Buggin' Out

It begins in the stillness of night, as these things often do. The sharp-eyed hunter, squinting and squatting in the shadows of his porch, stuffs the bait into his traps and thinks about the first time he ran this mission.

He had been sitting on a slab of sidewalk just like this one. At the time, he didn't yet know if his trap design would work. It seemed effective enough: a small glass jar, ringed with an inch-wide smear of Vaseline to keep them from getting out.

On that day as he readied the bait, one lone, brave soldier crawled out of an old building nearby and skittered right up next to Alan Hutton, as if to say, Well, where's my damn lunch?

"The first thing that crossed my mind was 'You brazen son of a bitch,' " Hutton says. "I killed his ass quick, because I didn't want him to mess things up."

Hutton is a 37-year-old with a trim black beard dusted with the first shades of gray. Tonight, he's pulled on his Glengarry bonnet, a wool cap that he says he won after sparring with wooden swords against a band member in the Scottish military.

As he sets off to probe the dark, moist nether regions of his property -- those shady corners where his prey dwells -- his wife, Pamela, laughs off the irony.

"Most people are concerned with keeping 'em out," she says.

Not Alan Hutton. For Alan Hutton, Houston's very own cockroach wrangler, the point is to bring 'em in -- alive.

You don't usually get into cockroach wrangling if you're a CPA or a systems analyst. There were, at last check, no colleges or trade schools that teach the fine art of corralling cockroaches. So it's no surprise that Alan Hutton has done more than his share of intriguing jobs in 20 years of production work in the entertainment industry.

Hutton calls his personal business Ready To Work, a cheerful mantra that takes on more urgency when you notice the tagline of his advertisements: "Hire me or my wife will beat me."

A member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, he's been an actor, stuntman, fight choreographer, pyrotechnician, historical adviser, weapons master and -- oh, yeah -- roach wrangler.

"I've done body burns, high falls; I've also been shot, stabbed," he says. "There was a show one time at AstroWorld that my wife and I participated in, and she got to shoot me off a roof with a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun five times a day.

"Who needs a marriage counselor when you get to do that?" he riffs.

Pamela drops the same zinger when asked about their "Blazin' Idiots" Wild West stunt show two years ago at the Six Flags theme park. A six-foot-three blond Amazon beauty, she's worked plenty in show business as well, including performances with a touring burlesque revue.

Hutton's knowledge of weapons seems almost encyclopedic. It began in his teens as a way of bonding with his father. They did Civil War re-enactments and marched lockstep through the centuries of war, such that he now can explain why a four-sided stiletto is most effective for bleeding a person to death and how the term "half-cocked" derived from musketry.

He says that living in Texas made it necessary to become a jack-of-all-trades. For example, on a recent indie film project, he choreographed a fistfight, did the foley sound for a broken nose by twisting celery sticks, and replicated drinkable urine (apple juice plus flour).

"L.A. -- you can go out there and you can be a stuntman. In fact, you're respected more if you do just one thing," he says. "But Texas doesn't work that way. If you go out and try to be an actor or a stuntman or a pyrotechnician, you will starve."

Rick Ferguson, executive director of the Houston Film Commission, says that's the nature of entertainment work here. "It certainly behooves anyone to be able to multitask within the film industry in the state of Texas," he says. "And that's true just about anywhere outside of Los Angeles and New York."

And should a film crew ever need cockroaches, they know who to call. It started somewhat randomly in the late '90s. Hutton overheard some film friends talking about cockroaches.

"And I remembered I had built a scene for a haunted house…that required live cockroaches, and I knew how to capture 'em and I knew how to care for 'em," he says. "And thinking that, I said, 'Hey, if you need cockroaches, I can get 'em for you.' "

His offer did not scatter the room, but they declined just the same -- a maintenance man apparently had captured 30 already. One week later, Hutton got a frantic call that the same film company needed more roaches.

"Come to find out, the maintenance man had put them in a mason jar, apparently with no air holes, and left them in the sun. So they had 30 dead cockroaches close to the time they needed live cockroaches."

He set out his traps immediately and, in two days, had netted 77 critters that he delivered in a sealed, water-fed container. The trap design ensures that he need only check in the morning for his bounty -- and the more traps he makes, the fewer nights required.

Hutton has wrangled for three films in all, although, being low-budget indie titles, he can only remember the name of one: the 2000 made-for-TV movie Hell Swarm.

"It was funny, because this guy's sitting in his jail cell and this cockroach crawls across the floor and then he steps on it," says Hutton. "I was like, 'Hey! That's one of my guys!' "

For the 77 roaches he provided on the first project, Hutton estimates that the fee came to about $50.

"That was back then; the price may be different now," says Hutton. "I could guess it's like the gas prices." He fakes a Bill Murray Caddyshack character voice, "We just don't have the current homeland supply that's needed, so the price has gotta go up, man."

Even so, Houston seems a virtual nirvana for cockroach wranglers.

"Houston does have quite the corral of roaches, most definitely," says Hutton.

The Houston Press had to agree not to divulge Hutton's secret bait for reasons of proprietary confidentiality. Rest assured, though, no frat house would be complete without it. And the squeamish need not apply for this work.

"Once you get your mind set, you can pretty much withstand it," he says. "Sometimes it's the mind over matter -- some people can do it, some people can't."

And, yes, Hutton is a big fan of Joe's Apartment.

"My wife refers to films that are, I guess, less than socially acceptable as her guilty pleasures -- and that's one of my guilty pleasures," he says wistfully. "I mean, a musical that's done by cockroaches? It doesn't get any better than that."

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