That's a Rap

Mike Childress, a former employee of The Studios at Las Colinas, describes his former workplace as a "rotting armpit."
Peter Calvin

"How badly do you want this story?" he asks, leaning forward, saying that he has the scoop that could expose the truth behind Chris Christian's management of The Studios at Las Colinas. This anonymous source, this "Deep Throat" of the Dallas film community, soon pulls from his pocket a letter.

"Dear Mr. Christian," reads the note from a Colleyville man. "I purchased the Darth Vader helmet, breastplate, and shoulder pads this past Saturday at your auction." The writer goes on to say that Christian told him that the items were from Star Wars. He's learned that they're fakes, he writes, and demands his $3,500 back.

That was 1998. Christian returned the money, and the story could have ended there. But three years later the letter has resurfaced, saved by a disgruntled ex-employee who says that it's evidence of a bungling studio chief marring the reputation of an entire studio, which hasn't been the headquarters of a major film since 1992's Leap of Faith.

Since early January, several letters of resignation from ex-employees--among them a former tour supervisor and vice president of sales--have made their way to the media through David Fulton, the publisher of the local trade publication Texas Film and Video News. Fulton received the letters from Mike Childress, the former production manager at the studio who up until his resignation last May had been employed there for 18 years. Because Fulton's next issue wouldn't be out till March, Fulton made the letters known to the Dallas Observer, an act that met with disapproval from some in the industry. As one spouted off in an e-mail to him: "I have been the first to admit that the studios (have) been one of the most underutilized facilities in this market and we could all benefit from an improved and more responsive management over there...but my feeling is that the public airing of such laundry will only hurt this market."

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Those now public letters include long-winded appeals that God make Christian a "better person" and that Christian "stop oppressing people." Personal attacks aside, there's one serious allegation: Christian, the charge goes, has both sold and displayed fake memorabilia. (When the Observer recently went on a studio tour, the guide--without knowing she was speaking to the press--said that the exhibit includes both authentic items and replicas.)

Christian, in a written statement, said that the studio has always made every effort to accurately represent the memorabilia on its tour, that 95 percent of those items were bought or acquired with the understanding that they were authentic, and that the few replicas are designed to enhance the tour experience. "Any misrepresentation of the legitimacy of memorabilia was not under the direction of myself or The Studios at Las Colinas."

Robert Harvey strongly disagrees. Once a tour supervisor who worked at the studios for eight years, he resigned this New Year's largely because he says he was tired of facing the "moral dilemma" of lying to the public about memorabilia. Among his charges, Harvey claims that several years ago Christian had him sign a bogus authenticity certificate for buyers of some Batman logos, one of which he says sold for $100. "I don't know if they were real or not, but he [Christian] created the letters of authenticity himself," Harvey says.

Adds another employee, a woman who worked at the studio for a year and a half, and declines to be named: "I was also asked to forge fake letters of authenticity for several items sold in the auction, particularly the autographed sports memorabilia...George Foreman's boxing shorts and gloves." She also says that while working for Christian, she got items for studio tours through eBay. "I was in charge of coordinating eBay purchases by contacting the seller, arranging the shipments, and having the check sent...I saw all the items that he bought off eBay including...the Darth Vader helmet, Fonzie's leather jacket, Superman's costume, and Titanic memorabilia."

Since those letters have surfaced, the Observer has received e-mails from other former employees, whose charges have proven little more than gossip about a disliked boss.

Still, for a studio that has relied heavily on its tours to bring in the money as it faced the loss of two of its breadwinners, Barney and the soon-to-end Walker, Texas Ranger, the swirl of charges has held enough weight to warrant a response.

Jeff Klein, public relations representative for the studios, offered to show the Observer bills of sale for such disputed items as Dorothy's dress from the Wizard of Oz and Superman's costume, but could not furnish the documents before the deadline.

"These personal attacks by obviously unhappy former employees have no place in a public forum," says Klein, who's held his job at the studios since early January. As for the Darth Vader incident, Klein says: "Chris took me over to where the helmet is [in storage] and told me that three or four years ago when he bought it, he was told that it was authentic.

"It's a new day at the studios," Klein adds, and speaks of some of its current projects: a Texas Lottery shoot, a Boy Scouts video, the new set that was built for parts of a film, Slap Her, She's French. Among the studio's other missions is to "educate people that Barney's not here anymore." As for those letters of resignation, Klein says that they're not news. "Chris has been a hands-off owner since he bought the place in '92," says Klein, "and he hired people [he] let run the place." Now, though, Christian will be more "hands-on."

Back in the early 1980s--long before Christian ever bought it--the studio found a home on 112 Irving acres purchased for $7.5 million by Trammell Crow. In 1982, the Dallas Communications Complex was built, with 41 acres reserved for The Studios at Las Colinas. A $10 million production center, it was intended to lure West Coast producers and their Hollywood projects. The studios soon hosted a string of films such as Silkwood and Robocop, but business throughout the '80s was sporadic, and in 1991, Texas Commerce Bank foreclosed on the studio's acreage.

With his then-partner Stephen Jarchow, Christian bought it in 1992 for $1.25 million.

Under Christian, a former Nashville singer who penned the Elvis tune "Love Song of the Year," the studio now includes 22 employees. Gone is a once-familiar face, the last original employee there: Mike Childress, who since 1982 had been a staple of the studios.

Childress now says that Christian "bled it dry" until it became a "rotting armpit." His allegations run from the comical (Christian stealthily eating the apple juice and crackers set aside for kids on the Barney set) to the more serious (the studio going two weeks without having its garbage picked up, and the failing air-conditioning system). "Here's this fine Christian man and our nickname for him was 'Satan,'" says Childress at his home in Keller.

These days, Childress has a more immediate, personal concern: treating the hepatitis C he was diagnosed with in 1999. He claims that once he told Christian of his health woes, his pay was soon cut by more than half. (He gave the Observer copies of his W-2 to prove his point.) Childress feels that he was slowly wormed out of the company, a charge that Klein says he can't fully address. "I don't know what to tell you about that," says Klein, though he does entertain the possibility that Childress' pay was cut because after Barney left, no other productions followed for four months.

Just as quickly, though, he's back to the new rallying cry: "It's a new day at the studios."

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