Updated on 09/16/2011 9:50AM

No business like show business


ARCADIA, Calif. - My first exposure to show biz took place upon the occasion of my fourth birthday, in November of 1954, as a guest of the "Smokey Rogers" children's show in San Diego on local KFMB, channel 8. I ate cake and loved every minute. At least, that's what I am told.

Obviously, the experience paid off. Nearly half a century later, I found myself in front of the camera again, along with 3,000 total strangers, as unpaid background extras on the set of the "Seabiscuit" feature film in production last Saturday at Santa Anita Park. There was no cake.

There was, however, a chance to see how the movie makers were going about the task of turning Seabiscuit's final race into cinema magic, just as James Cameron staged the sinking of the Titanic, and Steven Spielberg re-created the Normandy invasion.

There was also the opportunity to meet some stars and "be in a movie," which happens to be the name of the company that rounds up volunteers in huge numbers to serve as the faceless mass of humanity required for spectacular motion pictures.

The volunteers arrived early and were processed in a large tent reminiscent of Ellis Island, after which rented school busses shuttled the extras from Santa Anita's Colorado Street parking lot to the frontside entrance near Seabiscuit Court.

The staff wore badges that read "Big Crowds Crew" and referred to the Santa Anita grandstand as "the stadium." We extras were told to grab a snack in a sack (muffins, juice, green bananas), a free prop hat, and gather under the paddock garden olive trees to await further commands.

Many people had come in period costume - the date was March 2, 1940 - and a number of women dressed in trousers, ties, and jackets, to help replicate what was a predominantly male racetrack crowd. Word was starting to circulate. If you looked just right, and stood in the right place, and really listened to direction, and knew where the camera was, chances are there might be some actual face time in the final cut.

Right. I would probably believe such a prospect if I hadn't read that the crowds in the Roman coliseum for "Gladiator" were computer generated.

Nevertheless, I tried hard to avoid any anachronistic associations, which meant staying as far as possible from the guy with the earrings (worn only by gypsies in 1940), or the fellow with the shaved head and the bar code tattoo, or the kid in the leather jacket who entertained himself with Eminem rap routines between "Seabiscuit" shots.

As it turned out, the best thing about us extras was our portability as human set decoration. All day long we were moved like troops, from the top of the stretch to the middle of the stretch, up and down the terraces and even to the infield training track to stand alongside the turf course railing.

Once in awhile, the disembodied voice of director Gary Ross (he did "Dave" and "Pleasantville") would wash over the crowd, describing the scene being shot and exhorting his extras to emote like crazy.

"It's an amazing comeback. One of the greatest in sports history," Ross proclaimed. "Seabiscuit was crippled. His jockey, Red Pollard, was crippled. And here they are, winning the Santa Anita Handicap, the biggest race in the country."

Stunt horses and jockeys re-created the final three-eighths of the 1 1/4-mile Handicap. There were a couple of false starts, and sometimes a horse would bolt on the turn. But each time they stayed together and raced past the stands, the rider in the red silks finished first. Yet I must admit that the other jocks looked as if they were actually trying to beat him. You know, like in a real horse race.

After seeing the same finish staged a couple of times with the same results, enthusiasm began to wane. Sense memory helped. Extra Fred Niedermeyer went back to his childhood for inspiration.

"The race I'll never forget was Noor and Citation in the 1950 San Juan Capistrano," said Niedermeyer, a retired educator who grew up in Montebello, not too far from from Santa Anita.

"I was 10 years old," he went on, "and I was standing with my dad right over there on those steps. After the race, an older gentleman turned to me and said, 'Son, you've just seen a great horse race.' "

If Niedermeyer was 10 in 1950, that means he was born the year Seabiscuit ran in his last race.

"Six weeks after," he said. "Earlier that year, my mother's friends gave her a shower. They all suggested names for the baby, and one of them wrote, 'If it's a boy, name him Seabiscuit.' "

Stanley Korell went Niedermeyer one better. Korell, an 83-year-old native of Long Beach, was among the few in the crowd of thousands who actually saw Seabiscuit run.

"Four times," Korell said, "beginning in 1937. And for the life of me I don't know how they're going to make the three thousand people here today look like the 68,000 who were here the day he won the Santa Anita Handicap."

It's called magic, Stan. Movie magic. And they're paid well to fool us.