Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 51: The Wood Spooks, Tor Johnson and Vampira

Reunited in resin: a customized diorama includes miniature likenesses of Tor Johnson and Vampira.

"One of the hallmarks of fifties culture was its fascination with so many things grown abnormally huge ... Exaggeration was a fundamental aesthetic principle of the time, especially when it came to sex appeal ... The populuxe style reveled in distorted proportion. Tail fins and bosoms: The bigger the better! Ant Farms and Sea Monkeys: Tiny is wonderful! ... If oversized and undersized things were both popular, putting the two together was doubly thrilling."  
-The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stern

The Video Movie Guide
One of the first directors with whom I ever became truly obsessed was Baltimore satirist and provocateur John Waters, creator of Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Polyester, and more. In fact, I probably found out about Waters at the same time as I found out about Ed Wood and in the same basic manner, too. I first spotted Waters' and Wood's names, along with those of outre filmmakers like David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Russ Meyer, in chunky but cheap paperback books like the annually-updated Video Movie Guide (later the DVD & Video Guide) by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter and Leonard Maltin's hearty perennial TV Movies and Video Guide (later just Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide). Sadly, the Martin/Porter series bit the dust in 2006, and Maltin's seemingly deathless guidebook will go the way of all flesh in 2015. Both, the experts tell us, were doomed by the Internet. Personally, I'm sorry that future generations of film geeks won't have the opportunity to spend hours thumbing through these review guides and finding, often by chance, oddball movies which will change the course of their lives. Also now judged "obsolete," video stores were good for that, too, in the pre-Internet days. When I was in high school, we had a great chain of movie rental places in the Flint area called Michigan Video. I can remember repeatedly renting Two Thousand Maniacs and Shock Treatment from there. Their annual tent sale, in which they unloaded unwanted inventory, was a major event which would attract film fanatics by the hundreds to the parking lot of the South Flint Plaza, a shopping center which was becoming dangerous by the late 1980s and early 1990s. I probably still have some VHS tapes and even laserdiscs from those sales. Nothing by Ed Wood, sorry to say, but that's where I scored my first copies of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise and George Romero's Martin. In retrospect, movie review guides and video stores were the basis of my cinematic education, the closest I ever got to attending film school. In this increasingly now-focused, new-focused world of ours, how will marginal motion pictures of the past reach contemporary audiences? I wonder, and I worry.

Those video guides and their tantalizing capsule reviews were the gateway drug which led me to more detailed books like Danny Peary's Cult Movies and J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies, both of which contain coverage of John Waters and Ed Wood. One crucial factor which connects these two disparate directors is that you can't really write about them without also discussing the eccentric, unmistakable, and irreplaceable actors who regularly appeared in their films. In Waters' case, that means not only the 300-pound, cross-dressing force of nature known as Divine, but the entire repertory company of so-called "Dreamlanders": vacant blonde Mary Vivian Pearce; scatterbrained, snaggle-toothed Edith Massey; pugnacious glamour girl Cookie Mueller; scrawny, scheming Mink Stole; and the depraved yet dapper David Lochary. Apart from some voiceover work and a supporting part in Hairspray, John Waters rarely appeared in his own early movies, so his Dreamlanders were the public faces of his work. Ed Wood, on the other hand, did play the lead role(s) in his own debut feature, Glen or Glenda? (1953), but for the most part, he, too, relied on a stock company of unique performers to people his motion pictures.

Two "Wood spooks"
In Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., biographer Rudolph Grey collectively referred to these colorful characters as the "Wood spooks." I have already devoted an installment of this project to one such spook, the Amazing Criswell. This time around, I am going to take a look at two more: gargantuan Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson and ghoulish Los Angeles horror hostess Vampira. Since these two people are complete physical opposites, it oddly makes sense to pair them up. They complement each other like human salt-and-pepper shakers -- the hulking, hairless man-mountain and the whisper-thin, dark haired succubus. Yin and yang gone berserk. They were both famous for their seemingly impossible measurements. Vampira would fast for days to get her waistline down to 17 inches, while barrel-chested Tor bragged to Groucho Marx about his 60-inch hips and 22-inch biceps.  In fact, when I flip over my copy of Nightmare of Ectsasy, I find Tor and Vampira together on the back cover, two zombies staggering through the make-believe, ink-black graveyard in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Songwriter Rick Tell also paired Tor and Vampira in his composition "Magnificent Carcasses" from Ed Wood: The Musical! From my research this week, I coincidentally learned that Tor and Vampira, both marginal media celebrities, knew each other from the public appearance circuit in Hollywood in the mid-to-late 1950s. But what of the people behind the public images? This week, I'm reviewing two books -- one newly published, one semi-recently republished -- which ask us to ponder these human imponderables.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Help me ID all the caricatures in the Comedy Store's Twitter background!

The Comedy Store's Twitter background features some vague, tough-to-identify caricatures.

The Store, still on Sunset Boulevard.
Because of Marc Maron's twice-weekly WTF podcast, I've become fascinated with the Comedy Store, a West Hollywood comedy club which for over 40 years has served as a launchpad/proving ground for many aspiring stand-ups and which has also offered established funnymen and women a venue to try out their material in front of a live audience. Over the years, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor, and many more have put in time at the Comedy Store. Marc Maron is a stand-up comic himself, as are the majority of his guests, and "the Store" looms large in their mythology. The club was founded in 1972 by Sammy Shore (Pauly Shore's father) and Rudy De Luca, who is best known for his many collaborations with Mel Brooks (Silent Movie, Life Stinks, and more). In 1973, Sammy lost ownership of the club in a divorce settlement with his wife, Mitzi Shore (Pauly's mom). Mitzi then used this opportunity to become a self-appointed doyenne of the humor business for decades, offering career guidance to up-and-comers and dating many comedians (including Barney Miller's Steve Landesberg). Now in her 80s and in failing health, Mitzi has ceded control of the Store to others. But the legend of the Comedy Store continues to grow. Looming largest of all in the mythology is a five-week period in 1979 when many of the venue's regular comedians went on "strike" for nonpayment, including Steve Lubetkin, who expressed his displeasure with Shore's managerial style by jumping off the roof of the building next door, killing himself in the process. When Maron and other comedians speak of the Comedy Store, it is with a mixture of awe, terror, loyalty, and repulsion. The place seems to have a demonic, semi-seedy vibe to it. What other comedy club has been featured on Unsolved Mysteries? I sincerely hope that Maron someday writes a book called simply The Store. I'd buy the hell out of it.

I've only recently started following the Comedy Store on Twitter, and I couldn't help but notice a picture they were using as their background image. It's a collage of the famous comedians who have played the Store over the years, surrounded by stars and planets. I'd like to think I'm fairly up on comedy history, but I can't quite identify all the people in this picture. I used the Wikipedia list of Comedy Store alumni, which helped a bit, but there were still a few folks I couldn't place. Maybe you'll do better than I did. Below, you'll see the five "unknown comics" in the constellation. I'm pretty sure the guy on the right is supposed to be Letterman's pal Jeff Altman, but I'm not 100% certain on that. The drawing is so nonspecific that it could be Louie Anderson. The other four have me stumped. The three guys on the left look like rock stars, and the one woman could be anybody from Elayne Boosler to Roseanne Barr to Gilda Radner.

Look it over and make your best guesses. Thanks.

Here are five famous Comedy Store veterans I can't identify. (Except the last one is probably Jeff Altman.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

I hereby declare a Dead 2 Rights dance party! RIGHT THIS SECOND!

These people are either dancing or reenacting their favorite lightsaber duels.

"Johnny Thunder is best live performer I've ever seen."
-Bob Dylan

You know what you need in your life? The Muse Terpsichore. For those of you not up on the fruitier aspects of mythology, that's D-A-N-C-E. That's right. You need to boogie down, get your groove on, burn baby burn, disco inferno, etc. That's why I'm officially declaring a Dead 2 Rights dance party right this second. I don't give a damn where you are -- car, work, your own colonoscopy! You're gonna dance! Dance, I say! And, here, I've already selected the song for you to dance to. It's "Loop De Loop" by Johnny Thunder. That's Thunder, singular, not to be confused with the late punk musician Johnny Thunders, who died in 1991. Johnny Thunder, singular, is still alive. He's 82 and presumably retired now, but he's still out there somewhere. And here's his signature song: 1963's "Loop De Loop." I discovered this track back in the '90s in a used record shop, where it was on the B-side of a 45 of "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies. As much as I dug that Archies tune, I dug "Loop de Loop" even more. It's got kind of a Jackie Wilson/early James Brown thing going on, except that it's based on a children's playground chant and sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber with an all-Munchkin backing band. Check it out:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Song at a Time: "Love Me, Please Love Me"

French pop star Michel Polnareff sings his Frenchie heart out.

The song: "Love Me, Please Love Me"
Artist: Michel Polnareff
Released: 1966
Elvis Presley had at least two major hit singles in 1956 which were direct, unambiguous requests for love. "Love Me Tender," which takes its melody from an old folk tune called "Aura Lee," is a swaggering seduction routine set to music. It's audio foreplay, a sexual aperitif etched into wax. The guy in the song is a Lothario type, sweet-talking some innocent girl right out of her poodle skirt. The lyrics are G-rated ("You have made my life complete, and I love you so") and ostensibly wholesome, but you can tell why this guy made parents nervous back then. What did he mean by "all my dreams fulfill?" What kind of dreams did he have in mind? The King had another one that same year just called "Love Me," which I like even better. It's supposed to be about a desperate guy groveling at the feet of a cold-hearted woman. ("Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel, but love me!") But Elvis wasn't really the desperate, groveling type, so the song comes off as kinky and masochistic instead. You get the impression that the guy in the song gets off on the rough treatment he receives from this dame. Topping from the bottom, you might say.

A decade later, over in France, a moody, floppy-haired singer named Michel Polnareff had a #1 hit with his own plea for love, "Love Me, Please Love Me." It's just about the most pathetic I've ever heard someone sound on record, and I love it. Most of the lyrics are in French, but you don't really need a translation to get the gist of it. Not when poor Michel is howling in falsetto like a mournful hound dog. This song demonstrates a level of vulnerability with which Elvis Presley never would have been comfortable. From what I can glean of his delightfully bizarre and eventful Wikipedia entry, Michel was just as troubled in real life as he sounds on this record. You can hear his genuine sorrow in every throbbing triplet he pounds out on the piano. I can just imagine some heartsick Frenchman playing this record over and over again, using his last bit of strength to life the tone arm on his vintage record player. Whenever I want to wallow in misery (which is basically all the time), "Love Me, Please Love Me" is my go-to song.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The smudge and its impact on my life

The word "smudge" smudged.

I don't know if its generics or what, but I have very oily skin. And not just on my face either, though my face is plenty shiny. My fingers, darn the luck, are just as unctuous. I am more oil than man. Or, rather, I am a blob of oil in the shape of a person. Every couple of weeks, I get a new copy of Rolling Stone, because I subscribed to it once when I was 12 and it's just been coming ever since. Anyway, even though RS is a glossy magazine, my fingers still smudge the pages. You can always tell where my thumbs have gripped a particular issue. And writing something by hand? Shit, forget it. Not only is my handwriting atrocious, but I tend to grip the pen or pencil very close to the pointed end, so my hand rubs up against the paper, and I end up with either ink or graphite on the side of my hand. Why am I writing all this down? Because this blog, Dead 2 Rights, is supposed to be a reflection of my life, and smudges are a big part of that life. They're a component of my daily routine, so why shouldn't they be recorded here for posterity? Someday, I'll be able to look back on this article and think, "Oh, yeah. Smudges. I remember those."

Bonus: Can you name the movie which provided the screenshot at the top of this article?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sorry, but we need to go back to eating geese.

Street vendors are peddling their boiled goose.

Geese are dicks. Sorry, but it's true. They're the absolute worst -- the asshats of the avian kingdom. Compared to geese, pigeons are like cuddly, adorable puppies. Geese have no redeeming qualities. They honk incessantly. They shit everywhere. They terrify pedestrians. And they have little to no respect for motorists. They just flat out suck. And the worst of it is that they travel in packs and waddle around my neighborhood like some demented, feathery street gang. They're like the Crips. Now, I have heard of people being attacked by wild turkeys, but that has never even come close to happening to me. In fact, chickens and turkeys don't generally bother the citizenry where I live. You know why? Because we eat them! A chicken in suburban Chicago is likely to wind up in either Parmesan or McNugget form. And that's good, because then there's not chickenshit all over the place. And turkeys? They only show up here around November, and that's in the freezer case at the supermarket. But geese? Geese are every damned where. My solution is simple: we need to go back to eating geese. A lot. I'm talking geeseburgers, geese soup, geese ravioli, the works. Restaurants should be serving spaghetti and geeseballs. Now, you might be thinking, "Gross! I don't wanna eat geese!" Well, get over it, junior! You're officially part of the problem. Geese know that we don't eat them anymore. That's why they're not afraid of us. But once the foie gras starts flowing like tap water, then we'll see! You need inspiration? Watch any of the seven bajillion movies of A Christmas Carol. The characters not only eat geese constantly, they love it! They look forward to it! It's the highlight of their day! I say, it's time to get Dickensian on the goose population.

A graveyard smash: 10 things you may not know about "Monster Mash"

"Mash, good!": Bobby Pickett's song has been released many, many times over the last 50+ years.

An original pressing of the song.
Though there have been a few usurpers and pretenders to the throne over the years, including tracks by Alice Cooper and Danny Elfman among others, "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett still stands as the official anthem of Halloween. Released in May 1962, the song hit #1 in October of that year and has been a staple of the season ever since. The song's origins lie in an impression of British horror actor Boris Karloff which Pickett, a Korean War vet born in 1938, used to do in talent shows in his hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts, in the late 1950s after he'd gotten out of the Signal Core. "Every time I'd do it, I'd win," Pickett remembered. Later, Pickett moved to Hollywood with three of his Somerville buddies and formed a doo-wop group called the Cordials. Part of the group's act was a cover of "Little Darlin'," and Pickett liked to perform the spoken-word monologue in the middle of the song ("My darling, I need you...") in his Karloff voice. His bandmate, Leonard "Lenny" Capizzi, suggested that the voice would be perfect for a novelty record, and together the two wrote "Monster Mash." The rest? Well, you know. Though he lived in the song's shadow for the rest of his life, Pickett didn't mind a bit. "Let's just say," he told the Washington Post in 2004, "that it has paid the rent for 43 years." In interviews, Pickett frequently compared himself to Guy Lombardo, the bandleader forever associated with "Auld Lang Syne" and New Year's Eve. Pickett happily performed the song at small venues until he died in 2007. So now, let us venture into the lab once again and learn a few things about this crucial piece of Americana.

Ed Wood extra! Talking 'Ed Wood' (1994) on the Disney, Indiana podcast

Minnie and Mickey scarecrows representing the hosts of the Disney, Indiana.

Uh oh! It's podcast time again! Here's another opportunity to run my big, fat mouth! I never turn down the chance to pontificate about something trivial. It's one of the great pleasures of life. Yes, Scott and Tracey Morris, two truly sweet and generous folks whom I've known since my days on Mail Order Zombie, graciously invited me onto their own podcast, Disney, Indiana, to discuss the 1994 biopic Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau. As you might have guessed from its name, Disney, Indiana is a biweekly podcast devoted to all aspects of the House of Mouse. That includes films released by such Disney subsidiaries as Touchstone, the company which dared to turn the life of Edward Davis Wood, Jr. into a major motion picture. Ed Wood celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2014, so this was a great opportunity to talk about the film at length. I think we had a good, informative chat about the movie, and I hope my readers will enjoy it. If this sounds intriguing, here are some links to help you out:

And if you're still not satisfied, here's an article about the early days of Touchstone which I co-wrote with my good pal, Craig J. Clark. It has nothing to do with Ed Wood or Tim Burton, but I think it's a good read nevertheless.