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A Report From the Third Annual Spark Awards

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If you'd stumbled into the Marriott Sunday night you might have got an eerie sense of deja vu, especially if you're a couch potato or a veteran moviegoer. You might have thought, Haven't I seen these people before?

You probably have. Assembled at the hotel were the tourists, cops, bartenders, hookers, gangbangers, businessmen, and passersby who show up in the background of movie and television scenes. In other words, the extras. About 300 of them (including their guests) had gathered to honor themselves at the third annual Spark Awards.

"You can't have a film without extras," said Dan Chambliss, one of last year's winners. "Without extras, all you'd have is disjointed close-ups of the leading actors and actresses."

"Shirley Kelly and I decided that extras need recognition," said Rosanne Krevitt, a heavyset woman with curly gray hair and many necklaces. She is one of the organizers of the event, which she called "the only awards ceremony in the country for extras."

Krevitt, a former camp counselor, met Kelly on a set a few years ago. Both are now more or less full-time extras. "I've been everything," said Krevitt, "a bag lady, a businesswoman, a maid, an upscale shopper, you name it."

What prompts someone to become an extra? Probably not the money--$50 for eight-plus hours of work. "I wore a tuxedo for one part," cracked Frank Recchia, a middle-aged man who's often cast in "ethnic" roles. "They paid more for the tuxedo than they did for me."

"We have a certain sense of camaraderie. It's fun," said John Budilovsky, who's an attorney when he's not acting. "Once there was a courtroom scene in Jack and Mike, and the directors asked my advice on how to set up the courtroom."

A reporter asked Budilovsky if he dreams of being discovered and making it big.

"Everyone here does," he said.

It seems like a paradox, people whose job it is to be unobtrusive or semiobtrusive honoring themselves for their efforts. How does one spot an outstanding performance by an extra? But that's not exactly what the Spark Awards do. Instead they acknowledge such qualities as dependability, patience, persistence, enthusiasm, devotion, courage, versatility, loyalty, resiliency, and dedication. Anyone can nominate him- or herself for an award by writing a short essay about a notable experience as an extra. The winners, in other words, can be lousy actors if they're decent writers.

Anyway, winning was not really the point. "It's like a class reunion here, a lot of people you wouldn't see on the street," said one extra, a black woman, who was sipping wine with a white friend.

How many people do you recognize? a reporter asked.

"I don't have my glasses on. I don't see anybody. It's so impressionistic," the white woman answered.

How did you two meet?

The white woman said, "We were sitting next to each other last year, and I spilled a drink on her . . ."

"You should have been wearing your glasses," the black woman joked.

Garrick Axelrod, balding and thirtyish, stood nearby talking to a slender blond woman named Mary Faktor. Fans of Siskel and Ebert at the Movies will recognize Axelrod. He's the taxicab driver who gives Siskel a ride in the program's intro.

Axelrod voiced a common extra's lament. "John Hughes will take someone off the street and give them a line--a line we extras would kill for. There's no justice--and no extras' union."

But sometimes breaks come, Mary Faktor said. "I worked on The Untouchables and met Lynn Hauldren, who acts in the Empire Carpet commercials and owns the ad agency that does the commercials. We talked for a good part of the evening--because when you're an extra, waiting is what you do. He invited me to send in a photo, and I got a role in an Empire commercial.

"It's funny how you're typecast," she said. "One agency, I'm a yuppie housewife. Another agency, I get called for prostitutes."

"Mostly I'm a cop," said Dorothy Bak, a middle-aged woman who bears a resemblance to Betty Thomas of Hill Street Blues. "But I'm also very good as a bag lady. One day I may be in a gown, the next day in rags. At the same time I do this work, I take acting classes. It's training to learn the business from the ground up." Bak is six feet tall. "My height is sometimes an asset, sometimes a liability," she said. "They couldn't use me in an Eagle ad. They needed a woman to work in a deli ad, and I was half a foot taller than the deli man."

Nonetheless, Bak volunteers for this and all roles, she said. "If someone says, 'I need a black teenager,' I say 'I'll do it! I'll do it!'"

Most of the men wore tuxedos. Many of the women wore sequins. There were red sequined dresses, blue sequined dresses, a blouse with a sequined butterfly. A sign over the podium proclaimed, "1988 Spark Awards" in orange sequins.

Beneath the sign were the Sparkys--Oscar-sized statuettes with holes in their torsos. "It's an asexual figure," Shirley Kelly explained. "It has no wardrobe. You can see right through it. That's the extra's job--not to be noticed."

Kelly opened the ceremony. "I don't know when I've seen so many winos, bums, pimps, and street people all looking so good," she said. She introduced WMAQ TV critic Norman Mark, who was master of ceremonies. Then came a film clip of Mark panning Conan the Barbarian followed by a clip of Mark himself in a forgettable performance as an extra.

Kelly gave Mark an honorary Sparky. He was grateful. "I didn't even have to have a dog eat my false teeth for this one," he quipped.

The first Sparky, for persistence, went to a burly man named Robert Schnitzler. A presenter read his essay, which dealt with his experience in the action feature Above the Law.

"I was told to be a VCR man. I asked what a VCR man was. The A.D. [assistant director] said, 'You'll find out.' I was part of a camera crew. We were to be a very pesty camera crew trying to get an interview with the senator. Part of our crew was a man named John Drummond. He was the reporter.

"We had a break. John Drummond asked me what I do for a living when I'm not being an extra. I told him and then asked him the same question. He answered, The same thing that I'm doing now.' I said, 'You mean you're a full-time actor?'"

A stocky extra named Tom Allen won a Sparky for resiliency. His story: "The A.D. took me and a 'street punk' (who had never worked before) and put everyone else across the street while they set the shot. They called for me to 'roust' this kid while making my rounds. They told us what they wanted--a real streetwise feel to it.

"I walked over to the kid, stuck my nightstick in his chest. All of a sudden the kid started inventing fear, waving his arms like a windmill in a tornado. I thought 'This doesn't look right to me' but kept going. The director said 'Cut.' I was right. It wasn't right. Too big. Too much. We were corrected by the director. 'Do it over.'

"This time I decided to give the kid some coaching of my own. I turned to face him so nobody could hear me and told him, 'Raise your arms above your shoulders this time, and I'll break them off with this club.' He looked at me in shock and disbelief and said, 'You're kidding.' I said, 'Just try me, sonny.' This time when I put the stick up to the kid's chest he had a genuine look of terror on his face, while his arms barely moved."

After a few awards, the program turned to clips of Chicago-made movies--The Untouchables, "About Last Night...", Code of Silence , The Father Clements Story. The audience of extras looked in the background for themselves or their friends. Some clips showed close-ups of extras--a woman scowling, various gang members. This is the "good camera" that all extras seek.

During intermission, Jim Corboy, an advertising and promotions director for WMAQ, said many directors like using Chicago extras. "There are so many normal people here," he explained, "normal people leading normal lives. You don't have extras like this in LA, because everyone goes out there to bean actor."

The last Sparky of the night, for spirit, was awarded to Mary Faktor, the yuppie housewife/prostitute.

"I seem to be cast as a hooker quite often," her entry reads, "and so once again in Above the Law. There were six hookers, each sleazier than the next, and six extras dressed as policemen. Our shot was taking place in the jail cell at 39th and California. Our holding area was across the street in the basement of a Catholic church.

"It was too nice of a spring day to be sitting in a damp basement waiting and waiting to be called. Permission was granted for us to move outside of the church on busy California. You can imagine the looks we got, this gypsy camp of hookers and cops laughing, talking, playing cards, and dancing to 50s tunes on the radio. We roared as we waved at men in their cars, blowing kisses as they slowed to a snail's pace, some even going around the block for a second look.

"Finally we were summoned to the lockup, where our talents led to a quick successful wrap. So off we went, six sleazy hookers in low-cut leopard stretch tops, red teddys with micro minis, skin tight hot pink latex pants. Back to the church basement to transform to our normal wardrobe. We were still strutting and laughing as our characters, joking about turning some tricks before calling it a night. As we reached the bottom step, we looked up to realize we were in the middle of a Cub Scout meeting, with the scoutmaster in a state of shock and speechless.

"We explained who we were, changed our clothes, signed out, and went toward my car. A 9-year-old Scout and his mother stopped me to plea for an autograph. I tried explaining that I was just an extra, but they did not care. I was his new love. Well, what do you do? I pulled out my head shot, wrote him a personal message, as more of his friends gathered, insisting I was a star and I insisting I was an extra. The request for autographs continued with me signing lots of head shots, each personalized for the child until they were all gone.

"The mothers thanked me for my patience, and I walked, or should I say floated, back to my car, feeling like a star."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lewis Toby.

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