Saturday, June 27, 2020

Kelly Asbury Saved My Life

Kelly at the "Nightmare Before Christmas" wrap party.  To his right, Allison Abbate dances with Joe Ranft.
When I got the news of Kelly Asbury's death yesterday, I immediately thought of the night he saved my life.

In April of 1992, I started working on The Nightmare Before Christmas in San Francisco. The studio was set up in an old, two story industrial building with a sprawling floor plan and no air conditioning.  It looked like it was once an old factory, making ball-bearings or sausage.  For reasons I have forgotten, faded hand prints of Herve Villachaize were set in the sidewalk just outside the front door, which opened to 7th Street, several blocks south of Market. I worked in an open bullpen area doing storyboards with Mike Cachuela and Joe Ranft.  In an adjacent room, Kelly worked in the art department with Kendall Cronkhite and Deane Taylor.  

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a trial of four cops who beat Rodney King senseless was wrapping up.  On April 29th, they were acquitted of using excessive force despite video footage to the contrary.  The streets of south central Los Angeles erupted in rage with violent protests.  

At the studio the next day, there was a general buzz of disbelief about the verdict.  The locals knew that San Francisco was not to be outdone when it comes to street rage, and kept an ear on their radios for local unrest.  Just after lunch, Kelly came around to the bullpen.  

"Hey Steve, do you pass Market Street going home?" he asked. 

Google Map view of Skellington Productions building today, corner of 7th and Harrison. I wonder if Herve's hand prints survived the sidewalk work?

"Yeah." I nodded.

"There's a big protest going on.  Don't go down there." he warned.

I dismissed his fear as fear.  "Ah, it's early.  I don't leave 'til 7."

Contrary to my projected reality, the protests only got more hostile as the afternoon wore on.  With each new report, Kelly would stop over and warn me not to go home that night.  "You can stay at our house tonight. I'll call Loretta, she'll be fine with it."  he said.

"I'll be okay."  I said, waving him off.

He brought along Kendall, then Kendall and Deane, to give concerned looks as he'd plead with me.  My armor was cracking.  Then came news of a fire.  Someone said, "You can see it from the roof!"  We went up and sure enough, a thick plume of grey smoke rose from a location just blocks away.  Now Mike and Joe were giving me the looks.  Oh shit!  

And so I was the house guest of the Asbury's that night.  They had food delivered, then after few beers on the porch I crashed out on their couch for the night.  In the morning over coffee we watched local news reports of the night's looting and vandalism - smashed store windows, burned out cars - mere blocks from the site where Jack Skellington was coming to life. 

"Wow, Kelly.  You saved my life.  Thanks!"  I said.

He laughed.  "You're welcome."

In the ensuing years that had become a running gag, thanking him for saving my life.  I just wish I could have returned the favor.  Godspeed, my friend. 


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