No, the dining room is not still pink. Yes, my woodwork is fine. No, I can't read Chinese. Yes, I am old enough to have a son that age (but thanks). The dog was pretty creepy. The wedding dress was from a thrift store. My hair was straightened. There were people hiding in the garage. The carpenters were dreamy, and the designers were very good sports. Trading Spaces was here, but the con was on!
It's 10:30 at night. I am standing on a ladder in my sister-in-law's home painting her dining room a color that I'm pretty sure she's going to hate. When I'm finished, a young man, whom I've been calling "son" for the past few days, and I will be painting a dog house and a large wooden fire hydrant gold for a doggie diorama that will house a taxidermy dog named Priscilla.
There are people I barely know in my house across the street doing God knows what to my dining room. There are lights and cameras everywhere. People have been hiding in the garage all day watching every move we make on monitors. The extensions in my straightened hair are really starting to bug me. My husband and children are staying at a hotel. What in the world have I gotten myself into? I'm the homeowner, but I'm also "just playing one on TV."
Normally, Trading Spaces is a reality TV show where two sets of neighbors (real folks, not actors) agree to "trade spaces" for two days and redecorate one room in each other's homes. With the help of a designer, a carpenter and a budget of $1,000, each team chooses a room to transform. When the rooms are finished, there's a "reveal" where each set of homeowners gets to see the room for the first time.
The results can be charming, beautiful, comical or horrifying depending on the designers. The show has been running for several seasons, and the designers have achieved a kind of celebrity status (as far as reality TV goes).
Two designers in particular, Doug Wilson and Hildi Santo-Tomas, often jokingly call themselves "the gruesome twosome" because of some of their more outrageous designs. While each of them has produced beautiful transformations, they sometimes get carried away with their ideas, much to the homeowners' dismay. Well, the producers decided that it might be time to pull one over on the gruesome twosome, and an elaborate scheme was concocted to "prank" them.
The set up
When my friend Mary told me that she had an audition with Banyan Productions, the company that produces Trading Spaces, for a "pilot" episode of a reality show, I was thrilled for her. They were also scouting locations and her house was on the list. While the scouts and producers were at her house, Mary called me to say they were looking for more homes in Oak Park and that she suggested mine and my sister-in-law Bonnie's, which is kitty-corner from mine. I never thought that Bonnie or my husband Paul would go for something like this, but I was wrong.
The close proximity of the two houses, I'm sure, was a significant factor in their being chosen. I thought that at the very least Bonnie's family and my family were going to a hotel for a week in June for a mini-vacation on the company's dime. Plus there was a location fee for the use of the homes.
All our kids thought it was cool that our houses were going to be on TV. In a twist worthy of a reality show, I ended up auditioning with Mary because she unselfishly told the producers that I was a fellow actor. I got cast, but she didn't. (Ouch. I hate show biz sometimes.) She was wonderfully gracious about the whole thing.
Bonnie agreed to it knowing that it would be me inside her house and not some stranger. Well, that and "the offer she couldn't refuse" financially. I still can't figure out why Paul agreed.
Then we were given the scoop. This was not a pilot after all, but a special episode of Trading Spaces that was going to air in August. I signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibited me from saying anything about it. I could answer a few basic questions, but as my son put it, "If I tell you any more, I'll have to kill you."
I had some homework to do. I began to watch the show as often as I could. The producers sent me tapes of particularly outrageous designs done by Doug and Hildi. The contract negotiations got a little tense as Bonnie and Paul pored over every detail, and I had a meltdown as I realized that not only did I have to be in character for 72 hours, I had to do the actual physical labor of redecorating a room. There was no way I could pull this off. Paul and Bonnie were both very reassuring, which was easy for themâ€"they'd be lounging in suites at the Carleton.
The neighbors had to be notified that Trading Spaces was coming. Once the flyers went out, I dodged questions as best I could. The producers arrived on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they spent the day at our homes, setting up and preparing. We were scheduled to shoot over the weekend and the first part of the next week.
However, on Wednesday evening the worst tragedy to strike our quiet neighborhood occurred, the devastating murder of a neighbor. It was a difficult time for the entire neighborhood as we were gripped by sorrow and fear. How insignificant and trivial this all seemed in light of what happened. It would be a few days before the actual trailers would arrive, but the tragedy was on all of our minds as we prepared for the episode.
Many neighbors have told me that the presence of Trading Spaces in the area was a pleasant neighborhood event. They said it was a chance for people to come out of their homes and get back on the streets. Kids set up lemonade stands, folks got autographs and chatted with the stars, people conversed as they watched a TV show filmed in their own neighborhood.
My character, a twice-divorced, new-age mother, had a 19-year-old son from her first relationship, played by a Chicago actor, and two kids from her second, played in photos by my own two kids, Caylee and Jake. It was convenient that we could leave their bedrooms as they were and keep all their pictures up. We had to remove all traces of Paul from sight. Pictures, mail, volleyball schedules, etc. all had to disappear. (This was easier than I thought!)
All of Bonnie's beautiful furniture in her home, including her baby grand piano, was moved out and replaced with thrift store fare to make it look like a young married couple lived there and to make it ugly enough to redecorate. She also had to clear out all traces of herself and family. (Not as easy as she thought!) A pair of actors from Philadelphia played the other couple. Hidden cameras were set up in both houses; the monitors were in the garages where the producers and camera guys hid for three days.
For two days, we filmed background stories and rehearsed the pranks with the carpenters Carter and Faber. Don't make me choose. They are both handsome and sweet. They were great to work with, respectful of our homes, and really seemed to enjoy pulling this off. A few neighbors were even enlisted to help out with some gags, sworn to secrecy, of course.
Once the designers arrived, things were intense. We had to mess with their minds without tipping our hand. A crazy fan, ruined artwork, painted-over designs, a real stuffed dog, staged argumentsâ€"all these were part of the ruse. My "son" Steve and I actually felt bad about some of the pranks. Doug was so nice about everything.
On the first day we filmed the scenes where we first meet the designers, and then, when the designers were out of earshot, scenes where we spoke frankly about the pranks we were about to pull. The second day, things kicked in as we carried them out, altered them on the fly, and dealt with the designers' reactions.
There were plenty of tense moments both on camera and off. The edited show doesn't even show half of what went on. One of my tasks was to flirt with Doug in front of my son to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. Boy, did it become uncomfortable.
The final day of shooting was crazy. The crowds were gathering outside in what seemed like droves. I recognized people I knew from the neighborhood and I worried that they if they talked to Doug, they might inadvertently give away who I really was.
I said to the director, "I sure could go for some lemonade." "Lemonade" was our code word for when we wanted a private moment with the director. I felt like a spy. I told the director my fears, and he successfully steered Doug away.
During the reveal, we really put it to the designers. We were all instructed to react a certain way to the designs. Basically, we were told to hate it. Then hate it some more. I gave it my all. Things were really heating up when a TV was rolled in to show the designers that the producers had been watching the whole thing, and that they had been pranked.
It worked! We fooled them. Whew! Doug and Hildi were terrific sports about the whole thing and complimented everyone on our performances.
While we were breaking down the sets, the real families got to come home to meet the stars and see what had happened to their homes. I was happy to see them all again. The cast and crew were a delight to work with, and the folks at Banyan Productions bent over backward to restore my home after it was all over.
Bonnie and I are still finding little surprises left by the crew: wedding cake candles, wind chimes, a Doug Wilson design book, and more. But for the most part we are back to normal, and we have the golden fire hydrant to prove it.
Author and prankster Lynda Shadrake, longtime Oak Park resident/sometime Wednesday Journal contributor, is an actress. She plays Sister in Late Nite Catechism and is also in Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, a completely improvised Tennessee Williams spoof, both at the Royal George Theater.
If you missed the episode, here are some of the pranks pulled on Hildi and Doug:
â€¢ Constant arguing of "newlyweds"
â€¢ Destroying newly-made screen during a "fight"
â€¢ Rewriting phrase "We hold your home in high regard" in Chinese characters on a wall hanging to actually read "We have no regard for your home."
â€¢ Convincing the designer to cut up the "heirloom" wedding dress for the wall hanging
â€¢ Painting the designer's imported green rice paper a light shade of pink
â€¢ Using the money allotted for wood to get a dead dog stuffed
â€¢ "Falling" into and wrinkling the centerpiece of the design
â€¢ Mother character flirting with the designer relentlessly
â€¢ Son character walking off set in anger because of the flirting
â€¢ Appearance of a "crazy" fan
â€¢ Creating a doggie diorama, "Doggie Heaven," with the stuffed dog
To see a complete recap of the episode, go to http://tlc.discovery.com/fansites/tradingspaces/tradingspaces.html and click on The Con is On!