Sunday, October 27, 2013

COSTUME DRAMA TRAUMA


By Henry C. Parke

September 3rd, 2013

 


            I love being on movie sets, especially Western movie sets, where the boardwalks and wooden store-fronts, horses, costumed actors, and guns make you feel like you’re time-traveling.  The last time I had the privilege, writing for the Round-up, the wardrobe mistress said, “Next time, I’ll dress you, and you can be an extra.”  It sounded like fun.  I’d been an extra here and there in friends’ movies.  I was one, or actually did a small ‘bit’, in a picture I co-wrote the original story for, SPEEDTRAP (1977).   When detective Joe Don Baker is dodging gangster Timothy Carey in the sleazy block of Phoenix (which we had to manufacture), he zips by me and a hooker, and if you strain your ears, you can hear me say, “Gee, a hundred dollars is a lot of money,” and her responding, “Well I’m a lot of woman.”

            I got a call from my wardrobe lady friend that she was dressing a Western at Paramount Ranch, and I was invited!  I was all psyched at my return to the screen, so you can imagine my disappointment when I got a call back that they couldn’t use me: only S.A.G. extras.  Oh, well.

            Then I recalled that I actually had played a small, costumed role in a period picture.  It was back when I attended NYU Film School in the 1970s, and in addition to making your own films, you were crew, and sometimes cast, in other people’s films.  A friend was directing a comedy, a faux documentary about a fake poverty row movie studio of Hollywood’s golden age.  He needed clips from nonexistent films, and I acted in a few.  One was a World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’ epic.  The gag was that, being a poverty row studio making a war movie during the war, all the big studios had rented the proper uniforms for their war movies.  So we had to make do: the Nazis dressed in Confederate uniforms, and the U.S. Army in Salvation Army uniforms.

            I was delighted to find myself, at dawn, in Morningside Park, dressed in a well-tailored Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword.  We were going to start with a big battle scene, involving both armies.  But just as the camera was about to roll, it couldn’t.  The director of photography had forgotten to charge the power-pack that ran the camera.  He hurried off to plug it in.  We would have at least a two-hour delay before we could begin.  As this shoot was destined to run late, and I had made plans for the afternoon, I needed to find a payphone.  It was awfully early, but if I didn’t call then, I might not have a chance for hours.

            There were no payphones in the park, so I walked out of the park, onto the streets.  Did I mention that Morningside Park is in the middle of Harlem?  Harlem, the home of the Apollo Theatre, the Black Panthers, and in those days, zero white people?  So I started walking along the streets of Harlem, at dawn, wearing a Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword. 

            There was not a soul on the street.  The first phone booth I came to had a phone, but no receiver.  The second had no phone at all, and the booth had been converted into a make-shift urinal.  The third one had a complete phone, and I made my call.  As I talked, I noticed an older sedan parked across the street from me.   There were about a dozen Miller High Life  bottles lined up on the sidewalk beside it.  The engine was off, but the headlights were on, dim, like they’d been on all night.  A few figures lounged around inside. 

            I finished my call, and left the booth, starting my long walk back to the park.  The sword slapped against my left leg with each step. 

            From behind me, from the direction of the lone car, I heard a voice.  “Hey!”  I kept walking.  “Hey you!”  I kept walking.  “Hey you!  Soldier boy!  Come ‘ere!”  The voice was accompanied by laughter.

            “Yeah!” another voice joined in.  “Johnny Reb!  We want to talk to you!”  

            I heard the engine cough.  I thought maybe the headlights had drained the battery.  I hoped so.  Then I heard the engine start up strong.  I reached a corner.  A right turn would bring me closer to the park, but a left would be the wrong way on a one-way street for the car I could hear gaining on me.  I turned left. 

            They turned left anyway.  I thought it was time to start running.  Try running while wearing a sword – no wonder the officers rode horses. 

            I heard a shattering smash as a Miller bottle hit the sidewalk a distance behind me.  The next one was closer.  I changed direction at every corner, but of course I didn’t lose them, not in their car.  I heard a lot of laughter and hooting and hostile comments.  Even as I was ducking bottles, I couldn’t help admiring the ‘Johnny Reb’ reference – I don’t think I could have come up with anything that good that quickly.   The next catcall truly amazed me – someone in the sedan was calling him and his friends Buffalo Soldiers!

            Finally I reached the street with the entrance to Morningside Park.  As I bolted for the winding downward path, I saw three iron posts jutting up from the ground, across the entrance, perhaps to prevent carloads of Buffalo Soldiers from driving down.

            As the car screeched to a halt across the street, and young men began to pile out, I faced them, drew my sword, and shouted, “F#ck you and Abe Lincoln!”  Then I turned and ran like Hell down into the park.

            I ran into camp, screaming for help, and as the Buffalo Soldiers appeared at the bottom of the path, they faced twenty armed, uniformed Confederate soldiers, and a cannon was being swung into position.  I don’t know what they thought, but was grateful that they ran back up and drove away, perhaps never to drink Miller High Life again.    
Copyright October 27, 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved
 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

BERK’S – A 7TH AVENUE STORY

By Henry C. Parke



BERK'S is now PARK SLOPE NEWS STAND
(Pearle Vision used to be Unisex Haircutters)


August 14th, 2013

            “BERK’S” was a candy store and newsstand on 7th Avenue, one store from the corner of Union Street.  It was a place to pick up sodas and candy bars, comics, big pieces of sidewalk chalk, and the pink rubber balls we used for all of the stoop games.  They were Spaldings, but for some reason we called them Spaldeens.  By the phone booth in back there was a big Mission Soda cooler, and you’d reach into the cold water up to your elbow and pull out a Coke or 7-Up if you were flush, or an actual Mission Soda if you wanted to save a few pennies.  There were small yellow boxes of salt-coated pumpkin seeds and sun-flower seeds to chew and spit.  If you were an adult you could buy The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, The Telegram, The Journal American, The Amsterdam News, and in the afternoon, The New York Post.  If you were a horse-player you could buy The Daily Telegraph.  If you were a smoker, there were cigarettes, open boxes of cigars behind the counter, and Tiparillos and White Owl Demi-Tips in packs of five.

            Mr. and Mrs. Berk were a cheerful couple, patient with indecisive kids and adults alike.  I guess they were in their 60s, but they could have been in their 70s or 50s – when you’re ten or eleven, it’s all the same.  They were both a bit chubby, she a little taller, with red hair and glasses with, I think, blue frames.  I don’t remember her first name because, as a polite kid of that era, I called her Mrs. Berk.  Mr. Berk, whose name was Harry – it was also my father’s name, so I wasn’t likely to forget that – had black hair, and usually wore a small black hat of the type we now call a Sinatra hat. 

            I know they had a son, maybe more than one, whom they had sent to college, and he had done very well.  There was probably a wife and kids, but I don’t recall – what kid cares about someone else’s grandkids?
 
            Harry was crazy about his wife, maybe all the more because he had to put up a stiff fight to win her.  It was the 1920s, and the future Mrs. Berk was dating one on the top singers and vaudeville stars of the era, Arthur Tracy, known as ‘The Street Singer.’  He’d come out onstage with his accordion, singing ‘Marta, Rambling Rose of the Wildwood,’ and the ladies would swoon.  He was playing ‘The Palace,’ the pinnacle of vaudeville in the United States.  I never heard the details of how Harry defeated Arthur – these things are usually a matter of one personality or heart winning out over another.  Arthur Tracy must have recovered from his loss, because he lived to be 98, and was performing almost to the very end, in 1997.



            But back in the 1920s, Harry Berk had a different business, which I think was also called ‘Berk’s’, and was located in Times Square.  This ‘Berk’s’ was an elegant men’s haberdashery.  “A lot of stars came there, especially dancers.  I had dance shoes made of calf-skin.  They shined like patent leather, but they were much lighter, and dancers loved them.  Fred and Adele Astaire were regular customers.”

            One day Harry heard shouting coming from the shoe department.  He hurried in to find a regular customer screaming at a salesman, and slapping him around.  “I said, ‘You stop that!’  He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’  I said, ‘Yes, I know you’re a good customer, Mr. Flegenheimer, but I won’t have you abusing my employees: get out of my store and don’t come back!’ 

            “So, he’s mad, but he leaves.  My salesman says, ‘We’re good as dead now.  He’s gonna kill us.’  I say, ‘Don’t talk nonsense!  He knows he was wrong.  Who is he to kill us?’ 

            “‘He’s Dutch Schultz.’

            “‘What?  He’s Mr. Flegenheimer.

            “‘Arthur Flegenheimer is Dutch Schultz, the bootlegger.  He’s going to kill us.’”

            Harry stopped to get himself a Mission Soda, grape, I think.   He told me he started to wait for a bullet.  When he was in his store, and he passed by the plate-glass window, he waited for a bullet.  When he walked along Broadway, and a car slowed down beside him, he waited for a bullet.  When he missed his subway, and was suddenly alone on the platform, waiting for Times Square to Grand Central Shuttle, he waited for a bullet. 

            After a couple of weeks, he started to wonder if maybe the bullet wasn’t going to come.  It never came.  He never heard from Dutch Schultz, who died in 1935, killed by the Syndicate to prevent him from murdering New York D.A. Thomas Dewey.

            “But I’ve got one thing to remember Mr. Flegenheimer by.”  He took off his hat, and tilted the top of his head to me.  His hair was jet black, except at the roots, where it was white.  “That first morning, I looked in the mirror to shave.  And I saw my hair was white at the roots.  It grew in all white.  I’ve been dying it ever since.”    



Arthur Flegenheimer in a contemplative mood.

To hear and see Arthur Tracy sing 'Marta' and 'Trees', click the link below.


The Story 'BERK'S - A 7TH AVENUE STORY' is copyright August 27th, 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved


7TH AVENUE STORIES

By Henry C. Parke

Pictures of Things That Aren’t There - An Introduction




August 13, 2013

            I was born in 1954, in a hospital in Brooklyn Heights, on Henry Street, and for years my parents had me convinced that the street had been named after me.  After living briefly in an apartment in Bay Ridge, we moved to a beautiful house in beautiful Bellmore, Long Island.  Although Bellmore would later be best-known as the home of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, my strongest memory is of the brook that ran through our back yard, and the wild ducks that swam through it and nested along it. 
           
            My Dad worked in Brooklyn, and after a few years, the commute to and from Bellmore, whether by train or car, became unbearably long, and we moved back to Brooklyn.   We arrived just in time for me to start kindergarten, and I spent the balance of the first twenty-five years of my life in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.  It’s very chic now.  It was always nice, always elegant, but it wasn’t chic when I was a kid.  The chic place in Brooklyn back then was Brooklyn Heights, but the Heights priced itself out of the running, and Park Slope became ‘it’.  

            That’s not the sort of thing that matters to a kid, of course.  One of my many memories of growing up there centered not on local concerns, but rather with world events.  On November 22nd, 1963, I was nine, my sister was twelve.  Our parents were on a trip, and we were being ‘sat’ by our favorite relatives, great aunt Sadie and great uncle Abe.  My sister and I were upstairs, watching TV, when news broke in to say that President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas.  When we ran downstairs to tell Sadie and Abe, they were cross.  “That’s not funny!  Don’t make jokes like that!”  That it was the truth was inconceivable to them.

            I cut the portrait of JFK off the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, and taped it to my bedroom wall, along with tiny crossed flags and tiny plastic roses.  On the day of his funeral, I went to the shopping area of Park Slope, 7th Avenue.  The store windows were filled with pictures of the late president and Jackie.  And in a vain attempt to record what was already irretrievably gone, I brought my Brownie Starmite box camera, and took pictures of the pictures in the windows. 


            Today, maybe fifty years later, I was back on 7th Avenue, taking pictures of things irretrievably lost.  I told my sister where I’d been.  “I’ll bet you saw nothing you remember, and no one you knew.”  She was right.  But at least I remember what used to be there. 

Copyright August 27, 2013 by Henry C. Parke - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 31, 2013

TEMPEST AND PETE AT THE STAR AND GARTER




I’m sad to say I haven’t seen or spoken to her in decades, but when I was in college, that titanic redhead, that Eiffel eye-full, Tempest Storm, was a friend of mine.  For those not familiar with that hour-glass beauty, this story will illustrate how attractive she was: Frank Sinatra insisted she be cast as one of the showgirls in his movie PAL JOEY, and top-billed Rita Hayworth had her fired, because they looked too much alike. 

 

I went to NYU film school in the mid 1970s, and while writing for their literary magazine, COLD DUCK, I managed to interview Tempest at Times Square’s SHOW WORLD CENTER, a porno emporium with the atmosphere of a Howard Johnson’s, where she was then performing her famous striptease.  I’d turned on my tape-recorder, and said, “It’s a long way from Annie Banks of Eastman, Georgia to Tempest Storm – ”

 

And she stopped me, saying with astonishment, “Oh my goodness, you’ve actually done research!”   She was a charming and funny Southern belle, and it was a great interview.  I pulled out some pressbooks and lobby cards from burlesque films she’d been in, and she told me that her scrapbooks had been stolen from her dressing room not long ago.  I gave her my Tempest Storm files, and that sealed the friendship.

 

It became a habit after then that, whenever she was performing in New York City, I’d drop by the theatre with her favorite drink, a glass of carrot and celery juice, and take her to lunch.  She was headlining at The Star and Garter, which was on the corner of Broadway and I think 46th Street, up on the second floor.  I gave my name to the lady in the booth, she checked her list, and she let me through the turnstile without taking my ten dollars.  I went backstage to Tempest’s dressing room which, while not luxurious, was much bigger than the two shoebox-sized rooms the other six girls on the bill had to share.  I brought Tempest her carrot and celery juice, and after chatting a few minutes, she had to change into her ‘taking off’ clothes, so I went into the theatre auditorium to watch the rest of the show, waiting until Tempest had done her set so we could go out to lunch. 

 


Today, striptease has gained, if not respectability, an aura of cool edginess, but in the 1970s that was not the case.  Burlesque, the musical comedy entertainment that spawned Abbott & Costello, Ed Wynn, Phil Silvers and so many other stars, is remembered mostly for striptease, ironic considering that striptease is what actually killed the form.  As comic Rags Ragland replied, when asked why he left burlesque: “How do you follow an act where a woman takes off all her clothes?”

 

The showroom had a small stage, with a runway that jutted past the first three or four rows of seats.  It could seat about a hundred, but these early shows were never very full.  When I’d gone in to see Tempest, I’d heard an amplified man’s voice announce, “And now, the management of the Star and Garter is proud to present the lovely and sensual Desiree!”  Desiree was still on when I found a seat.   She’d gone on, dressed in her show-girl clothes, then teased and peeled, and danced her set, working to records.  The pay was not great.   The headliner, if she was a name, like Tempest, or Blaze Starr, made a thousand dollars a seven-day week, four or more shows a day, and the non-stars made far less.  Most made more money from tips, and in these pre-lap-dance days a stripper would often work the length of the runway, bald head by bald head, showing special attention, and letting the men slip the money under the elastic of her g-string.  

 

Desiree had been working the tiny crowd so long that her music had ended, and they’d had to start it again.  A few voices called out, “Tempest!  We want Tempest!”  The girl in the black garters clung tenaciously to the curtain.  “Listen,” she told the audience through her teeth, “I’m not leaving the stage until I get fifteen more dollars!” A collection was taken up among the front-row denizens, and Desiree was bought off the stage. 

 

With the stage empty, I glanced around at the audience: that afternoon the clientele was all male, subdivided by servicemen with nowhere to go, groups of guys going as a goof, and the usual collection of chronic masturbators.  Overall, that was always the audience, which is why I did a double-take to see a genuine movie star, Peter Boyle, sitting in the back row.   

 

Younger folks probably only know the late Peter Boyle as Ray Romano’s father on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, but he was a major star in the 1970s.  He’d done films as dark as TAXI DRIVER and JOE, and as light and funny as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, where he played the monster.  And hip?  He hung out with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, and when he got married later on, John Lennon was his best man.  Which is a long way of saying I would have been less surprised to see a zebra in the next row than I was to see Peter Boyle. 

 


Next the management of the Star & Garter was proud to introduce the lovely and sensuous Roberta Redford (she was a peach, and would never go out with me), and finally it was showtime!    The curtains parted slightly, revealing a set of drums.  All of the dancers performed to records or tapes, but Tempest was a headliner in a field where you could count all the headliners on the fingers of one hand, so she got one live musician, a drummer, to do the rim-shots for the bumps and drum-rolls for the grinds. 

“The management of the Star & Garter is proud to introduce the star of our show.  She’s performed all over the world!  The Queen of burlesque!  Miss Tempest Storm!” 


Tempest had the sort of truly hour-glass figure that you will rarely see in a lifetime, and she knew how to slowly reveal it in a manner that was breathtaking.  Literally, it seemed like no one in the audience was breathing for some time.  When Tempest had taken her bows, following a standing ovation, she slipped backstage.  I slipped into the lobby to wait for her.

 


Tempest came into the lobby ten minutes later, wearing a stylish pin-stripe suit, and said, “Okay Henry, let’s get lunch.”  Just as we were crossing the lobby, a man stepped out of the showroom.  It was Peter Boyle.  “Hi,” he said.

 
“Hi,” she said in return, and kept walking.


He moved to catch up with us.  “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show.”
 

“Thanks,” she said as we kept walking.  Being a tall, beautiful woman who makes her living by taking her clothes off to music in front of strange men, Tempest has perfect tunnel-vision – you cannot make eye contact with her if she doesn’t want to.

 
“My name’s Pete.”

 
“Nice to meet you, Pete,” she said without slowing.

 
“I’m Peter Boyle,” he clarified.

 
“Oh.”


By now we were through the lobby and passing the ticket booth.  “I’m an actor,” he told the back of her head.  “I starred in JOE.  I’m in STEELYARD BLUES…”
 

I understood exactly what was going on in Peter Boyle’s head.  He was a big star; he had dropped into a dive, a strip show, and was going to give the star the thrill of her life when he told her he enjoyed her performance.  Only it wasn’t working out like that. 
 

Tempest and I were hurrying down the stairs to the street while Peter Boyle stayed on the top step, shouting his credits.  “I’m in THE CANDIDATE!  I’m in TAIL-GUNNER JOE!  I’m in DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE!”
 

And Tempest turned back and called, loudly enough that he couldn’t miss it, “Henry, get me away from this nut!”
 

I yelled, “Taxi!”  And as the cab raced us away to a deli, Peter Boyle was left on the curb, shouting, “MEDIUM COOL!  T.R. BASKIN!”
 

Tempest turned to me.  “What is wrong with that man?”
 

“Tempest, that really is Peter Boyle, and he really is a big star.”
 

“Seriously?”
 

“Yes.  He starred in JOE.  He starred in CRAZY JOE.  He starred in TAIL-GUNNER JOE…”
 

She looked at me quizzically.  “He only does movies with ‘Joe’ in the title?”
 

I only saw Peter Boyle in person one more time, when I was at JFK Airport maybe ten years later.  Our eyes met – I don’t have tunnel-vision like Tempest – and we sort of acknowledged each other.  But I didn’t remind him of the afternoon we spent together at the Star & Garter.  I might want to give him a script one day, and I figured it was better if he didn’t know we had a history.


 

 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

SUPERMAN, ONE PIMP, TWO HOOKERS AND ME AT THE CINERAMA DOME


 
 
On Saturday night my wife and I attended a wonderful concert at the Hollywood Bowl, given by the great film score composer John Williams and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.   Highlights included music from many Steven Speilberg collaborations, including SCHINDLER’S LIST, AMISTAD, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and they even ran the final reel of E.T. with the orchestra playing the score live.  In acknowledgment of other great film composers, they played David Raksin’s theme from LAURA.  The highpoint for true believers was the music from the various STAR WARS movies, which brought forth a sea of light sabers to pierce the night. 

 

One of my favorite themes that evening was from SUPERMAN, the movie that made the late Christopher Reeve a star for his portrayal of the man of steel (although to me there will only be one true Superman: George Reeves in the TV series’ first season).

 

I well remember seeing the Christopher Reeve version on the immense curved screen of the Hollywood Cinerama Dome, now the Arclight Hollywood, back in early 1979.  I had sold a script my last year in college, which had become SPEEDTRAP, and my producer and co-story writer Fred Mintz had brought me out from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to write a disco-roller skating version of Guy De Maupassant’s BEL AMI.  It was while I was writing this never-to-be-filmed epic, and living at the Sunset Tower West in West Hollywood, that I got to know a fellow New Yorker who lived in the building, whom I shall call Eddie, since that was his name.  He had the name ‘Erwin’ tattooed on his arm, which I never understood, but I was too polite to ask about it.  I will not mention his last name because, even though it has been decades, the last I heard, he had three outstanding arrest warrants in Los Angeles.

 

Eddie was a security guard for the building, and a terrible one considering that he was also a pimp.  At least he considered himself a pimp, but I like to think he actually aspired to pimpdom.  What he did was rent the unrented apartments to the Sunset Boulevard hookers for five bucks a pop.  When he had rented five rooms – or the same room five times – and saved up $25, which was then the going rate, he would pay it all to one of the women, and be back where he started. 

 

One night Eddie told me that he was taking a pair of hookers to Hollywood to see SUPERMAN, and wanted to know if I would like to join them.  And drive them, as I was the only one with wheels, being the proud owner of a 1972 Pinto.  Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. 

 

If you’ve seen any LifeTime movies, or other gaudy fictional stories involving prostitutes, the descriptive term generally used is either ‘high class call-girl’ or ‘high-priced call-girl.’  I don’t mean to be indelicate, but these were not them.  They were nice young girls, I wince to think how young, but they were street-walkers and not at all glamorous.  But they were pleasant company, and pleased to be on a date where nothing but their company was expected of them.

 

If you haven’t seen the movie lately, it’s quite a charmer.  I loved the early scenes with Brando on Krypton. and with Glenn Ford as Pa Kent in Smallville, and got a huge kick out of seeing young Superman racing a train carrying Kirk Allyn and Noel Neill, the screen’s first Superman and Lois Lane.  The low point of the evening came when Eddie-the-wanna-be-pimp lit a cigarette in the auditorium, and threatened to knife a patron who quite rightly objected.  I got him to put out the cigarette by threatening to ditch him and the girls at the theatre, leaving them to walk home.

 

The high point for me came in the famous balcony scene.  Superman has saved Lois – I think he caught her when she was falling from a building – and he agrees to give her an interview.  He flies up to her penthouse (since when do reporters in Metropolis make that kind of money?), she takes out her little notebook (the paper kind), and they do a Q & A.  She quizzes him about his powers, and when he mentions X-ray vision, she says, “If you have X-ray vision, what color panties am I wearing?”   He glances at her, and tells her, “Pink.”  At this point, one of my dates leapt from her seat, furious, and shouted at the screen, “What?!  What did she say?  Lois Lane would NEVER ask Superman about her panties!  Not in a million years!  They’re makin’ a tramp out of Lois Lane!”  With that she stormed out of the auditorium, into the lobby, and it took a great deal of coaxing to get her back inside to see the rest of the movie.

 

I was fascinated, because I realized, though we may compromise our own standards and morals, we never want our heroes to.  It’s a moment I recall every time I’m asked to ‘modernize’ a character or a story in a way that cheapens them. 

 
 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

WEIRDEST PITCH MEETING OF MY CAREER




I was recently wasting time on Facebook instead of doing my work, when I came upon a page called Vintage Sleaze, which in turn led me to a page called DAD MADE DIRTY MOVIES.  It’s a page to promote a documentary film of the same title, made by Jordan Torodov, about a filmmaker named Stephen Apostolof, a Bulgarian refugee who made a slew of films with Ed Wood Jr., and a bunch of ‘nude-cuties’ besides.  I hadn’t thought of Stephen Apostolof in decades, but my memories of our meeting came flooding back. 



When I commented on the page that I had the weirdest pitch-meeting of my career with Stephen Apostolof, Jordan e-mailed me to ask about it.  Here is the story.



Back in the early 1980s, I was a struggling screenwriter with one credit, SPEEDTRAP (1977), and I was working as a security guard at the Beverly Hills headquarters of Litton Industries, in what was originally the headquarters of the MCA Talent Agency, which later owned Universal Studios.  I’d gotten the job through the recommendation of LeOnce Litel Sampson, a recently retired career Marine, who managed my apartment building, and was a security sergeant at Litton. 



LeOnce was a great friend, the personification in look and voice and personality of Robert Duvall’s LONESOME DOVE character, Gus McCrea.  He’d worked on several movies as a Marine Corps technical advisor, among them THE SUICIDE’S WIFE with Angie Dickenson, and THE LATE SHOW, with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin.  He wanted to put together movies, and had several scripts he was taking around, one being a horror movie of mine called THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE. 



One afternoon I got a call from LeOnce that I had a pitch-meeting the next day, with a producer named Stephen Apostolof.  The way it came about was classic LeOnce.  He’d been going into Schwaab’s on Sunset Boulevard for breakfast, when he saw a man in the parking lot having trouble getting into his car.  The man was Stephan Apostolof, and he’d accidentally locked his keys in his Cadillac.  LeOnce went back to his own car, came back with a wire coast-hangar, bent it and opened the Caddy in about a minute.   Stephen was very grateful, and took LeOnce to lunch at the Brown Derby on Vine Street that afternoon.  LeOnce told Stephen a little about THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE, and LeOnce made an appointment for me to pitch it to him at his office the next day.



Well, I hadn’t heard of Stephen Apostolof before, but LeOnce assured me he’d produced lots of movies.  But LeOnce was not a detail guy, and didn’t remember any of the titles on the posters in Stephen’s office.  But he assured me that the man had his posters all over the walls, and diplomas, and framed letters from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences! 



I spent the night polishing my pitch, then drove the next day to Stephen’s downtown address.  His office was above The Mayan Theatre, one of the most beautiful theatres in the world, though it was then used as a porno theatre (it’s now a night club).  I remember him having a pretty large, impressive suite, and his receptionist was a pleasant woman who told me Mr. Apostolof would be with me in a few minutes.  I’m standing in the waiting room, and I started checking out the framed lobby cards on the walls.  I remember one was for ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bares,’ and the still showed a man and two women on horseback, naked except for sunglasses.  I looked at several others, and they were all from nudie movies.  There were, as LeOnce had told me, several framed letters from the Academy, the Oscar prominent on the stationery.  I read one.  ‘Dear Mr. Apostolof, if you wish to submit your motion picture, LADY GODIVA RIDES, for Oscar consideration, please complete the enclosed forms, and return no later than…’  They were all form letters! 



There was a one-sheet poster on the wall from a Republic movie, but it was one I’d never heard of, and it didn’t look quite real.  When I got closer I realized that it was not a poster but a painting of one.  (In retrospect I realize that Republic did make a movie about his escape from Bulgaria, and this may well have been the original design for the poster.)  I am then ushered in to meet with Mr. Apostolof, who is very charming, and we talk about my friend LeOnce and how they met.  There is a diploma on the wall, and I see that it is from ‘State University’ and it is for the study of ‘Sexology.’  While Mr. Apostolof is a very nice guy, it is clear to me that he is in the sex-film business, not a maker of horror films, and probably would have no interest in my movie anyway.  I’d just recently had to track down an older actor who swiped one of my scripts from an agent’s office, then played producer, getting free meals by telling a bunch of young actor/waiters that they were going to have a part in it.  I was wary about where I left my scripts. 



So I started ‘un-pitching’ my script.  “It’s like everything you’ve already seen before, but I guess I can tell you about it if you like.”  It turned out to be unnecessary.  I got the feeling, though he was very polite about it, that he wasn’t really interested in it, and was meeting with me out of respect for LeOnce.  I managed to leave the meeting without leaving the script.  Of course, if I had it to do over again, knowing that he did make some non-nudie movies around this time, I would have tried hard to get him interested.  Maybe I would have gotten to meet Ed Wood.  I’ve still not gotten GINGERBREAD HOUSE made, even though LeOnce once had Amicus horror-director Gordon Hessler attached to the project, and Gordon had gotten a commitment from Trevor Howard (yes, that Trevor Howard) to play the crazy old man.  If you’re interested, I’ve got the pitch worked out pretty well now.



If you’d like to learn more about MY DAD MADE DIRTY MOVIES, the link to the Facebook page is HERE. 

Monday, January 11, 2010

MY BOSS, SAMMY PETRILLO




Once you've been in 'the industry' long enough, when you watch the Oscars, you pay particular attention to the 'in memoriam' section, to make sure that no one who you liked, who died, was slighted. Well, I don't expect that Sammy Petrillo will be featured, and considering how brief his film career was, I can't really complain. I think Sammy would have been astonished to see the huge obit in the New York Times.
Sammy made his one truly memorable movie when he was a teenager, costarring with his straight-man partner Duke Mitchell in 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a pretend Martin and Lewis comedy, and Sammy didn't merely imitate Jerry Lewis, he channeled him.

I met Sammy in the mid 1970s, when I was a film major at NYU, writing for Cold Duck, an NYU literary magazine. I was interviewing the cast of the Capital Burlesque Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey -- and irony of ironies, a night club in Passaic was the fictional locale where Duke and Sammy worked in Brooklyn Gorilla. This was a real throw-back burlesque show, with a full orchestra, dancing chorus, several comics, straight-men, and three strippers who never peeled past a g-string and pasties. Sammy still looked a lot like Jerry, although he looked much more like the Jerry of the Martin and Lewis days than the more mature version. Sammy and I hit it off, and I was surprised and delighted when he called me a few days later, and offered me a job as a general assistant on the four radio shows he was producing on WBHI, a station so high up on the FM dial that only dogs could hear it.

My main duty, he told me, would be apologizing for him. "Henry, I noticed when you were doing your interviews, you got along with everyone. I don't. I rub people the wrong way, I insult them without meaning to or knowing I've done it. I need someone who can call people up and say, 'Sammy's a nice guy, and he didn't mean that the way it sounded.'" Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to smooth ruffled feathers for $75 a week.

The more I got to know Sammy, the more I liked him, and the more I found it strange that he needed me to apologize to people -- I found him tactful and thoughtful. We worked out of the theatre, and I remember one time, backstage, I'd gone out and gotten a cup of tea for one of the elderly comics in the show who had a sore throat, and we almost came to blows over him wanting me to keep the change. Sammy stepped in. "Keep the twenty cents, Eddie! Henry got you the tea because he's your friend. If he keeps the twenty cents he's not your friend -- he's a kid running an errand." I don't think either Eddie or I had any idea what we were fighting about until Sammy explained it.

This was very small-time radio, and Sammy would buy time from the station, then sell it to other people to do their shows. So one of my other duties would be to stand in the doorway with my hand out, moments before show time, and say, "Your check bounced. I need $125 in cash, or they broadcast dead air for the next hour." One of the strangest shows Sammy produced was the Jerome Mackey - Protect Yourself Program, the first and possibly the only time anyone tried to teach martial arts on radio. The host of the show was a charming black belt from the deep south, who towered over me. He'd grin, and drawl, "Oh pu-lease, Henry, don't y'all beat me up! I'll git yo're money somehow!" I was very lucky that he had a sense of humor. Sammy and his girlfriend hosted one of the radio shows, called Out To Lunch, and I would occasionally be interviewed on the show myself -- and if guests didn't show up on time, I'd be interviewed impersonating whoever was supposed to be there.

Sammy was a wonderful story-teller, and loved to talk about making the movie, and working with Bela Lugosi. "Every day I'd come to the set, and Bela would say, 'Good morning Jerry.' It was our little joke. But after a while I started to realize that he wasn't kidding, that he thought I really was Jerry Lewis, and he was in a Martin and Lewis movie. He never learned to understand English well enough, and people took advantage of him."
"You notice Duke doesn't have a lot of close-ups in the film. He tried to play the big star in front of the crew, and they weren't impressed -- they'd worked on big movies. So they shot his close-ups just a little out of focus, so they couldn't use 'em."
Sammy had me tracking down 16mm prints of Brooklyn Gorilla and other Lugosi films, with the idea of doing a college tour talking about Bela. I never thought there was enough of an audience to warrant it.

Eventually the burlesque show closed, Sammy left town, and my job was over. Around 1979 or 1980,I'd had a movie made, and moved to Los Angeles. I was reading Variety, and spotted Sammy's name in an article about his management of a film distribution company. When I called him and identified myself, his first words were, "How much money do I owe you?"
"Not a dime."
"You're kidding! I'll buy you lunch!" We went to the Farmer's Market, where we had a nice Italian meal served to us by Dean Martin's aunt! While Jerry Lewis, who'd hired the very young Sammy to play his son on a TV sketch, felt threatened, and made life difficult for Duke and Sammy, Dean Martin had been a pal, and quietly got their act several bookings.
The film distribution company went under a little while later, and I never saw Sammy again. A few years passed, then I got an urgent call from my friend Karl Tiedemann, a writer on the David Letterman Show, who was desperate to get in touch with Sammy. That morning, Jerry Lewis had been on the Today Show, plugging something, and the lead-in was a series of clips from the black & white days, including a walk-on on the old Jack Benny Show. When they started the interview, Jerry was a mass of twitches. "That last clip was not me. That was a comedian named Sammy Petrillo, who I eventually had to sue to keep from imitating me." Jerry was going to be guesting on Letterman that very night, and they wanted to have Sammy Petrillo do a surprise walk-on in the middle of the interview. I tracked Sammy down to The Nut House in Pittsburgh, a comedy club he managed and often performed at. It was a great idea, but they couldn't talk Sammy into it: he was too bitter about Jerry to ever want to be on-stage with him again. I couldn't blame him, but I was disappointed. It would have been the biggest break Sammy'd had in forty years.