There once was a time when being an out-of-market Broncos fan took an incredible amount of effort. It was a time before the RedZone channel or up-to-the-minute updates on your smartphone. It was a time when, to check a score, calling a cellular provider hotline was cutting edge technology. This was the time when Yahoo! made people pay a fee for StatTracker so you could check your fantasy score... but only from a computer!
Back in 2002, this was my way of life. Working as a production assistant in film and television, there was no telling where I’d be working on any given day and it made following the Denver Broncos challenging.
When The Santa Trap (here’s the trailer) began production in late September of 2002, I found myself working in Palm Springs. As you can probably guess from the title, this was a Christmas movie revolving around Santa being unfairly arrested, putting the prospect of Christmas severely in doubt. It was sort of like an Ernest Saves Christmas kind of movie, but without Ernest. Were it not for the dogged efforts of two young children and the help of Santa’s wily elves, all hope for a wholesome family Christmas would be lost!
...but I didn’t care about that. After sweating in the triple-digit heat all day, dealing with a surly grip and electric crew based out of Utah, and not getting paid a whole heck of a lot for any of it, all I wanted to do was watch a bit of the Denver Broncos versus the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football. Since half of the work we were slated to shoot that day involved night scenes, I was excited that our filming schedule put lunchtime squarely at kickoff.
Typically on movies, when the cast and crew go to lunch, a caterer prepares a hot meal and sets up all the tables and chairs needed. What was noteworthy about that night was that instead of setting up in the front driveway as they had previous nights, the caterer set everything up in the backyard, poolside. Because of the insane heat in Palm Springs, most backyards in the area are small to non-existent. Who in their right mind would want to spend time outside in that heat and not in the pool, right? This space was no different with the pool occupying most of the patio and all but a very little strip of grass adjacent to it.
At the time, none of that mattered to me. I had already laid claim to an empty production trailer and was frantically re-jiggering the rabbit ears on the tiny television to tune into the Broncos game. Although the color would flicker in and out and the picture would occasionally roll down the screen and reset, it was Broncos football! I flopped on the couch, set my walkie-talkie down, and put my feet up.
The Broncos received the opening kickoff and weren’t able to move the ball more than a few yards before having to punt it back to the Baltimore. On the following drive, I was heartened by a Jason Elam field goal. The Broncos were on the board!
That’s when it all went wrong.
To most folks my age and younger, Dick Van Patten is best known as King Roland, father to the Druish Princess Vespa in the Mel Brooks classic, Spaceballs. To folks older than me, he was the father figure on a show called Eight is Enough. However, in this movie Dick played the title role of Santa Claus. That meant that in order for him to appear on-camera, he had to have the trademark red outfit, wig, beard, fat suit, boots, spectacles, and whatever else needed to make the transformation as convincing as it was.
It was almost as if the moment Ravens quarterback Chris Redman hit tight end Todd Heap for Baltimore’s first touchdown, my production walkie-talkie crackled to life with a panicked voice at the other end.
“Is there anyone in basecamp?”
Lunch interruptions were usually followed by some sort of task that all but certainly ended meal time. I would have liked to pretend not to hear it, but there was something in the assistant director’s voice that compelled my attention from the game to my production radio. His voice was slow and methodical, filled with stress. Almost desperate.
“Hair. Makeup. Wardrobe. I need them up here right away. We’ve got an emergency. Dick has fallen into the pool.”
This was not good news. Not only because of Dick’s advance age, but because everything central to transforming him into Santa Claus had gone into the pool with him and was now dripping wet. That meant that scenes scheduled to be shot that evening following lunch could not be. It was a huge deal.
...and Tom Rouen’s punt had just been blocked, setting up a two-yard Jamal Lewis Ravens touchdown. Things were not going well for Denver either.
Since I was watching the Broncos, I was the only person around to round up those desperately needed departments to put Dick back together again. Hair, makeup, and wardrobe usually ate in their trailers and tonight was no different.
Before heading back to set, I checked into the game one last time to see how the Broncos were doing. Perfect timing to see Denver corner Deltha O’Neal get pass interference and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on one play. That was quickly followed by an offsides penalty on DT Chester McGlockton and an unnecessary roughness call on LB John Mobley successively. When, during the same drive, DL Trevor Pryce, gave Baltimore nine yards and a first down for taunting, I decided it was time to get back to work.
When I arrived in the backyard, I was surprised at how deserted the back patio was. All departmental crew were elsewhere, scrambling to prepare for scenes that hadn’t been scheduled to be shot that evening, covering for the title character’s absence. The timer-controlled pool lights had come on, bathing the abandoned back patio in a calming shade of blue. Were it not for the lone hamburger patty floating atop a rainbow puddle of grease or the little clusters of potato salad that dotted the pool floor, no one would have ever known that Santa had been there.
I never did see soggy-Santa, but I heard that “a very cheesed off Dick Van Patten was soaked from head to toe,” his boots full of water as he sloshed back to change out of his wet costume.
Standing there by myself in the deserted backyard, I tried to imagine how Santa Claus tumbled into the pool. Was there one step and in, like a deep sea diver? Did he fall backward, flailing his arms just prior to entry? At what point did he let go of his paper plate? Why was there a hamburger patty, but no bun? The soggy french fries threatening to teeter into the pool filter yielded few clues.
Unfortunately, the Broncos didn’t fare much better than Dick Van Patten that night. Denver was outscored 31-3 in that first half and never got back into the game. Quarterback Brian Griese was sacked three times, threw three interceptions, and failed in a two-point conversion. Kicker Jason Elam missed field goals of 44 and 57-yards, the last one returned by Baltimore for a touchdown to end the half.
Things don’t always work out the way we think they’re going to. I thought I was going to sneak a couple quarters of Broncos football in during lunch and I’ll be damned if it didn’t end up an evening that I’ll never forget...
For me, it will always be the night that Dick Van Patten and the Denver Broncos both sank.