By Scott Jacobs

With all the filming going on in Chicago this fall, it should not have come as a surprise that the cast and crew of Chicago Fire would eventually find their way around to visiting my favorite Bucktown diner, The Fullerton.

They Came in Waves

They came in waves. First, an advance team of set decorators and graphic artists that stripped the diner of all its identifying logos. Out went the hand-lettered signs advertising an eggs, bacon and coffee special for $4.98 only to be replaced by a scripted “Honest Homemade Meals” painted on the windows so that––under an artificial exterior light––the shadow of the letters fell evenly on the vinyl seats.

Then came the equipment trucks and honey wagons, four in all, parked up and down Fullerton Avenue. Light stands, electrical cords, rigging and, of course, a craft services table lined both sides of the sidewalk. The technicians set up a video village in a back corner and another make-up area in the front. There were sound checks, and camera rehearsals, and an ever-growing number of producers and production assistants leaning over the counter or huddled back in the village assessing the shot on the video monitors.

By the time the actors arrived, there were 20 production people inside the diner and another 42 milling about outside––62 people not including the actors––all to capture a minute of primetime TV.

A Mysterious Phone Call

The scene they shot Wednesday has Mouch (Christian Stolte), Otis (Yuriy Sardarov), Peter Mills (Charlie Barnett) and Christopher (David Eigenberg) sitting around eating breakfast in my favorite booth when Mouch receives a phone call. (The scene will air in episode six, but if I told you what the caller said I’d have to kill you.) There were the usual takes and retakes, calls to make-up for “daubs,” and even one producer outburst when a real customer walked in.

“Who let these people in? Who’s watching the door?” he shouted.

Anais Ayala

Anais Ayala is my regular waitress at the Fullerton and has what I consider a starring role in the episode. She serves breakfast. On a normal day, Anais is all over the restaurant, shouting out table assignments to customers (“Sit anywhere”), joking with the regulars and ferrying food and orders back and forth to the cook.

That’s the role she plays in the show as well––except she has to do it silently. When she serves the food, she mouths the words “Here you go” but she can’t say it aloud for fear she’ll step on an actor’s line.

“It’s nerve wracking,” she told me after the film crew moved on. “You know me. I’m talking all the time. But the key thing is ‘no noise.’ No air-conditioning, no fans. We had to shut off the bell at the front door. Like when you are putting down the plates, you can’t make any noise.”

And that’s not all that’s different in TV Land. “Everybody says ‘Don’t look at the camera,’ but you don’t know where the cameras are. They move around and suddenly, there they are.”

A Star is Born

From all reports, Anais did a spectacular job. She’s 26 years old and has been a waitress at The Fullerton for five years. To spice up her part, she wore a new T-shirt with two fried eggs over her breasts and crossed bacon strips on her belly. The producers made her change it for a plain brown shirt. (Copyright issues, they said.) But they were all very complimentary.

Would she do it again?

“If they need an extra, sure I’ll do it again. But it’s not like I’m gonna pursue a career in film,” she said.

“It’s funny. They swoop in here like a pack of hornets. They spend forever getting everything just right. But as soon as the director says ‘Cut!’ it’s like let’s get out of here. Let’s roll. Pack it up. I think it only took them ten minutes to be out of here.”

The Wallpaper Comes to Life

There’s a reason why people like Anais are called “extras” on television. They are so perfectly programmed into the background that they are like wallpaper––as noticeable as a piece of furniture. But when a TV show like Chicago Fire comes to film in your local diner in your favorite booth no less you want to invite them back after the cameras stop rolling.

Come back and see the real Anais. Listen in on the conversations at the next table. Do a crossword puzzle. Eat your eggs. Complain about ___________ (fill in the blank). And wait for Anais to say what she always says: “Nobody’s perfect.”

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