Ready, Set, Design
From Vietnam to Hollywood, John Marsala’s career has taken him around the globe and Back to the Future. His retirement brought him to North Louisiana where he is now lending his talents to the Strauss Theatre Center.
ARTICLE BY APRIL CLARK HONAKER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW BAILEY
Retired Hollywood prop maker John Marsala was born on the south side of Monroe. His dad had a grocery store near where the Civic Center is now, but when he was just a kid, John’s dad decided to load the family up and head west to California. After his dad found work as a grip, John grew up around movies and television, and he got to know the stars.
He remembers a time when his dad took him and a sibling to a curtain call for Sammy Davis, Jr. The performer set one of them on each side of the piano bench and gave them each a silver dollar. John said he still has that silver dollar today.
By the time John was old enough to work, his dad was well-established and was managing stage hands and grips. In the summer of 1963, John’s dad got him his first job as a grip for Disney on the set of Mary Poppins. He spent three weeks rigging, dropping lights, moving chimneys, and anything else that was needed. He then went on to do similar work on the set of The Greatest Story Ever Told, moving rocks and bushes and redressing scenes.
But John didn’t truly start his career in prop making until 1974. After graduating from high school, John served five years as a rigger in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam. During that time, he fought in two Tet Offensive attacks and was awarded two bronze stars. When he returned home, he found work building the Newhall Tunnel, a 360-feet-deep, 6-mile tunnel in the San Fernando Valley.
Eventually, John found his way back into the movie business. Once again, his dad got him in. According to John, there’s a card system that allows workers to increase their level of credibility as they work more hours, and he worked mostly at Universal Studios for more than four years building his credibility. During the late 70s and early 80s, he worked on a number of well-known movies, including Jaws 2, Battlestar Galactica, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Blues Brothers, and Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie.
According to John, some of the producers’ and directors’ kids worked alongside him and for him, and some of the prop makers and grips eventually became big stars, such as Harrison Ford and Ken Weatherwax, who played Pugsley in the original Addams Family series. But John was never interested in being a star. He was offered roles on occasion but always turned them down. “I’m not an ivory-tower person,” he said. He’s always loved to go fishing or walk in the woods and pick whatever was growing and eat it. In California, that might be an orange, avocado, or walnut. Now, in Louisiana, his favorite find is pecans.
But in addition to being down to earth, John loved the work he was already doing. “I enjoyed creating more,” he said. When he watched the actors, he noticed they spent a lot of time sitting, and they constantly had to redo the same scenes. He simply wasn’t interested in that type of job. Instead, he was drawn to the action. He liked working with special effects and loved the stunt scenes and explosions, but he also loved working with wood and building things. “We’re dream weavers,” he said. “Someone dreams it, and we draw it up, and we build it.”
Another reason John refrained from acting was his family. He wanted to guarantee he had time to spend with them. “I loved my children very much,” he said. John coached football and basketball and tried to be a friend to his kids. He said being their friend was necessary in California to make sure they didn’t end up with the wrong crowd. At times, John even took an interest in his kids’ friends. He fed them, and if they needed something he could provide, he gave it to them. “I’m a big lover of children,” he said. One of the biggest things he is grateful for is that the work he did allowed him to provide for his family.
By 1980, John was already working as a construction foreman, and during his career, which spanned 34 years, he built some complex sets, including submarines, spaceships, and the hangar in Independence Day. But John didn’t go to school to study construction or engineering. Instead, he relied on his natural aptitude and on-the-job training. As a kid, he built forts and treehouses, and he played with Tinkertoys, erector sets, and Lincoln Logs. Through those things, he said, “You learn how things are put together.” He also took basic stagecraft in high school and learned some skills in the military, but most of what he learned was from mentors. “I got to work with some of the old timers before the business changed,” he said.
Of his five children, all have worked in the business at some point, and two of his sons have followed in his footsteps. They’re still working in movies, but John said everything is different now. According to him, the pay isn’t as good, and the crews have gotten smaller. Also, more of the work is done digitally. John prefers to be hands-on. “I like creating,” he said. “I like working with wood, and I like to be included in a situation or a problem. I like to be involved in the flow.”
One thing he learned early on from the pros was that you can’t just start building things. Understanding the message the director wants to convey is crucial, so crucial that John said he wouldn’t work on a project he didn’t fully understand. To get to that point meant sitting down face-to-face with the director and asking the right questions. For John, it also meant asking as many questions as he could up front and documenting the answers right on the prints. Taking this step saved a lot of time and money.
Throughout his career, John worked on a lot of projects from commercials for brands like Coke, Target, and Progressive to TV shows like Columbo, Melrose Place, and N.Y.P.D. Blue. He even worked on the “Breakaway” music video for ZZ Top and has worked on numerous blockbusters and award-winning films, including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Ghost, Back to the Future, and The Hunt for Red October. His résumé is several pages long, but his favorite projects were the westerns, particularly Coal Miner’s Daughter. The film tells the story of country music star Loretta Lynn’s life. Released in 1980, it won two Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) for Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn. Another film he worked on called The River also starred Spacek and was one of his favorites.
John said he could look at the set for Coal Miner’s Daughter and The River over and over. He enjoys making things look old—distressing wood with chains and an axe, making a barn’s roof sag, or simulating a horse’s chew marks on a fence. Because of his job, he tends to look at old barns and buildings to see how they were constructed, what materials were used, and how they change over time. Attention to detail is important when it comes to making a set look realistic, and John has a knack for it. But for these two movies, it wasn’t just the set that was realistic. The themes and the people were real, too. “Both films dealt with real-life things happening in America,” John said, “and the basic way people lived.” They depicted the lives of people who struggled but still managed to get by. They grew their own food, made their own clothes, and still used horses. “I like the old way of living,” John said, “and it was fun to recreate that way of life. It feels good to do what I like and create something people can appreciate, but it’s not an ego thing. It’s a self-pride thing.”
According to John, there was also a strong sense of community while working on those movies and a lot of love shared. Of all the actors and actresses he worked with, John said Sissy Spacek was one of the most genuine. They worked together on Coal Miner’s Daughter, and when they worked together again on The River, she found him on the roof the first day and called him to get down, so she could greet him. While they worked on the movie, she would bake pies and breads for the crew, and their daughters would ride in the surrey together. John said, “Being remembered and being treated as a real person and respected was a big thing.” According to John, a lot of that humanity has been lost now in the business, but he believes you can still see that same genuineness and sense of community down south in the way people help those in need.
The sense of community and the slower pace of the south lured John and his wife back to Louisiana when he retired in 2008. Since then, he’s been relaxing, gardening, and doing some woodworking on the side. Occasionally, he’s made props and sets for local schools and church theatre productions, but it’s all been through word-of-mouth. He doesn’t advertise, and now that he’s retired, he wouldn’t mind mentoring or training someone, but he’s more inclined to give technical advice. After all, he’s in his 70s now.
Despite these facts, John recently found himself building the set for the Strauss Theatre Center’s production of Mamma Mia! The musical, directed by Cherrie Sciro, coordinator of theatre at Louisiana Tech University, will feature large revolving sets. It’s the first big project John’s taken on in a while, but he was approached to help when the original set designer fell ill. Given the circumstances, he was happy to take over. “I always got excited about doing a job. After I got all the info, I started building right away,” he said. And by early April, he had only the finishing touches left. In the end, he said he enjoyed doing it because it gave him something to do. As an artist, John said he simply can’t stop. He loves wood too much.
Even now that he’s retired, he feels compelled to make things. He likes to salvage old wood and said he can look at it and know what he’s going to build. When he moved back to Monroe, he had all this wonderful wood lying around and decided to make crosses for the pure joy of it. Although he could have sold them, he opted to give them away instead. “I enjoy life,” he said. “That’s what I do, and I thank God every day. Whatever I do is not for myself. It’s for God.”
Now, at 73 years old, John said, “I’ve lived a lot of life and been a lot of places. I didn’t waste my life, and I’m still enjoying what the Maker put us here for—to create and build. I’ve built some things that are forever immortalized in film, and my kids are proud of me and I of them.” He’s lived a full life, but he believes a lot of kids today allow their lives to be controlled by what they see. They want to be things they’re not meant to be. “Just be what life lets you be,” he said. “Wake up. Be happy. Appreciate what you’ve got. Smile at people. Be a listener. Remember what people say. And whatever you decide to do in life, give it all your heart. Do it right.”