Frank Zwolenkiewicz, R.I.P.
SAD NEWS TODAY out of Baker, California courtesy the Baker Bingo Beacon. Legendary extra Frank Zwolenkiewicz has passed away, much too young, at the age of 71.
“Zwolenky” to his friends (probably) – and he had many (I guess) – was one of the most professional extras you’d ever have the pleasure of meeting (if you ever had the pleasure of meeting him). He was always on time, he always hit his mark, and he never spiked the camera lens (I’m presuming; I don’t know). This is all the more amazing considering that his entire career as a movie extra was limited to just one scene in one film.
But what a film it was: Frank Zwolenkiewicz appeared in, as regular readers of this blog will know, a little masterpiece called “Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title.”
His big scene, of course, was when “Charlie Yuckapuck” (Morey Amsterdam) lectured about abstract art to a group of university students. Frank delivered a particularly stunning performance as one of the ten kids who stood there, watched politely, clapped on cue, and chuckled at Morey’s awful jokes.
Unfortunately for the film industry, after “Don’t Worry…,” Zwolenky, for the most part, left Hollywood behind. But the story of how he got into show business in the first place is as fascinating and hilarious as the film itself: In June of 1966, Zwolenkiewicz was just finishing up a ten-month course on air conditioner and refrigerator repair at Valley Vocational College in Encino. It was there, on a bulletin board, that he saw a little note mentioning that extras were needed for a low-budget film shooting nearby. It paid $18 for a day’s worth of work – an enormous sum back then for anyone, but a veritable king’s ransom for a struggling trade school student. Frank answered the ad and the rest, as they say, is history.
After completing vocational school, Frank joined an air conditioning company in Ventura. Within a few years, the original owner retired. Zwolenkiewicz bought him out and changed the name to Frank’s Air Conditioning & Refrigeration.
He continued working – and eventually expanded into the West Valley – until his retirement in 2005 at which point he sold the business himself and moved to Baker, California – home of the world’s tallest thermometer and well-known for its scorching summer temperatures. Whether this move to the desert by a man who spent his life working with appliances meant to keep things cold was ironic or somehow fitting is something for you to decide.
I HAD THE PLEASURE of working with Frank, or “Mr. Z” as I called him since I wasn’t about to attempt that last name, on three memorable occasions:
The first time was when I directed him to the kitchen to show him our broken refrigerator when Amana sent him as an outside contractor to fix it. (Thank Christ that jackass at Sears managed to fast-talk me into the usually useless extended warranty!) Our paths crossed professionally a second time when I had the chance to interview him with regards as to where the best place to install our new central a/c unit would be – after which he installed it in that place. And we worked together a third time when the Amana crapped out again about two weeks after he first fixed it – he didn’t have his assistant with him that day so I helped him pull the refrigerator away from the wall.
By the way, you’ll note that I mentioned that after “Don’t Worry, We’ll Think Of A Title,” Frank mostly left show business. Mostly, but not quite. Because when he was out at the house repairing the fridge the first time, I had a chance to grill him about other famous people he’d worked with. And as it turned out, a few years before, he’d installed a new compressor in a Frigidaire belonging to – as best I can figure by the description he gave – either Jane Dulo or possibly Kathleen Freeman. He wasn’t good with names, but he was pretty sure she was an actress he’d seen before in something.
I mentioned to him that I’d had the pleasure of working with Jane Dulo and Kathleen Freeman some time earlier – Jane was shopping at Ralphs when I bumped into her and helped her get a box of Nabisco Sociables off a high shelf that she couldn’t reach; Kathleen was coming out of the Beverly Garland in North Hollywood and I held the door open for her. As Kathleen was walking out, Herbie Faye was walking in, so I had the pleasure of working with him, too.
But Frank Zwolenkiewicz was the modest sort – definitely not someone impressed by Hollywood star power; indeed, it was refreshing that when I showed him photos of Jane, Kathleen and Herbie, he merely glanced at them, shrugged and mentioned that if he didn’t get the thermostat reconnected soon, we’d be heading into time-and-a-half. The man was as modest, honest and forthright as Gary Owens’ hair is purple, who I have had the pleasure of working with. (Both Gary and his purple hair.).
Frank was that rare breed of man – all but extinct today, and even more extinct-er now that he’s gone – who is best described as a true gentleman of the highest order: He wiped his feet on the mat before he came into the house; he asked to use the bathroom when he needed to – and then he washed his hands when he was through. (I listened at the door.)
He was an enormously generous guy, just as quick to give you a little magnet in the shape of a van with the name of his company and phone number on it as some people will offer up a smile. And he wasn’t stingy with those, either. I don’t know of a single person anywhere who has anything the least, teeny-tiny bit negative to say about him – no one at all! – but then I don’t know any of his friends or family or any of his other customers. Did he have a wife or kids? I don’t know. Perhaps he did and I had the pleasure of working with them on something; sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know.
But I sure don’t have anything bad to say about the man. Well, except that it took two trips to fix the damn refrigerator, and I lost a lot of frozen burritos and my last box of Birds Eye Fordhook Lima Beans (only available in late winter!) because of it. And I would have put that on a Yelp review, but they didn’t have Yelp when all this happened.
Tomorrow: I recount the time I had the pleasure of working with a fork on a garden salad at DuPars when I saw Amzie Strickland eating a grilled cheese sandwich!