but not this tough. The first show that he introduced me to was called “Jumbo’s Circus”, an educational kids' show that showed kids how to count, tell time, identify colors, shapes and other things. It was a very basic show, for the Pre-K demographic. After meeting the director and cast, I declined. It was nothing against them, but it was my extreme coulrophobia which had haunted me since I was a child.

Fields then showed me another show. This one tried to be educational, in the sense it tried to teach kids moral lessons in each episode. Unlike "Jumbo’s Circus" where it was mostly live-action, with people making up most of the cast, this one had a cast consisting of only puppets of different shapes, sizes, textures and colors. The show was called “Sunshine City”, which followed a group of puppet kids, who would deal with real world problems that most kids had never heard of or experienced.

Common morals were those such as “stealing is wrong”, “treat others the way you’d want to be treated” and “respect authority”. But some of the episode themes were rather serious, especially for a kids show. One of the episodes was about one character, Lucas, who was bullied by another puppet, Peter—because his felt skin was an abnormal color, and the only one of all the puppets on the show.

One of the puppeteers, who I spoke to shortly before I moved, told me about the darkest episode the show did. It was shown only once, because of the content, which resulted in the immediate cancellation of the show. In it, the sad, orange puppet, Ron, was more upset than usual. He did his usual "Woe is me" speech, then left, not returning until the last two minutes of the episode.

In that short time, Ron can be seen sitting on a rock by the train tracks, staring at the cardboard sunset horizon. Sounds of a train could be heard, getting louder and louder with each second. Ron sighs and stands up. As the train speeds forward, Ron jumps out in front of it and the scene cuts to black. The last shot is a fade in, showing Ron’s dismembered puppet arm lying beside the tracks. Cotton is coming out of the limb, and the train chugs onward into the sunset. The final scene and the credits roll in silence.

The nature of the show was weird to me, and made me feel uneasy. I, again, declined the offer. Fields sighed, and showed me the third show they were working on. It was another puppet show, which was about pirates.

The title of the show on the script was "Pirate Place," but seemed to be crossed out faintly in pencil, with the new name written beside it; "Candle Cove." Fields explained the plot of the show, which was about a girl named Janice, who would go on adventures with a pirate named Percy, who wasn’t a really good pirate, because he got scared real easily.

The more he spoke about it, the more interested I became. He told me about a boat what that director said, in a dream, had an Ed Wynn-like voice. He conjured up images of a smiling boat with big eyes, that seemed to swallow the sea and sing. I could faintly hear calliope music playing as the waves would crash against the boat. He explained two other characters, the villains.

They were two strange puppets. Horace Horrible, who had tall teeth, a handlebar mustache and a monocle. The Skin Taker was a skeleton on strings, which had glass eyes and a cape and top hat. The character of Janice reminded me of myself as a kid, dreaming about going on adventures and looking for hidden treasure on the seven seas. I signed up for the project, and Fields smiled.

He introduced me to the director of my childhood dream, Emerson Grimes. Grimes seemed like an okay guy. He was wearing hiking boots, blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. He was also wearing a trucker hat, perhaps hiding possibly-thinning hair. He took me to a rec room, where the rest of the small crew was drinking Tab and playing darts. At the time, they only had three voice actors: Todd Smith (Pirate Percy), Michael Colon (The Skin Taker) and Leonard Lloyd (The Laughingstock). They were still looking for somebody who was the embodiment of Horace Horrible, and they were sending out the casting director and a crew member to find somebody to play Janice.

A week later, they found somebody to voice Horace Horrible. Grimes found comfort in Jeremy Kirby, who had recently finished working on another kids show for the studio, “Fisherman Fred,” and would have gone on to do backstage work for another strange kids show, “Peppermint Park.” Around the same time, they found somebody to play Janice. She was a Kindergarten student from a nearby school, Jodie Silver.

She was quiet and adorable. She didn’t complain much, unlike most kids who auditioned. All you needed to keep Jodie happy was an apple juice box, a peanut butter and banana sandwich and a coloring book, and she was good to go. To help get the ball rolling faster for us, I had gone to local craft stores and flea markets with crew members to get props to build the puppets and the sets. The most tedious must have been building the Laughing Stock, which took us about two weeks to do. Production started about five weeks after I got signed on.

Production had been very rough, and was becoming a challenge. Jodie would often come down with fevers and become overheated because of the intensity of the flood lights, which were always beaming down on her (it was becoming taxing for the stage hands, since Pirate Percy’s head had to be remodeled twice, after the prolonged heat melted his head).

We became very concerned about her health, and opted to find a body double so both could be switched out for each other. It was a common trick that many shows did, and we were about to do the same. But Grimes refused, and said that it would be fixed and she’ll adjust to it. In three weeks time, Walter Shay, one of the gaffers, was injured on the set in a freak accident, resulting in a broken leg, leaving him on crutches for the entire show’s run. Much of the crew and I considered abandoning the project because of Grimes’ incompetence. But, like everybody else who had it tough we just bit our tongues and hoped for the best.

After Shay was replaced, things seemed to go back to normal and we were on a normal schedule. Things seemed to be going up for us until episode seven was in production. One of the writers, Abbey Levi, revealed to me during a lunch break that Grimes had been destroying scripts, and replacing entire stories. I hadn't noticed it until she brought it up.

Evidence of his tampering was obvious, especially prior to episode seven which was where it was extremely clear what was going on. Jodie, who knew her script like the back of her hand, would often be confused by stage positions and what she was supposed to do. She would often ask Kirby (Horace Horrible), before takes, what she had to do again (Her parents would go over the script with her every morning and night, so the changes confused her).

Originally in episode seven, Percy takes a scroll that explains where to go for the next hidden treasure from Horace Horrible. It was replaced by something of the macabre. It started off as being another episode, with Janice and Percy talking outside a cave, then somehow focused on the Skin Taker, revealing the dark origins of his hat and cape.

Grimes told the cast to just go along with it, despite the eyebrows they raised. Michael Colon (The Skin Taker) was the most uncomfortable with the episode, because of both the script and how Grimes wanted him to present the dialogue. It was chilling, but he went along with it anyways. They didn’t show anything explicit or violent, only delivering some lines which were subtle, but still unsettling.

The most infamous scene that most remembered, was Janice asking why the Skin Taker’s mouth moves the way it does. He didn’t say it to her, but to the camera: "to grind your skin". It was this episode where I and the others started to question Grimes’ sanity. I wanted to believe he was just this way because of the long hours he’d work. But the others were trying to show me that it wasn't the case: he was a madman, and something had to be done. The episode resulted in lots of mail from viewers, asking what the hell we were doing and what was going on. It also resulted in our first warning from the studio. If we got two more, then the show was going to be cancelled, just like the future "Sunshine City".

I remember spending long hours in the rec room, working with the writers and crew to jot down ideas and brain storm. Somebody suggested a more comical episode, involving Horace and a record player, and an awkward episode involving Janice’s and the Skin Taker’s birthdays; plus the introduction of a new character, Nathan. Nathan was written as Janice’s next-door neighbor and friend. The ideas were pitched, sent to the studio and approved by Mr. Fields and were aired a few days later. After only one episode, Nathan was gone.

Viewers wrote us letters, asking where he went and if he’s coming back. From websites I've examined, Nathan’s disappearance was a big topic and had many theories. Some fans claimed that he was kidnapped by the Skin Taker, having his skin made into a coat. Other believed he went back to the real world, or that he got lost at sea. Those with even darker minds believe that Nathan was murdered on the set. We had finished making episode eleven, and we were set to air it the following Tuesday. Mr. Fields approached us, saying that the ratings and views had been rocky.

We had one more chance to prove ourselves. If the next one wasn’t good, then the show would be cancelled. If we could make an episode that would knock their socks off, then we’d be in good hands. Fields took the finished product and we went back to brain storming for ideas.

The next episode was going to be the most jam-packed and longest yet. There was going to be one last showdown between Percy and the villains to be King of the Sea. Along the way, Percy would gain mass amounts of courage, and by the end, become a brave sea captain. In the end, Nathan would sail in on a wooden raft with a group of buccaneers to help Percy and Janice defeat Horace Horrible and the Skin Taker (who would both end up lost at sea, never to return).

Janice ends up leaving the world of pirates, to return to the real world, while Nathan would go on quests with Percy and the Laughingstock. She would only show up on occasions to help them, when they got scared the most. It was an idea approved by much of the crew and the cast. After hours of typing scripts, we sent a copy off to Fields and Grimes, hoping to save the show. Fields was out of town, but called us saying it was amazing. Grimes on the other hand, upon receiving the script, had locked himself in one of the editing rooms for several hours. Production for the last episode was in late October, on a calm quiet night in 1971. It was the most terrifying night of my life.

I arrived on the set around 6:30, when the cast and crew for the other shows had left, leaving us on the set alone. A storm was picking up outside, causing the wind to pound against the structure of the building and the lights to flicker. Smith (Pirate Percy) and Levi returned with coffee and donuts (juice for Jodie) and we waited in the rec room until we were expected to get on the set. A few of us were playing cards, while Colon (The Skin Taker) would play checkers and old maid with Jodie. Shay, the injured gaffer was keeping an eye on the news and the weather.

It was around 8:15, later than usual, when Grimes opened the door, telling us to get ready in five minutes. In the few seconds he had his head in the door, I saw a change in him. His eyes were darker, hollower and slightly bloodshot. His skin was much paler and his hair seemed to be falling out. Jodie grabbed onto Colon’s arm and buried herself in his side. You could hear him faintly whisper to her “It's okay” repeatedly. At 8:20, we were on the set, getting ready to go. We all had our scripts and went to skim them. Grimes walked over to us and took them, throwing them in the garbage.

“There’s a change in plans.” He said

“Changes?” Smith asked, raising a brow “What kind of changes?”

“It’s only something minor.” Grimes said “Don’t you worry.”

Grimes turned around, walking for a folder on his chair, still repeating “Don’t you worry” to himself. Coming back, he had a few pieces of paper, each for all of us. I choked, and I could see terror in the eyes of the cast and the stage hands that were looking over their shoulders. One word was written on the paper, over and over again, taking up the page. In bold, cap lock letters: SCREAM.

“Wilson.” Grimes said, calling a stage hand. “Take Jodie to the play room. Don’t forget to give her the new script.”

Tom Wilson looked at it, with his eyes beginning to widen. Jodie looked concerned; it was as if he'd seen a ghost or something. Tom sighed, taking Jodie by the hand to the play room where the young kids on the set would usually go to cut loose on their breaks. Grimes took the rest of the actors and some of the other crew members into a sound room, almost by the force of his disturbance.

I remember how he would scream and shout like a lunatic, telling them to scream and cry and shout in the sound booth. I swear that the front desk secretary could hear it. I bet people would have thought the making of a snuff movie was going on if they just walked in the building.

I was standing by Grimes, watching in terror as Abbey was crying in the corner, and Shay was doing what he could to comfort her. The fear that Colon had in the infamous Skin Taker episode was coming back. He looked legitimately frightened. He put his hand around his throat, and backed up into the wall. His face was pale and his eyes were watering. He fell down onto the floor, still gripping his neck in terror, staring at the caged microphone, which dangled above his head.

Smith and Lloyd were shouting weird almost inaudible phrases. Kirby’s screams sounded like cries for help, as if they were his last words before he’d have his throat cut open, like a cow waiting at the slaughterhouse. The stage hands that were beside me, and one of the writers, Jennifer Hess could only watch in fear. Hess could be heard faintly saying “What is this? Oh my God.”, one of the few things we said that could be heard in the episode. I shut my eyes and prayed it would stop. But it was only made worse, giving my imagination fuel and the thought I was making a snuff film.

“Louder!” Grimes demanded, with insanity in his eyes and voice “LOUDER! I want your throats to be bleeding by the end of the take! LOUDER! HARDER!”

Grimes went towards the set to give the other puppeteers directions to shake them and flail them around violently on the wooden and cardboard stage. Throw them. Beat them. Anything you wish. One of the puppeteers, Sandra Letting, would have gone on to describe the night and the episode making as a puppet snuff film. The screams and cries of the actors, combined with the abuse of the set pieces just made it a nightmare.

“I’m surprised Grimes didn’t request that we pour blood out of the Laughingstock’s mouth or have Percy sacrificed to a sea demon, or even have Janice be made into a sweater on camera.” – Sandra Letting

The cameraman probably endured the worst of it. Not only having to record the abuse of the pieces we spent so much time working on, but also the death-like wails from behind it all too surreal. He wasn’t sure whether or not he was recording this disaster to distract him from Grimes murdering the actors. After being gone twenty minutes, Wilson came back with Jodie. Her face and eyes were red. Wilson’s were too. I’m not sure who cried more, him or her. Wilson refused to talk about it.

I’m only lead to believe he’s deeply upset for having to put Janice through this hell. But it was a hell she should be happy with, since seeing the destruction of all the puppets she worked with would have broken her heart. The Skin Taker’s jaw was hanging off a hinge. The strings on Percy were broken, as were some of his parts from him being thrown about. The strings that operated The Laughingstock were snapped, and his foam jaw was on the floor in a pool of saw dust. Horace Horrible seemed to be the only one to come out okay.

Everybody left the sound booth in silence. Grimes took the recorded audio and locked himself in the editing room like he did before. The camera men for the ‘puppet death theater’ and ‘Janice’s meltdown’ cracked the door open to give Grimes the footage.His pale arm reached through, snatching the reels before slamming the door and locking it. It was the last we ever saw of him.

Smith, with a sore throat, took Jodie home before the storm could get any worse. The rest of us left as quickly as we could, and hoped that Fields or somebody would pack the props up. I went back to my apartment, to pack everything I had up and drove for Long Island. I needed to separate myself from Ashland as quickly as possible. But I learned not too long after that you can’t run from your problems. The rumored curse that plagued the set came back shortly after the final episode aired, and it hit hard.

Grimes disappeared the night the episode aired. Nobody from the studio remembers seeing him leave, nor did anyone in his neighborhood or his wife. His car was still in the parking lot, but every trace of him was gone.

The only thing that was left on our side of the set, were the discarded scripts as well as some teeth and large clump of hair, which were scattered about the floor—later being proven to match Grimes’ DNA. He was presumed dead in December ‘72, after several months of looking failed. Shay was injured in a car accident six months after the final episode had aired, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Lloyd nearly drowned on a kayaking trip in ‘73.

Jennifer Hess, one of our writers, suffered third degree burns in a house fire in the same year. Smith committed suicide in ’78, after being rumored to have lost lots of money in the stock market or losing a winning lottery number that would have made him a multimillionaire. Colon’s son, Trevor, was murdered in the fall of ’81, ten years after the infamous Skin Taker episode was aired. His killer remains at large. And both Wilson and Fields both died from massive heart attacks in ’87 and ‘94 respectively.

It’s been nearly 30 years since that night, and I’m still too afraid to go back to the city, let alone watch an episode again. I’ve been e-mailed on different occasions by people claiming to have information about where to find the episode and the missing set pieces. I just end up deleting them. Nobody’s sure why Grimes did this. I don’t want to say he was just an artist gone mad, because I don’t feel like I can. If you ever find one of us, please, I beg of you, don’t bring up the show. We want to leave the past where it is, and try to forget about it. I still get occasional nightmares and flashbacks to that day and the ones building up to it.

When they happen, it makes sleeping and eating almost impossible. To those claiming that they have a set piece, that’s not likely; nearly all the props and footage were incinerated in 1983, when the studio was destroyed in a freak fire. If anything survived the blaze, the location of them is unknown and I’d rather not know where they are. And if anyone who remembers seeing the show was hurt in any way by it, I apologize deeply. But the nightmares you've had because of it, will never compare to the ones I've had and still do.

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